Mem­o­ries may change— but they still mat­ter.

But, as Craille Maguire Gil­lies dis­cov­ers, whether they are ac­cu­rate or not doesn’t.

Fashion (Canada) - - Contents -

Idon’t know how long I’d been cry­ing when my mother hit the brakes of our truck and pulled to the side of a coun­try road. It was late Au­gust, and I’d just turned nine. The next month, I’d planned to start Grade 4 with my friends, but now we were on an un­fa­mil­iar road, driv­ing north to a new house in a strange city.

The cov­ered truck bed was packed with pets and other break­ables: There was Ally, a stray cat we’d res­cued from a tree; Goudreau, a dog who looked like a cross be­tween a corgi and a Ger­man shep­herd; and my rab­bit, Twitcher, whose cage was wedged among the pic­ture frames.

The sun had soft­ened the vinyl up­hol­stery, and my bare legs stuck to my seat. The far­ther down the road we drove, the more hys­ter­i­cal I be­came, swal­low­ing air the way a drown­ing swim­mer in­hales wa­ter. I was at a loss: for the home we left be­hind, for the friends who would con­tinue their lives with­out me, for the blank ter­ror of a new place. At some point, the tears be­came so dis­rup­tive that it was im­pos­si­ble for my mother to drive any far­ther.

Look­ing back, I can di­ag­nose this as my first bout of nos­tal­gia. My mem­o­ries of home be­came pre­served as if in am­ber. It was the place where we tapped the maple trees for sap to make syrup, where my brother and I skated on a homemade ice rink, where I spent count­less Satur­days hid­ing un­der my bed read­ing books, whether or not the sun was shin­ing. Even events cat­e­gor­i­cally un­pleas­ant seemed comforting—like the time my fa­ther hitched a ride on my to­bog­gan and knocked his head on the frozen ground af­ter I hit a bump and then stag­gered home to nurse a con­cus­sion.

But some­thing about these sto­ries (let’s call them what they are) seems too smooth, as if time and rec­ol­lec­tion have pol­ished them to a sus­pect shine. Could I, un­der oath (or even around a din­ner table with my fam­ily, re­mem­ber­ing times past), whole­heart­edly en­dorse their accuracy? Is nos­tal­gia merely self-de­cep­tion, full of tiny lies we tell our­selves to re­frame the past or, worse, put our­selves in the best light? Did I re­ally en­joy trudg­ing through the back­yard on a cold day check­ing buck­ets for sap? Was my fa­ther se­cretly an­gry when I zoomed down the hill on the to­bog­gan with­out a thought for how dan­ger­ous it might be? And just how hys­ter­i­cal was I dur­ing that tear-filled drive? Or, as I sus­pect, is that mem­ory shaped by what came af­ter: the bul­ly­ing at my new school, the sense that our fam­ily had been bet­ter be­fore the move?

Mem­o­ries, of course, are change­able things, sub­ject to the bias of hind­sight—we con­tin­u­ally re­shape the events of the past to suit the emo­tions of the present. Sci­en­tists now know that, like DNA, mem­o­ries can be con­tam­i­nated. Mul­ti­ple tellings al­ter them. The first time an eye­wit­ness re­calls a crime, their rec­ol­lec­tion may be pure, but grill them be­fore a jury once or twice and the story that emerges can be­come a blurry fac­sim­ile. Like­wise, new in­for­ma­tion and ex­pe­ri­ences can change what Joan Did­ion de­scribes as “the sto­ries we tell our­selves in or­der to live.” For a long time, I’ve had the firm be­lief that my fa­ther went home early the night we were to­bog­gan­ing to nurse his banged-up head with a glass of whisky and that I had du­ti­fully trun­dled along soon af­ter be­cause I felt guilty and be­cause I was wor­ried I’d hurt him. (I had, but he would be fine.) Yet my story is full of gaps, like a half-remembered dream. How much of that mem­ory is shaded by the knowl­edge that my fa­ther would go on to have quite a bat­tle with whisky, one he wouldn’t win? And though the mem­ory is clearly nos­tal­gic »

and even funny (re­mem­ber that time I kinda hurt Dad?), it is a sad story to put on the page.

“Mem­ory might well be de­scribed as the in­ces­sant con­struc­tion of the past and be seen as just one as­pect of our ten­dency to con­fab­u­late,” the late Robert Todd Car­roll, an aca­demic and pro­fes­sional skep­tic, once warned. Con­fab­u­late: a won­der­ful word, larded with judg­ment yet al­most naughty. One re­searcher put it another way: “Mem­ory is not a sta­ble phe­nom­e­non.” I had hung on to child­hood mem­o­ries as res­o­lute, im­mutable and, most of all, cat­e­gor­i­cally true. De­tails seem to lend my mem­o­ries a cer­tain verisimil­i­tude. But just be­cause they look real when you screen these short movies in the mind’s eye doesn’t mean they are. Per­haps the eas­i­est per­son to de­ceive is one­self. For a long time, nos­tal­gia was con­sid­ered an af­flic­tion, even a men­tal dis­or­der. De­rived from the Greek words

nos­tos (home­com­ing) and al­gos (pain), the term was coined in the 17th cen­tury to de­scribe a fierce home­sick­ness among sol­diers. Back then, those who were con­sid­ered most sus­cep­ti­ble—sol­diers far from home, chil­dren away from their par­ents for the first time, young labour­ers re­moved from their fam­i­lies—were pun­ished with leech­ing, bul­ly­ing or worse. (One mil­i­tary doc­tor in post-Civil War Amer­ica pro­posed pub­lic sham­ing to rid home­sick troops of their weak will.)

Yet nos­tal­gia per­sists, and about 20 years ago, re­searchers be­gan to won­der if it wasn’t such a bad thing af­ter all. “Nos­tal­gia doesn’t trig­ger dis­tress; dis­tress trig­gers nos­tal­gia,” Dr. Clay Rout­ledge, be­havioural sci­en­tist and author, has said. And though lone­li­ness, loss or big changes, such as a long-dis­tance move, can put peo­ple in a wist­ful frame of mind, rem­i­nisc­ing it­self has a sur­pris­ingly comforting ef­fect.

“Nos­tal­gic sto­ries of­ten start badly, with some kind of prob­lem, but then they tend to end well, thanks to help from some­one close to you,” Dr. Con­stan­tine Sedikides, a so­cial and per­son­al­ity psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Southamp­ton in Eng­land, has said. “So you end up with a stronger feel­ing of be­long­ing and af­fil­i­a­tion, and you be­come more gen­er­ous to­ward oth­ers.” That song lyric you loved long ago, that melody you re­mem­ber, the hol­i­day you took with some­one no longer alive... These are the sorts of things that set us fondly wan­der­ing down mem­ory lane. The smell of the woods does it for me. It brings back mem­o­ries of driv­ing at 15 kilo­me­tres an hour down the bumpy dirt road to my grand­par­ents’ cot­tage on the shores of Lake Huron, win­dows rolled down, our dog pok­ing his head out and his nose twitch­ing madly.

Whether or not such rec­ol­lec­tions are based on cold, hard fact, nos­tal­gia makes us more em­pathic and less alien­ated. It con­nects us with our fam­ily and friends and, per­haps most im­por­tant, fos­ters what psy­chol­o­gists call self-con­ti­nu­ity. “Nos­tal­gia com­pen­sates for un­com­fort­able states—for ex­am­ple, peo­ple with feel­ings of mean­ing­less­ness or a dis­con­ti­nu­ity be­tween past and present,” Dr. Tim Wild­schut, a Dutch re­searcher who col­lab­o­rates with Sedikides, told The Guardian when their re­search on the ben­e­fits of nos­tal­gia made head­lines in 2014. Far from be­ing a “de­monic dis­or­der,” as it was once con­sid­ered, wist­ful think­ing is good for us.

Wild­schut—who long ago left the Nether­lands to live in Amer­ica and then Eng­land and knows a thing or two about home­sick­ness—has even pre­scribed it as a kind of vi­ta­min to “pro­mote emo­tional equi­lib­rium.” To­day, speak­ing from his of­fice in Southamp­ton, he says, “Nos­tal­gia moves you away from a purely he­do­nis­tic view of hap­pi­ness.” It is proof, he says, that hap­pi­ness and sad­ness have their place in a mean­ing­ful life. “Even though we’re told we ought to be happy and not sad,” he says, “peo­ple are quite good at rec­on­cil­ing both.”

“A lot of re­search shows that all mem­ory is re­con­structed, and the same is un­doubt­edly true for nos­tal­gia, but whether mem­ory is ac­cu­rate has lit­tle bear­ing on what I’m in­ter­ested in,” he says. These days, Wild­schut is in­ter­ested in the neu­ro­log­i­cal foun­da­tions of nos­tal­gia, some­thing sci­en­tists are hazy on, and whether it’s an emo­tion that might help peo­ple process threat­en­ing or trau­matic events. He wants to know what the pur­pose of it is and how it might be har­nessed.

Turns out, it is pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile the good and the bad, the happy and sad, in one go. So does it mat­ter how truth­ful I am be­ing when I re­count that fated to­bog­gan ride one winter decades ago? The story re­minds me of my child­hood and how much I love my fa­ther and, of course, how much I miss him. But then I sum­mon that mem­ory and he’s here with me some­how. Now, whether that winter night in small-town On­tario un­folded pre­cisely the way I de­scribe it is another ques­tion—and one that I’m not con­vinced mat­ters. “Mem­ory fades, mem­ory ad­justs, mem­ory con­forms to what we think we re­mem­ber,” wrote Did­ion, who once boasted that the kinds of mem­o­ries that ended up in her note­book were “lies.”

Wild­schut is right that these lit­tle fibs are be­side the point. Still, re­flect­ing on some of these sto­ries has made me won­der whether I’ve sim­ply told my­self the wrong sto­ries—grafted de­tails and mean­ing on them that they didn’t have at the time. As an adult, I criss-crossed Canada—On­tario, Que­bec, Al­berta, Saskatchewan— and then set­tled in Eng­land. Yet, in many ways, that first move, from the small town where I was born, was the most pro­found. And so I re­turned to my child­hood home one Au­gust day not long ago, this time bring­ing my cam­era.

I slowed the rental car down as I ap­proached and parked near the curb. The house, though smaller than I re­mem­ber it—funny how mem­o­ries make much of our child­hood seem larger than life—looked ex­actly the same: white with blue shut­ters, a long swath of grass at the front and stone steps lead­ing down to that sprawl­ing back­yard where we’d tapped our maple trees. There was another mini­van in the drive­way, another fam­ily there now mak­ing their own mem­o­ries. For some rea­son, this didn’t make me jeal­ous or sad. Ei­ther time had faded the pain of leav­ing or I was able to rec­og­nize my af­fec­tion for what it was: nos­tal­gia not for the home be­fore me but for the place in my mind’s eye—for my child­hood. Call these mem­o­ries lies, call them con­fab­u­la­tions, but that will do noth­ing to dis­credit their pur­pose—or their power.

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