When things end, the first thing you hear is all of this really inspirational talk about “moving on.” Everyone suddenly becomes a walking motivational poster, telling you all about how you need to learn to forgive and forget, how time goes forwards and not backwards, and how we have to keep our heads up. Time passes relentlessly, and we are supposed to imitate it in our persistance. Things happen, and then they end, and we accept it.
But in practice, few things are harder to execute. The world continues spinning, yes, and those around you may forget about what happened, but that doesn’t mean it suddenly disappears from your rear-view mirror. Everything around us — every restaurant we eat in, every street we walk down, every movie we watch — becomes marked with the person we were when we did those things. Each relationship can be a sort of fingerprint, completely unique in its detail and entirely constructed of mutual memories and experiences. Sure, things end and you go back to being alone, but it’s not as though you suddenly become the person you were beforehand. Things have changed, you have changed, and there is no amount of forced forgetting that is going to make things be exactly as they were before.
I have often felt as though so much of my emotional life has been spent trying to “move on” from things that seem no more escapable than my own skin. Sure, I can ignore them, I can stop giving them the life that they need to occupy significant amounts of space in my daily routine, but I can’t just pretend they didn’t happen. And it has started to feel as though “move on” is in and of itself a misnomer. There is no moment at which you leave the things that happened to you and the people you love in a small pile on the side of the road and continue on without them. It is more a slow acceptance, if anything. One day, the presence of your past is like a thousand needles pricking you over every inch of your skin; the next, you have become so acquainted with the sting that you hardly notice the needles at all.
But we are still being touched by that past, all over, constantly. We are taught that this is a bad thing, that the parts of our lives we no longer acknowledge can just be shed like a heavy winter coat and moved on from. It’s hard not to feel like a failure when you find yourself incapable of simply packing up an old love and storing it away in the attic, never to consider outside of the occasional, wistful half-smile. People don’t work like that. Time may move in a completely linear fashion, but our lives are spread around it like a spider web, wrapping around each other and intersecting at inconvenient and difficult moments. There are people from whom you will never fully untangle yourself, but you will learn to live with their memory.
The challenge, it seems, should be just that — to accept our past, and integrate it into our lives in a constructive way. We are all full of ghosts, people and cities we no longer visit but within whom we felt incredibly alive, and there is no reason to pretend they never existed. I wish I could hold those ghosts closer even, telling them that I forgive them for any indiscretion I may have at one point tried to scrub away with a ball of steel wool. Because trying to erase someone completely only makes their presence in your life more pointed — they are an intruder, they are violating your emotional restraining order and reminding you you cannot escape them.
I don’t want to move on. I don’t want to leave my past in small increments behind me. I want to take something from every experience, good or bad, and find it useful in some tiny way. I don’t want the process of recovery from an ending to feel like a hill I have to climb, one that has a distinct beginning and end. I don’t need a thousand voices telling me to “get over it,” as though I could even if I wanted to. Most of all, I don’t want to fear every new love and every new adventure because I imagine that, if it doesn’t work out how I wanted it to, I will have to pretend it never happened at all.