Notes on Nostalgia

Even in this super-sophisticated digital age, our heartsong is analogue

This morning at about 6.45am, the sun hung in the sky in a particular way that cast outrageous pinks across the turquoise dawn. As a black dot of a plane silently made it’s way across the horizon, I was reminded of long-haul flights across the Atlantic in the smoke-filled passenger jets of my childhood. Airlines back then had names like TWA and PanAm, airhostesses gathered static in their nylon uniforms and there was no veggie option in the meal choice.

I would sleep for most of the flight missing the endless surging of the Atlantic and the icebergs of Canada below. I’d wake up just as the plane banked right towards Logan airport in Boston. The cabin would be flooded with the purple and rose hues of dawn and I peered out of the window imagining I was reeling America in by magic, bringing the land up to meet me rather than the other way around. As we descended, the intricate threads I saw below me morphed into real roads, buzzing fireflies became life-sized cars weaving their early morning headlights and suddenly, BANG! We would be on the runway. Landings in those days were different. Questions were always asked;

“Is the pilot drunk?”

“No, stoned.”

“Ah. Is everyone ok?”

“My head hurts.”

“ That’s just because your brain was thrown against your skull.”

What were planes in the 1970’s actually made of? Paper and string quite possibly. A study into the psycho/physiological effects of early passenger jet suspension would probably reveal the simple fact that the 21st century is more ‘bouncy’ than the 20th.

I digress.

There I was at the dawn of my day, suddenly submerged under memories that ran over each other like busy liquid metals. The dawn flights and abrupt landings flowed into the memory of ‘waiting for our luggage’; a humiliating ritual during which various members of my family dispersed themselves around the baggage carousel heaving off house-sized rucksacks stuffed so full with personal items that the odd bra would always have made a break for it. Half-open cardboard boxes tied with string containing ‘very-important-papers-my-dad-needed-for-the-novel-he-was-working-on’, fishing rods, golf clubs, surf boards, guitars, fish tanks; all of these had to be dragged off the shuddering merry-go-round to the amusement of our fellow passengers. Suitcases, apparently, were bourgeois .

My morning of nostalgia continued.  I then recalled the edgy US immigration officials with their steely blue eyes that made you so uncomfortable you’d confess to just having turned over a bank. Then came the memory of running into the expectant arms of my grandparents and the particular smell of her. Emeraude by Coty.

There was a block of warmth that hit you as the airport doors slid open and threw you into a New England heat wave. Then the cool air-conditioning of the car so wide it looked like the Cheshire cat smiling. Then there was the long tunnel under Lincoln Bridge, then the open highway then suddenly, a left onto back roads leading up the Uncanoonuc Mountains of New Hampshire. Someone would roll down a window and the smell of pine would flood the car and crucify me. I swear it nailed me to the leather seat every time with its invitation to breathe. I wanted to eat that smell, consume it as it consumed me. And then somehow, in some way, some part of me would feel inexorably at home.

Nostalgia, which translates as ‘a painful longing to return’ was considered a sickness when the term was first coined by Johannes Hofner in the 17th century to describe the malaise experienced by Swiss mercenaries yearning for the mountains of home when traveling through the flat lands of Europe. In fact, the army banned the singing of Swiss songs, likely as this was to induce the disease of Nostalgia among troops.

By the 19th century, Nostalgia was considered less of a disease and more a melancholy state, a psychological yearning which helped fuel the Romantic movement’s appeal to the pale, tubercular, concave-chested masses who headed for the Alps and Italy to dream and recuperate.

Few scientists have looked into the question if whether nostalgia serves a specific function. One suggestion is that the ‘warm glow’ of nostalgic memories act like a natural antidepressant.  I have a (totally unfounded) theory that most imaginative brain function (such as nostalgia) is a brilliant ruse to cushion us from the inevitability of death. As nostalgia tends to involve places, people and aspects of ourselves that are now lost to us, there is perhaps some semblance of truth here.

Neuroscientist Susumu Tongawa distinguishes between ‘Non-Declarative memory’ meaning the subconscious memory of learned skills such as how to play tennis or ride a bicycle and ‘Declarative memory’ where subjects can describe past episodes consciously recalling details and emotions. The two kinds of memory are understood to be processed in different areas of the brain and clearly, nostalgic memories belong to the latter type. If nostalgia is an anaesthetized version of the past, memory is the truth of it.

Nostalgic memories reclaim emotional experiences of the past and the present moment reframes them. In the time between the then and now, we imbue our experiences with an emotional potency they didn’t necessarily have originally each time we visit them. In other words, our memories are fluid and the degree to which nostalgia is painful or joyous depends on this emotional revisiting. We can be very creative with our histories. Have I simply renegotiated the neural pathways in my brain that originally linked the smell of pine trees with feelings of family tension during tight-lipped cocktail hours, with new connections to an idealized past where the trees could talk and the New Hampshire sky was so dark you could see galaxies? Perhaps, but I’m hanging on to my renovated version, it’s soul food.

Thinking about it more, I realize that my nostalgia for New England is not so much a yearning for a physical place as for a place in time ~ a moment that faded long ago. My ‘painful longing to return’ is a groaning chasm in my heart that I would most likely feel even if I boarded the next available dawn flight to Logan airport. The beauty of the whole thing is, you never know when you are making a memory. I’m sure my grandmother didn’t know that the image of her teaching me to deadhead Black Eyed Susan’s in her garden would slay me years later any more than my father knew what a potent memory he made when he taught me how to unpeel the bark from a Silver Birch in a way that wouldn’t hurt the tree. I wonder what my daughters will remember of me, Facebook statuses?

The incredible popularity of Smeg fridges, Cath Kidston’s reclaimed 1950’s prints and iPhone apps such a Hipstamatic emulating extinct Kodot Xgrizzled film only goes to show how much we all love the feeling of looking back in all it’s painfully aching glory. Even in this super-sophisticated digital age, our heartsong is analogue, we are vintage chic, we are so very retro it hurts.

I have some home-movie footage from the 1950’s of my grandparents and my father skating on a lake in the Uncanoonuc Mountains. At one point, they all turn towards the camera, squinting in the low winter sun and wave towards the lens, arms around each other, laughing. All three of them are gone now, but this is the way I like to remember them; in grainy, saturated colours, skating joyfully on some ethereal surface between now and then.

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