Reflection and the Value of Looking Back

Nostalgia is a funny thing.

I have a friend who thinks it’s a dangerous compulsion to spot in an otherwise relatively healthy person. ‘We should be looking forward’ she says, ‘there’s no use in looking back’.

I’ve taken some time recently to talk to elderly people about their youth. I’ve been listening to them talk about their memories, funny anecdotes about their children that they’ve retold their entire lives or what happened to this relative or that relative. These conversations have been moving and at times quite heart breaking. I desperately want to learn from them, but the only (perhaps obvious) thing I can draw from these conversations is to be more present, enjoy the now and take some time to listen to the birds in the garden.

Still I think there is a value in looking back now and again. I’ve been looking back a lot in recent months, visiting home a lot more, and analysing memories of my entire childhood and adolescence: the good, the bad and the ugly. The results have left me navigating the middle ground between the view from my rose coloured glasses and the regret we often feel at not being able to redo the past and live it much better, braver and wiser than we did.

I grew up in many places, but I’d describe the place I call home as a cross between Downton Abbey and the Gilmore Girls, with a bit of Wicker Man thrown in for good measure. Everyone always thinks I’m joking when I say that but I’m not.

The village has an interesting history that ranges from involvement in the events of The Lewes Martyrs to Charleston and the Bloomsbury set. It’s also quite picturesque. I’ve been told that visitors walking down the street on a summer's day often feel like they’re in the opening credits of Lord of the Rings: sat on the back of Gandalf’s cart as people potter around busily in open gardens full of flowers and streams. 

It is a stretch however, to remember what’s real and what isn’t, especially as I often have trouble recalling the reality of what happened last week in comparison to what I wish or dread to think happened instead.

I’ve been fantasising about village fetes in my childhood, on May Day, where the children would dance around a maypole for hours. The thing is I’m pretty sure I refused point blank to join in when presented with this option, prioritising tree climbing and monkey bars over ancient countryside fertility rituals.

I do remember that one time I won a goldfish at the fair. It was my first ever pet and I named it Kate. I know what you’re thinking but it’s not telling at all: I just thought the fish was an extension of myself.

I remember long Sunday lunches with family friends in the neighbourhood, more tree climbing and games of manhunt that would last all day. I remember fake games of tennis and cricket matches every Tuesday evening. I remember when our friend called the fire brigade whilst we were using the payphone to prank call our school friends. I remember the neighbours telling us off.

Many of the houses in the village are incredibly old and unaltered, and ours still has the original pigsties in the back garden. One of them had a flint shelter that you entered into through a small door in the sty. During a routine game of stuck in the mud I fell over into the actual mud and out of it I pulled a small bone. I followed a trail of bones into the pigsty and behold: bones, hundreds of them. Before long there was an archeological excavation in the back garden, with five or six children scattered around, holding toothbrushes, damp clothes, labels and pens. A museum was set up inside the shelter, with bones scattered around the ledges, and with labels on them such as ‘Chicken Bone’, ‘Pig Bone’ and ‘Roman bone’. Though an Elder tree now covers up the entrance to the museum, if you go behind it and into the shelter the bones are still there.

Bonfire night in this part of the country is better than Christmas (if you know then you know, if you don’t know then you’ll never know.) Every Bonfire Night my mother makes an enormous chilli, and we have visitor after visitor - a friend of a friend or someone’s third cousin - come through into the kitchen to eat some, or take a plate out onto the street. These nights have marked some of the best and worst times of my life, a landmark day that centres around the Pagan New Year. When I was younger it was a time for new experiences, mistakes and adventure (not limited to but including my first kiss and the first time I ever got drunk) and as an adult it was a time for for new beginnings, reflection and gratitude.

Then I became a teenager and I wanted nothing but to get away from the beautiful village in which I’d been lucky enough to grow up in. I spent my mornings and evenings walking the longish route from the school bus, which dropped us at the edge of the A-Road, along the street, into the centre of this small, quaint Hobbiton. I couldn’t wait to be able to live in a city, where there was more than one shop and the bus came more than three times a day (if it turned up at all). Looking back I guess that any teenager would feel the same, but as an adult visiting home, and indeed as a child, it is close to paradise. 

I am grateful that I had a childhood where I wasn't glued to a screen, or consumed by consumerism. I am grateful that there were cats, and sheep, and trees, and that I ate a bug or two.

However, in my nostalgia, I have also been honing in on the moments of growth and change: pinpointing the moments that I wouldn’t give up for anything, but also the things that don’t matter as much as I’d thought, and the lessons. I have been wondering why we reject so much of our surroundings as teenagers, and the nostalgic backlash that often later gets prescribed to childhood.

Can we truly ever be happy unless we’re looking back in some way? How much of our own identity is shaped by our memories and the weight that we prescribe to each of them? Do we always either forget the bad and paint the gaps with a glossy finish, or forget the good and fill in the gaps with nothing? How much does this effect our life choices?

At some point, when we’ve reached a certain stage of adulthood, we return to these places and find that, inevitably, nothing stays the same. The desire to recreate some things, and reject others, then instills itself in our subconscious, shaping our life choices as we enter the next stages of adulthood. We piece together the life we want through looking back and creating a collage of memories in our minds, which will inevitably fall short in some way, leading our own offspring to pick and choose from their rejected and reclaimed childhoods, and so the stories continue in a series of subtle triumphs and beautiful mistakes.

If we can pinpoint these things, and unpack the experiences that drive us forward, they can help us understand ourselves better, the things we want, the things we don’t, and where we’re heading.

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Kate-Lois Elliott is a writer, producer and actor. She has contributed for publications that include VICE, Caboodle, Femini, XYZ Magazine and Mouth London. She is also co-host of the Podcast Diversify. Kate was the assistant editor for The Shapers Project book with The Creative Society, Jazz FM and Mishcon De Reya, has had her short fiction read out on Wandsworth Radio/Either-Author and had her work staged at Theatre 503. She regularly champions first time playwrights with her company Backbone Theatre, who run workshops and readings at London venues.

Twitter and Instagram: @kateloiselliott