I don’t know if anyone else gets this thing where they’ll get a line stuck in their head, almost like it belongs to a poem or a song and you just have to finish it. I get that a lot. Lately, I’ve been thinking that nostalgia lives in our bodies.
I took a walk around my neighbourhood a few weeks ago and as I passed my secondary school, I could almost hear the school bell and I could almost feel the heat from the brick pavement through my chalk-white school shoes. I don’t miss school much if at all, but in that moment I felt like I could go back, like I was back.
I still open doors in my house slowly and only a little bit at first before opening them all the way because I used to be scared that our cat was waiting outside for his time to bolt in. Katy has been gone for almost a year now.
My mum and I walked around Sunway Pyramid—a mall I used to know so well because I went there all the time—and was surprised by how disoriented I was. We played the guessing game of What Shop Used To Be Here Before This One as we walked through.
I smelled mosquito repellent being sprayed in my kitchen yesterday and instantly, images of Winnie the Pooh vocabulary books and the sounds chants my cousins and I used to sing before bed to stop us from wetting the bed (don’t kencing, don’t kencing, don’t kencing, while being held upside down) all came to my mind.
Nostalgia is shops and basketball courts and Ridsect and bedtime rituals. Nostalgia lives in our bodies, in our muscles and eyes and ears.
I just walked home from Centre City. It’s almost 10.30 PM and I’m sweating. It’s getting very balmy here in Philadelphia. Earlier, on my way out, I stood at the corner of 39th and Chestnut waiting for the 21 bus into the city as I always do. The warm wind was blowing and I could feel the humidity weighing down oh so gently on my face. I couldn’t help feeling like I was home, though I wasn’t sure what that meant. The feeling came almost without description, if that makes sense. I was not sure whether I felt that way because of the warm, heavy, summer air—really, as I stood by the side the road waiting for the bus, I could’ve closed my eyes and lied to myself and pretended I was somewhere in KL—or whether it was because I have come to know this road, this view and this routine so well. I couldn’t say for certain. But have you ever tried to close a door or lock two things together and then you think you’ve shut it or fit it together properly, then later you hear a click and you’re like “Oh! Ok, yeah, now it’s definitely shut”? I know that’s a somewhat specific feeling and perhaps it’s an odd comparison to make, but that’s how I felt on my walk back. I thought I already felt at home here and then, out of nowhere, there was a click. Somewhere between Market and Chestnut on 20th street, I felt that way. And I was sure.
It’s strange to know that there are most probably fewer walks like that ahead of me than there are behind me. I walked home on Walnut with a silly smile spread across my face the whole way. My mind was playing a highlight reel of all the things I’ve seen on my many walks towards West Philly along that road.
On 22nd St, Hui Jie, Shahirah and I once laughed about the fact that we chose the morning after snowstorm Jonas to go grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. Along the bridge, just before the presidential election, I walked past a man waving a Hillary Clinton flag and he smiled at me and I felt like that meant something, and the next day we lost, and it rained, and I thought about him that morning as I lay in bed and I wondered whether he had a daughter and what he told her, if he did. On 30th St, on a sunny spring day, Fayaaz and I once saw glass shattered all over the road and news reporters at the scene, the aftermath of what we supposed was an accident. At that same spot, on the left, Penn Park, where Shahirah and I took a walk to once in freshman year after we got back from London and I remember I wore my Gap jumper, purple sweatpants and orange Adidas shoes which I had just recently thrown away. Just after that, World Cafe Live, where Habeeb, Dania, Osama, Ben and I saw someone propose to his girlfriend in front of a whole crowd, with a rap song. Then, the ice skating rink, which is where every year, I go to the MSA midnight ice skating event (except for that one year where I had to write a PSCI paper on India and Nigeria) and maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many pictures of myself at these events but I can tell you exactly what wore to that event each year. Further ahead, I passed by the Nanotech building on my right where I once sat with Hui Jie after Astronomy, eating grape leaves from Magic Carpet, listening to a Planet Money episode about trade adjustment assistance. On the left after crossing 33rd St, (which has a traffic light that always stays on green in this direction for a long time; I never think I’m going to make it but I always do) I passed some engineering building I can’t name on the left, where I had to walk to in the cold, with slippers, twice, to get Shahirah’s keys from her because I had an awful tendency to lock myself out.
Somewhere in my diary, I keep a list of reasons why it is humbling to be human and one of the reasons is that I don’t understand the reason we keep and seek happy memories. My mind sometimes reminds me of art museums. There all these things I store in different sections of my brain… things I take mental strolls to look at, things that make me pause, tilt my head to the side and think or smile or cry or laugh about. And just like how people value art more the more intricate it is (or at least, I think they do), I cling on more tightly to the more the granular memories. When I say “I remember what I wore that day” or “I remember what song I was listening to on my way there”, I feel like it is comparable to the way people talk about textures and brush strokes. Maybe you’re more cultured than I am and you know why we have art museums and like visiting them but I don’t, other than the fact that I like looking at paintings because they’re aesthetically pleasing and sometimes make me feel things. I think people say art enriches our souls or something like that but no one has ever explained to me what purpose museums really serve even though we protect and preserve them… and that’s kinda how I feel about the galleries of memories I curate in my head. There are all these things, and I don’t know what they’re for, but they’re mine, and I like them. I like them a lot.
So, also on that list of why it’s humbling to be human is that we have so little control over what we forget. I enjoy remembering and sitting down and memorising lists because I know that if I put in the effort, I’ll retain the information. There is an efficacy associated with remembering. But I don’t think you can say the same about forgetting. How crazy is that? Really, think about it. It amazes me every single time I try. Someday, and I don’t know when, but the details will blur and I will be left with a glimmer of something that happened at some point in some place.
I feel so, so, so taken by all of this if you can’t already tell. I feel taken by it more than I know how to say… which brings me to the last thing I have on that list, and that is we are confined to the words we know how to use. I can only express to you how I feel to the extent that I can say so. I am so frustrated that the depth of both my grief and gratitude cannot be matched by the shallowness of the sentences I know how to construct. But if I had to try to tell you how I felt on my walk home today, I would say this: I don’t know what all these memories are for. I don’t know why I keep them like paintings in a museum. I don’t know why I replay them over and over in my head like a chart-topping pop song on the radio. I think I’ve never said this before—or if I have, you could count the number of times with a single hand—but to the humble portion of Philadelphia that I’ve come to know and call home, I love you, I love you, I love you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all these memories. They’re mine and I like them a lot. I like you a lot.