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I don’t think I would have gone to Venice if I hadn’t had a crazy thought five years ago that woke me at three o’clock one morning.
I was used to wacky, middle-of-the-night thoughts, but not like this one. Usually I created mental memos such as, “Send Aunt Becky’s birthday card by Tuesday, or it won’t arrive in time.” In my head I would respond, “Okay,” and fall back asleep.
Other times the thoughts came fragmented like, “car insurance.” Those were the ones I hated because I’d lie alone in the darkness wondering, “Am I behind on a payment? Or was I merely dreaming about a late-night commercial with some dancing lizard telling me I was paying too much for my current coverage?”
When I discussed these annoying, sleep-robbing thoughts with my sister-in-law, Sue, she responded, “Welcome to menopause.” Then she told me that she keeps a notepad and pen by her bed and another one in her purse at all times. “That way, if I do go completely insane, at least I’ll have left a trail for the medical community to follow, sort of like bread crumbs.”
Taking her advice, I put a notepad by my bed. That’s why I can still remember the persistent thought that woke me and set this adventure into motion. The 3 a.m. revelation was simple: “You’re not done yet.”
That was it. I wasn’t “done.” Done with what, I didn’t know.
I wrote down the thought, but then, instead of falling back to sleep, I considered all the things I had started but never finished. The list was long. Very few events in my life had unfurled the way I had thought they would. I was too old to start over but too young to roll over and play dead. Such is the muddle of midlife, I told myself. I shouldn’t elevate my expectations this far along in my quota of years. I should be winding down, right?
But at 3 a.m. that particular spring morning, I wasn’t “done” yet. And I didn’t know what that meant.
Sleep wouldn’t return, so I slipped out of bed and made a cup of tea. The sound of the newspaper thumping against the front door of my condo told me the world around me was waking. In a few hours I would leave for work. During the hectic pace of my position as a checkout clerk at Abbot’s Grocery, I would scan dozens of cans of soup and tomato sauce. I would weigh Red Delicious apples (code #4782) and dripping bundles of romaine lettuce (code #4623). I would say, “Have a nice day” more times than any human should have to say that phrase, and I would forget any thoughts that had come to me in the night.
Then, in the wee hours of the next morning, the same thought returned and woke me again. This time I sat up in bed and said aloud, “What? What isn’t finished?” All was silent except for the whirl of the ceiling fan over my bed.
I fell back asleep. My unremarkable life continued at its usual pace for two more weeks.
Then a letter came from Sam, a friend from college who was now the director of an international mission that was based in Europe.
Jenna, would you consider traveling to Venice in July? We need someone to cook at our mission leaders’ retreat. You keep coming to mind. We were given two comp airline tickets from the U.S. so you can bring a friend. The retreat is only for four days. You may stay at the palace the remainder of the week at no charge. Please respond ASAP.
I read the note again. Venice? Why me? Why now?
I wasn’t a very good cook. Sam knew that because I worked on the kitchen staff one summer at a camp he and his wife ran in Austria. But that was during college. A life-
time ago. Sam and Austria and cooking all happened when I was young and naive and had lofty plans for my life. Then I fell in love, and, ignoring advice from friends and family, I spontaneously got married. I had a beautiful daughter and an unwanted divorce all before I was twenty-seven. That was when my life grew small.
Now I was being invited to be part of something outside the small boundaries of my broken, limited life. And in Europe, no less. Was this the unfinished business?
Sam’s invitation stirred something deep within me. I realized that no matter what age we are, a profound sweetness glides over the human spirit when we are included in a small circle by an old friend. It’s a humbling thing to be chosen.
I cried for the first time in a long time, and then I called my sister-in-law. Sue was the friend I chose to take with me to Italy.
She was coming up for air after the worst two years of her life. Because she never had been to Europe, she understandably was hesitant about leaving home, but she finally agreed. We left behind everything familiar about our lives in Dallas when we boarded that airplane and flew to Italy.
Neither of us expected the transformations that began in us during our week in Venice. Our luxurious makeovers started with morning walks to the panetteria, where we bought our daily bread. Our nails were “manicured” by eager pigeons that we fed from open hands at San Marco Square. Instead of cucumber slices over closed eyes, we opened our eyes wide inside the grand, Byzantine churches and drew in the scent of honeyed candles. We meditated on God and life while listening for the echo of footsteps on the ancient tiles.
So much changed inside both of us on that trip. Sue and I look back and refer to that summer as the summer we were ambushed. Neither of us saw the blessings coming. They just came—and kept coming—and bowled us over.
Sue now has a term for what happened in Venice. She says we were “victims of grace.” I like that. Both of us had been victims of a lot of other stuff over the long years. How sweet of God to make us victims of grace when we were old enough to appreciate what that gift cost Him.
Yes, we were transformed in Venice. We both are convinced that what happened to us never would have happened in Dallas. Not that God can’t change a heart and a life in Dallas—or anywhere else—but they don’t have gondolas in Dallas. And for our transformation, we definitely needed a gondola.