I took a step back on the cold tiles, my hands and face smudged in blue paint.
I looked up to my wobbly writing on the white wall of the little mismatched room I had shared with an extraordinary young woman until a few days before. In a rare moment of inspiration I had taken out a bottle of blue paint and a clean brush and left our signature on that wall:
“Go with the flow.” Our motto, our mantra, our inside joke.
We were both volunteers in a small kibbutz in the North of Israel. We did not know each other until the moment I walked into her (and then our) room, a sweaty disoriented mess. We clicked almost immediately; our bond was and still is something really special. Soon, we were spilling our souls open in deep, honest conversations in the late hours of the night under the beautiful starry sky. “Go with the flow” came out of my mouth almost as a joke during one of those talks and she loved it so much it became a daily sentence, then our motto.
In the long haze of lazy hot summer days, it was the magic phrase that would snap me out of worrisome rumination about the future or deeply detailed analysis of my past mistakes, invariably followed by a suffocating wave of guilt and self-reprieve. I had just broken up with my first serious boyfriend and was struggling to come to terms with some of my behaviours of the previous year.
Slowly I learnt to let go, to accept my past actions and live each day as it came.
It was easy to say “Go with the flow” then. We had very little worries and heaps of spare time. As volunteers, we had to do our jobs in the morning but we could chill for the rest of the day. We were free of any pressures or expectations. We were immersed in a culture that doesn’t stress. The standard response when my friend would worry from the lack of organization would be, “Everything will be fine.” And it would truly be.
Reality hit hard when I returned to England for the start of the academic year. I missed my friends, my family, the warmth, the deep connections and soulful talks. As a third year medical student on my first placement in hospital, I was struggling with the reality of illness and death.
My first attachment was in a lower GI surgical ward, which meant that most of the patients had colorectal cancers at different stages. Most had a brand new stoma bag (to control stools) and some were struggling to accept it. Going with the flow turned from a mantra to a chore I dutifully repeated in the morning while I got dressed. In reality, I was never more disconnected from my present and so deeply stuck in the muds of the past: the slightest smell, joke or expression reminding me of Israel would trigger a flood of tears.
Slowly as the months passed, I started to understand that going with the flow means also accepting the hard, difficult days, when the only place I wanted to be was my duvet. It means accepting the unsettledness which comes with changing—and my life was changing so much! It means hanging there, waiting for the storm to pass and for us to feel strong again. It implies accepting difficulties and knowing that everything is temporary. Joy and sadness, happiness and grief, success and being broke, health and illness…all shall pass.
This is why I try to take each day as it comes and focus on the present, because that’s the reality I can act on. Yesterday lies in the past, written in the changing sand of our memory. Our future lies far ahead, barely visible like a faraway land at sea slowly emerging from the mist of the horizon. Sometimes the wind is on our back and it’s easy to reach it; others the wind is on our prow and the navigation is challenging. This is what sailors call close-hauled, which means keeping the closest angle to the wind. It involves veering multiple times, the longest route, a lot of work and the feeling of flying through the waves, the wind and the gentle salty spray on my face. This is the image I keep in my mind when I’m frustrated and my goals seem to be slipping through my fingers. Sometimes it takes patience and you need to approach your goals sideways, taking a wander through the deep waves of life. Sometimes it takes hard work and the determination to keep going focusing on the present tasks, just like in the hard middle miles of the marathon when I have learnt to focus only on my breathing and on putting one foot in front of the other, running the mile I am in.
This past year has been drenched in change. I feel I have painfully burnt down my old self and grown stronger from those ashes, like a phoenix. My understanding of “going with the flow” has changed as well, and I appreciate this message even more. It encourages me to live in the moment but not vapidly. To be fully there in the present moment and not let my mind race ahead or stick in the muds of the past. It doesn’t mean screwing around and messing with people lives because I feel lonely or empty, or not putting any effort into pursuing a career I love. It means to live each moment as if it’s your last because you never know when life is going to flip upside down.
I have seen so many patients in hospital whose life has changed in the matter of seconds. Not hours, days or weeks. Seconds. It still strikes me how small the scale of the things is which turn a life over. So live life to the fullest. Accept that job offer or place in a university far away, in a different country even though it might sound crazy. Or drop everything and buy that one way ticket to travel around a different continent if this is your dream. Life doesn’t wait.
This summer my feet found the road to the kibbutz again, almost on their own will. The room was still there, barely changed. Other volunteers were living in it. I stepped in hesitantly, still drowsy from 24 hours of uninterrupted travel. I looked at the wall, my wobbly writing was still there untouched. I followed the outline of every letter, the little smudges where the paint had run. The past year came flooding back and I savoured those words in my heart. Now I knew the deepest meaning of those words for me.
Go with the flow.
Author: Sara Tomassini
Editor: Caroline Beaton
Image: Courtesy of the author