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We’ve heard it, read it, or spoken versions of it:  “The only Constant is Change”. Scholars disagree on the exact wording of the original, but know that a man named Heraclitus was probably the first to make this observation in his writings around 500 BCE. Let that sink in and nurture your spirit for a minute:  we’ve been trying to figure out how to cope with Change for a really long time. It’s a natural and unavoidable part of the human experience, whether or not the changes feel good or bad. Some people thrive on and look forward to changes in their lives; but change brings uncertainty, apprehension and dis-ease to many others.

A certain kind of Change is particularly tricky for a lot of people; I’ll definitely include myself among those for whom Endings & New Beginnings are disruptive and distressing. In the past few years – maybe longer – the Endings in my life have felt like the freeway pileups we hear about, or are sometimes forced to bear witness to. Instead of twisted steel it’s more ‘emotional carnage’. One ending after another. A “domino effect’” of endings.

When Endings come fast and hard – regardless of whether or not they’re unexpected or anticipated on some subliminal level — they wreak havoc. An Ending may be the loss of a life, a job or lifestyle, a friendship, marriage or significant relationship. It can be a voluntary choice, or something imposed on us. Even in the most positive kinds of scenarios, Endings bring, among other things, the need to adapt to new feelings and circumstances. The crucial lesson we all learn about Endings is that there’s a process we must go through, at our own pace, in our own way, according to what feels right for us.

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I often think about how, as I grow older, most aspects of Life get so much easier as a result of clarity and wiser perspective. Nevertheless, Change is always lurking. When I’m faced with something really big – an Ending that’s rocking my world and shaking me down to the soles of my feet – I gravitate to people who’ve survived such changes and “lived to tell The Tale”. I want to understand. I want to feel that All Will Be Well; that the Ending will always be followed by a New Beginning. I want proof, in the version of someone else’s story.

Author William Bridges and his book “Transitions” (2nd ed.) is my go-to. Not only does Bridges reassure with Here’s Why You Feel What You Feel, but he outlines the process of self-renewal without sugar-coating what has to happen. Most importantly for me, lately, is the knowledge that following a Big Life Change, the body, mind, heart and spirit need a period of quiet time known as the Neutral Zone. As an example:  a  friend and I were sharing stories recently about our love of dogs. She’d lost a beloved Huskie she’d had for 15 years and went into a months-long funk. Her adult kids immediately began urging her to get a new pup.

But Mary pushed-back; she needed time to process her loss. The Neutral Zone (Bridges) is a period of rest, and also preparation for a New Beginning. Even if an Ending feels more ‘positive’ than ‘negative’, it’s still disorienting: it involves detaching from Something That Was, preparing to embrace What Comes Next. And whatever comes next may not be clear at all, when we want and need it to be.

I’ve gotten used to Change in my life; I’ve accepted that all manner of Endings will continue. My heart is lifted by the New Beginnings I know will come when I’m ready. In this period of rest and renewal, I reflect on Bridges’ words about  re-booting Hope:  “To make a successful new beginning, it’s important to do more than simply persevere. It’s important to understand what it is within us that undermines our resolve and casts doubt on our plans.”

Despite having been born into an environment that most people would consider ‘advantaged’ (white, middle-class, educated parents), I was a really young kid when major dysfunction in my household erupted. Happenings that were absolutely beyond my control created an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and insecurity. My life was upended numerous times, by the mental health issues of my mother, and the volatile and sometimes violent behavior of my father. My family unit became deeply fractured a long, long time ago; and some of its members still live in that deep, dark crevasse. I was able to climb out; in part, through my education and study of human development and psychology. But also as a result of an important realization and understanding that I grew into.

As I entered adulthood, I soon discovered the value – the extreme importance – of having Choices and Options in my life. No matter what came my way, as long as I had wiggle-room to consider possibilities – regardless of how dire the current circumstances – there was Hope. I got myself into some pretty sketchy situations during my growth years, but always had the ability to feel strengthened and even empowered by the fact that I could choose my path forward. Even when the choices were ‘bad’ , or ‘worse’, not feeling helpless and hopeless was something to be grateful for. I was, and I still am, so grateful.

 “Keep your doors open, and your options as plentiful as possible” was one of my messages to my son as he was becoming a man. (Happy to say that it’s ‘saved his bacon’ several times.) But the message is actually just a part of my larger goal of remaining flexible and resilient, despite setbacks and heartbreaks, large or small.

Recently I was thinking about this:   the vast difference between having, and not having, a ‘say’ in my daily existence. Truth be told, I’d much rather be able to steer my little boat confidently, when Life buffets it with gusty winds and gigantic waves. Sometimes, however – especially lately – the only option is to Hold On and Wait it Out.

Olha Darchuk, Artist

For a while now I’ve been on an adventure of both self-discovery and  re-invention. People and situations – along with my own self-limiting beliefs and behaviors – have begun to vanish along the way. It’s a little disconcerting. Sailing along (to continue my metaphor!) with a newfound sense of freedom , I’ve been losing my guideposts:  those familiar reminders (even if they’re negative, they’re still a kind of comfort) of my former life. One by one, a person or a situation drifts behind me and away, like passing through shoals that eventually, far out to sea, disappear altogether. Just the sky and the horizon, now.

Despite feeling liberated – which I do — there’s really no Option for me in this. I’ve accepted that I’ve had to move past my Past. To linger would have been pointless. More than this:  I would have stopped growing and stopped discovering my Self. I can think of just a few other times in life that were more painful than “staying”, when all signs, and my heart, told me it was time for a change of course. It might be a job; a relationship; a home I’ve lived in for decades. It might be something simple, like a precious memory that only brings sadness now and must be released. It might be something vague:  a subtle sensation that I’ve completed an important Phase and am ready to expand Who I Am, Where I’m Going, and What I’m Supposed to be Doing.

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There’s evidence all around me that I should be scared, or at least apprehensive, during Major Shifts and new adventures. The fact that the current unfolding seems to be happening, guided by an unseen Navigator, without my taking direct action most of the time, is sort of unnerving. Nevertheless, I don’t feel afraid – only excited. I’ve passed almost all the little buoys (I’m really stuck on this nautical theme, but it feels right!) marking Safe Waters. I can’t tell you how I know, or why I trust that I’m going in the right direction. But I’m looking at the nighttime sky now, and choosing to sail by the stars.

I’ve always been one to pay attention to subtle signs in my daily life. Lately I’ve been seeing pregnant women everywhere. If I wasn’t so far past the nesting-stage of life, I might be concerned:  I can still recall how seeing puppies everyday at one point triggered the menagerie I have now !

I think what I’m seeing and feeling – perhaps how I’m choosing to interpret my senses —  in these (mostly young) women is Optimism. Having taken the leap myself once, I’m inclined to ask (silently, of course), “Are you sure you know what this means?” A tad bit late for that question, but still. Little Thing 1, 2 or 3 will be a lifetime experience, starting with the crapshoot of whose genetic code they’ll have and whether they’ll be pliant, sweet little darlings, or, what feels like a life-long Labor of Love.  Life is never the same after welcoming children into the world. It’s one of the Big Adjustments.

But Nature, in its wisdom, has a plan. In addition to those wonderful hormones that soon blur the memory of labor pains, everything and everyone around Baby takes a backseat, so that Life – for a while, anyway —  is rainbow-hued and harmonious in its rhythm. Without Optimism, we’d never make half of the momentous life decisions that we do. Which is why nurturing it is so helpful, at any age, in any circumstance.

The Irish essayist George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) has always been best-known for his keen observations and acerbic wit. Shaw was the first to write the statement (later modified by Oscar Wilde), “Youth is wasted on the young”. Shaw mused that so very many actions we take in our youthful experience are done blindly, haphazardly, and with a kind of idiotic hope. (Shaw had very existential leanings, along with similar thinkers of his time). Shaw’s fantasy, if I can for a brief minute give my own interpretation, was a wise and experienced mind inside a young, strong body. Yeah:  not going to happen until we all become bionic. Still, I take his point: it would’ve been really nice to know then – in my 20’s, say – what I know now, about Life.

 “Youth may (in more than a few ways, from a curmudgeonly perspective) be wasted on the young”, as Shaw wrote; but Optimism is not the sole property of any age group. Regardless of how many days might be left on the calendar (no one has a lock on that piece of information), feeling like each day is a clean slate, a new opportunity, a fresh “take” is always within reach.

When still an undergraduate, one of my favorite classes was a philosophy course I took as part of my General Ed. The textbook for the class, a ‘gem’ still in my library and well-thumbed, features an essay from Ralph Waldo Emerson (another vintage thinker and writer that many others have since gently plagiarized).

R.W. Emerson

Emerson tells us how we can, every day, jump-start our Hope and Optimism. For me, attempting to nurture optimism in my heart gets a boost when I silence my Inner Critic. Here’s a snippet of Emerson’s “meditation” that I  keep by my bedside and usually close my day with:

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

So gentle. So patient and understanding. So nurturing. So full of hope and optimism. Now — more than ever — words we need to breathe in, as we exhale our worries.

As I write this, I only have a few more hours before total insanity takes over the city where I live. Here in California, aside from the excitement of a major earthquake (6.4) and numerous (150 and counting) aftershocks today, it’s also The Fourth of July. This particular holiday has been evolving (in my opinion) into a ‘celebration’ far beyond my childhood memories of sparklers and a few firecrackers smuggled in from our numerous trips south of the border. When I use the word ‘insanity’, that’s exactly what I mean. Firecrackers must feel too tame to most people, because my neighbors are now exploding small bits of dynamite (they used to be called M-80’s, still totally illegal). I’m sure the mega -Whistling Petes can be heard on other planets. And now, in our nation’s capital, we have tanks and other military bravado as part of The Fourth.  It doesn’t feel like Independence Day to me…unless, of course, the reference is to the dystopian Tom Cruise film that’s all about surviving an alien apocalypse.

‘Independence’ is a double-edged sword, and so open-to-interpretation. When I was out and about today (I’m usually a Mole Person on holidays, preferring to avoid crowds and traffic), I had an encounter that sent me into a Reflection about the meaning of ‘independence’ in my own life.  I’d gone in search of a couple of travel items (replacing a ratty luggage-tag and zipper-less ear bud pouch) and was waiting to be called by “The next available sales person”. Whenever waiting in a line, I like to observe and admire people, just going about their daily lives. I’d already noticed the young man (maybe, late 20’s) who called me to his check-out line: handsome, with dark curls framing his delicate features;  I imagined he was also a dancer, or an artist, in his real life. He looked bored, unhappy; captive? While I waited for him to scan my stuff, I made small talk:  “So, do you have a fun 4th of July ‘something’ to look forward to tonight?”

You know that thing that a salesperson does…the way their face reacts when someone takes the time to engage in conversation ? Surprise. Eye contact. She sees me. So cool. But, meeting my eyes he said, “No, I don’t really get into holidays.” I nodded and affirmed that, oddly enough, neither did I. But then this young guy went on:  “I don’t even like my own birthday.” That caught my attention and I said, with what I hoped was a gentle smile, “But, you’re old enough now, surely, that you can celebrate it –or not?” The young man said, “No, I don’t really have a choice. It’s my grandmother; she always has to have a cake and give me presents. I don’t want any of it.” Sometimes random strangers hand you ‘gold’:  they share a tiny glimpse into their lives and their most tender places. I wanted to hear more, but of course, “Next customer” was behind me.

Becoming independent – earning the right to Do What You Want To Do —  is considered an ‘adult’ rite of passage. Growing older and wiser is assumed to be the pinnacle of this ‘freedom’. But I’ve learned, over the years that – young or older – it’s actually difficult, or at least tricky, to act on self-interests while keeping yourself in-reach of others. Unless you choose to embrace a Hermit lifestyle (ok with me, I get it! ), there are instances where ‘independent’ can also feel like a lonely existence. Ironically, getting stuck in unfulfilling relationships or situations can also feel lonely. Maybe even more so.

I’m in a space now where I have more independence and freedom than I’ve ever enjoyed in my adult life. My “roots” are my small family, but they themselves are a fluid bunch. Many people around me, in fact, seem to be in the midst of personal changes that are both internal and external (changing jobs, partners, living spaces, lifestyles). Independence of mind, body and spirit is clearly a driver these days. Being able to say, “No birthday, and no cake!” without offending others seems like a small thing, but that’s where it begins. Being able to say “No”, instead of “Yes”, if you’re not feeling it, is not always an easy thing. But without those little assertions of Self in small, or big, impactful moments, others can’t possibly know where we stand, or what we stand for.

I just read a Post from a Vlogger who’d connected with me yesterday. She’s decided to move to another country (radically different from her own) and begin chronicling her new life in her posts and videos. I’m loving how many women are out there, doing things that satisfy the soul ! 

I realized, as she excitedly related her transition process (choosing personal mementos to bring to her new apartment, for starters), that a lot of my major Transitions have felt disruptive to my inner equilibrium in some way. Marriage; the birth of a child; a change of job; moving to a new city; divorce; the death of a parent; a major rift in my family unit. My Transitions have always involved or impacted other people, so the ‘ripple effect’ of change reverberated all the more. How will my husband adjust to our salaries being out of balance? How will my son adapt to his new school? How can I possibly cope with my extended-family’s ‘drama’—while I’m trying to work, parent,  and go to graduate school?

There was a period in my life that the Transitions came so fast and so furiously that I felt like I was being pummeled by huge waves, similar to an actual experience I’d had in Hawaii. After my son was born, when he was around 5 months old, we went to the island of Kona for ten days. The birth had been brutal (after 23 hours of labor, my body said “No Way!” to the 10-lb. watermelon trying to make his exit). When my feet finally hit the warm sand (my husband was setting up the pup-tent with the baby, on the beach), I’d failed to notice a large, red, triangular flag, flying straight-out horizontally, in the gale force winds. I entered the water and almost immediately, when I turned briefly to wave to my husband and son, was clobbered by a wall of water that felt as solid as a mountain. If you’ve ever been struck by this kind of wave, you know that your first sensation, after the initial body-slam, is tumbling:  end over end, flailing with arms out, nothing to grab on to but water. And the ocean, forcing itself into your mouth, up your nose and into your eyes, which have been shocked wide open. This is how my series of Transitions over, I’d say it was maybe two years, felt. Exhausting. Fearsome. Over-whelming. The kind of changes that impact your sleep, your ability to keep healthy routines, and, ultimately, your certainty that you will even survive them.

When I was tumbling around in that huge wave, knocked off my feet (and out of my entire bathing suit, by the way) in about 10 or 12 feet of water, I had the weird thought, “Ah…so this is what drowning feels like!” My husband was on the beach, with the baby. It wasn’t likely that he’d plow into the surf, infant in his arms, to rescue me. In the seconds that I was tumbling, with a pressing need to gasp for air, everything got calm – even with this monster wave roaring in my ears. I remembered something I’d read. Instead of trying to right myself vertically (struggling to find the seafloor with my feet, or, to tread water), I did my best to tuck my legs in, making my body into a ball-shape that the wave would then toss up onto the shore. Which is exactly what happened. I’m convinced I would have drowned shortly, had I not done this.

And so it is with our Transitions, when they plow into us en masse – or, when a singularly frightening change hits us, without our having time to prepare. The impulse is to ‘resist’; to rail against the confusion, the force, the nonsense, the threat; and, to dwell on the powerlessness we feel. There’s a particularly cruel irony (and bizarre logic) that drunk drivers often survive crashes that kill their victims precisely because their bodies are so relaxed (intoxicated) at impact. The body’s urge to ‘resist’ can hinder survival.

The best book I’ve read on coping with difficult or painful times of change is by William Bridges, and is titled “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes”. At this point in my life, my ‘seas’ are mostly calm; but I’ve also committed to the habit of never taking my eyes off the waves (though I’ll admit here that my Nature is to still ignore Red Flags from time to time).