Letting Go and Belonging to Myself

vibrant orange to purple sunset over a dry lake bed framed by trees

Explaining my absence is probably the first order of business.  As I mentioned before the end of spring semester is its own beast.  Like the end of any other term it is hectic and stressful, but there is some additional dark magic at work in academy during the month of April.  Every demand on your time, report to write, email to send, meeting to attend adds some kind of exponential weight and stress.  Additionally this year as I trudged through April, I suddenly felt the significance of everything that has happened to me in the last two years. In many ways the stress, my mood, and my general exhaustion mirrored the way I felt as I finished my dissertation and approached graduation.

It was in this mood and environment that I stumbled across Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s re-tweet of an article she wrote in 2013 “Wilderness as Transition: Omer, Anxiety, and the Neutral Zone.”  Given all the changes in my life, my current fascination with Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, and the way my work always seems influenced by Jewish thinking, I couldn’t click that link fast enough.

Drawing on William Bridges theory that transitions include three elements: the ending, the neutral zone, and beginning, Rabbi Ruttenberg likens the time between Passover and Shavuot as the neutral zone between the Israelites passage out of Egypt and covenant represented by the giving of the Torah.

vibrant orange to purple sunset over a dry lake bed framed by trees

As Ruttenberg reads Bridges, spending time in the neutral zone is essential to successfully navigating any transition, because it is in the neutral zone that we let go of who we were, making ourselves ready for who we will become.

According to Bridges, people in this intermediate space are often confused, uncertain and impatient. There may be feelings of anxiety, skepticism or low morale — the past has been let go of, but the path to the future has not yet manifest. It’s uncomfortable, being no longer this but not yet knowing what that is going to look like, how it will feel, who we will be and whether it will be any good at all.

Can you see how this felt so applicable to my life in April?

In fact, I’m pretty sure my exact response to this passage was, “No effing shit!” Certainly, I was anxious, skeptical, fairly convinced that actually movement forward was never going to happen. Impatient is absolutely the best way to describe how I was feeling.  Impatient with a solid dose of self-pity, I’d done the hard things: leaving, going through the divorce, the new job, the move(s), and I was doing my work: working through Braving the Wilderness, going back to therapy, yet my beginning didn’t seem to be showing up.

In her application of Bridge’s work to the Israelites, Rabbi Ruttenberg says:

Passover is, of course, a huge ending. We left Egypt, we left behind a life of slavery and crossed through the Red Sea into freedom. (One could argue, though, that most of the troubles that beset the Israelites along the way — leading to the decree that the first generation wouldn’t make it to the land of Israel — was due to the fact that they tried to move forward into new beginnings without having fully let go of the past.)

At first I read the article and I could clearly see the parallels to Bridges, this passage and idea about the Israelites wouldn’t leave me alone, though. The idea that trying to move forward while still holding on to some elements of the past caused trouble resonated with me.

Even though at that time I really felt like I had let go of so much, I started looking around and noticed just how much of who I was still hung around the house. As I have chronicled here, in the last year I’ve really made this house my own.

Rust red couch next to coordinating rug, framed by aqua end tables and grey leather recliner

(Thanks to Amie Volée I even have a “new to me” couch now!)

Yet, one Sunday as I sat on my old futon talking with HWSBNL, I looked into the front room and realized that the first things anyone sees in my new home are pieces of the DH. Drawings he’d done for me over the years hang through out the house, as do pieces that we chose together to decorate our spaces. Telling HWSBNL to continue his story, I got up, walked into the front room, and took down those drawings and put them away in the spare bedroom closet. The DH was talented and I do like those drawings, someday maybe I will even put them up again, but for now I needed to let them go. After looking at my bare wall for a few days, the end of the semester finally arrived and I was able to give the house a good therapeutic cleaning.  I organized and rearranged the spare bedroom, and in doing so moved some of the things hung in there out to the front room.

Now, the first things people see when they come in the house, and what I see whenever I enter the front room or sit on the couch are things that really reflect me. Window framed by corkboard full of post cards on right and two framed pictures on the left. The painting my great-grandmother did in the nursing home where she lived after her stroke. The colors in the painting unintentionally, but beautifully, mirrored by the close up photograph of an iris given to me by Dr. Phoenix. The paintings balanced by my first cork-board full of postcards sent by friends. My family and my friends-family nearly everyone who has had a hand in shaping the woman I am and the one I am becoming.

Frankly, I’m amazed at the difference this change made.  In my mind the drawings were simply art, pieces I admired and that reflected a part of my sense of style. The neural zone wasn’t done with me, however.

Last week an even greater test of my ability to let go of the past and to brave the wilderness presented itself. I found myself in a situation that had the potential to pull me back into a relationship dynamic that in some significant ways would have mirrored the DH. Using everything I have learned from therapy, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness, instead of falling into the trap of one-sided care giving that had defined the final years of my marriage so thoroughly, I recognized the danger, set my boundaries, and rooted myself in who I am now. Evening sky: deep blue with clouds reflecting the oranges of sunset at darkening tree topsOne of the things I’ve struggled most with as I attempt to move forward into a new self and a new life, is my inability to trust myself and my instincts. I’ve been afraid that I wouldn’t be able to see the dangers that pulled me in and held me in my marriage for so long, and that I wouldn’t recognize or trust a good situation when I found it. This situation with my friend laid those fears to rest. I recognized exactly the way the old pattern was trying to pull me back and I refused to let it.

As you all know, things do not always work quite so neatly, patterns hold – but only so far, and generally show themselves where we look for them.  Yes, the stress of the end of the semester passed as I turned in final grades and took sometime for myself. The anxiety I felt, the sullen mood, they have also lifted. I think it is only a minor coincidence that, as the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot drew to a close, I could feel and see myself completely let go of the past. I still don’t know what my future looks like, but I am moving into it, trusting that I will be able to bend, grow, and adapt to shape it into something good and beautiful.


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