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Deconstructing Nostalgia: Paths to Building a Different World

"When I was egg, I too, clung onto leaf

in shaded safety, hidden underside.

And fastened by a pinprick of belief

I dared to dream I was a butterfly.

A hunger hatched. I ate the home I knew

then inched along the disappearing green.

In shedding every skin that I outgrew,

became a hundred times the size I’d been.

And now I’m spinning silk to fix my spot.

Outside remains. Inside I’m changing things.

This caterpillar’s planning on the lot;

proboscis and antennae, four bright wings.

So keep on clinging on, my ovoid one.

For who you are has only just begun."

-Rachel Rooney, “Advice from a Caterpillar”

Nostalgia is a sanctuary.

Nostalgia is a cage.

Both truths can exist simultaneously, and how we interact with nostalgia can shift violently depending on how we approach it. Whether it is a source of movement or stiffness depends entirely on us. For some, nostalgia is a link to past joy and connection. For some, nostalgia is a burden and an obligation. For many, it’s both. I am speaking to the type of nostalgia that can often have us feeling trapped.

Our strict obedience to nostalgia can come at such a high price. In adhering to recreating how things have been in the past, we miss the bountiful opportunities to reset the stage for how things can be in the future. We forgo our own needs, comfort, wellbeing, and imagination to chase the feeling of an experience long past. We find ourselves disappointed when our new experience is inevitably different from the old one that brought us so much joy.

An alternate thought: What if instead of trying to recreate the specificities, we focused on furthering the spirit of the occasion and celebrated the differences? Is choking down Grandma’s terrible holiday meatloaf more necessary than trying something new and delicious? Can we collaboratively cook something different with Grandma that both delights and reminds us of her? Does insistence in recreating specificities detract from enjoyment of the current moment?

Comparison is the killer of creativity.

In very small doses, comparison can provide a framework for our advancement. It can show us what is possible, highlight our differences so they can be celebrated, and motivate us to grow. However, as soon as we engage with comparison in a way that has us doubting or questioning our worth, we’ve crossed into problematic territory.

Experiences are not static and even memories shift slightly each time we recall them: the human mind is notoriously inaccurate at recollection, especially when you factor in gained time, perspective, trauma, and additional experience– A memory may change drastically when seen in a new light. With that in mind, maybe we can work toward the idea that exactness and precise repetition isn’t required for us to feel safe and connected. Patterns that no longer serve us, or actively hinder us, can be unwoven. Behaviors that harm ourselves or others can be reimagined and implemented without worrying about what we might lose.


The last couple years have birthed and bound this narrative of “going back” to “normal”.

How tragic.

If we are going to spend all this time, energy, and momentum on something, why would we want to spend it trying to go back to a world that doesn’t even support the vast majority of people? The rhetoric around the “good old days”, when not explicitly toxic and innately oppressive (“back when men could be men” or “children should be seen and not heard”), is always sold from a lens of hierarchy and oppression of someone.

People are exhausted, for some the situation is literally life or death, and it is a privilege to be able to have enough breathing room to even have the conversation about doing better. But those of us able to have the conversation and implement changes absolutely must for the sake of those that are simply trying to survive, much less thrive, in this chaos of our creation.

If the system was and is working for you, that’s great. But it absolutely wasn't and isn’t working for many others. It is imperative that we listen to the latter voices when we talk about building something new: by addressing the needs of the people in our communities that are historically the last to be addressed, the resulting society will work for all of us, instead of just some of us.

What might this process look like for those of us that have found a lot of ease moving through the world thus far? There will undoubtedly be perceived “costs” and perceived “losses”. There may be the narrative that we are “sacrificing” or “having to give up” comforts and positions we’ve grown used to or feel like we’ve earned. We, individually and collectively, will need to shift, adapt, and allow room for others: something that will most likely be challenging and uncomfortable. There will also be immense, immeasurable benefits for all of us. If you find meaning looking at things in terms of “worth”, it will be worth it.

When nostalgia feels like a cage instead of a sanctuary, can we allow ourselves the space to

...IMAGINE...PRACTICE...CREATE... a different world?


Author’s note: By no means are these new ideas, nor are they all-encompassing. My lens is limited, I will make mistakes, and I have a lot to untangle and divest from in myself. My perspective is a product of the many years of active work and experiences of those before me, many of whom were and are coming from Black and Indigenous communities. Recent foundation work from Tricia Hersey/The Nap Ministry, Shelagh Brown/ Herbanhealing, Samantha Zipporah, and Sonya Renee Taylor around challenging the dominant narrative and imagining a different world have been enormously instrumental. Special thanks to Wambui Njuguna for building space for these discussions to happen. Please tangibly support all of their work passions, and joy.

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