For a couple of years (or more) now, I've been working at recovery from depression and other symptoms of some bad choices in my life. Many of the changes are pretty firmly established, though there are times when I have to remind myself to do what I know works and helps. During that time, I've searched for and worked at understanding what needed to change to keep from making the same mistakes again. And, with a lot of help from good people in my life, I've been successful.
For a long time I've been afraid, unable even, to think of what my life might look like in 10 or 15 years. I won't say it's easy now. As little as six months ago, when asked that question, I was completely stumped. I couldn't imagine my life 10 years from now. I wasn't ready to accept that I had responsibility for deciding more of my future than a few days or weeks at a time. I think that's pretty normal for someone who is grieving. I've often suggested to those I've worked with who were grieving not to look any farther ahead than they could cope with, even if the most future they could tolerate was five minutes. When the future for which we've hoped is shut down by some loss, it can be painful to imagine how we'll manage a different future. In times like those, it's easier to imagine a future two days from now than it is to imagine two years from now. We can imagine making it two days, but not two years.
As the work of grief is done, the future begins to open up again, allowing new ways of thinking and dreaming to emerge. I am sensing that in my self now.
Something shifted inside me while I sat on a beach in Oregon last week. The sun had set, but there was still light in the sky. The fog was moving inland, lowering the sky. Looking out at the surf, it was hard to tell where the ocean ended and the sky began. The whiteness of the churning surf blended beautifully with the swirling clouds of fog blowing in to shore.
I sat on the beach, legs crossed, shoulders relaxed and back straight. My arms rested on my legs. I steadied my gaze on a rock just past the shoreline. I let my thoughts wander, not allowing my mind to attach to any one of them. As the last light of the day faded, it felt as though the sky was closing in around me. The rhythmic crashing of the waves on the shoreline was my mantra, a way of bringing myself back into the moment. It was uncomfortable sitting there while the light faded. I felt some fear emerge. I wanted to stand up and walk or leave. I wanted to control the moment by heightening my attention to the surroundings around me instead of trusting that I would be alright. I continued on past the discomfort and for a brief time felt my self slowly blend into the landscape around me. It was a powerful experience, though it lasted for a short time.
I got back in the car and headed back to Portland, but I continued to reflect on the experience. The question of what I want to be doing in 10 years kept popping up. I felt the same discomfort at first thought of the question that I did when I was sitting on the beach meditating, so I sat with the discomfort and breathed my way through it, instead of escaping to another question or thought that was less uncomfortable. On the other side of the discomfort was a greater sense of agency and hope. For the first time in a long time, I felt ready to take responsibility for a longer view of my future.
As I felt that, it became more obvious to me what some of the blocks have been, some of it views on middle age and what a responsible person my age or a person 10 years older than me should be doing, some of it regret and shame about what I've failed to achieve in the last 10 years of my life.
On the return flight, I read Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. Some friends gave it to me after they read it a few weeks ago. In the book, Lindbergh uses the metaphor of a shell to reflect on the different stages of her life. She imagines her life as a series of shells lined up, each stage represented by a different kind of shell. Her reflection on transitioning into middle age named beautifully for me what I think has been trying to take shape in me for some time now:
We Americans, with our terrific emphasis on youth, action and material success, certainly tend to belittle the afternoon of life (her term for the period from forty or fifty on) and even to pretend it never comes. We push the clock back and try to prolong the morning , overreaching and overstraining ourselves in unnatural efforts....In our breathless attempts we often miss the flowering that waits for afternoon.
For is it not possible that middle age can be looked upon as a period of second flowering, second growth, even a kind of second adolescence? It is true that society in general does not help one accept this interpretation of the second half of life. And therefore this period of expanding is often tragically misunderstood. Many people never climb above the plateau of forty-to-fifty. The signs that presage growth, so similar, it seems to me, to those in early adolescence: discontent, restlessness, doubt, despair, longing, are interpreted falsely as signs of decay. In youth one does not as often misinterpret the signs; one accepts them, quite rightly, as growing pains. One takes them seriously, listens to them, follows where they lead. One is afraid. Naturally. Who is not afraid of pure space--that breath-taking empty space of an open door? But despite fear, one goes through to the room beyond.
My life has not followed a typical pattern. What precipitates the sense of emptiness for me is different than it is for those who marry and have children and watch them grow up and move away from home, the events that prompted Lindbergh's reflection. The sense of urgency is no less intense, and the feelings of discontent, restlessness, doubt, despair, and longing that she names are every bit as real for me. I don't look on the next 10 years of my life in the same way I saw 30 from the vantage point of my 20-something self. I am more deeply aware of limits, but the future is still wide open. Maybe in accepting the limits, I gain a greater sense of responsibility for the choices made about the future. The choices can be safe, or they can be risky. Maybe what happens when I look at the future now is a deeper awareness of the great temptation to choose what's safe.
The path I choose to take to reach the place I want to be in 10 years is going to require a lot of uphill climbing. The fear that's led to inaction, that's kept me in the place of not-quite-a-minister, not-quite-a-clinician, not-quite-a-PhD, not-quite-in-a-relationship means taking steps in middle age that I had the opportunity to take when I was younger. It will be harder now, because I'm aware of the time lost. Shame litters the path creating barriers that I must climb over. The difference now is that I recognize the hard work ahead AND I believe it's possible to do it.
I don't know why I've fallen into the trap of thinking life is nearly over, though I do recognize that culture's voice has likely played a large part in convincing me it is. Or, maybe it has something to do with the fact that with this last birthday, I'm now officially older than my dad was when he died. Life isn't over. A stage in my life is done, but there's much more that lies ahead. My life will not be my father's life. My life will not be my mother's either. It will be my life, and in saying that, I am making the commitment I know is necessary to take responsibility for those choices that will make it my own life.
May it be so.