The Upside of Nostalgia

Up until a few days ago, I had a rule I lived by: You can’t go home again. (Thomas Wolfe, although lots of people have the same thought: for example a more contemporary comment on nostalgia: “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now,” from the CSN classic, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”)

To me, sentimentality can be a sappy pit of self-indulgent goo. I’m not normally one to throw down a #tbt — when I pull up old photos of places I’ve haunted over the decades and the old friends I used to frequent them with, I feel like I run the risk of hitting the sorrow rather than the sweet spot… and so it’s not necessarily something I want to do, say, every single Thursday.

Coming from someone whose weekly blogging is often fueled by remember when’s, I know this sounds like a bunch of hooey. But lots of creative peeps like to pull their inspiration from feelings of loneliness, melancholy, and depression. To me, the deep abyss of longing and loss serves as an endlessly abundant well of material.

When I look at it that way.

Which I don’t think I’ll do anymore.

A few months ago, some things in my life started to shift, and instead of descending into fear and horror (my go-to “happy” place), I decided that I was just going to say yes to whatever came my way. This may sound sexy, but as a woman of a certain age, a lot of it was just offering to drive the carpool more frequently, volunteering to help with fundraisers (more on that in next week’s blog: Ask Bitch’in Suburbia: Back to School 2015), and some other random, albeit excellent, opportunities.

Coincidentally, I also wrote my Bitch’in Suburbia annual tribute to camp. It always gets a nice response, but this year it took on a life of its own, and I heard from a ton of people I’ve known and loved from my camp, and also those who knew and loved their own camp.

It was a whole goddamn shit load of campsick adults, which was a pretty awesome sight to behold.

In the thick of it, I got an email from one of my BBFs (Best Bitches Forever) and eternal counselor, saying simply: “You must come.”

The place I “had” to go was to my summer camp’s 65th reunion. But here was the rub: reunions are the ULTIMATE nostalgic minefield, and I wasn’t necessarily in the mood to get my heart blown to bits by missing people who weren’t there. Also, it had been decades since I last returned, and I knew from my online stalking that the joint had changed quite a bit under the tutelage of new owners.

And so at first I ran straight to my go-to excuses: I’m just getting back from a ginormous family trip, my kids are starting school, the dog ate my homework. All of them true (especially the one about the dogs), but ultimately pretty flimsy.

Plus when your eternal counselor says get off your ass and go, what’s an eternal camper to do?

So I said yes. And for a change, my habit of not looking back meant that agreeing to attend the reunion was something I had to move forward with and embrace.

The arrival in my hometown airport and first night sleeping at my other BBF/CIT’s house was fun and easy. Turns out people from the same backgrounds are easy to fall in step with. Which is a simplistic way of looking at it.

But then the descent into camp, where stretched before us was an explosion of new cabins, buildings, signage, and even a swimming pool (!) with a slide to rival any waterpark, was less comfortable. My security detail of the former counselor/CIT weren’t staying on-site, and I ended up being assigned to a cabin with the oldest reunion attendees — some that were there for the first few years of my early camp experience, but most of whom were long gone before my first summer.

Feeling like I had nothing in common with most of my bunkmates for the weekend, I headed out for a healing soak in the lake. The waterfront was my stomping grounds back in the day, and some of the most enjoyable years for me were when I was a swim counselor, so it made sense to start with what I knew best.

I don’t know if it was the cold water slapping me in the face, the intoxicating scent of sunscreen mixed with lake funk, or the muscle memory of childhood, but by the time I made it out to the dock, my antiquated take on nostalgia — which is term a 17th century term that combined the Greek words “nosto” (“return home”) and “algos” (“pain”) and was coined by a Swiss doctor trying to characterize soldiers’ maladies caused by homesickness — was over and out.

In fact, the same article on nostalgia where I got that bit of trivia about the roots of the word also discussed how nostalgia is a good thing. Dr. Constantine Sedikides of the University of Southampton has done pioneering research into the science of nostalgia and has found that nostalgizing alleviates things like boredom, anxiety, and loneliness, and makes for people that are generally happier, more generous, and more tolerant. It also increases feelings of belonging and connectedness, which in turn makes people more welcoming to strangers and more appreciative of their community. And in the end, when all is said and done, nostalgia helps mitigate the fear of death by making life itself much more meaningful.

I believe this also explains the elation I feel when I hear, say, the B-52’s “Rock Lobster,” Prince getting funky, James Taylor’s sweet soulful songs, The Big Man Clarence Clemons wailing on an early Springsteen track, etc.

Nostalgia, in other words, is all about hitting those notes from the past that bring us higher in the present and groove us on into a brighter future. It’s why the old camp directors who were there back in the day will always be my touchstones, and also why the young couple that now own the place are my new family.

Not that I was doing that kind of academic interpretation as I swam, sailed, ran, played, cheered, clapped, hugged, and reminisced my ass off.

And those older women in my bunk that I was sure I had nothing in common with? We stayed up to the wee hours singing songs and laughing about all the things we did at camp that filled our young lives with so much joy.

The other thing about nostalgia that the science doesn’t necessarily touch on is the transformative properties of literally going back in time. On the last day as I was walking to my bunk to pack up, I found myself heading down a very familiar path. I know that sounds poetic, but trust me — it was completely literally. I felt the gravel of the bunk line path crunch under my flip flops, heard the strains of someone cheering, smelled the clean Maine air, took one last lingering look at the lake… and was totally transported into my way younger self. (Now if I could just bottle all that, it would be bigger than Botox!)

In that moment, I realized that the bittersweet quality of reminiscing is not bitter at all — there’s honestly nothing sweeter than to indulge nostalgic moments.

When you share the same connective tissue — whether it was your camp, your school, your neighborhood, your music, your era — nostalgia is the best way to tug on the ties that bind to make sure that they’re just as strong as ever.

And trust me, they always are.

So if you see me looking back, just know that I’m just checking out the rear view mirror as I pull into the next lane of life. If you look in yours, I guarantee that what you see will be the lights of what made you who you are today and this will also be the perfect beacon to carry you on into tomorrow. So go ahead and let the past remind you of what you are not now — it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and after all, it is the essence of nostalgia. (Doo doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo doo doo…)

Photo Credit: Not to get all nostalgic on you, but this week’s blog photo was directed and shot by my BBF and camp idol, Julie Marcus. Yay Julie Yay Marcus Yay Yay Julie Marcus, Julie, Marcus, YAY!

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