Posted by: ritagone | December 8, 2010

Nostalgia

The other day I was reminiscing.  When you get to be my age, you tend to do that a lot.

Four decades ago, I was going to go into the Peace Corps.  I was a junior in college, and I was idealistic, wanting to change the world for the better.  The Peace Corps at that time was the place to do just such a thing.  So I applied…and was accepted to what was then called their Advanced Training Program.  You finished your junior year of college, trained during the summer between your junior and senior year, then went back to finish your undergraduate degree, and after graduation went off to wherever they assigned you.

So I spent two months at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, Illinois studying the Thai language and culture in preparation for going to Thailand when I graduated from college.  I wasn’t a believer back then, but I did believe wholeheartedly in President John F. Kennedy and Director of the Peace Corps Sargent Shriver and the entire Camelot experience of idealism and altruism.  My generation and my peers were all young and naïve and ready to conquer the world and make it better than the world we had been born into.

Unfortunately, there was a problem with the Peace Corps’ experimental Advanced Training Program, and it was this: when you went back to school to finish your senior year of college, you sort of forgot everything you learned that summer between the junior and senior year, including the enthusiasm to go away and change the world.  Life at home began to seem a little more appealing, and leaving to go to Thailand just didn’t have the allure that it had when there were 80 of us stirring each other to hang in there and do what needed to be done.  It suddenly seemed lonely and difficult and too overwhelming back home…and soon I dropped out of the program.  And fairly soon after that, the Advanced Training Program of the Peace Corps was dropped because the attrition rate was so high all over the country as juniors returning for their senior year experienced exactly the same phenomenon that I had experienced back at U.C.L.A.  (Another issue was the fact that they forgot to tell me that, being left-handed, Thailand was not a good fit for me, since there were many things I couldn’t do in that culture with my left hand without insulting the Thai people – like handing them something, eating, or other common, ordinary, daily acts.  It was a pretty basic oversight on the part of the Peace Corps administration that has always seemed to me to this day a rather blaring fault.)

Anyway, the other day I heard a song composed many years ago by Broadway and motion picture musical phenom Stephen Sondheim called “Don’t Laugh” about a young lady whose desire it was to go into the Peace Corps to change the world.  While watching the DVD (a birthday celebration concert for Sondheim filmed in Lincoln Center), a literal flood of nostalgia washed over me for those days when I too was a young lady wanting to go into the Peace Corps to change the world.  I haven’t experienced that kind of nostalgic feeling since I saw a classic 1967 Mustang convertible riding down the road a few years ago, steel blue, just like the one I owned when I worked at ‘TEEN Magazine and thought I was pretty hot stuff, before I got married and had kids and became…old.

Nostalgia is a most tangible, dramatic sensation.  It makes us hearken back to a time when something – usually something good or sweet or both —  comes to mind and makes us smile or even makes us cry.  It’s not a bad feeling.  It shows that we’re alive and that our emotions haven’t shriveled up.

I have a friend who’s going to be 74 this month.  She informed me during a phone call this week that she is old and that she’s “done.”  She can’t walk well, she aches all over, and she is just going to basically sit back and wait to die.  Now, 74 used to seem old to me.  Talk about proving Einstein’s theory of relativity: when you’re young, 74 seems ancient.  But when you’re in your 60’s, 74 feels like it could easily have many more years attached to it of health and activity and productivity.  So when she said she was done, I was flabbergasted.  It made me – more than anything else – profoundly sad.

So a song made me nostalgic for the Peace Corps memories that I had, and a comment by a friend made me sad for the assumption that at 74 her life was basically over.

And I am recommitted to going out with a bang, not with a whimper.

How about you?

 

Regards, Rita

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