on nostalgia

I recently took it upon myself to find something in my room. This experience has always proved a little hazardous, somewhat akin to sleepwalking: I know somewhere in my mind there is a reason for doing it, but I always find myself shocked at where I actually end up. So when I attempt to find an arm splint for an achy wrist or some functional pens, I instead find myself elbow-deep in memories of old math notes, English papers and history notebooks vandalized by doodles of screaming cubes. And in the timespan it takes to write two sentences, I forget my original purpose and become sidelined by nostalgia.

Despite how boring it must sound to peruse old math notes, what comes as the greatest shock to me is that what was once the tedious experience of copying down equations, the apparent boredom of doodling or the struggle to write, becomes illumined by hindsight and rays of everyday beauty. Case in point: I once felt tears in my eyes at the sight of cubes I had drawn on a poem I had analyzed in an English class. It was not because I am just a sentimental slob — which I am — but because I again saw my hand brush against the paper, my pen create the cubes, and I was aware that however bored I was in that moment, however tedious my life seemed right then, that the time it took to make those cubes was a reminder of the limited time I had on Earth. That even though I may fall into asking Daisy Buchanan’s question from “The Great Gatsby”: “What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon, and the day after that, and the next thirty years?”, I know that the next 30 years will come and go, and at the end, I will wonder what happened to them.

Whenever these moments happen — whenever I am unexpectedly presented with the past — I am reminded of Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, “Speak, Memory.” What always struck me about it was that Nabokov, while he pays homage to facts and dates, seems to view his life in a magical way. His writing is gorgeous, his descriptions of childhood laden with the sense that he lived in a fairy tale. It all seems so natural, a far cry from the objectivity of history texts. Nabokov, instead, delves into the sensuousness of his memories; he transcends the tedium, the undoubtedly unmagical moments, and seems to know that the difference between what actually happened and how it appears in hindsight to him is really inconsequential.

That last notion is the reason I can tear up at a drawing of cubes or at the sight of my old English assignments. It is the reason that even as I watch sophomores panic over their AP World History assignments and tell them that it all does not really matter, I feel a twinge of nostalgia; even as I say that it was all just hard work that never really went anywhere, I look back with a sense of fondness and remember the laughs I had in that class and the sense of camaraderie with my classmates. I find I can look back on all of high school in the same way, subconsciously glossing over the stress and negative aspects and remembering it for the magical moments it contained. It is always strangely satisfying when I cannot find what I was looking for in my room, because reveling in the human ability to imbue the ordinary past with magic is enough for me.

by Jennifer Grundman