There are different forms of progress, or so it seems to me.
Incremental progress is like this quilt: you follow a progression based on certain necessary steps, you keep at it, a little bit every day, or every week, over a long time, and eventually you arrive at your goal. It's like a long walk from here to there, or the slow action of water on rocks. Sometimes it's arduous and more uphill, with twists and turns; sometimes easier and more linear, but you usually get somewhere close to where you thought you were headed if you are dedicated and steady. Maybe the goal is a project, or a degree, or some sort of change you want to achieve, like getting in better shape or becoming a kinder person. Whatever it is, you aren't going to get there overnight, but by a long series of small steps.
Then there's another kind of progress that's more like an earthquake; the whole mountain shifts, a faultline opens, the view changes, and suddenly you realize you aren't where you were before, or maybe that the you who is here now isn't the you that was there, then.
This second kind of movement may not feel like progress as much as upheaval, transition, turmoil, major change or even disaster, but when the dust settles - which can take years or even decades - you finally see more clearly what's happened. Life, whether we wanted it to or not, has pushed us into a new place.
My life has held hundreds of the first kind of processes: incremental projects that have resulted in something fairly concrete or tangible, or have taught me something important or changed me, even if the goals shifted a bit during the process or I encountered surprises or difficulties along the way. For the most part I've sought them out deliberately; I've put myself on those paths, or agreed to them more or less consciously, and then tried to see them out to a conclusion, or as lifelong commitments. It's one thing to make a quilt, another to take up the piano again as an adult, another to embark on a marriage or parenthood -- but they all involve decisions, persistence, and faith that the process itself is worthwhile, even if we encounter great difficulties, even if the end result isn't always what we hoped for or looks an awful lot like failure. Actually, with some practice at these projects, and at learning from them, you come to accept the failures as part of the path itself -- as teachers in their own right -- and you stop disliking them (or yourself) so much.
But the other kind of movement is very different. These major shifts have happened to me every decade or so: life takes a certain direction, both because of choices and external conditions or events, and then follows a kind of arc as that particular combination of choices and circumstances plays itself out. Then something changes, and a new, different reality announces itself, sometime suddenly, but more often quietly at first, and then with more and more insistence. At the same time, I sense that something else is ending or coming to a conclusion. Sometimes I don't notice the signals as positive promptings, but instead I notice resistance. That resistance can be to something old that I don't seem to want to do anymore, or it can be resistance to something new that feels unwanted, or represents loss or too much change. Pretty soon, it becomes clear that I'm at a crossroads, like it or not, and I'm going to have to look at it squarely in the face and do the work that the major change represents and calls for.
It's a lot easier to see these things in hindsight.
Loosely speaking, my twenties were about figuring out what I wanted to do in life, and ended with moving to New England, starting my design business, meeting and falling in love with J., getting married, and then combining our businesses into a partnership.
My thirties were about building that marriage, our home, and our professional career, and ended with a personal crisis about my own creative and spiritual life: in other words, I felt the need to step back a little bit from the intense coupledom with which I'd been consumed, and reconnect with my individual self -- to figure out some more about who I was, and pick up some important threads that I'd dropped.
My forties, then, were about becoming a serious writer and working on that very hard; studying piano and voice again; exploring my spirituality; and beginning to confront my deepest fears about mortality and loss - and trying to balance all of that with my marriage, our busy professional career, family relationships, friendships, community work and social activism.
In the next decade we faced the decline and death of three of our four parents, and moved to a new country, giving up our home, rural life, and many of our possessions. My fifties were about actual illness, loss, death, personal change and upheaval -- but they were also about writing a book, the internet, blogging, and a whole new realm of possibilities for sharing one's creative life.
That period of time has resulted in a new home, new friends, a large body of work, a new publishing business, and new responsibilities and challenges (the choir, the contemplative group I facilitate, bilingualism, travel to different places.) These years have felt chaotic and difficult but also richly rewarding, and probably represent the greatest period of change and growth in my life. It's only in the last two years that I've felt like I was actually settling in up here, feeling pretty comfortable and relatively adjusted to urban life in a foreign place - which Quebec really is - where I will never fully "belong" and have to find that sense of home within myself, instead.
And now I feel the ground shifting yet again, two years into my sixties...
(to be continued)