Winders: Sweet smells of nostalgia

Paul Mayne // Western News

“I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.”

I dropped my favourite Fitzgerald line to an old friend the other night – all part of a conversation we were having about our shared pasts. We were university classmates, roommates, drinking buddies and friends – all that, to this day, despite being separated by distance and life.

We were chatting because I knew he would understand.

I was telling him how every few days, every few weeks, for the last year or two, a powerful wave of nostalgia would wash over me about our days in university a quarter century ago. Characters. Places. Adventures. And the smells. For a guy who lost most his nose to smoking newsrooms years ago, a brush of a certain scent can still transport me back faster than anything H.G. Wells imagined.

Understand, I don’t live in the past. I live – and love – my present. I am excited for the future.

But these waves kept coming.

It wasn’t a mid-life crisis; I felt no need to act on the memories. (“You know, I should go out and buy that Mustang again.”) They simply make me smile.

My friend laughed and told me to check my email. He had sent me a link to a playlist he had been working on, unbeknownst to me, attempting to reconstruct the jukebox from the bar we worked and played at as young men. Seems it wasn’t just me afterall.

He also shared a New York Times story, What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows, that resonated. In fact, it echoed many of the sentiments (symptoms?) I was expressing to him. A reassuring chunk, touting the benefits of nostalgia, that reads:

 

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

Nostalgia does have its painful side – it’s a bittersweet emotion – but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

 

Returning to my undergraduate institution last fall, for a reunion of my university newspaper, I spent a single day with the closest friends I have ever had. Friendship. Nostalgia. Love. All those things came rushing back. We have lost a few members of the group in the ensuing years. That is to be expected.

But while our loyalty is to one another, we truly do credit the institution for bringing us together. Blame it on good marketing, or perhaps the Stockholm Syndrome, but we have great affinity and loyalty to our institution for the opportunities it gave us inside, and outside, the classroom.

University – our university – was our first shared memory and set a powerful anchor for us to return to.

We sometimes steer away from that intangible side of university – we talk programs, teaching, research, student amenities. And we should. But we must also be mindful that we transact in the past; our future currency is nostalgia. Long after the skills we gained are applied, the knowledge we learned built upon, what remains are the memories. Powerful. Beautiful. And full of wonderful smells of the past.