A year ago this week, Jacob and I were packing up our beloved shared home in Chicago, bidding friends farewell, and preparing for expat life in Belgium. 

My biggest comfort during that week—and the subsequent stormy months—was the knowledge that Jake’s masters program was only a year, and that we’d be back.

It’s been a year. And we’re not going back. Jacob was not accepted to the PhD program he wanted in Chicago, and instead, he is applying to KU Leuven.

Jacob and I have a mutual commitment to each other’s dreams and that means becoming rooted here for the foreseeable future. For four years, maybe five—we don’t know—we’ll be living in Belgium.

We have bumps and bruises from this decision. We miss our irreplaceable Chicago church family. We miss our immediate and extended families, and aging grandparents. We miss our friends and stalwart coworkers. We turned down an exciting job offer. We asked the family who is fostering our kitties to give them a forever home. 

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps…

H is for Hawk — Helen Macdonald

In the spring, when we first discussed remaining in Belgium for Jacob’s PhD, I was feeling particularly bruised. The most persistent sense of calling that I have experienced since my health crisis is a calling to hospital chaplaincy. While living in Chicago, I was under the spiritual direction of a hospital chaplain and was looking to attend seminary. Our unexpected move to Belgium last year seemed like a detour, but I intended to pick up the thread of chaplaincy when we returned to Chicago.

By June, it was vividly apparent that it was time for me to set off down new paths, through new doors. It was time for me to stop planning my life around Chicago and to start living it here.

I applied to KU Leuven for a masters in theology program and was accepted, with the understanding that I take remedial undergraduate courses for the first year.

I applied to the Church of England’s Ministry Experience Scheme and was accepted as an intern for 2016-2017, placed in our local parish in Leuven.

In Helen Mcdonald’s moving autobiographical exploration of grief and loss, she writes about the discovery that life is made up of absences. She writes that you can put your hand out and feel the vacancies, the space where the memories are.

When I was utterly wasted and ill, I discovered that my life is made up of absences, and that accompanying others through absence is the one thing that I truly wanted to do. I was skeptical of my inclination. This year, however, I plan to explore the possibility deeply. The priesthood and hospital chaplaincy is not a discontinuation of other calls that I have felt—a call to literacy development, a call to teaching, a call to counseling. It is, in fact, a continuation of a theme: to be present in empty spaces.

New paths and new doors: strange, void, empty spaces that we enter, together. Join me?