While we all regularly fall prey to nostalgia, I suggest we should steer clear. To prove it, I’ve uncovered a pile of grating poetry I wrote as a youth.
Nostalgia is often the undoing of my most idealistic plans for my life. As Catherine Aird once said, “If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” We’ve all fallen prey to nostalgia. It operates in the same way as stories of maniacal Scottish fairies. They offer a magical solution to all your problems, only for you to find that you have pretty much agreed to a kick in the nuts.
That magic played on me as soon as I agreed to write my thoughts on the nature of nostalgia. I’d like to dismantle the intoxicating power, inherent in the “grass is always greener” perspective, that it often has over me. Unfortunately, I will have to break one of the cardinal rules of writing – if you doth protest too much that something is not important, that it has no power over you, then why mention it at all? Does writing it up only reinforce its strength?
It is too late for me. I am resolved to struggle with these particular demons for your entertainment and perhaps to find your own resonance. I’ve often come to some resolution after dissecting these things and, particularly (to continue the metaphor) when the dissection has turned out to reveal that I am picking through the guts of a harmless frog and not a wolf.
I often use the phrase “humiliation is the most eternal emotion” and even as I plot out the approach to this article, that emotion has me squeezing my eyes closed and twisting my neck. It is impossible to turn away from a memory, however, so how about we both stare straight at it; the hot, steaming guts of teenage poetry.
Poetry is often blamed as the safe house of nostalgia. It is where teen angst goes to establish relevance. It is what I wrote to my girlfriend in year 11, only to have the page stolen from the bag of said girlfriend and read out loud in the playground in front of a group of bullies. Poetry was the place that I often went to record a whole series of emotions and revelations about life that felt so strong at the time, I was sure their truths would prove timeless. I have kept my old poetry. Reading it is the only way to invoke nausea-inducing embarrassment without having anyone else present. I often see those pieces as a waste because I am sure that the raw insight of being a naïve and anxious young man was lost forever behind my desperate scramble to articulate grand ideas and morals.
These days, poetry is something I use to get underneath the core of my own desire for melodrama while indulging it at the same time. How often have you made stupid decisions guided by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia? I have found poetry helps spoil the fairy spell. You can’t send a text message to an old ex-girlfriend when you have written down:
“This poem slowed to a halt without her.
I looked around, asked friends where I was
But they had heard it before
And were tired of pointing in the same direction.”
I recommend it as a great way of validating your most raw of emotions while slapping yourself in a way that even your closest friends can’t.
Life is both visceral and mundane. Nostalgia occurs when the former burns into long-term memory and the latter naturally fades. My most recent example of how nostalgia destroyed romance involved the summer holiday destination. The place where I put my shaking hand down the pants of a girl for the first time, where long stretches of boredom had me fishing for thrashing teethy eels, and where parties near the beach involved the smell of fire and ash and my breath stinking of goon. This place for me was Kiama, a quiet town on the South Coast of NSW where I learnt to surf, lost weight, bronzed up and worked out that I wasn’t an unlikeable piece of shit.
After not having visited in well over a decade, in the space of about three years I went back on three separate occasions. On the third visit, I experienced the most horrible sinking feeling in my gut that was not unlike grief. I was in a shitty hotel room looking over the beach, it was drizzling and there were no waves, and I was suddenly, acutely aware that I was pursuing an ideal past that was well and truly gone.
I had visited on my own to reflect on those halcyon days and realised that that was useless without the people who had shared them with me, that my memories were an intersection of circumstances and people and age and wonder, and that was dead and rotting, and I was desperately giving it mouth to mouth.
As you can probably guess I wrote a poem about the experience. Which includes the lines:
“I love a coastal, country town
Where your deity can be a binge drinker
Passed out on the shore.”
The deity here is nostalgia, a half-drowned fairy god whose power was more to do with intoxicating his subjects with blissfully distorted recollection than providing any substance. The reality confronted, the god became as pitiful as one of those helpless locals who fall prey to their own poor capacity for self-control. An alcoholic passed out on the beach with the tide rising.
Thinking more about the nostalgia of the summer holiday destination, I assume some of the power rises from it being of a time before responsibility, and that indulging in the memory of it is a release from the current stranglehold of obligations that being an adult inflicts. When that god of mine “passed out on the shore” it left me with that sinking feeling that there was no complete escape I was willing to follow. Fortunately, that brought me to the conclusion that I don’t actually want to escape from the life I’ve made. I just wanted a break, some time off to reflect. I needed to say to myself that everything is going to be alright, that it only hurts when you struggle so hard. It’s one of those moments where your inner child is just chucking a tantrum about having to do the washing up and it needs some fucking discipline and not a gentle hand.
The last few lines of the poem gave me the resolution I was looking for:
“Memories came easily, bobbing over swell
The breath of a god slumbering.
I let him rest, the former dictator
Who had run me out of the city.
After all, he had spent so long
Taking on such a petty form.”
Nostalgia is a petty asshole when it is revered, but when it is considered in balance with reality it can be a living monument that helps you make better decisions. Choices like “go on more beachside holidays, you’re overworked, you dickhead.”