Potential Space

by Suzanne Stambaugh, Psy.D., Impulse Staff Writer


Nostalgia is not, strictly speaking, a psychoanalytic concept, and yet its complexity has attracted psychoanalytic attention. The themes of longing and loss, the unique mix of sadness with sentimentality, all evoke the needs of the self in the social context and the recurring fantasy of fulfillment.

I had been meaning to go through the boxes since before graduate school. Between internships, dissertation, and relationships, they had been moved through three states and twice that number of apartments, always relegated to a closet. After finishing my post-doc I found myself between jobs and moving again. The day of reckoning had arrived.

I unearthed a plaid shirt my mother wears in a photograph taken in the 70's. She is chopping wood, her thick red hair a glorious, unruly mass. Then I find my own plaid shirt from the early 90's, when grunge rock meant the world to a teenager from the suburbs of Ohio. A threadbare t-shirt from Boulder Creek, California, the first gift my brother ever gave me. Antique books from my grandmother's childhood, the covers all falling off, pages brittle. She sent them to me, for safekeeping. Giving these things to Goodwill feels like betrayal, and throwing them away feels like desecration. But carrying around these boxes year after year feels like a pointless burden.

In the famous opening chapter of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust describes how a madeleine cookie soaked in tea evokes a host of vivid childhood memories, beginning an epic recounting of a life that is peppered with such instances. A phrase of music, or stepping a certain way on uneven paving stones, suddenly brings back memories that were buried beneath the detritus of daily life. It is in the intersection of our minds and the physical world wherein we encounter nostalgia.

By carrying around the physical relics of the past, I am ensuring that I do not lose the memory traces of my mother as I experienced her as a young child, myself as a passionate and promising teenager, my fantasied father. And yet, by holding onto these things, I risk being stifled under the weight of an inert past. Perhaps, like Proust's protagonist, it would be best to give myself over to the flow of time, and to wait for the moments of grace when memory rushes in unexpectedly. But what does one do with an old teddy bear?