“I love old things. They make me sad.”
“What’s good about sad?”
“It’s happy, for deep people.”
-Sally Sparrow, Dr. Who-
…the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
I stared at the old black box with wooden paneling on the top. I pressed the buttons, knowing exactly how they would feel before I did. The numbers along the radio tuner were so familiar I closed my eyes and saw them in my mind while I ran my fingers over where they were. I could still hear the way it would sound, early in the morning before school. I still could feel the anxiety about a new day of school coming, or the occasional excitement when I was anticipating something good. I knew the clicking sound the snooze button would make, on a morning I was avoiding getting up, without even having to touch it again.
My Mom gave me my old alarm clock when I was 5 years old (though it wasn’t old then, and wood paneling was still something people insisted on putting onto appliances). She thought that I should start building up the habit of getting up early for school independently. Funny enough, my Mom could rarely hold herself back from waking me five minutes before it went off anyway. I remember how that felt too. Knowing how deeply my Mom cared while simultaneously feeling her anxiety about time and my own yearning for autonomy.
It’s funny the way one mundane object can make you feel.
I don’t actually like to feel sad. But I’ve always had this feeling well up in me that I half love half hate that inspires me more than any other that is just so very close to sad. I’ve always struggled to describe it. It’s not the main feeling you get when your dog dies, or your favorite TV show gets canceled–though those kinds of things can cause it too.
It’s a longing for a time when things were more right. More perfect. More like they are supposed to be.
I used to sit alone with my own thoughts trying to figure out exactly where this feeling was coming from and how to fix it. The feeling, if it’s something you can feel, is more like nostalgia. The way people feel when they think about the way we used to tune our TV’s with knobs, or the exact weight of the needle on a record player as you set it gently down on the vinyl. It’s the way a rotary phone or the touch tone dials feel when you dial a number that you used to call all the time. The memories you get when you make the cookies from your grandmother’s recipe and you smell that smell.
I constantly sort through feelings like this. I sat for almost an hour staring at that stupid alarm clock, knowing I wasn’t even going to plug it in again. Not all my memories around that clock are happy, exactly, but it came from a time when I wasn’t an adult. I wasn’t solely responsible for caring for myself. My worries were smaller. I did not have to take care of so many relationships, or be in charge of running the finances of a home and keeping three children alive, and hopefully, healthy and well-adjusted. It feels like it had to be better in some ways. Ok, not better. But less complicated.
Nostalgia is the sad feeling you get when you remember something happy that doesn’t exist anymore.
Did you know that all the cells in your body completely replace themselves about every 7 years? I’ve always remembered this, because it makes me think of the various versions of myself I have been. That girl, the one that used to slam the snooze button in high school to avoid getting ready for another tense day of academics I loved and social situations that made me feel queazy–that girl is gone. Every single cell that existed in her body died and was replaced years ago. All that is left are the memories which are made of neurons which copied other dying neurons. She’s a memory of a memory. I don’t even have any way of knowing how accurate what I remember about her is.
Right now I think our world is really into nostalgia. We long for times that existed before we were born. We think of ourselves as owning the past and the peoples we came from when really, all we know are stories told about stories told about stories. We actually take personal pride in the exact version of things that make us feel our own nostalgia. Maybe it’s memories of hard working people during the Great Depression. Maybe it’s members of the Greatest Generation that we Loved. Maybe it’s days when kids used to run free more. Maybe it’s the swelling in the chest at old protests or liberation movements. Maybe it’s a memory of a road that used to be in the country, but has been civilized now. Maybe it’s a neighborhood that used to be rough, but has sadly become upscale.
We take our identities from these things. What we long for is part of who we are.
But so much of it has fallen through the cracks by now. What remains was sifted out by the victorious and powerful, and if we’re occasionally lucky, true historians, artists, and dreamers trying to capture the truth.
Most people I know are trying to match the world up to some idea of rightness. Some long gone memory that things can be right, though now they are wrong. Our desire for redemption is just so strong. We may have different ideas of what that redemption looks like, different goals and ideals. But it’s there. We’re not seeking to add more random outcomes to a randomly generated universe. We look to restore and correct in a reality where everything is drifting toward entropy. Why do we do that? How many millions of decisions are made in subconsciously trying to recapture something that has long ago left us?
But the thing is, I think rightness is something to be made, not something to recapture. It’s going to be new. Not old. Maybe we are inspired by the past, but I think we are called to build a new story together. With all the siren voices calling out in anger right now over politics, theology, fundamentalism, or whatever, what if they unified to create something new, instead of trying to recapture something old?
Maybe it’s more remarkable that the cells in my body were newly generated to keep me alive than that they once all died. Maybe what we can make together in the future matters more than what we once were. Maybe knowing how universal some of what we long for is can unite us in what we will one day be glad that we did.
I set up my old clock in the basement, for now. It tells time to the spiders and mice, and me occasionally when I’m sifting through piles of old junk. Smelling. Smiling. Remembering. It’s worth something, the sad joy of memory, for sure. But I think it’s a small part of building up what is to come.
And one day, I will be nostalgic for now. For baby clothes and bruised knees. For piggy back rides and little boy giggles. For late night feedings and falling into bed exhausted.
And the truly odd thing is, thinking of that makes me feel that same longing for what I DO have right now. And for what is coming. And it makes me think that longing for the same things, all of us together, is not such a crazy dream.