Word of the year 2017

In early December, it grew bitterly cold in Arkansas. I stoked the wood stove full day in and day out, wore my fuzziest pajama pants, and only went outside to feed and water the chickens, pups, and cats. The icy wind tunneled through Duncan Hollow, determined to freeze the fresh water I’d poured for the animals the moment I poured it.

Sometimes the weather matches my mood. It did then. My father-in-law died the first week of December. A few days later, every leaf clinging stubbornly to the tall oak trees in our woods fell silently. In my grief, I didn’t even notice them falling. One morning as I drank my coffee, I glanced out the glass door in my office, overlooking the trails where the old barn used to be. A week earlier, some of the trees held onto their crunchy brown jackets in stubborn refusal to let go of autumn. That morning, I was met by bleak winter.

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Gulin, China–One of the images I focused on 

During that cold, bitter time, God came to me through images of smooth lakes, calm water, and iridescent moonlit walks I took when I lived at my old house. He came to me through a specific song I’d long forgotten but dearly loved, a soothing song I listened to repeatedly when I first loved it and listened to again this December while meditating. I pictured my father-in-law beckoning me to follow him to a still, quiet, joyful place when I felt overwhelmed by grief. Christ came to me through a story of a group of very manly men who were scared to death by a storm, so scared they couldn’t help but wake up their Leader and ask Him for help in the middle of the night. Christ spoke to me by sharing a specific word with me which, for two months, I thought was my focus word for 2017, a word which tied all these things loosely together.

But I never felt solid about writing about this word or sharing specific details about these things on my blog. So I didn’t. I’ve grown to write less and less for my personal blog, partly out of necessity for lack of time, and partly because what matters most to me is deeply personal, so personal and spiritual I’m unwilling to splay it online unless I feel compelled.

I also hesitated to land on that word because its meaning, for me, denoted a lack of color and life. And while I knew I’d needed that word desperately during December and January, while grieving deeply and walking in quiet, solitary pain, I was ready for more.

Last weekend, I walked a labyrinth with my friends at a spiritual retreat and let my feet fall into rhythm, purposely following an earthen path countless others have trod in an effort to find 30 minutes of peace. Afterward, I chatted with two ladies while the afternoon sun warmed our faces on the way back to the lodge. One of them shared with me about the growth of her small business. This peaked my interest since I opened my own business less than one year ago. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but she shared something about one of her associates mentioning that it was important to let things happen. I wish I could remember the exact words; maybe I’m not supposed to, and maybe those words don’t matter.

What matters is in that moment, God gave me my focus for this year.

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Ozark National Forest

I walked to the creek running beneath the bridge we crossed to return to the lodge and looked down. The water shone. Several bright yellow leaves lay in the water below.  Some of the leaves seemed still, and others moved at varying speeds in the water below, some in the current and others on the outskirts. Those leaves were not concerned with the temperature, the wind, the light, or the people around them. They weren’t concerned with the other objects in the water, not even logs or wild animals, because the water was powerful enough to maneuver the leaves around objects, even if it took a little time. They were simply being carried by the water, and they kept moving wherever the water carried them.

I am a leaf. He is the Water.

 

 

2016 gift list

If I had a dollar for every cynical, ungrateful, and whiny social media post I’ve seen about 2016, I’d be covered in cashmere (and feeling fabulous). I’m baffled by the overwhelming negativity. Sure, things often don’t go our way. But what’s new? As Frank Sinatra crooned, “that’s life,” champ.

I’m quite certain that with the exception of a few people in dire circumstances, most of us are surrounded by beautiful people who love us and have all our needs met (and then some). A little gratitude goes a long way, baby.

Each year I create a gift list as I reflect on how God–and the world, the people in my life, and my circumstances–have given to me generously in various ways over the course of the year. Here’s my list for 2016.

 

1. I learned to take better care of myself.

While answering reflective questions earlier this year, I was asked, “Who modeled self-love for you as a child/teenager?” I felt stunned. What is this self-love you speak of? Really. I didn’t even know where to begin. I couldn’t think of one single scenario which might serve as an example of “self-love.”

Obviously, self and I had our work cut out for us in 2016. We forged ahead. Nine years ago when I began on my journey in recovery, I knew taking care of my own needs wasn’t my strong suit. I didn’t understand the depth of my deficit until this year. Thankfully my mentor helped me find ways to grow and learn to develop not just a better awareness of the problem but to practically improve, too.

556271_541819897282_1739318553_nI implemented nap time at home, which we call “rest time” because Maggie melts down at the word “nap.” For 20 minutes each afternoon, I relax in my own bed and read or close my eyes. I started spending time by myself in the morning, even on mornings when I don’t wake up before Maggie. I simply get her going and then tell her I need a few minutes to read in my special blue chair in the office. It’s amazing that she actually respects my time to myself (kicking myself for not starting that sooner). I’m choosing to call my mentor or friends when I need to talk instead of bottling up my feelings. I began taking better care of my back and neck. And I eat an orange every day.

I’m sure I’ll continue to take better care of myself next year; progress, not perfection, is my goal. That’s another way I’m taking care of myself today.

2. I stopped holding my breath.

In early 2016, I decided to break down and pursue help with my back pain from a local chiropractor who is also a friend. Chiropractic care wasn’t painful or harmful to me. It provided some temporary relief, and the staff in the clinic are fabulous, fun, professional people. It just didn’t turn out to be the magic solution I’d hoped for. However, as I told the chiropractor in my exit interview after my plan of care ended, what I learned through the process was probably more beneficial to me than anything I could have gained in terms of medical progress. I’m not sure if that’s what he wanted to hear as a medical practitioner, but you know me; I cannot withhold my truth.

The best thing I gained was something I hated at the beginning—three 10 or 15-minute timed intervals during each visit (on machines or on tables) which required me to be absolutely still (well, for the most part). While whining to my mentor about this, she suggested I focus on my breathing during this time. What I noticed during the very next visit is that I wasn’t breathing at all; I was holding my breath almost the entire time and tensing my entire body, almost lifting my body up away from the machine or board. I don’t know if I did that because I was in pain or because I carry so much stress constantly. That epiphany brought me to tears.

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Since then, I’ve worked on awareness of my breath and on breathing exercises. I still find leaning forward when I don’t have to, lifting my entire torso off the bed for no reason at all, or tensing other parts of my body for unknown reasons. I never knew how much my body reflects my state of mind until this year.

3. I invested more in what matters and less in what doesn’t.

In keeping with my own blog’s theme, I pull back when I recognize I’ve sunk time, energy, or money into irrelevant, unkind, toxic, or useless projects, people, or organizations. I also do the positive opposite—I pour energy, time, and resources into people, projects, and organizations I deem worthy, ethical, fulfilling, loving, and satisfying.

This year I pulled back from many things I discerned were interrupting my ability to live life in the most fulfilling way possible.

I noticed my babysitter was taking the most adorable pictures of Maggie during the day…. Pictures of her hiding behind a tree while armadillo hunting, finger painting at the table, or swinging with her eyes closed and hair whipping in the wind. I loved and treasured those photos. But I wanted to be present in her life. So I made that happen. I quit working full-time and started taking the pictures myself.

I started my own business and began applying everything I’d learned over the years about careers, the workforce, teaching, consulting, advising, and helping others. When people ask how it’s going, I usually smile because my definition of “success” has changed wildly. I have certainly not produced lots of income this year, but I still feel successful. I’ve stopped living my life by other people’s standards and determining success by others’ definitions–that’s freeing, I tell ya. I’ve forged a path, narrowed my focus, formed partnerships, and helped many people do more of what they love. And I love that.

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I’ve also invested more time in relationships I was neglecting. As a mom, I often find myself short-changing friends. I reconnected with several old friends and forged friendships with people I’d noticed but never made time to connect with, too. Even if I can’t meet up with every woman I know once a month over muffins, I know I’ve done better this year than last year.

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4. I trusted God with outcomes.

Many events and circumstances in 2016 didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped or planned. Before you skip this paragraph and roll your eyes, thinking I’m going to whine about how things didn’t go my way, slow your roll. Keep reading. That’s not what this is about.

This year was my year of joy; joy was my chosen word of the year. I expected to focus on finding and focusing on joy throughout the year. I didn’t expect it to be so difficult, honestly. What I discovered is that I couldn’t produce more joy in my life simply by focusing on it, by pinning quotes, by refusing to look back at sad memories or grief, or by being more grateful or positive. That just wasn’t cutting it this year. A few months into the year I learned if I wanted to find joy, I had to pursue it with no less determination than Frodo’s grim commitment to destroy The Ring.

Part of “accepting my life as it is” this year meant accepting my absolute lack of control over outcomes. I tried to make the best of a job with a company I loved, but it wasn’t for me even though I’d had my heart and mind set on it working out. I then thought I was meant to return to teaching. I applied for my former position, which hadn’t been filled yet, at a local community college. I wasn’t even interviewed for the position. I was crushed. After talking to my mentor and a few colleagues, I realized it was the perfect time to start my own career coaching business so I did. Starting a business while staying home with my daughter has been slow going, but it’s going.

And making the decision to stay home with Maggie while starting my business and teaching part-time has been a huge financial adjustment and lifestyle change. But I’m ultimately happy rolling with the punches because I watch the sunrise in my own office every morning while my daughter sleeps. I make her breakfast without rushing off to work. I take her to story hour at the library every week myself and clumsily glue tiny objects to construction paper right along with her. I’m living life with her rather than paying someone else to live life with her.

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This year I finally not only stopped trying to play God and manage outcomes, but I also simply stopped thinking about outcomes. I can’t explain why this happened except I know this: I have learned to practice trusting God by placing people and things and situations in God’s hands. The more I place what I love in God’s hands and watch Him work magic, the more likely I am to give Him what I love next time around.

5. I loved.  And I gained.

In 2015, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death with my friend Tara as her father went on to that High Resting Place. I watched him suffocate slowly in his last days from mesothelioma which he acquired from asbestos exposure, having never smoked a single cigarette. I felt very bitter about his death. God and I had some words over that one.

I didn’t know God was teaching me how to let go of great men like Jerry throughout 2016; Tara is one of my closest friends, and we talked about her dad, her family’s experience with grief, and her own grief almost every week.

When my favorite dad left this world and joined Jerry on December 2, I knew how to grieve a father.

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Big Jim (what I called my father-in-law) and I had what I like to believe was a unique bond and special relationship. We talked about some quirky and interesting things. Sometimes I liked talking to him about pretty deep subject matter but only when it was just the two of us. I don’t really want to write about details because I’d rather keep them between the two of us.

Big Jim kept his God thoughts pretty quiet. When we were spending time one-on-one, I asked him what he thought about spiritual things. Instead of giving me direct answers, he told me stories, kind of like that great Carpenter and Fisherman we all know and love… stories about Vietnam or growing up poor with lots of kids or football. It didn’t take many stories for me to figure out we were on the same page about what matters. This is one reason I had no questions or feelings of anxiety about his departure from this world when he died a month ago.

When great people die, we tend to feel a hole.

My life was better with Big Jim as a daily, living part of it. That’s obvious. In that sense, I’ve certainly lost out. We all have.

But one of the greatest gifts he gave me–and this is just one of many ways I gained by loving him–is a rugged determination to look on the bright side, find the funny, and to live my life in today. I already valued those principles before I met him, but that man lived that way with such ease—but who knows, maybe so doggedly he made it look easy?—that I want to live that way, too. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Living

On our last day, I knew something was askew with you. You were quieter. You didn’t tell as many jokes and stories. You didn’t make eye contact as often. You didn’t even wrestle the kids.

I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Maybe you felt left out of our chitchat. Maybe you had more trouble hearing. Maybe your blood pressure was off. But something wasn’t the same, and I sensed it.

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With my best dad

Other parts of our last day were perfect.

 

We drank a glass of red wine together. We always did that. You commented on your failure to perfect the gravy’s consistency, and I insisted it was perfect already. I always insisted your cooking was great (it was). I scooped up a huge spoonful of succotash and claimed I loved it. I didn’t. But you made it, and you loved making it, and I loved you.

Our last day was the day after Thanksgiving, but it was our celebration of the holiday. For me, lover of gratitude and all things gushy inside, what greater gift than for our last day together to be a day of giving thanks?

I carried my coffee outside. I couldn’t stop yawning; it’s easy to relax at your house. The two of us were observers during the family baseball game, sitting on the sidelines, cheering for the kids and heckling the grown-ups. When the boys argued over taking turns at bat, and my little Maggie became distraught, you distracted her by inviting her to sit on the porch swing. You always had a way of making peace in a tense situation without sticking your nose where it didn’t belong, smoothing out hurt feelings like a delicate linen dress, nice and slow.

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In our woods, 2011

While you sat on the porch swing, rocking gently in the shadows of the late autumn sun, I regretted forgetting my camera, knowing my smartphone would never capture movement and light and real moments. I watched you whisper to Maggie, wondering what you were saying, so lucky to have a grandpa like you, something I never had.

 

When I left, I leaned in close so you could hear me, and said, “Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you. I love you.”

I didn’t take any pictures of our last day together.

But we lived it, the same way you lived 69 years of your life, dodging bullets in Vietnam, driving your truck home down dark highways to make ends meet, crooning radio tunes in your bride’s ear with your big hands around her waist, casting bait into the White River, tossing your little girl up in the air and smoothing her long brown hair at bedtime, heaving two shotguns over your strong shoulder before your son could carry his own up the long hill when you taught him to be a man.

Maggie has asked what you are doing in heaven. She asks if she can talk to you.

Of course she can, we tell her. We tell her she can talk to you any time she likes.

scan_20161204-2We tell her you are fishing with your new fishing reel and taking care of her two cats and baby white chicken. She loves seeing this in her mind before she drifts off to sleep.

Many people, when they pass on unexpectedly, might have regrets. I imagine you have none.

You lived.

Eating oranges

I wrote this for my gratitude blog and thought you all might appreciate it, too. Enjoy!

Daily dose of gratitude

When company’s coming, I normally tidy up the house hurriedly, clearing up clutter quickly. Everything must find its home–James’ smelly socks sitting in the middle of the mudroom floor, Maggie’s tiny pile of clean laundry atop the dining table outside her room, the four coffee cups on the kitchen counter. Even if I don’t have time to scrub each surface with bleach or mop the floor with wood oil soap, I can’t relax until the clutter isn’t visible and the dishes are loaded in the dishwasher.

12801343_605792375922_8706710045606079300_nAfter the mad dash through the house, I typically glance down at myself in horror and jump in the shower. Even if I don’t have time to apply makeup or shave my legs, bathing myself and brushing my teeth are essential.

This Sunday, after caring for a very sick little girl by myself for three days, I found myself staring at the clock in…

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Say yes

I wrote this for my gratitude blog, but it’s personal enough that I wanted to share it with all of you, too. Happy November!

Daily dose of gratitude

I found myself whispering, too, even though I wasn’t the one hiding in a closet while a drunken man beat on the door.

“Bridgett, it’s okay. You’ll be okay. You do not have to answer that door. DO NOT answer the door, okay?”

Bridgett cried snotty tears on the other end of the phone.

“But why won’t Tim just wake up? I don’t want to be here! I don’t want to be here!”

At fourteen years-old, I felt helpless to rescue the nine year-old little girl whose alcoholic stepfather had passed out on the couch. His friend knew she was inside the trailer and seemed determined to enter the home. I may not have been old enough to understand everything, but I knew enough to know something was sinister; when a child expresses that level of fear, reality lives in it.

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So I just talked to…

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I’d rather be wrong

Daily dose of gratitude

Recently, one of my friends reached out to me to inform me that she’d been viciously attacked by her boyfriend (now ex). She described the bruises, and she admitted she felt scared for her life.

“You were right about him.”

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In the pit of my gut, I winced.

There was a time when I reveled in being right… being right during factual debates, being right at work, being right regarding hot, controversial topics, and being right about you, your life, and your decisions. I thought I knew best for everyone and made sure they knew it.

Over the course of the past decade, I’ve hesitantly accepted that I don’t even know what’s best for myself. I’m rarely right. But for years, I lived in denial, made terrible choices which affected many people, and suffered. I’ve stopped playing God and have turned my will and my life over…

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Real miracles

I am sick.

I am plagued by a disease which alters the way I view the world—the disease of perception.

God has provided me countless opportunities to feel better, to become whole, to heal. And yet the disease still rears its ugly head from time to time.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

One of the symptoms of my disease is self-pity. I’m not talking about going through five minutes of feeling sorry for yourself because the restaurant screws up your order, or even the healthy sort of grieving you do when feeling sorry for yourself after a legitimate loss of a dream, a person, an animal, or an opportunity.

Since I have the disease of perception, when I get into self-pity, I get INTO self-pity. I have vivid memories of wallowing on my ex-boyfriend’s deck in a quilt and bawling my eyes out because he admitted that he didn’t have the same overwhelming feelings for me that I had for him. A little over the top, eh? I remember writing sad poetry for hours while listening to “My Friends” on repeat by Red Hot Chili Peppers. I recall lying on my green couch during a tumultuous time in my first marriage, with a small knife and a bottle of painkillers hidden beneath the pillow, planning a route to end my own inner turmoil.

Do you get the picture? I didn’t just FEEL self-pity. I LIVED it.

Behaving this way today isn’t an option for me, but at the time, it was the only way I knew to soothe my sick soul. I did the best I could at the time with what I had.

Since I began working to take actions against my feelings, my perception has gradually changed. Most days, I don’t feel sorry for myself, reflect on my worst moments in life, or relive sad memories like a sick Siren. When I do slip into self-pity, the fastest way out is to get into gratitude. One way I do this is by recalling miracles.

I’ve heard that a miracle is simply a change in perception.

This morning during reading and reflection time with God, self-pity crept in. I found myself feeling guilty about poor choices I’d made, remembering losses I’ve endured, and missing people who are no longer in touch.

The difference between how I cope with moments like this now versus a decade ago is my response to self-pity. I’m more likely to recognize it when it hits, and I quickly do something different.

I began reflecting on instances in my past when I’ve experienced a change in perception.

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Hamming it up with my little red car

There was a time when I was filing bankruptcy while working two jobs. I was actually earning more than I’d ever earned in my life, but the debt I’d accrued from living above my means for so long smothered me. I was driving a flashy red car with three year-old tires. When I had my oil changed, the technician asked me to sign a document admitting that he’d advised me to change the tires because he didn’t want to be held accountable if I wrecked due to their poor condition. I signed the document because I just didn’t have the funds to replace the tires, so I kept driving to and from work (a 45-minute commute each way), squealing and sliding all the way.

My spiritual mentor encouraged me to pray and ask God to provide new tires. I did, but my prayers were flimsy.

One July afternoon, the owner of my company asked to borrow my car. I felt immediately ashamed because I knew my tires were about to shrivel or explode. I warned him about the tires, but I handed over the keys. His car was in the shop for the day, and he needed to run errands.

A few hours later, he handed me my keys and went upstairs to his office. A coworker asked if I’d seen my car. I felt a moment of panic, wondering if the owner had a fender bender and failed to tell me about it. I walked out to the parking lot and found my little red car atop four brand new tires, the best tires available for that make and model.

Tears.

I rushed back inside, up the stairs, and thanked the owner profusely while attempting to avoid wearing emotions on my face.

“There’s no way you could know this, but you have just been part of a miracle for me. Thank you.”

I’m not sure what he thought of my words, but his facial expression looked a little puzzled (and amused).

“Consider it a bonus. You’ve been working really hard.”

But I considered it a miracle, and I still do. God has repeatedly used people in my life (some of whom never know they’re being used) to reveal truth to me and to change my perception. And a miracle is just a change in perception.

Once in high school, while driving around late at night with a boy I loved, we diverted our course and decided to turn off the truck for an hour or so while talking, musing, and kissing—just two teenagers innocently loving each other in hands-free fashion. When my curfew neared, he turned the key to start the truck. Crickets. We both panicked.

But he stopped panicking, took my hands, and said, “Let’s pray about it.”

So we did. He tried to start it again. Still nothing.

We prayed again, and he said, “If it doesn’t start this time, I’ll have to find help.” It was cold and rainy, and walking to the nearest house didn’t sound enjoyable to me. We prayed again.

When he turned the key, it started. Magic. We ecstatically kissed.

This morning I remembered this moment. To me, it felt victorious. It felt genuine. And it felt beautiful to see someone I loved demonstrating faith in a crisis, stronger faith than I possessed. It changed my perception.

Remembering miracles—and expressing gratitude for them–IS a miracle for me; it changes my perception. When I see reality, I open my eyes anew, see my darling little girl wrapped up in a blanket watching Reading Rainbow, and hug my husband while we drink early morning coffee.

Embracing reality is the greatest miracle I’ve lived.