Doris Lessing called nostalgia “that poisoned itch”. To me, nostalgia is less of a skin ailment and more like a head cold that comes on slowly, one symptom at a time. If you’re careful enough, you can kill it. If you’re not, you’ll spend hours or even days nursing the aches and pains, the stuffy sense of something being wrong with your insides. The thing about a head cold-and nostalgia-is that it insists on happening no matter how healthy you are, how physically or emotionally stable, how satisfied with your present. The past always comes back in irrelevant pieces and infects you when you least expect it. In fact, it has nothing at all to do with what you really want-it seems to be more a case of perpetual rehearsal in your brain, in case of sudden memory bankruptcy, in case of forgetting.
And we do forget. We forget so quickly that the smell of a familiar tree or feel of a certain T-shirt can surprise us with how recognizable it is. My conscious may know perfectly well that I have no desire to return to a particular time or place, but the number of times I revisit that place in both sleep and wakefulness would suggest otherwise. Nostalgia demands that we remember, and that we remember with a certain longing, which is why it is both surprising and annoying when I come across the all-too-familiar logo of federal financial aid services and find myself missing it. Not because I want it, but because I don’t have it anymore. I only want it because I don’t have it, not because any (sane) part of me would prefer to go back to haggling with financial aid officers. It’s the same with rain in dreams-I don’t enjoy rain. Or rather, I don’t enjoy getting my feet wet. But when the old head cold visits me in dreams where my socks are wet, you would think wet feet were a great love of mine, the way I cling to the feeling.
It’s been said that when you leave a place, you don’t miss the place as much as you miss who you were when you were there. That is the most plausible cause I’ve heard for being infected with nostalgia. I may not miss the physical roads or walls or stones of places I’ve left behind, but I do miss myself. That’s what nostalgia does-rudely remind you of how quickly you lose yourself in a time and place, or to put it positively, how much you give of yourself while you are there. I suppose head colds have a purpose too, if they shield us from forgetting who we were and how we felt before we had them.