On February 2, the groundhogs in both New York and Pennsylvania proclaimed an early spring by failing to see their shadows. While most of the January snows have left the lawns, they stubbornly cling in debris-filled mounds in our lots and streets. Neither the gradually growing light nor the creeping warmth gives sufficient proof to this skeptic that spring is less than six weeks away.
The dominant image for me these days is that of purple-fringed late-day skies silhouetted with the bare branches of deciduous trees. Autumn's colors are a distant memory and spring buds seem to be a lifetime away. The emptiness is etched in my memory and echoes in my life as loss surrounds me on every side.
It seems strange to be filled with emptiness when so much in my life is new. As 2016 began I moved to a new city, started in a new ministry, and settled into a new community. Where is the excitement that newness promises as its companion? Maybe it eludes me because I am somewhere between here and there.
I used to know what "here" looked like. I knew the main roads and the back roads as well as every coffee stop along the way. I knew people by their footsteps in the hall and their voices on the phone. I knew where to find an understanding ear, a hearty laugh, and even a grousing complaint!
"There" is now a mix of new street numbers and names, telephone numbers and ZIP codes, and building entry and alarm codes that I devise mnemonics to recall. With a GPS as a constant companion, I navigate the maze but often hear impatient horns when I find myself in the wrong lane. Everything is new and unknown and I ask the most fundamental questions: Where do I empty the trash; how do I open the washing machine; where is there a gas station? I want to add a disclaimer that, truly, I once was reasonably knowledgeable and competent!
Twinges of loneliness seep into the day's pauses. The familiar places have lost some of their comfort and the ready refuges are no longer secure. I have neither my former companions in community nor colleagues in ministry. Who is there for a late night chat, for trusted proofreading, or for a bolstering word after a trying meeting? In between the leaving and the arriving are the lonely and somewhat messy midway times. It seems like there is no solid ground beneath my feet as I search to find a way.
This feeling of displacement, of being neither here nor there, begs questions of definition. Where is my place in local community? How will this new ministry evolve? Who am I now in my congregation? How am I daughter and sister and aunt in my family of origin?
Everything is in flux and there are no definitive answers to these fundamental questions at this in-between time. I once had ready replies to who I was in ministry, community, and family. But with the uprooting that came with a move, the shifting that accompanied a ministry change, and the upheaval that followed my mother's death in September, I have mere tentative responses.
A choice lies before me, though: Wallow in self-pity at the loss of the familiarity and comfort of home or explore new roads and try out new ways. Life is both frustratingly bereft of the known and also full of new manifestations of the face of God. What does it take to be free to choose life?
Many years ago, as a college sophomore, I was deeply influenced by Henri Nouwen's book, With Open Hands. It led me through a life-changing process of letting go of childhood prayers into an adult relationship with God in prayer. Perhaps the image of open hands that was once so profound for me is what is needed here. Can I let go of the ways of yesterday and embrace the invitations of today?
I cannot be both here and there. God's gifts in my previous ministry, community, and place of life were amazingly abundant. Can I open my hands to release them to God in love and gratitude and be free to receive the people and places that surround me now?
As I enter into the days of Lent, these letting go questions find voice. I hang my hopes on the barren branches of the trees that stand starkly before me on these clear-skied winter days. They have let go of last year and trust that sap will flow once more. They are empty yet waiting to be full. Perhaps they hold an invitation for this 40-day journey.
[Ellen Dauwer is a Sister of Charity of Saint Elizabeth of Convent Station, New Jersey, currently living in Newark. She spent 20 years in higher education, teaching educational technology and serving in administration. She recently completed eight years in congregational leadership and is now the executive director of the Religious Formation Conference.]