Journeys of any kind—physical, mental, virtual—are multilayered things. There is the experience of the present, in terms of the stimuli of the immediate; then there is the remembrance of the past, the paradigms and the vocabularies that frame the way we see and respond to these stimuli; and there is the anticipation of the future, the steps we need to take to further immerse ourselves or shift direction, along with the wondering about what it all means.
Further we are all constantly narrativizing our lives, plugging moments of existence into a storyline, imagining the way we will be read on social media, and shaping the retelling of our journeys to provide coherence to the ongoing script of the self.
Maybe the yearning for coherence and meaning forces such a perspective, and who am I to argue with that, being as culpable as anyone else in this project of self-making and self-presenting?
These past few months have been particularly poignant for me in relation to this project, having had the luxury of time and solitude to think through and about the various moments that have made up my own life—personal, professional, political. I have had the opportunity to discover new people and places and rediscover old ones, some unearthed from distant memory formed more by photographs in an album than by tangible experience.
Thanks to the indulgence of my nephew and his wife, I was able to drive through the streets of Pasadena and find my kindergarten school. Two old photographs, now lost somewhere in the detritus of multiple moves, along with the remembrance of my teacher’s name and a blurry sense of her face, are the only things that tie me to this spot. I have the vaguest memories of that first school year in this CalTech neighborhood: Mrs Nevra’s 1960s beehive hairdo, a girl called Maeve who walked with me a few times and told me never to “step on the cracks”, and the privilege of banging dusters in the backyard at recess. Yet, for some (not-so-inexplicable) reason it was important to me to find the yellow building and recover the reality of having been there, half a century ago (groan, the years, the years!).
And then, the Grand Canyon. I always said I had never been there, but that was only partly true. I could not remember having been there, despite the images in that same old photo album and my mother’s occasional references to a cross-country drive that we undertook in a blue-and-white Chevrolet in 1966. Fifty years later, a dear old friend and I spent a wonderful day riding on a bus listening to a garrulous driver-cum-guide educate us on the history-geography-culture-ecology of the Arizona desert. Apart from the warmth of really good friendship, I rediscovered bits of sandstone-etched images that were now busily acquiring a second layer of remembering-in-the-making.
|Grand Canyon, 1966|
|Grand Canyon, 2016|
Many people say that nostalgia is not only useless, it is counter-productive, particularly in political and social change projects. Reminiscing takes time and energy from what needs to be done. But we might also argue that it provides a motivation for movement, a template for where we might want to go, or a framework for what we might want to recover. Maybe, nostalgia adds meaning and perceptual depth to our personal stories. It is in the journey to recover our past that we sometimes find ourselves, and in the process are given—in a more conscious way—a means to curate our memories and reclaim (or discard) elements that give us pleasure, or that define our pain. Maybe, it allows us to map our lives in a way that redeems those of us who feel like we’ve stumbled through the maze of existence. Maybe, it gives us an appreciation for where we are now and the things we’ve lost or gained along the way.
I’m certainly not arguing for wallowing in the past. But once in a while there may be something to be learned from taking a quick detour from the present and pause at instances—and places—that can give us clues to that inner self.