On the surface, I get the appeal of highlighting moments that signal a stark separation between recent ends and new beginnings. Enduring long enough to realize those separating moments can make them feel like monumental achievements. For instance, a dissertation defense. A cross-country move. A new job. A new relationship. Another calendar year. (According to some metrics, that’s a relatively comprehensive synopsis of my own life over the past two and a half years.)
Living in those moments, the experience of transition often feels more excitingly palpable and present than other stretches of life – a time of change invites that unique mixture of reflection about what is and has been and hope for what is yet to become. It encourages letting go of hang-ups and moving on – unburdened – from the challenges we have (or have not quite yet) overcome. And the opportunity appears ripe to set out into a still unknown future, which, thanks to the sheer quality of going from something-already into something-not-quite-yet, we often intentionally orient ourselves as if moving through doors that open onto an even more open possible future.
Despite the inherent uncertainty, the utter lack of anything remotely close to a promise that things will work out with some degree of goodness, success, joy, or prosperity, we tend to value times of transition like we value the seasonal emergence of spring out of winter – it’s a moment for hope to override cynicism and for us to envision the possibility of more metaphorical sunshine, blossoming trees, and clearer skies.
However, technically speaking, as sure as the sun falls and rises, it also rises and falls. The summer also turns to autumn and then cold and darkness descend as winter. These, too, are times of change.
I’m not really sure why we don’t also emphasize that transitional times are often deeply shrouded in clouds of discomfort and uncertainty, or why we don’t recognize more difficult times in life as powerful moments of transition, too. A death. A failure. A loss. Rock Bottom. When difficult circumstances are viewed as doors of life, those are the doors we’d never voluntarily walk through if we knew, ahead of time, just how hard it could be. Those are the doors we hope to slam shut behind us once we have made it through. In fact, hard times are often the very things for which we seek to obtain, not a renewed sense of openness, but some semblance of closure. Rather than calling them times of transition, they are the times out of which we most ardently seek to transition from and leave behind.
Perhaps this is because, quite unlike the burgeoning newness we attach to spring, bad times are frequently marked by a feeling of stagnation, of being “stuck,” of decidedly not growth. Or, perhaps it is because when toxic circumstances change us, we are more often changed into deformed, wounded creatures rather than shiny, new beings. Perhaps it is precisely because we feel like we do not – cannot? – thrive in times of difficulty that we don’t forge into them with the same exuberant sense of courage, inspiration, and motivation.
Maybe there’s something to learn there.
In any case, it’s no wonder why fresh starts are so appealing. They satisfy some kind of existential craving that, I think, helps many of us keep going.
But to where are we going? Do we even know?
Years ago, I caught wind of something someone said about me during a particularly transitional time in my life: she was one of my professors and mentors, and I was not yet twenty-two years old, preparing to graduate from college and move from Colorado to Pennsylvania to begin a doctoral program. Looking back on it now, the actual process of researching, applying to, and choosing to go to graduate school was mostly accidental for me – a combination of massive economic recession for our country and seemingly few other options for a young barista with a humanities degree. But she was older and wiser than me, and apparently, the process made some sense to her because she said, “You know, with Cori, it’s like wherever she’s going, she’s already there.”
She didn’t say it to me – she told a mutual friend – and I was well into my first difficult year of graduate school when it finally got back to me. I recall having no idea what it meant, but unlike most unfamiliar things that we quickly forget because they don’t seem to make sense, I found the idea of being “already there” intriguing.
For the past several years, as I’ve tried to better understand what she could have meant and why it would be worth noting, I’ve gone through many “transitional” times, particularly including, of course, events of the past two and a half years. But what one might wish to imagine as my “spring times” were not so bright and sunny – they were often profoundly groundless periods that left me feeling vulnerable, unsure, and very, very afraid. Yet through and after those difficult periods of uncertainty, I could often look around and find myself in a place that felt right. Not “right” in the sense that I finally realized the proper development of some pre-ordained, destined path, but “right” in the sense that I ended up in a place that felt familiar. Kind of – sometimes quite literally – like I was already there.
For instance, when I first went to Penn State, it was not as a new graduate student, but as a freshly-declared philosophy major the summer before my senior year of college. When I excitedly shared my newfound ideas about the purpose of philosophy with the director of that summer program, I didn’t realize I was pouring out to the woman who, years later, would eventually advise me on my dissertation because she “got me” and supported my slightly unconventional philosophical interests. After graduate school, I didn’t apply to academic jobs – or any jobs – and moved back to Colorado. Though I considered many other places, memories of a twenty-one-year-old-me whispered back, the one who always hoped to return to her alma mater and even said to her professor/mentor, “Give me five years – I’ll be back.” And though it’s not been a particularly easy process (honestly, they seem to rarely be that easy), I have a new job and my new office is on the other side of the very same hallway where I did my independent studies in feminist philosophy, but now I get to develop my style of philosophical practice to reach and engage all sorts of audiences on issues that affect the climate around women and gender on our campus. It’s as if now I get to revisit thinking, speaking, teaching, and living in the very ways that felt so powerful to me when I first “discovered” my own philosophical voice as a student, which inspired me to ignore threats of committing “career suicide” by starting online public philosophy projects in graduate school, and that kept me committed to pursuing my passions in whatever form that took, even when it seemed like there wouldn’t be a way to forge a career doing everyday philosophy and still be able to pay the bills.
With such experiences of being “already there” in mind, it’s harder for me to think about transitions in a strictly linear fashion, where closure marks an end that opens onto a new beginning and we all just keep moving on accordingly, opening and shutting, one door at a time. Instead, I’m starting to understand how the big changes in life may already be initiated and even in progress, even if we aren’t fully aware of it, especially during those “non-transitional” times when we feel the most solid and grounded.
Like germinating seeds.
We can readily see the sort of growth that happens when a young plant emerges out of the soil and becomes exposed to the sun, the wind, the elements. It’s a fragile time for a delicate plant, for sure, but the seed was always already there, and a lot of energy, growth, and change had to happen in order to make the stem and leaves even possible. Long before any hope for blossoming flowers, there has to be a seed that gets planted and roots down.
The process of planting seeds, of creating the reassuring possibility of ever being “already there,” I think, is on-going. It doesn’t just happen when we start something new in a time of life’s so-called “transitions.” If we’re living authentically and well by being open to growth and possibility in our most comfortable times of stability and knowing, it’s what we are doing as we move every day through the “during.” In this way, we can worry less about the uncertainty that attends “times of transition” because something will happen. It always does.
Our real worry, then, the deeper source of legitimate fear, should be when the comfort of our everyday lives is marked by a feeling of stagnation, of being “stuck,” of decidedly not growth, for that is the best time to plant strong seeds so that we can better greet the difficult uncertainty and fragility of all of life’s transitions with open arms.
– This piece was written upon request from the creators of Big Bad Bettie Press for the first issue of Rabbit Rabbit, a quarterly portable exhibition of art & culture which takes its name from an odd family superstition of saying “Rabbit, rabbit” on the first of each month for good luck.