My friend Selena had a moment of nostalgia today. One of her friends’ parents, she learned, had just been house hunting, and they had looked at the house Selena grew up in. Selena’s parents had sold it a few years ago and the buyers had just put it up for sale. A memory walks across unbidden, like a cat across your blanket as you doze.
What would that be like, to go back to a house you used to live in? A house you grew up in? A place where there are so many memories, so many ghosts?
For some of us, this is easy: it’s still there, still in the family, go back and see it. For some of us, the house is there, in different hands; perhaps we have seen it since we left, or perhaps it is inhabited by strangers now, living their stories and building their memories in our quiet personal spaces, their children playing with strange toys on strange rugs where once the monsters lived under our beds. And for some of us, the house is simply gone.
But you know you always want to go home, want to return to the mold that shaped you, the intimate geography of fantasy and food, books and brothers or sisters and sleep, games and fights and countless hours of television, guests and thefts and pets and plants.The secret gnosis, the nous and nostrums, the pride and pain. It is all stored in the cabinet of your mind, all indexed like library books; surely you can simply go to the shelf, pull out the book, open it and step back in?
Literary works conclude tidily with a return home, as Homer had his Odysseus head homeward: the return journey, νόστος nostos. So fitting, for home is what is ours, Latin noster (nostra, nostrum). Between now and the dénouement of our stories, we will always carry a yearning for it, a pain, ἄλγος algos: the source of -algia, as in myalgia, neuralgia, and also analgesic. The Germans call nostalgia Heimweh: ‘home pain’.
But songs and plays remind us: You can never go home again.
Your childhood will not be where you left it. The very places you lived it may be revised or erased. It lives now in your memories, in the memories of those you worked it with, and in the history of the universe, its innumerable rearrangements.
I do not recall exactly how many places I lived as a child. We moved quite a few times, perhaps a dozen by the time I finished high school. I think some of those houses are still there. Some I have not seen in decades. But the house of my strongest memories is the one we lived in from 1980 to 1985, through the heart of my adolescence: grade 8 into my second year of university. It was a large house, two storeys plus basement, 1500 square feet on each level. It had belonged to Mickey Bailey, a TV producer who opened a game farm at the edge of the Stoney Indian Reserve. The game farm failed to thrive, and Bailey left; the house was bought up by the Stoneys, who rented it to my parents, who worked for them. It was at the foot of Yamnuska, the big flat-faced mountain at the beginning of the Rockies in the Bow Valley.
It was lonely, four of us rattling around in that place, especially if three of the four were out. On windy nights when I was alone, and the hot water baseboard heating creaked and pinged, and the trees howled outside the window, it was a place to make the adolescent flesh crawl. I could not stand to play the soundtrack from 2001: A Space Odyssey in there after dark, especially the hundreds of swirling voices of the Ligeti Kyrie. So many spaces for nightmares to lurk, a dark ground floor and basement below and empty bedrooms down the hall.
But it was also where we lived, and played games and watched TV and hosted guests, and saw dozens of kittens through to adolescence and adoption (watching them learng to commute to and from the balcony via the closest tree). Where I read the encyclopedia. Where sometimes my brother and I and visiting friends would walk down the driveway to the abandoned empty game farm and just look around at where the animals had been. Where we would put empty Lysol cans in the trash burning barrel and watch from a safe distance as they burst with a “Pung!” and a fireball. Where one of our several sequential dogs chewed the right arms off our living room furniture. Where I watched World’s Worst Film Festival on Saturdays after midnight, after the earlier evening was destroyed by the imposition of Hockey Night in Canada. Where I once stayed up until 5 in the morning playing Avalon Hill’s Caesar: Epic Battle of Alesia against myself, the radio playing quietly.
After we moved out, we moved north, to Edmonton, and later my parents moved back down to farther east in the Bow Valley. But I did go back by the game farm house, as we called it, a few times. The house was on the highway 1A, a detour if you wanted to go past it on your way from Calgary to Banff, but worth a passing glance on occasion. On my last visit to it, home from university in Boston, it was easy to go in and see it.
You just stepped through the broken sliding glass door on the ground floor. Or through the broken front door.
The house had been left unoccupied for a few years, and had been vandalized. The house was associated with a particular chief, and the spray paint on the walls was clear about who that chief was and what the writers thought of him. I walked across bits of broken glass on the green carpet that had given me rug burns years before from having my face dragged across it by my brother. I looked at the walls where my father’s hundred-score books had sat on block-and-board shelves. I climbed the spiral staircase, walked past the corner where at age 14 I had given my forehead the scar it shows to this day. Walked down the hall, looked into the bedroom where I had slept. There was a hole in the wall.
I smiled. I remembered putting that hole there. And covering it with a poster after. I kept the poster when we moved. I left the hole.
There were other holes too. The place was less and less whole, more and more hole. It was becoming a place-shaped absence. It was filled with silence. Its placeness was blowing away with the Bow Valley winds. It gave cues to my memories, but my growing years were not there. The pride, the warmth, the loneliness, the night fears were not there. I had brought them with me and would take them when I left. It was like visiting a grandparent who, through the ravages of time, was nearly gone, so little of the personality you had known before.
The next time I came back, I brought my girlfriend – who is now my wife – to show her where I came from. (I see where she came from whenever I take the bus to or from Coxwell, Woodbine, or Main stations here in Toronto.) We were on our way to Banff. We stopped by. Got out of the car.
Walked across the flat gravel where the house had been.
It had burned down the previous year. Been burned down. It was not an accident.
Memories accumulate in your mind like algae on a pond, but what they recall is lost with the turning wheel of time. Lost. Algae. Time is a thread and memories are knots, knots that get tighter and tighter or that undo like shoelaces as you walk. Knots algia.
You head to your dénouement – your unknotting – but you want to go backwards to what was knot but is not. You try to retie the undone past, you try to return by the way you came and put it all back in order. No. Lost again. Nostalgia.
Odysseys don’t truly return. Arthur C. Clarke knew that. At the end of 2001, Dave Bowman is not at home. He is on a planet far away. And alone, watching himself watching himself.
Nostalgia. A pain for returning. And a pain from returning. Pain because you cannot feel the warmth you felt as strongly as you felt it then. Pain because you can still feel the pain at least a little, maybe more than a little.
Pain because real stories do not tie up tidily with a return home. Life is lived forwards.
But then joy. Because life is lived forwards. To new things, always new things. Creation, which requires things to stop being what they were.
Enjoy your nostalgia. You could not have that, either, without the loss of the past.