Thursday, June 14, 2018

Make Yourself at Home

In NYC the other day on a personal errand, my route on foot took me across Union Square. For those unfamiliar with the city, Union Square is one of Manhattan’s less attractive parks (largely paved) in a very busy part of town between 17th Street and 14th; more broadly, it is an area name for several blocks surrounding the park. Go south on Broadway or Park Avenue from midtown and you’ll run into it. I don’t have much occasion to walk there these days. I’m usually either south of it in the Village or north of it in the theater district. Back in the 70s, though, I walked there a lot. I’d frequently get off the Path subway at 14th and walk eastward through Union Square to 18th. I dated a young lady who lived there. (I used to joke with her about dating an older woman: she was one month older.) It didn’t work out (not because of the age joke), but it took three years not to work out. 40 years later on my most recent stroll through the area I had a strange and unexpected sense of nostalgia: a sense of coming home even though the area never was that – for me, that is. It is home to plenty of other people.

The association of particular places with memories and emotions is called geotagging. We all do it. We do it even when the places aren’t real, as in the virtual worlds of video games: see “Neural Activity in Human Hippocampal Formation Reveals the Spatial Context of Retrieved Memories” by Jonathan Miller et al. in Science magazine. Humans form mental maps of particular locations in the same place they form long term memories: the hippocampus, which is also the seat of our emotions. It’s no wonder some spaces bring up an associated mix of memories and emotions. Naturally, the response is greatest when the emotional content of the memories is strongest. As Christopher Bergland notes in Psychology Today, “The nostalgia of being home for the holidays is a perfect example of this type of memory encoding...For most of us, the locations we spend Thanksgiving and Christmas are coupled with strong memories and emotions linked to that environment.” Some location-triggered memories and responses are anything but pleasant. An intersection where someone had an auto accident could trigger fear or discomfort, for example; some people might deliberately avoid the spot thereafter.

Washington Monument 1971: I'm in that
crowd somewhere
We tend to be most conscious of the nostalgia-laden geotags though. In WW2 Frank Sinatra crooned I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places. (Oddly, Civil War doctors often listed “nostalgia” as a cause of death for hospitalized soldiers. I think they meant depression from homesickness. The risk of dying from nostalgia per se is not really a worrisome one.) All sorts of places – some of them quite mundane – can evoke a flood of memories: a train station, an old high school football field, a local drug store, Main Street in Disneyland, the Top of the Mark in San Francisco, etc. It all depends on what we experienced there. Sometimes one memory dominates. I’ve stood on the Washington Monument grounds in DC many times, for example, yet every time I do I have a shadow-vision of the grounds in 1971 packed shoulder to shoulder with young people; I still can smell the burning hemp. (See my account of this in The Quiet Riot.)

For the ultimate sense of being “home again,” though, it’s hard to beat one’s actual home. I have the good fortune to live in what had been my parents’ house and hopefully I’ll be able to hold onto it for a while – no sure outcome in this ridiculously high-tax state. One good reason for traveling, aside from the fun of new places or the nostalgia of old ones, is the enjoyment of returning home. I also can see the attraction, however, of leaving all one’s geotags behind and building (literally or figuratively) a new home elsewhere. Maybe one day I’ll try that, too. For now, however, maybe I’ll just let my familiar environs evoke what memories they will – and I’ll try not to die from nostalgia.

Devil Doll - Union Square


  1. Yeah, I've had two main homes and identify with them differently. One growing up as a kid in east Texas and the other the teen year into early adulthood in west Texas. Both have fond memories. The place in west Texas has grown into hard times due to the economy, so I would definitely not want to live there again, although if I went back that direction would probably swing thru town. I've been back to the east Texas home to, but overall prefer where I live now--much more private.

    I get nostalgic too over scents that trigger different things. There's an area of the driveway here that smells strongly of pine, which triggers memories of my brother and I going to summer camp, and going to the lake with the family to my uncle's lake house, where we'd go fishing, swimming, and skiing.

    1. Sometimes we can get that reaction even if we’ve never been to a place personally before, such as a cottage in Slovakia or wherever where one’s ancestors once lived. Sometimes the site where very distant relatives passed time can do it – such as Laetoli with its 3.6 million year old footprints.