I don’t know about you, but I never really miss a place when I’m not there. Of course I miss people, but the place – no. I’m pretty adaptable. Put me somewhere new and the desire to explore will overwhelm my yearning for what came before. But when I visit places that I’ve lived before, my heart breaks a little bit to recognize what I’m missing. I’ve gone ‘home’ twice in the past year (to Canterbury, UK where I lived for 2 years, and Santa Barbara, CA, USA where I lived for 6). Both times I felt as sad to know what I would soon be missing as I was happy to be visiting in the moment. I suppose it’s somewhat unfortunate that I’ve lived in some amazingly beautiful places, but then, many of us become nostalgic when confronted by what we used to be.
Maybe that’s what’s really difficult to swallow. Taking a trip to a place we’ve been before is also taking a trip in time. The psychological significance of our past comes back with the place, whether we want it to or not. Last month in Santa Barbara, visiting for the first time in nearly four years, I was overwhelmed by a flood of long forgotten memories that were awakened by the smells, sights, and sounds that defined them.
Human memory doesn’t work like computer memory. Incidental moments in life often feel lost forever. When we have no reason to revisit them, they hide in the synapses of the mind, seemingly unreachable to the power of will. But when we find ourselves in familiar contexts, environmental cues that are linked to previous experiences call those experiences to mind, rapidly and with ease. This simple concept – context dependent recall – explains why seemingly trivial experiences can come flooding back with the right reminder. Stepping into a cafe may bring back the anxiety we felt when we studied for comprehensive exams there. Hearing a song on the radio can transport us back to an eighth grade dance, complete with (imagined) bad hair and a lack of confidence. Some episodes are recalled explicitly, accurately, and in detail. Others are filled in by our current knowledge or expectations about what things would have been like. Every fragment revisited plays an important role in reminding us what life was like when, who we were in another time and place, and what, perhaps, an alternative life could look like today.
Lots of bad things happened when I live in Santa Barbara. I lost my grandfather and my cousin. My parents divorced. I had my heart broken. Plus I was in graduate school, so my six years there were somewhat defined by stress and anxiety. But I also had amazing friends and mentors, and a lovely sense of freedom. Santa Barbara is where I developed my infatuation with hiking – in 10 minutes I could be in the middle of nowhere, breathing fresh air and letting the surrounding smells and sounds help me process what it meant to become an adult. It was that peace offered amidst all the chaos, cutoff from the rest of Southern California’s urban sprawl by the Santa Ynez mountains, that I loved.
I dragged my brother on two long hikes in the 4 days I was in town. Wildfires ravaged the front country for two years after I left – but the ridgelines and peaks remain so familiar that walking them felt more like I was stepping back in time than visiting from a future I wouldn’t have imagined back then. Somehow I knew those mountains, even if I didn’t really know that I knew them. Just like I knew how to reach the trailheads, but could only give directions when a turn was approaching (“oh right, turn by that fire station…”). This implicit memory, or feeling of knowing without clear episodic recall, also plays an important role in our nostalgia for a place. Feelings of familiarity breed confidence (sometimes misplaced confidence) and liking, and thus feeling familiarity should elicit positive emotions when we visit a place. These positive emotions are what we then become afraid to miss, so their existence creates ambivalence (simultaneous happiness in the moment, and sadness for the expected future when we are removed from the familiar place).
Even now, writing this article, I’m feeling somewhat haunted revisiting my past. Looking up Santa Barbara County on Wikipedia I realize that I really know this place. Or at least I knew it. But I also left her for a medieval British town before coming to an Arabian desert. These are also places that I know and love. That’s the thing about having a restless spirit. Constantly wanting to experience something new means you give up having something stable and familiar. Facing that fact – going home – points out what’s missing.