We all know how it feels to long for something.
Be it a place, a people, a friend, a lover… longing is that delectable feeling of wishing your life to be different.
Sometimes it feels like the faint hint of a memory that spurs a subtle chuckle, or a veiled smile. Other times, longing looks like waves of nostalgia in an ocean of memories tempting to swallow you whole.
It’s a feeling I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Yet despite the loathing we have for that nostalgic feeling that visits us from time to time, I have learned some of life’s greatest lessons in reminiscing about the past.
Remember Disney World?
The other day, my mother asked me, “do you remember when we went to Disney World? Weren’t you really happy then?”
I was sitting comfortably on the dining room table, suddenly gripped by deep thought and second guessing my answer to what seemed like a rhetorical question.
As a kid who grew up in Nairobi, going to Disney World for the first time, even as a teenager, was the experience of a lifetime. At least that’s what I’m supposed to say. I should tell you that it was one of the most memorable moments of my life. The type of moment that this world has taught me to cherish because, you would think, that the times when I wore the biggest smile on my face, were the moments that the waves of nostalgia bring to the forefront of my mind.
My Favorite Memories
From the years of 2009 to 2016, I spent long periods away from my family. They were in Nairobi and I was in the United States. It was hard. I was 15 when I left home and I had to grow up extremely fast. Though occasionally, as one would expect, I missed home. I missed my family, my friends, the food… everything. And when those intolerable waves of nostalgia crashed through my mind, I often prayed they would swallow me whole and drift me back to the comfort of home. It was in those moments — the times when I really longed to be home — when I learned some of the most profound lessons of life.
Everything I Thought I Would Miss, Didn’t Really Matter
When my mother inquisitively asked me if I remember our trip to Disney world, I wanted to tell her yes. But the truth is when I was longing and yearning to be with my family… I didn’t think of moments when we rode roller coasters and ate turkey legs. Instead, I thought of the most apparently mundane and unexciting times I spent with them. The banal and routine experiences we shared were the moments I yearned for.
Christmas with Snow Peas
I remember one Christmas we spent together at my Grandmother’s place in rural Kenya. (We call it ‘Ushago’… but I think you’ll understand it better as ‘the village’).
That Christmas we had no electricity. There was no TV to watch or tablet to play on. And there’s only so much you can read before a book puts you to sleep.
So, my brother and I just sat, slept and did nothing. And once we had sat down for long enough and slept as much as we could, we all sat outside and shelled snow peas. And trust me, as a kid, extracting boxfuls of peas from pods is the probably the most drudgerous and uninteresting way to spend Christmas day.
In fact, if you had asked me at the time, what I thought of the whole experience, I’d have said that I was bored and jaded out of my mind. Yet, for some strange reason, those hours spent on my Grandmothers veranda shelling snow peas, make up my favorite memory of Christmas. When I spent my first Christmas away from home, it was that day that I would yearn to go back to. I would have given everything to go back to shelling snow peas with my family.
The Endless Car Rides I hated
I remember traveling in our family’s old Peugeot 505 on our trips upcountry. These were 4–6-hour trips that “took forever” and for a kid who could hardly sit still, I hated those car rides.
At the time, there were no tablets or phones to play on. No TV’s in the car to watch movies and no Wi-Fi to entertain us. Instead, my brother and I spent most of our time sleeping. And once we had slept enough, we would find a reason to fight. And after we had fought enough, the window became our greatest entertainment. My father would put on this beautiful west and southern African music that I still cherish to this day. The funny thing is, at the time, my brother and I never really liked those songs. And today, they are not just music, but the sounds of memories kindling my childhood spirit and taking me back home.
We’d sit in the back seat in complete silence and I swear time would actually stop. There were no buildings, or people to stare at, just these long stretches of savanna between towns.
And right there.
Sitting in the back seat with the glare of the sun in my eyes and the sweet sounds of ‘Africa’ channeling through my ears, I was completely content.
When I was younger, Sunday was often one of my least favorite days. It was ‘the day before school’ started — which meant it was almost as bad as Monday. And Sunday in our household was often treated like ‘family day’. We’d just stay around the house, not really doing much and the thought of school was ever so pungent in our minds. There was ‘nothing’ to be excited about.
Our common routine was going to church in the morning followed by a lazy afternoon. And the afternoons always seemed so prolonged and boring.
After lunch, we would all sit on the large dining table at our house ‘doing nothing’. My parents read the newspaper over tea and my brother and I read small magazines and talked about life. Eventually, we’d end up having deep conversations in those moments and my father coined the term ‘family meeting time’. Over time, those afternoons became more intentional and, to be honest, if my brother and I had a choice, we would have skipped those meetings, gone upstairs and drowned ourselves in television. Instead, we just sat, drinking tea, filling crosswords and chatting about mundane and irrelevant ‘stuff’.
But funnily enough, despite how much I hated Sunday afternoons. It was those moments, seated on a chair at that dining table, laughing at mindless irrelevance and drinking tea, that I would give the whole world to go back to.
We didn’t need to go to Disney World
When my mother asked me if I remember Disney World, and whether I was happy then, I wanted to say yes. I felt like I was ‘supposed to’. But the truth is, I never thought about Disney World. And when nostalgia hits me, I don’t recall all my extravagant and ‘happy’ experiences. I don’t think about eating at fancy restaurants or going to see amazing shows. Instead, when I think of home and my family, I think back to those mundane car rides to nowhere, the boring Sunday afternoons and Christmases with no electricity.
So maybe, just maybe, everything we’re taught to long for is not actually what we remember. And in response to my mother’s question, “maybe it was never about going to Disney world… it was just about being with my family.”