Tuesday, December 13, 2011

“Pursuing the Past,” Caroline Mitchell

“Pursuing the Past”
Caroline Mitchell

I don’t know if my father has ever been happy in the present. Perhaps he was, before he and my mother divorced, but I was too young then to know whether or not someone was truly happy. For all the time I’ve known him, been aware enough to actually know him, he has always been looking back, dwelling on what his life once was. If he talks for any length of time, he will inevitably turn to his younger years, tales of scuba-diving in the Florida Keys, through caverns and reefs with my mother (before they were married for twenty-three years and then divorced); of finding junk cars with his brothers and fixing them. In our house, now, his scuba equipment sits quietly in his closet, and cars and trucks he plans to repair rust sullenly in our yard. He never has time for either now: his life is always in the way.

Perhaps he is where I inherited my nostalgic inclination from, if such characteristics are inheritable, or perhaps I learned it from him, if we are taking the theory of nurture over nature. When my life isn’t working properly, when I can’t manage the splintering pieces around me, I instinctively remember the earlier times, that were, in my mind, somehow better, where I think that I was happy. I imagine that everyone with memories does this at times, a sort of defense mechanism that allows us to believe that the world didn’t always feel so cruel. It is a bitter comfort, though, a “yearning for return to… some past period or irrevocable condition” (Cramer, 2010, p.23). Nostalgia can lead to despair at the knowledge that one can never return to that idealized time, and should be handled with care.

My penchant for nostalgia goes beyond mere overly-fond remembrances, though. In Cramer’s (2010) book on the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval re-creation group of which I am a member, he states that “[t]he SCA is nostalgic for the Middle Ages. It is this nostalgia, this sense that somehow the Middle Ages were a better time than the present, that is the most prominent feature of the SCA” (p. 23). This assertion brought to the front of my mind something I had always known, but not particularly considered: many of my passions are directly nostalgic. I wouldn’t say that I am trying to live in some time warp: modern rock is my first choice of music, I panic when I leave my cellphone at home, and I suffer from a mild internet addiction like most of my generation. But two of my most personal passions, the SCA and lolita fashion (a branch of neo-Victorian fashion), are steeped in, defined by, nostalgia.

Both of these interests are deeply historical and anachronistic. This is a given in the Society for Creative Anachronism: the entire purpose is to recreate and rediscover crafts, traditions, and aesthetics from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and, during events, to try to live an estimated version of medieval life. Participants wear historical garb, sleep in pavilion-style tents, and eat home-made feasts while watching tournament combat. SCA members indulge in idealized versions of the past, enacting a fantasy of a simpler life without modern technology, politics, or culture. This simplification, though not particularly accurate of the Middle Ages, provides a relief from the complexities and difficulties of modern life, allowing participants to take a break from the messiness of Mundanity (as the modern world is referred to in the SCA) and view life as a simpler construction, one that is also idealized into what participants believe the world should be (Cramer, 2010).

Lolita fashion naturally is not as extreme in its historicity as an organization dedicated to anachronism, but it also invokes earlier times as its defining aesthetic. The style relies heavily on influences from Victorian and Rococo era fashion, as well as vintage inspiration from the first half of the twentieth century. However, it also pulls on the nostalgic concept of childhood, from the style of the clothing—fluffy, knee-length skirts; puffed sleeves; the overall modesty—to the childhood themes used in some subsets of the fashion, such as candy, toys, and fairytale themes. Whether through eras of history or lifetime, the theme is nostalgia.  

Though nostalgic endeavors in and of themselves, both the SCA and lolita fashion also tie in with my nostalgia for my own past. None of the timeframes these endeavors are inspired by were within my lifetime, but both of them strongly resonate with my own idealized epoch of my life; when I was a child, before my parents divorced and before I knew my father was sad. My sisters and I would wear ancient clothes given to us from our grandmother, rescued from thrift stores or unusable donations to the shelter she worked at, and disappear into our woods. We would don gowns and become princesses escaping from evil step-mothers, or vintage dresses and become orphans searching for our families. Now, playing make-believe in the SCA, or wearing petticoats and lace in lolita, reminds me of that time, when I could run through the woods and not care if my dress was torn, because the world was infinite, and what does infinity care of ripped skirts? It is that freedom and limitlessness that my nostalgic hobbies are holding onto, that childish awareness that there is more to the world than what I am aware of. I want these thoughts and feelings, rooted in my past, to still be present in my current life.

I believe it is not vain to hold on to such ideas.  I don’t want to dwell on what I can never have again; I want to keep living the life I have imagined for myself. If it involves aspects that aren’t common today, that’s fine: I can get them for myself. As Lenehan says, “Each member of a post-modern culture is ‘free’ to draw upon the palette of experience that has been collected by their society and in an attitude of ‘do-it-yourself,’ construct the lifestyle that suits their tastes” (Cramer, 2010, p. 56). Even if what I want is no longer the norm, I don’t have to idly long for what is gone: I can recreate for myself, and with other like-minded people, what others have let fall by the wayside. I believe that there is nothing wrong with this kind of nostalgia, in which I know that I want something from the past, and I refuse to let go of it; as opposed to wishing I had something that is gone, and not living my own life for want of it. That is when nostalgia becomes dangerous, when we long for something and do nothing about it: when we let our passions linger in closets and rust in yards. I believe that as long as I am willing to chase after what I want from the past, then nostalgia is no different from any desire, be it for a career or possessions or a form of government. Nostalgia, like any desire, has some aspects that are attainable, and some that are not; but it is working towards our desires that reward us. As long as I keep working to create my ideal life, then I am moving to my future, not trapped in the past.


Cramer, M. A. (2010). Medieval fantasy as performance: The Society for Creative Anachronism and the current middle ages. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

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