At the Intersection of Important Events: Love and Breath in 76 Seconds

The Butterfly Effect

I don’t believe things happen for a predetermined reason, but I do believe there are Intersections of Important Events that, when noticed and acted upon, can create an extraordinary life. The more you pay attention, the more you see the that everything is connected somehow. It’s a little like The Butterfly Effect— that part of Chaos Theory that says a single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe forever.  My expat love story was born this way, through a series of insignificant moments.

the Lorenz attractor

There’s this simple breathing technique called the 4-7-8 technique. You place the tip of your tongue on the ridge behind your two front teeth and follow these steps:

  • Breathe in for four counts
  • Hold for seven
  • Release slowly, through pursed lips for eight
  • Repeat three more times
  • Enjoy the wave of calm that flows through your body

It is the space between the undertow of the wave, the swell, and the crash on the shore: the breath filling the belly, then the rib-cage, then the chest, and finally it is expelled with an exhilarating rush. It takes about 76 seconds.

In just over a minute, you can:

  • change your perspective
  • make a decision
  • lower your heart rate
  • control your own stress response
  • change the way you experience pain
  • prevent something from happening
  • be absolutely present, and
  • fall in love

Should I Stay or Should I Go

Whenever I am out and about and someone hears me speaking English with my son, I am inevitably asked where we’re from. I explain that we live nearby and that my son was born and raised here. Local people are perplexed; “WHY Bolzano?!  HOW??”  It is a bit off the beaten track for native English speakers. The only answer they will accept without question is, “for love, of course.

We met in the stale and sterile TV lounge at Reed Hall, the 1950’s dormitory for international and nursing students, and child life interns. This 12 story blockhouse towered directly across the street from the original, late 19th century, brick dome that was the nucleus of the historic Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

The original Johns Hopkins Hospital

It was 1999 and I’d just left my case manager job at a technical high school in my home town, where I’d worked for the previous five years. After the usual post-college gallivanting, I think my parents thought I was finally “home” to stay, to settle.  My friends were getting married, finishing master’s degrees, starting to have kids, or Happy Hour hopping through the downtown bar scene.  I loved my single, young professional life there, but somewhere between my sternum and my belly button, I felt a pull and couldn’t settle in all the way.

I was at Elle Luna’s Crossroads of Should and Must.  “I should stay and wait for a good, stable, school counseling position to open,” I heard Fear say.  “I should keep trying to find a stable, sober guy and build an OlyTown life. It’s good here. I belong here.”  But my Must was calling–it was that thing I couldn’t stop thinking about, that thing no compromise could satisfy.  So, I packed up my belongings, locked them all in the garage of my family’s rental, and left for what I thought would be a summer.  That was 19 years ago.

A close friend from Olympia who was working as a speech writer in Washington DC met me at the airport in Baltimore with the boxes I’d sent to his apartment.  His being only an hour away from my summer internship was a comforting, familiar safety net as I entered an entire World of New.

Reed Hall

He helped me carry my microwave, boxes of books, and suitcases of clothes up to my ninth floor dorm room at Reed Hall. At the time, it seemed like an ordinary gesture. A good friend lending a hand.

But throughout the years to come, Dave quietly bore witness to the most profound aspects of my transition between who I was and where I came from and who I am still becoming every day as a parent, partner, and expat. This story is not about him, but I mention him to point out the significance of a having a witness to our transformation, a person to say, “I was there.  I remember when…” Tears come from deep in my chest as I write this. For those of us who have moved around, it is a rare and precious experience to have someone know us before, after, and through it all.

As globally mobile people, it becomes easy to shed our layers of identity across continents and oceans which sometimes means we forget pieces of our own stories. This adaptive ability to begin again or reinvent ourselves is both our blessing and our curse because sometimes the parts we shed might include the keys to our future happiness.

Making Friends with My Fear

I’m pretty sure my fascination with the brain began when I was seven and my friend died from a “blood clot to the brain.” From that point forward, I feared the apparent fragility of that omnipotent organ nestled inside our skulls. I remembered being horrified by a Saturday afternoon showing of  Brian’s Song, an old movie staring James Caan about a football player dying from a brain tumor. I can still see the thick, white bandages wrapped around his head.  I was sure, growing up, that every pain in my head meant something tragic was about to happen.

But, I managed to live through highschool where, in biology, we dissected fetal pigs. Those who removed the brain intact, received extra credit. I still have an old matte photo of a tiny perfect brain cradled in my 15-year-old hand. Ten years later, as a grad student and educator, I read everything I could on the brain research that was emerging connecting neurochemistry, learning, and classroom behavior.

It only made sense that, for my child life internship research project, I chose the causes and treatments of brain injury. I was in the middle of my pre and post pediatric surgery rotation where a high profile pediatric neurosurgeon would soon perform another hemispherectomy, removing half the brain of a 15-year-old girl suffering from the debilitating Rasmussen’s Syndrome.

Being surrounded by courageous risk-taking and genius problem-solving left me deep in my happy place.  I was living my Must.  Enveloped in the energy of intreptitude, both from medical personnel and patients, and inspired by the way humans jumped into the unknown together, bound by trust and hope. It made me feel energized and close to the life force.

Intersection I: August 1999 and Love

Child Life + Neuroscience

Elle Luna says that we all come to an intersection of should and must at different points in our lives.  It’s the place where you can do what you’ve always done and get what you’ve always got (should), or do the thing for which you long and dream of, the thing that inspires and drives your true essence (must).  But what happens when you come the crossroads of two musts: a person and a purpose??  This is where a love story can get dicey.

Dressed in holey Levi’s and an old Armani Exchange t-shirt with a giant screw on it (a gift from my months as an Upper East Side nanny in NYC), I lay belly-down on the stained and smelly, seventies-style dorm couch taking notes.  It was Friday afternoon and I had the room to myself.  My VHS tape, entitled “Pieces of Mind” had finally arrived. Narrated by beloved Alan Alda, star of the long-running TV series M.A.S.H, this Scientific American Frontier episode covered the remarkable account of “The Man with Two Brains” in which a man suffering from severe epilepsy agreed to have a corpus callosotomy, the surgical severing of his corpus collosum. After the surgery, the hemispheres of his brain operated independently and were unable to communicate with one another, thus preventing the seizures and giving him a unique set of powers (you must watch it yourself to see what I mean!).

I was deep in a surgery-geek moment when Dimitri, a shiny Greek neurology student, entered the scene. He was flirtatious, with mischievous, close-set green eyes that locked mine about three seconds too long for my comfort level. He wanted to go out tonight, he said, and wondered what plans my friends and I had.  In reality, he was pursuing a friend of mine and I was tired of rolling as third wheel.

“There has to be someone for me,” I said, plainly, “or, you can’t come out with us.”

Head On Collision

The intersection of Greece, Italy, and Johns Hopkins

“Here he is!” Dimitri announced like a game show host, gesturing toward the doorway of the common room.

It was his tennis partner: a well-coiffed, nearly 24 year old med student in gray slacks and a button down shirt passing by, on his way to the elevators. Dimitri motioned him in and asked my future husband if he wanted to join us that night.

“I’m Paolo,” and he stuck out his hand.  Shocked by such formality and still lying on my stomach with my elbows under me, I struggled to get myself upright to reciprocate.

“Paulo? Nice to meet you. Carolyn.”  I sat up and stuck out my hand.  He sat down next to me. His entire face smiled.

“Pow-ohl-lo” he repeated slowly, obviously experienced in the correction of his own name.

He asked me what I was working on. I told him about this neurosurgery and the presentation I was preparing for the following week. I explained the shift I had made from school counseling to child life in a hospital setting. 

He was interested and asked good questions.

“And you?” I asked casually. “What do you do here?”

“A clerkship,” he said, “in neurosurgery.”

Okay, I thought, that’s weird.

“Where are you from?” I continued on.

1985 sketch of my imagined apartment in Venice, Italy. I was a sophomore in high school.


“Ahh, cool. California. Venice Beach?  I’m from Washington!” pointing out our west coast connection.

“No, Venice, Italy.”

Overlooking the Venice Lagoon. When a mattress, a lamp, a plant, a chest of drawers and a view were enough.

What? He sounded American. He seemed American.  I didn’t really believe him, but figured I’d go along with it.

That night the four of us took a cab to Fell’s Point where hundreds of students from multiple universities and hospitals meet to pub crawl and burn off stress.  We started at The Horse You Came In On. There was a band.

I dance when there’s live music.  I can’t help it.  Used to being on the dance floor girlfriends while the guys hang around the bar, I headed to the dance floor by myself.  After a minute or two, I was thrown off guard as Paolo pushed to the center of the crowd, full body dancing.  In shock, I laughed.  He untangled me from my purse strap and danced with me.  He was ridiculously lovely.

Friday I’m In Love

Seventy six seconds, that’s four slow breaths with my head on his chest as we slow-danced to Friday I’m in Love. We were the last ones standing, barely moving on the dance floor in the back of Cooper’s Tavern that night.  I could hear my breath synchronize with his heartbeat. Inhaling slowly, holding it there, and sinking deeper on the exhale.  Grounded, centered, and ethereal all at once.

That night, he walked me to my dorm room door. We said goodnight.

“You know where to find me,” I said, having recently decided not to date anyone who wasn’t 100% enthusiastic to be in my presence.

Three minutes later there was a knock at the door.  I opened it and he was there. He leaned in and kissed me quickly on the lips, then turned and ran off into the stairwell.

One of our most memorable early dates was a late night brain tumor resection. We were student observers.

The brain was so perfect and beautiful,” I wrote in my journal that night. “I was just standing on my stool, peering over the surgeon’s shoulder, awe-struck.  It was nature’s most perfect work splayed out for us all to see. I felt like I was seeing something I shouldn’t. Something so private.”

We followed the cells into the pathology lab and the professor/surgeon from Padua explained what we were seeing under the microscope. “I was speechless and began wondering how I’d lost science in my life.” I wrote, “Was it the C+ in chemistry when I was 16?  I don’t know.  What I do know is I want it back.

Calling my mom at 2am after witnessing surgery for the first time

One month later, we said goodbye with a long, tearful embrace at a subway station in Washington DC. We’d known all along the romance could only be a summer thing. He still had another year of med school and I had no idea where I would land my first child life job.  We emailed each other for a month after that, and right after my child life certification exam in NYC, I boarded my first of many flights bound for the Venice Marco Polo airport.  We couldn’t stop. We didn’t want to.

And so began our four-year transatlantic courtship. Woven with anticipation throughout those years was the expectation that Paolo would land a medical residency in the US where we would build our future together with dual careers and a continued life of travel and adventure.

Intersection II: March 2001 and 2018

Child Life Week + FIGT + Interval Coaching

It’s no coincidence that I find myself reflecting on my lovepat journey in March.  It is both the month of the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference and  Child Life Month.  The irony that I entered the child life profession as a mono-cultural single professional, left it for love, and returned to it 10 years later as a cross-cultural, expat mom and member of FIGT gives me pause:  an Intersection of Important Events.

Pay attention!   When we find our Must, there is no stopping it. It will emerge again and again. I see that now. Once you realize what it is, the challenge is figuring out the how and the why without everything else falling apart.

In March of 2001, I was on the planning committee for the very first Child Life Week at Johns Hopkins.  At this point, I’d returned as a staff member in the pre/post surgical and adolescent units. We created a hospital-wide, interactive event to educate the healthcare community about the value of our work and the services we offered. Participants were given an identity with a name, age, diagnosis, and a few other pertinent details.  They experienced the child life process from assessment through intervention by moving through stations that included procedural preparation, medical play, deep breathing games, guided visualization and relaxation, therapeutic play, and self-expression activities.

Six months later, I stood in my colleague’s closet office in the basement of the children’s center, watching as both world trade towers fell, followed by the attack on the Pentagon, just 43 miles away.  The hospital readied itself to accept overflow from DC, but no one arrived. I was 31 that year: independent, adventurous and in love with two things: my work and this open-hearted, determined, young Italian doctor-man.  When the towers were hit, Paolo was in the middle of his US medical residency application process.  He’d passed all his boards with flying colors, his English seemed native; he was humble but confident. Still, out of 60 submitted applications, he was invited for only one interview.

The Crossroads of Must and Must

I know I don’t have to tell you that a love story isn’t comprised of a single chapter, nor do I have to impress upon you that fairy tales are misleading.  We know it’s not all about the wedding, the castle, the fireworks, or the honeymoon; just like becoming a parent is not all about pregnancy, a baby shower, or giving birth.  Some of us prepare for these events like they’re everything.  And they are everything when they’re happening.  They are rites of passage marking important shifts from one reality into another. But then what? What does it mean to move your life overseas for love?  Or to become a parent far from the familiar?  There’s so much beautifully complicated stuff that becomes the ‘ever after’ part of the story.  The part called “life”?  That’s the dicey part.

When everything he’d been working toward fell through in the US, the moment came when I felt like we had to choose. Which Must do we let go?  And if we our relationship stays, which one of us gives up our other Must (Purpose)?  I felt a sense of urgency after several years of living on different continents and couldn’t imagine going on with my professional life without Paolo as my partner.  The stretch for me to move abroad seemed manageable after he took a temporary job as a prison doctor in the UK.  I thought I could continue my psychosocial work with children and families there, once we settled in.  I visited Great Ormond Street Hospital and started researching the best places to live and work in the UK.  The sacrificing of one Must for the other seemed temporary, so I didn’t feel burdened by it.


A decade passed between that first Child Life Week in 2001 and my Rock Bottom.  The short version is we got married in Paolo’s home town by the parish priests he’d grown up with. There was a novel’s worth of family-related drama leading up to our wedding day, but we were still living in England and could maintain some distance. Paolo was treading water in the UK while he figured out where to do his neurosurgical residency.

In the end, for reasons I wouldn’t understand until many years later, he chose to return to Italy to complete it. At the time my understanding was that in five years, we would return to the UK.  Again, because I thought it was temporary, I was able to put my Must on the back burner. We drove from London to Verona, all my possessions still in a shipping container somewhere, and all he’d acquired during those two years abroad packed into his Citroen hatchback.

His dad found an unlisted apartment for us, through a friend, in the center of Verona and I enrolled in an intensive Italian course.  It was soon obvious that supporting us would be more important than learning the language.  My dad knew someone who knew someone who worked at the nearest US military base.  On my 34th birthday, I reinvented myself and joined the team of civilian employees supporting troops and their families living overseas.  Two years later, we bought our little country house in the hills and brought home two Basset Hounds, a wedding present from Paolo’s friends.

Six months before the completion of his medical residency, Paolo was offered a well-paid position at a hospital a couple hours away where he’d completed a six month rotation.  He hadn’t even begun applying for jobs abroad when the offer came in. It was familiar and in a beautiful, autonomous region of Italy known for it’s mountain wellness culture, winter resorts, unique history, and bi-culturalism.  The fact that it was bi-lingual was interesting, not problematic.

Assured there would be international opportunities in the future and feeling confident about the team, he accepted the job and found a studio apartment next to the hospital. I stayed in our house and continued working with Army Community Services. I was deeply involved in the community, especially with the theater, and spent much of my free time on-call for my job.  We were both working long hours, but met up for romantic weekends at our house in the hills.

After a year of living separately, it became clear that if we wanted a family, we’d need to see each other more often.  Again, I made the decision to leave my position and join him.  I had a thought-out transition plan for myself and hoped for the best. I hadn’t realized how isolating it would be without the logistical support we’d received throughout our married life in Italy. Add the extra language, a problematic Internet connection, a new baby on the way, some debilitating chronic pain, and voila: a perfect storm was headed our way.  You just don’t know what you don’t know.

Intersection III: October 2011 and February 2018

Rock Bottom + Vibrant Women’s Circle

I’m glancing at the Nikki McClure image on my vision board above my desk. Nikki McClure is an exceptionally talented paper cut artist in Olympia, Washington (I still love you, Oly). This mind-blowing piece of spectacular is a cut out of a spider web with the word ACCEPT carved next to it.

I tore this image out of a 2011 calendar of hers in preparation for last month’s women’s circle because it reminded me of the strength that comes with connection and synergy, when we act not only as singular silky strands, but as an indistinguishable part of Mother Nature’s perfection. Here’s the beautiful, creepy weirdness of it all; despite several years of cleaning out and letting go, I’ve held onto this outdated calendar for seven years.

As I write, I am realizing that October, 2011, that was the month I turned 41. I was home with my 20-month-old and the days were dark and long at the base of the northern Italian Alps. I was in the middle of a major existential crisis. I felt disconnected and resentful in my marriage, impatient and unskilled as a mother, and invisible as a person. I GRIEVED my career, financial independence, and sense of power and belonging. I QUESTIONED the choices and decisions that left me a dependent, isolated, ‘house wife’ in a foreign country where it seemed no part of my identity would survive within the context in which I was living.

October, 2011: ACCEPT

As I look back at the significance of this calendar page I placed in the center of our circle of globally mobile women, I realize it was the month I began my work with a transition coach.  It was the month I decided to move myself out of a state of stucktidude. Home alone in that house in the hills with my toddler for most of the summer, I’d found my coach during a tearful, late-night, Internet search. An expat herself, she specialized in transition dynamics and personal leadership. The synchronistic fact that she was based out of Seattle drew me in—someone who understood the two worlds I was stretched between.

I remember saying to her that first contact call, “I’ve lost a lot of weight from pushing the stroller up the mountain everyday; I need to buy new clothes, but when I go to the store, I don’t even know what I like.”  I remember wanting to wear jeans and plain t-shirts and being really disturbed by that because when I used to be me, I salivated and gorged myself on vintage anything, red lipstick and shoes, karaoke dive bars, bourbon cocktails, weekend brunches, theme parties, and sleeping in on weekends, but in this new context of stay-at-home-new-motherhood, those superficial passions all seemed to exist in a parallel, and no longer accessible, reality.  I remember looking at myself in the mirror and wondering if  I actually existed.

She helped me remember how to take care of and reconnect with myself, apart from my roles and titles. I listed all the endings and new beginnings I’d experienced recently. In addition to maintaining my daily stroller hill-walk, I examined and got in touch with my values. I created visual touchstones and a personal vision statement to help me focus.  I began a five minute mindful sitting practice.

At the end of those six months working together, I remember feeling like I could breathe again. The last task I completed with her was a vision statement for my future work.  “I work independently and in community. I use my passion, creativity, organization, and experience to motivate and inspire others.”  Nearly seven years later, I still use most of this vision as the general framework for my private practice.


It was recently brought to my attention that this coach of mine, who I’d come across randomly in 2011, was one of the original board members of FIGT, the organization that brought me to Naomi Hattaway, who brought me to this community,  I Am a Triangle. which has led to so many other wonderfully eerie connections.  The web continues beyond my vision, but I am standing at the Intersection of Important Events and I am paying attention.

When I revisit my expat love story with distance and eyes open, I see that love, like breath, like time, is not linear, but cyclical.  Where persistence, purpose, love, and breath converge, the story continues.  I am not convinced the adventure is over.  Having reconnected with both my Musts again, I feel a renewed emergence of creative energy. In my mind, we are still globally mobile and anything is possible in 76 Seconds.

Author: Carolyn Parse Rizzo

Carolyn is a Certified Child Life Specialist, Healthcare and Vitality/Core Energy™ Coach and trainer living in Northern Italy with her multi-cultural, bi-lingual family. Her private practice, Interval Coaching and Consulting, supports international patients, parents, and partners in building resilience through healthcare challenges and change. Prepare, Play, and Persevere! An expressive-arts enthusiast, Carolyn feeds her soul and builds grit by singing vintage tunes in local wineries with a 20 piece big band and practicing her Morning Walk up the foothills of the Alps. Carolyn’s definition of “home”? Home is where you feel like you!

Comments 1

  1. This is a lovely story, Carolyn. So much of it is so familiar. That breathing exercise you opened with is magical. Gonna practice it in the morning between waking up and getting up!

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