There comes a time, soon after you leave home, when you come back and have to deal with stuff. Not “stuff” in the abstract, but literal objects, accrued through your first few sets of formative years. You open your closet door and start to chase the nostalgia.
Most of it won’t be worth much, if anything, in an objective sense. Old baseball gloves, mix-CDs from an ex, postcards from another; sweaters passed on from a relative, participation ribbons from middle school, newspaper clippings about your brother’s cross country prowess.
You find things that were meaningful for very specific, fleeting frames of your childhood and adolescence. Some evoke enough emotion to sift through and move to the “save this, I might want this” box; others can be unceremoniously stuffed into plastic bags and given away or recycled.
The latter might be papers you wrote right before class in high school, which, with just a brief glance at the teacher’s comments, are sentenced to be crumpled and forgotten. The biographers a hundred years from now won’t have much to go on from that time in your life. No one but you and your English teacher will ever know how little of Beloved you actually read at the time…
Occasionally you’ll unearth something that gives you pause, makes you read a few lines, looking to immerse yourself in another person; to understand their concerns, their aspirations and what little decisions and opinions of theirs expanded and twisted and honed into the way you approach the world today.
Some of these little glimpses of your past psyche are insightful, most are not. Either way, you can garner some solidarity with a younger self that probably didn’t have much figured out about their world, regardless of whether they accepted that naïveté or not. It’s nice to imagine a time when you’ll have your shit together a little more, but it’s nice to know you haven’t really regressed since your mid-teens.
The former category of minutiae, the things immediately set aside for a closer look, are the vessels that really shock you back into your relatively recent past.
There are pictures, bent and warped and comforting in that you can place yourself around the turn of the century when seeing the results of your camera-work required a trip to the drug store and a week-long developmental process. There are captions on the back of a few: some names, some pencil-edited inside jokes or quotes you can’t quite place. Without looking too closely at most of the images, you create a slideshow in your mind; categorizing the eras of your life: dances, sports, the year or so when everyone thought hookah was cool, the scene a few minutes before the first time anyone passed out from drinking, an 8×11 printed collage from a friendship you’ve left in suspend motion. Innocuous moments start to seem profound by the simple fact of recognition.
You shuffle through then stack them to be saved until the next excavation.
Then there are the clothes you wore that you’ve never had the nerve to get rid of: the graphic tees, the silver button-up, and the floral print you wore to prom. You try a few on. Whether it’s a Jamaican flag belt and oversized work coat from 14 or the red Converse high-tops from 16-20, you realize that every time you’ve been set in your ways aesthetically, it wouldn’t have hurt to think a few years down the line.
One of the mixes you rediscovered is about half way through playing. The last transition was great; the Rolling Stones’ “Happy” into “Magic,” by the Cars. You can vaguely recall this particular set of songs being too shot through with emotional trauma to even think about, let alone hear. The little paper case you found it in is decorated with pink and orange hearts and sealed with a pink floral sticky-note of the same shape. It’s funny how confidently you had approached love in high school. Each pen mark or text message had to be perfect because each one would be judged and considered and reconsidered and injected with all the meaning that ought to have been reserved for the whole. Or so you assumed every time. Things seem to be much more matter of fact now.
You think about reading a few of the postcards from the other girl, but leave them in their box instead. They don’t really belong in this room. They’re too fresh to lump into the solidified past. They’re from the beginnings of your independent life, existing in a middle ground when home was still technically home, but only for a few months a year. There’s still a chance they’ll be meaningful again in the future; maybe you’ll go over those together someday. Maybe things aren’t so much more matter of fact.
Eventually, exhausted and satisfied with your own bite of the proverbial Madeleine, you sit back and look at what’s left. You can put it away later; leave things as orderly, if a little thinner, than you left them. You’ll never have a storage unit like the room you grew up in again.
You take your stuff with you now. It’s not stuck in the morass of what was; it belongs to your ongoing present.
Maybe you never really have to chase nostalgia. Every time you regret the past, you’re really thinking about the present, and especially about the future. Maybe in ten years you’ll look back and wonder what you were possibly thinking, but from here, propped up against your bed, the wake of two decades stacked or folded or crumpled around you, it seems like, for the first time, a segment of your life is being truly annexed, sealed off in its current iteration forever.