If you have been around for a while, you will have a treasure trove of collected memories—stories and images that live in the recesses of our minds—units of time with which we are loath to part.
Our lives are made up of millions and millions of units of time that flow from one into the other. Some stand out, many fade. From time to time, we call up a favorite so as to relive a story for which we have a particular fondness. Sometimes memories come flying in all on their own, triggered by some wisp of something we barely perceive. A smell, a sound, a pair of old shoes or a song from the past—really anything can trigger a flood of sensory memory—and all the longing and bittersweet thoughts that come with it.
I have a recurring trigger that has to do with baseball. I have no fondness for baseball and frankly have never tried to understand the game, and yet, the sound of a baseball announcer calling the game on the radio will inevitably yank me back to the age of twelve and the gritty, sweltering streets of Chicago’s near north side. Roaming the alleys with my posse of horse wannabes, through open windows and front porch stoops I hear the crack of the bat, the cheer of the crowd and the thundering voice of Jack Brickhouse— “HE DID IT! HE DID IT! IT'S-A HOME RUN! HEY! HEY!”
I feel the summer heat rising from the sidewalk. I smell the soot in the air and see the grime on the buildings. I look down the alley behind the brick row houses at the crisscross of metal fire escapes where people sit to catch the breeze—and I am there again—my full, on-the-verge-of-puberty, twelve-year-old self. The air, dead still, is packed with lethargy and ennui. I think of Cracker Jacks and licorice wheels, Sweet Tarts and wax bottles filled with syrup. My posse and I swarm the penny candy store to fill our pockets, then, trotting back out into the street, we neigh and shake our manes, oblivious to the stares of onlookers.
Even today, riding in the car while my husband listens to a game on the radio, ”it’s a swing and a miss”, I get transported back to my twelve-year-old self and Chicago.
Another completely different trigger for me is the smell of diesel fumes. Until I became aware of how bloody toxic these fumes are, I relished this bit of sensory input as something vaguely sexy because of its association (in my mind) to Paris. Along with the iconic, dee-doo, dee-doo of speeding police cars, the honking of horns and the sound of speeding scooters echoing through narrow streets, the smell of diesel fumes sends me back to Paris where I am once again sixteen years old and eager for life and adventure.
But nostalgia isn’t just about a sentimental return to the good old days. According to recent studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, nostalgia can also foster creative expression. Our affectionate ruminating about the past can make us more open to new experiences. Nostalgia can also provide us with a sense of meaning through the connection to our past, reaffirming that we are who we’ve always been.
For me, the longing and poignancy that is evoked from looking through old pictures or reading old letters give me a positive surge. I feel recharged, ready to make more memories, excited to enter the creative flow and oddly content with myself.
I am sure you have many varied and interesting memories and memory triggers of your own. Perhaps you would like to take a moment and indulge yourself in a bit of reminiscing. I am not in a hurry so please feel free.
There was a time when nostalgia was considered a disease or mental illness that people could die from. Now we understand its benefits—by connecting us with our past, it relieves our feelings of loneliness and isolation. Indulging in a bit of nostalgia can bring people together and even help us cope with difficult times. Nostalgic reminiscing can help us regain optimism about the future.
On a less uplifting note, advertisers and marketers have also taken note of the new thinking about nostalgia. Apparently, nostalgia, much like color, is good for getting people to part with their money. So using themes from our past, our collective memories and individual nostalgia are being mined for profit. I am not sure how I feel about that.
One thing I am sure of, nostalgia has not moved me to buy season tickets to baseball games or invest in diesel futures but I am forever moved by that image of people on their front stoops in the heat of summer, heads cocked towards the sounds of baseball floating out from an open window… while a herd of adolescent girls trots down the sidewalk.