A few years back, with my recent status of Empty Nester, I had the strange and wonderful experience of having (what seemed like) unlimited time, energy, and space at my disposal. Like other newly free moms with whom I spoke, I decided the best word to describe it at the time was Weird. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either. I knew intellectually that there would be an adjustment period, but my equilibrium took it more seriously. I felt shock, ecstasy, and confusion all at once, mixed with an inability to sit still and a constant feeling that there was something that needed to be done when there really wasn’t anything that needed to be done.
I didn’t want to fill the void with the first impulses to come along. I wanted to leave the time and space empty for a bit, hoping that a new direction would radiantly unfold. I had a sense that just about anything could be next for me, that a whole new world was up for grabs, and I wanted to be as open as possible about which new ideas and prospects would take hold in my life. This painting asked to come to life, a representation of all the possibilities at my feet.
I chose an animal and outfit that were far out of my normal experience, a reach into the outlandish and foreign. I had to stretch my imagination to come up with exotic symbols, because up to that point I’d drawn from recollection or familiarity. Lemurs live in Madagascar, on the other side of the world, and are creatures so dissimilar to the North American fauna with which I’m acquainted, that I can almost barely believe they exist. They hop sideways to get around, have big funny eyes, and seem like a cross between a monkey and a raccoon. This may be normal if you live in Madagascar, but almost no people in my circles that viewed my completed painting knew what it was. Painting it was an act of discovery.
The Elizabethan gown I invented was pieced together from images of various historical costumes. My objective was to find attire that I have never worn, and never will on a normal day. As a child I adored dresses with fancy frills, and so was given another excuse to sneak one in a painting. The color palette and various details arose spontaneously as I developed the getup, and I felt like a dress designer, letting fantasy sweep me away. It occurred to me that when there’s no regard for comfort or practicality in clothing, you’re basically making a sculpture.
For the background I painted a simple version of a phenomenon that fascinates me. Each drop on a clear glass plane reflects the entire scene behind it, except that it’s upside down. I attempted to represent this curiosity, but without enough realism to portray (for certain) exactly what it is. Like the wide-open field of possibility before me at the time, I saw a million little scenarios of what might arise, how things might play out, who might come along, what I might do with my time. The drops are like little worlds of opportunity. Whether anyone sees them exactly as I intended is as relevant as me wanting to read my future at the time. What they are is also open to possibility.
There have been a few times in my life when big change catapulted me into the empty void, leaving me unsure of my next adventure in life. During each experience I would found myself sitting on a couch, staring mindlessly for quite a while. It was shock, which is natural. In looking back I am glad I’m not able to launch immediately into new enterprises, because the impulses for my next choices might be based on the same mind state that created my previous situation. I knew I might jump right back in to almost identical relationships, jobs, or circumstances that I’d chosen before if I didn’t allow for some reevaluation time and rest. The down time came as naturally as the shock because big change is exhausting.
So for a while I would allow “maybe” and “I don’t know” and “why not” be my answer to everything. A mentor told me to rule out nothing, to let myself entertain any ideas, and mostly to let life open doors and offer suggestions for me. This was good advice. The things I said “no” to were things that I’d already tried and was certain I wanted a fresh break from. I felt slightly rebellious, energized, clueless, and kind of giddy.
I don’t want to imply that this process is anything like easy. While I wait and watch for clues about my next move, I have occasional panicky freak-outs. The voice of what appears to be logic brings up concerns about running out of money, never having love or friends, making huge mistakes, ruining the future, and oh, ending up homeless in a gutter with fleas. (My empty nest situation brought nothing this extreme, but reminded me of more dramatic changes of the past.) The fear of the unknown could give me good reason to want to avoid hanging out with my own thoughts, but I would miss one of the most spiritually groundbreaking exercises there is: facing it anyway. Only in allowing the fear to hang out would I be lucky enough to experience the fantastic parts of big transition periods.
The Wow part of major life change, if there is a gap for evaluation, is the exhilarating prospects. Bringing out the bucket list. Saying yes to outlandish things. Wondering why you never stepped out like this before. Discovering the best stuff that was always right under your nose. Feeling braver after sampling newness. Feeling stronger after an unexpected challenge presents itself. Change can break apart our restricted definitions of ourselves and flood light into our dusty corners that became neglected due to routine and the comfort of sameness.
These glorious advantages of new beginnings would be utterly blissful if it weren’t for the fact that they are precipitated by a great loss of some sort. Tethering the intoxicating excitement of a novel, uncontaminated future is the sobering memory of something held onto for better or worse, usually for a long time. It’s not just a person, job, or situation that’s going away, it’s the heart’s relationship to it. It’s a dream held that meant a great deal. In most cases it formed an identity. In marriage we don’t just have a partner, we have a dream of staying together. A child going off in the world ends a part of parenthood that some consider the most meaningful job of their life. Livelihood is so important many people use it as the word that describes them as a person. And some would find it unimaginable that happiness could flourish without good health. Grief, anger, guilt—just about all emotions—accompany the end of the great loves and commitments of our lives and walk side by side with the vast openness of new adventures to be had. Some artists and poets get their juiciest work out of these heart-opening times.
Transitions have always flooded me with new perspectives on my old situation, almost to the point of drowning in Ah Ha (or Oh No) moments. It’s like a movie of my past situation plays in front of me, only this time I’m in the seats instead of onscreen playing the title role. I see tender and triumphant moments, but also mistakes and bad behaviors that make me cringe and groan. The regretful stuff is solid gold, though, because my new clarity gives me a solid foothold for facing it. Sharing these new insights with healthy friends (and other tools for self-honesty mentioned in this book) gets me through the old patterns so my future choices are freed from insidious unawareness.
It’s fascinating and almost miraculous how new undertakings arise in my life after I’ve moved on. Sometimes I’ll engage in things that would have seemed utterly uninteresting before, and suddenly I’m wondered how I could have missed all of the ensuing rewards. Other things move in quietly and slowly, evolving and growing into lifelong passions. Again I’ll be astonished at how a new direction will assert itself with a complete lack of conscious maneuvering on my part. It’s these parts of my life that I know better to question or analyze. My Soul is expressing itself with a power behind it that knows a whole lot more than my scheming ego mind.
Among the momentous things I gather through the alchemical process of change is a less-tenacious hold on definitions of myself. Surviving a loss strengthens my sense of being OK without a label to cling to. After experiencing the freedom (and terror!) of being alone or without my usual comforts, my every last cell gains an understanding that things outside me can be wonderful or terrible, but they do not define me. Part of me knows to stay in the movie seats instead of losing myself in the story on screen. With this letting go, I become less controlling and worried, and more able to respond to events as they occur with fresh eyes instead of reacting like an automaton, still oblivious that I’m repeating the same familiar behaviors. It becomes easier to be conscious and aware in my new pursuits and all parts of life, one minute at a time. My attachment to my story is lighter because I’ve learned through experience that all things outside me will come and go, but that doesn’t mean my sense of serenity inside has to be threatened for long. In other words, I’ve become more emotional mature and gained more faith. I still can’t admit I look forward to life’s biggest upheavals, but I can at least say I am well aware of their blessings.