On Transitions and Ellipses

Chris Johnson


My stiff fingers open the front hatch of the black cast-iron wood stove in the corner of the one-room cabin.  In the dim early evening light, I lean in to see into the firebox more clearly, where I’ll soon lay crumpled paper, twigs, and bark to start a much-anticipated fire, eager for its warmth to push back the deep chill.  Among the cold, ashy remains of previous fires I spot three curious mounds.  What IS that?  Then I see, and jerk back, startled.  Somehow three small birds have found their way down the chimney (even though the damper was closed), become trapped in the stove, and died.

I’ve been thinking a lot about transitions lately.  Shifts in life.  Change, loss, grief.  Letting go, moving on.  Kids graduating.  Missing my parents, mourning the loss of my childhood farmstead home to fire last summer.  Still aching for a job that ended, slowly making progress with a new venture, restless for…I’m not entirely sure.  Honoring with deep gratitude the people, events, and experiences across my life that have anointed me with blessing.  (Some, admittedly, have left wounds that are slow to heal, scars slow to fade.  For these, whatever gratitude I can summon seems infused with – or at times, admittedly, overshadowed by – a bitter aftertaste. But enough of that!)  I’m also struck by a remarkable sense of openness, curiosity, anticipation, a spacious receptivity to what might want to emerge.

I take a deep breath or two, reach in, slowly lift each one out with the fingers of my right hand, and lay them side-by-side in the palm of my left.  Each is about two, two-and-a-half inches long, fuzzy dark gray feathers (such that they blend right in to the ashes in the stove), with short sharp beaks.  And so incredibly light, as if hollow.  Have they been in here long enough to have dried out?  They’re lighter than breath in my hand.  Very slowly I come to my feet, open the door and step out on to the front porch, all the while nesting these feathered husks in my palm. It’s still snowing heavily, as it has been most of the day.  In the softly ambient light I step to the edge of the porch, kneel down, and ever so gently place the birds on the snow that frosts the forest floor.  One. At. A. Time.   By morning, no trace of them remains – maybe because they’re covered by several more inches of snow, or maybe because the forest has known what becomes of them next….

On the day after my encounter with these birds, a wise friend reminded me of the power and importance of ellipses.  In telling a story, he marked a crucial turn by saying “Dot, dot, dot,” verbally indicating the written device … that would signal a pause, an in-between space, the cusp or hinge between what has gone before and what’s yet to come.  His speaking them aloud – dot dot dot – immediately brought to my mind’s eye the fuzzy gray mounds laying side by side across the palm of my hand – dot dot dot.  Holding their hefty weightlessness was a palpable reminder of both the gravity and the levity of life, the fleeting transience of all things, the compelling but oft-ignored invitation within each moment to be…here…now… and a whispered wondering about what might be next.

There is power in attending to the ellipses in our lives, dwelling in the turn from what was to what might be.  In threshold times we are invited to access, honor, grieve, appreciate, and learn from what lies behind us.  In those moments we can hold in the palm of our hands the gifts and the wounds, the blessings and the regrets, and perhaps come to see more clearly which is which while also seeing more deeply what they meant… and might yet come to mean.

And in the pause, the threshold, the ellipsis… is the thundering velvet now.  My college choir director frequently reminded us that music is as much the rests between the notes as it is the notes themselves. And science tells us that matter is really energy; “stuff” is mostly empty space and the charged relationships between subatomic particles constantly in motion.  (OK, I’m a humanities person, so please bear with me when I’m trying to be science-y.)  Truly inhabiting a transition or ellipsis moment in life, rather than impatiently careening through it, can be like basking in the hush of the night woods, still enough to hear the susurration of the snow.  Like us, each flake is utterly unique, drawn by gravity and wind, providence and serendipity to fall into its place, contributing to the wonder and beauty of it all until, in the fullness of time, it vanishes with the turn of the season.

 Dot, dot, dot.  The birds in the stove, then in my palm, then on the snow, are also becoming… whatever needs to be next.  The transition-ellipsis times of our lives allow us to look back, hold us in the moment, and invite us to live into a more expansive imagination.  They make it possible for us to consider what we carry, and then to lay what remains on the snowy forest floor to nourish the fragile and sacred tissue of life.  They show us the open doors and windows, the horizons and vistas, of what might be, what could be.  These are times where we might dare to hope.  They evoke fear and hesitation, aspiration and resolve, curiosity and courage, and remind us – deep breath before the plunge – to summon the better angels of our natures to accompany us beyond the threshold.

Maybe those angels are small and light, with soft gray feathers….

What tender mystery are you holding in your hands or your heart? …

What transition do you find yourself in? …

How are you dwelling in an ellipsis time right now? …

What does it hold for you? …

What possibility might be opening? …



Dr. Chris Johnson has more than 25 years of experience in teaching, speaking, coaching, and facilitating retreats with a wide range of audiences in education, faith-based, and nonprofit organizations around issues of vocation, calling, and purpose; life transitions; leadership development; experiential learning; and spirituality in life and work. He is founder and principal of The Milkweed Group, LLC, whose work is to create and hold safe, courageous spaces that nourish inner wisdom, sharpen clarity of purpose, and nourish capacity to live and lead for a better world. 

Chris was Director for Vocation and Integrative Learning and Associate Director of the Center for Servant Leadership at Gustavus Adolphus College, in Saint Peter, Minnesota, where he also taught courses in theology and ethics. 

With his wife, Kim, he is co-founder of Prairie Oaks Institute, a nonprofit retreat center dedicated to nourishing expansive imagination, bold thinking, wise action, and cross-sector solutions to the unprecedented environmental and social challenges of our time.

Illustration by Matt Manley. Matt has been working as a freelance illustrator for over twenty years. His illustration is primarily figurative and symbolic with surrealist leanings, and past client work includes editorial, corporate, medical, book, and higher education. Though in the end his work is technically digital collage, the process integrates both traditional and digital media.