Last night, as I was sat on the book-strewn concrete window seat of my small bedroom, staring out at the ever-shifting cast of creatures and words and symbols graffitied on the wall opposite, I felt a wave of something best described as pre-emptive nostalgia.
Except, nostalgia is too sweet a word. Surveying the current state of my life in the last few minutes before bed, I felt suddenly overwhelmed by the knowledge that I will probably remember this time in a very different manner to how I am experiencing it at this precise moment.
I can see everything, or at least some of the everything, that my future self will one day deride about this time. I see the flecks of chaos, the disorganised trajectories, the cast of background characters floating in the periphery. I hear the little soundbites, the low-hanging jokes, the lazy adjectives.
It’s easy to see the flaws in the past. Much harder to see them now. Or rather, they don’t seem like flaws. They’re not laughable, they’re just life.
This is what we do to the past. We condense it into a story and in the process lose endless layers of complexity and variability. We turn people into caricatures of themselves and strip them of their humanity. We make the past prettier than it was sometimes, but we also make it uglier.
People talk about looking at the past through rose-tinted lenses. But what about the opposite, looking at it through grey-tinted lenses? It’s something we seem to do too.
Remembering the past as uglier than it seemed at the time is a handy shortcut to making the present seem brighter, more palatable. Recalling our younger selves as dim-witted, hapless, with bloated egos, is a discrete way of making our current selves seem brilliant and sophisticated. Contrast is everything.
If you mostly spend time around people who are older than you, it means getting used to hearing them make unsympathetic, incredulous comments about who they were at your age. It leaves a lingering sense of unease, a frantic concern for how you will someday talk about your present self. And a hint of sadness at the impending destruction of your current self.
Erica Jong writes in Fear of Flying, as her protagonist describes exes to her lover:
‘Oh I knew I was making my life into a song and dance routine, a production number, a shaggy dog story, a sick joke, a bit. I thought of all the longing, the pain, the letters sent and unsent, the crying jags, the telephone monologues, the suffering, the rationalising, the analyzing which had gone into each of these relationships.
…I knew that the way I described them was a betrayal of their complexity, their humanity, their confusion. Life has no plot.’
Take the year I spent living alone in a dismal corner of the otherwise tolerable seaside town I grew up in, inhabiting a series of leaky, crumbling flats next door to drug dealers, cutting out almost everything but work, saving up to leave. It’s something I’ve written about plenty but which I still pretend to myself didn’t happen.
It wasn’t interesting. It was the kind of experience you can project a lot onto. Mainly, a clammy fear of ever going back to that.
Yet I know I was not miserable for every minute of that year. Maybe for a good chunk of it. Maybe 90%. But I can, if I allow myself the naive luxury of trusting my own memory, remember hours and minutes and days when I felt happy. The small joys I carved out even in that shitty place in those shitty circumstances — the bunches of flowers I kept in my shower as an indulgence that always brought me a smile at the end of the day, the local dogs and cats I came to know by name, walking down to the sea as the sun rose after all night work marathons and feeling the cold cut through my tired fog, the misfit characters I sometimes had rambling conversations with in local coffee shops.
It was not anywhere near as tragic as it seems once you parcel it up into a coherent narrative. Yes, the place was horrible and unsafe, I was painfully lonely, I didn’t look after myself, and I made a lot of bad choices. I remember a lot of Sunday nights when the prospect of another week knocked the air from my lungs, leaving me gasping on my bedroom floor.
When I finally, 388 days ago, packed up and moved to London, it only took days for that time to feel distant and disconnected from me. It took only a few hours for me to start pretending it never happened at all.
I turned that year into a soundbite, a single image, a sentence. I gave myself permission to forget the nuances and forget the wistful sense of hope I felt at the time.
I was alone. I was also free. Free to tear myself to shreds, sure. But also free.
We, as humans, are far more adaptable than we think. Our circumstances have less impact on our happiness than we think. We adapt to the bad in the same way we adapt to the good. It becomes background noise.
I prided myself on my ability to find happiness, or at least contentment, no matter what. I still do. Yet why do I struggle so hard to not see the past as dark and gloomy? Why does that willingness to find happiness in small things not work in retrospect?
In Fear of Flying, Erica Jong also talks about the second stage of loving someone; the point where you feel nostalgic for the first stage.
In a similar vein, I define my life in segments, usually based on where I was living at that particular time. And there comes a point towards the end of each chapter when I start to feel nostalgic for the beginning, the point where it seemed this was it and everything was going to be perfect, everything was going to fall into line.
Most things end in tears. Or at least, they end worse than they started. We tend to remember things as they ended, not as they were in total. Sometimes the hopeful stage gets lost.