Dear Former Self,
I see you’ve been a little nostalgic lately? That’s no huge surprise considering what’s been going on in your life. Believe it or not, I still get nostalgic sometimes too—yes, even now. Every spring when smoke from the season’s first sugarcane fires wafts into the air, I’m taken back to the 1980s. My brain fills with romanticised notions of a time that was happy—a time that was better. (I’m a kid running around in the sun, wearing clothes my mother made on her sewing machine; I’m climbing a mulberry tree; I’m swimming in the ocean.) Of course, it wasn’t—better that is. Not really. It just feels that way with the benefit of distance and selective memory. Although, I must admit, when I’m nostalgic I’m never just ‘hanging out in Nambour’, so I guess even the power of distance and selective memory has its limits. It’s funny though isn’t it, how—when it suits us—we have the uncanny ability to remember only one side to a story: like the fun you had on a family holiday (when really, you struggled for most of it with anxiety), or the crap things an ex-partner used to do (when they also shared some of your formative moments). Selective memory is an important part of nostalgia; we need it to wipe out the other parts of the story that we don’t want to remember—that don’t fit with the current way we need to remember things.
Your recent obsession with collecting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures from 1988 is a good example of this. I can see that you’re trying to work out what’s behind the sudden urge to collect these—wondering if it’s some indie-geek, Seth Cohen equivalent of a mid-life crisis brought on by going through IVF. (No red Ferraris or mistresses for you, just kids’ toys!) Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but your memory of these action figures does represent one of your earliest, happiest moments as a child, doesn’t it? You still remember walking into Kmart at the Sands Shopping Centre in Maroochydore and staring in awe at the miniature ninja turtles: the smell of the brand new plastic; the brightly-coloured cardboard backing. You were so excited. It felt so exhilarating, and so…simple. (Luckily, you must have blocked out any memory of the Big Top Shopping Centre just across the road—where a circus tent counted as a roof, stonewashed jeans were always in fashion, and teeth were optional.) Your parents often called toys like the ninja turtles ‘plastic junk’, but your emotional connection to those inanimate-objects-come-future-landfill felt as real to you as anything else. And now, almost twenty-five years later, here you are again collecting ninja turtles, and part of you feels the same kind of fun and adventure that only eight-year-olds can.
Speaking of your childhood on the Sunshine Coast, do you remember the quaint, dinky amusement park called Nostalgia Town? ‘A laugh at the past’ was its motto—and indeed, it’s often easier to laugh at the past than the present, but I think a few of its visitors might have also had a laugh at its expense. It was no Dreamworld, that’s for sure, but it did have the Enchanted Railway and Graveyard Putt (mini-golf meets Halloween). As a kid you thought it was pretty cool, but as you got older it lost its lustre. I bring this up because, despite the fact that it’s been closed for years, in some strange way you’re back there, right now, aren’t you? With your recent revisiting of the past, it could be said that you have taken up residence in nostalgia town.
So why are you here? That’s what you want to know, right? Well, at this point I could lecture you about blatantly trying to recreate the excitement of your childhood. I could propose that as we get older it can become harder to be as excited by life. Or suggest that as adults we go in search of past experiences and seek to repeat them in order to relive the emotional state that accompanied them. But I’m pretty sure you know this already, don’t you? What you mightn’t have pieced together yet, though, is that these Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures are a pretty giant distraction from the pain of the present.
Let me put it another way: do you think that, perhaps, this longing to reconnect with your childhood has something to do with trying to have children of your own? It’s hard to admit it to yourself, I know, but feelings of helplessness, failure and a total loss of control have been on high-rotation in the past few years, like a radio station that plays too much Elliott Smith. I suppose, like most things, until you’ve been through it, it’s hard to imagine the extent to which it can affect the four elements of your being: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. It has challenged them and brought them all into question. You and Meg could have collected your tears from the past two years and launched a new brand of really unpopular bottled, salty water.
Maybe IVF has turned you into a sweet but completely bat-shit crazy person who has resorted to trying to coax a child down from the sky with toys? (I know what you’re thinking, I mean, who wouldn’t want to come down here and play with these sweet-sweet vintage ninja turtles right? RIGHT?) Or perhaps this is you feeding your inner child, and in the procress trying to pave the way for the arrival of an actual child? Could you be selfishly giving your inner child some free time off the leash—letting it run around wildly and bump its head on things occasionally—because deep down you’re afraid that’s all about to be curtailed, that you’ll have to wind things up and put that away once a real child comes along? Or there’s always the possibility you’re trying to convince yourself that you know how to relate to children, that you’ll be a good father because you understand, and are still in touch with, what makes children happy. It could be all of these things, it could be none of them—there are so many layers to it. But what is clear is that when your present feels out of control, you often try to find something you can control.
When there is ongoing pain in life, it’s difficult to be truly present—in the moment—and let go. So when all attempts to be awesomely Zen fail, and we can’t control the present, we sometimes resort to that special little trick called nostalgia to control the past. This is the beauty and allure of nostalgia: we can trick our own memory. Sometimes as a way of coping with pain you escape to a time in your mind that you remember being happy, simple—when you were excited by the possibilities of the future.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a child again, if only temporarily? When you’re a kid, people try to protect you from the harshness and complexities of the world for as long as possible. It’s even ‘OK’ to lie to you and make up stories—stories about a plump man in a red and white suit that delivers presents, a giant bunny that leaves chocolate eggs, and the creepy fairy that collects your teeth and replaces them with gold coins (as Summer Roberts would say, ‘eww!’). And we do this to feed a child’s imagination, to present an image of the world as a magical place, but how do people treat you once you’re an adult and the world isn’t always so magical anymore? Well, you’re expected to do things like ‘accept the truth’, ‘face the harsh realities’, ‘deal with it’, ‘get over it’ and, my personal favourite, ‘buck up ya poof’. And if you can’t do any of that, then, you know—go to therapy. I’ve learned to accept that pain is OK, because pain leads to growth, but the harder adult life gets, the more tempting it is to escape to a time of fairy-tales and dreams.
You see, nostalgia town is a place you have escaped to because you can’t resolve something in the present—you can’t control it. To counter this, you have revisited a time in the past and viewed it through a special camera in your mind that makes everything ‘beautiful’: one fitted with a Walt Disney lens. In a sense, nostalgia has helped you get through the pain of trying to have children. Your first choice might have been to get your hands on that machine from the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind so you could erase the pain and sense of failure from your brain at will, but that wasn’t available, so nostalgia was the next best thing.
I’m sorry that I can’t give you all the answers and I can’t take away the pain you feel in the present—that would be too simple, and it would also stop you learning what you need to and growing. You know as well as I do that sometimes the best thing you can do—all you can do—is sit with yourself. Sit with your discomfort. Sit with your confusion. Sit with your sense of failure. Sit with your grief. Try to picture yourself in the eye of the storm, so that practically anything can go on around you, and you can remain in a relative state of calm. By sitting with yourself what you need to know and feel will come to you. I will also say one other thing: don’t be too hard on yourself. There is a certain beauty in rediscovering the fun and excitement of your inner child, and beginning to see the world through the eyes of a child again, even if there isn’t one in existence yet. And yes, even if this manifests itself in a room full of vintage action figures and arcade machines, that is OK. Your love gives these lifeless objects meaning and value. And in return, your memories have given you joy and fun, and helped you get through this time in your life. Even if it has been partially through distraction, does it really matter? You’re aware of it, and you’re trying to understand it. Love yourself and your inner child, and any real children you have will love you back, even more so when they see how much you can truly love everything in your life, even a room full of plastic junk.
Yours forever in the here and now,