Sunday, June 21, 2009

Transitions

Earlier this month, I took my daughter to Austin, about three hours away, so she could attend a week-long academic camp held at the University of Texas. It had some stringent admissions standards and she was thrilled to be accepted. We arrived and had a short orientation at the dorm where the 40 middle school girls would be staying, and then we walked outside to say goodbye. Some parents hovered and were slightly tearful; my daughter, who has always been independent, gave me a look that pointed me to affect an air of non-chalance. So I gave her a quick hug, told her I loved her, and was on my way.

I really was fine. And then I drove up the ramp to Interstate 35, taking in a quick view of the sprawling UT campus. Tears sprang to my eyes. I'd just left my firstborn at college.

But not really, of course, and, as my mother would say, I gave myself a shake. Only the day before, a dear friend of mine had just watched her first and only graduate from high school and was preparing for her child to really leave the nest. We'd had a number of long talks about it, which helped me understand I am only just starting to let go.

Even so, it was one of those bittersweet moments, like when your child waves goodbye on the first day of kindergarten. Being a good parent, an old friend of mine once told me, is ultimately about doing yourself out of a job. That day my daughter entered a phase where she would need me a little less, so I guessed I was doing okay for the moment.

Even when transitions are happy (and let me be clear I was so proud of my daughter that day I thought I'd burst) they hurt. When we become a spouse, a parent, a stay-at-home parent, a resident in a new city, a divorced person, a retired person--each of these changes is profound and often really frightening. They cause us to wonder who we are now. Is the person we were before still in there, or is he or she gone forever?

One of the toughest tricks to leading a rich life is about navigating these transitions with one's identity in tact while still growing with these changes. That doesn't mean not feeling depressed or angry or so scared we'd rather not leave the house. What it does mean is not getting stuck in those feelings for good. I've not had my children leave home, experienced retirement, or, thankfully, the death of someone really close to me, so my experience and therefore my wisdom on this is limited. But I've gone through a few big shifts, including a number of moves that led me from small-town Ontario to Fort Worth, Texas. And I am still finding my place in the world three years after my divorce.

I have a few well-established habits that have helped me through all of these big transitions: long walks outdoors, a fondness for novels that transport me away from my present circumstances, a certain pleasure and ability in articulating how these changes have affected me. And I am blessed with a close, if small, family and numerous good friends from each phase of my life. And all I know from these experiences is that there is no way through it but through it. After a period of time--around two years for the big stuff--I wake up one day and everything doesn't feel upside down and unfamiliar. When I finally get to that day, I have a sense of pride in myself for being brave enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even if I didn't know what was down the road.

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