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One November Nostalgia: Memories of JFK

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People in the States are living longer and I am not alone -- neither in my memories nor my nostalgia. And so the conversations will no doubt be coming or have started already in many places. November 22, not only the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy but the 50th one, is being heralded, advertised by flags all over Dallas' airport -- the city where he was shot -- and has already flooded the minds of many of us.

Often certain dates come to remind us, to excite us or to haunt us way ahead of their time. We plan for holidays, when to go out, when to leave or return home. And this is one of those dates for those who do remember, that won't ever go away. The date comes this year -- perhaps because we are all prone to see the number 50 in any anniversary as noteworthy -- with even more sadness than usual. It brings inside of me, an unabashed nostalgia for a time when a presidential assassination, wiretapping of civilians or even of a political party as in Watergate, were yet unthinkable, impossible, even laughable.

I know the dangers of nostalgia fairly well -- the wishing for times that weren't really what they can seem in our own stories. I know how reproducing times thus wished for can lead and have led to, the worst of dictatorships. I know how nostalgia can keep person closeted and stunted. And I also know how dipping into nostalgia now and then, can be rich with appetite, enjoyment and celebration.

This year what seems most notable is the sense that we as a nation have gotten used to so much. We were back then still capable of being shocked, so that when a student came into our psychology class on November 22, 1963, and said the president had been shot, I was one of the people who shouted at him to stop kidding.

There is much to be said, written about and read about the '60s, a mixed time for many. For some of us it was a time of idealism, of hope, of an energized effort to help the poor. Yes, it was Vietnam, a brutal and mistaken and tragic war and also a war of terrible inequality at home, where the richer could get out of it with a note from the doctor and many poorer Americans enlisted to the sounds of the president I still miss, when he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country."

Nostalgia is always a mixed blessing, since it can make our views very simplistic in any one direction. It can also awaken in us the wish to find our roots -- the roots in and of the history of what happened, without necessarily erasing the power of the times, the man JFK and the impact of his death. There is the struggle, as I see it, to learn more about the reality of the complexities without going the way of rejecting any of the good or its power.

We can also try to learn more about the pull and charisma of any one person to such vast numbers of people. JFK spoke to something, a hunger for hope, for vitality, for learning. He helped, rather heroically, join with Kruschev to avoid a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis, no small thing at all. And then he was handsome, even dashing -- let's just be honest -- at least for those of us who felt that way about him. There was that attractiveness: his not wearing an overcoat on the frigid day of his inauguration, his intelligence and of course his wife and his small gorgeous children.

The challenge in looking back at history, in looking back at JFK, is not looking simply, either with pure worship or the purest kind of hate and dismissal. He, and the reactions he evoked, and we today, are too complex for that. John Kennedy was not a simple man, nor was much about him simple. While he evoked hatred in some, he spelled promise for many and hope that our democracy would include justice for the poor as well. And yes too, he had charisma, which is not all bad by any means. If it doesn't shift into degradation or careless worship, it can be one of many forces that evoke interest and caring. And because of it, it may be harder yet worthwhile to learn more about him, to take on the challenge of not vilifying him or looking for his pedestal in history.

I was 14 when John Kennedy was elected, and I loved him in that very young way. I miss him too as the 17-year-old who went to his funeral and stood in the silence, not of dread but of deep pain, on another very cold day. He was a president of poets, such as Robert Frost and maybe in our assessments we can remember how he touched so many of us and people across the world as well.

So again, I miss the man, the president, quite personally it feels. I miss what feels like a very personal caring for social equality. But perhaps it can be renewed in some way. It seems to be happening somewhat here in Italy with Pope Frances embracing all the segments of humanity without judging or rejecting any of us.

Of course none of this is simple but sometimes, a feeling just comes up. Today it is caring, so let's let it be, let it flow. It comes with a soft sadness mixed with a sense of wanting to assert the right -- my right -- to miss John Kennedy, the president and the man, boo boos and all.