by Jessie Lynn McMains
Anyone who knows me well—or has read enough of my writing—knows that I am the most nostalgic person, ever. To quote the character Max Belmont from the film Kicking and Screaming1: “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I reminisce about things while they’re happening.” I write lists of things and people and places I miss. One of the most frequent hashtags on my Tumblr blog is #IMissEverythingAllTheTime. I write lists of the sounds and scents, songs and objects which make me most nostalgic. I’m basically Proust, except rather than madeleine crumbs in tea, my memory triggers are, like, the sensation of glue drying on my fingertips and the opening chords of a Lawrence Arms song. I have been nostalgic since before I even had a word for it, or had anything to be nostalgic about. There are journal entries I wrote at age twelve wherein I reminisce about Ye Olde Days…when I was nine.
Some of it comes from being the sort of writer whose work is largely drawn from my own life. My literal job is to recall events from my past and describe them in various configurations of words. I have been doing so for many years, well before it was any kind of career. (I’ve kept extensive journals since age seven, and I started seriously writing about my life at about age twelve, the year I published my first zine.) But is writing about my past really nostalgia? It’s more akin to reminiscence. In reminiscence, we recollect. In nostalgia, we feel.2 Reminiscence—and writing about the past—are purposeful. When I do those things, I am trying to remember every detail of what happened when. Nostalgia is more accidental, unbidden. You hear a song, catch a whiff of a scent, feel the breeze caress you a particular way, and are hit with a memory so vivid, a feeling so intense, that it’s as though you’ve been catapulted back in time and are living that moment all over again.
Nostalgia can lead to reminiscence. Say you’re sitting in a cafe, and bite into your spinach and feta croissant. Suddenly you’re eighteen, sitting in a Greek diner with your best friend, late at night, both of you taking bites of spanakopita in between talking. Then you start trying to remember the name of the diner, where it was located, and all your other friends who hung out there.
Reminiscence can also lead to nostalgia. Say you’re drinking a lager drink, or a cider drink. You’re singing the songs that remind you of the good times, and the songs that remind you of the best times. Suddenly, you’re back there—where and when you were when you first heard those songs.
Etymologically, nostalgia comes from the Greek algos meaning “pain, grief, distress” + nostos meaning “homecoming.” For about three hundred years, it was considered a disease of the mind, a “morbid longing to return to one’s home or native country, severe homesickness…” which often inflicted soldiers and sailors, convicts, slaves, anyone torn away from their home/land.3 It wasn’t until around 1920 that the modern meaning, of “wistful yearning for the past,” came into popular usage. In the modern conception of nostalgia, the reverie may include longing for a particular place, but “the longing for a distant place necessarily involves a separation in time.”4 As Aaron Cometbus wrote: Somehow things far away make sense over distance but not over time. I wish I could get it out of my head that one can make up for the other and bridging a gap in one will bridge a gap in both, because it never does work.5 You can go home again, but when you get there, it might not look or feel so much like home.
Most modern theories of nostalgia involve a memory of/longing for a particular person, place, or event, but there is one that differs slightly. Dr. Alan R. Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation said: “Nostalgia does not relate to a specific memory, but rather to an emotional state. This idealized emotional state is framed within a past era. Idealized past emotions become displaced onto inanimate objects, sounds, smells, and tastes that were experienced concurrently with the emotions.”6
Whether or not nostalgia is related more to a nebulous emotion than a specific memory, there are various triggers. Smells and tastes (there’s that Proustian madeleine, again), old photographs, and certain emotional states are all powerful nostalgia triggers. Sound, particularly music, is another one. “…songs from adolescence and young adulthood particularly so…Experts theorize that music from this period of our lives is most strongly associated with emotional memories due to properties of the adolescent brain. The neural activity activated by a song we like, which causes the release of “feel-good chemicals” like dopamine, is activated to a greater extent between the ages of 12 and 22. That extra-intense reaction becomes associated with the events and emotions going on while the song plays.”7
Which would explain why, no matter what amazing music I discover now, I will never love new-to-me songs with the fervor I love(d) songs I first heard in my adolescence and early to mid twenties. It also explains why oldies stations are so popular.
As for emotional triggers—we’ll get back to those.
Though nostalgia was once classified as a mental illness, these days it is widely known that there are many benefits to nostalgia. People who occasionally nostalgize have a stronger, more positive self-identity, and feel more socially connected. They’re more optimistic, generous, and creative.8 Revisiting past memories and emotions—positive ones, that is—can even help inspire a more hopeful view of the future. No matter how you’re feeling in the present, being reminded of times when you were happy, or surrounded by loved ones, or accomplished something, can remind you that it is possible to feel that way again. In this way, recalling the past can actually be a future-oriented activity.
There are a few pieces of writing I’ve been working on for months. All of them are about past experiences—some unpleasant ones, and some very joyful ones. I’ve noticed that sometimes, recalling the happy memories can be more painful than recalling the sad ones.
Nostalgia is inherently bittersweet, of course, because it reminds you of change, and how rich your life has been.9 Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. And nostalgia can sometimes be more bitter than sweet.
Many years ago, lost in the suburbs of Chicago with a friend of mine, while driving around trying to find the road that would lead us back to Chicago, we started talking about ghosts. Not of the supernatural variety, but rather the kind that are memory-based. The memories of past events and places and people you once knew, which tattoo themselves on the landscapes in which you’ve lived or spent a lot of time. We talked of the places which were the most ghost-full for us. I mentioned the intersection of Clark and Belmont, and the area surrounding it. I told him it surprised me that I could still hang out there, because every corner, every bus stop, every building was haunted by my own personal specters. “But they are friendly ghosts, for the most part, and friendly ghosts are okay.” “Yes,” he said, “unless you’re already depressed.” “Right,” I replied, “because then you get even more depressed, wondering why the friendly things are ghosts now, and no longer real people and places.” That’s the rub. When recalling the bad old days, you can say: “Thank g-d that’s over.” But when it’s a memory of good times, you wonder why that person/place/moment/emotion couldn’t have stuck around just a little bit longer.
Earlier, I mentioned the external, sensory triggers of nostalgia. There are internal triggers, too. Loneliness tops the list, but grief, anxiety, sadness—just about any bad mood—can trigger a bout of nostalgizing. On top of that, chronic worriers are more prone to nostalgize, and more likely to feel depression and anxiety after nostalgizing—whether they’re remembering good times or bad. Higher levels of nostalgia are also related to a search for meaning in life.10 11
According to Svetlana Boym, author of The Future of Nostalgia, there are two types of nostalgia—restorative and reflective. Restorative nostalgia is more likely to make you feel sad. With restorative nostalgia, you may start wishing you could go back and change your past. You might regret some things you did (or those you didn’t do), and start playing the “What If” game. The “What If” game is my name for the phenomena where fond reminiscence turns into wondering what your life would be like if you’d made different decisions. You may ask yourself: “What if I had moved to that city like I said I was going to? What if I had joined that band when they asked me to? What if I had stayed with so-and-so?” And you may ask yourself: “Am I right? Am I wrong?” And you may say to yourself: “MY GOD—what have I done?!”
But even reflective nostalgia, and memories of good times and good feelings, can lead to regret, sadness, and other unpleasant emotions.
Say you’re remembering a friend you always had good times with, but the friendship ended out of the blue and you never got any real closure. That can lead to its own kind of regret. Or, say you didn’t fully appreciate a person while they were in your life, an apartment while you lived in it, a job while you had it. That can lead to regret, and sadness, and don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?12
And, since bad moods can trigger nostalgia, and some people (such as myself) are prone to feeling worse after nostalgizing, nostalgia can turn into a cycle of distress.13 Where feeling bad leads to nostalgia, which leads to sadness, and then that sadness prompts further nostalgia, and round and round we go on the most bummer carousel ever.
Much of the sadness that comes with nostalgizing has to do with falsified memories, and with comparing the past to the present. Memory is fragmented, and not entirely factual. The further away you are from when something occurred, the mistier the memory. Not to mention, every time you recall something, you are reconstructing the memory. The next time you remember it, you’re recalling what you remembered last time, rather than the event itself. And our brains like to gloss over the bad parts. It’s easy to think “those were the days of wine and roses” when they were more like the days of Mad Dog and ragweed. So the past becomes idealized, and when you compare it to the non-idealized present—well, it’s really easy to think everything was better back then.14
I don’t always look at my past with rose-colored beer goggles on. I remember the grief and hardship alongside the punk shows and the dates that went so very well. But I suppose I am prone to idealizing the past—or at least aspects of it—and then comparing the present unfavorably to it. Especially when I am unhappy or dissatisfied with my current life. I think that’s why recalling anything positive from the past has been particularly painful during the pandemic. In pre-pandemic times, I could alleviate some of that dissatisfaction and past/present comparison by planning for the future. If I was lonely, I could plan a time to hang out with my best friend. If I missed going to punk shows, I could find out the next time I could attend one. Since the pandemic started, and pretty much all the plans I did have were either canceled or postponed indefinitely, there’s been nothing for me to do but think of everything I used to have and now lack. That’s why I can reminisce about times when my life was in many ways demonstrably worse than it is now, and still want them back. “I may have been wildly depressed back then,” I think, “but at least I could hug my friends.” “I may have been desperately broke, but I had fun.” I have long had the tendency to think that [fill in the blank year or moment] was the last good time in my life, and that I will never be as happy, or live a life as interesting, as I did back then—despite all evidence to the contrary—and the pandemic has exacerbated that.
I’ll always be nostalgic. My whole life has been one long longing, I miss everything all the time, and I don’t see that ever changing. Since fighting against it is futile, there are things I do to cope. There are things I tell myself to prevent the nostalgia from taking over, becoming toxic, and causing a cycle of distress.
I try to avoid comparisons between the past and the present. When I do fall into the comparison trap, I remind myself of all the good things about my life—as it is, right now—and that one day I’ll be nostalgic for this.15 I remind myself of all the crappy thing about my life Back in the Day (whatever day I’m currently nostalgizing about). I remind myself that I can enjoy my memories without truly wanting those days back, that: Sometimes I miss those days, that’s right, you heard me—other times I could not give a damn. I remind myself that the only constant in life is that everything changes. Everything passes, the good times and bad, and also—life is rarely all good or all bad. Neither Then nor Now are Worse or Better, as a whole. They’re just different, with different struggles and different joys.
Sometimes I revisit positive things, which made me happy in the past, and reintegrate them into my life.16 There are some things I’ll never get back—friends and loved ones who have died or otherwise permanently exited my life, places that have closed down, and specific moments (because a moment will never repeat itself, not exactly). But there are plenty of things I can get back, and keep around: songs and movies, food, clothes, activities. So that band broke up years ago and I’ll never again get to see them live? I can blast their albums and dance around my room. So I can’t go to an in-person zine fest right now? I can make a zine and mail copies to all my long-distance pals. So I’ll never return to the nights when E. and I would sit in my apartment in Milwaukee, spinning endless records, eating food I’d cooked, talking about our heartaches? I can make that kalamata and artichoke pasta, or that chocolate hazelnut cake, I made us that one time.
Doing something which fulfills me right now, or making plans for the future, no matter how small, helps in general. I can take a long walk around my neighborhood, or pull out my oil pastels and draw something. I can plan a phone date with my bestie in lieu of an in-person hangout. I may not be able to go get lunch at the diner, but I can make some tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich at home.
I tell myself, over and over again: There were never any good old days—they are today, they are tomorrow. I tell myself that it’s fine to look back on the past and remind myself where I’ve been, but I can’t live there. I’ll always be prone to nostalgizing, and I’ll continue writing poems, stories, and essays based on my past experiences. But, ideally, I can live my current life in such a way that the past is just a good story, instead of a ball and chain.17
1 Kicking and Screaming (1995–not to be confused with the 2005 Will Ferrell movie of the same name) is one of my favorite films. It has so many quotable lines. Like: “Oh, I’ve been to Prague. Well, I haven’t “been to Prague” been to Prague, but I know that thing, that, “Stop shaving your armpits, read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, date a sculptor, now I know how bad American coffee is thing… “” It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video; free if you have a Prime membership.
2 Julia Layton, “How Nostalgia Works”
3 “nostalgia”, Online Etymology Dictionary
5 Aaron Cometbus, “(This Is A) Haunted Town”
6 Julia Layton, “How Nostalgia Works”
8 ibid.; Crystal Raypole, “Those Happy Golden Years: Coping with Memories That Bring More Pain Than Peace”
9 Krystine Batcho, PhD, quoted in “Why Does Nostalgia Make You Sad Sometimes?” by Cory Stieg
10 Art Markman, PhD, “Does Nostalgia Make You Happy or Sad?”
11 Another recent study suggests that purposeful nostalgia, or recollection, is more likely to make you happy than sad, because you’re more likely to recall a happy memory; whereas accidental nostalgia is more likely to make you sad. (Art Markman, PhD, ibid.) I find that theory interesting, but it does nothing to explain why, when purposefully recalling happy memories in order to write about them, I still get sad.
12 Don’t even get me started on anticipatory nostalgia, which is the thing where you can’t fully be present in the moment because you’re already thinking about how it will eventually be over and you’ll never be able to get it back. (Yeah, I’ve got issues.)
13 Crystal Raypole, “Those Happy Golden Years: Coping with Memories That Bring More Pain Than Peace”
14 On a cultural level, this kind of longing for an idealized past can be a very right-winged impulse. Think of all the people who call for a return to the “good old-fashioned values” of the past, when those values never existed the way they think they did, and/or said values made things miserable for pretty much everyone outside the dominant group. And on a personal level, it can make you an insufferable jerk—one of the kinds of people who talk about how much better/cooler things were back in your day.
15 I know that sounds like the anticipatory nostalgia I mentioned above, but it’s different. Telling myself that one day I’ll be nostalgic for this is less about mourning the moment before it has passed, and more about remembering that every moment is worth appreciating for what it is because it could one day become a fond memory.
16 If Dr. Alan R. Hirsch is correct, and nostalgia is more about a past emotion than a specific event, reintroducing things from your past may be able to trigger a similar positive emotion.
17 Aaron Cometbus, “Sprung”