I have a tortured relationship with nostalgia that I refuse to acknowledge as tortured. For example, imagine you have in your hand a lump of half-fired clay that is supposed to represent a giraffe in the mind of your five-year-old now turned twenty-five year old. Imagine wondering if you should throw it away or merely repack it back in the box from whence it came. Imagine you turned around and I was there. You would see an expression of icy rebuke in my eyes every time you ran your hand’s over the “giraffe’s” ill-formed neck. Should you begin to talk about the how delighted your then five-year old was to present it to you twenty years ago (by way of excusing keeping it), my expression would darken accordingly. If that didn’t convince you to chuck it in the trash (and, sadly, my darkening expression never has the influence I think it should) I would speak up. “Look, throw it away. You don’t need an artifact to remind you of your child at five. You obviously remember him quite clearly. And, since you never even look at the damned thing (you keep it in a box, for god’s sake) what’s the point of keeping it? Your memories of your child are not tied up with that lump of clay, your superstition is. And its pure superstition that the loss of an object would alter a memory. In fact, if you throw it away, it would take on the idealization of pure memory, un-tempered by a visual fact. Any image that exists in memory alone is always superior to a present day image to which a memory is tied. Your daddy’s old Ford is glorious in memory—but if you saw it again it would break your heart. Throw it away! Maybe in the foggy grandeur of memory it might come to actually resemble a giraffe!”
This, to me, seems like an airtight appeal. Little memory totems always disturb me—old Christmas cards boxed for posterity, a baby’s best dress kept for the ages, a drawer full of crude drawings and homework from a bygone pre-schooling—it all makes me shudder. I can see a particularly eloquent Christmas letter being kept, a landmark scrawl on old homework, perhaps, but to keep this stuff indiscriminately bothers me to no end. But why? At first, I thought it bothered me because it was pathetic. There’s something sad, even feebleminded about keeping things out of sentimentality. But it was worse that that. I think it frightens me because it indicates a central unbearability of adulthood: the piling up of mirthless superstition to deal with loss.
Superstition may seem too strong a word for keeping a broken children’s toy or a dried corsage. But superstition seems only fitting because, obviously, there is some belief (conscious or no) that an object from the past contains the past itself. And the language of memory is all tied up in magic: “I can see it now” someone might say before retelling a cherished memory, as if a specter of the past is rising up to help them. “Yup, that takes me back” another might say while looking at the old now-abandoned diner where many a teenage night was spent musing on the future. The idea of an image or object taking someone back—even metaphorically—is magic enough. I’ve also noticed that old artifacts from the past are oftentimes—if not most of the time—tucked away in a box, a scrapbook, an inactive drawer. Somehow, just having them, without even accessing them, must be a comfort. Or, perhaps, the not-accessing is part of the superstition. Just to know that the lumpy old clay giraffe is there when you need to be “taken back” is a profound reassurance. Yet you seldom look at the giraffe because then, then, you realize that it doesn’t take you back as fully or as movingly as hoped. In fact, if I wasn’t there to interrupt you with my withering looks, and you handled the giraffe for a few minutes more, you’d soon realize that you were only transported half-back by it, only enough to remind you that you—and the god-awful giraffe—are a couple of isolates in the unyielding present. Neither one is going back. So perhaps people keep these objects, but keep them out of sight to avoid testing their magical properties, and thus being disappointed by their powerlessness. Keeping the magic of objects untapped is a way of keeping the faith in that magic intact.
Superstition itself doesn’t bother me. It’s unavoidable. Some things really do look like signs, and some days are lucky, and sometimes that something in the air just begs to be called magic. But the sad truth of adult superstition is that it is the superstition of fear, loss, and dread. Children themselves are the most superstitious among us—they might, for instance, arrange their stuffed animals in such a way that the bear is given a wide berth from the bunny so when they both spring to life after bedtime the bunny has enough room to flee. And so on. The difference between children’s superstitions and adult’s is that children believe in magic (they really think the bear and bunny come to life) while adults use superstition to preserve a magic they cannot fully believe in. Memories, and their attending objects, simply aren’t as enchanted as we would hope. So there is this delicate game, this hiding and hoarding of objects, to try and make a little magic of what is irretrievably lost. Nostalgia is a way of trying to make a potent, present day feeling make up for what we lose. “Yes, those days are gone, but at least I have these warm and wonderful memories.” But it’s not enough and we know it.
The innocence of children is beautiful, but the innocence of adults is more so, and more achingly so. To believe in the power of that giraffe—and of memory itself--is to have a profoundly stubborn naiveté. And that sad little belief, everyday shaken but never quite lost, lends adulthood a kind of pathetic sweetness, unbearable to witness, and almost unbearable to feel.
*The title of this post is an old definition of superstition. Standing still at the old memory drawer, perhaps, waiting for its magic.