The Stream of Nostalgia

Rugby Formal: 203,940 years ago.

Perhaps it’s because I’m heading home for the month of August, but I have been getting rather nostalgic for the last few weeks. I know that nostalgia is more common for older people, you don’t hear about a lot of ten year olds wistfully reminiscing about the time they were four, but I didn’t realize how strong it would come on at times. And what would spur it. And that sometimes I’m nostalgic about stuff that never happened to me.

In the last week a Harry Potter movie made me reminisce about the summer I was reading those books in my parents’ house. The later (darker) Harry Potter movies made me nostalgic for the earlier, lighter ones. News from home about a friend who’s health is deteriorating sent me down a rabbit hole of nostalgia centered around summers growing up, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by the community pool, learning how to throw a curve ball until the late evening dark finally settled in, playing Dungeons and Dragons on the neighbor’s porch when it rained.

But that’s not all. Last week I was nostalgic for the spring, when school was winding down and my summer holiday was still ahead of me. And a picture of two twentysomething girls blowing bubbles in a field on Spotify’s “young and free” category made me nostalgic for things I hadn’t ever experienced. Because, I know this will come as a shock, I was never a young girl in the summertime. Man, it was out of hand.

The problem with nostalgia is that it’s a siren sitting on the edge of a rock-lined coast luring you into harmless indulgence. Nostalgia has a way of editing out all of the bad memories and leaving the good ones that suggest that life was simpler, happier, and more fun.

And it’s largely bull.

A little research today tells me that there are two kinds of nostalgia, restorative and reflective. Reflective is the better of the two, and is basically when you get warm and wistful about the past but very much recognize that it is just that – the past. I get highly nostalgic about my years in Pittsburgh, and when I visit (every two years or so) I go to my old stomping grounds and relive the past for a couple of days. By the end of the weekend my liver and I are no longer on speaking terms, my sweat is pure Primanti Brothers, and I am ready to say goodbye to Pittsburgh for another two years.

A large part of reflective nostalgia is the understanding, and even happiness, that these times are over and can’t be brought back. They’re for taking out once in a while to play with, but then you put them away and get back to your life.

Restorative nostalgia is the “bad” one. It’s when you are not only wistful about the faux happiness and stress-free past, but you want to get those times back and try to relive them. Imagine the guy who sees a picture of an ex and calls her up trying to reconnect. Why? Is it for the right reasons or trying to relive a time long over?

Heraclites said that you “cannot step twice into the same stream,” and while there has been debate as to the exact interpretation, I have always seen it as a warning to those who want to relive the past. While we may be able to physically recreate those times – get back with the ex or move to the old neighborhood – everything is now completely different. I knew a guy who lived in Prague for two years and then left, only to come back about five years later. It was clear he was trying to relive the past revelry and fun he’d had as an early twentysomething working at a language school. He left Prague soon after, pretty disappointed.

The difference between a weekend trip to Pittsburgh and moving back to Prague is that at the end of my nostalgic tour of the past I return to my present.

While I am home I will no doubt be swimming in a stream of nostalgia. I will spend time with old friends and neighbors, go to the mall I spent Saturday afternoons as a kid, and let my parents spoil me rotten with comfort food. I’ll get drunk with a bunch of rugby teammates from college, enjoy our unspoken agreement to forgive every single embellishment of our past glories on the pitch , and sing rugby songs that they would throttle their kids for singing.

But when it’s over, I’m coming back to my university job, my research, my flat in Podoli, and if I’m lucky I’ll successfully leave the past where it belongs. At least until next year.




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