In my favorite episode (4) of my favorite season (2) of one of my Desert Island Top 5 favorite televisions shows (“Fleabag”)an acknowledged Hot Priest stops on a meander through a drunken crisis of faith to ask the protagonist if she’s a nostalgic person. He admits that he can hardly encounter Winnie the Pooh in the wild without turning into a sobbing wreck, and they share a moment of heartfelt reverence for Piglet. It’s hardly the most memorable exchange in that episode( and in fact, so far from it, that you’d be forgiven if you’ve seen it six times and have no idea what I’m talking about).
I think about it all the time, though, for I, too, am an intensely nostalgic person. Pooh is not my poison, maybe because I grew up in the U.S .on a steady diet of 1970s and 1980s kid-friendly pop culture, (which, in retrospect seems like it was engineered at the time to produce an endlessly addictive nostalgia high some thirty to forty years later). My list of particular nostalgia triggers is pretty varied (it includes everything from Chaka Khan to “The Pirates of Penzance” to the smell of a Pizza Hut). The Muppet universe pretty much wrecks me. I cannot listen to Kermit the Frog, or anyone really, sing “The Rainbow Connection” without blubbering all over myself (the last verse slays).
Quality has little to do with nostalgia triggers. Objectively speaking, I’m not sure Maxell cassettes smell good. I mostly hate Mr. Big’s “I’m The One Who Wants To Be With You” even though it transports me in the back of a friend’s mom’s station wagon at peak fifteen like I’m on some kind of virtual reality ride at Psychology Funland. For me, anyway, nostalgic things are different from influential things. The latter are on some level aspirational, thus future focused, and sometimes challenging at first bite; the former are well-worn magnets that draw you back to the past. This is not to say that influential things are always objectively “better” (witness the eyerolls whenever I try to talk about what “The Legend of Billie Jean” means to me) but they do more than provide a comfortable balm and a bar anecdote.
Like most intoxicants, nostalgia should be enjoyed responsibly. People get weird when they start overdosing. They take it too seriously, and freak out if anyone says anything questionable about their favorite nostalgic triggers, terrified that if we start recontextualizing the beloved things of our pasts we might undo the magic that transformed the stuffed rabbit on a trash heap into a wild hare in the moonlight. I’m a person that loves to deconstruct essentially trivial stuff, but even I get tetchy when it comes to excavating my own nostalgia. Like, I know “The Goonies” is a problematic text and I still love it. And I don’t actually want to think too deeply about the Jennifer Connelly/David Bowie age difference in “Labyrinth,” or what it says about me and girlhood in the 80s that I always thought they should have ended up together.It’s hard when things get ruined. I mean, a possibly unfillable hole exists in my best party playlist where “P.Y.T” used to be, even if that song is done for me these days.
Nostalgia is not the real past, not even close. It’s just a candle that smells a little like your grandma’s house. You can get lost in a collage of evocative, if anodyne fragments and mistake them for actual history. And that’s dangerous because the 90 minute mixtape version of the past tends to edit a lot of narrative out, in favor of mood. Which is why the embedded version of the 80s in pop culture never forgets “Ghostbusters” but mostly leaves out H.I.V.
As a person that spends a fair amount of time writing about the past, and specifically my own, I can tell you that it is hard to navigate around the nostalgia when you’re trying to tell something true. I write a fair amount about my own teenage and young adult years. I was a pretty miserable teenager, dealing with a lot of uncomfortable, depressing, infuriating crap. I was also extraordinarily lucky, as far as relative level of privilege was concerned. I escaped any violence and oppression and real material want. I never starved, either for sustenance or familial affection. I went to a fancy high school with a 100% college acceptance rate, where I learned at least as much about indie rock, post-modern novels, and what cool Europeans wanted to dance to and as I did about Shakespeare and Modern European History ( and significantly more than I did about math).
Those years were a storm of worry, boredom, and gutting sadness, inconsistently broken by hilarity and thrill and waves of near-euphoric anticipation, probably enhanced by a steady diet of black coffee, Camel Lights, the 3.99 Vegetarian Taco Loco from my favorite Mexican greasy spoon, and increasingly, almost competitively obscure track listings on friend-made mixtapes. And note, even as I write this, I am falling prey to the nostalgia version, woven into everything I write about that time. Sometimes it so threatens to supplant my actual lived experience that I have a hard time remembering what was real and what is a figment, conjured by an air freshener that smells like Salon Selectives and/or the opening bars of Tears for Fears “Break It Down Again”(still a banger), of my high school best friend, drunk at seventeen, dancing wildly on her front porch in a lavender shorts and argyle knee socks in the dead of winter.
I’ve revisited that story, even told that story, a bunch of times, and every time I forget that she was heartbroken that night. That I, myself, had shown up at her house in tears. That our world was mostly populated by other fucked up and heartbroken teenagers, a handful of often fucked up and heartbroken adults doing the best they could, and a whole world of people that we–ourselves posers, liars, fakers and pathologically desperate to be cool– had only begun to realize were not who or what they seemed.
Years ago, a friend, who went to the same high school as I did, but a few years later, heard a few of my stories and lamented that her experience hadn’t been fun like mine. The school, she said, sounded so much better when I was there. I laughed itoff. I may have even agreed, already old enough to have fallen under the sway of nostalgia, to have edited the playlist so I wouldn’t wreck the mood. But caused me to dig in the stacks, revisit a few songs I hadn’t heard in a while, and reflect that it’s a whole lot easier to tell a story about something wholly good or something wholly bad, than one that is equivocal or complicated.
None of us live in a vacuum. Our experiences touch others and others’ shape ours. Nostalgia can erase that complexity so completely that when you’re remind of it, it can feel like a slap in the face. No wonder we get defensive, no wonder our first impulse is to minimize, if not flat out deny, things we once knew to be true, the things we know to be true if you just widen the frame on the memory.
I’m not a journalist or historian, despite occasional feints. I don’t tell other people’s stories unless they tell me to, and even then I do my best to call it fiction. I have learned that lesson the hard way. So even I as stick to the (unreliable?) narration of my own experience, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a whole other story, in which I may or may not play a part at all, happening off camera, or left on the editing room floor in someone else’s memory palace.
I am trying to reckon with the past without the distraction of nostalgia, because I don’t want to forget all the hard stuff, because I don’t want the hard stuff to happen again, or more accurately, to keep happening. Because, if I’ve learned anything from both activists and nostalgia-bait time travel movies, it is that often the first step to changing the future is changing the way you view the past.
I am trying to remember that.
I am trying to remember.
I am trying.