Change is difficult. For some reason I thought being in my fifties meant that a change in life would no longer cause me to grieve. Instead, I would sit, Yoda-like, and spout wisdom such as Do or do not, there is no try.
I left a job filled with people about whom I cared deeply. I left my security and paycheck and benefits behind in a Norma Rae moment. Now I'm sitting in the struggle, sweating it out.
My family moved every few years, as my dad was a change agent and a minister. He sought churches that needed his help, built them up, and moved on. This meant new schools and new friends and new houses.
Since we never had much money, the houses were rarely like those seen on House Hunters. We never had room for entertaining, and the natural light was provided by badly sealed windows and holes in our front doors.
Every time we left a place, people would cry and wail and beg us to stay. Whoever was my best friend at the time would be in shock. We would spend one last night at each other's houses and say things such as:
• I will never forget you -- I will write you every day.
• We will get together at least once a year, even if we have to save our lunch money for travel.
• We will never like the new people we meet.
Our car would pull away on that horrible last day, and friends would stand on the curb waving handkerchiefs like a scene from a train station sending boys off to war.
I would both receive and write a letter a day when first arriving at our new destination. My best friend would tell me how the church was not the same without us, and how much they missed us. I built a fantasy that, in addition to marrying Davy Jones of The Monkees, we would be called back to that church, and we would pack up the car and go back to our comfortable place.
We didn't go back. We kept moving forward.
The new church experience would start with an awkward first Sunday. We would line up after the alter call to be introduced, and everyone would smile these extreme smiles that were both inviting and slightly Monty Pythonish. All congregants would form a line to welcome each one of us, and my brother, sister and I would estimate by the length of the line how long it would be before we could eat lunch.
The most controlling people in the church often came through first, hugging us and insisting we come to their house for lunch. We found that the sweeter the person and the firmer the kiss on the cheek, the greater the probability that this person would try to kick us out of the church in approximately 2.5 years.
In the meantime, the messages from my best friend began to change:
• Letters went from daily to every other week.
• The travel fund failed to materialize.
• The letter that did arrive was peppered with happy stories about how the new minister's daughter was coming over to spend the night.
In the meantime, I got to go to a new school in hand-me-down clothes, usually standing out like a sore thumb. I learned to disappear during lunch by leaning against a wall in the wood shop hallway and studying my fingernails for 45 minutes. I planned new ways to get back to our old church. I was sure that everyone there was still trying to find ways to get us back.
But, inevitably, the moment would come when even my best friend began to move forward, and the painful part of the change process began when:
• Letters stopped altogether.
• Thoughts about returning were never discussed.
• The new minister and his family did what they should have done -- they did a good job and began to replace us.
It was in those situations that I realized that life goes on, and there's never a time when a part of the world stops because you are no longer in it. There's a beautiful rhythm to this life, a replacement system that keeps churning in an operationally excellent way.
Sometimes I wish the system would break down, and the world would really, really miss me in a way that caused them to cry on a daily basis.
In even my darkest moments, I tell myself that we still make a difference in people's lives along this journey. Thirty years later, I found that best friend on Facebook. We have reconnected and relived all of our fun, wonderful moments, and I'm pretty sure we're both better for them.
So, maybe the ego must step down and my heart must go on. But, for a while, I will grieve. Yesterday I watched an old Extreme Home Improvements and cried my eyes out, scaring the dog and rupturing a small muscle in my diaphragm. But it felt good.
A few hours later, I got a message from a friend at my past job that they are replacing me. I felt that small muscle begin to spasm again.
And so it goes.
Mellor cautions against actually purchasing a condo nearby after move-in day...but heading back to class yourself isn't a bad idea. Mellor's own mother completed her degree as a fifty-something, but you could start a little smaller than that -- say, listening to TED talks from home.
You're free and the sky's the limit! Above all, Mellor advises, do not fester in "sadness, loneliness and abandonment."
Especially if you've never gone before.
"And that man, sitting across from you at the breakfast table...he looks...familiar," Mellor writes. "You know him, you just don't know how." Use your empty nest time to remember what your relationship with your spouse or partner was like before the kids came along.
Mellor even provides a handy recipe for your next party. (That's cocktail party, which means no clowns and balloon animals. Remember those?)
"Our bodies, apparently, will not exercise themselves while we sleep," Mellor observes. Since you must exercise at a certain point, "you might as well find some fun ways to do it." Like dancing!
A favorite strategy of Anna Dello Russo, editor of Vogue Japan, for getting in touch with "the spirit of your outfit," empty nesters can benefit from this tip as well. The empty-nest years are a time to start paying attention to your appearance again, says Mellor, especially if you've gotten into bad habits (mom jeans, anyone?).
"Learn to be a sloth, and without guilt," Mellon writes. "Wallow in languid inactivity." You've earned it.
After all those years of coaching your kids through music lessons, you've probably picked up a few things, observes Mellor -- why not indulge yourself with a few lessons?
Redecorate that extra room! Make it a yoga studio, or a new TV room. Explore what your space can be like when you're decorating with your needs -- and not Dick or Jane's -- in mind.
Follow Donna Highfill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DonnaHighfill