you and me

Traveling Still: Relinquishing Control as a Daily Commitment.

 

A few months following my divorce, a spiritual director asked me a question made famous by transition theorist, William Bridges: “If this time period were a chapter in the book of your life, what would the title be?”

I sat back in that oak rocking chair, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. With my elbows on the armrests, I clasped my hands together and rested my chin on two extended fingertips. “Traveling,” I shared with a quizzical smile.

As I sat pondering my unexpected answer, I acknowledged that I was still very much in no man’s land — exiled from core expectations of how my life would unfold. I spent most days feeling like I was dangling somehow, hovering over the surface of life, still unable to touch down.

When people talk about life coming undone, they often use metaphors like the sky falling or the top of the world crashing down around them — imagery that suggests an outer force caving in on an unfortunate figure fixed in place.

My experience, however, was quite the opposite — a sensation more akin to the earth falling out from underneath me. Terra firma gone. I felt wrenched from the ground, suspended, my roots torn and exposed.

Some days I wanted nothing more than to sink into the heavy soil, to plant myself deep in the cool earth again and feel it hold me securely. But that vision wasn’t meant to be. I was navigating a stretch defined by what felt like continual movement.

I found myself again and again propelled through thresholds big and small — a new job, a new home and neighborhood, new connections, new routes, new schedules, new demands, new roles.

Some of these were inevitable shifts, but — even then — people, places and guidance showed up out of the blue, ushering me through further corridors of change. They seemed to arrive through an energetic impulse I didn’t fully understand… and knew I was too fatigued to orchestrate. Something was moving in me, for me.

While certain crises — like the unexpected death of a loved one — grip us instantaneously, others can tighten over the course of decades. Looking back, I’d felt fixed in place for years — stagnant, contorted, drained. I can’t describe exactly when or how it happened, except that it grew like a shadow over life.

Whereas I’d previously traveled the world and easily moved across country multiple times, now driving across the city felt like a crushing endeavor. Socializing became increasingly fraught and overwhelming. Stationary and isolated meant safe, controlled for the state I was in. My world had become painfully miniaturized.

Some of the strain had come of normal (if challenging) circumstances, particularly the early parenting years with two young children. But that was only part of the story. My anxiety was a symptom of something more deeply stalled in me. I was living in complete overwhelm with every reserve long tapped out.

I knew I had lost touch with my needs, let alone joy, but my desperate answer was to further contract myself and tighten my grasp on a false, flimsy veneer, upholding the semblance of stability.

For so long I’d felt a looming call toward deep, upending shift — one I’d resisted for many reasons — fear, guilt, avoidance… exhaustion. I fought letting go of all I guessed wouldn’t survive the turnover. But the summons eventually assumed control, churning with its own unflinching momentum. All I predicted would fall away (and then some) did.

As I watched my old life come undone, I knew my obsession with security — real and perceived — had to die with it.

In the midst of desolation, however, there was space. A horizon had opened. For a while, it felt more bleak than opportune, but in my better moments, I knew I’d gained a renewed freedom to move, to explore, to be surprised again. Emotionally and (to a large extent) socially displaced, I became an unwitting traveler — called to inward, and eventually outbound, odyssey.

In the months leading up to that conversation with the spiritual director, my travels took me to quiet, interior places — a settling into the “soft animal of [my] body,” as poet Mary Oliver describes. I needed time to unfurl my posture, attune my senses, sit in my own energy again. Worn out from the anxiety of suspension, I was gradually able to relax into genuine stillness.

For more than a year, every other weekend when my children were gone, I conducted at-home retreats to dig into the process — to meditate, to journal, to fix creative ceremony to emotional need.

I was on a psychic pilgrimage to recover my own depths again — and that experience first required audaciously staying. Staying to grieve. Staying to heal. Staying to explore the interior edges. Staying to observe, study, engage within.

Venturing inward opened up a different kind of spaciousness, a more intimate quiet, an inner expanse to move within — and eventually move from. Each step awakened a dormant trust in my ability to meet myself and the world again.

Some days that meeting meant a drawn-out stroll under the neighborhood canopy of trees. Other days it meant driving to my favorite park to lie in a clearing few people visited, hiking a handful of trails again and again, relaxing at the beach after I dropped my younger daughter at preschool.

For several years, or perhaps the better part of my life, I’d left myself. Frequently, chronically, unconsciously. Friends told me again and again in these months to simply rest. I had to stay in that stillness for what felt like a very long time to re-collect myself. In truth, it took a couple of years to finally see that resting was the condition for remembering.

Just a few months after the chapter conversation, I took the first of a continuing series of traveling personal retreats at various centers and remote cabins. Regardless of location, each time was an intensive deep dive in which outer environs revealed something of my inner landscape with startling acuteness. Trails led me through psychic metaphors. Changing skies and tides swept latent emotions to the surface.

I surrendered every retreat to what wanted to arrive, and each time I was answered in unforeseeable ways. My travels became liminal meeting ground.

I often visited the same places, drawn back with a sense that more waited for me there — an intuition that proved true. Several years out, I see how this circling back mirrors the process of self-recollection and reordering. We cover what feels like the same ground again and again, only to discover features newly revealed in the shifting of emotional seasons. The landscape is never the same upon return.

These trips both fortified and buoyed me. Each helped me recover the heights of my emotional topography — revelry, euphoria, reverence, awe. Scholar and author Liam Heneghan fashioned the word allokataplixis from the modern Greek roots for “other-wonder” to describe travelers’ “rapt attention” to the commonplace as they encounter new environments.

More than just a momentary response, he explains, this fascination becomes a self-seeding energy — a vigorous exhilaration born of meeting the new. Likewise for me, the boundless Northern shores left me enlarged. Silent forests brought me to deeper stillness. As I experienced the mystery in those landscapes, I felt the sublime in myself again.

Over the course of five years, I’ve come to embrace the gifts of displacement as well as the blessings found with the eyes of a traveler.

I’ve learned to journey questions that earn gritty substance within the stern urgings of necessity. What’s here for me to behold, instead of hold onto? Am I willing to move with (but not for) my fears? Can I surrender to the uncertain flow of relationships and experience? Can I find my abundance in today’s intimacies and wonder? How can I cultivate contentment with less security and more expansiveness?

Perhaps the heart of transition isn’t the adaptation to a particular event, but to the volatile rhythm of loss and transformation itself. For me, it’s been about relinquishing control and attachment — not as a one-time dissolution in my life, but as a daily commitment.

In his blessing “For the Traveler,” poet and philosopher John O’Donohue counsels those who would set out, “To free your heart of ballast” — those heavy elements that lend stability to a vessel.

In forgoing the weight that would hold us steady, he says, “[T]he compass of your soul Might direct you towards The territories of spirit Where you will discover More of your hidden life; And the urgencies That deserve to claim you.”

My healing process, fittingly, hasn’t set me down at a fixed endpoint where I could comfortably install myself again. And this has been a blessing. Instead, I’ve followed the slow and gradual trickling toward what feels like redemption of all that’s been part of this transition. It’s brought me to grounds rougher but also vaster than I ever believed I’d venture in this life. I’ve grown in faith and daring along the way.

Living through the lens of travel obliges me to bring curiosity rather than expectation. Each day I keep my field of vision — and acceptance — broad. When I’m not rooting myself in a fixed place, person, emotion, or circumstance, I’ve observed that everything about life becomes more animated. I find support, insight, inspiration where I might not otherwise be open to it.

There’s a certain ease in navigating from inputs more than agendas.

I trust that I’ll be led as I nurture the intention of a sojourner rather than stakeholder in life — because, for my experience, it’s been an infinitely saner way to meet each day. I see an ongoing prayer in the tracks behind me. I’ll keep traveling still.

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Jennifer Wannen is a writer, photographer and spiritual director in training. She devotes both her artistic process and spiritual studies to the witness of transformational passages. She’s passionate about infusing everyday life with creative pursuit, and helping others apply artistic endeavor to spiritual growth and personal healing. You can check out her work at Transition Chapters and Jennifer Wannen Photography.

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