• Ryan Norton

Swimming Through Nostalgia

I listen to "Dire, Dire Docks" from the Super Mario 64 soundtrack every so often just to feel something. The dense layers of dreamy synths hit me like an old water balloon toss in my backyard. That is to say the tranquil simplicity and ethereal ambience coalesce into an unshakable reverie unto which I readily submit myself. Enough big words. It's just a banger. And one that tugs at the nostalgia of my youth, something I can't seem to avoid while currently stuck in my childhood home. The song activates rosy memories of waking up early on Saturday mornings and rushing to get to the video games before my brothers... Only to find my older bro already hunkered down, playing our Nintendo 64 with an unmatched level of focus. The realization would soon set in that I'd be stuck watching him play for the next couple hours. But it didn't even matter. I had no obligations other than to offer moral support as my bro tried to rescue Princess Peach. One puzzling, yet utterly sublime level at a time.

The water levels in Super Mario 64 are always the worst. You have to constantly worry about having enough oxygen, the swimming controls aren't entirely intuitive, and some annoying-ass electric eel is always on your tail. But the vibes are immaculate, and the music is sooooo good. Like, I just want to live in that soundscape. Enveloped in the rise and fall of the cascading synth melodies just as Mario swims through the expanses of animated water. Suspended. Weightless. Calm. At peace. (Without having to worry about my oxygen levels running out, of course.)

When I recently discovered the song "Love Comes Back", off of Arthur Russell's avant-garde disco-folk compilation album Love is Overtaking Me, it immediately reminded me of "Dire, Dire Docks." Those dreamy synths again! Why does the obscure music of a gay cellist from Iowa bring to mind the soundtrack of a Nintendo game? Though coming from entirely different worlds, the two songs strike the same emotional chord within me. It's hard to pin down what makes them so distinctly ethereal—at once evoking feelings of both bliss and melancholy. With "Love Comes Back", Russell pairs the synthesizer with light, bouncing percussion and hazy vocals, as he muses on the potential for lost love to return. I've never been a huge lyric person, so I couldn't tell you exactly what he's singing about. But the feeling is clear in my head. Russell's words are hopeful, yet sober. The song seems like an acceptance of love's uncertainty.

Love comes back

Being sad is not a crime

Once you know that

Love is back

Put your little hand in mine


I’ve come to associate this refrain with the waves of nostalgia that come with being back home. I often get bogged down in the sense of loss that accompanies change, longing for simpler, more innocent times that are stuck in an inaccessible past. Sure, scrolling through my camera roll from Summer '18 or listening to old playlists on repeat can be comforting, but it always leaves me with a striking sense of emptiness. The painful reality is that it's impossible to recapture the "good ol' days", and no attempt at reliving them will ever be sufficient.


And yet, I don't see nostalgia as this evil force that holds me back from experiencing life. Granted, it gets me in a rut more than I’d like, but ultimately it motivates me to make new memories—ones that I will come to cherish just as much in the future. "Being sad is not a crime": I've been trying to allow myself to sit with these emotions, without losing hope that the love—for someone else, for life itself—will return. "Put your little hand in mine": Having acknowledged this sadness, I know I can't always cope with it myself. It's about going out and finding the right people to make new memories with. And being patient with these memories as they form without forcing their path. And yeah, this whole quarantine situation is testing my patience. It's tempting to try to relive the Super Mario days of my youth, but I know I can't afford to spend the next few months drowning in nostalgia.


Best of all worlds I see

Still afraid to look

Where do you go...


The song doesn't reach a conclusion... it fades out with Russell expressing doubt, questioning where one goes from here. I don't pretend to have this whole life thing figured out. Fear can make it difficult to accept change—unbearable, even. But when this feeling threatens to overwhelm me, I need only imagine myself as Mario: navigating unknown waters, resolved to move forward.

©2020 by ~quarantine content~.