“What’s your book about?” my long-time friend Pete asked.
“About how my worldview – or at least my dreams – has been informed by sitcom characters. I always wanted the life of someone on TV – That Girl, Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, but now there isn’t anyone on TV like me anymore – a boomer working women in transition.
“You’ve been in transition for a long time,” he chuckled and pushed me through the revolving door to the restaurant.
“Yes, and,” I started and stopped. I wasn’t quite sure what came after the “and.”
It was five years ago that I proudly and boldly told everyone and anyone that I was in transition. Fresh off a layoff from a job that led me to a desperate depression I decided to hangout in transition for a while before jumping to a new destination. This hanging out in the middle is a concept I had read about years ago during an attempt to “find myself.”
In Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, author William Bridges posits that transitions start with an ending and have an indefinite middle period that is uncomfortable and ends in a new beginning. The middle period – he calls the neutral zone – should not be sped through or the change you seek will not happen, at least not the way you want it to happen. Basically you have to be willing to swim in the deep end, traverse the dessert, live in no-man’s land for as long as it takes to process the ending and creatively find the new beginning.
“I’m in transition” is a certain, yet open-ended response to the “what do you do” question posed at every turn in the road. Fluid and interesting.
My first attempt at figuring out my life led to a career coach who I met at a fashion show for workingwomen. I hoped she would help me find a place to express myself without feeling censored. And she just might have been able to do that if I hadn’t really needed counseling to get over a recent firing and subsequent loss of confidence.
Next stop on my career trip-tik was an EST like weekend with my travel buddy Lynnette. Lynnette and I had been to Hawaii, Australia and Dallas together. Dallas is where we both began our post-MBA careers hawking salty snacks and where I was fired. Lynnette knew me from the bottom up and inside out. She was the only person who could get me to do things that I really didn’t want to do because they sounded corny or hokey – like going to a sheep shearing, Waltzing Matilda- singing hoedown in Sydney or attending a weekend retreat aimed at unlocking our human potential– because I trusted her with my sanity.
So one Friday evening we entered a nondescript hotel in Schaumburg, a suburb of Chicago famous for its mall, along with 20 other seekers. Each of us carried the required boom box and empty notebook. We were assigned roommates and had our first meeting in an empty conference room, save a table and two chairs for the retreat leaders.
Before we begin whatever we’re going to begin I ask,ed “Are there bathroom breaks?”
I had heard that in the EST movement of the ‘70s Werner Erhard wouldn’t let anyone go to the bathroom during the marathon enlightenment sessions. Just thinking about that filled my anxious bladder.
“There will be bio breaks. But please try to not leave the room until then,” the male leader replied.
All seekers sat on the floor with space between each other so we were on our own carpet island. We went through exercises that had us walking backwards in our dreams, conjuring up our child self and writing letters to our tormentors. Boy, did the guy who fired me get a mouthful.
We talked to empty imaginary chairs, walked in circles and reversed. We shared intimate details of our lives with total strangers. If the moments weren’t intimate enough we were encouraged to go deeper, to find the root issue.
We made collages on large poster boards. They represented who we were and wanted to be. We wrote anthems that we would declare to the group, only when we were ready and able to believe them.
At night we listened to tapes on our boom boxes and some of us crept into the halls and shared secreted snacks. I stole outside and had a cigarette. One of the bad habits that I had identified as holding me back from my true potential, and possibly my future husband.
On the last day of the weekend we sat on our carpet island and closed our eyes. The leaders took us on a guided journey.
“Imagine a suitcase and open it up.”
We were told to put anything that bothered us, nagged at us, hurt us, or held us back in this suitcase. This could be your mother, boss, extra 20 pounds or slow drivers who always end up in front of you when you’re late. Take the bad and pack it away. I threw in a pack of cigarettes among other items I can’t remember.
“When you are finished packing your suitcase, close it and lock it with a key.”
“Now stand up and throw that key away – in the ocean, the trashcan or field. Throw it away where it can never be found or retrieved. Now pick up that suitcase – no matter how heavy it may be – you can pick it up – and open your eyes. Walk to the door and leave your suitcase next to the door. And take a short break. We’ll meet in 15 minutes for our graduation.”
And so I packed, locked, threw away, deposited, and took a long needed bio break.
During the graduation ceremony I stood in a circle with the other seekers cum finders and when I felt moved by the emotion, I stood in the middle and declared:
“I am a happy, fulfilled, smoke-free woman.” I cried. I left the circle, went outside, and lit up.
Pete is right. I have been in transition a long time. And I’ve moved to some new things while still developing others. . But maybe transition is my destination – to always be exploring and sharing my exploration. Wouldn’t that be a kick if where I’ve always belonged, is where I’ve always been leaving?
I tell myself (and Pete) that I’m okay with being in transition. I’m moving and creating, not stagnating. And I’d like to tell the circle of seekers that today I could truly declare: I am happy and smoke-free (11 years now!) As for the fulfilled part – I’m pretty full, but there’s always room for more.