I recently read Ling Ma’s Severance, an apocalypse story in which there are parallels between survival and haunting, between being a drone and being a zombie, and between nostalgia and death. Towards the end of the book, there are multiple scenarios when a weakness for nostalgia results in an individual contracting Shen Fever, the fictional ailment that causes individuals to repeat a motion or a routine, over and over, until their bodies actually disintegrate. Ma draws a parallel between nostalgia and repetitive motion, between the false comfort of repetitive thought and the disease of action loops. It is not entirely different from how I think of nostalgia myself, as a trap, as something to be caught in.
In the winter of 2017/18, I was working as a contractor on a client where I wandered like a ghost in the halls of the corporate headquarters, unacknowledged and unaccounted for. I watched as events unfolded around me, unable to communicate or connect to impact the changes that took place in my work. I would then indulge in nostalgia for the hour long ride back to Manhattan from the HQ in New Jersey, listening to Matt Good Band, pretending the lights of New Jersey were those of North Van, dreaming of a parallel reality in which NYC would become YVR. There is a connection between a sense of disconnection and an addition to nostalgia, a need to ground oneself in not just comfort, but a place one knows by heart. Perhaps that is why I do not feel a need for nostagia as much now as I did last year, when I was less .
And yet. I am heading home to British Columbia in a few days, which I have not returned to in four years. I have never left British Columbia for this long. However, with my mother and sister now in Toronto, going home to BC is not my priority, and while I will always see Victoria, randomly, in my thoughts and in my dreams, I do not need to visit it in reality. There is tremendous comfort in visiting a place I know by heart but the reality is, I know it by heart, I carry it with me. Indulging in nostalgia, to me, is a trap.
I still updated my Off the Island playlist this week to better chronicle my memories of who I was when I dreamed of leaving, and who I was when I left. Last Parade, from the “Vancouver” album, is my longterm Vancouver look back song, as, like most Matt Good Band songs, it strikes me as if it should be the soundtrack to a Douglas Coupland novel, and it has the one line, “black out, wake up foreign, wander home”. That is how I feel, still, some days: like I have woken up foreign in America, like I will, eventually, wander home through YVR.
The rest of the songs are the ones I identified with the most from about 1994 on, the mix of sorrow and hope and fear and love of the years after high school, from the Pacific Northwest dream of the Posies’ “?Will You Ever Ease Your Mind?” through the heartbreak of “Little Earthquakes”, all the way through the calm of “Halcyon & On & On”. My flip sides of the top Canadian music in 1997, the social optimism of “Clumsy” and the loneliness of “The Sound Of”. The sheer despair and hopelessness of “Strange Days”, which I wept to, living in Texas, far from home. My eventual return to UBC to finish my degree in “Nightswimming”, which I remember from the night REM played T-Bird Stadium, sitting on the stadium roof singing along with a half-dozen friends. My second attempt at taking on America in Los Angeles, the egotism of “Muzzle” and the quiet optimism of BT’s “Great Escape”. My goodbye to Victoria in “Goodbye”, the song I listened to the most the year my father died, and finally, the end of my journey Off The Island, and the start of my love story with my husband in SVIIB’s “Ablaze” (you told me all you saw was diamonds/you told me that ’till I believed).
I do not listen to these songs very often because I am afraid that the only verb appropriate for nostalgia is “to wallow in”. There must be a more dignified way to experience nostalgia, as something one daintily dips into, something one takes in as a controlled substance, not as an unpredictable, current-laden substance that knocks one off one’s feet and leaves one prone to ill events. I am, however, unable to think of that, and so, even my nostalgia playlists tell a story in which I exit that state and move on, in which I end the journey through my own memories and come out into the present, clear eyed and awake. The narrative leading into the now is my defense against the unpredictability of nostalgia, an inoculation against the fever.
I go home in two days and I’m not quite sure I’m ready for it, or that I will ever be ready for it, as if I am a boat to be swamped, as if I can be overcome. The challenge will be to keep going without wallowing, as easy as wallowing may be. I’m not sure I will ever be ready for it, but Westjet’s check in notice reminds me, I am out of time to prepare. I have woken up foreign and will wander home, but at the end of it, I will pick myself up and remember: my real life is in Brooklyn, and that is where it will be good to be back home.