Lingering in Limbo
Over the last few weeks I’ve been visiting bookstores and hosting intimate conversations with readers about what really matters at midlife. Men and women have joined me to talk about the feelings that accompany change, their desire to navigate transitions with grace and ease, and the freedom that comes with caring less about what others think.
These deeper conversations are exactly what I hoped to have when I published my account of what happened when I reached midlife.
Near the end of each event, there’s usually a quiet attendee in the back of the room whose discomfort with ambiguity is greater than her fear of drawing attention to herself. So she raises her hand and says something like…
“What do we do during the downtime between transitions, when we have no idea what’s next going forward, but we know we can’t go back?”
Ever feel that way? I certainly have (and do).
Stay there, I tell her. Because the longer you linger in limbo, the greater the chances are that you’ll find meaning and purpose in the next stage of your life.
Making peace with this in-between place is something I write about in Waking Up in Winter because it’s a big part of the hero’s journey. Today, I’d like to share a journal entry from the book, where I write about what helped to make this stage easier.
Here’s the entry from January 14th:
There’s a gentle rain falling on the metal roof over the living room, and the muffled raindrops sound like a troupe of tap dancers learning a new routine. It’s been another misty, gray day with temperatures close to fifty. A warm reprieve in the middle of winter.
I woke this morning at 3:30 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I tried reading, but it didn’t help the way it usually does, so I finally got up at 5 a.m. to start my day. I made a cup of tea and sat in the dark living room, eventually falling asleep on top of a heating pad on the couch. My lower back and hips have been sore ever since I started taking longer walks up and down hills, yet I love being outdoors so much I don’t want to stop.
It’s strange being home for a long stretch of time. One minute I’m happy and at peace, and the next I’m daydreaming about taking a vacation with Michael so I can test-drive the notion of traveling purely for pleasure. When I imagine packing and getting on an airplane, however, I lose steam. Staying put has more appeal. I just need to face the fact that this is a time of transition. I’ll question my choices. I’ll feel conflicted. And my mood will dance with the wind. It’s the old “zone of in between” that I’ve talked about with students for years—an ambiguous state of being that’s never been a favorite of mine. As much as I’ve wanted this time at home, I’m not used to being so stationary. And I’m not used to being present with the feelings that emerge from stillness, nor am I always a compassionate witness to the unfamiliar voices inside that clamor to be heard.
I feel like I’m in a waiting room, staring at a door I hope will open soon to reveal some insight into what comes next. And, of course, the act of waiting invites the familiar voices of fear to visit. You’re hurting your career, they tell me. You’re losing ground by not being out there. You’d better get back on the circuit, publish more books, and teach more workshops.
But I can’t. I can’t do anything but inhabit the space I’m in right now. I’m resting, emptying myself. I have to let go of what no longer works without knowing what will, and I have no idea how long it will take to shed this old identity. Today, when being in limbo became too uncomfortable, I called my friend Ellen to talk about what was going on. She’s a wise and loving coach whose advice I cherish and trust. After listening to me describe feeling adrift and unable to figure out what’s next, she said one simple thing that made a huge difference.
“Your meandering has purpose.”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than I felt my whole body relax. This time of healing and renewal is justified, she reminds me. Living in limbo is necessary.
I’m so glad I reached out for help. It was wonderful to be on the receiving end of such elegant coaching. Ellen’s deep listening allowed her to formulate one simple line that would instantly shift my consciousness. The idea of meandering being purposeful appealed both to the artist in me who craves the space to wander, and imagine, and create; and to the CEO who demands a productive form of action.
Coaching that causes an internal shift that changes the way we see the world is coaching at the highest level. Bless you, dear Ellen.
Don’t rush your life. Be brave enough to sit in the mystery and allow life to find you. It’ll be worth the wait!
You can order Waking Up in Winter: In Search of What Really Matters at Midlife, here.
P.S. – I’ll be hosting events at bookstores in Concord, NH, Newton, MA, and at the Newburyport Literary Festival in April. You can find the details of these events and more on my schedule page here.
P.S.S. – There will be no Facebook Live Session this week while I’m traveling, but you can watch previous sessions on my YouTube channel at CherylRichardsonTV here.