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Surely, nostalgia is a form of dementia?


I love remembering. So often, I get so caught up in the past that the present becomes drab and the future futile. I've even read pages of my journals argued with the author of these biographical memoirs from years gone by that whoever the crazy woman was who supposedly documented my youth got it wrong – because the present I did NOT remember things that way.

The party was far more fun and lasted far longer than only two hours.
The past love was far more perfect and meaningful and I would never have found him irritating.
The friendships far less brutal; we never backstabbed or lied to one another.
The hurts of breakups were far deeper and I would never have kissed someone else that same night, or accepted an invitation to a date that same day.

One does so often tend to forget the parts that seem, at the time, insignificant. One also forgets the parts that make it less of a story.

Just last week I sat waiting for a friend in a coffee shop. Two ladies, a little younger than me, obviously shared a longstanding friendship. “I should have ended up with him, had things worked out differently,” the blonde said. “I often look at his wife, their life, and think That should have been me.” “God no!” her friend replied, “He’s a serial adulterer! Has never been faithful to one girl in his life!” “Oh rubbish, he was always faithful when we were together!” the blonde defended said man-who-was-not-her-husband-but-could-have-been. “Yeah right! Are you forgetting his fun and games behind your back, with that chick from history class?” Clearly, the blonde had. She was probably having a bad day with the man-who-was-her-husband that day. I thought of all the what-ifs associated with nostalgia and the semi-insanity it represents when one has selective memory of the past.  

But it is strange how our brains almost go into self-defence mode. There are days when a simple song can make me want to weep because of the memory it evokes and yet, I am sure, at the time, there was nothing special in that moment. Iris by the GooGoo Dolls always makes me think of my Matric dance, but this was not a night that features with rave revues in my diary. My headmaster embarrassed me. My date grew facial hair and I'm pretty sure smooched someone else. My Marilyn-Monroe-esque hairdo was a flop. Yet, play the first powerful guitar strums to me at any moment and I will recall my pink lace dress; my best friend in her purple gown; happy and risqué photographs; a slow dance and a drunken declaration of eternal friendship. 

Admittedly, that was over fifteen years ago and life changes a great deal in that time. Memories are therefore permitted to be ‘edited’ by brain fog.

More recently, whenever You Raise Me Up by Josh Groban is heard, my husband pulls me in to an embrace and sways around the room. He will, inevitably, say something romantic about the fact that he is happy he married me, or that he loves me as much right now as he did on our wedding day during our first dance, he’ll thank me for choosing him. He is so sweet like that and I value those moments every single time. It means a lot that he remembers our dance and how happy we felt that day. Our little catch phrase, “Thank you for choosing me,” is so significant because we both felt quite strongly that love is a choice and it’s a choice one needs to make daily. Still, our first dance was actually Groban’s When You Say You Love Me. And he never remembers that.

It is also strange how nostalgia can strike when you least expect it to. And how three different people can witness one moment and recall the same moment in three different ways. A ‘friend’ of mine recently contacted me on Facebook as an add-on to a pending friend request. The message read something about a tiff we had and he would be surprised if I accepted his request but he would very much like it if I did. We had enough mutual friends for his claim to be genuine and his profile certainly seemed pretty harmless. But there are a lot of weirdos out there and I remembered no tiff. I actually only vaguely remembered him. Friend request still pending.

And yes, I have sent friend requests still pending out there too. Probably for the same reasons. Someone looked at my name and thought, “Who the heck is that?” whereas in my life, they were linked to some mundane or significant memory that was remarkable enough to warrant me looking them up.

Nostalgia.

It’s that craziness that makes you think that the girl who was a bitch to you at school is very cool now and you were always friends.

It’s that insanity that makes you contact an ex and think you have some right to see them again to catch up.

It’s that subtle dementia that forces you to forget how good things are currently by looking back to a past that is so far fetched you would need to be George Lukas in order to bring it to life.  
It’s when you’re sitting opposite your husband on a date night, feeling loved and appreciated and sexy. Nostalgia makes you believe it is always so. But the pyjama drill to clean toddler vomit at three in the morning has a terrible way of robbing you of that alternate reality. But for that night, it was wonderful. 

Nostalgia.

We’ve been holidaying quite a lot lately. Funny how that happens, after being home bound for a long time, we have suddenly really been gallivanting. And each place has evoked memories for my husband and me. Different places have obviously stirred up different pictures. When you’re on holidays linked to memories you spend a fair amount of time talking about the past. At least, we do. Sometimes being in a place that evokes memories of the past is enough to open a treasure trove of other memories. Reflection, in a sense, breeds reflection.      

So, in thinking of holidays I thought about holidays. Most of these were spent with my family and seemed to be the most incredible, exciting times in retrospect. But my diary indicates that we spent days in the car and listened to boring music, (The Beatles, The Stones, Elvis and Johnny Cash,) that my father enjoyed. (Needless to say, these are the artists one would find on my iPod these days and the travelling is all relative to the destination.) We would have conversations I remember as mundane but now know were actually a sharing of history and imparting of wisdom. If only I had known then that driving from my home to a destination three days away was the privilege of being transported to a new country, with waterfalls and animals and tropical oceans and crocodiles. Things we had never seen before and places we have never seen again. Literally, once in a lifetime opportunities for adventure and experiences that few would ever get. My diary never captured those intimate thoughts that are now my memories of such travels.

In fact, when I come to think of it, it’s not even the crocodiles or waterfalls that I truly reflect upon. I remember the car trips were long, but I know that my mom, dad and brother were there. Yes, I know I saw a few crocodiles, but I can't tell you where, exactly. Or when, precisely. But, I can still recall, quite clearly, my first experience driving a car and the fact that my father was sitting alongside me cheering/steering me along and it was his blue bakkie I was routing along bumpy farm roads. When it was, is actually a moot point.

With the added bonus of hindsight and wisdom, memories have been put in their rightful place. If I were to rewrite my diaries now, the tiny day-to-day dramas would seriously be of no consequence, my friendship would not be given away so freely and indiscriminately. Nor would my heart. I would still take risks. I would still love adventure. I would probably still be rebellious. I would write down the details of what my friends and I wore to those dances, where all I cared to journal was the fact that my boyfriend didn’t want to dance with me. I would write down the fun conversations my boarding school friends and I would have, eating popcorn until the early hours, rather than bitch about what she said and she said. I would focus on my dreams of the future and not hinge my existence on opinions of the present.

I recall the memories of my travels with my parents, now, as the happiest times of our lives. Not because of where we went but purely because of the fact that we were together. Often, in my reminiscing, I don’t even remember who else came along or our exact routes. But I know the feelings of security and wholeness that come from family who were definitely there.  

I think our values also change. Things that were important to us when we were younger, more foolish, are no longer important now. I mentioned the day-to-day dramas and made light of these, but I know at the time, to hormonal teens or to uncertain youths, these are the be-all-and-end-all. If only we also had journals of the future to look at. Some of us would stare in awe at the outcome of the choices we have yet to make. Recalling the past winds us down a road where oftentimes the landscape is very different to the way it once was. But if life is a journey, which I believe it is, and the destination is of less consequence than the road we travel, we should focus on the memories we are making for their larger impact: the fact that in years to come we will recall not the action, but the feelings associated with the action.

When we look back into journals, literal or otherwise, it will be our sentiments at the time that stand out most for us. The fact that we had so much fun, the fact that we felt incredibly safe or happy, the fact that it was a time of tangible sadness. Often even seeing a photograph can immediately tell us how we felt in that instance. And despite the fact that memories and facts are somehow forgettable, feelings often are not.

I think it was Maya Angelou who said, (and I am paraphrasing slightly,) “People will often forget what you did for them, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” I’d like to suggest that memories work the same way.

The memory you have has so much to do with where you are (mentally and emotionally) at the time that the geographical and social elements seem of little consequence. Getting off a plane to London for the first time in my life was the most exhilarating feeling and yet I remember immediately wishing my mom was there with me. I knew she was the one person who would love it as much as I did. How can that memory be put into any kind of nostalgia box?

When my first daughter was born, I remember looking over at her father, now in tears, knowing that he was the only other person on the planet, in that moment, who could possibly know how much I loved that little soul. It was the first time we had ever shared anything that significant. I felt the enormity of it not bundled up in our child but in my love for him and the entirety of what the little pink mass in his arms signified. Those are memories of a whole new level. They can't be classified as simple nostalgia, because they involve so much more than a portion of our brain dedicated to remembering.


So, while nostalgia of memory may be opaque at times, nostalgia of feeling can not be. For what you feel is as true as can be, a memory of the heart that can not be diluted by time or distance. And the heart is not the brain, thank goodness. We don’t need it to be one hundred percent accurate. Because the inaccuracy is often what makes the moment most magical; what makes pain more bareable and what makes the unforgettable unforgettable.   

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