Transition Chapters

Sharing Life's Transformative Passages

I admittedly own a small mountain of journals—notebooks of every cover and color imaginable—all stashed around my home. They’re my drafting boards, my exploratory spaces, my confessional havens. More than pages of “brain dump,” they invite me to take apart whatever I’m experiencing in the moment—or a long-term vision I’m toying with. Oftentimes, I don’t fully grasp what I’m moving through until I write my way through the clutter, burrowing to the definitive energy beneath. That, I finally see, is what wants to be known.

Yet, I know these notebooks also comprise an ongoing record, documenting my years in continuous succession. They’re a story of me…in a sense. While daily entries capture a fine, quirky detail, the collective volumes apprehend the past through a wide aperture.

I haven’t ever set out with this long-view, archival intention—except in one particular notebook. These I call my “January Pages.”

I’ve long considered January my personal holiday season. With decorations cleared away and my calendar empty, I happily burrow into the quiet lull of the post-Christmas weeks. Where others might feel a letdown, I’ve always welcomed their spareness. Even the midwinter chill offers definitive relief—a further excuse to take refuge in the interior world. At the turn of each year now, it’s become habit to build a simple winter’s altar on the fresh mantle and delve into these entries.

They began with an email attachment. A friend who’s a creative coach knew I was in the messy thick of transition and thought I might find some grounding in the yearly prompts she herself did. Five years later, they remain my New Year ritual.

Part celebration, part musing, they merge a winding process of intention and retrospection. What did I accomplish last year in various dimensions of life? Who and what influenced me the most? How did I contribute? Where was I brave? What am I grateful for? How did I change? What am I taking away as the narrative of that year? And, likewise for the year ahead…. What do I most want and need? What will I encourage to come forward in myself? What will I work to let go of? How can I better care for myself as I do so?

These are only a few of the questions—many altered or added to that original list over the years. But more than particular questions, the annual ritual itself has taken on its own momentum. Each December now, messages—sometimes words, sometimes symbols or images—present themselves as harbingers of the New Year, associations whose significance will reveal themselves in the months following. I’ve learned to create a space for them in the same notebook—an initial page of unstructured insights and serendipitous nudges.

I’m intrigued that the process now incubates this way within an energy not entirely my own. I’m grateful how the pages have become an exchange with something beyond myself, rather than another exercise of self-will. I simply offer up the project each year, calling in inspiration I don’t have to manufacture.

Answers don’t come instantaneously, but I wait, keeping the notebook handy throughout the month, picking it up as impulse directs. The process moves with its own idiosyncratic rhythm—and it’s never one to be rushed….

In a culture that often perceives deliberation as wasteful, January in particular is billed as a time of swift, definitive change. New Year’s resolutions instantaneously call us to action and drive home an inerrant faith in self-direction. My languorous practice, in contrast, flies in the face of that focus and cadence. Yet, nothing else beyond this practice—no goal or aim—has ever moved me more.

As I meet the New Year and all the cultural messaging around self-discipline, I’m resolute in my own way: to preserve January as a sanctuary for reflection, unencumbered by the pressures of immediate achievement, unleashed from the presumption of the great and powerful managing self.

For me, the New Year (as I’ve come to welcome it) deals in subtleties and suggestion. Rather than grabbing the reins and setting a course, my job is to give thanks, be honest, and get still enough to listen.

My efforts in that notebook each January come to shape a loose vision for the year. But when I’m done recording it, I have to say that I simply put the notebook away. In fact, I may not look at it again for several months. The endpoint, honestly speaking, is release instead of resolve. For me, it was never a goal sheet, never a push to manifest a set of desires, but a channel of communication. I vocalize a vision, give it permission on paper: “I’m open to this, however it might take shape. I’m ready now—emboldened enough to say yes to this or that possibility if it’s meant to be. Just show me where I need to take action.”

I put the notebook away so I can surrender the vision and devote myself to the work of small intentions, of steady consciousness and effort. I’m rarely drawn to check my days against any of that larger design. Having engaged in a month’s discernment, I’ve become pretty good at handing over the rest of the process and letting it work through me the rest of the year. I move into the slow dedication of infinitesimally small steps that present themselves in daily living.

I revisit the pages only a handful of times throughout the year to situate myself again in the bigger scope. To integrate events within the evolving narrative of the year so far. To look for congruence between my actions and January’s nudges. To remind myself that my vision hangs more on values than desire. To ground myself when passing emotion takes hold and feels like fixed reality—when I’m impatient or desperate with present circumstances. Last January I wrote in the space above the first entries for this year, “These pages are my truth—that I can always come back to when I’ve forgotten.” In reading, I remember it. Then I’m ready to release the process (and the notebook) again for another few months’ time.

These pages’ ongoing imprint on my life tells what I consider the more interesting story within my story—revealing footnotes to the timeline of “big” events. They’re the emotional backstory, the spiritual conversations, the slow growth of selfhood ready-ing her soul.

Over time, my ongoing commitment to this ritual has grown my trust in the arc of life. It allows me to better define that growth by how I dance with the mystery of it—a little more openly, a little more gracefully. Can I be free enough to move with the instincts that seems to be rising in a day? Can I be attentive enough to see any signs in front of me?

The last several years have, above all, cultivated deeper patience—a reverence rather than tolerance for waiting during frozen, still stretches of time. I’ve experienced the logic of life seasons. Periods of dormancy have taught me lessons unavailable during cycles of blooming.

Resilience, studies tell us, comes not from resolution but from meaning. We might be buoyed by our triumphs, but we’re not made by them. Strength comes of giving up the need to win the day (or the year). It comes from being able to see and tell the story of a time, to feel its significance, to honor what’s learned, to recognize where life took us deeper, how we came away not defeated but transformed. Sometimes the first step is believing that we even have a story….

These pages tell an ongoing narrative I appreciate with hindsight. Rereading offers, above all, a chance to witness my own fortitude despite the daily lens of self-doubt. Compassion moves gently into the disoriented spaces. After all, I’m not here to be the master of my life as we’re so often prodded to be. Surrender has brought me more than control ever did—more joy, more peace, more resilience, more possibility.

And so, each year I make my life an offering in those pages. I gift the year’s passage to that larger arc that is thankfully beyond my purview. I work in dimensions that always seem to out-imagine my expectations anyway. My January pages, for all the play and sorrow and hope they elicit, are above all a sacred space to quietly, reverently engage a greater view of my own story—to pause thoughtfully between one chapter and the next…and to revel in the simple telling of it.

~ Jen

(The original New Year Pages mentioned are by artist Kari Maxwell of Create Everyday.)

A few months following my divorce, a spiritual director asked me a question made famous by transition theorist, William Bridges: “If this time period were a chapter in the book of your life, what would the title be?”

I sat back in that oak rocking chair, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. With my elbows on the armrests, I clasped my hands together and rested my chin on two extended fingertips. “Traveling,” I shared with a quizzical smile.

As I sat pondering my unexpected answer, I acknowledged that I was still very much in no man’s land—exiled from core expectations of how my life would unfold. I spent most days feeling like I was dangling somehow, hovering over the surface of life, still unable to touch down.

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With exhausted relief, I closed the back hatch. My bags were loaded, the dog situated in her usual spot. Now for the five-hour drive ahead of me…

It was Christmas Day, and I’d been fighting leaden inertia all morning. Packing clothes and food for the week took undue time and focus. Physical energy dripped from my hands. Every bag felt like a hundred pounds. I took an inordinate number of breaks to rest on the couch and come back to my body. Even the dog looked lackluster and confused.

Two days prior I’d said a heartfelt goodbye to my two daughters. They would be flying halfway across the country and not returning for over a week. This first Christmas without my girls, I would not only miss them but miss out on the chance to witness their first flight on an airplane, their first sight of the ocean. Post-divorce, this was the shape of things.

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The morning of my 41st birthday, I pulled up to a small, mid-century home and turned the key for the first time.

Taking a heavy inhale, I walked through and set the first boxes on the kitchen counter. White walls and cabinetry… Like the rest of the house, it was open and blank. Gazing out the window that overlooked our new backyard, I ran my fingers over a tiny, painted Dala horse that sat on the windowsill—the only spot of color in the room.

A week earlier I’d signed the lease—just a 6-month arrangement, since the owners wanted to sell that summer. It was a strategic window of time, I thought. I’ll get the kids through the rest of the school year and by then have a clearer idea of where to settle once the divorce is final.

When I’d first explored the house, I was half-disoriented with overwhelm. The landlady’s sympathetic smile was nearly all I recalled from that visit.

Except, oddly, for the garage… Two decades collapsed the moment I stepped inside its dank, leathery smell—exactly that of my late grandparents’ garage, the place I had watched my grandfather at his work bench, the place I’d run to for mitts, balls, and Frisbees or to study the travel maps and old license plates lining the cinderblock walls. Their home, those memories, had been a childhood oasis for me. Now, for the first time in many months, ease trickled through me as I stood alone in the darkness.

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Many of us grow up with the belief that life is a process of assembly. Over the years we may gather degrees, friends, partners, children, credentials, possessions, experiences, and (hopefully) insights. Together, we expect, they’ll form a composite that harmonizes with (if not fulfills) the vision we have for our lives. 

For much of my life, I believed this to be the case until the story I’d been living began a great descent—first slow and insidious, eventually sharp and dizzying. Within two years’ time, life as I’d known and planned it completely unraveled. My then 3-year-old daughter received a diagnosis that put the future in question. My marriage crumbled. I spent an agonizing year taking stock and trying to figure out what could be next, breaking open to hard truths about myself and our relationship, hoping to salvage our family. When that hope collapsed, I found myself standing at the door of a new home and a new life.

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