by guest contributor Gloria Harrison*
There’s this thing that happens when I listen to “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. As soon as I hear Ed King’s simple, plunking opening notes – before Ronnie Van Zant even says, “turn it up” – I’m transported to another time and place. A place of shoeless little kids and dirt-packed back country gravel roads and the smell of alfalfa and cow manure all around me.
When I hear that song, I’m suddenly the country kid that I’m too proud or nervous to embrace so many other times, and I feel carefree, like I could whoop and holler and dance or drive too fast in a shitty old Camaro that has more Bondo than metal. Every time, that song does that to me.
“Sweet Home Alabama” isn’t the only song that sweeps me up in a cosmic wormhole, folding time and space in on itself either. But it’s the only one that does that to me in just that way. And, interestingly, it doesn’t even bring up a specific memory, though it’s rich with a specific feeling. And every song that carries me away like this is also rich with its own specific feeling, unique to one time or place in my past, but rarely to a specific event. This is what I think of when I think of nostalgia.
There’s a fascinating biological process that takes place when the brain believes it imperative to record every last detail of a situation (which I will describe briefly in obscenely over-simplified and possibly slightly inaccurate terms).
In these situations, the brain will click its recording equipment into high speed mode and in the same way high speed recordings of a hummingbird beating its wings will allow you to see that event in startling detail, so too will your brain record the minutiae of a situation that it believes you’ll need to recall later. The minutia of these types of memories includes more emotional content, and because these types of memories are so content-rich, they often appear to take up more time than was actually the case – such as the way I remember playing outside in the summer when I was a kid (I swear those twilights were seven hours long) or, on the other side of the emotion spectrum, how long I was lectured for screwing up when I was a kid (those seemed seven hours long as well).
People tend to associate more intensely with events that are more emotionally rich, especially events where information from one or more of the five senses was recorded. A familiar example of this is the way the smell of baking apple pie reminds some people of home. Or, for me, the way I can’t smell cow manure without detecting the scent of alfalfa underneath, even when it’s not there.
But in my experience, there’s a difference between simply remembering events and the intense emotions that are wrought by the sentimental longing for the past. My experience is that the latter is actually rarely event-specific. Take “Sweet Home Alabama” for example. That song levels me as much as it builds me up. It accesses an emotional truth about my past, one that I want to feel forever. But it’s also a bit of personal historical revisionism.
I mean, obviously it makes me miss the simplicity and freedom of my youth, but it doesn’t bring up any of the feelings I associate with the majority of what growing up smart but poor in a small town in the desert was like. It doesn’t recall how isolating, terrifying, and violent my life was. Somehow, for the length of one song, I’m able to forget all of those details and luxuriate in the moment of what I must have felt hearing that song as a child.
I wonder if this means that all nostalgia – even when events did happen – is just a longing for a polished version of something, and maybe not all of the circumstances that actually existed.
I wonder if what I’m actually longing for when I’m feeling nostalgic is access to the source of the positive emotional information I recorded at a certain point in my life, but not the less desirable parts of those days, months, or years.
Mostly, I wonder if nostalgia is actually disappointment about what’s lacking in my present life more than what occurred in my past – and can this inform my present about what my emotional needs are right now?
I’ll consider this next time I hear an old favorite song, I suppose. And even if I don’t find an answer, at least they pick me up when I’m feeling blue. Now how ‘bout you?
*Gloria Harrison’s writing has appeared on This American Life, The Nervous Breakdown, and Fictionaut, as well as in Bear Deluxe Magazine. Gloria doesn’t have much time to write anymore because she’s a single mom raising dazzlingly brilliant and spirited middle school-aged twin boys and has a impossibly non-creative day job. However, when she does find time to write, she works on a novel, a memoir, and essays for various sites around the internet. You can follow her on Twitter at @gloriaharrison, or like her author page on Facebook.
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