is nostalgia useful?

Gabe Saporta (of Midtown and Cobra Starship fame) once wrote a long post on his now purged tumblr entitled ‘nostalgia is the failure of true emotion‘. The post, which I will have to paraphrase from memory, wasn’t dissimilar in intention to the truism that “remember when?” is the lowest form of conversation. It’s not a real or immediate feeling, it’s a memory of a one. It’s a failure to live in and experience the current moment, and as such, it’s not mindful and it’s not authentic.

I’m not certain I agree with this, but I am a person who has lived the majority of her life drowning in nostalgia. I’m not sure what it is about me that makes me so achingly backwards-looking, but I only need a distance of about six months to romanticise a past that was, at the time, unbearable. In this way, nostalgia has been a curse since my early teens – I have never truly been able to appreciate the time in which I’m living because I’m always certain that other times were infinitely better.

I struggled a lot with how much I changed as I grew up. I had a bizarrely Catholic sense of my own spiritual corruption as I moved through puberty, and every extra year seemed to bring a worse version of myself. I was, admittedly, a buzzkillingly worthy adolescent at first; having been quite sheltered before starting high school, I started with the disadvantage of not really knowing how to swear, style my hair or convince people that I knew how sex worked.

After I was mercifully bullied into being less square (I don’t advocate bullying, I really don’t, but for me it was a crash course in how other people spoke and behaved, and it took a bit of the over-eager shine off me) I settled into being an averagely unhappy teenager. It’s such a drag to try and explain these things without sounding like I want a pity party, because I don’t – I don’t feel sorry for myself at all, because I think I’ve grown up okay, all things considered, but my home life was far from ideal for the first fifteen years or so, and I always had a kind of background level of depression that went completely untreated until adulthood.

From thirteen to fifteen, I was a vegan, and not one of the easygoing ones. I was an absolute self-righteous nightmare, boycotting everything I could think of and spending every weekend in Manchester picketing and leafleting whatever had been deemed the flavour of the month for outrage. I was also straight edge, which is a movement within punk and hardcore that refuses to touch alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. The fact that someone so far underage felt that this was remarkable seems strange to me now, but before this I had spent about six months knocking about with the older kids from a different school, misbehaving in parks and drinking cider from giant 4L bottles behind trees with boys, so I imagine I felt like a reformed sinner.

I’d set myself up for failure: as soon as I turned fifteen and my mother and I moved nearer to my school and friends, I gradually grew up, breaking away from the sXe movement and becoming somewhat of a tearaway. I could never compare to the golden teenager I’d been, so my typical descent into selfishness and house party attendance left me feeling very guilty a lot of the time. When I started having sex, which isn’t something I want to write about here, I spent a huge amount of time feeling very shitty about it – it took me ages to get over the natural guilt I felt when I did anything involving partying, drinking/drugs or sex, which is ridiculous considering I was sixteen and horrendously behaved.

Every single year, I felt nostalgic. I missed the friends I’d had two years before or I missed the way I looked before dairy crept back into my life or I missed the smell of a bedroom or the feeling of cold air. I was in a constant state of yearning. I was never as pretty as I had been, or as busy, or as happy. In this way, nostalgia has spoiled a lot of things for me, by being the rod with which I’ve beaten myself for years. Looking back to times when things may have been better without really remembering the fact that even in those times I was ceaselessly looking into the past has eaten so much of my ability to enjoy my life.

At the present, when my life has genuinely been pretty bad for a while, it’s impossible not to long for when I lived at home, where there was always heat and a bed and someone to look after me. It doesn’t matter that I know that I was lonely there, and depressed, and isolated: the intervening eight months have sanded it down to its best aspects – the smell of autumn, the squirrels in the garden, my room all warm and filled with candles.

I went back to this house to clean it out recently, and what I found there surprised me. Bits of paper and mementos from years ago were still in the drawers, and as I went through them, I felt a kind of positive nostalgia. The person who wrote the things I was finding was much more hopeful than me, was a lot more sincere than I am, wasn’t cynical or mean. I looked cute in photographs I didn’t like at the time. I started to realise that there was no real reason to have disliked myself so intensely at the time – I was a bit ridiculous but basically a pretty good kid.

Since I found my old writing, I’ve been consciously thinking about my past self in a different way. I haven’t been despairing that I used to be nicer, or better looking, or safer. I’ve seen the good things about myself that I’ve lost or failed to use in recent years, and in seeing them, I can learn to use them again. I can learn to be happier. I can learn to be kinder. I can learn to be hopeful and to like things again.

Signing off now with the cringey and squirm-inducing conclusion to letter I wrote to my future self at 15 (in which almost everything I hoped I’d do/be in future hadn’t come to pass – more on this later):



Author: eve

poet / phd student / activist / feminist / rat mother / owner of a bad brain

One thought on “is nostalgia useful?”

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