And the beginnings and endings are meaningless without their “befores” and “afters”

Monday was an emotionally trying day in my life. When I woke up that morning, I was in the same town as my eldest son, and, had I thought about Notre Dame Cathedral at all, I would not have expected any change in it beyond an increase in visitors during the week preceding Easter Sunday. That evening, as I sat down to write in my hotel room, I was halfway back home — neither here nor there. One of my sons was in the state I had just left, the other in the state for which I was headed. In Paris, the cathedral in which I had stood, filled with wonder, was burning. The flames had not yet been fully contained. Everything felt just a little surreal.

Notre Dame Cathedral Bell Towers

Life unfolds in mysterious ways and I often feel the Universe is sending me the same message over again until I get it. (To be clear, I don’t think I’m particularly special in this regard. The messages go out as they do, and people will make of them what they will.) The latest message I’ve been getting is that all things come to an end. This sounds like a message of doom, but it doesn’t feel remotely like doom; no matter how final an end is, every end is the beginning of something new.

In the case of my personal life, and that of my oldest child’s, it’s not wrong to say the journey we embarked upon last weekend was an ending, but it was also, unmistakably, a beginning.

My son's car just before his move

Those of you reading who have never moved very far from home have experienced life vastly differently than I. I know people who are still friends with someone they met in pre-school. I understand things like that, but it’s sort of like my understanding of quantum physics: I get the basic concepts, but I’ll never really understand it.

Now the thing about time is that time isn’t really real.
It’s just your point of view, how does it feel for you?
Einstein said he could never understand it all.
Planets spinning through space, the smile upon your face, welcome to the human race.

Secret O’ Life, James Taylor

Those of you who have moved greater distances understand that you have the opportunity to leave behind the idea of what and who people think you are. It is a chance to present yourself as you who you are now, or as the person you are becoming. Moving so far away affords my son the opportunity to shed his childhood in a way moving across town simply could not. There are hardships that come along with moving, undoubtedly, but this is the exciting side of it.

As I thought on the world news that night, I couldn’t fathom what might rise from the literal ashes of Notre Dame, but I didn’t for a single minute believe the site of the cathedral would remain a ruin. It holds too much value to our global society as a religious structure, a work of beauty, a tourist destination, not to mention as the setting of Victor Hugo’s famous novel. There is definitely a beginning stirring in those ashes.

Other endings and beginnings are hovering around the edges of my life. My husband and I are inching into actual empty nest territory. My youngest son is quite near to finishing his time at technical school, and whatever the future holds for him, it will be a new phase of adulthood. We recently traded in our wonderful pickup truck (Babe, named after Paul Bunyan’s ox) when it needed a repair that would cost far more than the value of the truck itself. Yes, compared to the fire on Ile De la Cite, or even to relocating to a new state, this may sound inconsequential, but we bought Babe around eight months after I had our first child, some 23 years ago, and it traveled with us through many moves, even to Germany. When you have spent the majority of your life moving from place to place, the things you own are a sort of anchor, and parting with them can be wrenching.

Another ending

And yet, with all this talk about beginnings and endings, it’s important to note that these are just markers in life, and rather arbitrary ones at that. Did my son’s beginning/ending start when he arrived in his new town? When he drove away from our house? Perhaps it was when he started to pack, or when he decided to move.

Life is not so much about beginnings and endings as it is about going on and on and on. It is about muddling through the middle.

Anna Quindlen

If, indeed, we are to accept the concept that there are firm beginnings and endings, perhaps we would be happier if we put less emphasis on them. Suppose the beginning of my son’s journey officially began when he arrived at his new home. If this beginning was actually the important bit, there would be no particular point in his staying behind when we turned around to come home. In order for this starting point to be of any significance, he must carry on. He must, as quoted above, muddle through the middle.

When we focus too much on the milestones in our lives, we lose the opportunity to enjoy the experience of moving from here to there. It becomes all to easy to fall into the mistaken idea that happiness is tied to achievement. “I will be happy when ____ “. I will be happy when I graduate. I will be happy when I get a job. I will be happy when I get a promotion.

It is easiest to find ourselves in the “happy when” mindset during difficult times. Graduation embodies happiness in our minds when we are struggling through finals. Getting a job embodies happiness when we need to support ourselves, or when we feel our lives have no particulate meaning or direction.

The hidden trap in this way of thinking is that happiness is not an event. It is a state of being. This runs counter to our achievement oriented culture; yet, if we are to enjoy life, we have to stop rushing toward endings. Instead, try on the idea of, “I am happy while ___“. I am happy while I’m in the company of the people I love. I am happy while I am savoring my coffee. I am happy while I am experiencing the moment.

Author's home without son's car

When we arrived home from our four day round trip drive, I was struck with how empty the side of the garage looked without a beat up red Jeep parked there. I won’t pretend it didn’t cause a pang in my heart, but in time I will be used to its absence. For now, I will let the space remind me of how my son is brave enough to follow his dreams. It is both the ending and the beginning; the feeling wistful and the feeling proud.

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.
Any fool can do it, there ain’t nothing to it.
Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill.
But since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride.

Secret O’ Life, James Taylor

At the time I scheduled this post to be published, literally hundreds of millions of dollars had been pledged for the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral. French President Emmanuel Macron wishes to see the work finished in five years. This is an enormous task, and time will tell if it is achievable on so tight a time frame. Regardless, the fire which brought down the 800 year old roof marked an end, and from it comes the beginning of a project backed by people around the world.

Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.

Gilda Radner

On both a global level and a personal level, the past week has vividly demonstrated to me that while everything comes to an end, it is never really THE end. Our lives are a journey. Let us strive to be happy while we travel.

Brightest blessings, Sunny