When I was a little girl, I was excellent at memory games. I was so good at one particular memory matching card game that my family would sometimes have me play it with them in front of guests – our special party trick. It’s natural for children to have better memories than adults, but I didn’t know that then; I took great delight when I could recall a match! As I’ve grown older, my ability to remember has inevitably diminished, but my desire to preserve memories has not. I love hearing and telling stories about the past, reading history, watching old videos, and collecting antiques. If you are my friend, I’ve likely tagged you in an “On This Day” Facebook memory with these emojis: 😭❤️😭
Last week, I saw a new article on Christianity Today titled “Our Nostalgia Is Spiritually Dangerous.” The article made a lot of good points, many of which I saw the truth in. A concluding thought reads:
“Nostalgia can tempt us to indulge phantoms of an idyllic past rather than face the present hardship. Giving into fantasies of the past cheats God’s people of the opportunity to cultivate hope that overcomes despair.”
I nodded my head at that, but then felt conflicted. Since I was a child, memory and recollection have felt like a core part of my personal and spiritual life. I worried that my nostalgia for the past would become what the author of the CT piece warned against: a fantasy that cheats me out of and distracts me from the lessons God is teaching to me in the present. I thought about how just earlier that week, I stretched my arm under my bed through the dust to reach for the greatest treasure trove of memories I have in my possession: an old shoebox.
That shoebox holds pieces of personal mail I’ve received since graduating from college. The box holds birthday cards and Christmas newsletters, postcards sent from friends’ vacations and notes sent ‘just because.’ I’ve got monogrammed stationery asking me to be a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding and glossy cards with signatures shakily signed by my grandfathers, both who are gone now.
In the midst of a pandemic, I see the danger of nostalgia beckoning us to wish away our present, fear for the future, and lust for the past. But in the midst of a pandemic, I also have seen how memory can invite us out of numbness to gain greater perspectives that are formed because of our past particularly for the present circumstances we find ourselves. Could it be that stretching our arms under the bed, through the dust, and to a box of old letters is not an indulgence, but a grace?
Two weeks ago when I most recently reached for the shoebox, a letter from my friend Jessie was on top. She sent it in April, detailing that she’d found it in a drawer during a “quarantine cleaning spree.” “I weirdly believe the sentiments of this old letter were supposed to make it you in April 2020 instead of September 2019,” Jessie wrote, enclosing a two-page letter dated September 29, 2019. She was right.
Over the last year of my life, that shoebox of old letters, including Jessie’s, have seemed to have made it (back) to me right when they were supposed to, giving me some of the greatest reminders of God’s faithfulness to me. In the fall and winter of 2019 and early 2020, I would leaf through the cards every month to remind myself of the friendships I’ve made in all the many places I’ve lived, of the siblings I grew up with, of the professors who enriched my education, of the pastors who prayed with me. In a season of life where I had a hard time feeling like God was good, it was that shoebox that reminded me of how the Lord gave me a heart that is able to give and receive love even when challenged by rejection, disagreements, and death.
The letter Jessie was supposed to originally send me in September should have found me in the days following my grandpa’s death and fresh off of a beautiful but stretching trip to Scotland. Instead, it came to me a month into a global pandemic, fresh off of the darkest seven months of my life. A portion of it read like this:
“I pray you find some comfort in this time! UGH–I hate how trite that sounded. FORGIVE ME. I do pray that there are enough blessings in the midst of the darkness to make it worth it…I’ve been reading When Breath Becomes Air, and he quotes Samuel Beckett, ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ I feel like in the midst whatever heaviness life has thrown at me, my mantra has been – ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.'”
Perhaps it sounds trite to say that the words we scrawl in cards could be comforting, to thank God for the memories within them. But in the midst of the darkness of days past, I’m glad I had my old shoebox of letters. It think it’s something more than nostalgia that makes me reach for that dusty shoebox. I think it’s hope. I agree with Jessie that sometimes old letters are not meant to find and form us until months, even years after we write or receive them. The letters find us when we think we can’t go on, reminding us of the hope we have because of One who will help us go on again.
Isn’t it funny that I got to know this One through reading old letters?