Worlds above and worlds below

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.

Winter afternoon sun in Salamanca Place, Mt Wellington in the background.

Winter afternoon sun in Salamanca Place, Mt Wellington in the background.

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.

Hobart, seen from a ferry on the Derwent river, Mt Wellington in the background.

Sunny Hobart, this week, from a ferry on the Derwent river, Mt Wellington in the background.

 

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  • 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.)
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11 Comments

  1. weebluebirdie

     /  August 30, 2015

    It’s not just you, it’s me too 🙂 I let nostalgia into my life too easily. It mostly passes through these days. But I think it might be linked to a predisposition to depressive thoughts. The part of the mind which makes us creative can also make us feel too deeply. I can relate to a lot of what you say.

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    • I agree about it being linked to a predisposition for depressive thoughts. In my case I now suspect other factors influenced that as well. For example both my parent were very very conservative people who honoured the past, & indeed brought us up as if it was the 50s rather than the 70s. But also, a realisation I’ve had only since my brother died, is that my mother was grieving the death of her father, who died suddenly, when I was about 5 months old. I guess when my brother died it caused me to realise how she may have felt & how her feelings of loss might have unconsiously been imparted to me. I suspect both these things had a hand in why I was so nostalgic, and might explode this in a post some time.

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      • weebluebirdie

         /  August 30, 2015

        My Mum was grieving too. In the four years before I was born, both her Dad and sister died. She was very close to her sister. She died from a late diagnosed cancer, in just three months. And then her own mum died from cancer just a few weeks after I was born – she held me just once. Imagine going through your pregnancy knowing that your Mum was dying. We moved into my gran’s house, it was small, but had a room for me. For two years this room was filled with boxes my My Mum couldn’t bring herself to deal with. All that time I slept in a cot at the bottom of my parents’ bed. My Dad always thought it was a mistake going back to this house. Of course, as a child I knew none of this. I thought it was my fault that my Mum was always sad; and I blamed myself for being born. Needless to say, finding myself as an accidental parent – as in I believed the consultant who said I would never conceive – I am very conscious of how the very demeanour of a parent can affect the child. So far the Kid seems really grounded and contented, but who knows how he’ll really turn out.

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      • Wow – your poor mother! I can’t imagine coping with all those deaths, close together and being close to her sister….and then knowing her mother was dying – while she was pregnant!

        Stupidly, I’d always just taken for granted that part of my family history was that my pop had died when I was 5 months old. To me that was no different to hearing about other relatives I never met (or recalled meeting). I never thought about whether it had been a shock for his children, or how my mother had coped. It was only after my own brother died suddenly, that I realised how it feels to lose someone so close to you, especially unexpectedly. At the time my brother died, 4 years ago, my mother’s sister confided in me that she could still cry about her father’s death if she let herself dwell on it. This was some 40 odd years after he had died. It’s really only then that I realised that my mother was in shock, and grieving, for most of the first 18 months of my life, perhaps longer if she’d had a difficult time getting over it.

        I’m sorry to hear what a difficult time your mum had, and I think I can empathise with how that affected you, but at the same time, I think it’s interesting that we both had grieving mothers,and both of us ended up being unusually nostalgic. I’m sure there would be studied on this, in fact I began to think about this a few years ago, after reading a book called “The New Black – Mourning, Melancholia and Depression” by Darian Leader. It’s an interesting read if you’re interested in the topic – written for the lay person. He describes the difference between mourning and melancholia, which is kind of when someone is unable to work their way through the mourning process – perhaps because of a complicated relationship with the person that died, for example – and kind of gets stuck in it. I think maybe my mum was stuck in melancholia, and that as a child, I absorbed her feelings of loss and yearning for the past.

        Like you, I’ve been very mindful that my state of mind, and behaviour, will affect my child’s state of mind and behaviour, and I was motivated to try and change them for that reason. Having been an anxious, nervous, and probably depressed kid myself, “grounded” and “contented” are 2 things I value highly as goals for my child, so well done to you! Hopefully we can both avoid passing unhealthy thought patterns down through the generations!

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  2. weebluebirdie

     /  August 31, 2015

    That’s interesting how you put it about your pop dying, about it being just a fact from your family history. I’m the same – as a child it’s hard to grasp the enormity of how these things might affect people. Maybe this is particularly so when parents are of the generation when you just carry on; sounds like yours might have been like mine. I have only snippets and odd remarks to go on – but enough for me to define my whole history of why things might have been how they were.

    A couple of such remarks I remember from my Mum. One was that she dreamt about her sister every night for almost twenty years – she had no idea why the dreams stopped. That must have been deeply unsettling on many levels – I know how it throws out my whole day on the odd occasion I’ve dreamt about my parents.

    My Mum had a lifelong dislike of hospitals, it was almost physical how being in one affected her – even just visiting people. But she had a terrible experience in hospital when she was a child, although she didn’t seem to connect the two things. She and her younger brother had Scarlet Fever and were side by side in the ward. One day they pulled the curtains around his bed, and when they were pulled back, he wasn’t there. She doesn’t remember anyone telling her that he had died.

    We’ve really got into a blather/blether about this, haven’t we! Clearly we both have enough mileage for many posts. And yet, it’s all a bit raw isn’t it?

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    • Yes, enough mileage for at least a few posts each here, I’d say! 😉

      I know from experience that it can feel pretty raw when you learn about an intense negative experience that a loved one has been through to – it doesn’t matter if it was in the past. I can’t believe your mum had yet another tragedy in her family, with the death of her younger brother when she was a child! And if no-one explained it to her, she probably wasn’t able to mourn him – tragically I think that approach (not explaining death to children) was common in past generations. It’s very sad to think of her later losing her sister and dreaming of her every night for 20 years.

      Delving into why we are the way we are, and then going back into family histories, is a bottomless pit, isn’t it?!

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  3. I’m a terrible “victim” of nostalgia as well. I keep thinking I “should” revisit old haunts, I don’t know why. Only in the past year or so have I been able to start letting these things go.

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    • That’s interesting Draliman! I wonder just how many people out there feel some kind of inexplicable attachment to old locations, or other things from their past! Probably more than my art teacher realised! You didn’t also have a grieving parent when you were young by any chance did you? Maybe I should start a support group – Nostalgics Anonymous!?

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  4. I think that ‘nostalgia’ is really a label that we apply indiscriminately to a family of emotions which, while related, have different characteristics. For example, there is nostalgia for a past that we have never known but with which, for some reason, we feel identified. In contrast, there is nostalgia for times past in our own lived history.

    I think the common thread in all of them is a sense of loss. We feel that something of value has passed away and is no longer available. Visiting the town of my childhood, for example, brings to mind that time and the me that lived at that time and though I can almost see it, it remains just beyond my grasp.

    I grew up in Brighton (Sussex) and moved away when I went to university. After a gap of some years, I began visiting the town again and we now go down there quite often. As a child and an adolescent, I experienced both happiness and unhappiness in Brighton, and memories of these things often return when we go there. During my first few visits, I was mostly seeing the town of my childhood and this generated strong feelings of nostalgia. There was a feeling of loss – loss of the experiences I had lived, the people I had known and, most important, perhaps, a loss of that self, that version of myself that inhabited that town at that time. Though I knew ‘him’ intimately, I could no longer be him. It was as though ‘he’ and I had become estranged.

    As a result of frequent visits, I have found a new Brighton, the Brighton of now. Equally, I am building new memories and these are mixing with old memories. Perhaps a day will come when I feel nostalgia for the Brighton of now and will feel the loss of the Brighton-person I now am.

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    • Yes, I agree that a sense of loss is a big part of nostalgia. I completely understand your nostalgia when visiting the town where you grew up. I like how you are able to distinguish a sense of loss encompassing the experiences and people of that time, and a sense of loss for the self that was “you” back then. There is a real tendency to romanticise the idea that things were “simpler” in the past, which seems to enable us (or me, at least) to feel sad at the loss of our past self, even when that past self was not all that happy in that particular place or specifically remembered time. And yes, you are now adding new memories, so that when you are walking around Brighton, you have layers of memories swirling around you too.

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  5. I sometimes wish I could take a time-machine trip back to the days of my childhood. I would like to confirm some of the things I think I remember and ask people no longer with us all the questions I have only now thought of asking. What impression would my younger self make on me? Would I feel a bond between us or would I be irritated by his naivety and immature ideas about life? And what opinion would he form of me? He would no doubt consider me quite disreputable…!

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