I’m writing this blog post from the road, in transition between my life in downeast Maine, about which I wrote in my last post, and my life in central Illinois. Right now I’m sitting across the table at a café in Portland, with my amazing niece, Isabelle, whom I haven’t seen since Christmas, and who herself is in transition between colleges in Washington state and upstate New York. This past weekend I hosted a retreat, with several women who are also feeling acutely the experience in-between: constricted by too-small beliefs that once served them—and once felt big! —though not yet in possession of new ways of thinking and the habits and routines that anchor them. My kids, who will meet me in an hour after shutting up our cabin for the winter with their father, are also in transition, heading into new school years (7th and 10th grades), replete with new backpacks, teachers, friends, discoveries and challenges and identities. And just now, as the waitress refills my cup of tea, I notice the softly scalloped holes in her ears left by absent gauges, and wonder why she chose not to wear them today: what did they signal to her when she put them on in the first place? How does she feel about that version of herself that perhaps no longer fits?
As beings who are aware of our own mortality, and who therefore experience time as both discrete and contiguous (past, present, and future), the sensation of being in-between is the condition of conscious life. This is important to remember, because we in the personal evolution movement spend a lot of time talking, often in the same breath, about the importance of being present and also of being positive, as if these qualities of mind and emotion are the two halves of the whole we seek. But by championing the practices of presence and positivity in this fashion, our rhetoric can unintentionally appear to eschew vital human feelings that serve, rather than sabotage both the practice of presence (awareness, attention, equanimity) and positivity (choosing to focus our minds on thoughts that benefit us and others). I would describe these feelings as those of healthful mourning: longing, loss, sorrow, and grief.
These feelings, so particularly (though not only) endemic to the human condition, are not at odds with feelings of happiness, hope, and joy. In fact, I would say that mournfulness and ecstasy are more aptly described as two poles of a continuum. To mourn is to ache for that which one once cherished. Ecstasy is to inhabit the act of cherishing, of being cherished, or both. The great poets and philosophers knew this, perhaps none more keenly than the romantic poet, John Keats, who reminds us that “Ay, in the very temple of Delight / Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine….” In a later post I’ll talk about this poem in more depth, and the important difference between mournfulness and less helpful states of being like guilt and shame, but for now, I want to say yes, Keats: yes to melancholy, to the sweetly sad feelings of loss, longing, and sorrow.
Yes, that is, to embracing, not resisting transition.
Contrary to some well-intended rhetorics of positivity, the mournful or melancholic emotions don’t take us out of the present, but bring the present more palpably into relief by calling our attention to its situatedness—its indebtedness to the past, and therefore its anticipation of the future. In other words, by allowing ourselves to inhabit the melancholic ache inherent in moving on, we can feel even more fully the roundness of the particular moment we’re in, it’s aliveness: how it inhales and exhales into a body larger than itself, how it pulses in relation to history and hope.
Why is this? I can’t say exactly, but I know it has something to with my life-long habit of collecting shells, rare feathers, and ancient rocks. It also has something to with my love of language, how the very act of utterance betrays our fundamental dependence on what’s just happened in the service of moving ahead, of making-story, of making sense, of stitching together memories and thoughts in an effort to reason and discover and create.
In my last blog post I told a personal story to illuminate the difference between manifesting and manipulating in order to attract what we want in life, and in doing so I paid homage to the “process of loss that this journey entails, and the rewards of letting go.” As I make my way back to Illinois with my children tomorrow, where, for the first time in 22 years I won’t be returning to the university classroom so that I can focus full time on growing my coaching business, I recall a poem I wrote called “Riptide.” I’d like to end this post by sharing this poem with you, a poem in which I attempt to honor the experience of transition even though—or because—I lament it.
Straight south from rocky beach waves furl
silk sheets into the whorl
of current where river tugs
against the suck of sea, a glinting
swarm of knives the only praise or protest
we can read: scrolls of plankton, slick-backed smelts,
black-finned mackerel and flowerbeds of kelp
held in communion
by the moon’s script
now ripped and writhing
in the surface of barely filtered glare
where, spray-drenched and dreamlike
loom the margins of this universe: Salt, Round, Bare—
the islands, quilled with spruce and larch
flanking the seaward route
while to the west the wide slow band of mainland
bends around to one white steeple
poised above the town.
Already I’ve begun to mourn
the way perspective rights
itself, the body
shifts quick as wind
towards what’s ahead
while where we’ve been sloughs off
like an abandoned shell,
its hollow core too heavy to withstand
the undertow, tossed ashore,
clean as bone,
something I might bend
to marvel at, take home.
Have a beautiful week!