I want to write more and I need to take the time to do it. Every day this month so far has been story-worthy, and I don’t want to forget each special moment, so here is my effort at documenting the process of healing my heart. Of course, every new beginning has a backstory, so I will try to get to that as well. As the sages say, “Well BEGUN is Half DONE.”
Feb 1st: I wrote a private message on FB to BonPapa~ “I love you!” My heart has come full circle since coming here to live in Belgium. On his 90th birthday, he was my inspiration. I was inspired by his daily habits and commitment to a life of regularity, something I haven’t been able to do very often or keep up, even once started. Wake up and wash, come downstairs and open the blinds, an apple for breakfast, an orange for lunch, an apple for dinner, etc etc etc. I’d never witnessed anyone so totally on time and on schedule. You could count on BP’s schedule just as surely as you could a clock. That was 2 years ago. Then it soured on me. I mean, that’s not all there is to life, keeping a schedule. What about the joys and excitements and unsolicited occurrences that we didn’t plan on happening? What about love and concern and expressions of empathy? I grew tired of the endlessly unchanging routine, and stopped going over as I did at the beginning. I started looking for excuses not to go, as I found myself being deathly bored when I was at BonPapa’s house~ he barely looked up from his paper, and at 8pm sharp the news came on, despite any conversation we might have been having. I realized what’s been bothering me so much all these years about my own marriage. Like father, like son~ No spark. No excitement. No passion. Just make sure the schedule isn’t disturbed, that dinner is on the table at the right time, and nothing is out of its designated place. How can a person keep on living like that?
I want to write more about the marriage ‘boulder’ but that will have to be another story. For now, the topic of Bon Papa is an important part of all the good things that have happened since the beginning of this very interesting month of February, 2014. I had a change in my heart toward my husband’s father, and that is something special. It marks the end of a period ~ a struggle, an adjustment, and a deeper awareness of something under the surface of my father-in-law’s life (and perhaps my husband’s as well). I knew something had happened when I caught BonPapa’s eye in a dream on the first day of February, and he looked at me keenly as he often does, seeing me, really seeing me, even if only for a flash. Then he winked. It’s hard to imagine how, in that tiny gesture, I could be flooded by a feeling of love and understanding. But I was. And that is where I want to start. Because it gives me hope. And hope is what I desperately need right now in order to keep on going.
On that same morning, as we were leaving our little apartment house, we met the new neighbor who is moving in, or at least her relatives, who were bringing things in and out from the street. She is an 87-year-old retired teacher who speaks English. Her family members were very friendly, and what I noticed was how friendly AND reserved they were when meeting me. I am always so sort of giddy and over-enthusiastic when meeting people for the first time. It’s as though I’m expecting something, and I seem to project a kind of friendliness that isn’t really supported by reality, and makes me feel afraid of not being able to keep it up at future encounters. How to just be myself? and Who is that really? are questions that keep floating to the surface, then sinking again never really answered. As we got into the car the thought came to me suddenly that that might be what I’m doing here in Belgium~ to learn from the experts (all Belgians, it seems) how to be reserved. That sudden insight has a lot of meaning for me~ I pulled out my notebook and quickly wrote it down: “Why I’m in Belgium~ to learn how to be reserved.” I know I drive my husband and daughter crazy, and probably other people as well, with my outspoken and loud-voiced opinions and chatter. And I also know that when alone, I am quite quiet and calm and yes, you might even say reserved. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to calm down and relax and take meeting people more in stride~ all the while staying more connected to my core~ and progress toward a more sustainable development in my personal relationships? Absolutely.
We had gone out that first day of February to visit the neighbors in our old neighborhood, and ask about our cat, Bublet. We had left him and his brush and his bag of dried food with the people next door when we moved out, and heard later that they had given him away to someone the very next day. I had tried unsuccessfully several times to find out who they had given him to and where, but they were not friendly or forthcoming in an answer, saying only that he was very happy and was sleeping at the foot of the boy’s bed. For some reason, I couldn’t get him out of my mind or my heart, and knew that this was an element that had to be addressed if I was to heal my aching heart. It had been 7 months since I had seen him for the last time, sitting there in their driveway with a face full of trust~ and I had finally convinced my very reluctant and reserved Belgian husband to come with me to translate: “We’d like to see how the cat is doing.” It was pretty straightforward, but it had taken me days to come up with the right opening lines. I didn’t want them to suspect how absolutely forlorn or desperate I felt, as they didn’t seem to be as understanding as I had originally thought. In any case, we were met with a very unexpected surprise. We found out that they feel angry and upset with us for ‘abandoning’ a lovely cat so mercilessly (as they put it, among other less kind words). She screamed from the doorway at me, while he barely came into view, and hurled expletives at me like she was firing an automatic. She was near hysterical. We were shocked. I had to hold myself up against the impact of her fury, not to sink to the ground moaning. The idea came to us that they might have taken him to the humane society and therefore are suffering from a guilty conscience. The more I thought about it afterward, the more I thought it might be a problem between the husband, who agreed with my husband to take the cat, and the wife, who wasn’t there at the time of that agreement (neither was I), and who may have been angry at her husband for ‘one more animal around here that I have to take care of, because you don’t!’ I may never know what really happened. But it is a turning point for me somehow. I have to let him go now for sure, and just be glad in his memory. After the initial shock of receiving the very loud and aggressive verbal tirade outside their door as we stood drooping in their driveway, I decided I was able to let my Bublet go. Fully. Wherever he is. I love him, and nothing can take that away from either of us, not now or ever.
Feb. 2nd: It was Sunday, and my heart was feeling inexplicably lighter. We were going to BonPapa’s house for a family gathering. From the moment I entered the house I noticed a comfortable, peaceful, and relaxed feeling. Maybe I am already learning how to be reserved? I was friendly, but calm. I felt like one of them, not that oddball American lady. It was a new experience. We were smiling all around, and all the faces looked like friends of mine. For the first time since marrying a Belgian in 1982, I was at home with my Belgian family, and it felt RIGHT and GOOD.
Feb. 3rd (Monday): As I have already written on FB, I found out that I was placed in the level 4 French class. I was nervous then about being bored ~ now I’m nervous about being totally unable to follow what’s going on. Our first class is Thursday, so I’ll soon find out soon enough. In the meantime, I’m proud that I was a proactive advocate for myself~ that in itself is noteworthy. The secretary had been so certain that I was a DEBUTANTE. She said I wasn’t able to conjugate my verbs into the past or the future, so I was most surely a DEBUTANTE~ as the paper she gave me so clearly stated. I wasn’t so sure. Later that day and in the few days following, I became less and less convinced, especially when I found myself chatting with French speakers who knew not a word of English, and we were doing just fine getting our points across. After 3 people assured me that I was definitely NOT a DEBUTANTE, I decided to call the office and explain myself and my worries that if I were to be in a class that was learning the ABC’s of French, I might give up and die out of lack of motivation. On the phone, I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying, but I did catch what I thought was a slight tone of irritation in her voice. ‘These Americans think they know everything’ perhaps. It’s true. We Americans do tend to think differently from the majority of the people I’ve met here, at least in Liege. We tend to think of ourselves as having the right to ask for what we want, and then to check to make sure that’s what we get before we pay for it. Is that really so unacceptable and brazen? The customer is King, no? In any case, I took the test. It was the last day to do so, and there were quite a few of us in the room. There was a 2-page written exam to find out just how well we actually can conjugate those verbs, and then a very short oral exam with one of the teachers. I felt very comfortable in both. Maybe that’s another one of those American features. Confidence. Or was it just the fact that I’m 62 now, and those kind of things don’t scare me anymore like they once did…who knows for sure? The reality is that I found myself chuckling as I wrote, and being surprised by all the French that was flying off the tip of my damiann action pen. Happiness is realizing how much better you are than even you thought. Clocking in all those hours on the Wallangues site last year must have actually had an impact. Mais oui! Certainement!
I don’t know if I said so but I’m thinking about lots of things suddenly: New Ideas. New insights. Really. That’s why this really does feel like a new beginning. They just keep coming unbidden~ like a door that was shut tight just got flung open by some invisible hand and the sun suddenly started pouring in. I see LIGHT! The most important clear and inspirational thought that has sprung up in my mind and filled me with wonder is about the past 9 months here in Belgium~ it is a sudden new way of seeing the time since I got sick in June and couldn’t go back to work in September (or for the rest of the year) because of illness (mental, physical, spiritual~ all of the above). I want to write about it here, in every possible detail, as I know many people, even my own mother, don’t seem to realize what I’ve just been through. I was miserable and depressed, and couldn’t understand or find out what was going on. First, I got a pain in my throat. It happened on June 1st on the second day of a Family Constellation workshop in Brussels. I thought to myself, “Hmmmm… I’m getting sick,” but I had no idea what was coming. I thought it was just a sore throat, but I couldn’t stop coughing for three months (June, July and August) and eventually lost my voice as well, just barely making it through the last few weeks of teaching in June. I spent the entire summer getting to know the doctors, secretaries, and patients at CHU, the hospital at the end of bus line 48. Every doctor I saw, no matter how friendly and self-assured they were, said something different, and all tried their favorite cure on me~ to no avail. At least I can say that I’ve been thoroughly looked over from top to bottom, but I can’t say that it did me any good. The only good I can recall is that I did enjoy going there. There was always someone nice to meet, and someone showing interest in how I was feeling. Even though I never got cured, I liked getting cared for.
Now that I know I’m not dying, and that I don’t have some rare disease that no one has been able to identify, I want to write about what I think REALLY happened. What I think really happened is that I have been heartsick. My body and mind have been unable to process all the losses of the past 2 1/2 years since coming to Belgium, and they had no choice but to fall apart on me. I had gotten hit hard with a multitude of losses, and they had overwhelmed me. The final loss way my cat, but there were many beforehand. I was out of work and out of my comfort zone. In Korea I had left behind a warm sunny apartment, a well-paid dream job at the best university in Seoul (in my humble opinion, and of course I am prejudiced), and some women friends that made my daily life a pure joy. Without really thinking, I had just upped and left. Typical of me. Very very typical. I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to what I might do when I got to my husband’s hometown. For some reason I was somehow trusting that it would be good, and everything seemed to have conspired for me to get there without a hitch. That’s an entire story in itself!
The first 8 months here in Liege I managed by filling my time with various activities: I rearranged the tiny underground studio apartment my husband had found down the street from his father, on the same street where he had gone to school and church over a half century earlier. That we only had one window, and it was facing north, didn’t dawn on me that first winter as there was very little sunlight anyway. I spent time walking around and around our little neighborhood, where I met our little kitty who was searching himself for a new home. It also didn’t dawn on me right away that the neighborhood was very quiet, and that I wasn’t seeing many people outside. It did seem odd that people who did happen to pass by all said hello. I wasn’t used to that after being in Seoul for so long, where strangers definitely do not greet you on the street. I felt rather uncomfortable, and then I felt lonely. Where was everybody hiding? And what are they all doing? The houses were big and no one appeared to be living in them. I was cooking for my father-in-law every Wednesday, and getting to know the elderly neighbors one by one. It seemed to me that we were living in the land of the near-dead. Every other house had one occupant, and you were never sure if they were home or not. I spent some time getting back into my yoga/pilates program with the weightlifting and daily walking, but I noticed I was starting to get lonely and bored from the LACK of PEOPLE to talk to and be inspired by. The few elderly neighbors that I was getting to know seemed to be repeating themselves and I found myself tuning out.
Then on one of my daily wanderings, I visited the shop at the end of the street. Actually, Renee had come to visit and was with me. I think she gave me the courage to go in just to look around. That visit ended up leading to a job offer at an immersion school downtown, which I applied for and started in September. Things were looking up. I was back in the classroom, and looking out at beautiful young faces again. It’s one of my very favorite places to be, no matter which country I am in. I took only 10 hours a week, as I wasn’t sure I would be able to handle middle school kids, and I was glad about that later. They were a tough group, and I was pretty challenged all year, although now looking back, all I can remember is how lovely they all were. I was asked to teach ART, and I had 239 kids in all, in 10 different classes. I spent the summer getting ready~ working on putting together a curriculum, and ordering a ton of books on all kinds of ways to teach drawing and art to kids. In the end, most of my meticulously created lesson plans ended up getting jettisoned as I gradually realized that what they wanted and what I had planned were two different things. Anyway, the job kept me relatively active and that was a huge blessing. I always like it when I have a schedule. Getting out of the house 4 days a week, alking to the bus-stop, dealing with the photocopy machine, and smiling at and chatting with my new friends at work.
It was at the end of that year of teaching that I got sick. I had made some friends there, and two had passed from the ‘colleague’ circle into the personal friendship sphere. Both were young married women with a small child each. One was part American, part French, and the other was Canadian. Both were fantastic teachers, and both were people I was immediately drawn to. We had lunch together, took in a movie, did some shopping, visited each other’s homes, etc. It was a big comfort to know they were around. So, it was with quite a shock to my heart when they both picked up and left Belgium at the end of the school year, one to go back to Canada, and the other to Australia where her husband had a 3-year contract to work. I didn’t realize it clearly at the time, but their departure affected me. Lia gave us her furniture, and even though it looks absolutely stunning in our apartment, it did nothing to take her place. We had found a new and sunnier apartment with a view and a lot more space, but I found myself suddenly without a job, without my girl friends, AND without my best friend, my kitty (because they didn’t want pets here.) On top of all that, I was sick. I can understand why my heart almost gave out. I had given up my life in Korea to come to Belgium to work things out with my husband, but it didn’t seem to be working. Nothing did. Then I gave up my cat because I was too out of it to think straight and decide how to keep him~ I didn’t have the energy to help him acclimate to a third floor apartment when he was used to going in and out as he pleased. I gave up my teaching job, the other positive thing in my life here, because I felt I couldn’t muster the energy needed to give the kids my best, or hardly anything at all for that matter. I kept trying really hard to find another job in Korea, thinking that would get me out of my crisis situation, and into a role I knew I loved and thought would help me get my balance back, but no one responded to ALL those applications and letters I wrote. I felt trapped, the doors all seemed to be closing one by one, and I felt like I was dying.
What I never thought of until now, until this very day, is that maybe it was all part of a bigger plan, unbeknownst to me. I mean, looking back, if I had been working as usual at St. Veronique, I probably would never have thought of doing the survey, or had all that time to work on it like I did. And if I hadn’t come to Belgium, maybe the same. There was nothing else to do all these past 8 months. My computer was my life-line ~ to the outside world and to my inner life as well. I created and worked on this blog, set up a twitter account, and read lots of amazing books (The Chalice and the Blade, Pope Joan, Dying to Be Me, The Biology of Belief, Cannary Row, Lean In, Blink, to name a few off the top of my head). I also discovered Collaborative Leadership, the Knowmad Society, and the Goddess principle~ online ideas that changed the way I think about myself and the world.
And then there was all the designing: all over the house (painting, tiling, window decorating, constructing…. the list goes on and on) and the creative paper making projects which are hanging on our walls now. Misery loves comfort. My comfort has always been creating things. I started following a DESIGN course online~ it’s still going but I dropped out after the 35th class (out of 101) because they wanted us to do a project a day, and it was way too much for me to keep up with. I fell incredibly behind, but it was intensely interesting and I learned that design is amazing, and more simple and accessible to us commoners than I thought.
The fact is, I’ve been grieving. There have been many losses, and anyone would have felt like crying, maybe even dying. I have spent hours and hours crying…I’m sorry to say, but it’s true, and the pain that I’ve felt for the past 8 months has been the greatest and most sustained in my life so far. I have been deeply unhappy, and trying to sort out what is the real reason for my illness, and for my hopeless heart. The sorrow about my difficult marriage, and the worry about my daughter and her similar struggle~ we come from a long line of failed marriages~ the disappointment about our church and our lack of a real substantial spiritual community to fall back on in times of trouble…The socialist system here in Belgium, and the fact that our city of Liege is on the decline, and all the expats here seem to be feeling it, not just me. The fact that I’m 62, and looking at the big question that many people my age are asking: Now what? Retirement isn’t an option for many of us, and even if it were, who would want to quit work when they still have so much to give?
When I started my survey, I found myself connecting to many people I might not have otherwise. People started inviting me to come visit. I decided I better make a list just in case, and there were 12 cities in various place around the world where I knew I would be welcomed. The problem was, I couldn’t move. I didn’t have the energy to go, or to be there, wherever there was. I didn’t want to go as a sick person, unable to give. But it was painful to stay where I was, and I felt a sort of panic and desperation to leave before being here got the best of me. Have you ever had such a time? That’s what being between a rock and a hard place must feel like. I felt like running, but where to? I felt like disappearing~ but how? The deepest struggle that I haven’t talked about yet is the relationship with my husband. It’s a hard chapter to write about. Maybe mostly because I still can’t say what it is exactly that makes us struggle with each other so. I have my ideas, but that’s another chapter.
For now, I will say that December rolled around, and I was camping out with friends, one week in Brussels, another week outside the city. I was trying to recover. I was trying to heal. I was trying to stop crying. It was women friends who took me in and helped me. They gave me a room of my own, and company when I needed it, and space when I didn’t. It was totally what I needed, but when it was over I wasn’t ready to go back to Liege. Then it happened that we were suddenly going to be going to Boston to spend a week with our daughter and her husband. At first I wanted to go by myself, but she wanted to see her daddy too, and arranged the whole trip for us. When we arrived, she and her husband took care of us. That was another important step in the process of healing~ being with her, being with them, and letting go of trying to be in charge, always in charge. I cried the night before I left. I wasn’t ready to come back to Belgium. But in the loving embrace of family I found the courage to be patient and to wait until the time is right.
The bottom line is that I realized something about all these many losses and disappointments. Something important. They say that when one door closes, another opens, and that faith is belief in the unseen. I can see that something good came to take the place of all those things I loved so dearly and lost (my job, my friends, my beloved kitty, and even my health). I saw most unexpectedly that this past 8 months has not been a wasted period of my life at all. On the contrary! I’ve been working hard. And God may have been working even harder. Just that thought is such a big relief to me, and it came like a harbinger of spring on the first day of February. Although this time has been a cold wintery hibernation time, and dark seemed to surround me everywhere and at every turn, in the silence something precious was taking root and growing. Without realizing it, I passed through a productive time of creation, in spite of (because of?) being ill, and I had an EPIC WIN ~ completing my survey/research project, and sharing it with the people who responded to it. That has been a meaningful endeavor that satisfied me from start to finish, and has inspired other people as well.
I want to tell you more about the survey, and how it came to be~ the backstory, so to speak~ but I will make that another chapter. For now I will mention the other signs of the coming spring that I feel my heart rejoicing over~ the lanterns that lit the little steps of my gradual ascent:
-Doris and Mary Ellen, my mother, and Barbara, Anna, and Dana, and all the other kind sisters who listened and responded to me when I was in my darkest hour.
-the Superbetter site, and my ally Kristina who has been cheering me on;
-My sister Dana, who I have discovered is just like me in so many wonderful ways, and whose humor and understanding has been such a Godsend for me;
-Linda’s visit to Liege (home for Christmas from Australia!) and my deciding to study French.
-The Expats in Liege blog, which led me to doing the HOT YOGA class for 2 weeks. SWEAT!
-Meeting Denise, our 90 year old neighbor, and starting a weekly yoga class with her, which in turn led me to start up strength training and juicing again, which led me to start focusing again on alkalizing my system and give up coffee and sugar again, which led me to feeling less bloated and to losing a few kilos, which led me to liking my clothes better which led me to stop spending so much money shopping.
– Denise also led me to visit the cultural center at the end of our street, which led me to visit our new neighbor to invite her to the exhibition tonight, etc. etc etc.
It’s been a trial of 8 months, and I’ve come through it with the birth of the Thankyou4asking project, and the decision to stay and take a course in French for the next 5 months (until the end of June, 2014) which is a big step~ committing myself to staying here a while longer, being guided, opening myself to what God wants to give me, and not just running away; My heart feels like it’s been through some kind of purification and rebirth as well. The terrible pain that wouldn’t leave has subsided, and joy is starting to bubble up from a spring I didn’t know still existed. Not all my troubles are behind me, for sure ~ will they ever be?~ but I feel a shift. I’m coming out of hibernation. Lots of residual dross is still hanging around, but I feel myself rising up out of the ashes so to speak. Spring is coming! I feel better~ not superbetter yet, but step by step I’m getting better. Spring is coming, and new life is definitely on its way.