Hard to imagine

What a difference 12 years can make! Then and now:
our York back yard in 2005, the year after we moved to Virginia, and 12 years later, last spring.

“Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. This requires not only courage but also a strong faith. As hard as it is to believe that the dry desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine that our loneliness is hiding unknown beauty.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen

Sometimes when I cannot imagine any path to a happy future for myself, it helps to remember that most of life’s changes are gradual, and are as inevitable as the abrupt, more devastating crises. Whether positive or negative, change is happening even when we are scarcely aware of it. And change is not always about loss.

Looking at the photos above, I am startled to see the bare look of that back right corner of the fenced portion of our yard. I honestly don’t remember it ever looking like that, and I’m grateful that this photo I snapped of Drew practicing baseball happened to include it in the background. Otherwise it would have been lost to memory forever, as the azaleas we planted over the next few years grew and bloomed, and the camellias that were barely visible became full and taller than we are.

Though outwardly my life is still encumbered with seemingly as many responsibilities as ever, on a personal level my landscape feels as bare as the corner ground in that first photo. I have no way of knowing whether I will live long enough to see the desert of my loneliness become a garden of solitude; whether I will ever discover any unknown earthly beauty that might be hiding in the future.

One thing is certain: I’m not trying to run away from being alone. I want whatever years I have left to be fruitful ones, and as the author Jan Karon once wrote to me,”Talents are best nurtured in solitude.” She included this quote from Goethe in her inscription of an unexpected gift she mailed me, one of her books of quotations, along with a handwritten letter of encouragement. This timely gift, which felt and still feels like a small miracle, arrived in my mailbox near the end of 2005, the year that first photo was taken. Perhaps Karon’s love of quotations fed mine, and helped to inspire this blog when Jeff was diagnosed with cancer seven years later. The seeds of kindness she planted carried unpredictable possibilities within.

Do you ever feel lonely? Have aging, health challenges, the loss of loved ones, or distance from family members (geographical or emotional) isolated you, leaving bare ground in your life just waiting to be cultivated? As hard as it might be to imagine the results, I invite you to join me in the gentle and persistent effort that, with time and patience, might grace the years to come with blossoms yet unseen.


  1. Chris

    Hi Julia,
    You are so right. “Change” truly is one of the few constants in life. Because it’s so gradual, we never really notice until we’re looking back, over time. The “then and now” photos are always a truth teller. I’ve always felt that a key to peace is having an open mind, a willingness to embrace new possibilities and maintaining a cheerful countenance. (Jeremiah 29:11). For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you, and to give you hope for the future. Even though it’s all good, it’s on God’s timetable, not ours. I’ve learned, the hard way, that God’s timetable is much like change – it’s a seemingly slow process that you really don’t notice until you’re looking back, over time. Only then, can you see the work of God’s hand in your life.
    Wishing you many blessings, and positive changes! 😊

    • Thank you Chris. Jeremiah 29:11 became one of Jeff’s favorite verses over the years, long before he ever got sick. Of course, our idea of prosperity is often very different from what God has in mind (Isaiah 55, especially verse 8!) and that’s where the faith comes in. I appreciate your encouragement, and your presence here.

  2. You have been reading my mind. This last month I have felt such loneliness. Ron is still with me, but in a lot of ways he is not. This last surgery has taken most of his physical ability to walk or even want to. I pray that I will find my way through this lonely road. Love to you, sister!💟. You and Matt are always in my prayers.

    • Thank you Cherie– as you surely know by now, you stay in my prayers as well. One of the hard things about walking through incurable illness with our spouses, is that we do lose them a tiny bit at a time, at least in many cases. That’s the way it was with Jeff, as so many of the things he loved to do gradually became difficult. exhausting and finally impossible for him. It is a very lonely road, not least because talking about it, even to each other, only makes it worse. So we keep silent out of respect for their suffering and the basic human need for privacy. And we often feel alone. My heart is with you! Thanks for being here with us.

    • Hugs to you, Cheri!

  3. “Whether positive or negative, change is happening even when we are scarcely aware of it. And change is not always about loss.” – A quote from your Blog.
    Since I turned Forty some 28 years ago I have experienced a steady change. So subtle as you said that I was scarcely aware of that change. As simple as a friend’s counter weight at the other side of the table to raise up to my feet after a dinner out. To a lowering of the steering wheel in my van to allow weakening arm strength to reach comfortably enough to continue to drive.
    To date I no longer drive and no longer get up from a table but rather pull away from it by the means of a wheelchair. But I find that with each passing day and knew post polio weakness adaptation is my greatest ally. Adaptation is a benefit to me for I find myself doing so without a conscious thought. It is a built in grace from God. Rather than despairing from what once was and is no more, I simply adjust to the new demand of weakness and figure out a way to get whatever done that needs to be done.
    If and when time and boundaries have run their course, then faith, if all that there be left, will suffice. What matters most is the fight, the staying of the course, until the final day is exhausted. It is the right thing to do; the only thing within us that is true. Because no one need prompt us to do so.
    The unawareness of negative change is met by our innate adaptability to counter if it is harmful or embrace if its aim is for a greater good. Either way, in not surrendering until all is spent results in an untroubled heart and the smile of God upon us.

    • Thank you, Alan. Reading this meant a great deal to me because it brought back to me so much of what I watched Mama do over the last two decades of her life. Shortly after Daddy died, Mama’s doctor explained to three of her four worried children that, with Mama now in her mid-80’s, the polio she had managed so well for her entire life would take an increasing toll on what she was able to do. Daddy’s help had hidden this from us to some extent. Plus her determination played a role, too; in fact, one of the first signs to my sister and me that Mama was growing weaker was when she finally gave in and got a parking hang tag that would allow her to park in accessible spaces, something she could have done since “handicap” parking was first established decades earlier, but she always refused to take one of those spots until she absolutely had to. Even after she quit driving much, Daddy always dropped her off at the door wherever they went, so it was never an issue until he, too, grew weaker and less able to walk very far himself. Like you, Mama cheerfully adapted to the changes; to her increasing need for walker, cane, wheelchair, scooter, and help getting up and down from her chair or into bed. But for a long time, she would sit there and push herself out of the chair (usually with Daddy holding it stable from behind) though it would often take her three minutes or more to accomplish it. And yes, no prompting ever needed! She was never one to complain or ask “why me?” It was a powerful lesson for me about refusal to exaggerate trouble by dwelling on it, or hide behind challenges as an excuse to avoid hard work. Mama would never have had the eloquence to write about it as you have written here, but in reading your words, I feel I know both you and her better. I appreciate your sharing so openly with us.

      • Julia,
        The stories of our lives are easy to share when the only motive behind it is to help a struggling soul or a friend under trial. It does me much good to know that it has in some way been of some help to you. Pride too often hinders the power within us, by God’s grace, to fulfill the question….”When did we do this for you, Lord? When you did it for the least of these.”

        A Blessed and Happy Easter, Julia, and your family. May the love of the risen Christ fill your hearts with the joy and peace that the world cannot give.
        -your friend,

        • Thank you, Alan! I hope you had a wonderful holiday. Matt and I had a good weekend, a nice combination of fun and peaceful.

      • Well said, Julia, “refusal to exaggerate trouble by dwelling on it, or hide behind challenges as an excuse to avoid hard work.”
        Inspiring self awareness.

        • Thank you, Susan. If I just read the words you quoted from me, never having read or written them before, they would still immediately remind me of Mama. As difficult as it might be sometimes, those of us who have a lot to live up to are lucky indeed. I’d always rather aim high. Hope you are having at least a few glimpses of spring! But it sounds like you are about to get the worst of the upcoming snow. I just brought all my plants in, after having taken them out last week thinking “surely we are FINALLY past the danger of freezing…” :-0

  4. What a lovely post, Julia. The photos are well chosen– and attractive. I always appreciate your forthright sharing as well as your compact writing style.

    I would say all your noted reasons for bouts of loneliness visit me as well as most others. I have felt it recently as I age and see my siblings either pass or gradually become more infirm and this year have realized that this will continue at an accelerated rate here on out as I am now almost 68, myself. Relationships change when people cannot get out and about so much–though I am still active and raring to go, I am often on my own.

    One begins again to review one’s life and see the deficits rather often–or so it is with me–and to look at the contributions made or not made. But I am writing more than I did when working outside the home all those years which is a gift and I have much more time to pause and consider all life around me as well as how it is lived by me and others I love. So there are gifts and there are hardships for us each.

    Loneliness is a strange teacher but we learn by becoming aware of different possibilities and hopefully also make peace with ourselves/life– and become even closer to God, as you note.
    Thank you for your good post today.

    PS–So nice you got a personal note from Jan Karon! I find her story of how she began writing and publishing inspiring.

    • Thank you, Cynthia. I must tell you honestly that I am thrilled to have someone describe my writing style as “compact.” 🙂 I started writing poetry years ago as a way of learning to be less wordy. One reason I prefer writing to talking is that I find it much easier to curb my loquacious nature when I can go back and cut, trim, and condense what I’ve written, but I still get quite rambling in the comments, as I’m sure everyone notices.

      I love your comment, especially where you said “Loneliness is a strange teacher…” Indeed it is. Gifts and hardships…not too different from the rest of life, I guess, except in the specifics. I try to remind myself of even the little advantages of being alone; for example, when I have insomnia, I can turn on the lamp to read, or get up to get a snack, or do any number of things I used to be afraid to do because Jeff hated to be awakened and as he got older, he slept more lightly. That’s a small convenience in the great yawning ocean of the grief of being without him, but I suppose it’s my nature to try to look at both sides of almost everything.

      Yes, the Jan Karon gift was quite a surprise. Sometime (here or elsewhere) I’ll have to tell you the whole story. It was one of a trio of wondrous, unlikely gifts that came to me at Christmas, 2005, seemingly “out of nowhere”– but we know better. 🙂 Karon is a lovely person and a gifted speaker. If you haven’t seen her 2005 speech at the Washington National Cathedral, you might really enjoy it. Jeff gave me the chance to go hear her in person there, as the culmination of a wonderful trip he planned for me for my birthday, even though we lived hours away at the time. Here it is; it’s worth seeing again if you already saw it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJPNuN5FHqU

  5. So sorry for all those typos–I need to review far more carefully before hitting that “send” button…

    • No problem — the WordPress Grammar Fairy fixes most of them! Strangely, only the ones I notice, though… 🙂

  6. Sheila

    Julia, I ask myself rather often “When did my life change?” Retirement is such an adjustment to major changes, one being that of aging. I don’t feel OLD, yet I often wonder about that. Our family has changed so much in 10 years, loss of loved ones that leaves loneliness beyond words. There’s happiness in having a granddaughter at Clemson now and a grandson that just became a Marine. I do think happiness requires effort, strieving to keep varied interests in life, and most of all kindness in our daily being. I wish for you a long and happy future, my dear friend! 💛

    • Wow Sheila, congratulations on your grandchildren’s accomplishments! As one whose oldest grandson is not even in kindergarten yet, I can assure you that you are DEFINITELY not old enough to have grandchildren in college OR the Marines! So you are right not to feel old. Being a military wife, I never had to ask myself “when did my life change?” because there are well-documented, neatly defined sections for each place we lived– each home almost like another life with an entirely different cast of characters. Having said that, though, for many years I felt my life was divided into Before Matt and After Matt. Now, of course, there’s an even more enormous transitional boundary. Clearing through old papers and other artifacts of living, trying to prepare for an upcoming move, I find myself noting dates and thinking “this is before the cancer diagnosis” or “this was before Jeff died.” But of course, other changes were going on all the time, mostly unnoticed from the busyness of life. Thanks for being with us through all this. I hope you have a fun weekend coming up! Will it be another tin condo weekend?

  7. Harry Sims

    The Promises

    If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through.
    We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
    We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
    We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.
    No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
    That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear.
    We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
    Self-seeking will slip away.
    Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
    Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.
    We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
    We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
    Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.
    They will always materialize if we work for them.

    Big Book pages 83 & 84

    These are God’s promises!

    I’m eighty-six years old and I have certainly seen things from both sides now.

    I am “Happy, Joyous and Free”.


    • Harry, thanks so much for sharing those promises with us. They are encouraging! I’m so glad you found a joyful path.

  8. Sheila

    Julia and Matt, maybe a Walter story is in order. So I put the teakettle on the stove, turn it on high and go downstairs to check the laundry. Did I forget to mention that it’s a whistling kettle? From downstairs I heard a squawking and shrill whistling “to beat the band”! Of course, Jack came out of his coma wishing he could help.never a dull moment at 428! 💛 All is well, BIRD for sale…. CHEAP! 🐥

    • SOLD! Now all we have to do is figure out how to get him up here…I’m not sure we should trust him to travel “as the crow flies” or even as the Conure flies! 🙂 Tell Walter my teakettle suffers in silence, so he need not raise any alarms. Or maybe he wasn’t alarmed, just thinking “OK, now what language is THIS bird speaking?” 😀

  9. Harry Sims

    And how about our lives?
    What was I like?
    What happened?
    What am I like now?


    • For futher details, consult the Author…meanwhile, stay tuned.

  10. Sheila

    Julia, I finally have a package coming your way. I guess it’s multiseason, since I started it so long ago. I decided to take a chance that you were home! If anything isn’t fresh, PITCH! It’s shipped USPS and should arrive Friday. Happy Easter!

    • Aww, how exciting! I’m eagerly watching the door. No worries about “fresh” — I’m carrying on Daddy’s tradition of having a very wide range of acceptability when it comes to “best by” dates. There’s an old saying in our family when we find WAY out of date food in the cabinet…”This stuff is so old even Captain wouldn’t eat it!” 😀 Happy Easter to you too, my friend, and to everyone at 428!

  11. Good morning, Julia!
    I remember my kids had a book that shared a memorable concept along the lines of “Sometimes things happen that we don’t want … we can learn to be happy again.” The idea of learning to be happy again had always stuck with me. I believe that you and Nowen are right. I think that learning to be happy again may require a gentle and persistent effort, not just an open mind (to allow ourselves to be happy again).
    Love to you, and cyber-hugs!

    • Susan, so true…and as with so many other forms of effort, it’s so easy to just expect everything to happen on its own, or at least quickly. But having an open mind is passive, and as you point out, we have to be active. As we’ve talked about here before. I hope everything is going as well as possible with your family. Have a wonderful Easter weekend!

  12. I loved this part of your post. ” we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude.” I’ve been alone for 8 years now. Without husband alone. There was my sister here for 6 months and 1 1/2 year with my son but the rest was spent in fruitful solitude. Grieving the loss of dreams and hope, fear of the future, financially. And here I am still contented and alone basking in my ability to withstand whatever comes my way. I’ve found I enjoy my alone times more than the company of noisy people who want to bend me their way. I’m no longer as pliable. The fruitfulness of it all is that I’ve been introduced to me. I’ve begun to know myself as I never have. We, the caregivers know everyone else and their needs so much better than our own. I’m glad I got here before this journey was over.

    • Marlene, I think that is true for so many of us. I was surprised to read recently where Mary Oliver said that she had “come into her own” (or something like that), since the death of her beloved partner of many, many years. She was in her 70’s at the time of bereavement, I think, so that’s pretty far along in life to be discovering new things about oneself, but it gave me some encouragement to read of her finding new life despite the sorrow. I think few of us have regrets about building our lives around our families, but perhaps there is a special gift in the belated realization of how much of ourselves we had set aside in the cacophony of everyone else’s needs. Thanks for being my fellow-traveler on this sometimes lonely but always engaging journey!

  13. LB

    Hello Julia. I’m back from an amazing trip to the Southern Hemisphere, and making some blog visits, We thought of you often while in NZ and wished you could have been with us.
    This post is full even if not overly long.
    The photo comparison is indeed striking, and the result of your plantings is stunning!
    As one of your other commenters noted, you have such a way of sharing your feelings honestly without ever seeming to complain. I will hope and hope and hope that the loneliness eases!
    Finally – Jan Karon! Wow! That is so neat that you heard from her personally.
    She, I know for sure, is fortunate to have you in her wide circle.
    Love to you, my friend

    • Hi LB! I’m glad you made it back safe and sound, full of happy memories. Yes, it would have been great if I could have been there, but there was no way it could have happened this year. However, maybe someday. Thanks so much for sending your encouragement and good wishes! It means a lot. I appreciate your kind words about the blog, and I’m always so happy to see you here. Hope you are enjoying a gorgeous Blue Ridge springtime. ❤

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