An Ode to Wistfulness

I don’t long for the past, but I do long for its soundtrack.

–Robin Bennett

Since I am of a certain age, and the realization of being that certain age deepens when I realize that there is a considerable majority of humans currently on the planet who are younger than I am. It’s not a warm and fuzzy feeling to have that realization, but as the years gather and the wisdom that should accompany it doesn’t seem to be as quickly summoned as it should, I find myself embarking on an activity that I would like to pay tribute to in this piece.

History is a beautiful thing to me. We get free lessons about how others who plodded through life before us maneuvered and found their way, or, maybe didn’t. We reminisce with others whom we may have journeyed with or encountered along the way.

Music can stir memories about things, places, events and most importantly people whose lives swerved into our path for any amount of time.

When we survey these memories, or reminisce or look back at history, I’d get a certain feeling that gives me comfort, and gives my heart a chance to smile and hold on to things and people past, and the great gift of cherishing that which was of value to me at some point.

It’s wistfulness. I’m going to resist the standard use of a dictionary definition at this point. Here is what wistfulness is to me. Cherishing, possibly burnishing or polishing, and surrounding myself with a memory of something from my past. Note here that there is risk associated with being wistful. Note also that there is an element of a similar word here: wishful. I like to think that being wistful is fully realizing that a past event or person was significant, and held meaning, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would WISH it back or want it to have continued on forever. Wistfulness is being at peace with being when and where and how it all played out.

Wistfulness is being thankful for its place in your life. It’s smiling at a memory, it might include a twinge or an ache at someone who is gone, never to come back. It’s being ok with tears, it’s being able to wrap yourself in dialing back that moment or that time, maybe smelling something that makes the image more vivid, recalling exactly what someone said, exactly how they said it, maybe wincing because it might have been too true, too prescient, too honest. It doesn’t even have to mean that we were in love with the occurrence as it happened, but only that the end result was something that mattered.

Wistfulness is a place that has its place. If we stay too long, it’s no longer wistful, but depression. It’s malingering in places, if not long gone, gone long enough to be over with. There may or may not be more to be learned, but we can possibly learn more about ourselves if being wistful allows us to find its rightful place in our overall story.

When I drive back to the neighborhood where we lived from the time that I was two years old until I was 14, I don’t wish to be back there, or for it to be there yet unchanged from when it was our home. It’s nice to know that I was first introduced to much of life there and that some of those lessons have meaning and value. In the pantheon of our family tales, that was the Maes Avenue house, not to be confused with the Main Street house (I was only two when we moved away) or the Kimberly Avenue house, which was where my parents lived for almost 20 years, as we all progressively flew the nest to college and jobs and marriages and other places that lives bring us to.

The Maes Avenue house was where my strongest memories of being a family were. By the time we moved out in 1972, my four older siblings had all graduated from high school, moved out and half of them were married. The back yard is unbelievably small, and the homes and yards look like they are right on top of each other. It’s almost magical to think of how it seemed like a marathon to run from our house on the corner, through three other back yards to get to Washington Street.

I don’t want to go back and live in the Maes Avenue house or get a do-over of those memories. But it’s hard to go back there and not smile about the little neighborhood where we used our driveway for epic basketball games, played touch football in the road, tackle football in Triangle Park across the street. In winter the village flooded the ice pond right across from our house, and there was always a huge gathering of kids there. It was good wholesome fun in which you were outside all day doing something, and we all understood the meaning of being “good tired” long before we ever heard the expression.

In any of the times, were they the best of times or something else, and with any of the people who peopled our past, we share those memories, those fabrics, and layers that have brought us to where we are.

To bask in them and let them caress our hearts is to be what wistfulness is meant to be. When I hear favorite songs from the ’70s and ’80s, I smile because so much of that music was the backdrop, the texture, yes, the soundtrack of our lives. There were a limited number of radio stations available in the 1960s, and if you took a bicycle tour around the block where we lived, you could hear numerous transistor radios playing the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, Jackie Wilson, Blood, Sweat, and Tears or the Supremes… or many others. The music is still with us, as are the memories… the people we were, the places that we heard those songs, the people that we heard the songs with – we aren’t those people anymore, the places could be gone or changed or paved over, and the people may be gone or scattered or still near and dear. Wistfulness is a snapshot, and a peek back to what was.

For me, I can’t be wistful without being thankful.


Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.

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  1. What a beautiful stroll with wistfulness, Tom, through your heart, memories, and life lived so far. Your stories lift me as they assure me that other people really can experience music (and other sensory memories) as a backdrop to enriching, life-giving experiences. This seems quite distinct from music as a life line to an exciting escape or tender balm, a place to attempt to transcend much darkness–a noticeable contrasting energy field-like the smell of something really delicious cooking wafting into a cut the knife tension filled room. Rather than a rich, layered experience of something meaningful to remember from my past, I must sift through mud and worms, lift heavy rocks, rinse the dirt from windows, walk the beach, feel the broken seashells on the bottom of my feet, pick up, and pry open an oyster knowing the grit had to dig into the flesh to glisten now as a pearl. The stark contrasts in my life allowed me to deeply appreciate what often seemed like wafting, whispering, wispy experiences with food, belongings, music, brief warm hugs, fleeting smiles from people that felt like love sneaking into a manicured, beautifully appointed haunted house. Allowing these (like your beautiful wistful story) to gently leave soft impressions on my heart, I have slowly learned that I can lean into and create these love-filled, layered impressions for myself and other people as I travel along the mountain roads in gorgeous western North Carolina with deep gratitude. Thank you for the gift of your beautiful writing, your ode to wistfulness-nourishment for my heart, mind, and soul.

    • Laura, your heart is always so evident in everything that you write. Your expansive view of life and love is all about cherishing everything. I love the way that so many things become prisms for you and the light is frequently refracted into all the many wonderful colors that you choose to see. The drabness gets filtered out, there is value everywhere, there is charm, radiance and beauty, and you can always find it. I love how pain and the grit of life have burnished you and regardless of circumstances you shine and only see others shine. Your sensibilities are without peer.

  2. I think it’s impossible to read this and not hear one’s own “playlist” in the background, Tom. I’ve never connected “wistful” with “cherish” before. I think after having read this, I’ll never be able to disconnect them. Thank you! Your work always reaches deep inside me and moves me. That’s a gift and I’m grateful to you!

    • Melissa, just as everyone has their own playlist, we all have our words, phrases and definitions to help us explain and navigate through life. I’m touched and honored that my little meanderings can move you, and I love that you read and comment. Truly, thank you.

  3. I swear, Tom, someday you’re going to give me a heart attack. Every time I read your work my heart expands and beats wildly and all sorts of emotional happenings stir it out of its calm. This was beautiful. I will forever connect wistful with cherish… And be reminded that to linger is to risk the joy.

  4. Of course the soundtrack of my high school experiences was playing in the background of my mind as I read this piece, Tom. Thank you for bringing back Crazy for You, The Boys of Summer, and U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday in my head and heart today.

    I completely agree with Robin’s perfect description: “I don’t long for the past, but I do long for its soundtrack.”

    Just yesterday I was sharing with a friend who has young children, 18 months & 6 years old, that I don’t want to go back to those days, though they were wonderful, but I do miss being a “mother of young children”. It was my identity for many years, something that truly consumed me. Now I understand and can express this better, thanks to your article, I’m simply wistful.

    • Yes, Sarah, yes… exactly. Your example with the kids is dead on! We all have our own sound tracks, and sometimes they change, as different tunes evoke different memories. It’s always fun to queue up certain songs for certain occasions. I’m so touched by how certain topics like this really resonate with people at so many levels. Thank you, as always, your input is so deeply appreciated.

  5. Tom, when I wrote this piece — — someone thanked me for the memories and for the nostalgia. That gave me pause. I didn’t think of what I’d written as memories or nostalgia. I thought of them as me, as elements of this life I’m living, not of one I’d lived.

    I get the same senses from this piece you’ve written. It’s not this song, or that person, or some point, or a collection of events. It’s you. It’s Tom. It’s who you are. It’s how and why you are who you are. We ARE the sum of our influences, always adding to that sum, subtracting nothing. It’s not we WERE this. Then we WERE that. As long as we’re drawing breath, it’s ongoing and cumulative.

    You call it wistfulness. I call it continuity and conscious honoring. We both call it life and celebrate it.

    I owe you a hug some day, my friend. And as Grandpa O’Brien loved to say, “I’d rather owe it to you than do you out of it.” 😉

    Thank you.