The best and worst of 2015

The truth is I’ve never read The Tale of Two Cities.

After spending 20 minutes scouring SparkNotes—yep, SparkNotes (the shame of it)—and reading quick online plot summaries and popular quote interpretations, I found myself sitting at my white handmade desk at 11:15 p.m. the night before Christmas Eve, tissuing away tears. It might have been the mention of the Christ-figure Carton and his martyrdom, or maybe it was Manette’s inability to tear himself away from making shoes even after being released from prison that got me choked up. I don’t know. But I decided to order a copy of the old classic and conquer it in 2016.

What drew me to the text in the first place was my recollection of the infamous opening paragraph and how well it reflects my sentiments regarding 2015.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . .

I won’t even begin to apply the quote to the universe or to philosophize about the state of the Union or the world at large, ISIS, global warming, technology and its effects on Generation Z (or the rest of us for that matter), or the countless other sociopolitical problems we face.

For today, I’ll stick to my own neck of the woods and my little life.

I wish I could not relate to the opening lines of The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I wish I considered these lines ridiculous and over the top. But I relate—I relate very well.

Each autumn, I attend a women’s conference that renews me spiritually. I participate in a group meditation that’s particularly meaningful to me and am handed a phrase which seems to always ring true in the coming year. Call it self-fulfilling prophecy, if you like, but I consider it a positive promise of sorts from God, or something hopeful to work toward or claim. In 2014, the phrase I was handed was “Blessings fill your life.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Indeed—blessings have filled my life this year. Some of them have overwhelmed me with their enormity. God has blown my expectations out of the water in many ways, redefined “miracle,” and allowed me to observe others’ miracles, too.

But this year also brought bone-crushing, soul-splitting grief. I lost several friends whom I dearly loved—and the means of loss were ugly, confusing, and left me with more questions than consolation. When I asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” I didn’t hear a pretty piano playing a sweet hymn in response. I heard nothing.

In those times, I tried to keep doing what worked for me spiritually—to daily maintain my spiritual condition. But sometimes, many times, I just sat outside at night and looked at stars and said nothing at all, and I think He was okay with that. Other times I hated Him and all but spat at Him. I’m pretty sure He was okay then, too. He is God, after all. He is a Big Boy and can handle my humanity, even when I am embarrassed by it.

During those times, I had no idea how “Blessings fill your life” applied to me, but the card emblazoned with the phrase haunted me from my bulletin board. I wanted to throw it in the garbage but never did.

I’m glad I didn’t.

The best of times made their way back around again, and when they did, they did not disappoint.

There’s too much of the best to spell it all out, and quite frankly, some of it is too personal to share. A long time ago God somehow explained to me that we’d share many amazing moments that would blow my mind and steal my heart along this journey together. I learned that if I shared all of them, or even most of them, they’d lose their power somehow. So I pick and choose what I share.

One of the biggest miracles and strangest turn of events occurred in relation to employment. In June, I reconnected with a friend/business acquaintance, and dozens of prayers, careful decisions, and two months later, he and his wife offered me my current position as Content Manager of their company. I’m not joking when I say that I’ve dreamed about working for this company for a decade; seeing God fit multiple pieces of a complicated puzzle together seamlessly this summer was nothing short of breathtaking.

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With my bosses/mentors/friends, Steven & Faith Rothberg

I recently traveled to Minnesota to train for a few days. We worked like dogs, but I never felt tired until I closed my eyes at night. While recalling specific conversations and moments with a team member recently, I realized that not once while training and brainstorming did my bosses say, “Oh no, we just can’t do that,” or “That’s not a good idea.” Perhaps THIS is why I’m overcome with gratitude every time I think about work.

This year I also realized that losses and flaws are often my greatest gifts.

While driving back from the airport after traveling to Minnesota, alone, tired, and ready to see my little Maggie who I knew would be ready to see me, I hurriedly drove at sunset while chugging cheap coffee. I suddenly felt a moment of panic when I realized I couldn’t recall if I’d taken the right exit or not. What if I didn’t, and I am heading in the wrong direction? I really have no idea where I’m going. I paused, took a deep breath, and prayed for guidance. I decided to call my husband for help even though I hated asking for his help while driving because believe it or not, he can be a little cocky at times.

When he answered the phone, he was calm and helped me right away. I was heading in the right direction after all.

Something in my mind clicked; God seemed to be saying If you never felt fear, you would never trust Me.

Oh my God. You’re right. Thank You for my fear.

I couldn’t believe I was driving down the road thanking God for my FEAR. What a gross thing to be thankful for. But for me, an egotistical, independent perfectionist, a little fear may be necessary to keep me coming back.

That got me thinking about the rest of my “best of times and worst of times.” The most painful moments when I have been smothered by grief have felt the worst, but those moments led me to seek the Comforter, the only One who can fill gaps in me. I’ve felt frustrated and at a total loss when my toddler doesn’t comply and goes in the opposite preferred direction, but this reminds me I’m not in control and Who Is. There have been many times this year when I felt too overwhelmed to speak or write. I learned that God and I communicate just as well as two silent beings.

Blessings have filled my life after all.

 

Stalking stillness

That pesky red-bellied woodpecker.

IMG_0229I have stalked that woodpecker since I first noticed him, just a few days after we relocated our bird feeder, handmade by my very own Renaissance man, to a small garden plot right outside my bedroom window.

Each morning when my daughter awakens, her windowsill is one of her first stops. Gazing out of the blurry, century-old glass pane, she points and murmurs “bird… bird” as oodles of male and female cardinals parade back and forth between their nests along the creek bed and the bird feeder. The chickadees, with their stark white and black caps, and spotted, earthy sparrows flit from limb to limb along the tiny flowering tree branches next to the feeder, politely taking turns and never lingering too long over the seed. The gold finches and regal purple finches have lower social standards and squawk and peck at other birds who dare to snag a snack alongside them.

IMG_0526Occasionally, a cruel but beautiful blue jay makes its way to the feeder, bullies the other birds, and grazes as a lone ranger before venturing off to make some other bird’s life miserable.

IMG_9763And if I’m really lucky, I might spy an eastern bluebird, its crimson breast clashing perfectly with its soft blue wings.

Yes, there is a gamut of gorgeous birds gracing the space outside my window.

But the elusive woodpecker has been my focus. My obsession.

When my daughter is napping—because that’s the only time the house is quiet enough for this—I creep into my bedroom with a hot cup of coffee, carefully unlock the window latch, and slide the pane up a few inches. I wrap my furry throw blanket around my cross-legged body and lean in, hoping to capture my feathered friends on film. I’ve probably taken hundreds of pretty shots of cardinals, Juncos, and finches. They’re pretty birds, and they rest for long lengths of time; they’re not easily frazzled or frightened.

My woodpecker, on the other hand, is truly his own animal. He almost constantly moves, hunting and pecking for his prey or craning his neck from side to side, his eyes wary and vigilant. He contorts himself into impossible positions to find what he’s looking for, and once he’s found it, he scurries away to his sanctuary, the strong fortress of the giant old oak tree in our yard.

Most of the time, the woodpecker only appears when I don’t have the time to grab my camera. I see him when I’m changing Maggie’s diaper or reading books with her. Occasionally, I have a few seconds to get positioned for a great photograph, and as soon as he hears the window latch, he disappears. Oh! I’ve grown frustrated waiting for my chance.

IMG_0511This morning, as my fingers veered on the edge of frostbite while snapping pictures of a lovely blue jay, I caught a glimpse of my woodpecker’s blazing red cap in the background. I quickly inhaled and held my breath as I zoomed out, trying to maneuver the camera quickly but quietly.

And there he was, more still and at rest than I’ve ever seen him, staring at me, slightly obscured by the blue jay and the bird feeder. I had my chance, and I took picture after picture of him, often capturing just the tip of his mottled tail.

IMG_0505As I sat there, still and barely breathing for fear of frightening him away, I found myself loving him and feeling akin to him, a snapshot of Bethany in her old skin. Always busy and productive. Distrusting and suspicious of others. Alluring but aloof.

Afraid to stop moving.

Unable to be still.

To be still, my word of the year.

I’ve found the perfect bird to fixate on, one that requires me to while away the hours in silence. A creature that forces me to learn to be perfectly still.

2014 word of the year

I have worked the 12 steps of recovery for six years, and the meditation part of the 11th step has never been easy for me.

“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”

Serious yogi, 2010

Serious yogi, 2010

I’ve sat through guided meditations and struggled to resist the urge to giggle and to wiggle away the ants in my pants. I’ve tried focusing on my breathing (with varying levels of success in achieving something like relaxation). I’ve done yoga, too, and while I’ve improved my flexibility, I haven’t found my mind floating on a cloud.

Even though my husband has never participated in a 12-step recovery program, he has the annoying and enviable ability to achieve what looks like nirvana after just a few minutes of lying down with his eyes closed, breathing. Being. Ugh.

I finally asked him one night, when I felt beyond frustrated with insomnia, how he manages to meditate so easily.

“Simple,” he said. “I focus on something that I like. I go to a place in my mind. When I start thinking about other things, I turn back to that place.”

Well, that might occur naturally for Mr. Smarty Pants, but it hasn’t proved simple for me—probably because I’ve taken a simple idea and contorted it into a complicated process—a terrible talent I have.

The past few months, I’ve given my husband’s method a try.

December 2012

December 2012

I’ve found some virtual places of rest. I’ve gone hiking behind my old house, snapped twigs and sat on thick tree branches, gathered firewood, and overlooked the ridge at the top of the hill with my trusty companion, my black cat Shao Hou, following closely behind, silently. I’ve walked up past our barn on a moonlit night, the light casting contrasting shadows through trees, reflecting off dirt and rocks coated in quiet snow. I’ve traced my own steps and watched Shao Hou’s paw prints step in the hollowed places left behind by my Muck boots.

Last month, after one of the most beautiful snowstorms I’ve seen (and I haven’t seen many since I live in the South), our entire property was blanketed in stark white stillness. The neighbors with noisy trucks were nowhere to be found. Even the 14 dogs owned by the animal lover living a quarter-mile away bedded down and shut their traps.

Nothing moved. No one spoke.

But God did.

My feathered friends, December 2013

My feathered friends, December 2013

That morning, dozens of birds found their way to a patch of grass outside my bedroom window and pecked through the ice in search of sunflower seeds scattered by my husband the day before. While my daughter napped, I sat in front of the open window and snapped photo after photo of bright wings and orange beaks and puffy feathers perched on thin frozen branches. Aside from clicking the camera’s buttons, I didn’t move for 30 minutes.

I’d found a place to go, a place to be still. A place to be with God.

Each year, I choose a word to reflect on, a virtue to behold and to strive to attain. This year, my word is still. Ironically, there’s nothing to strive for since stillness is the absence of striving.

This year, I’ll seek out places of rest. I’ll let myself be silent. I’ll seek to be free of turbulence, waves, or currents. I will listen to the absence of voices and absorb the hush.

God is in the hush.

 

100_4467The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

–1 Kings 19