If nostalgia is the comfort food of memory, what do we make of the fact that memory is so slippery? For the first thirty years of my life, I believed wholly in the memory I had of waking up in the middle of my tonsillectomy, in a high gray operating theater with big windows, the murmur of voices above me, the dried saliva sticking my cheek to the sheet underneath me, then the smell of the rubber mask coming back down over my face to put me back under. But after several medical professionals explained to me how unlikely that might have been (I also lost a teddy bear in the hospital that my parents swore I never owned), I put the whole thing down to some after-anesthesia fantasy. Good story, though, right?
But if our memory is so untrustworthy, why do we believe so fervently in the images and stories of the past?
It’s a peculiar twist of the human mind that we minimize our worst memories and focus on our positive ones. We are always tempted to believe that things were better “back then,” a mindset that’s infected our national discussion. Which says that not only is memory slippery, it’s incomplete.
We hear a lot about living in the present, and though this is a useful specific against too much worry about the future, living in the present and nostalgia combined mean we don’t learn much from the past. Take what outsiders think they know of Maine.
The non-Mainer’s view of the state tends to the heavily nostalgic: piney woods, the moose, sleigh bells and horses in winter, lobster boats, lighthouses. All of us who live here know better, or rather, know more. We also know the slush and sleet, the snow tires, the shoveling, the gray days, the black flies, and the ticks.
I recently came across a Facebook group called Retire to Maine that feeds this nostalgic view: wistful comments by people who would like to move here, who see the beauty and the peace of the state without acknowledging the poverty, the difficulties of making a living, the addiction problems we share with so many other places, and the general harshness of life outside the south-urban core. These are often people with independent incomes who can afford to escape whenever they want. And yes, I laughed at the woman who posted a picture of rose hips on a beach rugosa and wondered how the cherry tomatoes survived our winter. The nostalgic view gives them a comfortable sentimental view, incomplete at best, dead wrong at worst.
Selective memory doesn’t let us learn the lessons that hammer hardest or allow us to move past our desire for only pleasant ones. We don’t learn to be better friends by being with our friends, for example, so much as we do by losing them. We learn far more from our failures than our successes. Which means we should not be in too great a hurry to pretend the past is all beautiful.
I have to close on a thankful note, though the actual day is past. The response to Last Call has been nothing less than uplifting. Writers like to think they would keep on writing even if no one was listening, but too long a time between bits of encouragement can blunt a person’s pen. So thank you and remember: books make lovely gifts . . . You could give much less thoughtful presents than books from the people who bring you this daily taste of Maine and writing.
All best for a new year.