I have a daughter who used to find sunsets painful. Recently, sitting in a yoga studio with the sunbeams dancing across the polished wooden floor, she had the same feeling. It felt like all the joy and sadness got twisted into a little ball in her chest.
Sometimes when I flash back to a place I lived, a kitchen where I cooked, a cafe I frequented, a drive to work, or a forest I often hiked, I get that same feeling. Memory, time, sadness and joy all mixed up into a bittersweet symphony. The older we get, the more memories that play in our minds. It might be a scene from childhood, me as a little girl blowing huge bubbles on a hilltop in Hong Kong, or learning ballet in an old hotel facing a bay. Or it might be when my daughters were small, all soft shoulders and freshly shampooed hair, curled up at story time before bed. Recently we visited Phuket, which is just a short flight from Singapore and as I walked onto a beach on the north of the island I was struck with a feeling, a feeling that transported me back to a different time or place. It reminded me so sweetly and sharply of the beach I played on as a child, in Hong Kong, so many years ago. The colour of the sea, teal almost, the curve of the coast, the height of the mountains that hugged the shore, the smoothness of the sand. It was all so familiar, that, like a time machine it sent me back, over years and days to a time when I was small and knew nothing other than where I was. The other evening I told this story to a friend of mine, who, like me, had also been raised an expat child in 1970s Hong Kong. “Me too!” he exclaimed! He too had had the same feeling in Phuket. The familiar in unlikely places. Once again, for a brief moment, we were children digging sandcastles on a Sunday on a bay in the South China Sea.
Nostalgia is a time machine that places us both in the present and the past.
Susan Cain, in her wonderful book, Bittersweet, writes “Our oldest problem is the pain of separation, our deepest dream is the desire for reunion.”
Nostalgia, then, is the feeling of being reunited with that long gone feeling, an effort to reclaim something that can never return.
My history is a colourful one, of many places, continents and paths crossed. Sometimes I wonder about the people who were my best friends when I was 8, or with whom I ate so many meals in boarding school. It is the sensations, not voices that come back. Faces are blurred, the details foggy, but I can feel the polished wood of a banister, the crisp cold when the window was opened into a November day in Surrey, the crunch of leaves, my first autumn in England when I was 5. A song will play on the radio and suddenly I am 14 and at a school dance, shy and nervous, wanting to kiss a boy who didn’t like me back. I have lived in Asia, in the tropics, longer than anywhere else, yet it is the first snow in Montreal that I remember, the shock of the new, walking to class, so cold that mascara froze on my face, black tears. Or the smooth cobblestones in Strasbourg and the first buds of spring, the morning light on my face as we had no curtains.
I find it can be beauty, even the unbearably beautiful, that I remember or that transports me. C.S Lewis writes of the importance of beauty even in hard times. He says it is not the objects of beauty that matter but the sensations they give us:
“For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Beauty gives us a longing, to return to a place, to remember a time, to search again for that feeling, or to know that it may lie around the corner.
Perhaps that is why it was the unbearable beauty of a Bahrain sunset that made my daughter feel so sad, an exquisite sadness that taught her that life is like an accordion and we live in the spaces between, where the music is made.
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One thought on “Nostalgia”
Such a beautifully written & powerfully felt reflection, Sam💜So often you have come into my nostalgic thoughts, in particular as I walk past Baker street tube station, near where you lived, or pick up a book by Flaubert or reread To Kill a Mockingbird. So many beautiful shared memories that still sing in my Heart💜Am particularly struck by that last sentence, in relation to your daughter, ‘ an exquisite sadness that taught her that life is like an accordion and we live in the spaces between, where the music is made.’ Love! Exquisite, dear friend & so happy you are sharing your Gift with the world.