15Apr
Butterfly enjoying the sunny day

To Shake a Predator

March came strangely to us this year, in like a lion, out like a sharknado. Our usual exhale of joy when the yellow mimosa trees bloom and our gloves are swapped for sunglasses was overshadowed this time by a huge upheaval in our local community. I will write about it one day, once time has smoothed out the creases in my perspective. For now, I’ll simply say that we’re in recovery mode as a family.

I’m still engaged in my odd tango with anxiety, sashaying close and dipping apart to a tune I’m unable to hear. I started taking supplements a month ago after I realized it wasn’t normal to associate worst-case scenarios with every object in my line of vision. I could hardly bear to drive; every other car was on a collision course with me, the engine thrumming through my grip on the steering wheel was a half-second away from explosion at all times, and what if I suddenly developed narcolepsy on the freeway? It was a funny kind of horrible. It still is sometimes. Like I wrote last month, I’m no good at identifying cause and effect—what causes anxiety to swoop toward me on its slick shoes or what spins me, however temporarily, from its grip.

I do know one thing: that writing for me is intricately connected to the dance. This makes me want to spontaneously combust. When I’m writing regularly, I feel strong, easy in my skin, and fundamentally okay. Anxiety can snatch away my ability to write in a hot second though. It tells me that I have nothing of value to offer, that all the opportunities of my life are behind me, that I am incapable, lacking, and so pathetic that I should curl up in bed wearing a burqa for the rest of my days as a favor to the world. It turns writing into torture and not-writing into a slow death.

This is where I’ve been this year, dancing with a predator. It’s why my blog has been so quiet and my email inbox so full. This is not the 2015 that I wanted for myself, and I keep butting up against the impulse to bazooka this whole mess to smithereens. I don’t want to be in recovery mode. I don’t want the ebb and flow of process. Drastic decisions sound so much more appealing: Convince the family to move to Bali. Start a new career in data entry. Say yes to crack. (Kidding, of course, kind of.) Fake invincibility until I convince even myself.

Staying human—that is, staying vulnerable to the learning experiences of life—is always the harder choice, but I’ve tried shortcuts enough times to know for certain that they don’t lead to peace. Inevitably, I’d end up again and again at the choice to slow down, face my limitations, and work through anxiety until I took it. I suppose then that this qualifies as a dispatch from the dance floor. I’ve written this, with actual words, which is the kind of victory worth celebrating with gelato. Tomorrow, however, I might be back to gripping the steering wheel with bone-white knuckles and imagining a large red F scribbled on every last aspect of my life.

It’s okay.

I mean, it’s not okay-okay; I have no intention of spending my life in partnership with anxiety. It’s okay to be working through it right now though. I’m reminding myself day by day that I’m allowed to focus on the tango, even at the expense of normal routines and productivity, because predators aren’t shaken off on their own. It takes two. And also celebratory gelato. And the kind of grace that turns small steps and staying power into eventual recovery.

20Mar

Snapshot From the Tangle

I’ve written before about my inability to grasp cause and effect, due in particular to my early view of God as a cross between Mrs. Rachel Lynde and Jabba the Hutt. If you grow up under the jurisdiction of an almighty micromanaging gangster, of course you’re going to have trouble correlating your decisions with their outcomes. (“What flavor of ice cream would you like?” “God only knows…”) I’ve been considering another factor in my powerless-but-responsible mindset lately though, and if “overwhelm” were a noun, that’s what it would be.

I’ve been going through a rough personal patch for several months now—unexplained health issues, mental and emotional shut-downs, never enough internal resources to go around. Dan keeps assuring me that I don’t have to apologize for the efforts we’ve put into finding a solution, that my wellness is a priority. Here’s where the overwhelm comes in, however. When I try to puzzle out the calibration of mind, body, and soul, all I see is a tangle of interconnected Christmas lights. Miles of them. They loop around every facet of my daily life, stretch far into the past, and disappear above the rafters of my consciousness, and you might as well ask me to solve differential equations in my head as to find the one burned-out bulb.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the possible culprits I’ve come up with:

  • Undiagnosed food sensitivities or allergies (If you say “coffee,” I will hurt you)
  • Airborne pollution
  • Stress for All The Reasons
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • A curse from the stoplight gypsy
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • An undiscovered source of mold
  • Disturbances in The Force
  • Thin-skinned-ness
  • Spiritual dysfunctions of all kinds
  • Those unpronounceable chemicals on cereal boxes
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Delayed onset culture shock
  • Recurring trauma from events in the past
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Some medical mystery solvable only by House, M.D.
  • Chronic worrywart syndrome
  • GMOs
  • Lack of gumption
  • Karmic retribution
  • Mental decline due to compulsive Facebook scrolling
  • Unresolved relational issues
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Not enough exercise/sleep/security/time/confidence/fun/self-discipline/sunlight/peanut butter cups/[basically just insert anything here]
  • General inadequacy of being

More mornings than I’d like to admit, I look at myself in the mirror, think “Oh no, not her again,” and then slump through my day as if I’ve been sentenced to an eternal three-legged-race with Jar Jar Binks.

Jar Jar

I’m simply not up to troubleshooting the infinitesimal connections that make up a holistic self. How do others do it? Where do they find the internal wherewithal to dive into the tangle and emerge with a clear map of their wiring? I’m always left slightly utterly in awe when a friend tells me she’s suffering from adrenal fatigue or mold poisoning or (if she’s Italian) ailment of the liver. I couldn’t even tell you for sure if I have a liver much less how it’s affecting my overall sense of self.

This is the kind of post that I struggle to finish because I want to tuck the ends neatly in on themselves and say That’s that. I like solutions and “once upon a time”s and big-picture perspectives with proper story arcs in place. At the same time, I know how much of life takes place in the tangled betweens, how staking a claim in uncertainty helps us live it with intention. I know that writing this aloud may very well mean the difference between fearing overwhelm or greeting it as plot development. I know that an in-process self is one of the most generous gifts a person can give the world.

I’m trying to remember that it can be a gift to myself as well.

I’m taking life much more slowly these days, partly out of necessity and partly because I trust the loved ones who keep waving stop signs in my face. I’ve been putting green stuff into my breakfast smoothies and grinning my cheeks off (take that as you will) at Zumba and experimenting with anti-anxiety supplements. I’m veeerrrry slowly unclenching my grip on expectations for productivity, and even though letting goals slip through my fingers looks like the opposite of progress, it feels like sanity. None of this is helping me identify the burned out light bulb, mind you. I’m still eyeball-deep in snarls of theory and inconclusive medical tests, and I sort of wonder if I’m doomed to spend my life as a delicate wilting blossom of bafflement. I’m here though, in the heart of the tangle, learning and growing and claiming each small choice and effect as a badge of honor. As a gift.

image source

20Feb
Writing retreat - Chianciano

Fossilized

[Part 1 of this story is here.]

By Tuesday evening last week, I’d spent the first 30 hours of my long-desired writing retreat in a headlock with myself, and I was “cotta” as we say in Italian. Cooked. Burned out, beaten, and too exhausted to keep hurling myself at the wall of senseless panic standing between myself and my blank document.

I suspect that this is frustrating for some of you to read. After all, I was in Tuscany—Tuscany!—with three glorious days all to myself. I’ve watched friends go on similar retreats and thought, If onlyMy assumption was always that prolonged peace and quiet would act as creative steroids. If only I found myself in a similar setting, then I too could produce something out of this world. But now I was there, tucked up on an Italian hillside with a project idea I loved and an awareness of my own privilege cloying the air, and I couldn’t write a damn paragraph. You’ve heard the saying, “Wherever you go, there you are”? It would seem that I had gone to Tuscany and run smack dab into myself.

One thing depression taught me about myself years ago is that I will fight to defend my personal collection of shoulds until sheer rock-bottom exhaustion loosens my grip on them. I don’t surrender the expectations I have for myself any other way. And why should I? In the thick of depression, it only seemed right to keep trying harder and harder to act sane, to pacify God and be an uncomplicated wife and smother desperation on sight. If it wasn’t working, I just needed to double my efforts, yes? Not until much later, after the rock bottom and the rebuilding, did I see what a chokehold those expectations had had on my soul.

Now, I’m not saying that going on a writing retreat is anything like going through depression, but I’d certainly arrived at my hotel last week clutching a stack of notions about how the time should go, about how I should be. Privilege-guilt factored enormously into them, as did something else… something I couldn’t put my finger on with all of my thoughts bolting away the instant I got close. I didn’t know what to do with these expectations other than cling more and more tightly to them though. If I let go, the trip would instantly be rendered pointless and earlier versions of my jealous writing self would show up to punch me in the throat to the tune of “Loser.”

Thank God for exhaustion.

If I hadn’t surrendered my weary, 96% certifiable self to the idea of a writingless retreat and clicked over to Facebook for some distraction therapy that evening, I wouldn’t have seen this:

Curiosity not fear
(Liz Gilbert’s Facebook page is a gem. Get thee there, stat!)

And if I hadn’t seen this, who knows how long it would have taken me to recognize the “something else” that had been giving my brain a 30-hour swirlie as fear?

Working with words can feel like trying to choreograph dust motes. Until sentences land on the page, they’re nothing more than airborne particulates, figments of psychology and instinct that tend to dissolve on eye contact. Being afraid of writing is essentially getting worked up over nothing. That was my first thought when I read Liz’s quote. What do I possibly have to be afraid of? I’m here to transcribe thoughts, not diffuse bombs. This is a zero threat situation. WTF, brain?

When I took stock of how I’d been approaching my project, however, curiosity was nowhere to be found. Stephen King refers to stories as fossils that we excavate through the writing process, and ideally, I would have been on my knees with a trowel and an old toothbrush, intrigued to see what I’d unearth. Instead, I was paralyzed at the side of the dig. Because what if I uncovered a fossil so hideous that it made folks clutch their pearls and call their congressmen in protest? Or what if the fossil turned out to be so boring that museum viewers would ask for their money back? Worst of all, what if I had the wrong tools and botched the whole operation? What if I failed?

Fear, meet Bethany. Bethany, Fear.

Getting myself in a staring match with fear was no more helpful to me than beating myself over the head with reminders of my own privilege had been. This wasn’t something I could power my way through. (Depression 101.) When I latched onto the word “curiosity” though, it pulled me right off my petrified feet and through the murk to a new perspective on what I was doing. I closed Facebook and opened Google. Research time.

Writing retreat - research

The rest of my retreat looked very different from the productive type-o-fest I’d expected. I went on long walks in the cold, ordered espressos, and adopted various park benches near my hotel for the purpose of daydreaming. I scribbled sideways and upside down in my pocket journal following looping threads of whimsy. I clipped about a hundred of the most bizarre search results to Evernote (out of curiosity, how likely is the FBI to investigate writers?) and then filled another page with follow-up questions. I still had to beat back the granddaddy of all F-words, Failure, which was all too happy to inform me that I was squandering my retreat and that research was basically procrastination in a pair of pince-nez, but curiosity kept me on a joyful forward momentum that no collection of shoulds has ever prompted in me.

I returned home last Thursday about as tired as I’ve ever been. Winning a battle doesn’t mean you’re unscathed by it, especially when you weren’t expecting the fight in the first place. I’m still feeling tender and bruisable, and I can’t pretend not to be disappointed that I didn’t return from my retreat with a manuscript of any length. I’ll be wrestling with the hows and whys of that for a long time, I suspect. However, I did bring back one significant treasure: the outline of a fossil, as clear and intriguing as a headline. And I’m not afraid of it.

Writing retreat - Bench

18Feb
Hotel room

My Own Personal Tuscan Blitzkrieg

For Valentine’s this year, Dan gave me something I’ve hinted (except without the subtlety part) about wanting for ages: a few days away from home by myself with absolutely no responsibilities other than taking dictation from my muse. No one except myself to feed or clothe or deodorize. No interruptions. No need to operate on a normal or even a sane schedule. My own personal Tuscan writer’s retreat.

I couldn’t have arranged it any better than Dan did. He booked me a room in a tiny hillside town that I’ve visited before (i.e. – no pressure for me to sightsee) and loaded up a grocery bag with tea and chocolate and sandwich fixings and ramen “nudolini.” I asked him about a thousand times if he was sure he and the girls would be fine, and he assured me a thousand times that not only were they going to be fine but that they were going to party it up and have company every day. (While the introvert is away…) The man has often outdone himself in the gift department, but this one left me particularly wobbly-kneed.

We kissed goodbye, and I drove off into the Monday morning sunshine last week dreaming of my return trip in three days’ time, at which point I would have twenty or thirty—or hell, why not two hundred?—brand new single-spaced pages saved to my hard drive. The prospect of focusing and digging into my current writing projects felt like a giddy secret. I was so going to win at this thing.

If you have any experience reading stories, you’ll know that that last sentence portends doom.

The champagne bubbles trailing across my imagination lasted until the moment I had finished unpacking my suitcase. I looked around my hotel room, realized with an awful kind of clarity that I would now be spending 84 hours in my own company, and began losing my mind. Truly, that’s the best way I can describe what happened. My brainwaves began to scatter like so many spooked chipmunks. Thoughts dropped out of my head the minute I reached for them and began running up walls, scrabbling under doors, whirling themselves down drains, and tucking themselves into the impenetrable sheet folds at the foot of my bed.

I went to bed at 8:00 that night with exactly three sentences written, each one of which had required an unmedicated wisdom tooth extraction of the soul. My plan was to bid this day good riddance and get up at 4 the next morning with all of my brain cells back in their proper places and waves of inspiration lapping my fingers. I couldn’t explain what had gone wrong so far, but I was sure it was nothing that a good night’s sleep couldn’t cure.

This may actually have been true.

I wouldn’t know though. That night, I managed about two hours of total sleep, snatched in fifteen-minute increments while insomnia was on coffee break. I can only remember two other nights of my life dragging by so agonizingly, and both of them involved childbirth. This time, it wasn’t my uterus taking me hostage but a mind that had turned as spastic as a volcano full of Pop Rocks. My 4 a.m. wakeup call came and went in a fog of despair that pleated itself as firmly as hotel sheets around the corners of my room.

By lunchtime the next day, I’d realized that this retreat wasn’t going to be a “retreat” at all. Not if I stayed, that is. Every minute of that morning, I’d had to consciously beat back the impulse to give up, and not just to give up on the projects I was[n’t] currently working on but to give up on writing altogether, on the idea of ever again sitting down in a quiet space with the intention of creating. Fears that I had never seen before came scuttling out of shadowed cortexes. Writing, the creative outlet I took up out of pure joie de vivre when I was five, was suddenly the most terrifying construct in the whole world, and I wanted nothing more than to drive home and pretend this getaway had never happened.

I couldn’t have been more bewildered by how my writing retreat was going than if I’d gone to Disney World and promptly been bludgeoned comatose by Winnie the Pooh.

[For the sake of your sanity and mine, this is gonna be a two-parter. Stay tuned! Oh, and if you’ve ever experienced similar terror over something you love to do, feel free to share. Misery loves company, even in retrospect.]

[Ed: Part 2 here.]

11Feb
08 - Sparrow landing

Miracle on Via Luigi Rizzo

Last week, I told Part 1 of our move to Italy—specifically, the part where I concluded that the whole thing had been a horrible cosmic prank designed to undo me. Part 2 has a decidedly different ending though, and I can’t think of a story I’d rather be sharing for my final post at A Deeper Story. 

Here be miracles, folks:

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

After a summer clinging to the kind of faith that leaps oceans, I had entered autumn and found that my grip was spent. I couldn’t buoy up my own trust anymore. I was weary and anxious and displaced, and I needed God to be the miracle-worker I saw on the pages of children’s Bibles, cloning loaves and fish for hungry crowds, calming the turbulent sea. I needed God to be Emmanuel in a very real way.

Instead, I found myself profoundly, terrifyingly alone.

The third morning after Dan flew back to the States to wrangle with bureaucracy, I woke up feeling like a puddle of my former self. Insomnia had done a number on me the night before, and two-year-old Natalie’s requests for me to get up! and make breakfast! and plaaaayyyy! ricocheted wildly against my veneer of sanity. I thought about our empty refrigerator, the dishes crusted into Seussical stacks around the sink, my husband’s absence, and the contractions squeezing into me and concluded that if I got out of bed that day, I would surely die. It was all too much.

I can’t do it, I told God, burying my face under the covers. I can’t go to the grocery store or take Natalie to the park or ANY of it. I just can’t. I don’t know wh—

The phone rang.

It was so unexpected, such a perfectly cued interruption to my woe, that curiosity pulled me out of bed. I choked back the panic I experienced every time I had to communicate in Italian and answered the phone. An acquaintance from our new church replied, speaking slowly enough that I could follow: “I was just calling to see if I could take Natalie out to the park this morning! Oh, and while I’m thinking of it, could you use any groceries?”

Now, by nature, I’m the kind of girl who’d turn down offers of help while lying semiconscious in the path of an oncoming bullet train because she doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone. Something switched in me that morning though. Desperation had dissolved my pride in self-reliance enough that I could see God’s choreography in the moment, and I wasn’t about to turn my back on it.

“Grazie,” I told the caller. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

When serendipity alights on your shoulder like that, you don’t expect it to stay. You marvel at its plume and the bright tilt of its head, knowing its attention is a rare and unforceable gift, and then you watch it leave with as much good grace as you can muster. I was amazed by the temporary relief I’d been given from my isolation and more grateful than I knew how to say in any language. However, exhaustion was pulling me under the surface of panic again by the next evening.

I don’t know how I’m going to cook dinner tonight. It feels like I just finished cleaning up from lunch, and I’m so weary, so utterly weary, and Natalie needs so much, and everything’s depending on me, and I just wish we had a pizz

The phone rang again. This time, it was a girl I’d met a few weeks earlier offering to bring over a hot pepperoni with olives.

The same thing happened every remaining day until Dan got home. I would start to crumble with fatigue and overwhelm at the sticky mess left on the floor after breakfast, and the phone would ring with someone asking to come mop for me. Someone else came to vacuum. Others washed dishes, cooked lunch, scrubbed the bathroom, played with Natalie, sent over care packages, and ran errands for me so I could rest, and each offer arrived at the precipice of my need. Serendipity was quickly becoming a regular at our house.

I’ve never made it all the way through The Brothers Karamazov (with due apologies to my World Lit. professor), but this quote from it still captures me:

“Miracles are never a stumbling-block to the realist… The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognized by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I realize that miracles are several centuries out of vogue, and I’m as predisposed to skepticism as a housecat. I have twitched while hearing about how God gave someone a front-row parking spot or made two hours of sleep as restful as eight or prevented some likely allergic reaction. I’ve imagined God shaking his head in amusement that his followers would see divine intervention where there was only coincidence.

I began to get a different picture of God during my week of small rescues though. I could have viewed those phone calls as “an act of nature,” I suppose, or explained them away as human kindness and nothing more. Maybe if I hadn’t felt so powerless against my circumstances, the realist in me would still be stepping over miracles as if they were part of the original landscape. As it was, however, I couldn’t help seeing the reflection of God’s smile in the steam coming off my pizza or in the just-scrubbed floor tiles. His presence filled that lonely little apartment every time someone stopped by to help, and the faith that had gotten me through the summer was still just sufficient enough for me to recognize myself in the presence of miracles.

I know that the mention of divine intervention opens up a can full of worms and questions and broken bits of people’s hearts. I don’t pretend to understand why God seems to alter some situations and leave others to run their courses. What I have learned, at least within the small scope of my experience, is that the existence of miracles in our day-to-day, twenty-first-century world has a lot to do with our ability to recognize them as such.

How we hear the ring of the phone when we’re drowning in loneliness… How we view the blooming of moonlight in the dark… How we interpret a front-row parking spot when our schedule’s turned urgent… How we mark the flutter of wings against our shoulders, serendipity alighting one too many times for us to keep mistaking it as chance. “Every good and perfect gift is from above,” writes James, and sometimes faith simply means letting our exhausted, lonely hearts believe it’s true.

image source

5Feb
Sodden

That Kind of Week: Three Vignettes

The plumber our landlord always calls, whether due to some personal connection or plain ol’ thriftiness, came by last week to replace our crumbling sink pipes. We now have new pipes and a slow flood. While we wait for the landlord to return our calls (did he flee the country, perhaps?), we keep hanging sodden bath towels outside to drip under equally sodden skies. I think there’s probably a verse in Ecclesiastes that speaks to this.

The previous time that the plumber was here, he replaced our cracked toilet seat with one that has rusted-out hinges and slips sideways off the toilet when you’re not careful.

We are quaking over his return even as we pray for it to be soon.

/ / /

I realized during a sudden bout of filing that we were missing one of Natalie’s grade reports from two years ago. Fortunately, we live right across the street from the school district headquarters. Unfortunately, the school district director came out of her office just as the secretary was about to hand over a copy of the missing grades.

I think I can sum up the school district director in one sentence: Her first move after landing the position three years ago was to outlaw birthdays and parent participation in the schools.

This is not a woman who allows people to pick up copies of their children’s grades all willy-nilly. No, I’m only allowed to have a copy if I first go to the military police, “denounce” the grade report as missing (i.e. – stolen), and receive an official report from them confirming the theft.

I’m still not sure whether I’m more inclined to laugh myself silly over the situation or to become a cat burglar. I mean, really.

/ / /

Eleven years ago, I flew Iceland Air for the first time on my way to visit Italy. The seats did not come with movie screens, but there were radios built into the armrests. After consulting the in-flight magazine, I tuned to “Icelandic Children’s Music” because it was a genre I hadn’t even known existed. Two minutes later found me teary with laughter and Dan perplexed.

In vain did I search the in-flight magazine for the artist’s name, and in vain did I comb through Amazon MP3 samples later that summer for the song, so when I located it on Spotify yesterday, it was as the unearthing of a long-lost treasure.

For your listening pleasure (watch at least to the 45 second mark, though the 2 minute range is better):

According to the Stammtisch Beau Fleuve glossary, “The lyrics of Prumpufólkið [generally translated ‘The Farting People’] were written by the comedian Jón Gnarr, who also performed the dozen or so sound effects on that song. In 2010 he was elected mayor of Reykjavík.”

That might be my favorite thing I’ve read ever.

30Jan
07 - Abandoned suitcase

When God Brought Me to Italy to Perish

You may have seen the recent announcement that Deeper Story is closing its doors. It’s hard for me to imagine the upcoming year without it, both from a reader’s perspective and as one of its writers. That site has consistently swept my generalizations and misconceptions of Christianity off their feet. It’s answered the question of why we believe what we believe through the medium of story, and I’m going to miss it like I miss Blue Bell ice cream.

Before it closes though, I’m getting to share one last story. I wrote about it here on my blog back when the events were unfolding, but they’ve grown in significance and clarity since then, picking up new dimensions in their expanding context. This is the more complete story of our move to Italy. It’s also a study in modern-day miracles.

Part 1 of 2 is up today (Part 2 will go up in a few weeks before Deeper Story closes):

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

It’s not easy for me to think about the fall of 2007.

Actually, “not easy” is a wild understatement in this case. Opening pickle jars is “not easy.” Putting snow boots on a toddler is “not easy.” Willing my mind to revisit some of the most emotionally intense terrain of my life, on the other hand, is about two degrees this side of impossible. The anxiety is still there. So are the first discordant notes of depression. Upheaval, insecurity, a sense of displacement so strong I could drown in it—they’re all there, preserved museum-quality in the halls of my memory.

But then again, so are the miracles. And that’s why I’m here again, two degrees this side of impossible, willing myself never to forget.

/ / /

My husband Dan, our two-year-old daughter Natalie, and I spent the summer of 2007 in total life limbo. We’d moved out of our home in Delaware at the end of May, fully expecting to ship ourselves and all our possessions out on the next flight to Italy. It was all set. Dan had been offered his dream job in the country we had long hoped to adopt as our own, and our bags were packed. Every step of the process so far had been ridged with God’s fingerprints. But then the paperwork we needed the Italian government to send us for our move was “delayed.” (This, as we later learned, is bureaucracy speak for “never gonna happen.”)

The documents didn’t arrive by our move-out date, and they continued not arriving over the next two months as we camped out in friends’ guest rooms and stretched every dollar left in our checking account as far as it would go. We were surrounded by grace in those two months; our friends’ generosity kept us afloat, and we were led again and again to trust that God had our backs despite the maddening bureaucratic roadblock. My pregnant belly was stretching along with our disposable income though, and we had to make a decision: We could either scrap this new direction for our life, or we could book a flight to Italy without the right paperwork or any guarantees and try to work out the details once we got there.

We chose Option #2.

Looking back, I turn green around the gills thinking about all the risks we took with that decision. So much could have gone wrong, and the fact that we arrived without incident on the doorstep of our very own Italian apartment that August is its own category of grace.

This isn’t to say though that the worry and upheaval through which my mind had waded all summer evaporated. If anything, my anxiety grew thicker, muddled by the confusion of a new language and new cultural customs and new everything down to the way we told time. (Dinner at “twenty-one minus a quarter,” anyone?) This newness was a mental barrier as real and high to me as the historic walls of our adopted city. I was petrified by the enormity of what I didn’t know.

Also, I was now squarely (roundly!) in my third trimester of pregnancy. Any mama who has cared for a two-year-old while massively pregnant can tell you that staving off exhaustion in itself can be a full-time job. My body was as weary as my brain, and I felt like I was always skirting the edges of the preterm labor that had complicated my pregnancy with Natalie. I lay trapped awake by worry every night. If I’d had any illusions about being in control of my life before that autumn, they’d certainly hoofed it back to the land of make-believe by now.

Then two things happened simultaneously to kick the intensity notch of my world up to Level Orange. The first was that Dan left on an eight-day trip back to the States to take care of the paperwork we had been unable to file all summer. The second was a familiar tightening across my lower belly that started one evening while I was eating dinner. I was thirty-three weeks along, the exact point I’d been in my first pregnancy when I’d gone into preterm labor. I began to have contractions that were sporadic and harmless, but the timing was enough to send me spiraling imagination-first into worst case scenarios.

I couldn’t shake my fear that our baby was going to be born prematurely while Dan was out of the country. And what if things went horribly wrong for him and he was denied reentry? My terror was so acute that it spliced itself onto my sense of reality. I felt stranded in this place, so far from friends and family, unable to communicate in my own language, responsible for a two-year-old who needed more energy from me than I was able to give. I sympathized with the Israelites in Exodus who wailed that God had brought them into the wilderness to perish.

Hadn’t he just done the same to me?

Abandoned, abandoned, abandoned. The refrain began at the epicenter of my fear and was soon taken up by every cell in my body. I knew I was being dramatic. I knew that basing my understanding of God on my current circumstances was not only poor theology but straight-up idiotic. I had been so uprooted by the past few months though that my better judgment couldn’t find solid footing. As I saw it in those panic-stricken moments, God had lifted us over the stacked odds and deposited us safely in Italy only to pull that sense of safety right back out from under me. This was it then, the punch line of whatever cruel joke he was playing on our dreams.

I felt more alone than I had ever been in my life—relationally, culturally, and spiritually desolate—and I didn’t have the courage for whatever was coming next.

Only, what came next turned out to be as far from what I’d predicted as abandonment was from the truth.

/ / /

[Continue to Part 2.]

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