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Photo by Tony Puyol

Recently I had a poignant conversation with a friend who experienced a major loss. In the midst of a long term creative project with a mentor, that mentor died, very suddenly and unexpectedly. They’d both been passionate about the work, and they’d believed this would be a multi-year project. Now she finds herself at an unexpected crossroads, still believing in the work, but not feeling equipped to carry it on solo.

A theme seems to be emerging among my cohort over the last few years, and it needs a name. It’s a phase in which our elders seem to be making their exits, either through retirement, or death, or simply a new chapter of their own, and we, while certainly adult, find ourselves with feet still a bit too small to fill their very substantial shoes. Jungians talk about midlife as a time in which a certain depression and a feeling of “what now” may descend, or about the second half of life, when one has built something and survived a great deal, but begins to feel that time is not unlimited and that attention must be paid to something more, even if we don’t know what that something more is. Both of these concepts are useful, but the theme I’m sensing feels a bit different from this, like something still unnamed.

Last night as I was falling asleep, I had a song from a Christmas movie we used to watch going through my head. I have no idea what brought that up, but it made me think of my mother, of the theater and film she filled our lives with during that era, and of her influence in general. I was reminded how much I miss her creativity and joy.

As I fell asleep, I dreamt I had put a lot of things in my life into a small fire. My intention was to transform them into something else. This would require me to let go of them in the form they had been in all my life to this point. I suddenly noticed that one of the objects in this fire was a ring I inherited from my mother. Damn. I had not meant to include that. I reached into the heat and pulled it out, but the stone was already gone and the frame half melted. So I threw it back in. I had no idea what was going to come out of that fire, nor did I know what I would be able to do with it. I just watched it burn.

On Friday night, I heard a talk by Belden Lane, who told a wonderful story about a stream that tried to cross a desert. This stream was young, and before this time it had been able to flow wherever it wanted to flow. But the desert with its dry heat was too much. What stuck with me the most about the story was that a voice told the stream, you cannot remain what you are. You either give yourself to the wind, or you dry up. So the stream gave itself to the wind and became a cloud that floated over the desert.

My fire dream feels like the best description I’ve come to so far for this time of life I’m struggling to name. It’s a kind of Calcinatio, in alchemical terms. Things fall into that fire, whether we want them to or not. We cannot remain what we are. In the case of my friend with the lost mentor, the project cannot remain what it was either. Something new has to happen, and we do not yet know what that will be. But as the poet Galway Kinnell reminds us:

On some hill of despair
the bonfire

you kindle can light the great sky—

though it’s true, of course, to make it burn

you have to throw yourself in …”

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