It’s almost spring (?). Spring brings on longer day light, blue skies, patches of un-melted resilient snow and warmth. Spring is an era of unmitigated nostalgia. As a teenager it was the season that brought on an unabridged freedom and discovery. But as the years roll on, I think back to that era, with a certain jadedness, the amplitude of the nostalgia is curtailed, it used to be the holy grail of nostalgia and fire sale of nostalgic poaching. But something changed. Now, instead of getting wasted and thinking about the old days, I stay sober and think about the future.
I started writing this article a while back, and since then my relationship to nostalgia has changed and I had to re-write parts of it. My intro to this article was symptomatic to nostalgia, while recognizing the faults with it. I used to be very sentimental, I was always forced to march onward, despite my desire for the past. As someone who is closer to thirty than twenty I did a calculation and discovered I have moved every single year since I was 17 – that’s almost a decade of moving every single year. I don’t have a monopoly on gazing into the rear-view mirror and getting nostalgic, but constantly having my life upended made me think back to a more stable time. My situation is still precarious as it was when I was 17, but knowing damn well that the past is gone, and that I have changed so much that it makes living the past impossible I have discovered how corrosive the past is, instead of celebrating nostalgia my intent is to put it in the gallows. The past is over and all that is left is the future. What follows is a few critical issues I have with nostalgia:
1) It was better back then….
I used to say that a lot, tongue in-check of course, but with a streak of sincerity. I often (and I suspect it’s not just me) look fondly back on eras and times through such generous optics, that even the rough times gets a nice fresh coat of golden paint. Take an era that was objectively not good – the start of high-school. First year of high-school was unmitigated disaster on every front of that septic tank of a period. But I remember a year or two later I looked fondly on that period. I even put some effort into attempting to revive horrendous freshman era friendships, like an angry demonic priest trying to raise legions of undead spectres of the past. Friendships that only existed on life support. I’m glad that those rosy glasses accumulated dust and that deceptive period of macabre existence now appears more of what it was, objectively rather than the bright palette of colours portrayed through the nostalgia glasses. It really wasn’t better back then, but the automatic dispenser of comfort was to hit the bag of nostalgia like a drip line.
1) The Past is Gone
The thing about nostalgia and it’s pursuit, is that it’s gone forever. Nostalgia is about our relationship to the past, but the past doesn’t exist anymore, just in our own fallible brains. That’s it, that’s all. You can listen to some nostalgic tunes, or cruise by the place that you used to live in, talk to people that are ghosts in your present life, but it’s gone. I’ve thought about this a lot, in periods of despair I’d try to seek comfort in the past and even worse, try to revive them.
2) Nostalgia can be costly
There is a real cost to nostalgia. I’m sure just bringing yourself to a place to coddle the memories of the past, doesn’t really cost much. But living the past through purchases can. For me, it’s typically food. These usually manifest in ways of routines. Every time I travel north, I always smoke that one Churchill cigar. Every time I travel south, I make sure to fill up some frosty sugary beverages. or buy pizza from that place that I really liked. But it can be costly in non-financial terms too. Nostalgia can be an emotional time sink. It’s a taxing neural exercise. Now, as I stand atop my soap-box, so short it may be, the ticklish question regarding nostalgia is relationships. I have had the ambivalent fortune of being put into many different sea changes of situations, i.e., moving. New jobs, new schools, new places, new people, quite often.
In the tracks that I’ve left, places I’ve gone, placed I’ve been, in those tracks there is a graveyard of old relationships, friends come and gone. And one thing that pulls out nostalgia more than anything else, it’s the people.
I’ve cruised to my home town, I would drive the roads that I used to drive, new pavement, buildings disappear and new ones appear. Scaffolding, and change everywhere. And as a desired aside, I would say that one of the hardest things that I had to contend with when moving and changing places, is the place you left behind goes on without you.
When I was growing up, things were static, until they weren’t, and I was in a different place almost every year. I had a difficult time reconciling this fact, so I tried in vain to try to keep things as they were, like an empire on the decline trying to keep spheres of influence. Some people stick around and some don’t, it works sometimes and it doesn’t. It’s with this point, I like to bring out the ticklish question, at what point is it worth it to keep putting effort into a relationship? In the past, it was my goal to try to keep everything status-quo, from hundreds of kilometres away. Thinking back to that epoch, all I can think of is naivety. I’ve been very fortunate to have a solid cadre of friends. A group that I can say as the years roll on like an odometer, has a rich historical base. Outside of that tight cadre of friends, there has been a list of names that have been relegated to the dustbin of history. But at some point, I question if some of these persistent relationships exist mostly or purely on inertia. Sometimes I notice a very familiar script, with the same exchanged set of words – the process of catching up. I’ve been at the opposite side of a table during a catching up conservation, and I just feel like something is missing. Why were we friends all these years? It seems all we have common now is the past.I sit there and listen to them go on about their affairs – and it just doesn’t click. And then I reciprocate and talk about my what I’ve done and where I’ve been, and then the situation is reversed. I get a timid response, one of genuine disinterest. Then we just chatter on about inane things, like nothing really has happened and we depart until next year.
I want to circle back to a few paragraphs above, earlier in this piece I talked about trying to revive cringe freshman friendships. In particular, my good friend in first year high school. I ended up transferring schools after that first year of high school , but despite that, this guy was all eager to hang out a year two later, but as we sat and did an impromptu hangout, all I realized we had in common was the past. Once I ran out of “remember whens” there was nothing, just silence, a damining indictment on how shallow and empty the friendship was.
I once read Chris Hedges’s book What Every Person Should Know About War a couple years ago . The format of the book is question and answer, and one of the questions was ” Will I stay in touch with my comrades?”. The answer, while short and informational, it stuck with me. Hedges answer to that question was “probably not”. Hedges noted that comradeship and friendship are two different things, as comradeship is based on shared danger, a common goal, and close proximity and is often mistaken as friendship. When I read that, I thought of that particular instance in high school, we were buds because we shared a common goal (going to school, even if it was an unwanted thing at the time), and we saw each other every day, and we were just trying to get through the grind. But as I rotated out of that high-school into another one, shared common memories faded like 1950s wallpaper, and asides from that shared past we didn’t have a lot in common. Things died on their own, even if there was some generous attempts at trying to keep the steam going.
It’s naive and even counter-productive to think you can hold on to the past: change, it’s what happens. It’s one of the biological definitions of life, stimuli to the environment. The sum of that reacting to stimuli in the environment is change. My whole adult life has been nothing but constant change, even some long standing friendships that I’ve had, they change in nature too.
3) the Future
The future is where it’s at. Or well, the present as well. Getting lost in the future can be as bad or as worse as living in the past. How are you supposed to live your life when you can only think about what is going to happen when you win the lottery? In short – I haven’t been feeling too sentimental. Many things have changed and I don’t really feel the same connection to the past that I did before. I used to get wasted and think about the “good old days”, like a perpetual old man, forever trapped in the turbine of the past, emotions and sentiment swirling around forever.
When you first enter a shower, you stand there the hot water sprays down on you – it’s comforting, relaxing, ephemeral. As you stand there, enjoying the shower, minutes pass on and the water gets a little cooler, that’s alright, it’s still nice, comforting. As time goes on the shower gets a little cooler and cooler. That’s me and nostalgia, it used to be nice, it used to nice to get showered with nostalgia, but now it’s like a cold shower. Or to kill such a beautiful analogy, take the economic term: diminishing returns. Nostalgia doesn’t do much for me anymore. I’ve changed a lot and the people I know have changed too. I always appreciate their friendship and support, but in the end, as someone who is stuck in a perpetual loop of a precarious living, but the the gears of time continue to clink on, at the end of the day it’s just me. It’s like I’m a passenger train, sometimes you spark up a good conservation with your fellow passenger, then the stop comes, they get off, or you get off, and that’s it. Gone and done. The only receipt of that interaction only exists in volatile biological memory.
I’ve been grappling with the issue of nostalgia for a while, an insatiable taste for the past. But I finally realize there is nothing there, it’s just another hit of heroin. There are great things from the past, the important take-away is to continue to nourish the the things from the past that are still there, but the others, it’s best to relegate to the trophy case. It’s nice to gaze at when walking by, but not to governor your life. Everything changes, and everything that has a start has an end, it’s important to recognize this and live your life despite this. Me and just me is responsible for the future of me. Nostalgia is nice to catch in a photo frame, but you can’t drive a car while exclusively starring into the rear-view mirror. No more geezery behaviour, sitting on the porch puffing a pipe watching the sunset, life is out there, grab it and strangle it. The world is yours to discover, and a living in the a garbage bag shelter of the past only offsets the gains of the future.