Pillar of Salt

I was talking recently with a mentor of mine, a guy who has helped me through some of the toughest transitions in my life, particularly the rough time I had starting high school when I first came to Cleveland. He moved away from town a couple years ago, but I’ve tried to stay in touch, which basically comes down to sending him a message on Facebook whenever I’m having a major meltdown. The man is a saint for putting up with me.

Actually, he doesn't look anything like this. But that's what it seems like sometimes.

I’ve been struggling this summer to adjust back to life in America after a semester in St. Petersburg. It’s not the reverse culture shock; it took a few weeks, but really I’ve gotten over the conspicuous absence of Cyrillic, cigarette smoke and shawarma here at home. And after all, it’s not like I miss everything about Russia. My American routine ultimately has a comforting familiarity to it: I never realized how much I appreciated pizza, high-speed wi-fi and non-dubbed summer blockbusters until I spent five months away from it all.

My problems run deeper: it’s a kind of nagging sense that I left opportunities unfulfilled, that I still had unfinished business somewhere on the Petersburg streets. I’ve found it difficult to look forward to the coming year at Amherst; even with a thesis proposal, comps, job applications and a million other things staring me in the face, I find my thoughts just keep returning to Russia, replaying memories over and over in my head, wondering if things could’ve gone differently somehow, if I could’ve more actively seized the once-in-a-lifetime chances that were open to me.

My mentor’s reply was that “failure should not be as frightening as regret” (yes, he talks like that; why do you think I keep talking to him?) He reminded me of Lot’s wife, the Biblical character who was transformed into a pillar of salt for looking back at the doomed city of Sodom as she and her family fled. In other words, the past is past – move the fuck on and try to do better next time.

That’s good advice, I’m not denying that. But the Biblical analogy was an unfortunate one, because one of my favorite poems of all time happens to be “Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova, a melancholic, revisionist version of the tale that ends with Akhmatova lamenting,

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

 

I agree with Akhmatova: this was a woman whose whole life lied behind her, a life surely full of joy as well as failure and pain. Who wouldn’t regret leaving all that behind? Her home was about to be smitten by divine wrath, of all things, an event she surely hadn’t envisioned; who wouldn’t find it hard to resist turning and looking back, even just one more time?

Regret is a natural reaction when things don’t go as we planned. The danger lies in being consumed by it, which I suppose is the line I’m straddling. How do we strike the balance between remembering the past and dwelling in it? I spent over two hours at work the other day just tabbing through my photos from Petersburg, over and over. I just can’t bring myself to accept those moments as they were and let them go.

I have the feeling that once I return to Amherst on Sep. 1, the bustle of college life will suppress these concerns, but at the moment I just find myself rooted to this spot.