Shelby Traynor describes what it feels like to see the world, future and past, through the eyes of someone coming to the end of their college experience…
For the last three years my world has been structured by deadlines: self-imposed, handed down by lecturers and editors, given to me by well-meaning friends and mentors. Throughout university I’ve learned to wrestle with them, coexist with them, do housework and unnecessary vacuuming to avoid them. Despite fighting them, they’ll continue to pepper my life like landmines—and, every now and then, one will explode and throw me into a different life. Those are the dangerous ones, the deadlines that approach with an omen-like inevitability: finishing university, moving out, starting a new job in a new city. The ones you count down to and wait for, wholly unsure of how you’re supposed to approach them. The ones I’m looking at now, slotted between everyday chores in my Google calendar. Return library books and Last class EVER and Major project due and Move to Sydney???
They’re catalysts for nostalgia, which I’ve been dealing with in almost sickening amounts—the feeling that, looking back, everywhere I’ve been and everything I’ve done and felt is more precious and fragile than it ever was before. My commute, the sickly smell of pee as I walk through the underground, waking up at five a.m., being on the train at six a.m., campus at night, campus in the morning, in the afternoon, at Golden Hour. My days here are numbered. Now when I get stuck behind slow walkers on my way to class I breathe deep, count to ten, and appreciate the koi pond to my left. I don’t seethe, I don’t hate. I just walk at the same speed as everyone else, as if being late to class will put off the inevitable. Because when you realise your days are numbered, isn’t it your job to make the most of them? To be careful with them, and considerate of everything within them? Hold them like already fully formed memories, because in the last few weeks before the deadline—the change—you’re living in the past. Where everything is comfortable.
The future is uncertain. The past isn’t.
At the age of sixteen I sat through my first university commencement speech. I was cross-legged on my doona, questioning my past/present/future, and watching Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman on YouTube: “I wanted to write comics and novels and stories and films,” he said. “So I became a journalist, because journalists are allowed to ask questions and to simply go and find out how the world works.”
And just like that, his words cut a path. I would be a know-it-all. I would be a journalist. Twenty seconds of speech turned into three, four years of life. A resume. Mentors, friends, deadlines.
Sometimes I’m envious of that me, and of how sure she was—of what, I really can’t say. But she had her eye on something and she was walking toward it—until I remember the day-to-day of Being Sixteen, and the sting brings back memories more solid and real.
Nostalgia is emotional duct tape. Hindsight can do that—give meaning to life. It can connect the dots, regardless of how illogical and separate life feels when it’s happening, when you’re too close to discern the narrative. Looking back rash decisions are destined; bad memories are pivotal; the insignificant is steeped in meaning and metaphor. Everything looks rosier. It’s easy to equate the haziness of my memories with a Petra Collins photograph or a John Hughes movie. As if I’m seeing scenes from days gone past with a stocking pulled over the lens.
I’ve been cataloguing everything: the labyrinth-like structure of the architecture building on campus; the messiness of the newsroom; the koi pond bordered by lecture theatres; the food trucks; the trees planted along the paths, and how nice they look before they die under the sun. I think of the people. I didn’t find my people in high school, and though I’m unsure whether I’ll ever be comfortable anywhere, I got as close as I might ever get—here: outside the worn down recording booths in the media building; in edit booths; in classrooms where students stand up and share without question; in a karaoke bar sometime between 12 a.m. and 2 a.m.
In Ethics we rote-learned Aristotle’s values, and courage was always the most interesting to me. The way a person can tiptoe between confidence and fear, be a coward one day and courageous the next. It all felt very me. That’s how I feel going room to room, person to person. Like I’m balancing somewhere precarious. And it’s how I feel now.
I’ve been trying to shortcut my way to nostalgia, as a sort of assurance. There are songs that take me back to specific scenes from high school—Beat on the Brat by the Ramones, Summer Skin by Death Cab for Cutie, Ruling Me by Weezer—and so now, as I walk to class for the last time, or take the long route through the city I’m about to leave, I listen to songs with the sole purpose of soaking them in memories. I want now, right now, to be a time I can visit later on. When I need it; when I’m scared. Everything is coming to an end to The Race by Oh Pep! (“Take a deep breath/Let it unwind”) or to Up the Wolves by the Mountain Goats (“We’re gonna commandeer the local airwaves/To tell the neighbours what’s been going on”) or now, to Heavy by Birdtalker (“Leave what’s heavy/What’s heavy behind”). My hope is when I listen to these words down the line, I’ll remember what it feels like to be home.
In truth, I don’t think I’ll listen back to my carefully-cultivated soundtrack and remember the past three years. I think, in the end, what I’ll remember most is leaving them behind. I wonder if I’ll ever need directions again, or if the campus will always be mapped out for me in these odd, disconnected ways. I won’t get my own commencement speech—I’ll be all the way across the country—but I did get a commencement speech, prematurely and unintentionally, yes, but it gave me three years and it’ll give me more.
The future is unstable. It’s constantly threatening to fall in a different direction. The past tethers me to something tangible, and real. There’s a life back there. It’s already been lived and I’ve already survived it—the anxiety, the insomnia, the medication. But I’d be a coward if all I did was look back. I can’t spend the next three years looking over my shoulder, or tugging on the lifeline around my waist in case it’s come loose. Instead I’ll look forward and pretend, like I always have, that I know exactly where I’m going.
Follow Shelby on Twitter: @shelbyrtraynor
Illustration: Mariel Abbene