It has become an unexpected theme these past few months, as I’ve processed out loud the heart wrenching and messy and beautiful process of saying goodbye to one chapter and heading into a new one. This week, the transition is reaching a pinnacle, as I move out of my Kansas City house I’ve called home for three years, say goodbye to the dear friends I’ve shared life with over the last five years.
The process of transitions seemed to mirror my experience of hiking on the unfamiliar mountain trails that I went on these past few weeks while housesitting for some friends in Denver.
Most adventures involve feeling lost at some point. Thinking back on the hikes, it’s the moments of uncertainty that made the journey memorable. It’s the unplanned routes that lead to the most breath-taking vistas. And yet, in the midst of it, sweaty and thirsty, and more out of breath than you should be for a healthy young person, you feel it all. The panic of feeling lost, the drudgery of the uphill stretches, the relief at discovering you are on the right trail and the moments of awe on the crest of the mountain.
Always, transitions move us forward.* “Further up and further on” as C.S. Lewis calls our invitation into more. Below is the description of the journey that I’ve been on that has mirrored the adventures my feet are traveling.
The Dead End
The comforting, well-worn path peters out into a copse of trees. Squinting in the high-altitude sunlight, I peer beyond the boulders for the continued path. The well-worn grooves of the path melt into the pine-needled floor. Unfolding the crumpled map I slipped into my back pocket, I try to make sense of the tangled ribbons of multicolored trails, feeling more disoriented by the moment. Glancing around for a boulder, I sit down to catch my breath and take some gulps from my lukewarm water bottle. As my breaths come in more steadily, I take in the valley stretching out below the bluff I’ve come against. Glaciers of cloud shadows glide over the evergreen carpeted foothills ahead. Off in the distance, a purple bruised sky threatens rain. My plan for the 3.2-mile trail that my friend recommended is decidedly not what I am on, I figure, studying at the map again.
We may know the end of a road is coming (a graduation, the end of a lease). Or the end may come abruptly and unannounced (the end of a relationship or the loss of a job). Either way, a “dead end” always involves a death of “life as we currently know it.” Sometimes these ends are tangible and external, but there is a multitude of deaths that we experience that are more subtle and internal.
A dead end may come in the form of the end of a “honeymoon period” in the newness of a relationship. Or it might be the loss of your sense of wholeness in a season of failure, depression, or woundedness. It can even be the feeling of loss we experience as our own preconceived ideas about how the world works unravel.
The dead end I faced this past year was a culmination of so many of these things. The realization that the career I was in wasn’t for me anymore. The decision to travel which meant letting go of the place I’ve called home. I’ve experienced many small deaths to my idea of “certainty” this past year as things I thought were definite became more unclear.
The thing about dead ends is that have to name them. See them for what they are, and then turn around. The only way to move forward is to get back on the path.
A Fork In the Road
Resituating my backpack on my shoulders, I start retracing my steps. I remember that a half mile back there was a signpost, so I make that my goal. It’s uphill terrain, the roots of the pine trees making steep stair steps further and further up. I get to the place where there’s a fork in the road. I could turn right. I know that a ways down the path is the parking lot, the map with the reassuring “You Are Here” arrow. Or I could turn left. The path continues up, switchbacks preventing me from seeing the final destination. With another cursory glance towards to storm clouds on the horizon, I turn left and continue up the slope.
In the wake of our deaths, we are faced with a choice. A strong pull within us for self-protection and self-preservation calls for staying put or turning back. But there’s another whisper inside us as well. The call to adventure. The call to live life to the fullest possible extent.
And that involves risk. It involves the challenging work of moving forward, even in the uncertainty. Life is found in forward motion, not back. Retreating, refusing to move on will either result in unhealthy fantasy or ever intensifying bitterness.
We live in a universe that is always moving forward. Inner transformation happens when we join in this unfinished business of transformation that all of Creation is undergoing. When we choose the riskier path of inner transformation.
All bravado from the fork in the road ebbs away with the wind whistling through the juniper leaves. What if I’m heading further away from where I wanted to go? What if I hit another dead end and I have to turn back, this time five miles away from my car? What if it starts raining? The rustle of leaves makes my heart go into double time. Moments later, my eyes roll in self-mockery as a ground squirrel darts across the path. My eyes search for a guidepost, reassurance that I’m on the right trail. But all I see in my line of sight are more and more switchbacks.
This part of the journey is messy. Grieving the loss of comfortable familiarity is a part that cannot be skipped in the process of transition. Moments of self-doubt, the arrival of fear and the tangle of what-ifs are inevitable.
Before we move on to the new, we must grieve what we are losing. To attempt sidestepping these uncomfortable moments is to deny your own humanity.
I feel like I’m just getting out of the thick of this stage in the process of transitions. I knew it would come, but that didn’t make it any less messy. This time, though, rather than resisting the storm of uncertainty, I tried to pass through it. Sometimes it was a struggle just to put one foot in front of the other, but knowing that this was a necessary part of the process helped.
Staying the Course
There were no external confirmations that I was headed in the right direction. But internally I feel a shift of new confidence as I keep climbing. My senses feel more awake up in the alpine air. The distinct aroma of mountain air that no candle or air freshener can even hope to replicate fills my lungs. My eyes land on the happy yellow teacup of a flower, stubbornly growing atop a cactus. Aspen leaves dappled the sunlight above, and between the trees, a snow-capped mountain range cuts the horizon. Well, I think, I’m not sure where I’m headed, but I am here. And I love that I am here in this moment.
Between the doubt and the fear, poking through the brush like the views of the mountains, are glimpses of deep and resounding peace. Discovered by patient attention to the present moment, there are moments where we become brave enough to let go of the season we are leaving behind.
These aren’t the trite Hallmark card-sounding optimism that we pull out for talking to our acquaintances, but a deep equanimity that has come through the hard work of grieving and wrestling with the death we went through.
We find that we are able to be blessed by the past season. With all its imperfections, heartbreaks, and monotony, we see it for what it was. A beautiful part of our story that shaped us and laid the foundation, not only for this very moment, but also for the unforeseeable next season we are headed towards.
We recognize that there were beautiful moments of deep belonging and significance that named us. We also are able to honor the bruises and scars we carry as souvenirs, wounds that hurt like hell in the moment, but from which truth and growth flowed out in a way that we wouldn’t have traded for the world.
The line between honoring the past and the trap of nostalgia is subtle. With a little bit of distance between where I am now and that gorgeous view that the dead end led me too, I feel the urge to go back, to camp out there. But we cannot cling to the past if we want to fully inhabit the life we are now living. Rather, we enter into the dance of celebrating the gifts we have received and setting our sights on the road ahead. Believing C.S. Lewis’ promise that “there are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
The light starts to come down in ever widening shafts, the canopy clearing ahead to the peak of the mountain. Panoramic views dizzy my senses. My heart is overwhelmed at the shades of hills and slopes repeating into the distance. Billowing cumulus mountains compete for grandeur with the peaks and slopes on the ground, their extravagant temporariness contrasting the mountains’ sheer confidence. I resist my millennial urge to look first through my iPhone screen, capturing the beauty and not really seeing it. I climb up onto a stack of boulders, taking me out that much further into the beauty and sit down cross-legged on the sun-warmed stone. Any memory of anxiety over whether I was on the right path is distant. The thought of turning back at the moment of feeling lost now seems laughable, as I drink in the beauty of the adventure.
So what happens on the other side of transition? What does it feel like to settle into the newness of what’s next? That’s a great question. I don’t think, in this transition, that I’m there yet. I’m probably back on the path, starting to accept where I am, being blessed by the dead ends and refusing the urge to turn back.
I think the arrival feels like embracing the spirit of the new season, which looks and feels different from the spirit of the last season. It’s a joyful settling into my new skin, learning how to fully inhabit the life I am currently living.
And, at some moment, it will come time to keep moving forward. There will come a time when this season will become a dead end. And rather than clinging, it will be time again to receive the invitation to “further up and further in.” On this side, that longing for home will never fully be satisfied.
And that is okay. “In order to come to fuller life and spirit, we must constantly be letting go of the present life and Spirit.”
*The framework of thought for this post came from an article I read called A Spirituality of the Paschal Mystery. It is a chapter in the book The Holy Longing, by Ronald Rolheiser.