I choose nostalgia

August 2, 2014

Earlier this week I was at the park with my toddler.  He was jabbing a stick into the dirt, digging holes and chasing ants. 

A sprinkler tick, tick, ticked a distance away in the center of the park.

It was a windy day, but under the protection of the trees all we felt was the dappled sunlight warm against our faces and the breeze cool against our backs.

I was sitting nearby, just watching. My son looked up at me for an instant, his face shining with happiness. I smiled back.

And suddenly I was transported to the city park in the small Northeastern Montana town where I grew up. I was five or six years’ old, digging similarly in the dirt with a stick.  And I was similarly happy.

If I had any worries, I don’t remember them. 

I only remember the damp smell of the grass, still sweet from morning dew, the stick, the dirt, the ants, the sunshine, the squeal of kids as they left their swimming lesson at the nearby city pool, the brightness of beach towels wrapped around shivering, giggling bodies, hair plastered to wet heads, bare feet, and the tick, tick, ticking of a sprinkler nearby.

And I am happy in the way only a child can be. I know nothing except wonder and peace and an unjaded confidence that the world is unimaginably beautiful.

The memory hits me like a dream, suddenly more real than it was the first time I experienced it, filtered by nostalgia and a longing to return.

And just as quickly, it begins to transform. I am still a child, but out of body, looking down at myself.

I’m wearing a damp red swimming suit with a ruffle skirt and white polka dots. My long, straight tow blond hair hangs in wet strands around my face.

I am a little sad, because the real memory was replaced by the memory of a photograph of myself.  I can see, but I can’t smell, and worse, I can’t feel.

I try to recapture the first memory, the awe of youth, but it is gone.

My memory then races to sadder times, harder times, scarier times, as though my subconscious feels guilty for feeling such pure pleasure.

I am irritated. Why must my own mind apologize to itself for being happy?

I understand that I can’t walk around in a state of constant euphoric nostalgia. But couldn’t I just settle on a happy memory and leave it at that?

All of this happened in a matter of seconds. I sat there for a few minutes pondering the oddity of the sequence of memories.

And then it hit me. If I’d had a light bulb over my head, it would have burst into brightness.

Before that moment I believed that I had no control over my subconscious; that thoughts and feelings came and went as they pleased.

But why? Isn’t it my brain? Can’t I decide what I’m going to think about? I may not be able to recapture the rapturous feeling of that initial childhood flashback.

But certainly I can choose to settle my mind on happy times, of which I have many, rather than the difficult ones.

And just like that, my heart and mind changed, hopefully for the remainder of my life.

I can’t change my own history, and wouldn’t want to.  But I can choose what memories to settle on.

From now on, I choose nostalgia.

This article first appeared in the Lewistown News-Argus and the Sidney (Mont.) Herald on August 2, 2014.