If I had known that year would disappear, I would have made it last.

There’s something extraordinarily peaceful about driving. If you asked any one of my peers, they’d probably disagree. We dedicate a good portion of our days frantically driving from one location to the next with the hopes that we can get there on time without having to add a speeding ticket to our laundry list of debts owed. To many, the race between home, school, work, internships, Starbucks, the library, and any public place that serves food, coffee, and free wifi for the purpose of doing homework, oftentimes 7 days a week can be tiresome, monotonous, and draining. At this point, driving should be a chore and a reminder that all this time in my car is time I could be spending catching up on sleep, or on the latest episode of Scandal, or tackling my “to-read” books on GoodReads. And while I would love to be knee-deep in a stack of novels, or caught up on years of missed sleep, or watching old episodes of my favorite show, I wouldn’t trade it in for time I get alone. When you spend every waking hour of your day surrounded by other people, you have to take what little time you have to yourself, even if it’s spent confined within the four doors of a small car. At a time where self-care is nearly impossible, I take my me-time in the car as just that. Every day, I hop in my little green sedan and embark on my various drives from Point A to Point B to Point C and back to Point A, put my iPod on shuffle, turn the volume up, and let the melodies take me away.

It’s always the music that tugs at my heart-strings the most.

It is both a blessing and a curse the way a song can heal and hurt – the way music can fill the gaps of your soul you didn’t realize were missing. Hearing a certain chorus, or a hook, or a harmony can be a time machine violently propelling you into the past, or driving you to wish for a better future. It’s always the music that spirals me into profound waves of nostalgia. It’s always the music. 

Driving home last week, Betsy Lane’s “What About 18” came on my shuffle, and immediately, I’m back in the fog of my early twenties. I’m thrown back into the years that I never fully held onto, into a time I spent clinging onto naivety, begging for teenage freedom, but desperately wanting to grow up. The next song comes on, and suddenly I’m 14 again and wrestling my way through my last year of junior high. I’m angry. I’m bitter. I’m confused. I’m lonely. I’m hormonal. I’m a complete nightmare begging for someone to see me. And with the fade out of that song in comes the next. This time, I’m a freshman in college – floundering, homesick, learning to adjust. I’m 18 and tasting freedom for the very first time. The next song that plays launches me back to my glory. I’m 17 again, applying to colleges and planning to breakaway. I’m so close to tasting freedom, but so far from knowing what the price of freedom is. Another song sends me back to my college dorm; I’m opening up an e-mail from him with an enthusiasm that only the first taste of love can bring. Another one plays and I’m sobbing in my apartment senior year. Cursing love, cursing second, and third, and fourth chances, cursing the promise of ‘no matter what happens, we’ll still be friends.’ And just as easily as I’m in that apartment, I’m 16 again. I’m rebellious and mad at the world, sneaking out and smoking cigarettes on rooftops with neighborhood friends, begging the universe to send us a sign that it gets better.

As each song changes from one to the next, I am overwhelmed with a longing for days I know I’ll never see again. For people I will never meet again, places I will never step foot in again, love I will never feel again.

I’m no good at this nostalgia thing. It’s messy and it’s complicated and it hurts.

It’s overwhelming — feeling happy, and content, and full with your life today, but still finding yourself begging for bits and pieces of your past to somehow finagle their way into your present. Maybe it’s my being a bit of a masochist. Perhaps without any chaos, I feel a little lost.

The songs keep changing, bringing me from 13 to 21, to 17, to 25. To the nights that no amount of vodka cranberries, or dancing to forget, or laughing with your best friends would ever be enough to forget how horrible it was to walk away, how miserable I was, and how nothing could make me feel as weightless as I wanted to feel. Another song brought me to my college graduation. To being surrounded by some of the best people I’ve ever met, looking back on some of the best years I’ve ever had. To being young, but maturing. To being a graduate, but still hungry for knowledge. To scanning through the crowd and memorizing the look of pride on every face. And just as quickly as that song came on, I’m thrown back again to the middle of high school. I remember how tired I was. How unhealthy I was. How desperate I was for validation, and hope, and love.

I got home that night and found myself digging through old photos. Old birthday cards. Old yearbooks. I scrolled through my Facebook timeline through years of vacations, girls nights out, inside jokes, reminders that no one could ever love as fiercely, or laughed as hard, or had as much fun. I realized I was digging. Digging for the past, digging to bring it all back to life, digging for hope, digging for answers. I put my music on shuffle again, and this time, the music kept me right where I am now. Today, I’m 26. I’m complicated, and more often than not, a complete mess. But I’m whole. And that’s when it dawned on me. Why was I digging so desperately into the past that was broken, and ugly, and tangled, and shattered. What good was I doing trying to pick up the broken pieces of the past and glue them back together now?

But maybe it wasn’t just that I was digging in the past. Maybe I was digging to leave everything there. To go through it one last time, but to let it all go.

Maybe I was digging for freedom from the shackles that chained me to the person I once was.

What I found in the process of digging through and grieving over my past, is that you miss out on what’s present. You miss out on the person you are. On the things you’ve accomplished. On the people who love you, and the people you love. The person you grew up to be after closing that chapter. You neglect to realize that pieces of you may have cracked, your heart may be a little jagged in places you aren’t sure will ever heal, but you’re here. You matter. Now matters.

We are not prisoners of our past. We owe nothing to who we used to be, to who we used to love, to who we thought we were. I’m no longer that girl sitting on the rooftop, blowing smoke into the starry sky, dreaming of better tomorrows. I owe nothing to the love that came in sweetly and slowly and ravaged his way through my heart, destroying everything in his stormy path.

It is our choice whether or not we allow ourselves to break free from the bars that lock our heads up in thoughts of yesterday.

I’ve been taking a little bit of time here and there to go through old things and box them up. As long as they’re there, sitting on the top of my closet shelf, they’ll be safe with me. But I don’t need to listen to the music that breaks my heart. I don’t need to look through pictures to remind me of better or worse days. The past will always be there — a distant echo in my head and my heart. I’m sure that ten years from now, when I am truly settled into a life and career, I’ll feel the palpable sting missing my mid twenties, and just like this time around, I’ll sort through old photographs and look for proof that I was here. That we were here. That all this confusion, and fear, and pain, and mess were worth it. 

But for now, I packed those memories up and tucked them in the back of my closet. I locked them up.

I let them go.

“You will find that it is necessary to let things go; simply for the reason that they are heavy. So let them go, let go of them. I tie no weights to my ankles.” -C. Joybell C

The title of this post comes from lyrics of the song ‘What About 18‘ by Betsy Lane

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