Of all the mind’s tricks, nostalgia may be the most bittersweet and poignant. It’s that mechanism that brings you back to the past, swings you to the present, and projects you toward the future–all in one moment. It’s a sentimental, homesick hurt.
This past summer, I posted a blog about a musician and good friend of mine, Mr. Will Phalen. In it, I wrote how Will and I once discussed how sound–nothing more than physical vibrations–can produce emotion in the listener. I never came to an answer in that post, and, I’ll be honest, I still don’t have one. But I can live with that. I’ll consider it one of those phenomena that’s better enjoyed than analyzed.
Willy played a show last night at the Memorial Union, the place where we met and worked 7 years ago, and the scene of many crimes. I saw faces I haven’t seen since, and we talked about things that adults supposedly talk about: jobs, marriage, being older than before.
I sat in the back of the room and listened to Will play a song about the passage of time. The music was right, the setting was ideal, and I didn’t want it to end. Wrapped in that song, I was transported, note by note, to a time when all I needed was the beer in front of me. A time when the future looked easy. But in that same moment, I felt a profound sadness, a realization that everything passes, no matter how much we’d like to hang on.
I remembered of an episode of Mad Men, when the main character makes an advertising pitch to Kodak’s businessmen. In it, Don Draper appeals to the sentimental attachment we form with objects, and defines the root of the word nostalgia. Although Don was a bit off the mark with the translation, his point was profound. In Greek, nostalgia is a combination of “pain” and “returning home.” It was perhaps the most moving scene I’ve ever seen on TV:
“Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent…It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forward. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called a wheel. It’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we were loved.”
But I also realized that nostalgia, as powerful as it seems, is nothing more than an illusion. We feel this longing for a time when everything was perfect, when all our needs were met. Yet, ideals aren’t reality–they can never exist. Life was never perfect, contrary to what our minds tell us, and it never will be. There will be failure and bills and all the bloody, mundane messes that adult existence carries. But without the petty, the grey, the day-to-day–and now we’re dabbling in platitudes–I could never fully appreciate those moments that are truly worth remembering.
With that, I stopped thinking and just let Will play his music. I listened, I didn’t try to hold on, and damned if I didn’t enjoy it all the more. If music’s a nostalgia-vehicle, I don’t want to control it. For me it’s better to enjoy the song, let it end, and wait for the next one. There will always be another song…until there won’t be. And when that happens, I’ll have to be OK with that too.
So, Will, on behalf of my past, present and future self, I’d like to thank you for coming to town last night. It was great to see you, and you’ve given me more than some damn fine music to appreciate.
Click below to listen to Will Phalen’s “Suddenly”