Nostalgia is a mirage

I think it was Hemingway who said that you can't (or shouldn't) write about a place until you are no longer occupying that place, and it makes sense. You need a buffer, enough time and distance to be able to see a time in your life fully and clearly. Standing on the shore, you see the soil. Dry and parched or rich and crumbly. It's not until you push off in your little boat that the coastline slowly comes into view, and eventually the landmass you were once standing on begins to take shape. I felt like that when I lived in England, and now that I live in Canada again, I feel that way about England. So too will it be with Covid when its long shadow is behind us once and for all.

The Before Times. That's how people online started referring to the pre-pandemic era. Only major turning events warrant Before and After labels. Jesus. 9/11. At a certain point, enough months passed, and I started having dreams of the Before Times. Covid was no longer just a blip or a tremendously shitty year; it had bled into a dark blotch in our history. The ship left the shore and just kept drifting. And the Before Times shrunk in the distance. In my dreams, I'd find myself on a beach somewhere drinking dream cocktails and feeling a warm dream breeze on my skin. Nostalgia is sweet but also cruel. Especially when the people and places we miss feature prominently. At times, our dreams are so realistic they momentarily trick us into thinking we are back there, enjoying what in our waking hours is past—or in the case of loved ones—irretrievably lost.

I took some comfort in this article about nostalgia. What struck me was how skewed and inaccurate our memories can be. When people were surveyed about, say, a trip to Disneyland, they answered very differently depending on how much time had passed. While the trip was still fresh in their minds, their review was fairly balanced. They remembered how fun the rides were but remarked on the terrible wait times. They remembered how good the ice cream tasted yet complained about how the kids fought nonstop in the car. If you asked them about Disney a year or two later, they may not even mention the wait times or the fighting. It's as though the annoyances about their trip were wiped from their memory altogether. All they remembered were the highlight reels, and over time the trip acquired a lustre. Like one of those Instagram filters that make everything look perfectly smooth and dewy. But as we all know, Instagram is a lie.

The good times weren't all that good, and the bad weren't quite so bad. That's not to say we will look back on the pandemic with rose-tinted glasses, but it helps to know that this current craving for the past isn't all it's cracked up to be. Nostalgia is a mirage. A bit like the juicy burger in the commercials. That flame-broiled goodness has you salivating when you see it on screen. So, the marketing gets the better of you and you make it through the drive-thru. At long last, the burger is in your hands. You take a bite. The lettuce is limp. There's too much mayonnaise oozing out the sides. The patty is thin and lukewarm. It's alright, but it is most definitely not the burger of your dreams.

When it comes to music, I will admit to being locked in the past. I am officially one of those Old Fogeys who listens exclusively to what's now known as "classic"—the 60s, 70s, 80s, and my beloved 90s. Precious little released after the year 2000 emanates from my speakers. I couldn't name a single Bieber or Drake song if my life depended on it. (Such is my Old Fogeyness that even as I write this, I realize Drake and Bieber are probably passe and I'm blithely unaware of who has come up the ranks to replace them). I'm not crusty or snobby in my tastes, at least not consciously so. Like all the Old Fogeys who came before me, I glorify the music and movies of a bygone time. Maybe they only seem richer and sweeter because they are tangled up in nostalgia for my past, not because they are superior to anything that came after. Then again, maybe not.

As historians and spiritual leaders like to remind us, This too shall pass, and when it does there will be novelty and a newfound appreciation (probably only short-lived, mind you, because we are complacent beings) for the life we enjoyed in the Before Times. When there is a safe distance between us and the coronavirus, we will no doubt romanticize elements of the pandemic and gloss over certain hardships. There will be heroes to honour and loved ones to mourn. I guess that's an integral part of evolution. It's natural to miss people and places and to remember them in a kindly light. As long as we remember that the picture we are seeing of a particular time or place isn't the true picture but our own heavily edited and airbrushed version of it.

Have you been dreaming of the Before Times? Feeling nostalgic for anything in particular?