I’ve driven back to my past. Almost two decades worth of time travel which took less than two hours. Two comfortable hours, through mist, past cows in fields, on highway and we are here.
I visited Waikato University in my final school year as a favour to a friend who thought she might study science here. It was the quintessential Waikato day with a needling, chilling mist that settles against bones and weighs upon, well, your sense of hope. Thank God it’s not me, I thought, shivering, whilst giving her encouraging glances. Until, that is, I read the course brochure which described exactly what I was after. Cue heart-sink. Less than a year later I was in Hamilton and she wasn’t. Go, as the Americans say, figure.
Today, I parked my car in a familiar car park and stepped through puddles towards the University library. The old “K” building loomed ahead of me. It looked exactly the same. Not grey, more of a dirty cream, square and seemingly purposefully uninspiring. Exactly the sort of place you should house your Arts and Social Sciences students. As if we didn’t have a propensity for depression in the first place. It made me smile.
I watched students holding bags over the heads to shield themselves from the rain (as I had done, always forgetting / losing an umbrella) and others ambling with smartphones in front of their faces (as I had never done, they didn’t exist). The fine rain, ever-present and smothering, was a kind of comfort. So too were the concrete buildings steadfastly resisting curvature. Solid and earnest, just as I remember them. But some things have changed. The dark, squat and musty library has been renovated, now clad in glass, rooms full of computers and power points at each desk. There is art on each floor. Art! And….wait for it…a water feature. Not the kind that used to form down pathways when it rained too hard in the winter, but a snazzy, interior stone wall that smells of chlorine and reeks of style. My seventeen year old self wants to laugh and declare “Get. Out.”
Coming back to Hamilton jogs a thousand memories; unconnected, random and vivid like ragged, glittering confetti. It’s so strange how memory works like that. I can remember, quite clearly, bits of banal conversations had on particular streets, horrible tartan trousers I loved, the grinning face of a friend as he carries a plastic jug of beer. And yet important things, more significant things, are blurry or missing. My graduation I’d worked so hard for but in the end didn’t care much about. All those teachers who taught me (I remember less than a handful, only one very well). Yet in an instant I’m practically right there sitting on the sun-soaked couch we’d dragged out onto the lawn at the end of my second year or grocery shopping with my flat-mates, dancing at impromptu parties, talking till 3am, relishing all the bright, sparkling new ideas, new friends, ten thousand glasses of beer, beautiful faces…mainly laughing.
What I am supposed to be doing, instead of staring out the new Waikato Uni library windows, across fields and tall oak trees and a pigeon-coloured sky that seems to go on forever, is reworking a manuscript for submission. It’s fitting because the protagonist in my manuscript is spending a fair bit of time in her memories. She recalls whole scenes from her past; scenes she would rather be in than here in the present. An invite to a first date. A childhood that smelt of garlic and hot bread and Aunties that hugged too tightly. Kissing on a bathroom floor, surrounded by tea-light candles. I’m having trouble, you might have already guessed, moving the plot along. So this accidental journey to my past has become a kind of research. How memory comes to us, what we remember, the way we hold onto it. And then, of course, regret. It’s inevitable, no? Memory and regret bound together? “If I was to do it all again….” “I wish I had…” Silvery, whispering things – regrets. Being back here has got me thinking about how I might have spent my time differently. There’s not too much I would change but perhaps I would have held tighter to some things and less tightly to others. I wish I had done something, anything, ‘extracurricular’. I wish I had exercised. Like, even once or twice. I wish I’d taken a Literature paper and missed fewer Twentieth Century World History lectures. I wish I had eaten less junk food, read more, woken up earlier. Then there are the specific moments: conversations, decisions, actions, caught like freeze frames, that I would unpick and re-stitch – being judgmental, being selfish, being obsessive – the times I was horribly lacking broader perspective. As you do when you are seventeen [and, ahem, pretty much every year after that to some degree until you die, right??]
Now it is lunchtime I’m tempted to go back to the café I used to like for nostalgic reasons. Instead, I am going somewhere new. Some place that didn’t exist when I was here and that is light and full of glass. A place with good, fresh food. A place with wifi. Because, for all the bits of myself that are old and unchanged, there are dozens of pieces that are new. The past cannot be changed or revisited. Time travel is impossible; that is just the way of it. Besides, the future contains dozens of wonderful, unexplored possibilities. Yet to be unwrapped, unpeeled or devoured.
Besides – Student Food. Do you remember it? Would you prefer not to?
P.S. Poor quality photos were taken on my iphone in the rain. Old and unchanging: The rain. New: Taking photos on your phone… Get. Out.
So true–all the things you’d tell yourself back then, if you could. I think about that with my daughter, when she gets to the age where I’m tempted to offer advice. I know–most of the time she’ll hate me offering advice. But you just think, “If only she wouldn’t do X the way I did…” and then realize how futile such thinking is. Those years are for making mistakes and being oblivious. I cringe to think of it, but what can be done about it? Oh, I know. WRITE ABOUT IT.
Too right (write?!) The perfect opportunity to offer advice – to someone of the same gender with similar genes and our girls will be eye rolling! Ah well. Mistakes are important I suppose. Maybe that’s what I’ll advise – go forth and make a ton of mistakes. Whilst eating something green occasionally.