The other day my friend sent me a video, one that had come up as a memory on Snapchat, marked for re-watching because it had been taken a year ago to the day. The clip is just a few seconds long, and I don’t know why he chose to record this particular moment. We’re all sitting in the room that belonged to the person I now call my boyfriend, although in this preserved moment we had only just begun the urgent, unwieldy process of knowing each other in this way.
On the wall above our heads is his old scientific diagram of the human brain and a flag with the logo of the band Queen. The shelves are empty, though, in anticipation of the move-out day that will come soon. The two of us are sitting on his bed, reclining against each other. I’m trying to balance a fidget spinner on my head like someone might do with a basketball on their finger. I never owned a fidget spinner when they were a fad, so this black and green one that I got for free from JE is still a novelty to me. I get it spinning on the fleshy part of my fingertip before attempting to transfer it to my head. The spinner gets stuck in my hair, and you can hear my friend laughing behind the camera as I try to untwirl my hair from its axis.
I watched the video several times, hoping after every viewing that it would extend beyond just this vignette, because even though it is a clip from my life, I don’t remember what happens next. I replied to my friend in a text, writing, “wow nostalgic.” This isn’t a feeling I have experienced often; being 20 years old, most of my longing is projected towards the open expanse of the future before me. I have only a quarter-lifetime of memories, most of which are not so distant from my current circumstances that they feel beyond the point of return. Until now, that is. You too are living in this now, and I’m sure you understand what I mean when I write as if it is severed from everything that came before it. Nostalgia is rooted in the losses that accrue over time, and in this now, we have all lost so much.
I’m reminded of loss every time I receive those notifications on my phone inviting me to look into the past at photos taken a year or two ago, a sort of narrowly personal “this day in history.” Recently it’s been a lot of pictures of tulips. Each time I walked past the flower beds in Silliman, I must have felt moved to take a picture, because my camera roll is filled with dozens of nearly identical photos of the red and yellow blooms. The petals are translucent in the light, and you can see each folding overlap. Taken up close and from a low angle, tulips fill the whole image, and it’s easy to believe that the flowers never end.
We have tulips in my hometown as well, but they are mostly planted in solitary rows, not like the dense flower forests of the Silliman courtyard. Every time we pass a neighbor’s tulip garden on our walks, I tell my mom that they do not compare the beauty of the tulips at Yale, and she gives me the same look as when I tell her I miss dining hall spa water but then scoff at her suggestion that I infuse our own tap water with fruit. She must understand, though, that I don’t actually yearn to drink weakly infused fruit water, and that sometimes it’s easier to say I miss an object than to try to explain the context that gives that thing its meaning. So, I say I miss the tulips and the spa water and that tiny Farnam single with its Queen flag, even though the nostalgia really cuts much deeper.
This is the type of nostalgia that, according to my high school English teacher, is entirely inaccessible to fourteen-year-olds, but also entirely necessary to understand curriculum staples like “Great Expectations” and “The Great Gatsby.” These are books about regret and longing and all those feelings that come from the backwards tug of time. Some students probably took my teacher’s statement as an invitation to skip the reading homework altogether, but I understand it now as a suggestion that nostalgia is something that must be aged into. I think this is a process that feels rather like growing up.
I’m back home now in the same bedroom where I read those high school books, and even though I am surrounded by old cross country medals and stuffed animals that have lost their meanings, I have never felt older. Certainly, this is in part due to my new obsession with crochet and needlepoint, but also, with no certain future ahead, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my life before this all happened. I consider reminiscing, just like fiber arts, to be a hobby that is ill-suited to my age group. I’ve skipped ahead a few decades in my understanding of those canonical works, sitting in my Yale t-shirts like Miss Havisham in her wedding gown. I’ve never felt more like Gatsby staring at the green light as I do when viewing my boyfriend only through a glowing screen, waiting for the unknown day when we will see each other again and try to make up for all the time we’ve lost.
Another text has only just opened itself to understanding: “Bright College Years.” I’ve always thought that this song has no place on campus. College is a challenging, all-consuming endeavor that demands that we root ourselves in the present. After the third problem-set-induced breakdown of the week, no one thinks to themselves, “Gee, these really are the best years of my life.” And during the good times, we are too wrapped up in joy to realize that these are the memories we will recall with wistful smiles. Only with time will these four turbulent and wonderful years become “happy, golden, bygone days.” Memories always seem brighter from a distance.
Temporally, my memories of Yale are not distant, but the world preserved in them could not feel farther away. I cannot wait until the day when I’ll be able to pull Yale’s places and people from memory and back into life, when I can see the wonder in their messy complications instead of in time-brushed perfection, when I can return to being young and free of sepia-toned longing. But until then, as our world holds its collective breath, I will be grateful for the waves of nostalgia that remind me that I have seen and created beauty, because these moments are what matter, whether we can return to them or not.
Elizabeth Hopkinson | email@example.com