The Sweep of Nostalgia

Joan Didion once advised you remain on nodding terms with your past. I returned to Chile last week to do just that.

All told, I’ve spent about 9.5 months in the long skinny country, mostly in Santiago, though I’ve been as far south as Patagonia and as far north as the Atacama desert — and most places in between. I was last there in August, 2010.

I returned to Chile for a visit because right now I’m prioritizing depth in my relationships with places and people. And also because I worry about the slow fade of memories, especially the fade of memories associated with important personal and professional experiences (such as beginning work on the book, which happened in Chile).

On my first day back in Santiago, the sweep of nostalgia was strong. Memories started coming back in bursts, like how a Polaroid photo takes shape with a few good shakes. There were things I hadn’t thought about for 15 months; the memories were in my brain somewhere, they just needed to be activated into present consciousness.

It’s funny the little things that you remember upon prompting. When I checked into my hotel in Santiago, I noticed the door handle was similar to that of my old apartment, and so was the lock and key. Door handles and locks are the same everywhere in Chile, but only in Chile. When browsing the shelves looking for a bottle of water, I had forgotten that supermarkets play American pop music hits from 10 years ago. When lying in a park listening to locals chat with each other, I had forgotten about the small idioms and slang that define Chilean Spanish, cachai? When ordering a lunch menú, I had forgotten that you should always order mashed potatoes as a side dish because while Chilean cuisine is on the whole forgettable, its mashed potatoes remain the best in the world.

Mashed potatoes may be a memory held by many, but so much of what I remembered during my trip was utterly personal. There is nothing special about a bench along Av. Andres Bello that looks out across the river to Cerro San Cristobal. Yet I once had an important stream of thoughts while sitting on that bench, so returning to it on a sunny morning while listening to “Catch Me” by Demi Lovato on my iPod was a blast.

When you call upon dormant memories, you change them in the process. You remember the most recent version of your memory + whatever present lens you’re using at the time of recall. In other words, how I changed since I left shaped how I remembered what I once experienced.

Some months ago, I watched saw the beautiful documentary Nostalgia for the Light. It’s about the astronomy done in the Atacama desert in the very north of Chile. Here’s the trailer. The Atacama desert is the driest in the world and the only place on earth with zero humidity year-round. Soon, 95% of the world’s astronomy will be done there. The film juxtaposes the work of scientists in the desert who look to the sky for answers, with old women just miles away who look to the ground for answers, searching for the bones of relatives assassinated by the Pinochet regime and buried in the desert. The film is about the connection between the past and the future, ground and sky. It’s also about memory.

In the film, director and narrator Patricio Guzman says, “Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none, don’t live anywhere.”

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