Reality is revealed to us only in fragments. The more fragments we perceive and parse, the more lifelike the mosaic we make of them. But it is still a mosaic, a representation — imperfect and incomplete, however beautiful it may be, and subject to unending transfiguration.
-Maria Popova, Figuring
Transitions, even positive ones, are hard. They come to us as fragments, puzzle pieces that have not yet found their perfect place. In transition, we are not quite there yet, but we are not really here either. We are unmoored from the certain, the familiar.
When I left my day job as a university professor last spring with big plans for moving from an academic metropolitan area to a rural beach community, I recognized that I was in the midst of a major transition. I knew that the ground beneath my feet would seem to shift a bit, that I would feel unstable for a while. But I’m flexible, I thought. Haven’t I adjusted with relative ease all of my life? I was up for all the challenges. The changes would be dramatic — from urban to rural, from North to South, from college-age associates to retirees — but I am, after all, an adventurer.
Experience had taught me that no matter how circuitous the route to every little level of success I had achieved, the journey was exciting. So, I was ready for more. New environments. New people. New places to explore. And perhaps most importantly, new space and time for making art with total abandon. With few responsibilities, at long last, I would have time to think. To plan. To write. To paint. And to mix it all up without any of the constraints of a day job.
Then that day arrived, and the anticipated time and space darkened into a black hole. I felt unmoored. As I circled the edges, the gravitational force felt too powerful to resist. Not only was I overwhelmed with moving and settling into a new home, time – that precious commodity – shifted to a shrink-wrapped package of household duties, which left nothing but a small sketchbook and a travel set of watercolors to play with.
The blackness sucked me in. Untethered from my most meaningful work – my art practice and my teaching practice — I lost my sense of purpose. Contributing to the pull of the darkness was my changing image of myself. It turned out I wasn’t all that adaptable after all. I wasn’t such an adventurer after all. And I had lost all the markers of identity in a single move. In one fell swoop, I had gone from “Professor” to “Sweetie.” My particular brand of self-talk set in motion a spiral and a centrifugal force greater than that of the black hole. Nothing in particular was wrong, but nothing felt quite right either. In some ways, the depression was as trivial as an ill-fitting pair of shoes. Still, try walking when the side of the shoe is pinching that little toe.
How, then, does anyone pull themselves out of such an abyss? I wish I had the formula. I do not. I can share some of what I learned in my struggle to escape. I think I knew intuitively that I had to keep moving. Keep walking, even if the shoes pinched. Along that path, I learned that I had to be intentional about my choices. I had to keep making art, even if only in my sketchbook and even if it looked terrible to me. Further down the path, I learned I needed to examine my assumptions, crack open my own certainties — especially about myself. But as Maria Popova notes in numerous ways in her new book Figuring, “There is no static, solid self. Throughout life, our habits, beliefs, and ideas evolve beyond recognition. Our physical and social environment change. Almost all of our cells are replaced. Yet we remain, to ourselves, ‘who’ ‘we’ ‘are’.” So what if I didn’t particularly like the absence of my old identities? Why shouldn’t I have experienced those significant losses?
Even though my image of myself as an adventurer had undergone change, the juggernaut of depression was dislodged a bit by a conscious remembering that the journey is as important as the destination; the process is as valuable as the product. I was in a place where I could create new identities. New selves. Along with new art. I learned in the process that I could make a deliberate choice to awaken my senses to the world around me as I walked my poodle Jada to the Currituck Sound each morning, paying attention, as poet Mary Oliver would admonish, to the sunshine, the white clouds in a big sky, the variations of color and power in the sound’s water. I had time to consider another question from Oliver, what do I want to do with this “one wild and precious life?” During that period of trying to wake up, I found a statement by Omid Safi in On Being, which I wrote in my sketchbook: “The sacred path is the one you are on.” In that moment, when I saw it again, I acknowledged the significance the pathway, my pathway. I was indeed still unmoored, but I was also unbound. With acute awareness of the freedom of time and space — which not everyone experiences — I continued on the path. Walking unbound, then, became a metaphor for making art, writing, and singing. Showing up for myself. I walked. I noticed the shoe marks and paw prints on pathway to the sound. I walked, and I experimented with new media and papers. I noticed the beautiful light, even on gray days, from the large windows in my studio. I noted the sweetness of Jada curled up in her bed with her tiny toys under her head. I kept on walking.
As I walked, I remembered a project I taught and that students had enjoyed: The Walking Project, a performance project with U.S. and South Africa-based artists in the early 2000s. The artists explored the way people on two continents make their own paths, known as “desire lines.” These pathways created by continuous walking reveal a great deal about us. If we look at where we’ve been, we can see our heart’s desire by the strength of the pathway. We can also see where we wander off away from the beaten path. And we can see that all of the pathways hold the possibility of connection.
Maybe that is the point. Whether I’m “Professor” or “Sweetie” to the people around me matters not at all. I am making connections. As a work-in-progress, I am creating new identities. Even as everything in me cries out for certainty of old identities, the stability of the familiar, I acknowledge that I am unmoored. But I also am UNbound.