I’m going for a walk,” I announce to my family, as I scrape bits of noodles and lettuce from our plates into the compost bin. I’m not sure the kids hear me; they have already scurried from the dinner table, and are now running down our short hallway, sliding into the living room in their sock feet. My husband nods as he fills the sink with soapy water. He knows that I need to get out of the house for a bit, knows that the day has worn me down. I stack the dishes next to the sink and gently lean into him for a moment.
Minutes later, I slip my feet into my black, furry boots, the ones I splurged on a few months earlier in one last attempt to keep my toes warm when I walk my kids to school. I tug on my mittens, slip on my coat, and step out of my warm, brightly lit bungalow into the winter evening.
The dark sky is tinged with the grey, almost purple, hues that roll in with the snow. As I walk down our front steps, the laughter and high-pitched squeals from my three young kids fade, absorbed by the quiet night.
The neighborhood is cloaked in fresh, fluffy powder. The hard-packed ice and the old, dull grey snow that has greeted me for weeks is now hidden, buried under this new blanket.
My boots sink silently into the snow. With each step further into the neighborhood, I feel the quiet of the night seep into my body, into my very bones, hushing my mind, whispering, “quiet now” to my busy heart.
After the first few blocks, I let myself slowly surrender to that whisper, giving the frustrations of my day less and less space.
The houses I pass spill light from their windows and boast of life inside: a family gathered around a table, a couple reading in front of a fireplace, a man walking across his front room.
I cross the empty street, creating tracks where traffic hasn’t yet left its mark.
I lift my eyes to the streetlights, casting their warm yellows and pushing against the darkness. A twinge of joy weaves through me. This place, nestled on the cusp of the river valley, with its heritage Green Ash trees lining the streets, this place is beautiful.
It has taken me thirteen years to think those words, to feel them, to believe them. Most days I fight against being here, fight against noticing any beauty this city might offer. Most days I compare the starkness of winter here to the breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains where I once lived, and this place always comes up short.
We aren’t supposed to still be here.
As I walk, I let my mind wander back over the decisions that brought us to this place.
We would live here for one year. That’s what we told ourselves. It would be an adventure, early in our marriage. That year would give us time to figure things out, decide what’s next, make a plan. But after a year, we decided to stay one more. Jobs were offered; babies were born. And now it’s been thirteen. Thirteen years. Thirteen years in a place I have never loved, a place I have always believed I am on the verge of leaving.
That first year we didn’t hang many pictures. Why bother when you aren’t staying? If I’m honest, that’s the way I’ve been approaching much of my life here, always thinking that we will probably move soon, hesitating to commit to things that would signal otherwise.
It finally began to sink in a few months ago that we aren’t moving any time soon, if ever. One cold afternoon, I confessed all of my disappointments about being here to my spiritual director.
“Have you told God how feel?” she asked.
I blinked, then fumbled for a response. Surely God already knows, I thought. But I knew her question was more about my willingness to lay bare my heart before God, than it was about God’s knowledge.
A few days later, I sat on our plush, grey chair, alone in the house, and finally admitted to God that I was disappointed. Disappointed that we were still here, that God seemed to have forgotten that we hadn’t been planning on staying. I hoped, in that moment, that I would hear an answer from God, something along the lines of “Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you. I have better things planned for you.”
Instead, I heard nothing. No sense of peace washed over me. No whisper of assurance. Eventually, I stood up, threw away the crumpled tissues, and folded the pile of laundry that was staring at me.
It begins to snow again, and big, feathery flakes settle lazily on my lashes. I stop to pet an energetic puppy. While his person and I marvel together at the loveliness of the evening, he tosses the snow with his nose. After we say goodnight, I push my hands deeper into my pockets and notice how enchanted the spruce trees appear when they are frosted with snow. This place is beautiful, I think again.
On the heels of that thought, comes another: This place is loved by God.
And then another: Who am I to declare it unloveable?
I let these thoughts roll around in my mind for a few minutes, and they bump up against hard edges: my long held resentments, my stubborn determination not to love this city.
“Seek the welfare of the city.” Jeremiah’s words come back to me suddenly, and I feel myself smile as I remember how that verse ends: “where I have sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:7, NRSV)
I am not in exile, I remind myself, not even close.
I want to walk further, to drink in as much of this serene night as I possibly can. But I know there are kids to tuck in and kiss goodnight, a phone call that needs to be returned, lunches to pack for the morning. I turn around at the next corner, and find my own footprints stretching before me, deep wells in the snow, inviting me back.
I breathe deeply, filling my chest with the cold air. I silently celebrate that the air doesn’t burn my lungs, my eyes don’t immediately water, my fingers and toes don’t scream in pain from the cold. It is still winter, but the harsh deep freeze is over for now. My body feels lighter than it has in months, no longer needing to clench my jaws and hunch my shoulders against the biting wind.
As I head toward home, I feel a shift inside of me. Maybe it’s more of an opening than a shift. An opening to the depths of the beauty around me. An opening to be willing to see and name the goodness of this place. An opening, really, to God and God’s invitation to be present with Him in this place He has called me to be.
By the time I turn the corner onto my street, I find myself grateful. Not yet in love with this place, but grateful to be here.
I push open the door to our house, and the kids stop jumping on the couch to run toward me, throwing their arms around me like I’ve been gone for weeks. I pull off my boots, hang up my coat, and find I am glad to be home.
Julianne Gilchrist is a spiritual director, speaker, and blogger. She worked in campus ministry for over a decade, and now creates online spiritual retreats. A mom to three kids who keep her laughing, she lives in Edmonton, Alberta and tries not to complain too loudly about the cold. You can find her at juliannegilchrist.com