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Today marks 22 years since I was a 22-year-old leaving Switzerland after a six-month stint as an au pair. I have often called February 15 my Independence Day. 

As an uncertain, recent college graduate, I took a job as a nanny just outside of Geneva, Switzerland. It sounded adventurous, thrilling, and daring. I landed on September 11th, 2001, a disorienting start to a tumultuous journey.  

 Though I walked down cobblestoned streets and stared out at the French Alps daily, I also cried myself to sleep, homesick and lonely  in the basement of another family’s home. Though I had most weekends off and found a local au pair group to travel with, my weeks were filled with cooking, cleaning, and childcare, tasks that occupied my hands, but not my anxious mind. Though I had a room in a beautiful European city, it was inside the home of a family experiencing a painful divorce, dealing with emotions that I, as an outsider and young adult, was not equipped to navigate. Though I sipped good coffee in cafes where the waiters learned to welcome me despite my bad French, I would have done anything to be transported back to my Grandma’s old table, where I imagined her sitting to write the letters that arrived steadily from home, each a reminder of just how far away anything familiar felt.

It’s difficult to wrap my brain around the idea that the morning I packed my bags and left that house is now the halfway point in my life—I’ve lived as many years since then as I did before. Though each year has been 365 (or 366) days, the foundation set by those first 20-some years of my life stretch out a bit longer. As Robert Southey wrote, “Live as long as you may, the first twenty years are the longest half of your life. They appear so while they are passing; they seem to have been so when we look back on them; and they take up more room in our memory than all the years that succeed them.”

I was supposed to stay in Switzerland for one year, but negotiated that  I could leave behind that house and its responsibilities after six months. That moment when I wheeled out my suitcase to begin the trip home is still ingrained in my memory among the most joyful in my life. 

Last Sunday, as I listened to my pastor preach on Transfiguration Sunday, I thought back to my years growing up in the evangelical belly of West Michigan in the 90s: raised on felt-board Bible Stories, I was a child who measured her worth in Calvinette badges and Bible Trivia wins. Coming to age to the tune of DC Talk and in crowded auditoriums at Genesis Youth Conventions, I always assumed I’d meet God on the mountaintops.

What I quickly learned alone, uncertain, and questioning in Switzerland was that my faith became real in the valley. I became dependent on God, not by guilt, not by threat, not by expectation,  but by necessity. I breathed quiet prayers and read Psalms to lull me to sleep, not to fulfill my “good Christian girl” quota, but because I was desperate for comfort. 

When I think about my faith, I can’t help but see how in my early years the biblical characters were easily moved around, often manipulated into morality lessons. Yes, Jesus already loved me, but there were a lot of rewards for being a good kid who knew the right answers. 

In college, I changed from someone who stood boldly in the front row of the chapel to one who slipped quietly into the back, when I could work up that faith to attend.  The praise songs became harder to sing as I learned more, as I listened harder to the stories of those around me, as I encountered new perspectives. 

But in Switzerland, where my friend and I stumbled upon an English-speaking Anglican church, the God of the Bible became less about knowledge, understanding or correct answers, and more about need. I called out to God to quiet my mind, to help me sleep, to give me breath. I was not interested in debating. I was interested in strength to get through each day.

There are plenty of clichés to explain away or easily categorize this period of my life. The stage of life between adolescence and adulthood has been labeled “emerging adulthood,” a phase scientists have argued should be included in “models of human maturation” as  a period of “learning about intimacy and mutual support, intensification of pre-existing friendships, family-oriented socialization, and the attainment of those social skills that are needed for mating and reproduction” (Hochberg ZE, Konner M. NIH). 

One could argue, since I came home from Switzerland much more appreciative of my parents and eager to find a “real” job, and then also proceeded to meet my husband within the next few months, that this scientific hypothesis is true. But, more than that, I’ve come to realize that though each February I mark the 15th as my Swiss Independence Day, perhaps one of the greatest gifts  that intense span of life gave me was a healthy sense of dependence and a shedding away of the legalist ideologies that told me I had to act in a certain way or succeed enough to be loved.

 I arrived in Switzerland on September 11, 2001 certain I was about to assert my independence and come into my own,  but I came home in February 2002 more aware that I needed people, I needed community, I needed God. And more than that, aware that God’s love was already granted to me, without the need to prove or earn anything. 

So maybe this year, half a lifetime removed from that 22-year-old girl, I’ll invite you to celebrate—alongside of me—a very happy Dependence Day.

Header photo by Gabriel Garcia Marengo on Unsplash
Street scene photo by Wassim Chouak on Unsplash

Dana VanderLugt

Dana VanderLugt lives in West Michigan with her husband, three sons, and spoiled golden retriever. She has an MFA from Spalding University and works as a literacy consultant. Her novel, Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse, releases in September 2023.  Her work has also been published in Longridge Review, Ruminate, and Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith. She can be found at and on Twitter @danavanderlugt.


  • Nate DeWard says:

    Thank you, Dana. This moved me to think about the times when I’ve realized how important my community and family have been and are for me.

  • Thank you for this wonderful reflection. I think that many of us had similar experiences when we were young. Thank God for grace!

  • Ruth E. Stubbs says:

    Lovely, Dana. Thank you.
    About your Enemies book: I can relate. I was a little kid during that time, and POWs worked on my father’s farm. I love the book and recommend it to my friends. Ruth

  • Cherie Dehaan says:

    I think we can all relate to an event like this in our lives that pushed us to realize that our independence was a step in maturity in so many ways! Glad God was there for us during those times!

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Oh my cherished Dana, your courageous vulnerability and your open description of the inner monumental shift in your Christian faith were a stunning experience because of your ability to avoid reportage and make the words disappear into felt reality.
    Thank you.
    And if any of you would like to watch Dana’s remarkable conversation about her novel, email me at and I’ll send to you the link.

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