By Alessandra Olivieri
This piece addresses the duality of memory—how it can be beautiful but also hold us back from embracing the future.
I watch the TV burst into a blur of confetti and plastic gold glasses, New York City in pixels of sparkling lights. My graduation year flashes on the screen, overlayed on a crowd of smiling faces as my chest tightens with a familiar breed of panic. The new year marks a milestone in the progression of a blossoming issue: I’m getting older, barreling towards adulthood. It’s a sentiment that has been blazing in my mind for a while, and this crisis is appropriately tracked on my Notes app. In the fluorescent pages of the simulated journal, I have meticulously collected pieces of my life thus far, documenting my favorite moments with my friends, reviews of meals I’ve indulged in, feverish existential rants, descriptions of sunsets—the list goes on. I frequently return to these notes and allow the flickers of experience to flash fresh in my mind, finding comfort in the fact that what I deem meaningful from my past will remain intact.
But what started as a means of sparking gratitude has newly devolved into a more frantic attempt to contain these slices of life out of fear of losing them forever. I’ve started reaching for my phone to jot down joyful times as they’re unfolding, worried about my ability to perfectly replicate each detail later. As my eighteenth birthday and graduation day creep nearer, I can’t help but feel on the cusp of being thrust into a world that I’m not prepared for, yearning to turn around and run towards the grade-school days of soft innocence. I’m struck by the lack of control I feel as I forget the younger versions of myself. As I lose them, I think, I must be suffocating crucial aspects of my current identity.
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I let this thinking entrap me despite knowing better. I’ve seen the way memory can consume people; I circle back to stories of who my grandma used to be, before her joints stiffened and she stopped waking up early to make pancakes. In her recounting of her own girlhood, she tells stories about glittering prom nights and first loves, which I can only visualize playing out in black and white with the grain of a silent film. She resents this changing world, or maybe she just resents her knees hurting too much to keep up with it. Her husband died before I was born, a man I only knew through passed-down memories—a person who is now only a yellowing picture in an attic and a gravestone that my mom cries in front of as I avert my eyes. Seeing visions of the past ensnare the adults around me, I naively vow to celebrate memories instead of mourning them; there is no room in my life for all this antiquated pain.
But as I age out of my adolescence, I’ll admit I’m tempted to break that promise. I find myself struggling to fight the human urge to look back. I remember it like it was yesterday, we say—not because we actually do, but because we’re terrified of acknowledging the ever-growing space between us and our memories, desperate to affirm that we are still connected to expiring moments. There’s no way to reconcile the possibility of forgetting the people who make up my world now. In daydreams, sometimes I’m sixteen forever. Sometimes I’m younger. I still have all my baby teeth. The world is just three feet tall, yet limitless and supercharged with possibility. The future is something distant and enticing. A far cry from the truth, where razor-sharp realities descend, adults giving me bad news like I can take it. Magic not being real anymore. How one day my body morphed into something suddenly visible, my introduction to womanhood swift and unstoppable. Growing up seems to come at a price: sacrificing the wonder of the past for the uncertain, shadowed expanse of the future. My inner child bursts into tears at the idea of these becoming the good old days. Can’t we just stay in the good days forever?
Ultimately, the key to navigating this jumble of past and present is striking a balance: there are ways one can shape the other without swallowing it. While I still can’t bring myself to delete my old notes, I have resolved not to add any new ones, choosing instead to focus on the beauty of my experiences in the current moment. I can reminisce about the memories that naturally stick with me, and enjoy the rest without forcing them into permanence. It’s far too easy to get caught in the sticky web of memory, hyperfixating on who I have been and how she may be at odds with who I am becoming. The hard thing is the healthy thing: to ignore the ghosts of past lives haunting the empty spaces and forge a pathway to the future. Heavy with the weight of inevitability, this burgeoning adulthood still looms in my peripheral vision like a threat—but soon, I know I’ll be ready to take a step forward and shake its hand.
As I approached this personal essay, I was inspired by texts I was reading at the time that touched on themes of memory and age. I was almost 18 but still felt a lot like a child, and I wrote about the confusion and panic I was experiencing. Along the way, I learned how I can more effectively balance the influence of my past and present as I enter adulthood. While it is arguably human instinct to look back on the good, old days, it is important to allow these moments to pave the way forward—not to drag us down.
Alessandra Olivieri is a high school senior from New York City. She believes in the transformative power of language. In her free time, she loves to read, spend time in nature and add to her small collection of glass animals.