Nostalgia For A Time You’ve Never Known

False familiarity in the pictures we take, draw and paint

My mom reached behind a pile of old clothes in her closet and pulled out a shoe box filled to the brim with little photo albums. She does this often around her birthday, or when family members she hasn’t seen in years come over, or when my little sister makes the pile of old clothes fall to the ground as she reaches for her own.

Do you ever feel nostalgia for a time you’ve never known? Photography is weird like that. There’s a black and white photo stuck to a closet in my Airbnb — it’s a woman smoking in the morning on a balcony, watching the city wake up. To be honest I don’t know where she is and I don’t even smoke but damn, I miss that view.

This nostalgia — I feel it when I look at pictures of me when I was 4. I have no idea where I am. I have no idea where this shirt comes from. But I know we were poor. I know we were barely scraping by in this post-immigration life. And to this day I look at this picture and still find myself thinking, “Sigh, those were the days.”

Mental pictures of my past are a bit hazy. When cell phones equipped with cameras became a part of our lives, we stopped developing pictures because we knew where to find them.

So now, obviously, parts of my past are forgotten in broken phones and lost SD cards.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I hate this question. I barely remember where I was 10 years ago and I was there. When I hear that expectations are just disappointments in the making, trying to see myself 10 years in the future sounds counter-intuitive.

Sometimes I long for the ability to take a snapshot of my future. Can’t be disappointed with your future if you already know what it looks like. I would still have no idea where I am but the picture would look good with the Samsung Galaxy S∞ I seem to have in my hands.

And it’s always a picture, isn’t it? It always comes back to a picture — a physical picture, a digital picture, a mental picture. Eyes are the windows to the soul but pictures are their reflection, showing moments that happened, or might have happened, or could have happened. Days that could have been but never were, trapped in a frame you could have made anything out of.

“We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? ’Cause it was, you know, it was the best.”

— The Doctor

A picture isn’t worth a thousand words — it needs the supply of a thousand words because a picture is a story that wants to be told.

A picture isn’t just the past, it’s a whole future that never happened.

I wrote a piece of fiction once that dealt with a miscarriage. I thought I would get a lot of negative feedback for not getting it right because, after all, I was a 19-year-old man. I was wrong in the end — the feedback had never been that good. A comment that stuck with me and still does to this day is one of a woman’s who wrote that it felt very real, and it struck such a nerve with her that she remembered her own experience. It’s great to hear as a writer, but heartbreaking as a person.

We had a brief conversation after that. She told me about what she had planned for her future newborn — the color she’d paint her room, how she’d teach her how to read at an early age, the chants she’d shout to support her if she were to play sports. She’d drawn a picture — no… pictures.

So many pictures.

She’d drawn so many mental pictures of what c̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ should have been that they felt real and tangible and solid. Sigh, those were the days. I miss those days. Where’d they go? Where’d they all go?

She felt nostalgia for a time she’d never known.

To some extent, I think we’ve all felt that way — when you look at old photos and videos that don’t necessarily involve you, or when you go down memory lane by sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of photo albums to dive back into even though you don’t remember the moments well enough, or when you stay awake in your bed with your head buried into your pillow thinking about what should have been.

Pictures we take, pictures we draw, pictures we paint — they speak a language that has more to do with time than with space, and it’s hard to make peace with this reality when the reality they picture is too distant from your own. Because every picture is full of a future that never got lived.

So, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Well, I see myself the way I prefer to see myself now, in a present that instantly trickles into my past and molds my future. So far, this place of unknown has brought fantastic and terrible things, but it’ll always be better than what could have been. I’m not a fan of that place.

English graduate student and freelance writer based in France. Words at Level, Elemental, Gen, Human Parts, etc. Email:

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