Here’s a question to ponder: What’s the difference between destruction and transformation? (I’ll let you noodle on that for a bit.)

When things feel dangerous, difficult and dark, I long for the miracle of a transformation. I love the idea that change, even radical change, is possible. Not only over glacial eons but real-time, witness-able change.

Take the classic: caterpillar to butterfly. Especially after a long winter, that’s what I’m all about. Until relatively recently, here’s how I thought about the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis:

  1. Bumpy, lumpy caterpillar gorges herself on leaves.
  2. Bumpy, lumpy caterpillar gets more bumpy and lumpy.
  3. Bumpy, lumpy caterpillar cleverly makes a chrysalis. Like I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle, this chrysalis is a groovy little apartment with a little makeup table, velvet pillows and nice-smelling lotions.
  4. As she rests comfortably on her soft sofa, the caterpillar’s sticky, knobby feet elegantly turn into delicate, slender legs.
  5. Out of the bumpy, lumpy caterpillar’s back iridescent wings gently unfold while her body lengthens and narrows.
  6. She gingerly cuts open her groovy little apartment, hangs out for a bit to get her bearings, and then off she flutters looking for lovely flowers to sip on.

As nice as it sounds, it actually doesn’t happen anything like that. This is how Scientific American describes it:

To become a butterfly, a caterpillar first digests itself. But certain groups of cells survive, turning the soup into eyes, wings, antennae and other adult structures.

Digests itself?? Caterpillar soup?? What about the glamorous apartment with the comfy couch and the cute pillows to rest on? What about the calm, organized process of changing from one thing into something else? The science of it sounds like a complete mess and incredibly, unavoidably uncomfortable.

Think about a time of change in your life, when something big was happening. You have a baby (or want to have one and don’t). You get a new job (or lose one). You move to a new city, go on big trip, get a divorce, or your kid moves away. Whatever it was, think about it. Was it neat and organized with soft music playing and a cashmere shawl around your shoulders?

(Not for me, anyway. If it is for you, please start writing a blog so I can read it.)

It’s nerve-wracking and crying and fear and mud tracked into the living room and maple syrup spilled in the fridge and pickled herring on the floor. It’s a mess. It’s a life soup. And it’s out of that that something new emerges.

So, back to the original question: what’s the difference between transformation and destruction? On the surface of it, the two seem to be made from the same ingredients. But the difference? Resistance and intention.

Things are going to change. Everything is going to change. Sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. Resisting change, wanting it to be different than it is, is a recipe for suffering. Intentionally flowing with change, seeing possibilities for growth, is a recipe for metamorphosis soup.

It’s not neat. Or pretty. Or organized. There are rarely velvet pillows. It’s better than that. It’s a miracle.

One of my long-time teachers, James Yates says, “To make any life transition, you need three things: support, support, support.”

(And, I would add, since life is just a series of transitions, we all need support all the time.)

Support is all around us and in us. What’s curious is how often we don’t lean into the support that’s available.

The earth itself is always ready to take our full weight and hold us unconditionally. And yet, I find myself not relaxing into this steadfast support. Notice right now, are you?

I have internal resources that I can draw on, too. My physical strength (no matter how ill or injured I am), my very bones, my life force — until my dying breath are all there for me.

We are available to support each other. Know who you can go to for whatever support you need. Who can you go to when you need someone to listen? Who can you go to for advice? Who can you go to for inspiration? Who can you go to for laughter?

It doesn’t matter what you call it: the Universe, Nature, Spirit, God, the Mystery. That which is larger than we are is there to support you, too. Can you trust that this support is available? Can you be awake enough to feel it?

Earth support. Internal support. External support. Spirit support.
Tap into it.

While I was traveling last month, I thought a good deal about transition. Traveling itself (and, heck, life itself) is a string of transitions from place to place, stage to stage, day to day, moment to moment.

In Minnesota, I watched members of my family make some big transitions with grace, generosity, humility, acceptance, kindness. It was a privilege to behold. I came back from my time with them wondering how I could be more graceful and smooth with the transitions of my own life.

The truth is, though, the many of my transitions have been anything but. They’ve been bumpy and awkward and full of resistance and pouting. But the thing is, even those kinds of transitions are powerful and worth embracing.

There is a famous photograph taken by Annie Leibovitz of Whoopi Goldberg in a tub of milk. I love this piece for a bunch of reasons but just this week a friend told me that her pose was a complete mistake. She slipped when she got in the tub and Leibovitz caught it. (You can see it and the stories behind some of her other famous portraits here. )

My transition from being married when I was 25 to not being married when I was 29 was a bumpy, ugly, tearful mess. It was not graceful. It was not smooth. AND there are few circumstances in my life that I have learned more from.

Whoopi’s transition into the milk tub was smooth (ha!) but awkward and unexpected, and it was an opportunity for great creativity.

We’re all transitioning all the time. What transition are you in right now? Whatever it is, however it is, I hope you embrace it, lean into it and get curious about what happens next.

From two of us traveling alone to a raucous celebration of 50.

From octogenarian to nonagenarian.

From living in a big house to a small apartment.

From living in a small town to the suburbs of a big city.

From working in a bank to retirement.

Life is full of transition. In some ways, transition is all there is. So what’s the secret to smooth and graceful ones?

In the past two weeks, I’ve watched and been part of some big transitions in myself and in the lives of those I love. I’ve been witnessing what makes a transition smooth and what makes it bumpy. I’ve noticed that the graceful transitions in my life and in the lives around me are the ones that are broken into smaller transitions. Taken as a series of smaller ones, I find more ease, more grace, more embodiment of each successive stage.

What is your recipe for smooth and graceful transitions?

transition 061116

When our girl was young, she hated vacations. She hated Christmas break and spring break and she really, really hated it when school let out for the summer. At the time, her vacation aversion was more than a little challenging, but I got it. Vacations took her out of the comfortable, familiar routine of school that she loved. All the unfilled, empty time of a vacation (or worse, leaving home to go somewhere else) made the poor girl anxious to distraction.

I don’t suffer from vacation anxiety, I love to get out and see new places and explore the world. What I suffer from, as a friend pointed out to me recently, is Vacation Packing Anxiety. It’s not the going away but the getting ready to go away that gets me. When I stop to think about my life, however, it’s more generalized than that: I have transitionitis.

As my husband and I get ready for a trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, half a dozen lists are posted around the house. Even still I have loose ends and tendrils that I don’t want to forget twisting in my brain (pick up an extra bike inner tube, remember the food in the freezer, bring your Tevas). I have piles of books and art supplies in my office, stacks of granola bars and chocolate on the countertops. The kitchen floor is cluttered with bins half-filled with canisters of rice and quinoa, jars of olives and salad dressing, cans of tomatoes and artichokes. I keep tripping on my hiking boots which I’ve left out on the floor so I won’t forget them.

Transitionitis is in full swing. Lucky for me, I’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice with it since between the Summer Solstice and the Fall Equinox, we will take four trips. Simply writing those words makes my heart flutter.

From a Buddhist perspective, I know that life is change. We are transitioning all the time whether we are conscious of it or not. So the opportunity to practice with so many explicit transitions is a healthy and helpful one…albeit uncomfortable and messy with a lot of shoes scattered on the floor.

Feelings, and in particular fear, are part of what we get when we land on the planet. Along with elbows and earlobes and eye teeth, we get emotions …all of them including worry. Just like sensations in the body, our job is to listen to them, give them our attention and respond to them with compassion. So when I find myself caught in the racy feeling that I won’t get everything done, or the tight fear that I will forget something important, that’s the time to pause, breathe, and feel whatever sensations are happening.

As soon as we pull out of the driveway on Tuesday, I know I’ll feel differently but for now I’m a bundle of nervousness. In the meantime, I’m checking things off my list and breathing. I’m sorting paper, colored pens and pencils and breathing. I’m stowing sandals, backpacks, bathing suits and breathing.

All the while, I’m reminding myself how lucky I am to be reluctant to leave the everyday life that I love for the traveling life that I also love. And I’m reminding myself that life really is one big transition, so bring on the practice!


TEACHING NOTE: I’ll be teaching on Monday, Jun 13 at 1045am at acac Albemarle Square and then my next class will be Monday, Jul 4 at 1045am! Please join me!

flip turn underwater imageIn the midst of a big change, I went to my niece, Olivia, for thoughts on transitions (i.e., flip turns).

Olivia says “an excellent flip turn has three parts….”

Auntie hears it’s best to break any transition down into manageable pieces.

Olivia says when changing both direction and stroke, “touch the wall … and take a breath when you touch.”

Auntie hears in a complicated change, knowing when to take care of yourself is essential.

I thought flip turns were scary. Olivia says nope, “no matter the depth, you can do the turn.”

Auntie hears it’s okay. You can do this.

Le Que first trip 0913 005Two years ago, we bought a camper. If you had told me two-and-a-half years ago that we would buy a camper, I would have smiled politely while internally rolling my eyes at the crazy person. But we bought one called Le Que and now, contrary to all my expectations, I love it. Honestly, it’s like having a play house that we pull around with us to beautiful places where we go hiking and biking and it is more fun than I ever could have imagined.

Anyway. We love our camper and we love planning trips and we love going to parks (Virginia has some incredibly wonderful state and national parks, btw y’all). But the transition, from being home to going out in Le Que? That is almost always a bumpy ride.

The planning goes fine and the packing is always fine and even loading up the camper is perfectly fine, but when it comes to the moment when we shove off out of our driveway, something almost always happens. I either slam the truck door too hard or I forget to get the yellow wedge things from behind the tires or I leave the truck door open when I get the yellow things nearly asphyxiating Frank with diesel fumes. Whatever it is, we have a rough patch as we move from doing one thing (being home) to doing another (going out in the camper).

After a few times it dawns on me that I am bamfoozled by transition in a lot of situations. It is often difficult for me to switch from doing one thing to doing another thing. The places between movements and songs in my teaching are devilishly tricky. Moving from one pose to another in yoga wobbles me something fierce. Shifting from working alone in my office to being with other people feels clunky and stiff. Transitions, it appears, are awkward for me.

And now, Frank and I are embarking on a big and multi-staged transition out of one house, into a handful of temporary situations (for us, our belongings and our cat), and then into another, smaller house (albeit one with a super-fine man cave). I see these next few months looming in front of me like a long exit down a four-month bumpy driveway with Le Que towed behind us.

Given all this thought about transition, I did what anyone would do: I talked to my 14-year-old niece about flip turns. My niece, Olivia, is a competitive swimmer and has been for most of her life. She’s a speedy thing in the water, I’ll tell you what, and she goes careening down her lane and then – shazzam! – she flips around and is zooming in the complete opposite direction just as smooth as you please. I figured if anyone could tell me a thing or two about transitioning from one thing to another, it was Olivia.

So here is the first ever Focus Pocus interview between Olivia and me (with annotations by Auntie):

ME: What makes an excellent flip turn?

OLIVIA: An excellent flip turn has three parts: the approach, the wall, and the push. The approach must be faster than ever, and the flip to the wall must be precise and fast. The push should be like a squat off the wall.

The first thing that strikes me about this is the one-step-at-a-time of a flip turn. I find that when I’m approaching a transition, it all feels like a swirly mess. But if I break down what’s happening to, say: the sorting, the packing, the storage, it feels less confusing and disorienting and more like I’m just doing what’s in front of me.

The second thing  I notice is the boldness of a flip turn. In order to make it work, you’ve got to swim into it “faster than ever.” A tentative approach leads to a lack-luster turn. Once the decision has been made, approach with confidence.

ME: Sometimes you’re not just changing directions, but changing strokes, too, like when you’re swimming an IM [individual medley]. How is the turn different in an IM?

OLIVIA: In IM you do what is called an open turn, and you touch the wall with both or one hand depending on the stroke, and take a breath when you touch. Then you push off into the next stroke.

This transition thing is a complicated business and here I notice that in the midst of the one-step-at-a-time, Olivia mentions when to take a breath. So how do I do that when I’m changing from one thing to another? When do I take a second to nourish myself and get the energy I need to do what needs doing? Seems best to think ahead about when to breathe.

ME: It seems like flip turns would be scary. When you were learning them, were you ever scared at all?

OLIVIA: For me, no, but one thing is that no matter the depth, you can do the turn. You won’t hit your back on the bottom.

She’s a brave thing, my Olivia Jane. Unlike her, I feel all kinds of anxiety when I’m making a change. But I love the confidence of this: “no matter the depth, you can do the turn.”

To recap Olivia’s flip turn wisdom:
– take it one step at a time
– move into a transition with confidence
– know when you’ll take a breath
– and it’s okay. You can do this.

Wise counsel. Now maybe she can come down here and pack a few boxes.

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