Big Honkin’ Transitions: Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends”

“If I could just freeze this moment!” It’s such a human sentiment, to feel overwhelming joy, peace or contentment and want it never to pass. To hold tight to the bliss. Alas, there is no capturing lightning in a bottle, no holding back the ocean’s tides. Change is the coin of this realm, the only constant. A line from a Shel Silverstein poem, which you can read en toto below, is worth chewing on here:

“There is a place where the sidewalk ends and before the street begins.”

That’s a profound image, that interim between one zone, one solid unchanging thing, and the next. It’s a place of transition, migration, crossing over. When you’re no longer tethered to one place but not settled in the next, either.

That in-between place can have tremendous impact. You have to be careful there: the footing can be dicey, and it’s easy to sprain your ankle and worse.

Attention must be paid.

So now it’s time for this post’s first transition, and here it is…



As a lifelong track fan, I have watched countless 400-meter relay races over the years. The passing zone is critical as one runner hands the baton to the next. They have to make the pass within a confined zone, and the ideal is for the baton handoff to occur at the exact moment when both runners are sprinting at full speed, so there is no slowdown on the exchange.

That means the runner receiving the baton has to take off at the perfectly timed moment. If she’s too early, the pass happens either outside the zone, which means automatic disqualification, or she has to slow down or even worse: come to a complete stop before reaching the end of the zone. In those cases, the team may as well be disqualified, because their chances of making up the lost ground are essentially zero.

All these transitions challenge us to connect the old with the new, to manage a sometimes precarious journey to a place where our footing may not be as solid, our view perhaps obscured.

Now, all this is much harder than it looks. Track history is littered with colossal failures by teams with the fastest individual runners who nevertheless lose to teams whose runners are slower but who have mastered the details of the baton exchange.

Our lives are suffused with such transition zones and the challenges they bring. Maybe the runner from our past is weighted down so heavily that we’ll have to pause before taking the baton, get stuck there in the passing zone cooling our heels.

Or maybe we break out on a new leg too early, and our past is back there saying, “Wait, I’m not quite done here yet, and I have something you need to take with you!”

Fortunately, new years, birthdays and anniversaries of this, that & the other remind us that we’ve run a few races in our time. They allow us to take stock.

We might be a step slower this year, but the added experience could help with our exchanges in the transition zone, yes?

Graduations, weddings, the departure from old jobs to new jobs, old homes and cities to new homes, in new cities.

Divorce, the death of a spouse, the long transition from youth to middle- to old age, from employment to retirement, from parenting a devoted dependent to enduring a scowling would-be independent (in other words: a teenager).

All these transitions challenge us to connect the old with the new, to manage a sometimes precarious journey to a place where our footing may not be as solid, our view perhaps obscured.

Then there’s the ultimate transition of leaving the land of the living and heading to the great beyond. Talk about a transition zone! Or as the science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote:

“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” 

Steve Jobs’s last words were reportedly, “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.”

Unfortunately, deathbed scenes too often seem to reflect, “Oh woe, oh no…”


         Where the Sidewalk Ends

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
and before the street begins,
and there the grass grows soft and white,
and there the sun burns crimson bright,
and there the moon-bird rests from his flight
to cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
and the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
we shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow
and watch where the chalk-white arrows go
to the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
and we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
for the children, they mark, and the children, they know,
the place where the sidewalk ends.


The question occurs: Why are transitions so challenging? Can’t we just wake up one morning and get ourselves to a new place, like buying a new couch and sending the old one off to Goodwill?

After all, human beings are by far the most adaptable and wide-ranging creatures in the entire animal kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we’re all that enamored of change.

I had an early career in special education. One thing everyone in that field knows about their kids is how arduous transitions can be for them. How they tend to resist and act out when they’re required to leave one activity or phase of their day for a new one.

Well, I have long held the theory that all human beings are intellectually disabled to some degree or other. So-called “normal” function is a highly relative quality indeed.

What’s true of kids with intellectual disabilities is true of all human beings, only on a lesser scale.

All of us do better when change comes with plentiful warning time. When we can see and monitor that runner back there with her baton. It helps us prepare for the demands of what’s coming.

Never is the maxim, ‘It is what it is’ more relevant than when we apply it to our past. Because there’s no changing what happened. But our perspectives on and appreciation for what happened can change dramatically.

It’s the difference between planning your retirement a year in advance, the details laid out for which hors’ d’oeuvres and cocktails will be served at your party, and your manager walking into your office one afternoon to tell you you’re done, and you have an hour to get everything out of your desk.

More serious still are two different kinds of deaths. One occurs after a long illness. As hard as it is to watch a loved one suffer, decline and die, the process helps us prepare for and adapt to the huge change that is coming in our lives.

It is still a major storm and we will not be the same when it passes, but the process gives us time to prepare. To get some plywood up where it is needed around the exposed windows of our heart.

And then there is death when a beloved is taken from us suddenly in an accident or catastrophic medical event. This comes from nowhere. One minute all normal, the next our world thrown into chaos like the shock of a lightning bolt or twister that we never even saw or heard coming across the land.

With zero time to process or prepare, to handle the transition, our world is rent asunder. The normalcy that we had been moving around in just moments before struggles to catch up to the catastrophe we have just experienced.

What is the one line we hear over and over again in such situations? “I can’t believe it!”

Truly, we can’t believe it, and it will take a long time for our disbelief (and our nervous system) to catch up to the hard, sudden reality of what has happened.


Every transition combines past and future. We can never dump our history and start all afresh, as we hear in those old noir films when the couple who’s run afoul of the law realizes they’d better leave Dodge City.

One of them says, “Come on, we’ll take the loot and move out west, to some town where no one knows us and we’ll start all over; we can be anyone we want to be, we can leave all this behind!”

Of course, that’s when the script calls for the camera to slowly pan down to where the state trooper’s car is creating a small dust storm as it’s coming up the dirt road.

That car is our past, reminding us we may have certain responsibilities back in town there, maybe a debt or two to pay, a relationship we have to untangle and can’t easily escape.

However much our transition to a new life circumstance may require us to change, to shed old habits, routines and rituals, we can’t wipe the slate completely clean in one swoop.

It’s not like those other movie characters who suffer a blow to the head and wander into a strange city with no name and no past. If only we could enjoy that fate at some of the more humbling moments of our lives!


A common transition for many people in our increasingly secularized culture is the giving up of our childhood religions. We may have left our old traditions in something of a huff, seeing them as narrow and repressive.  This often gives rise to a kind of emotional and intellectual backlash, in which we dismiss all religious symbols and rituals as just so much hokum.

So we become atheist-agnostics, or maybe feel drawn to Eastern traditions or “spiritual-but-not-religious-ism,” because those don’t weigh us down with our past. But we roll our eyes or run for the exits if anyone brings up Jesus or Moses.

Our vehemence just shows the difficulty of transitioning and leaving our old selves behind. It’s the perfect example of Shakespeare’s line in Hamlet: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Ultimately, successful transitioning to the new depends on some kind of healthy perspective or at least understanding of the old.

We kid ourselves if we think we can dump all those old ways of being, those old influences and relationships, without a long knowing look back. Without a certain forgiveness of ourselves and others. And an appreciation and understanding of how the past—its people, its struggles, its joys, its oppressions, its tragedies—have shaped us.

It doesn’t mean the past inevitably burdens us and keeps us from successful transitions. Quite the contrary, I would say. Coming to terms with critical areas of our past is the only way we can fully embrace and make the most of the new.

If we’re still all tangled up, conflicted and distraught in one way or other with our old religion, our old spouse, our old boss or parent or friend, we can’t fully embrace and adapt to the new.

When the sidewalk behind us is all upended by tree roots and cracks and divots, we can’t take the baton at a good pace in the transition zone and launch out fresh on the new leg of our journey, with an unburdened heart.

Successful transitioning means we take what we’ve learned from our old self, our former circumstance. We note and take nurturance from what we’ve experienced. Even the hard parts.

Especially the hard parts.

Never is the maxim, “It is what it is” more relevant than when we apply it to our past. Because there’s no changing what happened. But our perspectives on what happened can change dramatically. That’s the key to whether we can navigate the transitions that await.

We need a certain tenacity and quality of attention for that. But the happy truth is that it’s possible to survive and even thrive through transitions.

We often get bruised along the way. We may have to dig really hard, take a long leap. Ask a lot from our friends, our family, our selves.

But like the pupa slowly working its way out of the larva, perhaps buffeted but not destroyed by winds and rain, we can emerge ready for new life. With more self-knowledge, compassion, regard for the complexity of, well, everything.

One last metaphor: transitions are the airliner hub city, from where hundreds of other flights will depart in every imaginable direction.

Where will you be going?

What from your past have you packed to take with you?

What are you done with and leaving out of your bag?

The next leg is up ahead, you know. It won’t wait forever.


One of the most infectious songs to sing along with in that key title line!

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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at:

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Pupa by Dinesh Valke, Thane, India,

Relay runners by Jill Bazeley, Merritt Island,

Country road by Frida J,

Sidewalk end by William Beutler, Washington, D.C.

Country church by Andrew Hidas,

3 comments to Big Honkin’ Transitions: Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Speaking to that “place where the sidewalk ends and before the street begins” reminds me of a Father Andrew Greeley witticism, “I feel bad about all those people stuck in purgatory on a “no-meat on Friday” rap.” Not a bad way of looking at that space between heaven and hell.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Annie, my daughter now psychologist, had me read “Where the Sidewalk Ends” to her nearly every night from age three to twelve. I remember one evening after reading it, she asked me, “Daddy, isn’t that space between where the sidewalk ends and the street begins called a gutter?”
    I laughed a bit but replied, “Well, I don’t think that the poem was meant to be taken so literally.”
    “What’s literally mean?”
    I paused and said. “When an adult says he wants “a piece of the pie,” it means he wants a big house, good job, and fancy car. When you say you want “a piece of the pie” it means you’re hungry and really do want some pie. You’re being literal, and the adult is not. Does that make sense?”
    I guess so, but you still didn’t say if the gutter is right answer.”
    “Yep, it’s the right answer. Time to go to bed.”
    “OK, but you have to sing “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” first.”
    I sang without question the most off-key rendition of that Irish lullaby, one that would make Bing Crosby cringe in his grave, but somehow it soothed her world and welcomed sleep into her space between the sidewalk and street.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Never too early to learn about literalism and its nuances, Robert. Pretty wonderful that your daughter had occasion to mull it at such a tender age—I’m certain it will hold her in good stead.

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