Is it just me, or does everyone, visiting a town they have not been in for, say, 11 years, walk around town recalling moments from their previous visit with a slight sense of melancholy? Does everyone – or just me – walk past a park in the middle of the CBD and spend a little too long trying to imagine the ghost of their former self still sitting there?
I used to have a tendency towards indulging in nostalgia quite a lot. This was unsympathetically pointed out to me years ago by a teacher at art school – I was about 22 years old at the time. One wonders what could make someone nostalgic at the age of 22. I’ve certainly wondered about that quite a bit, and have some ideas on the matter, but I’ll save those for another post.
At 22, my tendency to feel melancholy about the passing of time, to the extent of mourning the past, as if it was always better than the present, contributed to me frequently feeling depressed. Or perhaps it was the other way around.
As I got older, I was able to recognise that this thought pattern was illogical. I didn’t have a particularly happy childhood, so there was no sense in feeling sad about it being over. Even taking into account that I wasn’t exactly upbeat every moment of my twenties, given the choice I would definitely have stayed there rather than go back to my miserable childhood.
My flawed thinking was brought home quite clearly one time in my early thirties, when my daughter was about a year old, and I found myself thinking with melancholy back to a year earlier, feeling overwhelmingly sad that it was in the past.
Now, it’s not unusual for parents to feel poignant from time to time at how quickly their child grows up, but the specific memory I was projecting all that melancholy onto was a memory of myself walking my daughter in the pram, around and around in the back yard, crying, because I couldn’t get my daughter to go to sleep and I was so utterly exhausted myself. It wasn’t a happy memory, and what’s more, it wasn’t a once-off moment – it was indicative of a whole year where I suffered from insomnia, usually lying awake most of the night while my baby slept, and then struggling through the days on maybe 2-3 hours sleep while she would not sleep at all, or at most for maybe 30 minutes once or twice – not long enough for me to doze off if I tried, being as tightly wound as I was.
When I found myself idealising that specific moment of crying from exhaustion a year earlier as if it was better than the present moment, I knew I had to do something about that mindset. I went to counselling – for a variety of reasons – and learned to use cognitive behavioural therapy to work on not automatically feeling nostalgic and sad when I thought about the past. That seemed to work for me.
Since that time, I haven’t been victim to overwhelming and illogical melancholy about the past – at least, no more than any other parent. I’m sure all parents occasionally feel a little bitter-sweet sadness when we notice that our once dependent, adoring child is now a surly teenager, complete with independent thought and the tendency to roll her eyes when anything is asked of her!
And, for most of us, visiting a town we were last in 11 years earlier probably is going to bring back memories, memories not just of being in that town, but also of how we were “back then.”Memories of whether we were happy, sad, depressed, single, in a relationship, whether our child was then a toddler and is now a teenager – all of that is normal. Perhaps also normal is the tendency to mark the first time you see, do, or go somewhere that you last saw/did/went to when someone now dead was still alive. Or perhaps that’s just me.
This week I went on a short trip to Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, Australia’s smallest and most southern island state, separated from Victoria, the state where I live, by the cold waters of Bass Strait.
Hobart is a picturesque little city, (population of the entire greater Hobart area is only around 217k), Australia’s second-oldest city, after Sydney. Its age is illustrated by the lovely old sandstone buildings in the CBD, and down at Salamanca Place, that probably date back 200 years or more – that’s pretty old architecture in Australia!
Hobart is also picturesque from a distance – travelling along the river on the ferry, or into town from the airport, I felt as if I was seeing what Sydney might have looked like about 120 years ago. Hobart’s suburbs are little pockets of houses built into the foothills of mountain ranges all along the Derwent River. It’s not over-developed – in all cases, buildings peter off about half-way up, leaving plenty of bushland around and above them. It’s a town that is still very closely connected to the bush, the mountains and the water. Looking along any street in the Hobart CBD, your view will almost always end with water, or a mountain range, or both. The city is snuggled up to Mount Wellington(Kunanyi), which towers in the background, 1269 metres (4163 ft) above sea level. Drinking coffee in a cafe in the CBD I could clearly see the remnants of snow on its peak, glistening in the winter sun, as if it was just a few blocks away.
I relished having two days to myself to wander around this pretty little town, which offered all the luxuries one expects in a city (good coffee, and great corn bread!) while feeling as friendly, and as close to nature, as a country town.
The other time I was in Hobart was about 11 years ago, with my partner and daughter, when she was about 4 years old. Thinking back to that time, it’s as if I was another person back then. I was still struggling with all my own insecurities, with being a parent, married, in my thirties, not having any career – basically any cliched anxiety you can name. I was still much closer to the slightly depressed person I’d been in my twenties. Perhaps that’s why, of all the memories I have of that trip 11 years ago, a negative incident stands out – we ran for a bus, and our little 4 year old girl, running, tripped and fell on the footpath. She cut her lip and nose, blood gushed from her nose and all over her clothes, and she howled – all difficult to deal with when you are tourists in an unfamiliar town. I felt terrible, and guilty, though probably not with any good reason.
But I know that we had fun, too. We took a ferry ride, and rode a double-decker bus to the Cadbury chocolate factory. We shopped in the local op (thrift) shop. We ate out at some nice cafes, wandered around the Salamanca market area, went for walks and, on at least one occasion, we rested on a bench seat in one of the parks in the CBD area.
I only recall that last detail because we have photos of us sitting in a park, although as I walked around Hobart this week, I couldn’t identify with certainty which park they were taken in.
So in an effort to take stock of the changes in my life in the past 11 years, I decided to take the time to sit on a bench in a park for a few minutes. Perhaps with the ghost of my past self beside me, who knows. I wanted to think about layers of memories – because of course, in contemplating the change in my life since I was last in Hobart, I’d need to contemplate the fact that my younger brother was alive when I was here last, and now he is not.
I chose a park at the edge of the CBD, before you go down to the piers at the water’s edge. The park seemed a little run down and uncared for, and a group of young men were hanging around doing skateboard tricks. I have nothing against young men skateboarding, but a combination of factors, including the time of day and their attire, made me feel that it would be better to sit as far away from them as possible, so I chose a seat half-way around the park.
With a view to writing something on my blog about this trip, I started to make some notes on my phone. I had just enough time to write, Sitting on a bench in the park with the fountain, off Elizabeth St – when, glancing up, I saw that one of the men was approaching me – clearly he was going to ask me for money. I’m not scared of people asking me for money – sometimes I give it to them. My policy is to decide quickly, and if giving money, to give it respectfully, making no judgement about what they are going to use it for. But his approach ended my hardly-begun reverie.
In this case I didn’t even consciously think about whether to give him money or not, possibly because, being seated, and alone, it was a no-brainer as to which course of action would bode better for me. Before he had even opened his mouth and begun the speech I had anticipated – about not wanting to ask for money but needing to catch a bus – I was reaching for my purse. As I gave him some coins, and chatted about where he was going on the bus, I stood up, making it obvious that I was getting ready to leave. That was another unconscious decision – it was only as I walked away that I realised I’d chosen to get up and leave. I guess instinct told me that that staying seated there was no longer an attractive option.
So that little interaction brought an abrupt end to my short-lived moment of pondering the layers of memories that were swirling around me as I walked the streets of Hobart. I never did quite see the ghost of my past, who may or may not still be hovering around on a park bench in Hobart.
Perhaps she didn’t want to be discovered.
- for those playing at home, the title of this post is a lyric from a song by New Zealand band Crowded House. The song is Four Seasons In One Day (which, I think it’s fairly safe to say, is an ode to Melbourne.)