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.”

11 comments on “The Sweep of Nostalgia
  • Love the part about dormant memories and contextualizing them to the present moment. This is a perfect read for my moment, as day three of a seven-week road trip led me a few minutes ago to the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. I leaned on the window behind the balcony and typed away about what it means to really experience something. Solitude and submission are a couple concepts I think are critical to authentic personal experience, e.g. that bench overlooking an unremarkable (to many) street. The impulse is to Instagram; I say we open our hearts and contribute that content to our yet-undocumented narrative. Thanks as always Ben, you’re an inspiration. 

  • OMG!!!

    You can not imagine how much I enjoyed reading this post:) I have been traveling across South America since last September. I recently spend 3 months in Chile!!!! My stay started as a 3 week visit to one of old high school friends in Vina del mar, She is of Chilian origin, went back on vacation about 13 years ago, met her childhood sweetheart, fell in love and stayed:) I relate to your experience about memory and living in the present moment…We did not see each other in 13 years, the time we spend together was about past memories and how we both changed since then and it “shaped how we once experienced”. It was magical, we grew and learned so much from each other’s life experiences…

    Not sure if you have already explored, and experienced more authentic culture, Valparaiso (15 minutes from Vina), is amazing!! You spoke of the desert…amazing! I stayed in a Vincuna, where I got to visit the Pisco vineyards, trekking in the mountains and most spectacular, The Pangue observatory of the galaxy, there is a strong positive energy that is felt…ok, I will stop here, you got me going:) Thanks!

  • Re: memories, your post a while back about slowing down time inspired me to start keeping a log of daily activities. Not really a journal, just a short note or two about something I did – coffee with a friend, went to a movie, took a dance class etc.

    It’s inspiring to go back and read, especially at the end of the year. It’s a periodic reminder that I have an interesting life. 🙂

    Do you have any recommendations on where to start with Joan Didion? I hear her name all the time but have never read any of her stuff. The New Yorker had a great article about her a few months ago that described her as a sort of woman’s version of Hunter S. Thompson.

  • This was a great post. Just discovered your blog and so it was great coincidence that the first post I read was about my beloved Chile. I spent a year living there, and I felt nostalgic just seeing your photo of Vina and then reading your memories about Santiago. It was a great blog, cachai? Thanks for rekindling my own memories of a special time in my life and how I have changed since I have left.

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