December Harbor: When Life Felt Navigable Again.
With exhausted relief, I closed the back hatch. My bags were loaded, the dog situated in her usual spot. Now for the five-hour drive ahead of me…
It was Christmas Day, and I’d been fighting leaden inertia all morning. Packing clothes and food for the week took undue time and focus. Physical energy dripped from my hands. Every bag felt like a hundred pounds. I took an inordinate number of breaks to rest on the couch and come back to my body. Even the dog looked lackluster and confused.
Two days prior, I’d said a heartfelt goodbye to my two daughters. They would be flying halfway across the country and not returning for over a week. This first Christmas without my girls, I would not only miss them but miss out on the chance to witness their first flight on an airplane, their first sight of the ocean. Post-divorce, this was the shape of things.
As for me, I suddenly had eight days to myself — an unimaginable span of time, or so I thought then.
Family members declared I would, of course, stay with them. Friends offered generous invitations to dinners and festivities. With gratitude, I declined all of them. Instead, I set on driving toward the border to spend several days alone in a tiny cabin on the shores of Lake Superior.
The simple truth was, I needed a different container for the mix of feelings that year. I needed to be away from routine, away from memories, away from expectations. In this new chapter, part of me also craved an adventure, and most of all, the ease of solitude to let my curiosity lead the way.
I call this instinct self-attunement, and I consider it the most revolutionary change I’ve undergone in the last five years — greater than divorce, greater than single parenting, greater than any logistical or material change in my life.
That December, the stark Northern landscape offered a visceral draw for me. Yet, how could I explain to anyone that I was enticed by its barrenness? That it felt comforting — simple, spacious. And, for the emotional interval I was in, more inviting than anyone’s company or sympathy could be.
In the previous few years, I’d come to consider the lake a second home. Indeed, I knew it was the only place that could feel like home that holiday. So, I held to my plan.
In a flash of enthusiasm on my way out the door that morning, I grabbed a string of Christmas lights, a small poinsettia, and a card my children had made me. Together they would become a holiday shrine — my only means of marking the day conventionally.
The grieving sluggishness had put me two hours behind schedule, but once on the road I felt wholly overtaken by an urgency to escape. With next to no traffic, I sailed, even sped when it felt safe enough. A woman on a mission, I now couldn’t make my getaway fast enough. I wanted as many miles as possible between me and what had held me back earlier that day.
A few hours in, the mood shifted. My desperation had burned off. Clouds settled in low and close. Broad interstate prairie gave way to narrow, winding highway skimming the shoreline.
My energy waned. I’d long tired of audio books and radio music. Even the sight of the lake, normally a boon for me, hadn’t inspired much response. Crestfallen, I wondered if I was, in fact, capable of feeling anything that day. Holding onto a grain of faith, I pressed on. There was no sense in turning around.
The final hour of the drive was laden with heavy fog. Leaving the city, the sky had been clear and sweeping. The farther I’d gone, however, the more enclosed and blanketed it had become. I halved my speed and went miles without sight of another vehicle. I was in a trance, barely connected to the car. Misgivings about the trip reasserted themselves, but even they felt too strenuous and dissolved in fatigue.
Finally, I found myself at the cabin’s dirt drive. The last ribbon of daylight had slipped beyond the horizon an hour before. There was no light, save a dim streetlamp to illuminate the road, but I could hear violent waves pummeling the rock face below.
At that moment, something in me spontaneously released. The fierce, undulating crashes soothed and filled a tender hollowness in me. My dog darted at the sound, and I let her in the cabin.
I stood on that small deck in total darkness for the better part of an hour, letting the lake’s torrents whip through me. I thanked God something had finally penetrated. For weeks I’d felt frozen inside. Now, on a moonless night by that icy shoreline, the gales stirred me alive.
I’ve never been so thankful for ignoring well-intentioned advice.
I consider that trip a turning point in my healing and my life. The week was nothing short of a quiet miracle. The final morning of my trip as I took one last gaze at the beautiful lake, I was overcome with gratitude — for the time and abundance to make it happen, but most of all, for faith to take the leap. There had been a million reasons to stay home.
For my experience that year, it would’ve meant staying small. Instead, I’d followed my instinct and come away from the retreat exhilarated. An energy of deep revival spread throughout the months following.
There’s self-possession in bucking our own and other people’s expectations when these don’t serve us. We can opt to follow old patterns for sure — whatever semblance of their original form we can conjure. In doing so, we keep up appearances. We make other people comfortable.
We maintain the notion that we’re still normal, that we get to experience what others do, that the fundamentals are still the same — regardless of an emptiness or ambivalence that may tell us otherwise.
Alternatively, we can decide that the old plan doesn’t fit anymore — not this time anyway.
Nothing was going to change the circumstances or magically erase the dull ache of that first Christmas apart from my girls. Better to let the feeling breathe. Better to lean into seclusion. Better to let the experience move what it needed to without distraction. Better to listen for what wanted to come forth.
And just like that, the holiday opened up in an astonishing way. Suddenly lighter, more spacious, life felt navigable again. The occasion, the week became my own. What a luxuriously radical thought.
As much as we might wish during difficult transition periods, our old lives won’t be returning. Neither will our new stories appear on command. For me, it’s largely been a process of living the new into being — one brave choice at a time. Sometimes bold, sometimes subtle. In most instances, how I made each decision changed me more than what I actually chose.
To an outside perspective, the need for courage most days may barely register (if at all), but transition can make the path through even ordinary events feel unstable. We walk through fear more hours than we can count (or that we’d dare admit to others). We withdraw. We rest. We gather fortitude.
And when we’re ready, we take another step through fear into life — the life that greets us today. In venturing novel ground that December, I marked a more personal observance — my soul’s emergence to risk and a new entry point to joy.
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.