Reply To: How do you experience nostalgia?

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  • Type: SiFe
  • Development: l-ll
  • Attitude: Adaptive

Is there a nostalgic experience you feel like sharing?

OK, yes, but it’s sort of lengthy…


During my early 20’s, I spent most of a year in northern Siberia, several months of which I spent teaching English in an ethnic Sakha settlement in a remote part of the arctic. Although I have considerable time in remote communities since then, I’ve never again had the same sense of existing at the periphery of the World System. Because I was in that town for only three or four months, because I’ve never been back, and because I was mostly insulated from the hardship that could accompany with day-to-day life there, my memories of it feel a bit like a cozy cocoon of anachronism. I occasionally have dreams where this place (or a stand-in for it) appears, in some form or other, as a visit to a long-lost, impossibly remote land.

The anachronism I felt while living there gave my experience tinges of nostalgia even at that time. No cellphones, no airport. A very rough dirt road led to the regional hub, two hours away. Horses & cattle roamed the streets, grazing on the bare slopes across the frozen river. I remember looking out the window and seeing a man being pulled by a horse in a sled made of logs that were lashed together, evidently a practical means of transport. When my roommates & I helped a local elder take apart & move a shed by his house, we saved all the nails we pulled, pounding them straight so they could be reused. While the settlement was moderately well-known and saw the occasional foreign visitor, it was insular enough that my presence there as an outsider, especially one who was staying there for so long, was quite notable among locals. (This didn’t generally bother me, though—I had grown up feeling like an outsider in my own culture). In the local museum, they had displays about most of the foreigners who’d visited there in the recent past.

I saw at least one significant change during the months I was there, when the school got a much faster internet connection, one that could be used on all ~10 computers in the computer lab there. Before that, only the the computer-lab teacher’s computer had internet, with an excruciatingly slow connection. I would check my e-mail once a week, eagerly awaiting correspondence from a girl I was deeply in love with…

And this brings up the subtle self-deception inherent in this, and other, nostalgic memories that I have. Even though I reminded myself, while living there, how interesting & unusual this experience was, I often felt restless. The pace of life was so slow, and my wanderlust was intense back then. As soon as I got to one place, I couldn’t wait to move on to the next adventure. I was in the midst of several years’ existential gloom & depression. And most significantly, I was consumed by deep feelings of unrequited love for someone who was not there…Instead of savoring every moment of my time in that Siberian town, I spent much of it wallowing in nostalgia for earlier months, when she & I had been together in one place, when I had distractedly frittered away my chance to make something of it. Because I couldn’t bear the pain of admitting it was too late, I concocted fantastic schemes & strategies for how I would someday bring us together, how I would show her that I loved her.

Even the nostalgia I still feel for this long-lost part my life is not wholly uncomplicated. While I do feel a lot of sentimentality about my experiences at that time, I also cannot help but feel ashamed of some of my behavior. I was immature and impetuous, and I crossed a lot of the social boundaries of my host culture & roommates. Several times I made an ass of myself while we were drinking together. When my roommates were critical or told me to do things a certain way, I would sometimes respond with defensiveness & contrarianism. I didn’t learn as much about the culture as I could have. Nothing I did was terrible, but sometimes I feel a bit like a spoiled child who lost a lot of opportunity.

This is generally true of so many past memories: while I do have a large capacity for nostalgic feelings about my past perceptions, I also have a large capacity for feeling shame & regret based on my present-day interpretations of them.


What is your personal experience of nostalgia most often like?

Most often, my personal experience of nostalgia involves reminiscing and replaying specific memories. However, the most visceral experiences of nostalgia are triggered by specific sensory experiences—especially smells—whose forgotten & unexpected qualities evoke past emotional states.

I experience nostalgia as an emotional experience more than anything else. It stems from the fact that the emotions that I feel today are different from the specific emotions that I felt 5, 10, 15 years ago. Words like anger, sadness, joy, oversimplify the actual experience of emotions, which all have specific, subjective patterns & textures to them. These emotional experiences are colored by the general moods—longer-term emotional patterns—that I experience during different episodes of my life. In turn, these moods tell the story of how I’ve reacted to all the people, places, things & ideas in my environment, leading up to that time. Moods change & evolve over time, creating subtle shifts in the way I experience emotion. It’s been nearly 20 years since I first moved to the town where I now live. But the emotions & sensibilities I have toward the town now are different than they were back then—the town & I have both traveled forward in time together around all these years, each of us gradually evolving along the way.

To a certain extent, I can relive past emotional states simply by replaying memories in my mind—and I do this a fair amount. But each time I remember these memories, they lose some of their vivacity; they gradually become more abstracted & less poignant.

However, a powerful sensory experience can cut through this fog of abstraction, making a distant memory suddenly feel intimate & palpable. For instance, a number of years ago, when I was living a rustic lifestyle, I put together a barrel-stove (a barrel-stove is a woodstove made from an empty oil drum). When I built a fire in it, I remember how the chalky, toxic smell of the burning paint brought me vividly back to when I was seven, when my parents had lit a barrel-stove they had just set up at our camp.


Do you collect keepsakes?

Memories themselves are the most important keepsakes, and I am pretty deliberate about collecting & curating them. For nearly any significant memory, I can usually remember the month & year when it occurred, even stretching far back into my childhood.

As for actual, tangible stuff, I accumulate it much more than I collect it—I’m not that deliberate about it, and I usually don’t curate. I have dusty piles of papers, art projects, etc., from when I was in school & university, which I occasionally look through, especially when I’m on some journey of self-discovery or other. Here, the purpose is as much about trying to understand who I really was back then (and by extension, who I am now) as to reminisce on those old memories. I have boxes of disheveled photographs dating back to when I was 10, and a smattering of knickknacks here & there. There are certain selected things I like to display—items that are emblematic of who I am or where I came from.

Yet as I explained above, acute nostalgia paradoxically comes from the novelty of long-forgotten sensory experience. I only get this from things that have raw, fresh or unexpected sensory qualities. An object that is openly on display in my house will be constantly traveling forward in time in constant interaction with me. Even if it’s rooted the deep past, I’ll recognize it as an evolving part of my present. In order for something to make a strongly nostalgic impression—rather than simply be part of the present-day background ambience—it has to penetrate the fog with some “new” or long-forgotten sensory quality that brings a past memory up-close & personal. Once I’ve thoroughly absorbed this sensory quality, this acute nostalgia gradually wears off.


How often do you feel nostalgia?

The intensity with which I experience nostalgia varies a lot from day-to-day and week-to-week, but I don’t see it as something that flips on & off. It’s more like present as a constant, underlying bodily memory of what’s been lost in my unceasing forward fall into the future. In this way it’s similar to how I experience a lot of other emotional states that are connected with the past (e.g. regret, resentment).

However, at times in my life when I’ve felt hopeful & optimistic about the future, nostalgia can fade far into the background. I’ve even had strong bouts of “counter-nostalgia,” especially during my youth, where I tried to outrun the sense of stagnation that nostalgia visited. Nostalgia is most powerful during times when my prevailing mood is one of gloomy, dread, like the happiest days of my life have passed, or when I can sense foreshadowing tragedy.

One more thing:

I also experience quite a bit of what I might call vicarious nostalgia…e.g. where I feel nostalgic for experiences that I myself didn’t have directly. For instance, imagining myself as having been born in the past.

Climate change is an intense source of nostalgia, both directly and vicariously. It means so many of the landscapes, environments, flora, fauna & nooks of humanity I love are vanishing or changing forever. When we occasionally get periods of unseasonably cold weather in my region (cold, at least, by recent standards), as we have had during the past year, it always feels like a blast from the past. I feel a strange mix of longing, relief & melancholy, as though I’m catching the last rays of the dying sun. I often remind myself that I may never, again, see this particular weather.

I also get intense, vicarious nostalgia from seeing old photos of landscapes I know well, because I can see how different some of them were back then, before climate change took its toll. How clear alpine meadows have filled in with brush & elfenwood. Even though I wasn’t alive when the photos were taken, it makes me feel an intense longing to participate in these landscapes as they back then, before they were defaced by the gales of global change.

Ironically, I’m also usually aware that had I been alive back then, I wouldn’t have appreciated the “unchanged” places for what they were. It would simply have been a baseline part of day-to-day life, and I would have had no awareness that I was standing on the threshold of a long process of profound, irrevocable, destructive change. But then, maybe it all wasn’t so inevitable as it now seems?

  • This reply was modified 4 months, 1 week ago by Hrafn.

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