“Courage, dear heart!”
— C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
It was May 2020. The world had shut down, locked up, and canceled most of what we had taken for granted. Just months before, our family had visions of Mickey Mouse ice cream bars, lunch with princesses, and a proper British breakfast at the Three Broomsticks with other Potterheads. We had signed the travel documents and anticipated our visit. A frosty cup of butterbeer? YES, and a bag of chocolate frogs, please. Our first visit to Universal Park’s Diagon Alley in 2016 had pretty much set the bar on what we knew to be the perfect alternative to regular life and with the ugly state of affairs since 2020, a return trip was just what we longed for. We were collectively sick of the walls of our house, traffic, and the pervasive, sullen mood. This dissatisfaction had been creeping up on us like a low fog for a while.
Sweet anticipation and adventure-planning lifted our spirits. We talked about watching the fireworks over the castles and visiting all of the shows we had missed the first time. And then the travel agency called to let me know that Disney had shut down and would remain so until mid-July, then reopen with very limited service or food. In fact, they suggested bringing our own packed lunch. No thanks. Disney is as much about the special food as the crazy rides!
Okay, swerve in the plan. Universal was open for business with the usual policies expected for the time. I told the travel agent that we would keep our reservations for Universal and original travel dates which coincided with the park opening in June, but we would keep the money we had invested in the Disney trip. At least a few vacation days offered a taste of semi-normalcy.
After three days of reveling in a nearly empty theme park, a long drive home seemed as appealing as the day after Christmas. Never a family who shirks a side adventure, we thought why not take a bit of time off the beaten trail as we headed north? Wanderlust has always been a marker in my DNA. (I probably would’ve been one of the first pioneers on a covered wagon searching out my Manifest Destiny.) This was summer and time for a bit of exploring.
“Hey guys?” I said as we loaded the car, “How about a detour to the Atlantic? It’s only a couple hours away.”
I got the “Well, I can’t imagine what you’re thinking” look from my spouse, but he is accustomed to rabbit trails. I continued my well-reasoned point with “I’ve always wanted to see the Fountain of Youth and we would drive RIGHT PAST IT in St. Augustine. I had to study it when I was little. I just want to see what it is. Maybe we can even drink the water!”
I was loath to cut a vacation in Florida short, so we studied our map and meandered our way to St. Augustine. We found a hotel with one room left, booked it, and continued on to our wonderfully cheesy destination. (And yes, we drank the water and as of yet, it hasn’t lived up to its reputation.) When we returned to our hotel, we walked on the beach, digging our toes in the cool sand as we looked out at the vast expanse of the ocean horizon. The sun was setting and the sky was tinted with the loveliest pinks and peachy oranges. Warm salt water washed over our ankles and the pipers skittered across the shoreline.
“I wonder what it would be like to live here?” hubby mused.
“Being close to Potter World would be cool. Resident memberships!”
“Flip flops 365 days of the year!”
Well, it was nice to dream, but too many roadblocks stood in the way and at the time, praying for the specifics seemed almost selfish.
But the hunch wouldn’t pass.
We spent Christmas 2020 back on what we now regarded as ‘our beach.’ It felt like home. Returning to Virginia felt odd, like we were strangers in a strange land and we were better suited to quirky Florida. We started to pray and decided that we’d give God the details and ask Him to either open that door or slam it shut. We were very specific, especially regarding employment. During my morning reading time, I sighed and said, “God? I’m pretty thick. You need to make this obvious. Move us if it’s what You want and if there is something You want us to do there.”
Days passed, then one day out of the blue, hubby said, “I was just given permission for full-time telework. I called a realtor and she’s coming over to talk to us about selling our house.” Suddenly, my yearning turned into panic. What if God was ‘calling me on the carpet’ over my discontent? I felt a bit like I was whining about my perceived ‘lot’ in life, and the truth was that I had a comfortable, lovely home and longtime friends. Many reasons to be content.
So, now I hit my prayers into reverse and started a new prayer — a strange about-turn. “Ummm, God? Just kidding. Seriously.”
The agent showed up and took one sweeping look around as she walked to the kitchen with me and offered a helpful and annoying observation: “Huh, you have a lot of stuff. It needs to go if you want to sell this house.”
I was a bit defensive over her comment and listed off a litany of reasons why I have the stuff, but she smiled and explained that “everything that makes our house look like us” had to be boxed up. Everything. UGH. My prayers turned to disgruntlement.
“Okay God, I can’t purge through a lifetime of homeschooling and family mementos for the fun of it. Please slam this door shut.”
While I waited for the metaphorical sound of that slamming door, we rented a Pod, scavenged a few boxes, bought packing tape, and started in on the first easy layer of books, videos, and bric-a-brac. In the process, I became painfully aware of everything we had saved for no good reason. Even as a bibliophile, the shelves of books were overwhelming and convicting, so carloads of books and movies found a new home at the library. So many years of meaningless clutter. Then we got an offer on the house in the same week we listed it.
“Seriously, God? Look, I said that You’re in charge and I mean it. I will not be upset if it is Your will that this sale falls through and we stay here.” (Isn’t it nice that I gave Him my permission?)
If we moved I would need to resign from my teaching position at our co-op. This homeschooling community had been the core of our family’s history and leaving it seemed like a radical decision. And now that we had an offer, we had to find a house to buy. My prayer became more of a wager.
“So, if this move is Your will, You’ll need to be really obvious about it because we seem to second-guess You.” I proceeded to rattle off a prayer list of details truly specific enough to merit a miracle. Surely, the answer would be a clear yes or no.
I flew out to Colorado Springs for a weekend retreat and the realtor called to tell me that the sale was contingent on a $20,000 laundry list of buyer demands. We had to fix everything or lose the sale. This counter offer was a punch to the gut. Did this mean that we were never meant to move? Perhaps we read God’s will all wrong. Anger at the buyer seized my mind and I felt helpless. Again.
I knew that I had to hash out this latest surprise with God — just Him and me. Good thing that He’s familiar with my occasional rants of “WHAT are you doing, Lord?” I stomped down to my car that was parked at the retreat center’s lot and drove to the scenic overlook at the Garden of the Gods. I parked and begged for answers. “You say that you are always with me! You know everything,” I growled, “Well, where are You now, because this is a bigger mess than before. Show me that You are in this.” I asked for help. I needed a clear answer, yes or no, do we move? “God, are you even here?”
Then I heard a whisper of “I am.” That was all, but that was all I needed, condensed down into two words. In a universe of unknowns, “I am” is the one certainty.
“I am.” God with us.
“I am.” God is at work.
Availability in this crazy real estate market hinges on a matter of hours. We had to sell our house and buy a house in a process that demanded legal and financial choreography as finely tuned as a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance. Our dabbling in Zillow became very real, so we called the realty office in the area we wanted and road tripped for a weekend. Houses available in the morning were bid on in the afternoon, but we held onto hope. Then a house not on the realtor’s list popped up in our search. A lovely home in a perfect neighborhood was listed on the app, but unfortunately, over 1,700 people had searched it, over 500 had marked it as a favorite, but curiously, nobody looked at it. Very odd, indeed. On a hunch, we checked it out, fell in love, and put in a bid, but the sale on our property fell through again. Yet, not one person ever came to look at ‘our’ Florida house. This housing dance looked more like a fall down a spiral staircase.
The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know to God And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
— Philippians 4: 5-7
“One last time, God. You have allowed us into the impossible with so many factors that must work out. Impossible hurdles. So, if this is what You want, because it’s gotta be what YOU want, arrange the details. There is literally nothing we can do on our own to make this happen, and I’m sure that is when You do Your best work.”
We drove home. Now my mind wouldn’t shut off and I was waking up at 3 a.m. on the dot each morning. I’d get up, make coffee, and read the Vigil prayers from the nearby monastery and pray, then return to the basement and continue sorting and packing. Somehow, I got by on four hours of sleep each night. My thoughts also turned to my dad, who was several states away and in the hospital again. Because of regulations, I could not visit him, but I worked to establish connections with his care team and called him every chance I could get. For now, it was the best I could do.
Another offer came in to buy our house. It wasn’t the optimal offer we had hoped for, but as we watched the potential owners take excited selfies on the front porch, we knew it was the right family and the right time. We could finally move on to the final packing.
I called on a couple of friends to help pack the dishes, wrap the pictures, make a run to the donation centers. By this time, we were sick of the smell of boxes, and worn to unraveling, but we plowed forward and continued to wrap and tape. On a bright Saturday morning, the moving truck pulled up to the curb and hauled out twenty-one years of good memories. (And quite a bit of useless junk that I didn’t have the ‘mental real estate’ to deal with.) After moving my parents only four years prior, then moving my dad two more times after that to a nursing home, I thought I had mastered decluttering. I had not. This was my clutter and reminded me of family. I couldn’t just toss it, so I packed it, vowing to take care of it in Florida.
After the moving truck pulled away from our house, we decided to celebrate the milestone with a dinner out. As we were finishing our meals and chatting about the final touches, my cell phone rang. The caller ID told me it was the nursing home. Dad’s favorite nurse told me that he had just died. We had spoken to him and read prayers out of his grandmother’s book to him the day before. That was a balm to our hearts, but we were exhausted and numb — too numb to grieve.
The next few days felt as if I was running on autopilot — coordinate three cars, six cats, four family members, and a pile of last minute items that required careful arrangement in back seats and trunks. We drove away for the last time, ‘packed to the gills’ with cats equally divided between cars, yeowling and trying to escape their carriers. As I drove, I started the process of funeral arrangements and laughed at just how ridiculous life was at that moment.
After sleeping on the floor in our Florida home, the movers called to happily announce that they would arrive THAT SAME DAY. I mused, “Really, God? What else are you going to throw at us?” I sat on the floor in a corner and made last minute flight arrangements for three from Tennessee, and four from Florida leaving on different days to meet in Minnesota for Dad’s funeral. I didn’t even know where my new airport was or where our dress clothes were packed. I just kept moving forward.
My prayers at this point had been reduced to “God, help” and “Please fix this.” I had no more words, but I had to write a eulogy, arrange the music, and plan the funeral ceremony and luncheon that was held afterward. My family flew back to Florida to start on the settling in, but I stayed behind to complete all of the details and gather my scattered mind together. What an unexpected mercy to be alone and contemplate all that happened, review every impossible scenario, every plea for help.
And indeed, against all odds, God answered prayer in every way. He redeemed every awful moment, every prayer that no words could define. I saw His hand in every detail: our new home was saved just for us, we discovered the best packing boxes available if you’re okay with recycle dumpster diving, my sweet friends cleaned our fridge and wrapped our dishes, somehow sold and bought a house in the same week, (refinancing earlier that year uncovered several glitches that we fixed, which streamlined the sale), Dad was welcomed by Jesus, and difficult travel arrangements came together. Even the funeral was an encouragement, because we were all together with family and friends whom we rarely see. I lost count of so many unexpected blessings.
As Julian of Norwich prayed centuries before, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” So true, even in the direst of circumstances. That is God’s promise and consolation, and why we should always cling to hope, no matter what.
On a bright, sunny day last week, I parked my car at the public beach lot and walked down to watch the rolling waves of the Atlantic. I loved how the vibrant blue sky met the grey-green sea at the horizon. Brown, gangly pelicans and snowy gulls flew above me, tipping their wings in the breeze. The same shimmering, sandy spot where my family stood a year and a half prior was beneath my bare toes once again, and I remembered how we imagined the impossible. And now we were home.
No Sunday sermon can truly teach like actual experience — to be at the end of all things without a solution. But God was faithful. I wouldn’t opt out of the lessons we endured during those difficult weeks. I was reminded that I had to get out of the way and trade my will for His good work, replace my pining for His purpose, and my discontent for contentment in all things. Only when we leave our longings in His hands will we reach true contentment, but walking away from our will is the most difficult thing we will experience.
Looking back, we see the markers left by our Maker, especially in the darkest hours. It is one thing to memorize Bible verses, but to live the words of Apostle Paul to the Philippians tests the depths of our faith. Watching God at work is the most humbling, awe-inspiring experience.
“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. “
— Philippians 4:11-13
The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with her generous permission for Cultivating.
The illustration of the oak leaf is courtesy of Jordan Durbin and used with her generous permission for Cultivating.
Annie Nardone is a flannel-clad, cowboy boot-shod adventurer who seldom travels with a map! Her passion is the reintegration of the arts and humanities with theology and Christian imagination. Annie holds a Masters Degree in Cultural Apologetics from HBU, is a founding member of The Society for Women of Letters, and is Managing Editor of The Cultivating Reader for Cultivating magazine. She also writes for Literary Life, and An Unexpected Journal. Annie resides in Florida with her Middle Earth-Narnia-Hogwarts-loving family, & her wild assemblage of cats.