The other day, a man doused in the cologne favored by every member of Sigma Phi Epsilon at Cal Poly University in 2007 walked past me on Houston Street. I was en route to the F train in Manhattan when my nose clocked it, and then I was standing at the sticky kitchen counter of a frat house in San Luis Obispo, holding a shot glass in my hand, nervous to take it. This flashback struck me like a lightning bolt, and before I could properly observe it, it was gone.
Back on the urine-stained streets of New York, I tried to reconstruct it. I imagined the cracks in the formica countertop, the taste of the cheap vodka, the low ceiling I could graze with my fingertips when I danced. The sense memory opened up an emotional chasm I couldn’t help but explore. I considered who I was at 18, how excited I’d felt to be a part of something regardless of what that something was, my belief that the right calculation of feigned irreverence and as few calories as possible could prove I was worth some guy’s attention. It all sounds kind of bad, doesn’t it? I missed it anyway, at least for a second, and with just the right amount of remove demanded by such an emotion.
My relationship with my memory might be my most dubious. As much as I cherish it, I also use it to construct simplified ideas about who I once was and how I once felt. I compartmentalize it and then piece it back together in whatever arrangement suits my chosen narrative (I was happy. I was inspired. I was broken). I completely ignore it and then I remember it all at once and despair that time is linear. I hate that I forget. I mistake new context for former wisdom and fool myself into thinking I could have known. I’m even doing it now.
Constantly documenting my life is an important part of this house of cards. I feverishly record my present so that one day I can return to it and hit it like a drug. I’ll listen to previously loved albums, read old diary entries, watch old videos and revel in how painfully far away they seem. How different I feel; how tragic that is. I thirst for growth and change and then turn around and mourn the versions of my life and self I clamored to escape. I indulge my memories like a junky. Reliving them with the knowledge of how it all turned out is too pleasurable to resist.
Nostalgia — comprised of the Greek words nóstos, meaning “homecoming,” and álgos, meaning “pain” — is the emo music of the mind. It’s proof of our ability to cut away the ambiguities of the past and fool ourselves into thinking that we could have done things differently: accepted ourselves, appreciated things, realized sooner. It’s the reason that “Enjoy it while you can!” is the enduring advice offered to kids, college students, pregnant women, new parents, young professionals and honeymooners despite it existing in direct opposition to the complex emotional spectrum a good life requires and is defined by. It’s why youth is wasted on the young. We can’t separate what we know now from what we knew then; it’s all a mixed up mush.
Recently, while standing in line for coffee, I tried to beat the system. I took stock of my surroundings — the smell of my local coffee shop, the things I’d pondered while walking there from my apartment — and attempted to apply the sheen of memory to it. I imagined some future version of myself hearing my current favorite song and experiencing that heady mix of pleasure and sorrow. I imagined wishing I could tell myself how good I have it or how misguided I am or how much I have to learn. It didn’t work — it never does, not really. Only the passage of time can give my life the rose-colored packaging that makes it feel so safe in hindsight. Memories are appealing that way: they’re contained, they’re over, all the uncertainty has been rubbed away.
I’ve long equated the hoarding of memories with the collection of wisdom. Perhaps that’s why nothing makes me panic like the thought of forgetting my life, and why a particularly poignant memory can make my stomach drop with the weight of loss realized. But how wise is it, really, to wade around in something falsely sanitized? It’s not like I want to go back, so what if I just let myself move on? Would I still be me?
In 2016, Tavi Gevinson wrote about a period during which she experimented with not documenting her life. Instead of her typical recording and appraising, she simply let things play out in real-time. “It’s gotten shockingly effortless to live in Infinity,” she wrote, “and trust that I’ll retain what I need to later, and if not, accept the price of a life fully lived.”
I found that upshot jarring and, ironically enough, never forgot it. Because at the time, I’d never considered that I could just let important experiences pass through me like a deep breath, that doing so might even be healthy or natural. The idea still unsettles me two years later, but when I consider that my past exists within me — in how I think, behave, feel, perceive — without me recalling the specifics, my need to revisit it points to something more compulsive. More ego-driven, or maybe just escapist.
In an era when nostalgia is being commodified and even weaponized, that’s a lesson worth remembering. Reveling in the past can be cathartic, surprising and disarming, but it’s ultimately just daydreaming. Maybe it’s wisest to remember it brought us where we are for a reason.
Gif by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.