On Memory and Being Present: Can one “be present” while relishing memories?
Perhaps you’ve decided to spend the new year focusing on living more in the present, or “being present.” Many of us, myself included, make friends with our meditation pillows and do our best to sit in stillness until ten or twenty minutes have passed in an effort to dwell in present mindedness. For me, this practice has actually helped me become more mindful moment to moment, even if I sometimes get a little squirmy on the pillow. The benefits of mindfulness are well documented: through meditation, we become more focused, less stressed, and, often, kinder to ourselves and those around us.
But all of this reverence for the present moment has complicated my already complex relationship with the past. We’re told that it’s unproductive to live in the past—but what if the past appears to be living in you?
Okay. Confession: I’m incredibly nostalgic. Rarely does my nostalgia discriminate. I’m nostalgic for yesterday, and I’m nostalgic for six years ago. I’m nostalgic for people, moments, places, and mini-eras. And this is a bit odd: I’m equally nostalgic for the good as I am the bad. Perhaps we can chalk this up to the fact that I probably grew more during those challenging times, and I’m carrying around affection for that period of personal development. Maybe. But it feels like something beyond that.
More touching than a wistful longing, nostalgia is dynamic—for me, it’s an invisible organ. Like the diaphragm, it operates on its own accord—unless, like deciding to breathe more deeply, I willingly dive into memory, allowing myself to be saturated by its shifting waters.
A few nights ago, I had a dream about an old college boyfriend, someone with whom I haven’t spoken in roughly five years. Our relationship was quietly turbulent—at least on my end. Continually plagued by the sense that I wasn’t enough for him, I spent my evenings writing of my love for him in my diary, sometimes crying, and always listening to melancholy music. Although these (thankfully) private melodramatic tendencies of my late teens make me cringe, I still have the occasional, weirdly pleasant dream about this young man. Upon waking, I’m left with afterimages from both life remembered and life dreamt. I dwell in this nostalgia as I make my morning coffee, put on my makeup, drive to work.
To be clear, my nostalgia doesn’t involve missing this person (or our relationship) or wanting to see him again, nor does it imply that I want to crawl back into the past. Rather, it’s a very soft yet acute pain—an almost welcome pain representing everything from that time that continues to speak to me: the weak spring air of a small town in Pennsylvania, the surprising tenor of his voice, ill-attended student jazz festivals in the park, and a very real heartache.
But let’s pause. It’s 2015. Why does the memory of a certain quality of air in 2008 matter? Practically speaking, I don’t think it does. But being one who values beauty above practicality, it matters a great deal. Simply put, my nostalgia is a form of beauty, and the experience of beauty makes me a spiritually richer person. It’s not something I’d like to leave behind or “get over”—but what about the sacred present?
Paradoxically, nostalgia may allow me to be more present. Maybe. If true “presence” is the non-judgmental observation of your thoughts, witnessing my nostalgia and allowing it to be may be the best thing I can do for my inner-peace and self-awareness, especially if it heightens my consciousness of the beauty currently around me.
Perhaps that’s the trick: remember past beauty without allowing memory to obscure the way the early evening light is illuminating your hands at this moment. One doesn’t have to cancel out the other, does it?
I considered titling this piece, “In Defense of Nostalgia,” but I don’t know if I could articulate a “defense” that pressed past the abstractions I’ve shared here. I admit, there are times when the past feels more real than the present, and it really does seem that it’s living inside—that’s it is very the fabric of my skin. A part of me cries, “how can this not be true?”
Like anything involving one’s interior landscape, my best hope is that I can face and accept the sometimes unpredictable winds of memory and longing, allowing them to strengthen my awareness while not getting knocked down in the process.
More personal reflections on Voices: The Linguistics of Staying Present
Also by Mary: In Defense of Fantasy
Photo: Artetetra via Flickr