It was graduation weekend and campus was swarming with misty-eyed alums, and in their eyes and even those of the newly minted graduates I could see nostalgia stealing over their memories, tinging the years spent in Ithaca with fondness and regret and bathing it all in that dusty, gentle light that forgives wrinkles and blemishes and grave missteps.
Universities know how to rev the nostalgia generator; it is, after all, the locomotive behind multimillion-dollar donations, the key to new libraries and computing labs and administrative halls.
Nostalgia requires no break in period; it sets in the moment you are told you’ve lost something you will never get back. Before we had even graduated, my classmates and I were besieged with entreaties for donations — “$17 from the Class of ’17!” — and already my classmates, misty-eyed, were reaching for debit cards and checkbooks.
It was then that I realized that memory is less a record than a devious and continuously revised palimpsest; then I realized we do not remember all, just the very good and sometimes the very bad, but never the long stretches of boredom, the flyover country of memory peopled only by frustration, dreariness and the occasional, forgettable victory.
I was reminded of a quote from John Steinbeck, who wrote in “East of Eden”: “It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy — that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.”
And even as I write this, I know that those times — the eventless times, the empty stretches that lie between memories — will gradually be expunged from the record, and that I’ll look back on my four years here with fondness — fondness for the wonder I felt as a freshman, wide-eyed in front of Cornell’s great halls and booming waterfalls; fondness for those last, dwindling days when we were aware we were about to lose something all those alums and desiccated trustees wanted so badly to get back; fondness for nights spent in libraries; fondness for walks to and from class; fondness, in short, for everything.
Memory is not the court scribe in the corner, recording in great detail every small word and happening. Memory is a revisionist, an amnesiac novelist, and it is my suspicion that memory serves only as a counterpart to the present, a reminder that things were not always this way. Memory is also the sensual promise that things can one day return to the way they were.
As children, we’re told to live in the present. It’s an impossible request because who we are is who we were. On what else can you form an identity, apart from the things you’ve done and the places you’ve lived and the people you’ve known and loved? Who we are is also who we want to be — our dreams and hopes are as much of who we are as anything we hold in the present.
And so time pulls us simultaneously forward and back; we oscillate between remembrance and dream; and it is difficult not to resent the present when the past seems so comforting and the future so alluring.
And where I stand now, on the cusp of adulthood’s jobs and obligations and mortgages but irretrievably beyond the wonder and hope of childhood, is treacherous ground. The past beckons, but I cannot step back.
Matthew Ormseth is a graduate of Cornell University. He is a Yonsei, a hapa, a Millennial and a journalist.