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the bittersweet taste of nostalgia [feature]

looking back to move forward

As if by reflex, I grab the keys off the kitchen counter and toss them to my sister. A frequent inhabitant of the passenger seat, I am more than happy to relinquish control of the car. We head into the sticky garage, and the familiar humidity of a Rhode Island summer greets us. Our routine begins.

My sister turns on the car, opens the sunroof, and lowers the windows. I plug in my phone and promptly get to work on Spotify. We have about a 15 minute drive ahead of us, so I carefully curate a four song queue, and add one more for good measure.

"Bet On It" comes on and we both instantly smile at the beat. Although we are driving at under 30 miles an hour in our small suburban neighborhood, our energy is high as we start belting out the words to the soundtrack of arguably the best summer movie of all time, High School Musical 2. We don’t miss a single lyric, smiling through the entire three and a half minutes. At some point during the bridge, I am overcome with joy. The sonic blast from the past, along with the sun shining through the car and our impending trip to our favorite ice cream shop, is overwhelmingly blissful.

The same thing happens with the next song, and the next, and the next, starting with “He Could Be the One,” from our favorite childhood show, Hannah Montana. For 15 minutes, we aren’t stressed out about going back to college next week. We’re back in elementary school, carefree and protected. I am amazed by how powerful nostalgia can be; despite being home, I am inundated with a feeling resembling homesickness.


I’ve always been sentimental; browsing through old photographs and perusing my very crowded memory box are foolproof ways to cheer me up when needed. But I can’t help but wonder why I seek solace by reminiscing about a birthday party, a family vacation, or a school field trip—moments in my life that are long gone. In theory, I could seek the same comfort by thinking about the wonderful things about my life in the present, but the feelings that ensue from nostalgia cannot be replicated. They are tender and uplifting, and yet they evoke an unavoidable twinge of heartache.  

The immense strength of these nostalgic feelings has always been recognized. Centuries ago, this wistful longing for the past was viewed as a type of paranoia, leading physicians to classify nostalgia as a disease that needed to be cured. Symptoms included melancholy, loss of appetite, or even hallucinations of past memories. Nostalgia “outbreaks” often occurred in soldiers, and the powerful desire for the comfort of their families often got them sent home. 

While the modern understanding isn’t as extreme, nostalgia is nonetheless a deeply emotional influence. Nostalgia is most strongly evoked through the senses—listening to a playlist of throwbacks, smelling a favorite childhood meal, walking past the playground where recess used to be. The sensory experiences that trigger particular memories stimulate areas of the brain associated with rewards and emotions. This is particularly notable with memories evoked by smells, as smells are processed in the olfactory bulb, which has direct connections to the amygdala, the emotional processing region of the brain, and the hippocampus, the memory processing region. The reason nostalgia feels so strong is precisely because of this immediate pathway between senses and emotions. Attachment to our past is a fundamental part of human nature, and our anatomy reflects this.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the more poignant feelings nostalgia brings about. While most college students probably wouldn’t trade their independence for anything, I would be more than willing to surrender the freedoms that accompany adulthood to be a kid again. I cherished the lack of responsibility that enabled the worry-free cheerfulness of my childhood. It’s distressing to think that that untroubled time is long gone and my obligations and duties will inevitably multiply as time progresses.

My romanticization of the past stems from the fact that my present is still filled with much of the ease that I associate with my  childhood. As the youngest sibling and youngest of my cousins, I have always been fervently taken care of by my family. Naturally, I grew accustomed to this sense of security. Heading off to college is the time where most “babies” of the family evolve into more independent spirits. In my case, my dream university was a quick 20 minute drive from home, in a city where both of my parents worked. 

While I certainly have more independence living in Providence than I did in my microscopic Rhode Island town, I’m unsure that I am truly independent, as the sense of security from my family has yet to fade away. It’s always been comforting to be able to go home for a family dinner if I’m not excited by dining hall options, to rest in a big bed if I fall sick, or to take a shower without having to wear flip flops once in a while. And with each visit home, my attachment to my childhood grows stronger.

 For most, these warm, cozy moments are reserved for school breaks, and the desire to feel like a kid again diminishes as time passes. I deem it a privilege to have the ability to see my parents and revel in these comforts several times per semester. But there is a growing part of me that wonders if I need to challenge my fondness for the passenger seat. Sometimes, it’s a mental tug-of-war: there shouldn’t be a rush to grow up and have more autonomy, but I also shouldn’t let myself be so coddled at 19 years old. I question if my proximity and frequent visits to home deprive me of the growth that is supposed to occur at this point in my life. 

My friends often express their jealousy of my closeness to home. It’s something I am so grateful for, yet I see how independent they are and can’t help but admire it. They solve their own problems without making a quick call home and getting picked up, and so much of their growth seems tied to the command they have over their own lives. I’m uncertain if it’s something that I would even be capable of.


I’ve discovered a lot about myself while venturing down memory lane, and I think the destination it has led me to is one of balance: challenging myself to solve my own problems, but also letting myself take advantage of this time I have close to home every once in a while. I  hope to reach a point where I can feel nostalgic for childhood and responsibility’s absence, without feeling envious of that time anymore. Having agency over my life is something I intend to look forward to, rather than trembling at the thought of. I’m certain that I will get there eventually, but for now I am going to cherish going home to my mom’s home-cooked meals, or watching Jeopardy! in the living room with my dad. I’m sure that, someday, I will long for this time back, too. 

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