Sweet nostalgia

Recently and unexpectedly,  I found myself down in Dallas with a couple of hours to kill.  Having rented a car, but needing to be back at the airport shortly, I had just enough time to drive to my alma mater on the other side of town, take a quick look around, and hurry back.  I had books with me, and restaurants and shopping were closer by.  I could have just stuck around.  But I could not resist the sweet, gravitational pull of nostalgia.

Coming up on five years ago, I graduated from law school at SMU.  For those of you that know me, yes, I am at least as shocked as you are: (1) that they let me in, and (2) that I somehow managed to make it out.  This was not fun.  In fact, these probably represent the hands down least fun three years of my life.  But going back, it was almost sweet.  With the benefit of hindsight, I am almost to the point that I can see it as worthwhile.

Law school was hard.  Is hard.  For anyone considering it, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Going back was not like returning to your family’s summer cabin and being flooded with warm, happy memories.  It was more like returning to the scene of some tragedy, and realizing how much you have overcome.  You feel good and happy, not because it conjures good memories, but largely because you are so relieved that that is not your life anymore.  You don’t have to be there.  You don’t have exams that you should be studying for, you aren’t going to be asked a question you don’t know the answer to, you’re not going to be at the library until it closes, for the 5th night that week, trying to learn something that makes no sense and you will never use in your actual practice.

I first drove to this burrito place near our old apartment.  The prices had gone up a little, and I didn’t recognize any of the employees, but it still felt familiar.  I then drove to our first apartment, then our second.  It was like I had never left.  Countless hours, days, weeks, three years spent there.  It made me happy, if only to confirm that those years existed.  Were real.  Because you forget.  Sometimes you feel like you are only you here, now, with no past or future.  Context can be comforting.

Then I drove over to the school.  Parked in the parking garage where I always used to park.  Walked across the street I had walked across thousands of times.  The law school is made up of four buildings facing each other, with a columned monument in the middle (I believe it is technically called a cenotaph, whatever that means).  As I rounded the corner of the first building, I was overwhelmed.  It was like traveling in a time machine, being in two places, two times, two people at once.  I was me, now, but also me, then, 8 years younger/less experienced/more naive.  It is a bittersweet feeling, but I love that feeling.  It made me feel very alive.

A few of the buildings were open, and I went inside.  Things were so the same (the smells, the sights, the doors, the air, the feeling) I could barely stand it.  In one of the bathrooms, if you look on the tiled walls, there are messages written in the grout: “Groutcho Marks,” “Grout it out,” “Grout!…a little bit louder now,” and my favorite “Grout Expectations.”  I am sure these messages get painted over or whited out every year, probably several times a year.  And yet, there they were again.  A new generation.  Different students, different people, years apart.  But some things never change.

I went into one of the classrooms where I had taken several classes.  No one else was in the building, in the law school, even on campus, as far as I could tell.  Just empty seats, a blank whiteboard.  I took a blue marker and wrote: “It will get easier, it will be worth it…I promise!”  Because it does.  And it will.

Last night, back in town, we took my six year old up for orientation.  Even being at that school, a school I never attended and, in fact, had never even been to, I felt something remarkably like nostalgia too.  I feel like I miss school, part of me wishes that I was going into first grade.  But I can’t pin down whether it is “thank goodness I am over that tragic period” nostalgia, “I miss my childhood” nostalgia, or “summer cabin” nostalgia (that last one is figurative; we have no summer cabin; the closest thing would be a string of nameless motels over countless summers; it seemed like we were moving every summer; we moved instead of vacation).

What makes you nostalgic?  Where would you visit if you could?  What do you miss?

3 thoughts on “Sweet nostalgia

  1. I’ve been listening to a series of lectures about JRR Tolkien, given by a professor of medieval literature. He actually talks a lot about nostalgia in Tolkien’s work and goes into the etymology quite a bit.

    One thing jumped out at me–you cannot be nostalgiac for a place that you can actually get back to. According to this linguistics master, the yearning to go back to somewhere you can actually still visit falls under another category.

    I’ve spent the day today in Denver looking at old pictures of myself and my family. I am nostalgiac for the kid in those photos who had no idea how tough life can be. He didn’t get it.

  2. So, because you can never “go back to” being that kid again, this represents a true nostalgia? That makes sense. For me as well, it’s not the place of Dallas or even the law school campus that makes me nostalgic. It’s the unknown and the kid I was and the hopes and fears and ambitions he had. The location conjures these impressions, but it is not the place, it is the memories visiting the place evokes. If I woke up tomorrow and was that kid again, with law school still ahead of me, that would not be pleasant. But there is some joy in looking back.

  3. It also made me think about how, sometimes, when you go back to a place that you have not been in a long time, especially if the last time you went you were very young, it seems to have changed completely. If you were physically smaller, I guess this makes sense, as your perspective and vantage has changed. And places change, too. Buildings are built. Buildings are knocked down. Plants mature. Seasons change. Things get older. But sometimes (and this reminds me of what you said about telling stories in your keynote address) the memory you have is probably not based on any version of the place as it actually ever existed, but your memory of a memory of a memory. It reminds me of the game telephone, only you are only playing with yourself, and only conveying the message in your mind. But there is the place, as it is, and that makes an immediate impression. And then the next time you remember it, your mind tweaks it a little (maybe the trees are a little bit taller, maybe the grass is a little bit greener, maybe the buildings are more massive or impressive). And the next time. And the next time. Until your present memory bears little or no resemblance to the place that originally generated the impression. And always, there is this strange feeling, because the version of the place you hold in your mind seems more real than the “reality” with which you are confronted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *