Nostalgia: killer disguised as friend
Clutching for the pieces of your past will keep you from your future.
“It’s a dangerous thing to romanticize the past, to drag up old memories from the depths of our hearts and fashion them into something they’re not. We made a marriage of a memory and knelt before it like a false god. What we called love was nothing but foolish hope.” - Beau Taplin
My mom used to watch this TV show called Thirtysomething. She was thirty-something at the time which would put me at 11 or 12. The people on the show, who seemed positively ancient to me, always appeared to be angry or crying as pop music swelled melodramatically and it all just made me not want to grow up. Like, yuck. What a complicated drag growing up is.
And it is. A complicated drag. But, now that I’ve left my own thirty-somethings far behind, I increasingly find it all to be indescribably beautiful. Even the complicated drag parts. Maybe even especially the complicated drag parts. Shit starts to get really interesting when you become curious about the complicated drag parts.
A friend who is living in the ruinous aftermath of a terrible divorce recently texted me for advice. My response to her sparked thoughts about what I've learned as someone who suffered through the complicated drag of divorce and now struggles to parallel parent with someone I used to know.
I spent a lot of time writing about my divorce as it was happening. At the time, it felt like writing through and about the pain helped me process the situation and wrap my head around the ocean of heartbreak in which it often felt like I was drowning.
With the perspective that time bestows upon us if we allow it, I can now clearly see that although I had the best intentions, writing about the end of my marriage caused me to “perform” a positive divorce for readers which, while somewhat helpful to me at the time, ultimately proved confusing and detrimental.
I made a lot of mistakes in the years immediately after my divorce and I try to be kind to myself; I was doing my best during the most difficult time of my life. But, for what it’s worth to anyone exhaustedly dragging themselves along the divorce marathon route, my perspective ten years later tells me my biggest mistake was trying so hard to remain friends with my ex.
I think I did this because I was afraid of being a solo mom in an unfamiliar state in which I knew no one but his family. I was terrified. Where would I work? Where would I live? Who would watch my kids? What would holidays look like for me now?
I also felt responsible for the pain my family was experiencing because I initiated the separation and eventual divorce. Perhaps to absolve myself for making a decision that wrecked my family as we knew it - even if I knew it was ultimately for the best - I wanted/needed it to go as smoothly as possible for everyone. Underneath all that was a desperate compulsion to block my children from experiencing the divorce trauma I did as a kid.
As my own marriage was unraveling, my only first-hand experience with divorce involved parents who detested each other, screamed at each other and punched holes in walls until my dad packed up his shit and rolled slowly down the street on his way to a new life in another state as we chased his blue and white Bronco screaming for him to come back.
One minute he was there and the next he was a non-entity. Gone. Permanently. The handful of times I saw him throughout my childhood were pockmarked with his relentless attempts to convince us to hate our mom as much as he did.
This caused me to unwittingly obsess over attaining a Gwyneth-like “conscious uncoupling” during my own divorce which happened to coincide with her split from Chris Martin. I determined that if my husband and I couldn't get along while married we'd be the best goddamn coparents ever and then I proceeded to confuse good coparenting with friendship. I was certain that doing the opposite of what my parents did by remaining important parts of each others lives would greatly benefit our children.
For a lot of years after my divorce I held myself to that standard which ended up being a higher standard than when we were married even. Ultimately, my notion of a divorce proved as naive and ridiculous as the visions of Mormon marriage I entertained as a young girl.
While I believe trying to stay good friends with my ex initially helped our very young kids adjust – 5, 3 and a newborn – it eventually backfired. Of course it backfired! There's a Costco parking lot of space between the notion of remaining friendly and remaining friends.
Although it would have felt illogical at the time, I wish I had known that respectfully distancing myself from their dad would have been better for our kids in the long run than trying so hard to remain a substantive part of his life fresh out of the divorce gate.
My takeaway at this post-divorce juncture? Boundaries are beautiful and conscious uncoupling is for Gwyneth to publicly perform, not me.
“The thing about memories wasn't that many of them inevitably faded, but that repeated recall of the ones you remembered burnished them into shining, gorgeous lies”― Dexter Palmer, Version Control
The other notion percolating in my head in the wake of my friend’s request for divorce advice: nostalgia is for suckers.
I used to think nostalgia was an appealing emotion. That unique aching combo of happy sadness or sad happiness; the pleasurably painful longing for a thing or time coupled with joy that it happened. Nostalgic memories can be very grounding, they can help us maintain our essence and continuity as a human and they can also be big fat liars.
I’ve written here before about how memories are problematic. They are typically far from the truth yet these long past moments constantly inform who we are and how we behave now:
If you think about it, the present moment, RIGHT NOW, you realize it’s all you have and the only true reality. The past is gone and any thoughts you have about it pollute your present. The past only exists in your thoughts. A study from Northwestern shows your memory is like the Telephone Game. Every time you remember an event your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. The next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time. Eventually, what you remember may barely resemble the original event.
“A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event -- it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it,” said Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.”
Nostalgia is even worse! It’s a mutation of a memory or cherry-picked memory highlights from a time that, in reality, wasn’t so great if you factor in all the moments. Like paging through a yearbook prompts nostalgia for a time period in your life that, as it was happening, you actually wanted to end. Unless high school really is your ‘good old days’ and then you’ve got bigger problems than unchecked nostalgia.
It wasn’t until I began untangling the connection between nostalgia and my own mental well-being that I have been able to start legitimately letting go of the past in meaningful ways that have been hugely beneficial to my mental health. Because, for as incredible as nostalgia can make us feel and as much as it can remind us of all the fantastic people and moments that have shaped our lives, nostalgia also has a tendency to present to us an image of our past that resembles an influencer’s Instagram version of their home life.
When we go back to a previous time, we don't remember it exactly as it happened. Memory is our brain's attempt at connecting us with the past. Attempt is the key word here. When we have an experience, we don't have the record button on. And when we conjure up a memory, we're not hitting the replay button. Instead, memory is a highly inaccurate reconstruction.
And when it comes to this nostalgic longing for the past, the reconstructive process of memory skews positive. Not all experiences in the past may have been positive, but when we look back in this way, we tend to think about very general periods, as opposed to particular details. We naturally paint our memories with a very broad brush, which, luckily for us, tends to gloss over the small negative details. - theneuroscienceof.com
Nostalgia is your brain’s public relations spin on your past. Nostalgia is a sneaky bitch who slips you rose-colored glasses and woos you with versions of the past and the people in it that are just alluring polaroids from the messy movie of your life.
If you could isolate nostalgic feelings to the specific magnificent memories worthy of nostalgic remembrance, nostalgia wouldn’t be so dangerous but you can’t. Nostalgia is like multiplying cancer cells. Nostalgic feelings that begin to flow from hearing a single song or seeing an old photo or video have a tendency to bleed throughout a time period like a red t-shirt turning your whites rose-colored. One minute you’re laughing as you recall a magical moment with someone from your past, next thing you know you’re wistfully texting an ex “just to say hello” or DMing an old friend when you know damn good and well you left these people in your rear view mirror for very important reasons.
There is a decades-old Sony camcorder video cassette wrapped in a plastic Ziploc bag that is currently sitting in my nightstand drawer among old glasses cases, an electric blue pocket vibrator and a bag of Jolly Ranchers. The outdated 8 mm cassette has been rattling around in there for at least 7 years. “SLC to NYC 2005” is inked in black pen on the white label in my ex-husband’s familiar but now kind of unfamiliar scrawl.
The cassette is from our cross-country move from Utah to Brooklyn after we met and married in the course of a couple months back in 2004. It was an exciting adventure. The most exciting of my life to that point. My mom let us bring her camcorder along for the 3-day trip in the front cab of the smallish moving truck with our dog Max. To the annoyance of many, I carried that camera everywhere and so in addition to the trip from Utah, the first few months of our lives (and marriage) in New York City are memorialized on that cassette.
With the rise of the digitize-your-home-movies companies, (“looking back never looked so good!”) for years I kept meaning to mail in the cassette for digitization, mostly so I could show the kids how young we were, their dad’s band back in the day, Max at 2-years-old and our apartment in Brooklyn.
My ex-husband was like a war buddy to me. We were two children traumatized by our parents’ terrible marriages and even worse divorces that resulted in dads gone missing. We didn’t know each other very well when we got married but we took a wild chance on love and marriage and despite everything that has happened I am still so glad we did because I wouldn’t trade my kids, the life I’ve lived, the people I’ve met and the things I learned from being with him for anything.
We went through a lot of heavy shit together. And because I spent such a long time trying to make the relationship work, letting it go - especially with children involved - has always felt counterintuitive, like watching your house burn and not calling the fire department.
But if I've learned anything over the past few years it is to let the past go. Allll of it. Not just the bad, the good too. Like running from the aforementioned house fire, take your most cherished shit and get the fuck out before you become lost in a smoky mirage of memory and end up kneeling at the altar of a false god.
The problem is that I've always been someone who has had an extremely difficult time letting go of not just notions about the way things should or could be, but I have found the concept of ceasing communication at the end of relationships particularly distressing. I like being on good terms with people from my past and have unwisely attempted to reach out to every ex-boyfriend I’ve ever had.
The idea that we can share a life with someone, share our bodies, share our innermost dreams and fears and, in the case of my marriage, move across the country twice, have babies, raise children, spend every single day of life with someone for nearly a decade only to have them become a stranger has always felt callous, small-minded and wrongheaded to me.
While I found the institutional concept of marriage breakable, my commitment to my ex-husband’s well-being and my concern for him as a human felt unbreakable, in spite of everything.
But, as I finally come out the other side of an extended period of heartbreak and confusion, I realize that my tendency toward nostalgia and sentimentality created a kind of funhouse of mirrors in which I would occasionally lose myself until I finally figured out that all I had to do was smash them all and walk out without looking back.
All this to say I told my friend to remain friendly with her ex-husband, but not friends. Make a clean relationship break while forging a new, separate coparenting partnership wherein you feel more like professional colleagues running a business.
Most importantly, be excited about the process of learning who you are after years of pretzeling yourself into an ill-fated union. Everything is going to be ok. It might feel impossible to believe now, but there will be a moment when you look back on the heartbreak that is your current existence and be grateful for the experience because it was a crucial first-step toward becoming the new, much improved you.
These days, when a nostalgic feeling creeps onto my radar I treat it like the hostile bogey it is and explode it with mental missiles. While not all nostalgia is unhealthy, I think it’s critical for our mental health to acknowledge that memories, nostalgia in particular, can be a deceptive double-edged sword that sparkles brilliantly in the sunlight before emptying your heart and guts onto the dirty ground.
Clutching for the pieces of your past will keep you from your future.
I’m not telling you nostalgia is for suckers or anything but also? Consider the notion that nostalgia is for suckers and maybe it isn’t so great for your mental health and current perspective. Try to widen your viewpoint to include the peripheral stuff you can see around the edges of the rose-colored glasses covering your eyes the next time your brain starts waxing poetic about the good ol’ days, your ex, or that one friend you may end up texting in a fit of nostalgia only to quickly remember why you stopped talking to them.
“The nostalgia of a moment’s love can be an illusionary precipice from which we fall from truth; in heartbreak, what we escape to in the past is what tortures us in the present.” - Mike Norton
So far, the SLC to NYC cassette has stayed hidden in the shadowy recesses of my nightstand drawer where it belongs. I’m not sure I care to ever watch that young, just married couple with shining, hopeful faces laugh their way from the wild west to the concrete jungle of New York City. Right now the Jolly Ranchers and vibrator hold far more appeal. Maybe the cassette stays in its plastic bag until it deteriorates and can never be converted. Maybe I put it somewhere safe for the kids to find after my death.
Nostalgia for most of my past is ebbing away like receding floodwaters after a hurricane. I prefer living in the present as much as I can. These days, the only digital memories I allow myself to indulge in are old videos of my kids in all their dazzling innocence, echoes of little voices calling for me, chubby starfish hands forever reaching for mama, sights and sounds I hope are tattooed on my soul, nostalgia be damned.
IWNDWYT - Day 92
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