Monday, December 14, 2020

Home Sweet... Arkansas?!?!

“Sorry. Something is wrong with this card. Please contact your bank and try again later.”

As I read these words on the Airbnb website, panic gripped me.  We never carry a balance, so it was definitely not maxed out, and I had just used it to make my reservation the day before without problems. Here I was, trying to extend my stay, and this message appeared. It had to mean my credit card had been hacked.  

I was in the midst of traveling, trying to figure out where we were going to live next.  Where would I even get a replacement sent? Who had hacked it? I  took a shaky breath and prayed, dialing my bank’s number.

“There’s nothing wrong with the card,” the customer service representative told me a few minutes later. “The transaction should work.  I’ve even put a pre-approval on the charge.”

Feeling relieved, I went back and tried again. And again. And again. I called Airbnb, and when I finally got through to someone there, they insisted it was my bank.  I tried calling my bank again.  I tried my “emergency back-up” card and got the same message. Around and around we went, until finally at about midnight, I was so exhausted, I gave up.  I woke up feeling stressed at six, four hours before we were supposed to check out, and tried again.  Same message.

I suddenly had the thought, Maybe I’m supposed to leave...

I was at a small apartment in San Antonio at the time, after those couple days in Austin, where I had spent the past two days looking at houses all over the city.  My parents were on their way back to California after accompanying us on our drive eastward.  

Texas made a lot of sense.  Matt and I had talked for ages about where we would live post-Navy, and Texas — where they don’t tax military retirement, there’s lots of job opportunities for veterans, housing prices are pretty reasonable, and in San Antonio especially, there are lots of bases for medical care and commissary access — seemed like an excellent fit.  I don’t even know how many houses I’d looked at, trying to get a feel for the area. I’d seen a few I liked okay, but none that I felt compelled to move on. The realtor was supposed to show me houses in Boerne the next day, so I’d made arrangements with the Airbnb owner to extend my stay.  But this apparent glitch was impassable. Finding a decently-rated pet-friendly hotel that didn’t cost a fortune was not going well either, and after our horrible first night of travel I didn’t want to stay somewhere I felt truly unsafe again.

With this thought that maybe God was pointing me elsewhere, I messaged my friend Erica.  She and her husband had been good friends of ours in Busan, and we’d had a long phone conversation a couple months earlier about what it’s like moving back to the States (particularly Texas) from Korea.  She had said to let her know when we got to Texas and come stay with them, and I’d planned to, but had also planned to give her a little more warning!  Instead, I said something like, “Hey, you know how you invited us? Is today okay???”  (Insert face-palm emoji).  As we were scrambling to get out the door that morning by our 10 am checkout, I couldn’t have felt more messy and chaotic.  We were like a traveling circus, complete with dancing dogs.

Fortunately, these are some of the best people in the world.  They welcomed us warmly with hugs and gave us an incredibly comfortable place to stay.  I didn’t realize how tense I’d been at the Airbnb until that night when I fell into the super comfy bed and slept like a rock.  We spent almost two weeks there, and I mean this honestly: it was a taste of heaven.  We had the best talks about life and faith and struggles, we laughed and cried, we sang worship songs, and the kids all played hard together every, from sun-up to sundown.

They live on a 5-acre farm where there are chickens and bunnies, 

and Erica has a huge vegetable garden.  I’ve always wanted to be a good gardener (there’s a difference between wanting to be one and actually being one, but hey, I’m working on it), so I worked beside her and think/ hope I learned a few things.   For one thing, I learned when you’re at a point of not knowing where you’re going next or what you’re going to do, gardening and manual labor is the most therapeutic thing you can do!  The kids loved helping take care of the animals and doing “farm chores,” having good friends to play with, and the whole time was incredibly precious to all of us.

We also looked at several houses in that area (Georgetown, Round Rock, etc), and it was there that Matt finally joined us.  But as wonderful as it all was, we still just felt that we shouldn’t move on anything yet.  Matt’s sister had moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, seven years ago and loved it.  His mom moved there from California  in March of this year after several visits during which time she had fallen in love with the area.  Matt and I wanted to visit her and catch up, so we said, “We have some time and don’t need to rush into a decision.  Let’s go spend some time with Mom.”  

My first morning in Arkansas, I went for a long walk in my mother-in-law’s neighborhood thinking about everything that had happened and what we were doing.  It was my first time really being alone in ages.  The sun shone brightly that day, and there were hills and trees everywhere and such clean air — something I do not take for granted at all after four years in Korea where the air is usually very polluted. I had such a mix of emotions.  I really wanted Texas to work out, I wanted to be able to live near our friends, but I also felt unsettled. It was what made a lot of sense, but for some reason my heart was drawing me to something else. 

Matt had asked me so many times, “Where do you want to live?”  I couldn’t tell him exactly, but I had these images in my mind that I tried to articulate and make sense of.  We both wanted to be somewhere that had a reasonable cost of living. I wanted lots of hiking or biking trails available as those activities, I believe, are some of the things that kept me hanging onto my sanity by however thin a thread during the intense lockdown we went through last spring.  Even though we lived near the ocean for almost all of Matt’s career, being able to walk and get outside was more critical to me than access to the beach.  

Also, I know I’ve complained a lot about winter at times, but living in Korea, where there were four distinct seasons, I knew that was something I wanted.  As much as I may hate being cold, there are good things about it.  After a childhood in the tropics, watching the world around me bed down for winter and then come back to life in the spring is a miracle that blows my mind every year.  

When I pictured our life post-Navy, I thought of somewhere kind of like Nashville and kind of like Austin, a town with a definite culture and individuality to it, not just a bland collection of subdivisions and strip malls, the kind of place that had a charming downtown and an identity of its own.  I definitely wanted plenty of trees around.  I wanted relatively low crime after having lived in places in extremely scary places, as well as super safe Korea. 

I considered all this that first day in Arkansas as I walked and walked, listening to music and praying.  I had no idea how we were going to get to where we wanted, or even where that was, or even that it existed.  I felt pretty lost and uncertain.

A couple days later, my mother-in-law suggested that we drive to Fayetteville as there was a college there Skyler might be interested in, and we’d looked at several colleges on our journey eastward. “It’s also a really cute town,” she added.

In the spirit of “why not?”, we all hopped in the car for the hour drive northward.  The drive up through the wooded hills on I-49 was breathtaking.  We wound through valleys with beautiful farms and rocky streams, and small towns dotted the hillsides.  Our directions took us straight into the heart of downtown Fayetteville, and we were immediately enchanted.  It was like the setting of a Hallmark movie.  The wooded hills were just beginning to show fall color, and there was a charming downtown.  The college campus was beautiful too.  

We found we couldn’t stay away.  A few days later, we decided to go back and check it out some more.  

My mother-in-law had a magazine that described the Razorback Greenway, a system of biking and hiking trails that course through the city and up to Bentonville.  We saw how beautiful the trail was, passing along crystal clear creeks and shaded by trees. We actually started looking at houses (again, “Why not?”), and found a fixer-upper that we put in a low-ball offer on (it needed a TON of work).  That offer was rejected, but we were hooked.  This was exactly the kind of place I had been picturing.  To our surprise, we learned that it drew comparisons from people who knew about it to both Nashville and Austin, but it also has its own “funky Fayetteville” vibe.  And when I pointed out things that were “wrong” with Fayetteville — for instance, the lack of military bases and support they would provide — Matt disagreed. He loved it too.

Meanwhile, we were falling more and more in love with all of northwest Arkansas.  Every time we went out for a drive or a hike, we found ourselves ever more enchanted by the forests, the rocky streams, the lakes, and the quaint towns.  How could such a beautiful place exist but not have thousands of people crawling all over it???

It felt a little like we’d stumbled upon buried treasure.  Did others not know? Was there something terrible we just weren’t seeing?  Then, quite by accident, Skyler came across an article that listed Fayetteville as one of the top five places to live in the United States. Maybe we weren’t so crazy!
After a couple more days of intense house hunting, we narrowed it down to two choices.  Since we thought we liked them equally, we decided to put an offer on one, then if it was rejected, offer something on the other.  

Our first offer was accepted, and we were elated.  The only thing was, the sellers had a contingency offer on another house, but they didn’t anticipate it being an issue.  It looked like a done deal.  They’d get back to us the next day.  We went to bed happy. At last we’d have a home.

But after just a few hours of sleep, I woke up absolutely panicked.  My heart was racing, and I lay in bed, wide awake, for hours.  Something was wrong with that house, and even though I could think of many things that seemed great, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we shouldn’t go through with the purchase.  I lay there praying the hours away, begging God that if at all possible, He would get us out of the deal, and if not, He would give me peace about it.  I knew that sometimes when I’m doing something stressful, I get panicky and anxious, but this seemed more than that, especially when I finally dozed off and woke up feeling just as panicked.  Usually the morning light has a way of brightening up anything that seemed particularly awful at 3 am.

I texted my parents in the morning, pouring my heart out, trying to make sense of my anxiety. I had just hit “send” when my phone rang, and it was the realtor.  The house that the sellers were trying to buy had accepted another offer, and they didn’t want to sell without another place secured, so we were no longer held to the deal.  Mind you, I had not said anything to the realtor about my misgivings, this “just happened.”  I suddenly felt like I could breathe again.  

My mom called me a little later and told me that she, too, had been awake for hours, feeling deeply burdened to pray.  I had also texted my “soul sister” in California whom I’d kept informed during the whole journey, and when she wrote back, she said, “That’s so weird, I was awake for hours last night praying for you.  I felt this weird heaviness about that house.”  By this point, I had goosebumps on my arms.  My mother-in-law came in after getting up later than usual, saying she hadn’t slept well.  We filled her in on what had happened and she told me that the reason she hadn’t slept was that she had also been awake for hours praying for us.  

We hit pause for a couple days, and did some research, prayer, and thinking.  Finally, we decided to put in an offer on the other house, a sort of “putting the fleece out” bid.  It was accepted!  Matt and I had actually loved this house more but had initially thought the other house, with its finished basement, would be good for the kids or guests.  This house was almost exactly the same size and had a huge, beautiful yard, plenty of space, and was in a lovely neighborhood. We were all so excited.

Fast forward several weeks, and we signed the papers and walked into our new home in Fayetteville!  The kids ran through it, exploring every corner, exclaiming with excitement, then ran outside to explore the garden.  I was taking a video to send to our family in California when Skyler came in and said that our new neighbors were outside meeting the kids.  I’d been worried about how we’d meet neighbors.  Other times I’ve moved it’s been literally months before I met the neighbors, and that wasn’t even in 2020.  

I went out to say hi, and the very first words they said to me were, “We’re so excited to meet you!  We’ve been praying for whoever would buy this house!”  As we talked more (for at least an hour), I shared a little of what we had been through, and they told me with certainty in their voices, “This is where you belong.  God was saving the house for you.”

I’ll let you guess if I cried!

So we have house (!!!), but there are many questions still.  This has been one of our biggest leaps of faith, truth be told, and as hard as it is some days to trust, I have hope that there is a plan here that I’m getting tiny glimpses of.  As I have taken this time to reflect on all that happened over the past several months and how we got to where we are, I can see God’s hand guiding, protecting, and providing the whole way.  I’ve felt overwhelmed by the kindness of people who were truly acting in love. 

The day we traveled from Korea to California, Skyler said something that really stayed with me.  That day had been the cause of much stress and probably several new gray hairs.  But it blew me away to see how people ended up being so kind, from construction workers in the Seattle airport who helped us with our dogs during our layover, to the Delta employee who waived our pet fees for the second flight, and so much more.  At the end of the day, Sky said, “You know, every stressful moment of today ended up being an opportunity for us to witness someone’s kindness and God’s goodness.”  

May that be the theme of my life, both in what I see and how I act toward others.