Spending some time at the Threshold

When my husband and I moved our family from Boston to Stockholm last week, we decided to kick the whole she-bang up a notch by getting ourselves to Europe by boat on the Queen Mary 2. A week-long break between the stress of saying good-bye and hello appealed to us both. As the granddaughter of immigrants who had made their way to Ellis Island decades ago by sea, there was the romantic symmetry of returning to Europe on a boat for me as well.

oceanMostly though, I looked forward to experiencing the passage of seven days of trans-Atlantic travel, allowing my body to really feel the geographic scope of the experience, allowing it to catch up to the emotional and spiritual journey that my heart and head already knew I was making.

During the decluttering and packing frenzy leading up to “Crossing 2013,” a friend and family member pointed out that the boat ride was the missing element to make our move a true rite of passage.

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica in the ship’s library (satellite wi-fi being thankfully out of our budget here on the North Atlantic) rites of passage are “ceremonial events, existing in all historically known societies, that mark the passage from one social or religious status to another.”

Weddings, funerals, coming of age ceremonies, graduations – all are rites of passage designed to provide a productive outlet for the stress caused by major life changes. EB went on to say that folklorists and anthropologists break down rites of passage into three phases:

  1. the preliminal or separation phase,
  2. the liminal or transition phase, and
  3. the postliminal or reincorporation phase.

In other words, during this event one is before the threshold, at the threshold, and past the threshold. Anyone who has been on an odyssey knows how significant a threshold is, an invitation and a call to change.  Once crossed, there’s no turning back.

Apparently, all that decluttering I was doing back in Boston was the preliminal phase. In this stage, anthropologists note that we cut ties, we give things away, we fast, we mutilate our bodies with a good tattoo, piercing or even a good head shaving, as Britney Spears and the Army know full well. Getting rid of about 90% of my worldly possessions seemed to do the trick just fine, inducing a mental state probably  similar to an intense fast or mind-altering substance.

Then comes the limbo, the phase I have been in for the last 2000 or so nautical miles, literally and figuratively. This is the solitary walk in the woods, the 40 days in the desert, the vision quest. It’s the confinement before the birth, the hours during which the bride must remain hidden from her soon-to-be groom. It’s invisibility, it’s in between, it’s the period when the caterpillar becomes cellular goop  inside the chrysalis before reorganizing itself into a butterfly. In my case, that means being in between continents, in between jobs, in between communities, in between daily grinds and languages. There is no way to find solid footing here, no Facebook updates, texts or tweets in which to create a narrative to this truly plotless period of floating.

So here I am, in the doorway at the threshold. By the time you read this I’ll have taken the leap into the reincorporation stage, becoming reimbodied in my new role as just-off-the-boat immigrant, ignorant outsider, new hire, new neighbor, novice, beginner, a veritable tabula rasa.

But until then, there are waves to look at and miles to cross. Time to reflect and take in the physical and metaphysical significance of my adventure, to be freaked out by it and then to toast it with a glass of champagne. To all my fellow and future sojourners, seekers and pilgrims at the threshold, I raise my glass—cheers!

 “Come, come, whoever you are, wanderers, worshipers, lovers of leaving, ours is no caravan of despair, come, yet again, come!”

— Rumi

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Getting my story straight

Several years ago at a conference I listened to a woman tell about the extraordinary home she lived in India when she was younger. One side of the house, she said, butted up against a slum area; people lived amid squalor and poverty, picking through trash in order to survive. Exiting a door on the other side of the house, she could enter into a beautiful secluded garden, where peacocks strutted among exotic flowers. Describing one’s life, much like describing the outside of this house, she continued, was largely a result of perspective:

I could tell you a story of my life that would make you very sad, and it would be true. I could tell you a story about my life that would seem very joyous, and that would also be true.”

Last week I was challenged to write the story of my own experience as the mother of a child with special needs. Applying for a family leadership fellowship on neurological disabilities, I was asked to sum up my experience raising a child with special needs in a page or so. In writing it, I recalled the woman’s story of India and realized that my story too depended largely on perspective. I could tell several different stories – each one true – depending on my vantage point.

I was startled by how easily I could evoke sadness and pity or triumph and exuberance depending on the experiences I chose to include. Even the same experience could be seen as positive or negative depending on the details. For example, there’s the very real fact that my son didn’t learn to walk until he was nearly four, along with all the accompanying challenges and inconveniences of that. But there’s also the fact that my son learned to walk at all, which wasn’t always a given, thanks to the help of a brilliant physical therapist. Which set of circumstances holds more weight for me?

Which brings me to the bigger question: what version of my story do I tell myself? I’m not talking about our public stories, like the one I was writing, or the ones we tell when we introduce ourselves or the 140 characters of a tweet or Facebook status update. We all know how true yet misleading and selective those glimpses can be at times. One well placed exclamation point or emoticon can change everything. No, I’m talking about the story I tell myself when there is no audience – my honest interpretation that creates meaning and context for my experiences. The version of events I tell myself with no make-up on at 2 am in the silence and the dark. And if I can do that, is there any value to it?

According to some, there is good reason to explore this. Therapist Michael White developed an entire branch of family counseling called narrative therapy; this form of therapy assumes that narratives or stories shape a person’s identity and then uses these stories to create a healthier or more creative outcome for his patients.

The usefulness of narrative isn’t new to most special needs parents. Most of us parents are welcomed in to the special needs world with the well known Welcome to Holland story. I know that for me, that gave and continues to give some meaning and context to my experience.  For many of us, our very person story would echo some of the progression of that story.

For many people, the monomyth of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey also provides a meaningful narrative that describes a life of challenge, growth and redemption. His work is so rich that I can’t begin to describe it in this post, but I promise to get back to it soon, if only for my own benefit. For Campbell, Homer’s Odyssey was perhaps the archetype and I find strength and meaning in its arc of denying then accepting the calling, receiving divine aide, facing the trials, achieving the boon and returning back to help others.

I encourage all of you to give writing your own story a try. In one page or less, how would you summarize your plot? If it were a movie, would it be a comedy, a drama, a quirky indie flick or a horror movie? Do you have any lesson, truth or theme and how can you capture the complexity and contradictions of your experiences? Beware of trying to write how it ends. Just tell the story of what has happened up to this point; remember, we’re not whitewashing anything or trying to manifest anything through wishful thinking – just create order out of the chaos of what has already happened.

In the mean time, I continue to write and re-write my story. I know it can change on a dime, but for the moment it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.