I married Steve when I was 19, having lived with my sister before that and a bunch of college women before that and my parents before that. I was steeped in the tea of togetherness for as long as I could remember. If there was one thing I really craved for most of my life, it wasn’t more people but more solitude.
When Steve got sick in 2011 and then died in 2015, I was worried about a lot of things, like finances and kids and decisions about our house – but I wasn’t overly worried about being lonely. I knew I would miss him, but I really felt that I was the kind of person who could handle long stretches of aloneness. Other than a specific, recurring nightmare that I had to spend Christmas alone (I know – it’s weird what our brain conjures up, isn’t it?) I felt like I was well equipped and prepared to face my new life without a spouse. And it went pretty well for the first year. I don’t have much more to say about it than that – maybe I didn’t have time to focus on it while trying to rebuild a life for my family, but I don’t remember it being a pressing issue.
Recently, though, especially since returning from Italy, I have discovered the dark, quiet of a lonely life in ways I had never imagined before. I can’t say exactly why it’s happening or why it’s so hard now, I can only say with certainty that it is. And yeah, I have kids living here (though they aren’t here much) and I have a great man just three hours away and friends and family who love me. Yet, often when I wander through my empty house, the silence and solitude feel crushing, suffocating. I run into it in the wee hours, when I wake up alone in my bed, alone in my room – and I gasp to get air, to get hope into my lungs and I clutch the covers tightly and try to hang on until morning. Sometimes I decide that 4:00 a.m. is close enough to morning and I get up, make coffee and run to the refuge of my couch, waiting for the sun to shine beams through the window and remind me that a new day = new mercy.
Let me be clear: this is not a desperate cry for help. My friends and family care for me SO well. My kids are unfailingly kind and thoughtful. My boyfriend works hard to make sure we connect every day and to be available when I need him. I am the luckiest girl in all the land to have such amazing people in my life.
And yet, there’s something about being single that is weary and wearing. Coming home to an empty house often, going to bed alone every night, facing each day on my own, even just sitting down to pay the bills alone…these things create the ethos of my existence. They are unchanging and sometimes unrelenting in their gnawing, empty consistency. Is Jesus in this season? Without a doubt – I feel Him more present than ever before. Is He precious and good and true to His word? Absolutely. But sometimes my heart still feels overwhelmed by all this quiet.
So, what to do with loneliness? I think my best and worst answer is: I don’t know yet. I thought I knew a year ago, but turns out it just wasn’t really an issue then. And I know what I should say: Read your Bible, play worship music, lean into Jesus – fine ideas, all. But they ring a bit hollow for those who are longing to feel the warmth and camaraderie of a skin-and-bones human, or ache to feel circled by the kind of always-available friendship you don’t have to work up or work for.
Here’s where I want to give you a principle or three. I want to wrap it all up in hope and five steps to happiness. But the only hope I have to give the lonely today is this: I’m here, too. Lots of us live right here in the quiet wild. Just because you love Him, doesn’t mean you don’t feel it and just because you feel it, doesn’t mean you’re doing life wrong. It just means you’re doing life. And I’m proud of you and cheering you on from the cheap seats. Please know it. (And leave a comment if you’ve got a great idea for the rest of us!)
I’ve been sitting long and quiet this morning, trying to figure out whether or not to share something out loud. It feels extra vulnerable, which is why it’s a fight to wrap it into words, but also why I need to.
For months, I have been dealing with suffocating anxiety over a health issue in my life. Health stuff is a powerful trigger for me. My friends and sweetheart have extended endless kindness, compassion and patience as I’ve cried my way through sleepless nights, but also refused to get actual answers to the issue I was facing. All the worry finally culminated in a trip to Portland to see a friend of mine who is a doctor, who ordered the tests I had been avoiding since September. He ended our visit with one powerful sentence that keeps reverberating in my head: “The one and only question we need to answer today, Bo, is: Do you trust God with your whole life?” The night before the tests, I tossed and turned in my bed, writing a story in my head of the disaster that awaited inside those results. Just as I considered the idea of canceling the appointment in the morning, I heard a tiny voice in my spirit say, “That test is the only door out of the life you’re living now.” And I knew the voice was right. I loathe living in fear and taking a hard run at that door was the only way out, even if I faced something difficult on the other side. I had to reluctantly agree that any reality was a better option than living in the unknown, because real grace meets us in our real stories.
Results: I had the tests and I am healthy and fine. I’m trying not to focus on the many minutes and months I lost to anxiety, but it’s tough – because the door was there the whole time and I was afraid to use it. I wasted so much energy and sacrificed so much peace.
I share this only because I have run into so many people this week who are dealing with the very same issue, packaged up in different circumstances. Sometimes a situation seems so complex that everything looks like a house of mirrors, but I believe there is always a door. It may not be the final door to freedom, but it is the next door in the process. If you’re locked up in a life filled with fear or doubt or confusion, the one and only question you need to answer immediately is: Do you trust God with your whole life? And the only thing you need to do is take a real hard run at that door.
With hope and courage,
The Italians I met while in Florence have one thing in common: they are content with their lives and feel lucky to be living them. Most of them have spent time in America – usually more than a year – and they perceive the American way as being quite difficult and angsty. They feel we are obsessed with having the best of everything and in achieving notoriety. My new friend, Daniel, said, “Americans have to find the best coffee, the best place to eat – here, we can just sit in a piazza that’s really nothing special and drink coffee without worrying if it’s the best or if we’re seen having the best. We just enjoy sitting and living in the beauty of that one moment.” He mentioned that in America, he felt he couldn’t take a break just to live – it had to be consumed with work or striving or getting more.
Another man runs a beautiful leather shop around the corner from my apartment. At the end of our shopping trip, enamored by his knowledge and customer service skills, one of us said, “Paolo, you’re going to be famous!” He smiled and shook his head like we had offered him a shot glass full of rat poison. “Oh, no. I don’t want fame. I only want to love what I do. Fame is not good for people.” He expounded a little, and I don’t remember all that he said, but his implication was clear: Americans love fame, Italians understand that fame is too much work.
I want to agree with them, while adding a personal disclaimer for my own lifestyle. Yeah, that’s how Americans are, but not me. Poor, poor Americans. However, I can’t deny it’s a part of me as I wander the streets looking for the best restaurants and the best shops and the best things to bring home – and in the way I feel I’ve wasted a moment if I haven’t captured it in photos or words on a page. I see it in myself as I enjoy the most beautiful wine country landscape I’ve ever laid eyes on, while fighting a driving impatience to get to the next vineyard and see if it’s better. I miss entire moments of my life – wide swaths of time and experience, in fact – because I’m so busy processing whether or not that experience does or does not live up to my expectations.
And this is what I want to bring home – not from Italy, but from Italians. I want their deep love of family and hospitality, yes, but more than that – their deep love of living in exactly the moment they’re in with exactly the things that they have. I want to live a life that is able to sink deep roots into the rich soil of the right-here, right-now beauty I’ve been given. I want to refuse the endless, aching longing for attention, admiration and just “more and better” that swallows the wonder of a million little ordinary blessings whole. It will be hard because I’ve been this way a long time; but contentment + gratitude = peace; and that is the goal I’m bringing home.
With hope and great gratitude to the people in Florence who have shared their lives with me,
I haven’t been updating much lately because I’ve been busy. But it’s been the good kind of busy which is Italian busy instead of the bad kind of busy which is American busy. Someday I will try to write something explaining what a profound impact discovering this distinction has made on me ,but for now, I’m just living out this dream month.
If you’re following along on social media, you know that my best friend and her husband showed up right after Whitney and Mekenzie left and they will be with me through the end of my time here. It has been beyond wonderful to have them here. If you have the chance to have the same bff for 35 years, take it. And if you have a chance to also love her husband, make that happen too. I am so lucky to have them in my life.
A couple of days ago, my favorite boyfriend came to visit. We’ve planned this for awhile, but still keep having trouble believing it’s really true. We’re really here in Italy. It’s been so fun. I spent my birthday here when I first arrived, and Cliff & I also celebrated our one-year dating anniversary here in Florence. I do not kid: I feel like the MOST blessed girl who ever lived.
This is my little Florence tradition of watching out my window when I know someone is about to arrive by taxi.
This is me being very happy and Cliff being deliriously tired.
We had our anniversary date at 4 Leoni across the Ponte Vecchio. It was the best food, with the not-best service ever, but sometimes the strangest experiences provide the best stories down the road. That’ll be this dinner. And this moment on the beautiful bridge, walking home afterwards? Perfection.
Since Cliff has been here, the four of us have done lots of shopping and exploring and spent a whole day in San Gimignano and wine country. We’ve also hung out in our sweats in the apartment, eating panini sandwiches and telling stories from 30 years ago. It’s been quite brilliant.
As my time here begins to wind down, I’m doing two things: 1) Trying to capture all that I’ve seen and learned into words and 2) Focusing hard on the good things awaiting me at home. This trip has been…wow, I feel lost for words. It’s been so much more everything than I imagined. More joy, more angst, more beauty, more wonder, more fun than I could have dreamed. (Also, more money – but I’m trying not to focus on that.)
Thanks again for following along – your kind comments and travel tips have been a great companion for me along the way.
October 8, 2017:
- It is 11:18 and I am still in my sweats, have no makeup on and no immediate plans to change that situation. It’s rainy and fall-like today so I am writing and listening to Vivaldi and drinking tea. I’ve had a few of these days since I’ve been in Florence, and I’ve dubbed them my Hemingway days because they feel broody and thoughtful, except I don’t think tea was his drink of choice. And he lived in Paris.
- Speaking of rain: It has rained every Sunday since I’ve been here. I like to think it’s the city’s way of convincing us to slow down and cozy in. Also, I’ve learned to swallow my PNW pride and carry an umbrella. I haven’t learned to like it, but I’ve learned to do it.
- This is that odd moment in the day when I am awake, but all of America is asleep and it makes me feel alone and unanchored. I love when the clock strikes 4:00 p.m or so, and I know my people are beginning to wake up.
- Church bells ring so much more on Sundays than other days. And a marching band went down my street a few minutes ago and I have no idea why, but I stopped to enjoy the happy of it.
- Yesterday I went to a giant museum. It was beautiful, but also just not my thing. I really want to be cultured and smart, but I find so much more joy in lingering over a cappuccino in a piazza watching real people, than I do battling suffocating crowds to see statues of dead people. I’ve done three museums here in Florence: Galileo, Palazzo Piti and Uffizi. I think I’m going to call that good.
- Though it’s fall in Italy, there is a distinct absence of the pumpkin spice/maple frenzy that has come to define the season in America.
Fake David, in Piazza della Signoria, just steps outside my apartment door.
I don’t know who this guy is, but how cool is his hair?
Uffizi Museum – lots and lots and lots of paintings of the Madonna.
My beautiful Beane friends. #worksofart
My favorite masterpiece in Uffizi is the view out this upper floor window.
The street view of my apartment terrace – the perfect place for Hemingway days and I adore it with all of my heart.