Don’t Look Back

October 25, 2009

There’s a lot of history to the idea that one should move forward with one’s life and not look back, with either longing or regret. There’s that old saying “you can never go home again” meaning you can’t ever go back to the way it was.  People say of their lives, “I have no regrets” as if it’s a big accomplishment, and it is, to be happy with the life you’ve lived that brought you to where you are today.  There’s the biblical story of Lot and his wife, banished from their hometown and told never to look back, and not to regret leaving because it was a bad place to be.  Lot’s wife, however, could not quite forget the home it had been to them; she had to look back and she turned to a pillar of salt, just as she had been warned. 

Last weekend was one of those weekends when the past came to haunt me in spades. There were so many memories of people and activities and work and past expectations that came to remind me that my options are very different now, for as many reasons as there were memories.

It started with the weather on Saturday.  In years past, on a day like that, with weather perfectly clear, breeze light and crisp, sun beginning that descent in the sky that gives the light a clarity that it only has in the fall and winter, I would not have hesitated to hop in the car with a tripod and a few cameras and to head off for a photo shoot somewhere in the near vicinity.  I used to take little day jaunts several times every fall and winter, whenever a weekend arrived with weather like that. It’s when the air is clearest and hence the light is the best.  My favorite, most popular and most famous shots were taken on those weekend day trips.  I’ve built whole series and whole exhibits on some of those weekend shoots.  You wouldn’t believe how blue the sky will photograph on days like that, and the textures in black and white: phenomenal. 

But I can’t do that anymore.  I can manage a shoot standing in an area of about 10 feet in diameter, for an hour, with a chair close by.  Driving isn’t a problem, it’s the getting all the equipment in and out of the car, setting up, all the walking and moving around, taking equipment down and packing it back in the car that’s the problem.  Besides that, I have neither the energy nor the strength to put together an exhibit anymore, nor the money with which to do it because I am not able to work much now.

Later on Saturday, as I was having lunch and thinking about what I’d do instead of photography on such a perfect day, I got a message on Facebook from a friend in Sri Lanka.  I met her husband while setting up one of my exhibits years ago and I instantly became friends with them both.  We were part of a gang of friends at the time who were all involved in architecture and photography and we frequently got together over art and business and food and fun.  My friends moved back to Sri Lanka a few years ago and it wasn’t long before the whole gang sort of dissolved; people moved back to their homelands, others got married and had babies, and some got new jobs taking them in different directions, just the usual stuff that happens in life.  I looked at some photos on her and her husband’s Facebook pages and saw how great they look and how beautiful their surroundings are.  I miss them and the times we had back then, I miss the social scene we had created, I miss all the people, and I miss the events we participated in.  I am sorry those times are over and that most of those people are gone now but very glad to have had those times.

Talking to my Sri Lankan friend also reminded me of all the traveling I’ve done. The scenes in photos where I see them in Sri Lanka remind me a lot of the time I spent in Asia many years ago when my parents lived in Malaysia.  The architecture and landscape and even how they have described their home reminds me of Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Singapore.  I’ve been to a lot of other places around the world, too, but nothing really compares to the wonder and adventure of Asia, where things and people are so different from home.  I always thought that by this point in my life I would be ready to travel more, not less, but things don’t always turn out as planned.

With changing circumstances, though, come changing opportunities.  Writing and blogging and interacting with others who have health conditions similar to mine have created new opportunities for friendship that I would never have found otherwise.   I am so glad that I have managed to not be frozen by the things I can’t do anymore, that I have not turned to a pillar of salt with regret over what I have lost in the past several years, because that would have denied me the new people and opportunities that have come my way and those still waiting just around the next corner.

It’s different making friends all over the country, even all over the world, without ever meeting them in person, but this is the modern age where distance is no longer an impediment.  I talk with my new friend Amy, who lives in New Jersey, as if she’s next door and I truly feel no less close to her because she’s not.  I interact with people in distant, isolated places where there is no one close by who understands their conditions or how it must feel to be so changed by uncontrollable disease.  Being able to give them an understanding ear gives me a huge sense of satisfaction.  Through all of this I am also finding a voice with which to write more in the future and that is something I can do without leaving home.  Interestingly, the charge that writing gives my internal creative “battery” is not dissimilar to what I feel from a day out shooting photographs;  so in some sense and as I am beginning to see it now, the loss of one has led to the creation of the other.

I understand the pillar of salt warning in a different way now.  It’s about not looking back in a way that petrifies your future. It’s about not being so upset about what you have to leave behind that you can’t move forward in your life, so regretful that you turn into an unmoving, lifeless pillar of salt who is left behind by everyone else who goes forward with their lives. 

So, I am learning and I’m trying to remember not to look back but instead to look forward to what’s coming, whatever it might be.  Still, sometimes it is still very hard not to look back.


  1. I can understand how writing and photography might give you similar creative juice. The blessing you’ve found in writing is a blessing for the rest of us, too — I’m so glad that you’re blogging. Getting to know you through these ruminations is really a pleasure.

    • Thank you Rachel, nice to hear from you. Hope all is well with you and Ethan.

  2. Wow. What a beautiful read this is. When I was young and in Hebrew School I recall learning about Lot’s wife and Sodom and Gomorrah’s wicked ways. That they were not to look back in curiosity of other’s suffering and hence the salt. Isn’t it funny how we sometime don’t update our files to reflect the adult wisdom of allegory. You’ve pointed out a most wonderful interpretation, that maybe all adults recognize if they revisit with their advanced mind.

    I don’t have the opportunity to look back at what was, I’ve been living with MS since I was 20 years old. I never had an adult comparison to remember fondly and lament the loss. Of course the women around me who aren’t living with MS are a source of occasional envy. And like you, I too recognize the benefits of Living With It.

    I honestly feel that in spite of what I’m missing, I am living a much richer life than I would have been otherwise. Of course I refuse to speculate otherwise, as there is no point.

    And you’ve hit on the biggest gem in the MS cave- the friendships. In addition to you, I’ve met another gem or two, who have changed my everyday experience. You couldn’t have that without MS and without the Web. And if you can, I don’t want to know about it! 🙂

    Thanks for this wonderful post Jan. (and the shout-out too!) I know we will meet in person one of these days, but until then I will be enjoying every minute of our BFF from afar connection. (is that BFFFF?) 😉

    • Thank you for your kind words and insights, Amy. I so appreciate you adding your point of view as a person who has lived with MS your entire adult life. We have so much in common that it’s almost scary, but in many ways we are exact opposites in our experiences in dealing with our disease…that fact is a great equalizer for me, giving me some perspective I wouldn’t have on my own. I thank you for so generously sharing your life and point of view with me.

      Yes! your BFFFF!

  3. Jan:

    What an amazing blog; thank you for sharing your past with all of us. It made me think of how much I sit and ruminate about the choices I make and how things would have turned out different if I followed another path.

    Have you ever experienced absolute contentment; when that moment you know you are in the right place; smiling inside?
    Cherish it. Let it sit. It is rare and we do not take time to reflect on it.

    Thought I would share one of my favorite quotes: “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

    It is funny you brought up Singapore, and Asia, that was my turning point; I moved to Texas by way of NYC and made that choice in Asia which changed my life and who I have interfaced with (and will my future) Asia makes you appreciate and realize that you are one of many; and that no not everyone lives in excess like us Americans, and no there is not only ENGLISH!

    The pillar of salt paragraph shook me.

    I am looking forward to reading your blogs and will share this with other coworkers and patients here at the Neurology Institute of SA.

    Make today the first day you look ahead and smile (it looks good on you!),

    • Thank you Janet, for sharing how you have arrived at this place in your life and what the concept of “Don’t Look Back” means to you. The point you add here, to truly stop and appreciate the good moments, is so important because looking and moving forward is just not enough to make you happy, you have to stop and appreciate the trip, too. You have wonderful insight and you are truly a gem to have directing MS Services at the Neurology Institute of SA, we MS patients are lucky to have a resource, and a friend, like you.


  4. thank you for this. really, very nice.

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