The (Wo)man who moves mountains starts by moving stones–
This cartoon spoofs a saying that annoys me almost as much as “Everything happens for a reason”. My past was more happy than disappointing and I do not expect a future full of failures and distress. BUT it is often the very idea of CLOSED DOORS between the past, the present, and the future that bothers me. And that has not changed with age….
Doors opening – great! The thought of a door closing has always felt wrong. I like to move forward with the belief that the paths that I have already walked are places that I can return to as long as I do so regularly. When I think about the often-quoted Chinese proverb, I am reminded that if I am moving mountains by moving stones, I have to keep going back for the next stone. That means revisiting an ever smaller mountain. Sometimes for a long time. Eventually the mountain is so changed, that even when I go back it is not the same….and I may choose not to go back.
But I also think about the doors that haven’t closed because I go back to something different but still alive and engaging. I can reach out to friends I haven’t seen in years – and we mix conversations as if we had not changed even as we are talking about what has happened in the intervening years. I can reread Anna Karenina for the 5th time (I believe in reading it once every decade) and, although it is the same book with the same characters, I experience it as new and different.
In other words, I feel as if my backpack is full of things that I carry with me and I can therefore go back with reverence but without wallowing in dusty memories (as Karen Martha warns against in Nostalgia 101). Going back and re-opening doors is a deliberate practice, rather like walking the public footpaths that traverse private property in England in order to keep them open. As Sam Knight remarks, “Retrieving a lost path requires a certain cussedness” and (in my experience) -the willingness to climb over stiles and between someone else’s laundry. I have cussedness to spare, and enough friends (as well as a patient husband) that I get to tell the same story, with different acquired embellishments about the path, more than once.
Of course, that is also nonsense. One of the mixed blessings of the internet is that it allows me to visualize closed doors in a very literal sense. The antique house that I still love (probably more than any I will ever have) was sold in 1986. Sometimes when I have nothing else to do I Google “31 Hancock Street”, and recognize all of the things that made me love it (including the back door into the kitchen). But it is not mine: someone else owns it. Even if I knocked on their door and they welcomed me in for a look, I would not be revisiting my house but one that has permanently changed and where I would not feel at home (which is why I don’t look at the pictures of the inside, which also leads me to unnecessary judgments about the last owner’s taste in colors, furniture and kitchen design…..)
The message of “door closes-door opens” is annoying because it is often true even though I don’t want it to be. Although difficult, the move from Lexington, MA to Minneapolis, MN opened many doors professionally and personally, and I am not going back. My daughters are in their 40s, and no matter how often I look at pictures of them when they were young, I love seeing them as parents and emerging wise women rather than as my babies. And I want to leave an institution and work that has given a lot of meaning to my life.
I moved a lot of stones before deciding to retire, but they are now piled in the hallway between work and what comes next. That no new door has opened yet is a fact. I have no plan, although most people tell me that it is a mistake to retire without one. The image of moving stones rather than mountains comforts me, because, although I have only poorly formed ideas about the path I am walking, what parts of the mountain I am trying to disassemble, or whether moving those stones will lead me to a door that is now hidden I am still moving something. New energy. New hope.
I started messing around in my friend Jacqueline’s studio and I have pieces that I painted in my living room. I would continue moving artful stones with Jaqueline as my guide, but she inconveniently lives in the Netherlands. Should I keep putting stones in that pile right now or defer it? I have taken several years of classes to become a life coach, although I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with the new skills and ideas that I embrace. In both cases, a “set in stone” identity as an expert has shifted to a new identity of being an even more curious novice. Buddhists call it beginners mind – and I have discovered that it makes me more playful and less worried about the future. As a novice, I walk through an open “being” door and leave behind a “doing” door (that is, at least temporarily, still open). Does that count?