Putting nostalgia in its place

Cowboy haunts

Over the past week we’ve been travelling through landscapes which acted as backdrops for my childhood dreams. The canyons here in Colorado and Utah, the wildish west, are adventurous tales brought to life. The vulture monitored ravines that once harboured black hatted, unshaven gangs, are now a sanctuary for the ghosts of their notorious deeds. They make it so easy to slip back into the imaginary world of the eight year old boy or tom boy, casting a wary eye over the crevices and ravines, and stretching the fingers on gun hand. But it’s not just gunslinger territory. Scattered amongst the seismically ruptured landscapes are the physical evidence of dinosaurs, dream feeders for all us overly imaginative kids that wished for dragons, but were willing to settle for thunder lizards. All I needed was a couple of jawas and I’d have encountered the holy trinity of my childhood.

Nostalgia is an incredibly effective editor of our past, triggered by our senses and our emotional states. I’ve found it is at its best when unprovoked. Hearing “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and being drawn back to a long hot summer mowing lawns, attempting to accelerate mullet growth through sheer will power, and scamming beers from liquor stores. When I try to engage nostalgia on command, the results are usually underwhelming. Introducing a younger girlfriend to The Dark Crystal was seven levels of uncomfortable. At its lightest it is pleasant, fuzzy recollection, accompanied my a half grin and a half stare back at a version of the past. But it can also be a powerful distraction, thanks to our memory’s ability to summarise chunks of our past in the same way a movie studio makes a film trailer. Take the highlights, the most evocative shots, the funniest lines, the flash of half-nudity, and add a stirring two minute soundtrack. The highlights of old relationships, road trips with the boys/girls, and your first gig, are recalled with 92% higher frequency than the negatives. Probably.

I think there are problems though when we begin to yearn for the past with more passion than we can muster for creating a fulfilling future. I remember being told that my high school years were going to be the best of my life, and I am so glad that this wasn’t the case. If that’s actually true for anybody, what the fuck happened? Did they take their foot off the fun pedal the day they left the prefabricated classrooms, arbitrary rules, and inadequately enforced stress on conformity? Did the responsibility of making their own decisions, and owning their own failures take the sheen off the rest of their lives? Most of the fundamentals of who we’re to be, are decided by the first seven years. And then I swear I learnt so much more of life well beyond my teenage years. The thirteen to eighteen year stretch was a volatile time, decisions magnified by hormones, choices made with too much consideration, or none at all. They were days spent combating insecurities with bravado, then watching the bravado wilt, crushed by one harsh comment from a teenage witch.

Another powerful nostalgic diversion is that pseudo romantic favourite, lost love. An entire relationship can have its defining memories drawn from the few sublime punctuating moments, rather than the seemingly endless low-on-passion, high-on-drudgery hours/months/years that drew you towards a tearful/noisy/embarrassing conclusion. If I’ve been having troubles in a relationship I admit at times I’d get teary eyed reflecting on prior romances with piss poor recollection. “It was so much easier with [name omitted to protect the innocent], maybe we should never have split up…” Of course if you then mix in two jugs of ale and a functioning mobile phone, Queen Nostalgia’s destructive powers are revealed. Then again, one of the quickest ways to correct any misconceptions over why you split up with your ex, is to call him/her at 2:00am, drunk, and ask them for an explanation.

If we tie ourselves up  too much in what has been, or what could be, we will lose momentum, we become less dynamic, less capable of making decisions at least partially informed by instinct. And I’ll happily invent a statistic that reveals that if we’re in a state to listen to our “heart” or “instinct”, or “Women’s intuition”, then the resulting decisions are considerably more likely to be super positive. We can’t recapture our youth, our first loves, the thrill of that first stage dive. We can though retain our youthfulness, have the courage to leave a destructive relationship for the right reasons, and relearn how to listen to hearts in order to discern how we should move forward. And never stop crowd surfing. Ever.

Nostalgia has its place, ideally behind me when making decisions, but leap frogging to the present to remind me that my life’s been blessed by many astounding moments, beautiful friendships and roller coaster relationships. Of course that won’t stop me scouring thrift stores today for cowboy boots and ten gallon hats, in preparation for a foray into “The Badlands”, South Dakota…

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