I have, as I’m wont to do, been thinking a great deal lately. The topic over the last few days has been on the progression of life, and our relationships within it. I am, as I’ve noted elsewhere, starting medical school in August. My path to medical school was such that it ripped almost everything away from me that I’d had before then, for the promise of newer experiences to come.  A career, a relationship, financial security, friends, time, and a vision of myself–all have been sacrificed upon the bloodied altar of medical school admissions, mingled with the blood of countless others who have walked the same path or, worse, fell by the wayside, unable to summon the necessary strength to go on.

Holding On

I’m moving out of my apartment right now, and the experience is already wearing on me. Despite brutal cullings of my possessions in previous moves, I still have too much stuff. I understand now why those monks in saffron robes decline to own anything. It has nothing to do with spirituality, they just don’t want to move the crap when it’s time to change monasteries. Harder, though, are the reminders of my past.

Here, an origami flower, kept safe after she’d made it for me, just for fun. She didn’t know then that I liked her, nor that we’d end up in an eight-year relationship. Eight years, and the flower is less crisp than before, but it has travelled over 4000 miles and its colour is still bright. It’s a reminder of her, as she heads to the other side of the planet, and I disappear so thoroughly that I might as well have. Medical school was the final hammer-blow to that relationship, although the friendship that began our journey together somehow survived, and we part as friends with rueful glances.

A picture of my grandfather. An infantryman in the Second World War, he was so proud of my flying. Watching the aircraft overhead in the war, they’d represented a higher craft than he’d ever been able to do. He’d been almost a father to me as I grew up, and held me highest in his regard. I recall his disappointment when I stopped flying to pursue admission into medical school, and I was never able to express to him the driving urge, right at my core, that made any other path less fulfilling. He never heard that I got accepted–he died almost a year before that decision was made.

Piled high, endless textbooks, mementos of my academics over the years. Each yields a memory of where I lived when I took that course, and of the people I knew.

In a tin, military insignia, coins, and my beret. A host of images arises unbidden. Laughter, tears, struggle, and happiness. Voices from the past tease me, remind me of faces I knew in the service, scattered now across the country and the world.

My flight-bag. Old maps, a line marking the course of a flight. My headset. A set of wings. My log-book, most perilous of all.

Photographs–of friends, of family, of old lovers. Smiling at the camera, in eternal embraces in the light of yesterday’s sun. Each with its special feeling, each with a story known only to myself and one other.

I realise that, despite an almost pathological cynicism and well-accustomed enjoyment of solitude, my life is very much a collection of the things that have gone before. That each step I’ve taken has been witnessed by someone else, and thus the threads of our lives have intertwined. To do a thing is to simply do it, but to have one’s actions witnessed by others is to have meaning attached to what we’ve done. In some instances, the act of witnessing provokes little more than a laugh, or a frown of disapproval. In others–more rarely–our actions create a ripple effect that can quite literally redirect the lives of others. To reflect on those who have walked beside us for a while is, in some ways, to reflect on oneself.

Letting Go

And yet, despite this, one must eventually let go of the past, surrendering ourself to what we are today. Too often we live in the past, or in the future, never realising the full savour of the present moment. How strange it is that the gentle discipline of acceptance should be so wrought with difficulty and pain. To remember the happy times with past friends and lovers invites that heart-bound pang of regret that we no longer see their smiles or hear their laughter, and yet who would give up their memories to avoid that bittersweet pain?

Better then, to learn to appreciate what has come before without being bound to it.  To accept that even the most hardcore, cynical, and absolutist amongst us have been shaped in some measure by past experiences, but also that we are not constrained by them.  The ephemeral future contains immeasurable potential, and we cannot grasp it with both hands if we continue reaching one hand back into the past for what once was, or we wished once was.

When we have come to terms with our experience, when we have assimilated the lessons of past endeavours and come a place of peaceful gratitude for the good things we’ve experienced, then it is possible to live completely.  Unbound by what came before, we can freely walk our path, open to what will come next.

And should we sometimes stop a while on our path, to linger over a person or time from our past, this too is okay.  Though we have shrugged off the shackles of regret, we have not forgotten the value of those we loved or the experiences we’ve had.  And if, briefly, we still experience a moment of sadness, we should understand that it’s because a particular person or experience was especially meaningful for us, and such momentary sadness is the price we pay for so valuable a thing.