Ten years ago, I watched my friend go through Empty Nest. Her solution: drive a massive ice-breaking truck at the McMurdo Research Center in Antarctica. She brought some home-made hula hoops too, and a few instruments, because she’d never go anywhere without those personal items. She faced Empty Nest with something more like…Empty Next– with the same electrifying spirit and adventure with which she’d raised her boy and girl…and now they were off to see the world. And she was too.
At that time in my life, my boy and girl were still thick in the throes of music lessons and sports events and homework at the kitchen table and weekend slumber parties. I couldn’t imagine letting them go, much less letting myself go. Not like that. I was sad for her, even though I knew she’d come back with tales to tell and more life experience under her frost-bitten belt. But I felt like she was avoiding the grief…going so far away. It looked like running away to me.
I mentioned it to another friend and she said, “Are you kidding? Motherhood is great. But you’re always a mother, even after they leave. It’s just different. Your kids are on to new things, and you should be too! And you get to have your life back!”
My life back? I felt like I was just getting the life I’d dreamed about. Being a mother was the most fulfilling thing I’d ever done. Sure, I’d travelled all over the place in my teens and twenties with a backpack on my back. Intrepid, stubborn, solo, and full of wonder. Writing my way through it all. But it felt like all of that was preparation for the most hair-raising, plot-twisting, heart-warming, soul-feeding work of my life: raising children.
And I did it. I did it well. For twenty-two years.
And here I am. In a few weeks, my boy will go to college. My daughter just graduated from college and moved into an apartment in San Francisco. She’s got a great job, great friends. He’s got a great roommate and will be living out his dream playing baseball at an institute of higher learning. I couldn’t be more proud. We’ll move him in. My daughter will go back to the city. I’ll come back here to my house in Montana. It’ll all be over. That part. And I’m afraid of the grief. I’m not afraid of my future. I’m just afraid of who I’ll be without them. Here. In my empty nest. In short, this last month has been excruciating. And I want so deeply to appreciate these last weeks.
This helps: (maybe it will help you if you are a parent with a child soon leaving…)
So…just like my friend…I anticipated this pain. About two years ago, I started imagining the next chapter of my life. The fear of Empty Nest had me by the throat, even then. But I took my friend’s lead, and my other friend’s comment, and I decided that I was going to grab this next chapter by the ponytail and yank the weeping woman attached to it back out into the world. To trust-fall into travel and adventure, only as the woman she is now. Exactly as she is.
So this winter, I’m hitting the road. I’m going to live my own version of breaking the ice on Antarctica, only for me…it’s with my journal. I’ve started a new Haven Writing Program: Haven Wander. First stop: Morocco.
My primary Haven programs are still here in Montana, and you can bet that I scheduled four of them back-to-back for this fall with the express intention of healing Empty Nest in my own back yard by doing the nurturing work I most love outside my motherhood– helping people to find their voice through the power of the written word.
But for people who are less writing-focused and more travel-focused…I have a new adventure and it utilizes yes, my experience facilitating meaningful small group experiences in the grandeur of the Rockies…but now in exotic places around the globe!
For my first Haven Wander, I found the perfect place and the perfect people to help me plan this remarkable, priceless, uniquely local Haven program, and it lands us in a small village outside of Marrakesh, Morocco. With the help of these fabulous and inspiring locals, I have spent the last two years putting together a week of intentional wandering around Morocco, using the Haven Wander Portfolio as our guide. It will be a feast for the senses and soul, and with a component of giving back through Project SOAR, to empower young women in finding their voices. I’m going first to get the lay of the land, my journal and me, so that I’m rooted and ready when the women join me for our first Haven Wander.
Personally, I do want to see who that stubborn young dreamer was with that backpack on her back, traipsing around the former Yugoslavia and Turkey, and all over Europe in the mid-’80s. I know she’s still in me and I do want to see what her confidence and curiosity is all about. And I also want to meet her with the wisdom she’s gathered along the way as a mother and as a woman and an author. I want to scoop her up and tell her that she doesn’t have to do it alone. She can do it in the company of kindreds. Because I’m pretty sure that the nest travels with you, wherever you go. And you don’t have to live it empty. You can live it with a small group of women who are just as curious and just as hungry for connection with the world outside their front door as you are. Who long to have their senses activated in a rich and deep way, and who want to learn and fill their souls with powerful and meaningful experiences.
I want to sit her down on benches and on Mosque steps and in public gardens and seaside café tables…and ask her to be still. To watch. To listen. To be. After all, she never had a cell phone. Or a screen of any kind in that backpack. She had a journal. And curiosity. And courage. I want to scoop her up and merge with her, and tell her that she becomes a very good mother of exceptional beings who fledge well. And that she gets to have a new chapter of her life. And it’s going to be wonderful.
So Haven Wander: Morocco is hatching this February. I’m taking seven women on a one week journey of intentional living and being, using writing as our guide. As for me, I’m going to take the whole month and write my way through this first blush of Empty Nest. I’m going to start imagining who this next me is. Who she’s always been and who she became and who she is becoming and will become.
In this next chapter, I want to wander all over the world. I want to go to places that scare me a little, that feel exotic, and I’m going to do it with these small, temporary communities of women who need this as badly as I do. The sky is the limit. Uruguay. Ethiopia. Kathmandu. Thailand. But first…Morocco.
Before that, though…first and foremost…when I get back home from college drop off, to this empty nest, (and even this Empty Next)…before the back-to-back fall Haven Writing Retreats and Haven Wander: Morocco…I know I need a very deliberate and very serious pause between chapters. A full stop to honor it all.
So I’m borrowing from the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva. I’ve always been fascinated by the power of this tradition of sitting shiva for a week after someone dies. Of stopping your world and observing the loss and your grief, and the life that has left. I’m going to have my personal version of it. But not in uncomfortable chairs. I need soft pillows for this.
I’ll light a candle and sit on my screened porch in my favorite chair, and reflect in thought and prayer, and write in my journal. No TV. No screens at all. Just observations of my motherhood and who these children of mine have been:
I’ll sit my personal version of shiva for my babies turned little ones turned big, and my mothering of them. I’ll sit shiva for all the learning to crawl and learning to walk and learning to speak and running barefoot in the grass and swinging on the swing set and making mudpies.
I’ll sit shiva for piano lessons and guitar lessons and school plays and orchestra concerts and soccer games and track meets and football games and baseball baseball baseball. I’ll sit shiva for all the birthday balloons on the garden archway and all the streamers taped to the corners of the porch and the dining room and down the banister.
I’ll sit shiva for the pony rides in the front yard and the badminton, and the croquet, and bocce, and backgammon and cards and Farkle and Scrabble on the screened porch by candlelight. For all the bonfires and marshmallows and star-gazing in sleeping bags on the dewy cool grass. For every ahhhhh to every shooting star. And every ooooo to every falling one.
And then, I’ll borrow the rest of this Jewish custom. On the seventh day, I’ll take a walk around my land, all four corners of my twenty acres, and then return to my front porch to symbolize my return to society. I may even call my rabbi friend to read these customary words from the Old Testament:
No more will your sun set, nor your moon be darkened, for God will be an eternal light for you, and your days of mourning shall end. (Isaiah 60:20)
My kids always say, “Mom. You walk so confidently without having any idea where you’re going. You even walk confidently in the wrong direction.” They’re making fun of me, of course, in their own way. Millennials. They’ve never navigated directions without their noses in their GPS screens, robots telling them when and where to turn. I doubt they really know their right from their left, frankly.
“I know where I’m going,” I tell them. “Essentially. I like taking an unexpected turn. I like asking actual human beings how to get to the train station. Siri and Uber have done our civilization a grand injustice! I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about the world and humans by asking strangers questions. And heck, if I really need to be so exact and so punctual, I have my phone, or I can research it prior. There’s this thing called making plans, you know!”
They part laugh, part roll their eyes. They don’t seem worried about me in the least, for this next chapter.
“The truth is…I’m sick of racing to get everywhere on time,” I tell them. “I’m sick of being so responsible. Of having a life where everything has to be so full and stacked and go go go. I just need to wander again. I need to have room in my life to stop when I want to stop. And sit. And just…be. And to do it…in a very meaningful way.”
Their faces fade a bit. Maybe the way mine did when my friend announced her Antarctica adventure. They think that it’s nice, their mother wanting to travel in this way. But probably a bit depressing too. This gung-ho fling-the-windows-open mother I’ve been, pushing us all out the door on to our next adventure. They think that maybe I’m…giving up…by wanting to wander so slowly. Wanting to luxuriate in the senses and in connection with people and place. That maybe I should go break ice for penguins in Antarctica!
But that’s exactly what I need to do. Give up. In the best sense of the phrase.
Give myself to this next chapter.
Let go of the last, onward. Upward.
There will be that week of sitting with it. Honoring it. And I’m sure there will be a lot of tears and nostalgia and wanting it all back, those little ones, that young bright mother. I’m sure I’ll sit in both of their rooms, bawling my eyes out, rocking in a corner covered in their blankets and pillows and maybe a stuffed animal that made the cut that I’ve dug out of their closet. I’m sure I’ll be a mess.
But here’s the thing: I can’t get it back. It’s not possible. And I don’t want to be miserable. This last month, I’ve been miserable, watching the last of everything. The last graduation. The last family boat ride of the last summer. The last bonfire with his buddies. The last home game. The last the last the last of this long chapter of our lives.
I want to feel my joy again-- the same joy I felt when they were little and we had a whole day in front of us with so much possibility and learning and wonder. Wandering in the woods for Calypso orchids and morels. Singing. They say it goes so fast. It didn’t for me. It went long and to my core, and it makes it hard to remember who I was before it all. I was a joyful young woman, without children, loving life. I want her back.
Now I’ll be wandering in spice markets for tangines with a world-renowned chef who will show us how to authentically cook with them. Wandering in the Secret Garden, learning about the history of tea. Wandering on the beaches of Essaouira and maybe even riding a camel. Wandering in the Medina and learning about Moroccan history with a local guide who knows just where to take us so that we can follow and let go and pay attention and let this colorful country give itself to us…writing our way through it all and sharing at the end of the day about it. And maybe we’ll even get a little lost. And a lot…found.
Next chapter, please. Empty NEXT, indeed!
For information about the February Haven Wander: Morocco, click here!
For more information about Haven Writing Retreats, Montana click here! We have few spots available for the 2018 fall schedule!
To arrange for a phone call with the Haven team, email: Laura@lauramunson.com