I’ve been thinking about change: how life can change in an instant or slowly and gradually, yet how the reality of change seems to descend all at once. That’s the kind of change I’m currently experiencing. My husband retires at the end of the month, something that has been long in coming. It signals a new chapter for him, but also a new chapter for both of us and our life together. I’ve entered that phase that author Bill Bridges once defined as “the neutral zone” in Managing Transitions, his book about corporate and personal transitions (1991). I always resisted the term, as I am doing now, because transition is anything but neutral, although Bridges defined it as a state of limbo or in-between time, where it can sometimes feel as if there is nothing to hold onto.
For me, it’s like riding on a virtual elevator, one that moves between different floors or parts of my life, stopping suddenly and without warning. One moment, I’m preparing a course for the fall; the next I’m talking retirement budgeting with my husband, and just as quickly, thrust into the wilderness of “what’s next in our lives?” My life continues, in some ways, as it has before. In others, it’s riddled with questions and an undercurrent of anxiety—a need to have the answers now, now.
Human beings are complex. Unlike other members of the animal kingdom, our lives involve much more than basic need. We have the unique capacity to live more than one life at a time. As Patrice Vecchione describes in her book, Writing and the Spiritual Life, we live our lives on more than one plane. Our inner and outer lives interact; they affect and inform each other as we move between our different worlds throughout each day, each involving particular aspects of ourselves.
“I know I walk in and out of several worlds every day,” poet Joy Harjo wrote in her essay, “Ordinary Spirit.” Although Harjo is referring to her mixed race, in part, and the struggle to “unify” her different worlds, we all, in many ways, seek to “unify” the different worlds we inhabit each day. Yet we sometimes move between our different worlds as if they are separate, assuming—without even thinking about it–different roles as other aspects of ourselves come into play.
It’s a bit like being on an elevator, one that is constantly in motion, traveling between floors. Push a button, elevator moves up or down, then comes to a stop. The doors open. “Second floor, family life.” Push another, “Third floor, workplace,” and another, “Fourth floor, Exercise and Fitness.” On another floor, perhaps we step into a world of friendships or even a classroom, where for an hour or two each week, we become students again. Another floor might open to our spiritual worlds: quiet, meditation and solitude. In our busy lives, we move between our worlds without much thought, and one can seem far removed from the other.
Add a significant life change, whether cancer, hardship or even something called “retirement” to the daily worlds we inhabit, and the boundaries between our inner and outer lives, the several “worlds” we inhabit daily, blur. As Harjo expressed, we begin to realize that it is “only an illusion that any of the worlds we inhabit are separate.” This “new” world, the one where we suddenly wear labels like “patient, “survivor,” “widow,” or “retiree,” affects all the others. The predictability or routine of our daily life is thrown asunder. While we might have felt some control over the course of our lives, we’re thrust into free fall, overwhelmed and confused, riding s in a wayward elevator moving randomly between floors.
Everything in our lives is affected by the triggering event, whether illness, loss or awakening to the reality that yes, we are moving toward “elderhood.” All that we have thought ourselves to be–mind, body, and spirit–is thrust into a state of upheaval. It’s life, which is never static, but certain events, like debilitating illness, loss of a job or loved one, even this chapter labeled “retirement” demands we enter a new normal. So we stumble out of that elevator and try to make sense of where we’ve landed and how we want to live from this point forward.
When I look back over my life and all the changes—painful, scary, and difficult– I’ve experienced, ones I never anticipated but managed to adjust my life to them, I scratch my head in puzzlement. Why is this change, this impending stage of “retirement” so confounding to me? Is it that I’m facing a new stage of life that also signals the reality of aging and my mortality? I don’t have the answers yet, but I am trying–once again– to practice Rilke’s wisdom in the advice he gave so many years ago to a young poet:
…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves … Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday …, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 1903)
Suggestions for Writing: How many worlds do you occupy in your life? When has an unexpected event thrust you into a significant period of change and a “new normal?” How have you managed the transition? What questions did you have? How did you “live” your way into the answers you sought? Looking back, what did you learn from the experience?