Thoughts on… nostalgia

Image via Lis Bokt's Flickr photostream

In the early 1990s, UK schools didn’t have many of the traditions we saw in the movies – proms, yearbooks etc – but some of my fellow students decided that they wanted to change this. Sadly, not enough people brought in the cash that was needed to produce an official yearbook, and so I took up the challenge of creating one for myself. I printed out questionnaires for my friends, stockpiled photographs and purchased a hardback book to stick everything in. I wanted the book to help me remember the people I knew and the experiences I had when I was 18 years old. I wanted to look back and remember those happy times and funny moments in great detail.

I traced, amended and hand coloured the front cover, wrote an introduction and slowly pieced all my content together. This was before the internet allowed for the easy production of such books, and so scissors, glue and sticky-backed plastic were my friends. Once completed, the book was a glorious collection of memories that I hoped would live forever. I flicked through it lovingly that summer, and then tucked it away in a box under my bed as part of a ‘time capsule’ that I would open up every time I moved house. I would flick through the pages which reminded me of my school friends, lessons, exams and weekend job. Every time it would bring a smile to my face and remind me of happy times. But now, this feeling is fading. Every time I find the book again, it means less to me.

Last time I moved house, I discovered the yearbook when I was opening boxes and deciding what to keep. This time, when I looked back at how my life was 19 years previously, I didn’t feel a desire to know. The memories associated with those photographs and scribblings have faded so much that the emotional connection is almost gone. This may seem like a sad thing in a society so obsessed with nostalgia, but I don’t think it’s bad at all. I’m looking forward far more than I am looking back these days, and I don’t really remember the girl I was back then. She didn’t recognise that there were lessons to be learnt, other than the ones on her timetable. It was the woman I became after those years who now means more to me. The woman whose life was shaped by art college and university. The woman who kept taking jobs until something ‘fitted’. The woman who followed her heart.

My heart tells me now that all I need to remember of my school days is stored perfectly well by my brain. Although I still love keeping photographs, there’s not much else that is essential to hold on to from the past. I have a box of keepsakes, the contents of which get whittled down every now and again, but I’m keen to throw out more stuff than I save these days. In a digital world, we don’t really need to keep much physical stuff these days, but I’m even in favour of having a clearout on sites like Facebook too. Why live in the past? A character in one of my favourite 90s movies, Strange Days, said to her friend who kept torturing himself footage of his ex-girlfriend: “Memories are meant to fade. They’re designed that way for a reason”. I think she was right. We shouldn’t use nostalgia as a way to get so caught up in the past that we neglect the present and the future. Looking back a good thing to do once in a while, to gain some perspective, but it needs to be kept in its place.

A version of this post first appeared on the (now closed) website keepsake-magazine.com back in 2012. Image via Lis Bokt‘s Flickr photostream.

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