Six years ago, I left a city that had been home for two years.
I packed up my memories, and waved goodbye to its shores, pretty sure I would never step foot again on its pavement.
Last week, in honor of a friends wedding, I came back.
The anticipation for the trip was mixed. I was excited to see friends, to dance with joy, and to see the old sights again. I was also terrified to meet the memories head-on, to remember the pain and be forced to readdress it.
I attended high school in the city for two years, and before I go further, I feel like I need to clarify that this is not a hate letter to the city, to the school, or to the people I knew. It is only a reflection of my feelings about a place in which I did not feel like I belonged, which is more of a reflection on me than anything else that was around me.
Last week, I walked through the streets I had known so well for two years, and I was both overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time. I was almost overwhelmed with how underwhelmed I was.
The pieces of my history that once represented so much dread and saw so many tears meant nothing to me.
It was almost unfamiliar, in such a distant and strange way.
I could barely identify what was new and what had been there, everything seemed different. My friend, accompanying me, laughed as I kept asking what had changed, so sure that there had been monumental changes. “Nothing changed!” she kept repeating.
But it didn’t feel like it.
Everything had changed.
Time had created a comfortable distance, a warm comfort. I felt unreachable by the pain that seemed to encompass me back then.
It’s been six years.
The last six years of my life have been the most transformative and formative years of my life.
Six years ago, I switched schools. I was given the rare opportunity to start afresh. And amidst the bustling crowds and rushing subways of New York City, I began to find myself.
At 16 years old, I began to discover what really made me tick. What I wanted from life, how I was going to get there. I made some bad decisions and some good decisions, all par for the course. Most of all, I grew.
With each passing day, I became less and less like the girl in Chicago and more and more like myself. But rather than a restructuring, it felt more like a dusting off. A clearing up, so that I could see who I was more clearly.
It’s been a six-year process that will never really end, I’m quite aware of that. But six years in, and I am so grateful to feel secure in who I am, and to be happy with who that person is, and is still becoming.
As I walked those streets, I tried to find the 14-year-old me. I searched the streets, the steps outside my dorm, the grocery store. I tried to listen out for the memories I could bring so clearly to my mind. The more difficult memories…and the good ones. But while I could see it all in my mind, I couldn’t reconcile the fact that it had all taken place in that city that seemed so unfamiliar. I couldn’t find myself there.
And I began to realize that nothing had changed around me, the stores and buildings were all the same.
But I had changed.
I had changed so much, that the me that had spent the start of my high school in that city was so far from who I am today.
That girl felt so deeply misunderstood, so frustrated, so angry.
That was me.
But it isn’t me anymore.
A part of me wants to dispose of the entire experience. If I don’t feel connected any longer, why keep it around? Why not forget it ever happened to me?
But I know that is foolish thinking, even though it was a thought process I ran with for a while.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of my grandfather’s death. Another thing that happened over the last six years was the loss of two grandparents, moments in time that forever have changed me as well.
As one does when something like this nears, my thoughts have turned to my grandfather a lot in the recent weeks.
While memories are wonderful, and I am so lucky to have the ones I do, something about memories wasn’t resonating with me this time. It seemed pointless to focus on who he was, when I am no longer the person I was when I knew him.
I found myself focusing more on what he means to me today, in my daily life. How do I incorporate him into my mindset? Do I consistently strive to bring him happiness? Do I feel his presence, despite his absence? Even more so – would he be proud to know the me I am today? Have I become a better version of myself from when we last spoke?
And I realized something.
Because it all ties together.
My trip last week, the yartzeit (anniversary of death) tomorrow, and my never-ending spinning thoughts.
The memories and my past are incredibly important. For without them, I would have nothing to build upon, nothing to work with.
If I hadn’t been so lost back then, I wouldn’t have found all these treasures on my way back home.
If I hadn’t had experiences with my grandfather and created memories, I would have nothing to sift through today.
But, and this is a big deal for someone who usually says she doesn’t know how to live in the moment –
I am grateful to G-d for all the experiences He gave me, even though I was incredibly angry with Him at the time.
Without my couple of years in that city, I would never have become the person I’ve been working towards becoming. It has given me so much, possibly even a career path. So yes, the city didn’t look familiar to me. I didn’t recognize the little details, the background noise to who I was back then. But that’s not really what matters anymore.
What matters is what I have done with those years, how I have developed them to be more than they were, to take the pain and turn it into something so much greater.
And while I will forever hold the sweet memories of my Zeidy close, they are also not the most important thing to our current relationship. More than the memories, it is crucial that I find ways to keep the connection alive, and because I am forever growing, that connection will forever be changing, and it is up to me to ensure that it never gets lost.
These things will always be a part of me. There is no way to consciously dispose of memories, and I no longer have any desire to. But I’m aware now that the past only has to work as a building block, as a foundation – and my job?
It’s to keep building up.