Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Wonder Why Wednesday - Nostalgia

So I'm going to Sweet Home Chicago this week, and since going there always involves what basically amounts to a giant Nostalgia Fest, it got me wondering about how nostalgia works in different people.

Growing up there was a singular experience, and very subjective, because it's such a huge place. (I think it's almost impossible to comprehend how big it is unless you've lived there yourself - it's just referred to by most folks as "the City" anywhere within probably a 100 mile radius.) It's not like growing up in a small town, where there are limited things to do and you know you'll pretty much see the same people every day of your life, or at least can almost assuredly count on seeing the same people at the Dairy Queen on a hot Sunday afternoon. Instead it's like 400 or so communities all jammed together, all existing at the same time, almost oblivious of each other. You can cross a street in Chicago and pass from luxury and mansions to a series of dangerous streets...and never the twain shall meet.

My experience was more observant than participatory, I think. I looked, I listened, I made note whether intentional or not. When someone got in a fight, if I was there I absorbed the details and could probably, if pressed, still tell you who was involved to this day, whereas the participants have probably long since forgotten. When I went to someone's house, I ended up with a mental image of the layout and a lot of the details; that house might even be gone, but I remember it clearly as it was when I was there.

So today's Wonder Why asks the question... Does being an observer make you more nostalgic than being an active participant? Or is it the *reason* you were an observer that presses those things into memory?

Don't get me wrong, I certainly did my fair share of involving myself, but I was fairly shy (true!) and slow to trust that I was accepted into any group I happened to be hanging with... and I hung with some seriously weird/outer-edge type folks, so you'd think I would just fall right in line with them, but I was intimidated by their cool and seemingly easy demeanor. I managed to get by, dorkdom contained (mostly), but even now I look back and am still deeply embarrassed/excited/sad/thrilled about this and that, even though I know that nobody but me remembers.

The fact of my self-conciousness and being assured of my own misfittery (woo, new word day!) was that when I *was* made a part of something, I remembered it. Completely. Sad? Maybe. But unavoidable.

The pitfall with being a careful observer, however, the one who could write the book, is that I remember things a certain way, and thus frozen in a particular time, and so that nostalgia makes visiting home sometimes disappointing, often downright disorienting.

For example, I remember a coffee shop we used to go to... and that's that. I *remember* it. Driving by where it was today is like seeing two images at once; I see the new facade, but I also see the big glass windows in front, with the raised platforms with tables sitting in them, weird art on the walls, cigarette smoke wafting here and there... I even remember what the bathroom looked like and where it was (back left corner). I even see myself, superimposed, talking to this friend, making googoo eyes at that boy. It was 20 years ago, I mean come on!

Occasionally, if you share a memory with someone with whom you maybe shared one of these events, you might find that they will almost have no memory of it at all, and will think you're making it up/insane/a stalker. (Unless you've got a friend who also was a careful observer, like my friend Nova... we remember things nobody else does, and occassionally laugh like complete loons when remembering them in front of mere participants, who think we're nuts.)

I remember people's houses, I remember where their rooms were and what was in them. I remember things they said, questions they asked me, things they wore. I would never *say* any of these things to them, because they'd think it was totally bizarre and creepy (I would too, in their shoes).

I found that for several years after high school and that crazy life I had led during it, I would be really sad after visiting a place I used to go. I would miss those moments so fiercely, and having nothing to touch to remind myself of them anymore would hurt.

It took some learning, but I've finally found a happy medium in the last 15 years or so; it helped that my life altered completely during that long time, but the key was not trying to recreate those times by visiting the places they happened. Instead, I settle for rolling film while drifting off to sleep at night and sticking with old addage "Don't be sad it's over, be glad it happened". I don't try to be that person I was so long ago (for one thing, I could never pull off the shaved head now, and anyway the blue lipstick just wouldn't work in a business setting), but I remember her fondly.

So how about you? Do you find yourself wondering where *your* hometown went, even when you're standing in the middle of it?


ledwards said...

I sometimes feel that way, since I still live in Milwaukee, it feels like I know more about this place then anywhere else(besides Chicago).
I wish I could just up and go someplace new and totally start over. But that would involve money that I don't have now.
But who knows what the future holds, I just want to get through today.

Julie said...

Jaime - new blog for you to see