Kendall Hecker: Footsteps and imprints
Every day, I walk out my front door and turn to lock it behind me. I cross the front porch, take the four steps to the sidewalk, and turn left up Benjamin Street as it curves into Mary Street. I take a left on Packard Street and a right on Hill Street and walk up the steps to the Weill Hall, where I have most of my classes.
I do this walk every day, at least twice a day, oftentimes more. As the semester has slowly seeped away I have taken this path in Birkenstocks, Blundstones, snow boots and high heels. On the way, I have listened to music, or podcasts, or chatted with a friend as we strode shoulder to shoulder. These four short blocks have seen me content, anxious, stressed and triumphant. I usually find myself lost in thought, concerned for a friend, thinking about the weekend’s plans or pondering how I’ll ever get all my work done that day.
I feel as though the weight of all that contact has worn a path along the pavement that exactly matches the length of my stride and the contours of my feet, like the concrete’s muscle memory has come to expect me. I had a similar sensation last year on my daily walk to class along Oakland Avenue, and my freshman year as I crossed in front of Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall and along the bridge beside the Central Campus Recreation Building each day, winding around the Ruthven Natural History Museum. I spent a lot of time on each of those routes, engendering a feeling of nostalgia when I walk them now.
Over Thanksgiving break, my family and I drove past our old house, where I spent the first six years of my life. As we wound along the strangely familiar roads, I could practically feel my head resting against my little car seat, knowing my dad would pick me up and piggyback me to bed once we got home. I imagine I’ll find that same comfortable familiarity in 10 years when I return to campus, carrying with me a completely different life, with different worries and a new soundtrack, walking these old routes and re-familiarizing myself with the shape of my younger stride.
When I was 16, I spent a summer studying in a program in England. It was only a month, but I made some wonderful friends and became enamored with the city and University of Oxford. I remember crying as I prepared to leave, lugging my overstuffed suitcase across the dormitory threshold and waving goodbye to my new closest friends. On my way to the airport, we zig-zagged through the now-familiar streets and hills. As we did so, I wrote, “Throughout our lives we nestle into pockets of comfort, pockmarking the globe with our memories, notches of home that lay vacant when we leave, as only our bodies can fill them perfectly.”
By that point in my life, I had a lot of these pockets. I had school, camp and my family home. I had my cousin’s living room in Toronto and friends’ houses in Cleveland. I had the theater rehearsal room, the student newspaper lab and the park where the soccer team practiced.
Now, five years later, my imprint portfolio has expanded. But I have the benefit of something I didn’t have at 16: a little distance. The next summer I returned to Oxford as a tourist, eager to show the friends with whom I was traveling the city I had come to adore, waiting to fill once again the little me-shaped notch I had left behind. It was a fun day. We went to my favorite Indian restaurant and ice cream shop. We walked the same roads I had walked every day that summer. We even returned to my dorm, crossing the threshold through which I’d dragged my suitcase my last morning in England.
I spent all day trying to fill up the little crevice I’d left behind, but found I couldn’t quite fit. I could practically feel the dent, running my fingers around its edges as we strolled through town and by a beloved bookstore. I could sense it as we smelled the fryers bubbling in my favorite chip shop. But I was a different shape than I’d been the summer before. Parts had been stretched, parts refined and some parts had been moved around or discarded altogether. It was bittersweet to find so tangibly all the ways in which I was now somehow different.
My column this semester has been all about reaching back to feel the edges of these indentations, relearning their contours and finding comfort in the inevitable swell of nostalgia. It’s been an introspective journey that has forced me to recognize the transience of these few years in college that we are all experiencing together. There is a lingering frustration still left over from that day in Oxford. The idea of recapturing a long lost feeling is tantalizing, but probably fruitless.
The only thing we can do is leave the highest quality imprint possible. As I walk to class each day I try to do so mindfully, not always allowing myself to wander off in thought but rather make a point to feel the temperature on my skin and smile at strangers I pass. I try to recognize the shape I am making on the world around me so maybe I can feel it more genuinely when I return one day. We are always told that college will be some of the best years of our lives. So we should stretch as far as we can, making impressions all throughout campus, leaving the shape of ourselves up and down Ann Arbor. The more we do, the more memories we make, and the more we have to look back on years from now, smiling against the grain of a bittersweet nostalgia — grateful for the many places in the world we can call home.