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This feels like a beginning
Some thoughts on expansions, contractions, and transitions.
A little over a month ago, in an act of desperation, I penned a long and vulnerable post on a local Facebook group for moms. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I know I was in a bad spot. I shared that I was lonely; that I felt discouraged by how much my partner and I were fighting; and that I needed an outlet for my grief and stress.
Everything felt heavy ... and I didn’t know where to put that heaviness. So I placed it in the hands of a couple thousand nearby moms, some of whom I knew, many of whom were strangers.
Within minutes, the comments started pouring in, from people offering advice, commiseration, and validation. For a while, it felt good to be seen. I took notes of the ideas that group members offered: to reach out to fellow young widows, create time for Billy and I to reconnect, and be kind and compassionate to myself in this difficult moment.
But as the feedback continued—from people I didn’t know and had no connection to—I felt uncomfortably exposed. Why am I sharing so much of myself? I wondered. Within a day, I turned off comments. Not long after that, I deleted the post.
That desperate Facebook post came right about the same time that I wrote my last newsletter of December. I was battling a nasty cold, facing a mountain of soon-to-be-due work projects, and feeling anxious about all of the holiday prep that was ahead of me. On top of that, Billy and I were arguing a lot. Everything seemed bad.
Bit by bit, though, things got a little better. I met all my deadlines and took two weeks off from work. I closed my laptop and experienced the joy of the season more fully. I listened to the group’s advice and suggested a post-holiday meetup with some local widows. I arranged for my mom and aunt to watch Cass for a day so Billy and I could get some quality time together. I made plans with friends. I felt lighter.
By the time the new year rolled around, I was experiencing something akin to optimism. I decided to view 2023 as a fresh start: a new chapter, waiting to be written.
In Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges writes about the period between endings and beginnings—and how challenging those times can be. For me, as it did for many of us, 2020 denoted an ending: of a pre-pandemic world; of systems we previously relied on or hadn’t previously questioned; and, personally, of a pre-parenthood life. Things would never go back to the way they were.
While the world-altering events of 2020 are largely still playing out, today I feel I’m on the precipice of my own new beginning. This means, of course, that the past two years were a time of transition. Of learning how to be a mother. Of finding a new relationship rhythm. Of figuring out how to reemerge after a pandemic. Of discovering what home feels like after six years away. Of navigating old friendships and places as a new person: someone who’s experienced life-altering loss.
I know I’m not alone in feeling like the past two years were exceptionally challenging. As Holly Whitaker recently wrote, “If you were to ask me what the predominant vibe of my 2021 and 2022 were and what I remember about it most, I’d say lost, confused, untethered, hateful. I’d say I’m not sure I was even there at all.”
While I am feeling (cautiously) optimistic about my year ahead, I know there are plenty of people in the midst of their own difficult transitions. For some of us, 2023 has already been a cruel year. There’s been death and heartbreak. We’ve battled illnesses and injustices. And it’s nearly impossible to keep up with how many folks have been laid off from work the past few weeks.
“First there is an ending, then a beginning,” Bridges wrote. “And an important empty or fallow time in between.”
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As silly as it might seem, that Facebook post felt like it was the start of a new beginning for me. When I wrote it, I was at a real breaking point. Instead of offering advice and perspective, as I’m wont to do in this newsletter, I turned to others for help. And as opposed to finding the good things about life, I admitted that things were currently bleak.
Looking back, I suppose I wanted to be seen. And I was.
As soon as I hit publish, I felt a sense of relief. I spoke my complicated truth! As I read helpful comments, I felt encouraged. Before long, though, I felt a creeping sense of unease. Why did I have to pour my heart out to strangers? Couldn’t I have figured this out on my own?
A few years ago, the wonderful Catherine Andrews recommended a book to me: Byron Brown’s Soul Without Shame. It’s the type of book I’ve read in bursts, one that takes a long time to finish because each page makes me reconsider long-held beliefs. In particular, it’s made me pause before listening to that judgmental voice in my head—the one that berates me for things like opening up to strangers online.
“Most everyone has experienced some sort of contraction after they expand: some letdown, some fear creeping in, some shame about being bigger, some withdrawal from the expansion,” Brown wrote. “In one sense, this is part of a natural cycle of expansion and contraction. However, the contraction is seldom seen as part of the normal flow of the unfolding soul.”
This was the reframe I needed. That vulnerable post was an expansion! And the resulting feelings of shame were a contraction—a natural one at that.
More often, your judge reacts to the expansion; its attack causes an exaggerated ebb and undermines or undoes the new sense of self. The contraction is now evidence that something is wrong. Instead of being a breather before a return to the expanded sense, it becomes proof the expansion was a mistake. [...] This is how the judge provokes distrust in your ability to expand, grow, and change. Once you recognize how the pattern works, it is more possible to see it for what it is—an attempt to undermine your self-confidence and trust in your capacity to grow. The judge is effectively denying your soul and its living, dynamic potential.
He ended that paragraph with a simple but powerful sentence: “You don't have to accept what it tells you.”
It’s brave to expand. To take up more room, to speak more openly, to move more confidently. As Brown so thoughtfully explains, it’s only natural to retreat after such bravery. In a moment of contraction, I deleted that Facebook post. I felt sheepish responding to the kind folks who reached out. I wondered if I’d made a mistake.
But that wasn’t the end. After contraction—and after letting yourself experience that moment without judgment—another expansion follows. For every exhale there’s another inhale, filling your lungs for what’s next.
Now, a little more than a month later, I can see all the steps I’ve taken to expand once more.
Billy and I have worked through some difficult conversations and are currently in a loving place, fighting much less and laughing much more. Over the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed some wonderful quality time with friends—moments that have felt much richer than any I’d experienced over the past two years. In early January, I reconnected with other young widows and widowers, remembering how good it feels to be around other people who understand your specific type of pain. Finally, I’m managing my workload better and feeling more confident about my ability to weather whatever hard moments are ahead.
With each step, I’m moving away from those fallow years of transition and towards a more fruitful beginning. I’m taking my 2023 goal to heart: to feel more alive.
Maybe most of all, I’m reminded—once again, always again!—that life ebbs and flows.
I’ve thought about returning back to that Facebook group and posting a cheerful “Never mind! Things are okay now!” I know I want to do this to save face: to protect myself against possible misconceptions about my relationship or mental well being. But I won’t do that. Things are never that simple or static, and I don’t want to perpetuate the illusion that they can be.
After all, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been there. Before every beginning, there is an end. And there’s always a period of transition—a long, challenging, growth-filled time—in between.