“Nostalgia” means “pain from an old wound,” so says common knowledge. The problem with common knowledge is that it is often wrong. Nostalgia has nothing to do with old wounds, and only a little to do with pain.
The other problem with common knowledge is that it is often almost right.
“Nostalgia” means “the affliction of homecoming.” Think “neuralgia,” the affliction of the brain. Despite its Greek appearance, “nostalgia” is actually a new-ish word, a translation of the German heimweh, because of course the Germans would have a word for this thing.
On the way back from vacation, I decide to stop by the old house where I grew up. It’ll be the first time I see it in sixteen years.
As ordinary a place as suburban Maryland is, simply seeing signs for places like College Park and Greenbelt bring up the stabs of feeling that some might call “nostalgia.”
I keep up a running stream-of-commentary on the area as we pass off the Beltway and into the mostly featureless woods of suburbia. I pretend it’s for my fiancée’s benefit when really I’m a little afraid the whole thing might turn out to not be real if I don’t talk about it. There’s the first place I ever ate Chinese food. There’s the turn-off for NASA where my dad used to work. The gates look so big and official. I’ve been on military bases that had less security. There’s the high school I might have gone to–no, we pass another one, and maybe that’s it. The class of 1987 donated a plaque on the lawn. It’s been there since I was born. I don’t remember that. I’ve called being back in this area “eerie” for the duration of this whole trip. Now this is something more.
I don’t actually know what direction we’re going; I’m just following a GPS, but suddenly we’re on Good Luck Road where my mom had an accident that totaled her Toyota (I didn’t realize the irony in this until years later), and then we’re turning into the development where lies the first home I remember.
They’ve changed the font on the welcome sign. I guess garish blue calligraphy was a bit too ’90s. However, in the muggy yet breezy summer air, I feel I could be forgiven for thinking I’ve stepped into a time warp.
I remember all these streets, all variations on the same name, flicking off the main road toward cookie-cutter townhouses and curling back into non-threatening woods. Non-threatening if you’re an adult. When you’re a kid, they’re the wild green yonder where you run around with toys and play silly games. What kind of games, I don’t remember–probably something to do with Star Wars. I was obsessed with Star Wars. Now it seems trope-y and kind of kitsch, but watching it always hits me with that pain from an old wound.
I see a house I know. My babysitter lived there. I see another. I think someone I knew used to live there. They’re probably all gone now. I was among the last to leave.
The trees seem darker, the late-morning light more orange than I remember it. There’s the road to the public pool and the park where I learned to ride a bike. There’s a whole lot of that park I never explored. If I had time, I’d go run around in it right now, and remember what it was like to be discovering unknown territory–to be a modern-day Columbus or Marco Polo. Sure, other people have been there before, but when you’re eight, what matters is that it’s new to you.
But I don’t have time. I have a life to get back to, a job, a cat. I came here to see one thing.
My fiancée’s snapping pictures out the window while I’m trying to both see and not hit the other cars in the parking lot as we pull in in front of the old house. There’s a white Hyundai parked where my mom used to. Weirdly, she owns a white Hyundai now, and a white Hyundai is what we rented for this trip. This kind of confluence of coincidences is not a thing that usually sticks with me. This one does.
There’s the old steps going up to the sidewalk, and the other set branching off leftward toward the house. I remember there being a lot more of them. I remember that hill being a lot steeper. One year it snowed and then froze over and I went sledding without a sled.
The first thing I notice is the stasis–the way the entire neighborhood looks the same as it did sixteen years ago. The colors are the same. The grass in green. The siding is white. The roofs are brown. It’s how you describe things to young kids who don’t know what description is. When all you need to know are labels.
It’s only when I start looking closer than the changes start to emerge. The old deck is still there, but the hammock we had under it is gone. So’s the rope ladder that led up to one side from the ground five feet below. Now it’s completely isolated except from inside the house. Poor design decision.
Most of the trees are still there. In fact, they’re bigger than I remember them, despite the fact that I was half my current size. As I look at the shadows they cast, I realize they’re falling over holes in my memory. Things that were there aren’t anymore. Where’s the Japanese maple? Where’s the gingko? Where’s the cherry tree in the front yard? It’s been mostly chopped down. It looks miserable. What did they do to my yard, the jerks?
The shadows seem stark against the buttery sunlight. Beyond a line of woods in the backyard, there used to be a playground. It’s still there, but the old wooden equipment has been replaced with shiny new plastic. But no one’s using it right now. I wonder how many kids even live in this neighborhood anymore. This might be the location I grew up, but it’s no longer the same place. This kind of distinction has a difference, though I feel it might only be comprehensible to me, the guy who just made it up. A place has a time-stamp to it, and that time is long gone.
There’s something about an experience that’s inextricable from a place. When you remove the place, all you’re left with is a time and a set of missing coordinates. However, when you go back to those coordinates, you realize they’re still missing. Because that moment in which you form a memory is only real while it’s unfolding. Afterward, it dissolves like a virtual particle, and the memory is never exactly the same. You don’t ever go back to the time, so when you go back to the place, it hits like pain from an old wound. And that’s the affliction of homecoming.