The Past is an Empty Shell: Time Travelling Over the Holidays

by Jessica Myshrall, Storyteller for RU Student Life

I always have mixed feelings about going home for the holidays — you could describe it as a combination of elation and dread. On the one hand, it means bear hugs from Dad, cooking dinner and watching foreign flicks with Mom, snuggling with my love ball of a cat, Grover, and shenanigans with the high school friends that I’ve managed to keep in touch with. On the other hand, it is always a stark reminder of how far removed I am from the place I once knew as home.

New Brunswick is only one hour ahead of Ontario, but the first few days require an adjustment period comparable to jet lag recovery. Life occurs in New Brunswick at half the speed as it does in Toronto. I can’t sleep at night because I am engulfed in dead silence and darkness. I get annoyed because ordering a coffee at Tim Hortons takes twice the time at home than it does in Toronto. I immediately get cabin fever because I have to depend on others for transportation. I get distressed because the simple act of not doing anything has become painfully uncomfortable for me. Yet, at the same time, I’m remorseful of the fact that although time seems to pass more slowly in New Brunswick, it does not stand still. Though the server at the local restaurant might still remember my regular even though I’ve been gone for four years, my family and friends did not become frozen in time when I left, awaiting my return so that we could continue living life as we had always done. No, they have moved on in their lives just as I have, with new friends, new loves, and new developments in the people they’ve become. And even though they live their lives in the same city that we were all born in, they have moved away from me just as I have moved away from them.

Differences stand out to me more when I return. New houses that everyone witnessed being constructed suddenly jump out at me as we drive through the forest-lined roads. Grandma’s garden has grown over since she died more than one year ago, but I have only seen it that way once now, which is hard competition for my twenty-one year memory of shooting daffodils and bleeding hearts. Mom and Dad have new glasses and more grey hair than brown. My younger brothers are taller than me and speak in men’s voices. The pizza place near my high school has gone out of business and now the students eat their lunches at the Subway restaurant that was built after I left. I sit on my Grammie’s porch and watch them walk by, but I recognize none of them. All these changes lead me to be consumed by the thought that someday, even the people I know who remain will no longer be there to anchor me to this place I call home.

“Let go, or be dragged” says the Zen proverb. If that’s the case, I’ve been dragged for most of my life because once I love a person, a place, or a period of time, I can’t really let them go — not fully, at least. I want to think of them just as they were, not as they have become. I welcome my own desire to change, yet quietly resent it when it happens without my permission. I have always been that way. When I was seven, they tore down my childhood home, and as soon as the first boards were removed from the structure that once housed my parents and me before my Dad left, I flew into a rage. They had to pull me away kicking and screaming.

I’m decidedly more nuanced about change now, but going home always returns me to that place of intense vulnerability. It’s a shock when you and the place you once called home become unrecognizable to each other, and it hurts when you realize that the places where you used to spend all your time will never again come alive in the same way that they used to. But I’ve been slowly releasing my grip. Instead, I have come to think of New Brunswick more as a place of retreat than a place of lost memories. I came to Toronto to escape from New Brunswick, but now I go to New Brunswick to escape from Toronto. I take in all the things I overlooked when my time there seemed infinite, like gazing at the galaxy of shining stars on a quiet night, or curling up next to the wood stove. My existential spin lessens every time I return, and I hope that one day my adjustment period will be just as simple as turning the time forward by one hour.

So, if you’re going home over the holidays, I invite you to do the following: reminisce with old friends, but then make new memories with them. Walk through your old town and enjoy its beauty without fretting over how much it has changed. Don’t mourn for those who are no longer there, but enjoy the ones who are. Don’t dwell on what was, but instead live what is. After all, the past is nothing but an empty shell.

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