Friday, January 19, 2007

That Old Crippling Nostalgia

I hate growing up.

It’s amazing how as children we take our experience at face value, how as we learn the way of things, we fail to perceive that it’s only a single moment we’ve mastered, and that it passes in just about as long as it takes to make sense of the damn thing. New moments come, fast and furious, but most of us are stuck looking through the lenses that we grew in those formative times. We change and adapt, refocus, but not as quickly as the world around us shifts. Meanwhile, the demons of our own making are so exhausting to fight, and they take altogether too long to let us free, that our ability erodes to challenge new presents as they come.

I visit my hometown with some regularity, and while it’s always great to see my family, the rest of the business is increasingly awkward. It’s cliché to point out how the grand things we experience as children grow small and shabby with age, but that’s only a part of it. Every corner of that place is infested with some memory or other, and as places change—things get discarded, homes get bought and sold, people die, organizations restaff themselves, whatever—each instance is like a personal affront to my memory. It’s a bittersweet experience—the recollection is made with fondness, but it comes with the knowledge that it can’t be relived.

The hometown visits are merely discomfiting, though. There is something about regular maintenance of existence that allows perceptions to remain comfortable even while time changes what we perceive. Poignancy still fades, but it doesn’t dissolve as quickly when we keep living in those places.

The past has a soundtrack, even to a guy that got struck only rarely by popular music when he was a kid. Driving around my alma mater recently, I recalled the themes associated with certain routes—music I played, say, on the way to pickup hockey games, or echoing in my head as I stumbled home from the late night bars, or tunes that just happened to be captured in a passing moment, a tiny vignette preserved uniquely in my skull. Listening to those songs can give me a little poke in the brain, reminding me that I’m not there anymore, and, more to the point, that I’m not then anymore either. No more late night games, no more 4AM drunken weekends, no more patience for crappy music. There are new things to do, but there’s an element in doing them that’s running from the moments that I’ve left behind. The more memories you have, the harder it becomes to make new ones.

The past surrounds us like a prison, bars growing like bamboo: sprouting, strengthening, and eventually dying. It grows from the seeds we shed as we pass through the moments and places of our life. We cast about heedless throughout our days, unknowing that the green carpet on which we walk will become a jungle the moment we leave it untended. We hole up in our tiny clearings, fighting the weeds on our few well-beaten routes as the forest closes in about us, or we wander the unknown prairies, leaving stands of fetid verdure behind us like spoor, a lacework of choked-off possibility which can only be recrossed with great difficulty.

Most people, I imagine, reside, like me, between the extremes of holing up and racing forward. I still have quite a lot of living I want to do, after all. Eventually though, we either paint ourselves in, cornered by no good new reality, or else the undergrowth gets the best of us as we run out the will needed to tamp it down and establish new realities. And let’s face it, when we can’t occupy the present anymore is when it all ends for us, no matter how long we may continue to breathe. If we lived long enough to forget things entirely, then I imagine it would be possible to stake out a perpetual route through the maze we generate. Otherwise, however, you’re stuck: if you’re of the right mindset, you can enjoy watching the grass grow, or maybe you’d prefer to blur time’s passage in a bottled haze, or maybe you labor to stay one step ahead of the clock.

But the fucker gets us all in the end.


Claude Scales said...

Wow. This set off some powerful stuff in my head. I will link to it, and riff on it.

Meanwhile, consider the irony that the margin of the Colts' victory can be attributed entirely to three field goals by Adam Vinatieri.

LentenStuffe said...

Interesting bitter-sweet take. Memory is a muse and synonymous with imagination, at least according to Heidegger.

What I find truly fascinating is how our mnemonics change over time: Those that launched Proust's colossal work have been supplanted in our time by pop music -- a song usually triggers some kind of release and then by associative remembrance we're transported back into the pool ...

Keifus said...

thanks guys. I'm not 100% the metaphor held together, but it was still one of my better posts.

Claude: But I'm already trying to forget that!

LS: "Mneme" would have been a good title, now you mention it, but I think someone I know recently used that one.

Artemesia said...


Many long years ago I read Thomas Wolfe's novels, notably, 'You Can't Go Home Again,' and he did. Novel after novel.

I think all return is rehearsal for the ultimate return..Memory is the stage.

So, we dance on into the night. I enjoyed reading this piece, truly an act of emotional courage on your part..the bittersweet, the then and now.

Galatea said...

Thought-full piece Keifus,

I’ve always treasured my memories; all of them. Ah, nostalgia. Yes sometimes bittersweet…but that life.
My memory of Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island and the birds saying,“Here and now.” That’s an important message to remember; being in the moment.
Then, look at children, they (especially) seem to find an extra level of happiness and excitement when they have something good to look forward to. …All space /time has important significance…past - present - future…

And I agree music plays a strong part in creating memories and flashing back.

* * * * *

TenaciousK tipped me off on right clicking to “open” and that stopped the pop on/off window problem I had with your comments field! Oh yeah, and I’m linking you too without your permission! LOL. Nice of you to link me (and thanks for the afterthought of asking). Now the heat is on for me to really write, oh no!

~ Galatea

Galatea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
august said...

Hey Keif,

It strikes me that a lot of folks continue to regard themselves as more or less kids. What I mean is -- my sense of myself does not change as quickly as the ways that other people perceive me -- a fact constantly reinforced by the blank stares of my students. I think of myself as not much different from them -- searching, confused, trying to get my feet on the ground. They regard me (if I'm lucky) as a creature who just stepped off the shuttle from Alpha Centauri. Otherwise they are napping.

I do think there is a certain joy to be found in those disjuncts -- the moments that bring us face to face with the clock. The cliched version is the triumph over terrible illness, but I think there are others. Visiting a place I once knew well, realizing that once I did not eat Indian food and now I cook it, rounding a corner and realizing I have no income for the next two months.

These are all tough moments, but they are also invitations to get off the routes that I know, or at least to recognize them for what they are.

I read Splendid as a great chronicler of such moments. And for what it's worth, I don't know what ambitions you know yourself to harbor, but you're writing may be taking you on paths you don't know. Do we need will to establish new realities, or just playfulness and a little spare time?

august said...

ZB -- interesting points about memory. Pop music, google searches, smells, tastes. I just ate a blackberry that had clearly been strip-mined by oppressed workers in South America, but even the hint of actually blackberry within took me to growing up in southwestern Virginia, where they used to grow wild.
Writing you about it reminds me of a famous poem by your fellow Irishman. I could never save blackberries so long that they would go bad...

Keifus said...

Yeah, you need to keep growing and keep experiencing, and if that's a cliche too, I'm not going to let it stop me... It seems to take more energy as I get older, the point roughly, but that doesn't mean it's not worth it. We do our best to stay limber.

Agreed about Splendid (and she does that quite subtly sometimes), ZB (he's posted rather eloquently on these themes too), and even on blackberries. There was an enormous wild patch of them "deep" in the woods out back when I was a kid, a labyrinth of briars, and one summer our regular expedition was to go picking and exploring. Some of the berries even made it home. (My mom made jam with them.)

I'd be happy enough with more playfulness and free time, believe me.

Artemesia: glad you enjoyed it. I was digging deep back when I wrote it, but I wouldn't call it brave necessarily. It can be a relief to get that stuff out, like digging out a thorn almost.

Galatea: thanks as well. Sometimes I find it comforting to think of space and time as still connected. Events aren't gone, they're somewhere else.

The problem with going overboard on the nostalgia, of course, is taht you risk drowning out the present.