The Underbelly of Nostalgia

It takes courage to look unflinchingly at our past without the rose-tinted glasses of “the good ‘ole days.”

Memories are a bit like movies: they stir emotions in us, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

The reality of green screens, costumes, makeup— not to mention the panoply of human challenges that arrive when humans work together (i.e. sickness, fatigue, personality clashes, etc.), never make it into the final perfect cut.

Movie for One

Each of us enters a movie theater every day, 24/7. During sleeping hours we are unconscious of the action on the screens of our psyche. Sure, we might mention to a friend:

“I had the strangest dream about my house that started to leak and then fall apart from the top on down. What do you think that’s all about?”

Your friend might wax Freudian on you and say the house symbolizes your life or your marriage or your health. Regardless, the dream interpretation is intended to be considered by the receiver of the dream alone: YOU.

The movie that plays during our conscious hours loves to replay scenes of nostalgia: the “good ole’ days.” The days before:

  • the car accident
  • that family member died
  • puberty arrived
  • the big move
  • the surgery

The list goes on as do the scenes we replay for a dopamine hit of what we perceive as benign nostalgia.

A Fate Worse Than Death

Socrates is famous for stating the following shortly before his death:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Ultimately, the Greek philosopher chose death over exile. For Socrates, to be exiled and unable to seek and examine life was a fate worse than death.

The Danger of Rose-Colored Glasses

There’s a subtle yet distinctive difference between appreciating memories of the past and altering them to fit the narrative you want to see.

Wearing rose-colored glasses in the face of something painful is like wearing beer googles when you start a relationship: it won’t end well.

The Fallout

So what’s the big deal? What’s so terrible about keeping our rose-tinted glasses on indefinitely?

“The body keeps score.” Bessel van der Kolk M.D.

Maybe you keep showing up to your family’s Thanksgiving dinners and smile while Uncle Bill gets drunker and louder as the evening meal continues. Your friendly exterior belies the stomach churning and shoulder knotting in your body.

Perhaps you find your personal movie theater replaying scenes from before you moved and left behind your family and friends. With rose-colored glasses, you find yourself saying things like:

“I miss them so much.”

or

“It’s so much better over there.”

But when you take off your rose-colored glasses, when you sit quite in that dark theater of your mind, you see a different movie playing: you miss the idea of them, of who you wanted them to be, not who they actually are.

After Death

When something dies, new life can begin. The same is true for those memories we’ve glazed with the high-fructose corn syrup of unhealthy nostalgia. 

A part of us has to die to accept the past as it was and not how we wished it would be.

 Acceptance means awareness has arrived and will affect our choices going forward.

And maybe then we can appreciate the past without the need to reach for those rose-tinted glasses. We can look back and see a life lived on our terms; embracing the reality of our experiences, so we are free to choose what to keep and what no longer serves us.

Training Bras and Shaving Legs

Hungry to grow up in youth; hungry to slow down in adulthood.

One of my earliest pre-teen memories was the recurring dialogue between me and my mother:

Me: I need a training bra.

Mom: There’s nothing to train.

Aggressive Insecurity

Oh, how I wanted a bra. After all, I was officially a two digit number (10) and any day now (it would be another four years), I was going to be blessed with Mother Nature’s Gift of Womanhood: the coveted period.

I obsessed about wearing a bra. Underneath that non-stop desire was insecurity. Desperate to be deemed “normal” by peers, hungry to fit in. I’d seen other girls in my 5th grade class, their white bra straps winking on shoulders like an unspoken Calling Card of Coolness, of Belonging.

A training bra signified a ticket to my Belonging.

I read and reread Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret — folding the well-worn page where the tween protagonist does the ‘special’ breast-growing exercises while chanting the now famous words:

I must, I must, I must increase my bust.

If You Wear It, Boobs Will Come

My poor mother never heard the barrage of requests to get a training bra. It didn’t matter that I didn’t even know what a training bra was. I remember my unarticulated logic went something like this:

A training bra is a requirement, a prerequisite for boobs. I am doomed to walk the Earth as the only female in the world without “real breasts” if I don’t get that training bra. Why can’t my mother understand this??

In hindsight, my thought process was Field of Dreams: if I wear it, my boobs would come. 

Adolescent Blind Spots

No sooner had the sacred day arrived, the training bra in my pre-teen hands, that I started getting teased by a boy for sporting hairy legs.

Him: Why don’t you shave that?

Me: [horrified but hiding it] I don’t want to. [insert failed attempt at looking bored shrug]

I’d been so consumed with wearing that dang bra that I hadn’t even considered what was going on south of my torso!

Contemporary Boobs and Legs

It’s with a chuckle that I look back at that pre-teen girl who was yearning to develop so fast, she didn’t consider the beauty and wonder of her changing body right-then-and-there. Of course I didn’t. That’s youth, isn’t it? We are so hungry to grow up, eager to see what’s next, what’s next, we don’t appreciate the gift of the moment as its unfolding.

Now almost half a century on this Earth, I find myself grateful for my breasts and legs but not because of what other people will think. I appreciate the health of my body in general, and the gift of this existence.

Now, the bra is more a nuisance, a small harness more appreciated off than on. Hair removal is no longer something I do to please the “popular kids” but to please myself. 

Ordinary Miracles

What a gift this life is. The memories of my mom and I discussing the much-desired training bra is something I treasure. Even the boy who looked at my hairy legs with horror, while shame-inducing at the moment, was special in its own way. In hindsight, that moment was a hallmark of my continuing journey into womanhood. 

It’s the ordinary moments, the ones we often take for granted or hunger to rush through, that are often the most precious in retrospect. It’s why Memory Lane is flooded with commentary once we reach young adulthood. We cherish the past, the experiences we can merely capture with words — a scratch we just can’t quite itch.