All Is Not Lost

It’s always easy to moan about “how it used to be” and “what’s been lost,” particularly because that attitude validates nostalgia as An Excellent Filter Through Which to Assess the World.

Nostalgia’s whole modus operandi is one of superiority. Nostalgia, that sly vixen, slides into our psyches and whispers, “Aren’t I preferable to what you have now? Don’t you wish we could be together again? Wasn’t I the best thing you ever had?”

Perhaps it’s Nostalgia’s ability to sow discontent that can make me impatient with her. When I listen to someone recount tales of youth, back when kids actually went out of doors, back when kids weren’t in front of screens all day, back when people were nicer, back when times were simpler, my internal monologue goes something like:

When I was young, I went outside sometimes. Other times I stayed inside and read, made cookies, or watched television. This business about “We went out at sunrise and didn’t head back inside until sunset, and the only thing we put into our bodies during that time was a few hot sips of water right out of the garden hose” sounds suspect to me. Really with the 14 hours a day of madcap romping with the neighborhood kids? You found snake skins and collected rocks and made forts, every day, all day, for, um, 90 days straight? If we’d followed you around with a video camera every day, all day, for 90 days straight, I’ll bet a more complicated story would emerge. I’ll bet sometimes you were inside, and you were listless and annoying, and sometimes, when you weren’t out scaling 200 foot cliffs, you were crabby–and if you spent all day outside, it’s because your poor mother was screaming inside her skull and pushed you out the front door and locked it, lest she sharpen the kitchen knives on your shinbone. I’ll wager you drove your parents up the wall with your constant “I’m hungry. There’s nothing to eat” and “I’m bored” and picking fights with your siblings. You know what else? Of course everything was sunlit and fun in your memories of being six BECAUSE YOU WERE SIX and that’s the nature of a six-year-old’s brain. Of course life was better when you were six…YOU WERE SIX. It was a simpler time BECAUSE YOU WERE SIX and hell if you had a job or bills to pay or relationships to manage or forms to fill out or meals to cook.

As Nostalgia continues to pour out of the speaker’s mouth, I muse:

When I think of my childhood, I have lots of memories of playing with the neighborhood gang of kids–roaming the neighborhood on our bikes and climbing around those fabled 200-foot cliffs by our houses and whooping down the Slip ‘N Slide and going crazy with joy when a huge rain would fall, after which the streets would be flooded. I have all that. At the same time, Nostalgia, I refuse to accept, part and parcel, your version of events. Because our parents often weren’t home, or if they were, they were inside, all those hours of playing outside were ripe for bullying. Some of the meanest moments in my life occurred during the hours you’re trying to pass off as “Better.” In fact, because you are an unreliable narrator, Dear Nostalgia, I have to break it to you: I’m okay with the present. I don’t need to moan about how kids these days are missing out. Truth be told, my kids spend more time outside than I ever did; they have limits on their screen time–and I would argue that their screen time brings them many rich rewards and developments; they are addicted readers; they are kind; they are thinkers; their lives are not diminished by technology. In fact, when the grousing voices start harping on how social media is ruining our lives, I object. Social media has created many new relationships, has rekindled friendships that had virtually died off, has given me insight into the daily existence of people I care about, has made writers out of people who otherwise never would have taken words from their heads and expressed them. Yes, I realize the messages being written generally don’t adhere to the rules of Standard Written English; for me, whose job it is to be a standard bearer of the rules, this can be troublesome. On the other hand, I also glory in the dynamism of language and can’t fault a new world of communication that has made writers of us all. When I get bogged down in the lack of rule following that happens, I become guilty of something that has been beautifully coined as “vigilante peeving.” Truly, to follow that popular line of griping and sighing about The World Today and How Good It Used to Be is too pat for me. I’m not willing to believe that things used to be better. If I fall into you, Nostalgia, then I’m denying my abilities as a critical thinker. Honey, I just can’t let you win that battle.

Every time I get faintly ranty and the tiniest bit breathless, we know a BUT is coming, right?


I do think something lovely is being lost with the death of traditional letter writing. Right now, I’m reading Book of Ages, which focuses on the letters exchanged between Benjamin Franklin and his sister Jane. Their letters reveal a relationship that would otherwise have been lost to history, and they reveal many new realities about both a famous man and the lives of 17th Century women. As we know, to write a letter on paper is dramatically different from composing an email. Thought, feel, texture, reflection, mood–all are diminished in an email or online communication. Putting the pen or pencil onto paper creates an atmosphere between author and recipient that can’t be replicated in other formats.

In the basement, in a couple of boxes, I have stacks of letters and notes from earlier in my lifetime. I haven’t added to those stacks in recent years. And part of me is sorry my kids won’t have stacks of letters in boxes in their basements when they are older.

Trust me: I’ll get over it. The present isn’t bereft of memory storage. It’s just that their personal archives will take different shapes, and those shapes will be full of richness that we don’t yet know how to see.

My nostalgia for letters had a happy moment–clap hands, Nostalgia!–the other day, though, when my cousin sent an email containing an attached .jpg. It turns out Paco had been given an assignment at school, to “write a friendly letter to a friend,” and then the teacher mailed those letters to the intended recipients.

We had no idea about this assignment, which surprised me, as Paco generally likes to relate his goings-on. Thus, it was an unexpected delight to read his missive to his cousin, Elijah. These boys are technically second cousins, but beyond lineage, they’re quite simply very good friends.

Here’s the image my cousin, who enjoyed the letter a great deal himself, shared with us:

Paco LetterI know the image is hard to read, so here’s what Paco wrote:

Dear Elijah:

How are you? I’m fine. I’m writing about my birthday party. Wasn’t it so much fun? As you know, it was tubing, and when we went down the big hills we yelled, “Whoooooo!” I know you liked going down alone because it’s fast, but you have to admit big, spinning groups are amazing. The first time we went down my stomach felt like it was flying through my mouth, but when the icy snow spray hit my face, it was so much better than before! After that, I felt like my arms were going to fly out of their sockets from holding onto the other tubes when we did a spinning group of five. [hand-drawn picture] And of course, you have to remember the lift. When they hook us up and we get pulled it’s peaceful, except when we had to wait 10 minutes for the grooming van. It went down the hill going, “Vroom, vroom, beep, beep, vroom, oh no! I hit a fence, beep beep, vroom, vroom” for 10 minutes. But, one of the best parts was dinner. It was so funny! Thanks for the gift card!


Your cousin, who’s writing this for school

So, yes, Nostalgia, you wily minx, you got me. I read this letter, and it made me so happy. Now we have a very special record of our fifth grader’s writing, and we have a recap of his 11th birthday party, and we have the softie warm hearts that come when parents get a glimpse into their children’s heads.

Plus: we are reminded that on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and in email:

no one ever personifies a snow groomer.








15 responses to “All Is Not Lost”

  1. Joanne Avatar

    It is a fact, the good old days are gone. The teensiest correction–we were kept in the house from noon to two. Every child in the neighborhood suffered this, because all the mothers knew the heat of the noonday sun caused polio.

  2. Joe Blair Avatar

    When I was a kid, everyone was worried about TV. We were watching a lot of TV and there was violence and sex and our parents (my mother) thought we were going to emulate what we saw on the screen and we did. But here we are, some of us, still unsure in what ways we were affected by The Brady Bunch. My kids will be affected by the internet and smart phones somehow. It isn’t the same for them as it was for me, but you know what? The Brady Bunch sucked. Have you watched it lately?

  3. Green Girl in Wisconsin Avatar
    Green Girl in Wisconsin

    I want to go make my kids write a bunch of letters right now.
    Damn nostalgia. Damn damn damn. *tromps uphill in 4 feet of snow in bare feet*

  4. chlost Avatar

    As Joe says, we were told about the dangers of tv. Sit too close, your eyes will be damaged. Watch the wrong show, your soul will suffer. See too much tv, and the world will obviously come to a screeching halt, as your brain will have turned to mush. I do, however, have very clear memories of being outside during summer days, and returning home when the town’s fire whistle sounded at noon and 6. As a parent, I found that my own kids needed to be bored once in a while. I love Paco’s letter….he is an excellent writer. I could picture those groups of five going down the hill even without the diagram! And just think, without the social media, we would not have “met”.

  5. Lil Avatar

    The good old days…. Old days, yeah. Good? No doubt. Better? Absolutely not.

  6. Bijoux Avatar

    I tend to scoff at the good ole days too. I treasured so many letters from friends for decades that for our 50th birthdays last year, I sent large envelopes of their letters back to them. I did keep a special one from each friend that I suppose my kids will be disposing of upon my death.

  7. Secret Agent Woman Avatar

    I, too, get a wee bit testy when people write glowing of the perfect past compared to a present devoid of hope or adventure or kindness. There were good things and bad things about the time I grew up in, and good things and bad things about now. My kids are outside a lot, living life fully. But, like me, they also have logged time in front of cartoons and so on. Do I miss letters? Well, sort of. But I correspond with folks by email and because typing is easier on my carpal tunnel impaired wrists, I write longer and more frequent letters. And I’m as pleased to see an email from a friend in my inbox as I was to find a letter in my mailbox.

  8. Maria Avatar

    Your son has a bit of the poet’s eyes, yes? I send out three letters every month. In the mail. Handwritten. One is to Liv. I know. Weird. I mail her a letter. She gets them, but has never said anything to me about them but keeps them in an old shoe box in her closet. Actually, two shoe boxes now. They are just small letters telling her about the month we just shared and what I thought was memorable. I also send out a letter to the daughter of a friend who went to school with me. I taught at a university one Summer and he used to bring her up to his office that was adjacent to mine. She liked mine better and often colored in my office and I became her mentor. She is now an editor in New York City at a big book publishing house, just as she dreamed she would be. The other letter is to a boy that I met long ago in a psych ward when he was four, when I was doing my residency in Baltimore. I stayed in touch with him all through his foster care experiences and his ups and downs. He is now a bouncer in a go-go club in Texas, but he is three years sober. I think we should all do this. Have three people that we pledge to write a letter to each month. Handwritten. I’m not a saint, am far more a sinner…but I do have a pair of wings that pop out now and then.

  9. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar

    So with you on “back in my day” and “kids today.”

    Back in my day that letter would have been written in cursive; don’t they teach anything to kids today?

  10. lime Avatar

    oh, there is something so wonderful, so personal about a hand-written letter. permit me a moment of nostalgia. my paternal grandmother regularly wrote to me when i was away at college. i enjoyed her notes because i felt connected, not forgotten. it never occurred to me until she died and my grandfather took over writing to me that i had not seen his handwriting except his signature. his was so lovely, so well-formed, so crafted. seeing it felt like another window into his soul.

    and may i say, that window into paco’s is just charming. thanks for sharing it.

  11. Kate Avatar

    Just started reading a few weeks ago, on Maria’s recommendation. I have a box of letters in my basement, too. Six years worth of correspondence with my boyfriend (he lived in Europe and we thought we had better save all the letters to show the people at Immigration, to prove ours wasn’t a “Green Card marriage”); and two years of letters I wrote home from the Peace Corps. My dad saved them all. I look at that huge box of letters and think, “That is going to have my kids pulling their hair out.” Bwahahahahaha!

  12. pia Avatar

    Love how you wove Nostalgia through the post.
    I loved my childhood. It was perfect until it wasn’t.

    What gets me are all the people who talk about how different it was in their childhood–when they were 10 in 1987. I have to keep from choking. I remember crack–even in suburbs cities that were just beginning to be reclaimed or gentrified depending on your view, drive-by-shootings in suburbs and parents being vigilant. They are even more now but I give them the 9/11 pass.

    My handwriting is so bad I have to type. Actually it’s quite beautiful but unintelligible. Only my mother could read the letters I sent home from Oaxaca when I turned 16 and she went blind. There went the follow up letters that were going to a book–Oaxaca then and now. Oh well.

  13. Jess Avatar

    You are just the best. I wish I could write a more insightful comment but my brain is slowly being sucked out [of my nipples] by a short, chubby, but incredibly charming young man. Wow, that sounds even wronger than I imagined it in my head!

  14. kmkat Avatar

    During summers at the cabin, our boys had no screen time between noon and six unless it was raining. They adapted to that just fine. A lake acquaintance, rather a holier-than-thou sort, prohibited his son (same age as my younger boy) from TV at all. Said son went to to have increasingly drunken (and completely unsupervised) 4th of July parties, starting in high school, until a couple summer ago one of his friends drowned. That is not to say that neighbor’s TV prohibition caused the tragedy, just that it is the total package of parenting that counts, not just the one aspect.

    Oh, and one of my sons is and always has been and always will be an avid reader, just like me. The other one is not, just like my husband. Genetics plays a part, too.

    Also: back in the day, bullying and racism were more rampant than today, girls were picked on mercilessly by boys (“It just means he likes you, dear.” Yeah, right.), and there was nowhere abused wives and/or children could turn. As time goes on we lose some things and gain others. It’s called change, and it is a constant.

  15. julie sucha anderson Avatar

    I believe Paco has inherited more than a tad of his mothers way with words. I do recall all those fun times as a kid. In fact, I think I wished for more of them when I was young. But, life did fill in the rest of the time and as we know, not always as exciting.

    I have an entire closet of letters. Letters written by my father almost every day he was in World War 2. Five years of them. I have letters written by my mother, roommates in college , and more from all different lovely sources in my life. With the advent of email, it occurred to me I needed to print out my letters from my parents – and the errant ones from my kids when they went to college and then began their lives. I remind myself to print them out.

    Interesting post, as always.

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