Baltimore-based poet Elizabeth Hazen reflects on the “complicated gift” of nostalgia.
When I am overwhelmed with adult life, I think of childhood days home from school with a cold, cozy in bed. My mother moves the living room TV into my room, and I spend hours watching syndicated episodes of I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched and reading Sweet Valley High. My mother brings me snacks, presses her palm to my forehead, and leaves my door open a crack so I can call her if I need anything. With my father at work and my brother at school, I bask in the rare light of her focus. My memory stops before the boredom of the afternoon, when the TV switches to talk shows and soap operas and my brother barges back home with my schoolwork, leaving me to face the prospect of tomorrow.
The power to edit separates memory from lived experience, but it does not mute the pangs of intense longing. Saturday mornings, sprawled on the shag carpet with my brother, watching He-Man and The Smurfs and Jem, shoveling cereal into my mouth. My dogged labors throughout secondary school, fueled by my belief that hard work alone ensures success. My first love and our first kiss in the chill air outside a movie theater that no longer exists. The lavender scent of my infant son’s neck as I rock him in the semi-dark.
I can’t repeat the past, but I can remember and bask in reimagining, which is mercifully free from the sharp edges and shadows I would surely encounter if I could, in fact, go back. I can scroll through photos on my phone and be transported to last summer, cruising west on old Route 66 with my son, a teenager now, just the two of us, music blaring, red rock formations, and brilliant desert sky surrounding us. I can listen to a Bowie song, and my brother is instantly beside me. I can catch the scent of irises, and I am in my childhood backyard, swaying on a tire swing and singing “Walk Like an Egyptian” to myself.
Our capacity to remember past happiness, to experience nostalgia, is a complicated gift. The term comes from two Greek words: nostos and algos—a longing to return home and the pain that goes along with this longing. And therein lies the rub: with any remembered pleasure comes a terrible sense of loss: we can’t repeat the past, no matter how vivid it returns to us in our minds; we are homesick for places that no longer exist, for people who are not coming back, for selves we cannot be again.
After dinner, my fifteen-year-old son wants to see pictures of his cat, Ferdinand, as a kitten. How old is he now? Our calculations lead us to conclude that he is well into middle age—at least nine or ten. My son can hardly believe it! How terribly fast time passes, and without warning. And what delight I see in his face—no longer a child but still so heartbreakingly young—as he scrolls through images of Ferdinand, though the true delight seems to come from the images of himself—that person he once was—the terrible haircuts, the mismatched and ill-fitting outfits, the evocative combination of familiarity and distance. I view the pictures of myself as a young mother with the same hesitant affection. Who is that woman—or really, who is that girl? What is she thinking? Does she already know that her marriage is ending? Is she worrying about money or the baby weight she still carries? Has she had her first drink of the day? Some things are better left behind, but I wish I could go back to remind that girl how soon her child will grow out of her arms, and to caution her against the impulse toward oblivion.
My son waxes nostalgic about the days before he felt stress over school and friends and the fleeting nature of time. He looks at class pictures in which he is maskless and smiling. I will never be happy like that again, he tells me.
Initially, nostalgia was considered a disorder, a form of melancholy, and indeed, dwelling too long in the past can make any of us feel depressed. The term was coined in the seventeenth century by Dr. Johannes Hoffer, a Swiss military doctor who diagnosed mercenaries fighting battles far from home.
My son’s nostalgia kick lasts for days. He asks if we can watch The Pink Panther, Scooby-Doo. We were just the two of us when we first watched these episodes, before I married my now-husband and we moved in with him and his children. We sat in the downstairs of the house that was perfect for just-us, the house that was mine, snuggled under comforters, he with the cat curled on his lap, letting me hold them both. I sit with him, my heart hurting from so much past coming back to me.
My son marvels at the cruelty of time, tells me how much he hates the way it moves so fast, the way some days are pure drudgery and all excitement and joy seem relegated to the past. What can I say to him but that there will surely be more excitement and more joy, that we all feel hopeless sometimes, that feelings—good and bad—will pass? I bite my tongue before noting that those new thrills will also pass too soon, that they will be interspersed with losses and disappointments, that human nature dictates we can’t help but revise as we look back.
Today, psychologists argue that nostalgia lifts our moods, gives us a sense of connection to the past and meaning in the present, helps us break free from brooding over loss. So long as we don’t lose ourselves in reminiscing about the past, or fixate on the loss of the past itself, memories of happy times serve us well—and after the stress and doubt of these past few years, it seems we are all more than ready to reflect on “simpler times.” Even if we can’t repeat the past, we surely can visit it in our imaginations.
I tell my son I miss those early days, too, though I say nothing about the demons I have tried to leave behind. I no longer drink, my marriage is solid, and I am beginning to acknowledge my limitations and even, some days, my strengths. I say nothing about what happens as we age, the thrill of firsts diminishing: no more first kisses, first homes, first loves, firstborns. I say nothing about the acceleration of time the older you get, the way years pass now as months once did, the way I grew older before I had time to grow up.
I tell him time is a river. We must let the current carry us, taking in what we can. To fight the current invites injury. Do what the experts say: lie on your back, protect your head, go with the flow, breathe.
Even as I write this, my phone dings with a New York Times article about nostalgia and our current inclination for bygone things. Last week, I heard a radio story about the resurgence of pop-punk music, manifesting in the When We Were Young festival. This year’s Super Bowl ads also played to our hunger for the past: Jim Carrey as The Cable Guy, Mike Myers as Austin Powers, Steve Buscemi in a bowling alley as in The Big Lebowski. And the halftime show itself was a fabulously joyful return to the late 90s, the now middle-aged artists bringing their A games to play hit songs from decades ago. And what about all the TV reboots? Just Like That (Sex and the City), Bel-Air (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Twin Peaks: The Return (Twin Peaks), and more—not to mention numerous original series from the 90s and 00s that have been streaming in vast numbers. The future brims with uncertainty and violence and harsh colors; it is no surprise that we prefer looking back.
Nostalgia is one way we cope with our powerlessness over time. That rushing river, that unidirectional force, that measure of everything we do and every version of self. Time is indifferent to us, but we are entirely in service to it. So what do I tell my son? You can’t fight time. You can’t alter its pace or make a case for why you need more of it. You can’t know how much you have. You can only move with it, learn from it, try to make peace with it.
In my inbox, I find the weekly message from Shutterfly: “Your memories from X number of years ago this week.” One click and there is my son, toothless and grinning, face smeared with sweet potato puree. There is a house I no longer inhabit, friends I no longer know, a self I no longer know, a life to which I can never return. The link, “Relive this memory,” a tempting lie.
If I really think about it, though, I must acknowledge the angst and uncertainty of my twenties and thirties, the self-destructive patterns I did not yet recognize, the insecurities that stifled my voice. My nostalgia fades ultimately into more honest reflection on the past, and I fix on what might be a lesson in all this looking back: one day, I will long for the moment I am in right now. I remind myself to pay attention, to savor what I can.
Sometimes I think that, through memory, we build armor, adding layer upon layer like expanding Russian dolls. I see my son’s face hardening, his defenses stronger, and his actions more careful and strategic than they were even a month ago. Sometimes I think the opposite; memory strips us away, like birch bark in a storm, or onion skin, revealing more vulnerable interiors. His face as the Pink Panther dumps laundry soap into the machine, the way his voice changes when he exclaims over pictures of the cat. Likely, it is both, some memories serving to strengthen us and others allowing us to let down our guards and become, if only for a moment, who we once were.
There is a certain slant of light this time of year, not quite spring but beginning to thaw, when the bare trees almost shimmer, as if the tight beginnings of buds were filled with gold. I remember mothering my young son less in image than in sensation, like the half-recollection of a pleasant dream—the ache in my breasts, the giddy fatigue, the scent of his scalp, the heft of him. I can’t repeat the past. He can’t either. None of us can. I check my inbox. I drink tea and practice breathing. I watch the world through the window, the light always shifting, but this slant of light I carry with me, and inside it that impossible hope, that green light across the bay, that beautiful, remembered lie that the past is ours to edit, that time is something we can hold, that to repeat our rosy versions of the past, we need only close our eyes.
Elizabeth Hazen is a poet and essayist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Epoch, Best American Poetry, American Literary Review, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, and other journals. She has published two collections of poetry with Alan Squire Publishing, Chaos Theories (2016) and Girls Like Us (2020). She lives in Baltimore with her family. This essay was originally published in Coachella Review.