A Time to Seek
It sneaked up on me—a few extra pounds, an unflattering reflection in a store window, a teen who called me “ma’am” and offered me his seat on the bus. One day I looked around, and it dawned on me that other people were seeing me differently.
It was not my best day.
Midlife begins quietly; there is no celebratory rite of passage or ritual to mark its onset. Our culture does not greet it with high-fives or open arms or recognition for a half century well done. Instead we receive birthday cards that tell us we are over the hill. So, we do our best to deny our aging for as long as possible which only prolongs our ability to make peace with it.
We are often left to figure out this complicated transition by ourselves. For many of us, it can be a lonely and confusing time as long buried or newfound yearnings claw their way into our consciousness, often disturbing carefully constructed lives. We turn to books and medical professionals for information; friends, husbands, and significant others for comfort; the privacy of a personal journal to make sense of our changing bodies and evolving roles. And we pray a lot.
Transition, however, doesn’t have to be dark and scary. It doesn’t have to be a crisis. It can be interesting, exciting, and rejuvenating—a time of renewal. I have learned to recognize the unquenchable yearnings and wobbly footing during midlife for what they are: actual graces. Divine nudges. God calling us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the many purposes of our lives. Whether we are ready or not, we enter new phases of life as we age and, sometimes, we need to gift ourselves with time to ponder life’s great questions in order to find clarity to move forward in a meaningful way though our next chapter. At this time of our lives, God calls us to seek.
This recognition of unquenchable yearning as the call to spiritual growth did not come cheaply. It took great sacrifice and personal upheaval for me to let go of the life I had carefully constructed so that God could teach me how to seek Him in a way that I could hear Him. In 2003, as told in Halfway to Each Other: How a Year in Italy Brought our Family Home, my husband and I made an improbable decision to sign a lease to an apartment overlooking the sea near Genoa, Italy, rather than divorce papers. We sold our home, quit our jobs, and moved there with our two stunned children, ages eleven and fourteen, hoping to find our way back to each other. Our deep yearning to save our family propelled us past conventional thinking and taught us a thing or two about God’s mighty love and mysterious ways. It taught us that grace changes everything.
When I found myself restless and unsettled as I turned fifty, I decided to again use travel to work through the transitional themes of grief, surrender, love, faith, letting go, and acceptance. Travel is a magical way to seek, and adventure is a powerful and compelling teacher. The outer journey stimulates the inner journey. When we slip out of our cultural constraints and experience our great world in new ways, we find ourselves opening to possibility, imagining a life of greater meaning, and seeing our lives from a new perspective. When we travel with prayerful intention, we discover things about ourselves that might otherwise continue to lie hidden. The varying landscapes, the people we meet along the way, and the flavors and textures we find before us are riddled with lessons. God speaks to the soul in serendipitous moments.
Whether defined by a weekend at the beach or a trip around the world, travel grants us much needed emotional breathing room to pray and listen; it grants us space to address our spiritual needs. It is my hope that by sharing these experiences with you that you might set off on a pilgrimage of your own.
This book was inspired by a journey that I took to Italy with my daughter, Katie. The trip was an unexpected gift from my husband to help her get settled into a semester abroad program.
When I landed in Italy, I let go of all preconceived notions about midlife and motherhood and prayed for the divine to inspire and enlighten me on this pilgrimage of sorts—to lead me to a deeper sense of myself in this stage of life.
I invite you to pack your bags and journey with me~
A Time to Seek
Sacred journeys are the ones we remember all of our lives. They often occur during times when we find ourselves at a crossroads, plagued with a longing or yearning that we don’t fully understand. They are about more than sightseeing, more than artwork or ancient ruins or exotic landscapes. Something deep within calls us forward and inward, giving us a sense that something holy is unfolding, and it is important to pay attention. Choosing to follow this “calling forth” is choosing to gift ourselves with time away from social constraints and cultural clutter—time for self-reflection to assess how and why our lives may be changing—what chapters might be coming to an end, and what new ones may be beginning. Sacred journeys don’t necessarily change our lives, but they help us change the way we see life. And there is often great peace in that turn of the lens.
This particular journey was a gift. Looking back, I see that it came straight from heaven. And how appropriate that it arrived on Christmas Day.
Six of us were in the family room that morning vying for position around a twinkling Christmas tree. Candles flickered along a pine-strewn mantle, and a roaring fire gave the room an orange glow, a welcome addition to the (rare!) rainy Arizona morning. A jazzy rendition of “Winter Wonderland” lifted my spirits as I topped off my parents’ coffee cups and threw the first of many holiday treats to our dogs, Zucca and Caramel.
I was sensing the passing of time this season. There was an unexplained ache in my heart that I kept shooing away. Maybe it was my looming benchmark birthday, but I interpreted every unspoken nuance as a sign of getting older. My dad now leaned on a blue metallic cane. Tim, my husband of twenty-four years, tromped around in slippers with broken-down heels. And my mom wore a teal velour running suit, though I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen her run. This would be the final Christmas of my forties, and I wanted the day to last forever. I was, for the first time, fearful of the forward movement of the seasons. I was afraid because important things in my life were starting to end.
Two weeks before, I had decorated the house for the holidays. Alone. I wept the whole way through. For two decades Decorating Night had always been a family frenzy. Pulling out the boxes, blowing the dust off of ornaments and memories, placing the brass reindeer, lighting candles. Funny fights over who would unpack the manger and who would arrange the mantel. This year, though, it was quiet and orderly. I opened one box at a time and put everything in its place. Since when would that lead to a Christmasy feeling?
This year was about logistics, about a father and son at a volleyball tournament in Anaheim and a daughter at college in San Francisco. Who can’t fit in a few hours of placing memories on kitchen counters and windowsills? A family moving on, that’s who.
“Come on, Mom. Hurry,” implored Matthew, my seventeen-year-old, who had grown into a mannish conglomeration when I wasn’t looking. At six feet, eight inches tall, he was a tangle of legs and arms, but he continued to poke through the mound of gifts like a seven-year-old.
“Will says hello,” Katie, twenty-one, yelled from the couch as she piled her blonde hair into a sloppy knot with one hand and scrolled through a text message from her boyfriend with the other. “His parents gave him a Eurail pass for Christmas. Isn’t that great?” She and Will were gearing up for a semester abroad in Florence. They were leaving in a few weeks, and Katie was a bundle of nerves, barely able to talk about anything else.
“Does everyone have their Santa caps?” Tim asked as he held up a red felt triangle and smiled in my direction. Pulling it on his head, his blue eyes twinkled beneath a narrow strip of fake fur, feathered and gray from two decades of Christmas mornings. I loved how much he loved this day. We shared a knowing smile, and I put my cap on, checking my reflection in the oven door.
Heavy drops of rain drummed against the window like impatient fingertips. I pulled my white robe around me and, with steaming coffee in hand, wiggled onto the couch between Katie and my mother, the three of us instinctually leaning into each other, preparing to exchange holy sarcasm when necessary. We were finally ready to begin the long-awaited Opening of the Gifts Ceremony.
Unlike the chaos I remembered from growing up with five brothers—tearing into our boxes at warp speed, wrapping paper exploding into shreds—we had adopted Tim’s family tradition, one that we all now revered. Matthew had assumed Tim’s former childhood role as the Passer-Outer of Presents. With pinkies arched upward, he would ceremoniously don his Santa cap, nod to all, and then slowly work his way through the boxes and gift bags, making sure that everyone got a chance to open them in a fair and measured fashion.
The usual order of events went as follows:
1. Selection of a gift after a fake prolonged search
2. Presentation to the recipient, who opens it slowly to add to the suspense
3. Handing all reusable ribbon and gift bags over to me
4. Dramatic display of the gift, with much gawking and admiring from the recipient
5. Oohs and aahs from all
6. Flurry of “Thank yous” and “Don’t mention its”
7. Deafening round of applause
Including coffee and bathroom breaks, opening Christmas gifts at our house generally lasts over two hours, and we love every dragged-out minute of it. About three-quarters through the ceremony that morning, Tim directed Matthew toward an ordinary envelope propped against the cinnamon-colored wall behind the tree.
“Give that to your mother,” he said as an anxious look clouded his face. Since we had already splurged on new bedroom furniture as our mutual Christmas gift, I was surprised.
Smiling, I took it from Matthew. Unmarked envelopes were a good sign, usually holding a gift certificate. I turned the envelope over, smooth and white in my hand, lifted the flap, and took out a sheet of printer paper folded like a business letter.
“What does it say?” Katie asked, leaning over my shoulder to catch a glimpse.
“Give me a second,” I said as I unfolded the note. On it was something so unexpected that I sat stunned, mouth agape and eyes tearing, unable to perform step four—the requisite dramatic display of the gift. All I could muster was to hold up, with shaking hands, the piece of paper with its one sentence in red-and-green oversized font:
Week in Florence with Katie . . . January 26th . . . Get packing!
Everyone screamed. I looked across the room at Tim, whose eyes were tearing up faster than mine, and I ran to give him the biggest hug of my life. He was sending me to Florence? “What on earth?” I asked.
“Go have fun,” Tim said. “You can help Katie get settled.”
“We can’t afford. . . .”
“Airline miles. Don’t worry.” He grinned, waving my concern away with the flick of his wrist.
As step number seven—the deafening round of applause—came to a close, I caught Katie’s eye. In an instant, I knew that the big smile pasted across her face was about as genuine as that of a first runner-up in a beauty pageant. Though she didn’t want to hurt my feelings, it was clear she wasn’t sure how to take this unlikely turn of events, and I could hardly blame her. I gave her a quick eyebrow raise, and she nodded, knowing we would discuss it by ourselves another time. I would assure her that I would remain invisible and not cramp her style.
The room soon calmed, and the gift-opening ceremony continued. Matthew next chose a silver-wrapped box and handed it to my mother, who began her yearly speech about how she didn’t need gifts and how just being there was her gift. As she fiddled with the ribbon, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, returning for a moment to Italy. I remembered worn cobblestones beneath my feet, the musty scent of churches, and the artwork of the masters that had awoken a powerful yearning in my soul. I could almost hear the musicality of the Italian language and taste the ruby wine, lush and earthy.
At the lowest emotional point of my life, Florence had saved me, helped restore meaning to my days. It was there that I began to listen to my own heart and take myself seriously. For me, Florence became an avenue toward transcendence and enlightenment, toward a renaissance of my own. It was where I had dared to trust God, wholly. In so doing, I learned great lessons about the power of surrender: how mighty it could be; how it opened my soul. Where I learned to be present in every moment and open my eyes to His graces all around me.
Explaining that I needed to cut the coffee cake, I stood and headed for the kitchen as my mother admired new slippers. But the truth was that I was overwhelmed with a rush of emotion. As I waded through a pile of mangled wrapping paper and curls of ribbon, I realized, in a flash that took my breath away, that, perhaps, I was being called back to Italy. The room swirled, and I grabbed the counter to steady myself. I had been through this before, and I knew that once you realize you have been called, there is no escape.
As the room stopped spinning I felt immense relief rather than the paralyzing fear I had felt the first time I said yes to Italy. Midlife was knocking at the door and I had recently noticed myself becoming unhinged. I had fallen back into some of my old traps and routines, and I had been struggling with a spiritual emptiness that my parish priest assured me was a normal ebb and flow of life. I needed to turn toward God. I needed to seek Him.
As I opened the refrigerator to grab a fruit plate, I glanced into the family room, my eyes resting on our little manger scene on the mantel. It had been a wedding gift that had traveled with us through twenty-five Christmases. Our tradition was to place the baby Jesus in the manger before opening presents and saying a prayer of gratitude for our many blessings. My heart sank as I saw that the manger, today, was empty. How telling that we had all forgotten to begin there.