There’s a house here in Troy, on the corner of Pawling and Linden Avenues that embodies all of my fond childhood Christmas memories. Now that I know better as a grown-up, it’s actually three two-family houses in a row, and every Christmas season, they would decorate all three houses with a ton of lights and festive nonsense.
That was Christmas to me. That and popcorn in tins.
Remember when popcorn tins were the damn rage? I do. We would leave it by our fireplace. It was sort of a decoration. Cheese, caramel and butter - divided in three. The butter would left untouched, obviously.
But it was mostly as my dad would turn the corner from Route 2 onto to Pawling to head down the hill to South Troy to visit family that I would know that it was really the holidays.
I would look forward to that turn in the road from the second we got in the family Mazda. That row of houses with all of their lights and plastic Santas and the reindeer that had tipped over in the wind was truly the height of Christmas beauty to me as a kid. Driving past those houses now, I see so clearly how the decorations seem to stay up all year, drooping and faded. It’s clutter, not clever.
A kid’s memory shouldn’t be trusted for love or money, and I see now how very wrong I was.
Or was I?
Even thinking back, I don’t see the house as it is now, I see it as it was in my eyes then. Actually, humph….I don’t see anything much in this memory. I feel something.
I feel a twinge of excitement to climb the stairs of my great-uncle’s house, and walk in to the warmth and music. To eat my weight in late night snacks on the big bed with my cousins watching movies. To blow on the Christmas tree’s giant lightbulbs and watch them dim - a magic trick to a kid like me, not knowing that my uncle had a dimmer switch.
It was the suspense of it all during that time of year as a kid.
There was always one moment during Christmastime, just the space between two breaths, maybe, where everything was silent - truly, truly silent - and you felt safer than you had ever in your life. My moment was that turn in the road when those houses would be so lit up, just for me.
I live for finding that space between those two breaths again.
Is my memory of how beautiful the lights were on those houses wrong? Or is it just the smudge of nostalgia at work?
The word nostalgia has a connotation of that smudge, doesn’t it? The wistful remembering of a time past.
What’s weird is that sometimes we’re nostalgic about a thing we didn’t even experience. Like the roaring 20’s. Or like “The Old South.”
It’s impressive the things we glorify when we haven’t actually lived them.
Maybe worse is the way we chase nostalgia. I’ve learned in the last year that it doesn’t necessarily take years to create that want of a feeling. It may have been one event. Maybe it’s just one feeling in one moment that changed the trajectory of who we thought we were that we laud above all reason.
I’ve had that.
One day, not too terribly long ago, I found myself in a place in my life where it felt like I was trying to run in quicksand. It was visceral. It felt as if no matter how fast I tried to run from the things in my mind chasing me down, I would just sink further, getting progressively more and more stuck in the muck.
Then something happened.
My euphoria came to me while I was standing under a streetlamp on a warm fall night with the crickets swimming along with my pulse in my ears. Euphoria showed me that the world I had been living in, up until that small moment, was colorless and wrong. It showed me, unintentionally, and probably selfishly, who I was meant to be.
Like all emotions, euphoria is fleeting, and it found shortly thereafter that it didn’t want to be with me any longer.
And of course, since that moment, I've been chasing the feeling of euphoria as if my actual life depended on it.
A few weeks later, standing alone in the same doorway where I had just felt euphoria’s mask of belonging and understanding and completeness, I was left bemused and embarrassed, the echo of euphoria’s touch reverberating in my mind.
I’ve struggled these last few months wondering why I felt so stuck - why it was that I have had such a longing for this feeling that has been long since out of my reach. And the answer came out of a friend’s mouthful of DeFazio’s pizza, “Nostalgia.”
My euphoria, the jerk that it is, turned very quickly into nostalgia on cocaine, and it seemed to take hold of me, planting me where I stood. See the thing is, it’s hard to take the next step forward, when you feel like you’re really not sure you’ve ever known how to walk. That is to say, it’s often times seemingly impossible to see the future without using the past as a GPS.
This might break your brain, but stay with me: nostalgia can make you think of the future.
I know man, I know.
Actually, John Green says just that in his book Looking for Alaska. He always has the best lines.
But think about it. We imagine scenarios for our futures based on a memory of something we’ve experienced. Maybe we saw our dream wedding on a show years ago. Maybe we know what a great date would be because of the time we passed that park a couple weeks ago driving to work.
The blurring of details in our memories, real and imagined, isn’t always for the better. Some of our brains have been conditioned more strongly to assume the worst, so our future planning based on the map of nostalgia may look more like doomsday prepping than a Pinterest board.
That’s when we treat a new relationship like the last, toxic one, because it’s all we’ve known. Or when we call ourselves names like, “Stupid” or “El Dopo” or “Fuck up” because it’s what someone who was supposed to love us unconditionally would call us, so it must be true now, right?
How can an imagination grow toward the light when it’s covered over in weeds and thorns?
So I don’t know about you, but I’m left with some questions.
How do I create a life without chasing euphoria all over the damn place, waiting for it to turn around and see me? How do I cherish my warm and fuzzy feelings about the moments from my childhood without putting them on an unrealistic pedestal? How in the hell do we construct a future that isn’t a rigid blueprint of what “should” happen?
How do we collectively make changes for the better in our communities when we’re stuck living in this grandiose inflation of a past we have not actually lived? How do we navigate ourselves and our loved ones through these rough seas without being left feeling rudderless?
How do we hang on to the love, and let go of the hurt?
Or is it that by hanging on to the good, one is forced to also hang on to the bad, because being hung is being hung?
Fine then. So how do you appreciate nostalgia without hanging your hat on it?
I don’t know either. Thankfully, that’s not my job.
But I have done some work on this in my old, old, old, wise, old, age, so let me tell you what I’ve learned:
I’ve learned that you can never trust an anxious person’s gut.
I’ve learned that nostalgia, in its Sunday best, can make us feel a sense of connection and community. And like it or not, that’s something we all crave.
I’ve learned that when you chase emotions, you’re likely to be swept away by the undercurrent - whatever that may be in your world
I’ve learned that emotions aren’t personal, but it’s their job to make you think they are
I’ve learned that nostalgia is marketed because emotions sell...no wonder we’re all stuck in the past
I've learned that trying to grasp the feelings that come with nostalgia is like trying to catch smoke in your hands.
I’ve learned that it’s ok to remember that someone once held your face in their hands and told you that you were loved, and that it’s ok to expect that it will happen again
I’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong with any of our brains when they try to live in the past. We just need to see that for what it is.
I’ve learned that no matter how much I try to recreate the perfect moment from my childhood of turning the corner on to Pawling Ave and seeing those houses lit up, it’s actually impossible to get that moment back. But it’s mine, and it’s lovely to think a kid can feel those things, isn’t it?
Maybe that’s what all this nostalgia can teach us...not that we need to chase or run from feelings in our memories, but that we’re capable of having felt at all. And there’s always hope when we can feel.
I guess I can let go of Euphoria now...it hasn’t done me any favors in months. And maybe clearing that clog out of the line with free up some bandwidth to have the clarity to feel new things.
Who knows. It’s worth a shot though.