Notes on Nostalgia
Walking out of the waiting room.
By Zibia Bardin
Confusing glass for air the bird met the window pane, dropped into the herb garden and died between the basil and thyme. I was in the kitchen and only heard the noise. I ran out too late. I buried the bird in the marsh. After that, the idea of nostalgia hung on me like humidity. Fervent, sticky.
Nostalgia and absence are isotopes of presence.
The feeling of being present has something to do with dissolving borders in the mind; one no longer meets oneself at the edges of one’s skin but rather in the skin of others—expressions, encounters, vague but heavy moments of contact. Inhabiting the past gives one the feeling that the present does not exist—or that it exists in a feathery, paper-light way. In actuality, the present is more like a bag that you are inside.
The present is also increasingly out of style—the past is all the rage. It’s not cool to have the newest thing anymore. Nineteenth-century nightgowns as mini-dresses, obscure records from the the mid-1920s, CD players, indie-sleaze, World War II—military bags, and 1970s Chuck Taylors (god forbid you wear the newer, slimmer model) constitute the new bohemian aesthetic.
If this mess of cultural recycling represents a nation, nostalgia is its flag. Nostalgia has become a cult, a way of affirming that you’re “anti,” that you believe in punk precepts, or the peace movements of the sixties and seventies.
I myself participate in this recycling, but it’s less to do with what I’m wearing than it is to do with my pessimism. I’m worried about the future. I feel helpless about the climate. I’m disenchanted with the inventions of this era—the iPhone, Instagram, sixth graders who look seventeen, streamable music. All of them seem to share a sinister and slippery quality that evades thorough description with frightening grace. Each is embroiled in systems of industry and technology that are not readily understood by the public, and one understands that that is not by coincidence.
The things we invent are a Rorschach test for the present by design. They tell everyone what they already feel. “Every work of art is the child of its time,” Wassily Kandinsky once said, “often it is the mother of our emotions.” If this is so, ours is a generation orphaned from the now.
I have just finished reading The Magician, Columbia professor Colm Tóibín’s novel about the life of writer Thomas Mann. At one point, Mann sits in his living room listening to his son playing Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132. “To move from the bombast of the symphonies to the unearthly loneliness of this quartet,” Tóibín writes,
must have been a journey that even Beethoven himself could not easily comprehend. It must have come as though some strange, tentative, shivering knowledge emerged suddenly into clarity. Thomas wished he had been able to do this as a writer, find a tone or context that was beyond himself, that was rooted in what shone and glittered and could be seen, but that hovered above the world of fact, entering into a place where spirit and substance could merge and drift apart and merge again.
This is what I mean when I write of presence.
Whether or not they wanted it, our grandparents had presence. In their lives, it was in everything: in the commute to school, in time spent with others, in the classroom, in airplanes, on sidewalks. James Joyce called it “the ineluctable modality of the visible”; I might add the tangible, the audible—the olfactible, even. In our grandparents’ time, the only real escapes from reality were sleep, death, and drugs. Almost no one can sit through a four-hour opera without their mind wandering—that has always been true. But the mindful methods of distraction our grandparents must have devised are quite different from the mindless escape the internet provides. It is one thing to let one’s eyes glaze over in a theater; it is another to crouch down and check Instagram.
Us children of the 21st century live in an era that increasingly erodes the present by grating it up against the online world. The buzzing has drilled a certain unquenchable thirst into our very brains, relieved only and temporarily by the paranormal worlds we create for ourselves, virtual dreamscapes where nothing is boring and we are perpetually less interesting than our peers.
Online, we never stand awkwardly in doorways or engage in ambivalent conversations or have to sit still for a simply outrageous amount of time. We are trigger-happy with the skip button, accustomed to life on fast-forward.
Our grandparents did not live this way, and thus did not love in this way. There were no phones to numb the ride to school, the walk to class, the awkward social fiascos of middle school and high school and even college events. Life was served with no chaser.
This is not to say that people have always enjoyed the present. In fact, people have always loved to let their imaginations take them elsewhere. No one likes to be on a boat for as long as people had to be on boats in those days. Think about the longest you’ve ever been on a boat, and then think about multiplying the time you spent on that boat by 20. If you were lucky you had someone you knew with you on the boat and maybe even a card game to play. Or consider the operas and concerts that were commonplace in Russia in the 19th century—some of them were five hours long. Five hours of your life.
But people did go to five-hour operas in those days. And they did try to listen, and they did get distracted, and they did then try to listen again. And in the moments when they listened, they would find the world. The bombast of symphonies, the loneliness of a quartet. The glimmer, the thing that hovers, the equilibrium between spirit and substance. Social media can not offer us this, and it never will.
Literally any other activity will. In a way, it's very simple.
The present has not gone anywhere. It is happening as we speak. I write to you from an air mattress in the house of Meaghan Jungels, BC ’25, in Dublin, Ireland on July 30, 2022. It rained this morning but the sun has come out. A loud alarm has been going off for about 10 minutes or so. I could close the window, but I haven’t.
My cat died three days ago. I had had him since the second grade. He has a brother, who is still alive. But it’s not the same. It was a heart embolism, very sudden; there was nothing they could do. I find this part of life so unforgivable, it makes me totally irrational. Both cats started getting old two years ago and I did everything I could to prepare myself. But nothing I did softened the blow of that phone call, which I ultimately received alone.
Nostalgia is a frustrating feeling. It goes nowhere. Some feelings set up shop within you, run a few errands, and then leave. But nostalgia is like light: a wave and a particle. Acute and distended. It makes me have to leave my friends in the middle of dinner to sit in the bathroom with my eyes closed, and it hovers over some of my best days. It makes me look for hiding places.
College can feel like a hiding place. I think about the world from my comfortable nook on 116th Street. I see friends, go to dinners and museums, light and blow out candles, dance, and think about the recommended topics: Plato vs. Aristotle, the merit of poetry, equilibrium and titration points, precision vs. accuracy. The process of strengthening a memory in the brain involves the phosphorylation of AMPA receptors within the cell, making our synapses stronger, faster.
We are, on a very basic level, electric.
The process of forgetting involves the dephosphorylation of AMPA receptors, which is caused by a change in the amount of calcium in the cells in our brains. This dephosphorylation weakens the synapse so that even when the memory is triggered, the cell can’t respond or only responds very weakly.
Everything in the brain is doors and keys: What you remember is a matter of permeability. The cells that make up the memory get tired from disuse, their doors start to fall off their hinges and calcium ions wander in, and, like a band of disgruntled plumbers, get to work on unscrewing the memory. And suddenly you find yourself driving through some old town in upstate New York and your mother leans back from the front seat to ask you if you remember the trip you all took there in the fall of 2012 and you have no choice but to say no, although you can feel the warmly shaped absence of disassembled parts in some back corner of your brain.
Then someone will call and ask me if I have eaten lunch yet, and I’ll meet them somewhere, at Barnard gates or Earl Hall or on the lawn outside Furnald or at the tables in the shade by Milbank, and they’ll say, “Ferris or John Jay?” It is possible that things happen outside of this place but none of us know for sure.
One day we will look up and realize that we have memorized all of the cheesy wall art in the waiting room, that the snow globe we have made of our lives is too cold, and the constancy of the snow will change from quaint to putrid with the subtlety and dexterity of a teenager in a game of spoons, about to play her winning hand. Nostalgia; a waiting room. And we will leave it.
And maybe not at first, but eventually, we will allow ourselves to love impermanent things.
We will anticipate the death of things and love them anyway. We will fall in love with other humans, knowing that they may one day have to say to us, “I do not love you now the way I loved you then.” We will allow things to happen to us. Not always because we want them to, but because we’ve seen the waiting room.
My friends are sitting down to dinner. We may not always be friends in the way we are now. Either way, they are in the room with me, and I can feel them, their presence, their particular gravity, baffling and gorgeous. This is how I get to love them—in the shimmering between breaths, in the places between my skin and theirs: our collective dissolution.
So this is where I leave you. But maybe I’ll see you again, sometime soon, somewhere else. Until then, you can listen to Debussy’s string quartet in G-minor, Op. 10. The third movement is my favorite. It says everything I meant to tell you, but couldn’t say.