"I don't think that being a strong person is about ignoring your emotions and fighting your feelings. Putting on a brave face doesn't mean you're a brave person. That's why everybody in my life knows everything that I'm going through. I can't hide anything from them. People need to realise that being open isn't the same as being weak."

- Taylor Swift

Thursday, April 21, 2016

the trap of nostalgia

Now Playing: Sommeil by Stromae (Tu n'as pas sommeil, le froid, la soif, la dalle, t'as tout mais tu n'as pas sommeil)

A couple of weeks ago we went on a road trip to Sydney, which is what one does when the oppressive boredom of Canberra becomes too much to handle.

I'm from Perth, so I know all about oppressive boredom; but Canberra has the perk of being relatively easy to escape from. A few hours in a car can take you to the Snowy Mountains, or to the coast, or to the beating heart of Australia: Sydney. A few hours in a car from Perth will literally get you nowhere.

When you live in what Canberrans call 'the city', which is an area so decidedly non-city that the notion of it being the national capital is ludicrous, it's easy to think of yourself as a city girl. Dump yourself in the vast urban sprawl of Sydney, Australia's only respectable metropolis, and you realize you are a small town girl indeed.

I stayed with a friend who is from Sydney, and he generously invited us to indulge in all the decadent glories of Sydney yuppie life; he was once a yuppie, once upon a time. We are both millennials but our lives are vastly different - foreigners imagine Australia to be a rather monolithic place, but the reality is that the cities are so different and so far apart the worldview of a Sydney-sider is very, very different to that of a Perthian. He's also male, and also a few years older than me - I'm part of what people are now depressingly calling Generation K; young women born between 1995 and 2002 who get all the misery of being a millennial with the added bonus of overwhelming gender inequality. We lived up the glorious Sydney yuppie life for a few days, and it was wonderful.

And then, when I got back to my little shoebox in Canberra, I sunk into a deep depression.

I was not happy; but the main misery was that I thought I should be happy, that I had worked so hard to get to where I am and I was so frustrated that I wasn't feeling the happiness I thought I had worked for, that I should have earned. I wanted, so badly, to have my old life back.

I don't really have much to do with the students here; I'm not an undergrad anymore, but neither am I a postgrad. I don't have time to indulge the reckless optimism of my younger and more vulnerable days. So the only people I see, in my pilgrimages to the shops, are tired businessmen and lots of pram-pushing mums. I really felt like I was in the wrong place; I felt like I was wasting my youth. I walk past a lot of fancy apartments, and it's what I want; but I'm not in the right time and place to want that. I realized Canberra is the kind of place I want to be when I am a pram pushing mum, with a nice apartment; but I'm here, and I don't have that, and I'm away from Perth, so I don't have my Perth life either. I was tormented with the idea that I might never have that; I'm not in what you would call a lucrative field, I am nowhere near being remotely financially independent, and Canberra's pitiful population and strange demographics is not conducive towards people I would be keen on dating. For all that I dislike about Canberra, it actually has a lot  to offer - its vast open spaces, the peaceful serenity juxtaposed with eerie silence that is the totally empty streets, the beautiful, beautiful lake. But eligible bachelors are somewhat rare, and I'm at the age where that kind of thing is somewhat important.

But here's the thing; nostalgia is a liar. I was not happy in Perth; I was never happy in Perth. I ran away for a reason. I've been plotting my escape for as long as I can remember. Escaping was not what I imagined it to be - I wanted to go to big, exciting places, but fate has brought me here, to the formidable institution that is ANU and the pitiful excuse for a city that is Canberra. But even though mutiny has not been all that I thought it would be, going home is not an option, nor is it a thing that I should entertain. I remember only the good things about Perth, but nostalgia has a way of erasing the soul crushing misery that I sometimes felt there. I saw my friend indulge every nostalgic fantasy in our time in Sydney, and I could tell that he missed his relatively luxurious, cosmopolitan lifestyle as a yuppie; but one of the first things I learned about him was how much that life wasn't what he wanted, and that he had also come to ANU for a reason.

Canberra is a place where people come to escape, but it doesn't have all the answers we seek. In some ways it is defined by lack, and brings to sharp relief all the things we have sacrificed and abandoned and left behind. Sydney's endless, confusing sprawl and hoardes of people were confusing and disorienting; and somewhat scary, considering Perth is very navigable. Canberra is its own kind of scary; it is a place of quiet solitude and thoughtful meditation, but as John Green points out, being alone with one's thoughts is a deeply unsettling, traumatic experience, even for the most privileged of us.

Nostalgia lets us only consider the pain of the present and the pleasure of the past; but it's so important for me to reverse that perspective. I force myself to remember the suffocating frustration of being a young undergrad in Perth, of not being taken seriously, of the small town mindset and aggressive anti-intellectualism, the endless suburbia that I detested, the river that cut between me and my desires like the green light across the bay in The Great Gatsby. Yes, my life in Perth had many things I don't have here in Canberra - pasta dates with my girlfriends, exciting blue hour romances, the beautiful skyline at midnight, the balmy air and delicious company in the early hours at Kings Park. But if I give up now, not only am I not going to just reappear into my old life exactly as I remember it, given that much of that is now lost to me forever, but I will also return to the gnawing pain that I fought so hard to run away from. I have to remember what I ran from, and to see the small pleasures in what I have arrived at - beautiful sunrises on the roof, long walks around the lake, the independence of living alone.

In Perth I lived my life in endless longing; and that longing drove me to greater and greater heights, both in Perth and in my ambition to get out. But I can't live like that anymore, now that I have the seductive temptation of what once was. I can't look back. I'll lose my mind.

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