“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
— T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”
We put our house on the market.
After returning from a trip to majestic Italy, we cleaned up the house, posted new pictures on real estate websites, and waited nervously for someone to schedule a showing.
There are no prayers like the prayers for selling a house. If you really mean it, like any real prayer, your prayers translate instantly into action.
That action is tenuous, though, when you have no experience in real estate but you’re stubborn enough to sell your house without an agent.
It’s a strange ritual to take down photos of your wedding, family, and friends, to remove decorations and leave rooms neutralized of any personal belongings. We’ve gotten the rhythm down of dusting furniture, lighting candles, putting out clean towels, and baking cookies to make the house smell good and feel cozy and welcoming. Kati even used the vacuuming trick to leave the carpet pattern appearing new and void of footprints.
No Movie Montage
For months, I’ve burrowed with curiosity into the possibilities of different work, different routines, different cities. We’ve watched friends pack up and move to their dream cities. We’ve received news of other friends having children and starting new jobs and building rhythms that satisfy their gut-level longings.
But leaving a place, making a career change, building a family, and building a new rhythm from scratch are not easy. Progress requires sacrifice. Author Addie Zierman captures it:
“But this is not a movie, and letting go is not a musical montage of charming moments. It’s a much longer process, so much more dull and uneventful and hard than all of that.”
I remember the last dinners and packing friends’ boxes into a truck and images of their new city apartments with that musical montage vision in my mind. It’s always seemed epic to take the leap and drive the moving truck away and declare a new city home. That kind of confidence is enviable when you see it in other people, isn’t it? They know what they’re doing with their lives, or at least they’re willing to gamble on it because something fierce and resilient is lodged deep in their bones.
They’re the ones who embody what Joseph Campbell wrote:
“We must be willing to get rid of
the life we’ve planned, so as to have
the life that is waiting for us.
The old skin has to be shed
before the new one can come.
If we fix on the old, we get stuck.
When we hang onto any form,
we are in danger of putrefaction.
Hell is life drying up.
the one in us that wants to keep,
to hold on, must be killed.
If we are hanging onto the form now,
we’re not going to have the form next.
You can’t make an omelet
without breaking eggs.
Destruction before creation.”
What Would You Change?
If nothing is permanent and nothing holds you back, where would you live? Where would you travel? What would you try to create? What would you give up? What possessions would you sell, and how much would you really need to keep going? What is worth your foolhardy, uncertain exploration into the unknown?
You learn to grow and change with the seasons, to be rooted for a time and to uproot and plant somewhere different.
You learn the difference between living in a place and belonging there.
You discover what’s worth staying for and what signs begin to tell you it’s time to leave.
When I published The Variable Life last year, I knew it wouldn’t contain all the best ideas I’ve discovered thus far. As soon as you finish a project or ship it out into the world, you release your ability to keep tinkering and refining. It becomes a relic of the past, made more or less current by the trajectory you travel and how much you surrender to change.
I would share many stories differently and use different explanations and phrases in The Variable Life from my perspective now. But it’s no surprise—that’s why I included the Author’s Note, an admission that it’s all my best guess for the moment and anything could change.
If it’s possible for one to learn from one’s past self, I’m still learning the lessons of what it means to make the most of this variable life. I’m still impatient and dissatisfied with many circumstances and people, still confused and wounded and uncertain about some relationships that have gone differently than expected, still eager to travel more and find where I belong.
Much has changed and is changing, but I’m strangely content to hover in the ambiguity. One thing I stand by with confidence is this:
One of the most important questions to ask is whether it is time to stay or time to leave.
It’s not just about moving physical locations, either. It could be leaving a relationship that turned unhealthy or unhelpful. Or leaving a job or a community or a worldview that sucks the life out of you instead of putting more life into you.
There are all sorts of reasons why we all have to leave at some point. Will we be ready when the time comes?
Commence Launch Sequence
It takes an inner cultivation to be ready.
Outward circumstances must become unbearable to create the right spark. The spark is essential to the launch sequence. The numbers count down and final preparations are made, as much as can be planned for this exploration into a new orbit.
When the numbers tick down, it’s time to go.
The real countdown began in November. It reached zero in December.
We sold furniture and gave away clothes. A moving truck filled up with the remaining (still too much, it feels like) material possessions. On the day it snowed in South Carolina, we handed over the keys to the eager new owner of our house, then two hours later said goodbye to Kati’s car since high school.
Were we crazy?
What would we do now?
Where would we go, and where would we stay?
“Life is often like that, guiding us to a point of decision. We must stay and maintain the status quo we’ve become so comfortably accustomed to, or we must pack up and move on. The journey is not guaranteed to be safe, to go according to plan, or to be clear at every turn. But we must keep going, into the fog, into the unknown. Because past the fog—maybe even before we get out of it—there is something for us to learn, a way for us to grow, and a new thing that will shape our lives like nothing else could if we do not go into the unknown.”
Into the unknown we went, into liminal space, like we had four years ago in different circumstances, but bearing the same inner knowledge: it was time.
Next: Living in uncertain, liminal, in-between space