Nostalgia is the truest form of grief. It washes over us with deceptive warm waves of comfort and familiarity, reaching out with open arms to welcome us to the throes of something that never was. The way the wildflowers bow and dance in the pulsing spring breeze, the smell of a dozen creams and lacquers and sighing antiques, the taste of the pollen-laden air—it all invites us back to a time that is better in hindsight. It is a memory of eating watermelon in the backyard and spitting seeds as far as uncoordinated youthful lips can muster while the only dog you ever knew chases them through the thick Saint Augustine grass.
In this hazy memory, there is no room for the bloody cuts of meat thawing on the counter or the curiosity-squashing answers to earnest questions, no future self that feels the stifling jamming of your square peg into society’s round hole. The tall grass is itchy but wonderful, a forbidden dirty thing that somehow feels free from the confines of the tucked-in shirts and ma’ams and sirs of the rule-abiding world. There is a memory of the one time that you went into the country corner store in a bathing suit with no shirt on, and it feels like an immutable truth about who you were meant to be, not a one-off dash to grab some more tortilla chips.
As the mind becomes more jammed with memories, nostalgia happens quicker, is triggered by smaller bites and more abstract senses. There is less space for a memory to unfold the way it wants to and there is more knowledge of how the story actually ends. Lurking in the shadows of a perfect summer’s day is the knowledge of the person in the memory would die too soon, there is adult understanding of the implicit traumas of childhood. There is the searing diaspora of nostalgia itself, which forces you back to places that are at least as problematic as they are comforting, watering holes filled with crocodiles, the only place you had a childhood even though it wasn’t exactly roses.
Most of our sense of self is not derived from specific, worded memories. Until we sit down and recount them, whether for someone important who joins our lives in a later chapter or for a neuropsychologist who is deciding whether or not your erratic behavior is caused by brain trauma or life trauma or perhaps neither. Then we realize how much hinges on whether the head of the school did, indeed, pressure you to pick a certain college, how much it hurt to watch people you called your friends drain the blood out of a dead doe’s body through its nose, how vividly you remember the time your fish hook cost a catfish its left eye. Did you really start slipping because of the skateboarding accident that almost killed you, or was the fall inevitable?
It is only in giving such a question space on a page that you remember the intoxicating surge that came from two popular girls planting kisses on your full-body sling; it may have been an ironic gesture, but it felt as powerful then as it feels hilarious now. The next brain injury was not so benign, but even then, the memories are of the one time church friends brought tacos to your house. They skim over the nights spent sobbing ‘til sunrise or the fighting with people you love while forgetting what you’re even fighting over.
The doctor asks if you have more qualitative examples of how that injury changed you. Far away, the nose of that same first dog is still proudly poking into the wind on the bow of the boat, and for a fleeting second you wish he could tell you in tidy terms where it all went wrong. Then you realize that nostalgia is luring you wickedly back to a time when your next meal relied on deference and your understanding of the world was based solely on what you’d been told. There was a simple joy in catching lizards in the summer sun, and a heartbreaking darkness when parents would never stop the car to get turtles out of the road.
Along the way, nostalgia looks like concerts in downtown LA or the handful of college camping trips that went well. It takes on the form of swirling neon lights and smiling dance partners in honky tonks, a dim incandescent glow and the palliative twang of a steel guitar. It is those fleeting moments when things were full of possibility and hadn’t yet fallen apart. Nostalgia refines convoluted memories, takes what did happen and what might’ve happened and turns them into snippets of life that define who we become.