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.

 

 

Dream come true

A few weeks ago, in the stagnant heat of our storage building in July, I dug through boxes and crates. I hoped to find every last binder containing pertinent academic information that might help me teach college courses. I looked for the cute desk decorations I’d packed away in 2012 when I quit working at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville (UACCB) as an advisor mid-pregnancy in an attempt to focus solely on finishing graduate school. I searched every nook and cranny for books I knew I might want to reference or quote in class. I wanted to be prepared for anything. 

In my frenzied search for all things that might ever be of use to me at work, I came across a small white note card, a note card I’d  used while serving as Director of Career Development at Lyon College in 2006. The college emblem and my former name and job title were embossed on one side of the card. On the other side, though, was something of much greater significance. 

Samantha Hartley, Founder and President of Enlightened Marketing

Samantha Hartley, Founder and President of Enlightened Marketing

When I worked at Lyon College, I attended an event hosted by the Arkansas Association of Colleges and Employers; Samantha Hartley, the Founder and President of Enlightened Marketing, was the keynote speaker. I remember being completely energized by her presentation about social media and its benefits (and drawbacks). I felt compelled to share the information with other leaders on campus and to put into action her suggestions. 

After relocating to central Arkansas a year later, and finding myself somewhat disillusioned by the corporate world, I remembered how inspired I felt listening to her speak. I wondered if she would consider talking to me one-on-one about her ideas. As someone who takes the concept of networking seriously and doesn’t simply exchange business cards with people and move on, I sent her an email (thankfully I had maintained contact with her on Facebook and LinkedIn), and invited her to lunch. 

She accepted, but she suggested breakfast instead. It was a great suggestion–I’m still a fan of the place.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with Samantha to talk about goals and career ideas. I knew she was a very busy entrepreneur and felt grateful for the chance to pick her brain. I needed help. Specifically, I needed guidance from someone I admired, from someone whose career path I wanted to emulate. I did not want to remain stuck in a job or career I disliked. I knew that Samantha had been there, done that–and she’d done something about it. In fact, she’d been hugely successful when doing something about it. So she was EXACTLY the kind of person I needed to talk to.

My "vision card"

My “vision card”

Samantha listened to me. And she offered extremely helpful feedback based on what she’d heard. She suggested that I create a vision board. Since I’m an English major, and a word nerd, I created a list instead of a vision board. 

That’s what I found that day in my storage building, tucked inside an old binder. When it fell onto the floor of my storage building, I picked it up and read every item on the list. I gasped a little and felt my chest tighten as I finished reading the list as I realized that the list has come to fruition.

Every single item on the list has been realized in my current position as an English instructor at UACCB. I have more flexibility with my schedule than I’ve ever had before. My job is about making a difference in students’ lives, not about numbers and dollar signs. There’s tons of room for creativity; I design my courses with very little input from others. My boss is kind, supportive, and serves as a great mentor, too. I believe in the organization I work for; I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to say that wholeheartedly about any other employer, ever. Most importantly, I know that every day when I leave my house, I am going to do work that matters, work that impacts lives in a positive way. I’m doing what I am meant to do. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity to do it.

20140812_152712After I found my “dream come true” list, I sent Samantha a message and thanked her for her help and guidance. She reminded me that her own teacher once did the same for her; she believes in mentoring because “there have been pivotal people in my life who maybe said just one thing, but it was the breadcrumb that connected me to the next step on the path.”

She’s right. 

I had the chance to share this story with my Chancellor, Debbie Frazier. She encouraged me to share this story with my students. I think I will, and I know that by giving back to my students and by encouraging and supporting and teaching them over the years, I’ll be showing my gratitude to Samantha and to others who’ve encouraged me in the best way possible.

Walk and chalk

“Walk. Chalk.”

Each morning, as the hands on the clock tick and tock their way toward the number nine, Maggie’s tiny voice chimes in with these two words. I can literally tell time by them. Her soft, chubby fingers stretch out and grab hold of mine and pull me to the door. I reach for miniature socks before heading down the hall.

IMG_2635Armed with ice water, my trusty camera, tennis shoes, ball caps, and bug spray, we turn the knob and open the back door, beginning Maggie’s favorite part of every morning—walk and chalk.

After strapping Maggie into the sturdy stroller, we make our way through the wet grass, still glistening with dew. First we check on our pups, who are always elated to see the stroller lumbering through the yard. As we fill their bowl with food, they scratch along the fence, and Maggie pants and mimics their whimpers, egging them on. We say “bye bye” to the pups and hit the chip sealed pavement. The sun greets our faces, and Maggie blinks in response but refuses to wear her baseball cap or sunglasses.

IMG_2836Each morning, in the humid, Ozark woodlands, I attempt to keep moving at a fairly rapid pace in an effort to avoid both of us being drenched in perspiration by the time we return to the house. However, it never fails that after taking just a few steps forward, something gorgeous catches my eye on one side of the road or the other. This is the Ozark woodlands, after all—a lush, green, jungle-like wonderland.

I didn’t always see it this way. When I moved to the Ozarks at the age of 10 and lived a mere 25 miles from my current location, I both loathed and liked the place.

I liked my small school and having the opportunity to make new friends, and I loved our tiny church and the delicious potluck dishes prepared on a frequent basis by the elderly ladies. I liked the rickety house we rented in the country on an old dirt road, the rain pinging off the tin roof. I even liked the fact that my breath created puffy bursts in my own frigid bedroom as I gazed at the clear, star-filled sky during winter; sure, the house lacked any real heat source aside from a gigantic fireplace, but I felt like a real live Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I thought that was pretty darn cool. I liked running down the road to my friend Leslie’s house and eating hot popcorn and drinking cold sweet tea in her kitchen and pestering her brother John while he played basketball and imitating her cool older sister Sheryl who danced to Debbie Gibson songs.

I liked things about Arkansas. But I loathed other things. One of the things I loathed was the weather. Having been accustomed to a drier climate in Kansas, I simply hated the Arkansas summers for years. I referred to Arkansas as the armpit of America (in terms of weather, and perhaps in terms of other things, too). I detested the way the atmosphere caused me to sweat profusely from every single pore. I hated having to purchase new white shirts every single season, whether I’d stained the front of them or not, simply due to the sweaty armpit stains. I could go on and on. I just plain hated Arkansas summers.

But something changed. After living in a rural subdivision for five years, commuting for about an hour one way every day, I’d had my fill of “all that.” I’d worked downtown, worn plenty of flashy high heels and jewelry, made enough money to make me feel that I’d arrived, and secured enough jobs to prove to myself that if I made up my mind to do something, I could do it. I was done with that kind of life.

I wanted to go home.

One of my favorite creatures I ever captured in a picture on our front porch, October 2011

One of my favorite creatures I ever captured in a picture on our front porch, October 2011

I began praying about that very idea, and God worked out the details—a lot of details—and I headed home in December of 2010. In January of 2011, my future husband and I purchased our home—nestled in the woods in the foothills of the Ozarks. And I fell head over heels in love with the Ozark woodlands. I took pictures constantly and carried my camera with me everywhere I went, snapping photographs of the endless varieties of species of flora and fauna surrounding me. With a forester and wildlife biologist by my side, I had my own handsome nature Google by my side, too.

IMG_2603This morning, after Maggie and I finished the walking portion of our “walk and chalk” time, I pushed her gently in the swing on the back porch. A quiet hum filled the air. The hum slowly transitioned into a noisy, vibrating whine. I stopped pushing Maggie in her swing for a moment and stepped off the porch, glancing around the corner of the house.

I gulped when I saw a small green tractor in the distance with a mower attachment, driving along the roadside. Tears filled my eyes quickly before I had a chance to form thoughts.

My husband stepped outside to see what the commotion was about.

“Oh, they’re mowing the sides of the road. Good,” he said blankly before noticing my tears.

“I know,” I replied in a weepy voice.

He stopped in surprise and stared at me.

“But they’re taking away all of my pretty things that I take pictures of every day and all of the things that we see on our walk and chalk every day.” And then tears actually fell.

“It’s okay, babe. They will grow back.”

I didn’t wipe away my tears. I’m a shameless flower-loving, picture-taking, Ozark-woodland-obsessed, nature freak.

Us, May 2014

Us, May 2014

I wasn’t actually crying over flowers. I was crying because I realized something important—that I was grateful for every single second I’d taken to pause and thank God for what He’d created, for the seconds I’d taken to notice those beautiful things, for the seconds I’d spent teaching my daughter to praise God for all things bright and small.

Because just seconds after we’d seen those beautiful things that very morning, they were gone.

I was crying because I am thankful that this morning, I have no regrets about how I spent my seconds.

Going off the grid

IMG_0505Last month, I sat at home with my daughter one chilly spring morning. Before my husband left, I had an eerie feeling that the power might go out. We live in the middle of nowhere, and our electricity often misfires when the wind blows a little too hard, or when the rain falls for longer than five minutes, or when lightning strikes. Against his better judgment, my husband caved to my whining and built a quick fire in our wood stove before leaving at 6:30 a.m., pulling his blue flannel jacket tightly around his body, holding onto his thermos full of hot coffee.

A few moments later, the house was dark and still. We lost power and went without it all morning, the wind howling outside, the temperatures steadily dropping into the low 50s, uncharacteristic for late spring in Arkansas. I was thankful for the fire in the wood stove and added logs to it periodically in spite of Maggie’s protests every time I stepped onto the porch to grab more firewood.

At noon, I curled up in a fleece throw next to my bedroom window, Maggie sleeping soundly in her dark bedroom. The house was blanketed in utter silence–stillness. Living in the middle of the country, surrounded by woods in the foothills of the Ozarks, I thought I’d grown accustomed to silence. But this sort of silence was almost daunting–even deafening. I hadn’t realized how commonplace the buzzing of the HVAC unit had become, how I’d learned to turn a blind eye to the little bright lights on the answering machine, the dishwasher, the coffeemaker, the stove, the alarm clock, how often I’d relied on this sort of background music of daily life to fill the vacant spaces–to entertain me, to keep me going.

As I sat next to the window, I realized that the birds at our feeder certainly recognized the difference that day. In particular, my favorite–the red-bellied woodpecker with the brilliant red head–seemed to understand. All day long for months, I watched the same birds through our windows, feeding at the same feeder, perched upon the same branches. That day, the woodpecker was not startled by anything, not aloof, unafraid. I’m no ornithologist, but I wondered if the woodpecker sensed the change in stillness, the lack of the motors running and the heaters kicking on and off around him. I wondered if he felt at rest.

Why don’t you be like that, Bethany? Why don’t you just be still and show up?

I couldn’t audibly hear God talking to me that day, but I felt Him say something like that to my heart.

That morning, as I frantically added wood to our stove (my wilderness girl skills are not stellar), I worried about the hundreds of dollars of food we’d lose if the power didn’t come back on soon that we had stored in our refrigerator and freezer. I felt nervous about being at home alone with Maggie. I felt restless about not having electricity, even though Maggie was perfectly content.

IMG_1850That morning, God sent my favorite bird to remind me to savor the stillness, to show up in the moment, and to rest with God. My favorite bird reminded me that God would meet all of my soul’s needs. That day, because we lost power for eight hours, I was more thankful for many of the amenities I normally take for granted. I gained confidence in my ability to take care of myself and my daughter. Because we lost power, I spent more time watching my daughter smile, laugh, read books, play silly games over and over again, wear hats, and kiss her face.

I can never get those moments back again.

There is no amount of money I can pay anyone to get those moments back again. All the buzzing and clicking and blinking drowns those moments out, I’m afraid. If I don’t unplug my soul from the grid once in a while, I’m going to short-circuit. If I’m not careful, I’m smothering what matters in my life–strangling the stillness out of my life.

Let me put off what so easily entangles me, God, and just listen to Your quiet, still voice more often.

 

2013 gift list

Before I move on, I want to look back—not to dwell on the past or listen to Sirens, as I might have in years past, but to gaze upon the beauty.

I started making a list a few weeks ago—my 2013 gift list. I’ve written a gift list ever since I started my blog at the end of each year as a way to express my gratitude for the growth and upward movement, for the blessings and kindnesses extended to me by others, for the truths I’d grasped. For God.

This year, I rattled off 10 items. Good things. Great insights. But I haven’t been able to write anything cohesive or clever. I’m sure this lack of creativity is partly due to lack of sleep, but I also came to the conclusion that I was struggling to elaborate because all the blessings are intertwined, with God being the tie that binds them all together into one beautiful year.

I remember specific moments that touched me, moved me, inspired me, and changed me. The memories are just snapshots of the big picture—reminders for me that this year, I would not change a thing.

015I remember sitting–for over 54,000 minutes this year—nursing and rocking my daughter, watching her miniature fingers and toes lengthen, her delicious fat rolls disappear, her eyelashes thicken. I resented nursing for at least half of those 54,000 minutes; I simply could not sit still in my soul, and sitting still in that chair drove me nuts. I’m not sure what changed, but when Maggie was about seven or eight months old, I suddenly found joy in nursing her. As she weans herself slowly but surely, I find that the fewer minutes we spend together in that chair, the more valuable they become. Each day, I thank God for the priceless seconds of warmth I share with my only begotten baby.

I remember feeling overwhelmed with pride while strolling with my daughter and husband 018on the sidewalks at Arkansas Tech University last spring, the sun setting and casting long shadows around us. Even though my baby didn’t sleep most of the night in the hotel full of teenagers—and neither did I—I managed to stumble through comprehensive exams the next morning and graduated with all A’s a month later. All the hours spent studying and reading and writing paid off, and I learned about much more than classic literature, theories of criticism, and teaching techniques. Amidst plenty of puking and ginger ale and crackers and swelling, I completed my course work ahead of schedule—just in time for Maggie’s arrival. I proved myself to be a tougher cookie than I thought I was.

I remember standing in my classroom at UACCB, a few months into my first semester as an adjunct faculty member, cramming textbooks, ungraded exams, and worksheets into my sleek black bag. One of my students, a tall, thin boy sporting a trench coat, sauntered up to me as the other students drifted out of the classroom. He began sharing his thoughts on the screwed up state of our society, and I listened, half intrigued by the depth of discussion and half annoyed that I would be late getting home. And then he transitioned into telling me a story about a confused, depressed teenage boy who tried to kill himself and about the lessons learned as a result. At that moment, I saw him through God’s eyes, and I knew in my gut that I’d made the right decision by choosing to teach English and “never get rich,” as my grandpa warned me when I selected my major in undergraduate school.

IMG_8379I remember receiving my six-year coin from my sponsor in my 12-step recovery program while my husband and daughter played on the soft blue carpet of her living room floor a few blocks away. I could scarcely eke out words when I accepted the small bronze coin, except to say thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you to the 50+ enlightened faces welcoming me around the folding tables in metal chairs, faces that I still see when I meditate on phrases like “let go and let God” and “forgiveness is me letting go of my right to punish you for hurting me.” Thank you to the woman who has held up the Light for me, showing me the steps to take to move closer to Christ.

I remember sitting on an old couch in the building where my local recovery group meets, seeing six of those faces of my old friends and sponsor smiling and interacting with the hungry souls in my local group. My two worlds melded together for a few brief hours; joy welled up in me as I listened to experiences and laughter and then watched the fruits of those hours blossom and grow in the months that followed.

I remember the moment when, after seeing the tears in one woman’s eyes as she discussed her desire to work the steps, I stood across from her in the dark parking lot and offered to be her guide. Relief and gratitude replaced the tension and fear on her face. We whispered in my kitchen one morning while my baby slept in her crib, sharing lives and starting the greatest journey together. Six months later, she opened her journal and cautiously explained her perception of God while my daughter crawled around us, scattering blocks and clapping her tiny hands. Astonishment appeared on her face when God shed light on some dark truths.

I remember watching Maggie roll over for the first time in her bedroom, her eyes shining IMG_8849with glee. I remember the first time she tasted snow this winter, her nose curling up in disdain. I remember the first time she said “mama” and “daddy” and “light” and a host of other words. I remember the first time we introduced her to our dogs, her eyes sparkling with amusement at their antics, totally devoid of fear or hesitation. I remember the first time she went to church with us, our wonderful pastor christening her with water from the Jordan River. I remember the first time Maggie ate peas, inhaling them and grunting with pleasure. I remember all of these moments because I was able to be with my daughter every single day in 2013.

And I remember the most beautiful moment of my life, aside from the moment I married James and the moment I met Maggie for the first time.

One long night, James and I awakened to the sound of Maggie screaming in terror, most likely from a bad dream. I stumbled into her room as quickly as possible, not even taking time to find my glasses. I reached into her crib and lifted her into my arms, resting her head on my chest and encasing her as I sat down on the couch in her room, swaying and singing softly to her. Her tears slowly subsided.

Then I felt a large, rough palm covering the smooth skin on my own hand; I turned my head to see my husband sitting beside me on the couch in the darkness, leaning in to the hug I’d started with our daughter. Maggie crawled out of my arms and nestled herself in the exact middle of us, her head resting on both our shoulders, her arms splayed out on both our chests. And we held her until she fell asleep, our love complete there in the silence.

 

How do you know me?

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Me in 2010, about halfway into my 1,000 days of gratitude lists

About a year ago, I decided to create a second blog, Your Daily Dose of Gratitude. I’d already been writing daily gratitude lists for over 1,000 days in a row. Since this exercise had impacted me so positively, improving my outlook on life and my attitude towards others, I decided that sharing thoughts on the topic with others might do the same for them.

As I posted Henry Petty‘s guest blog posts on my gratitude blog, the past few days, I began reflecting on how I know him. We met in college, and I was immediately drawn to his chipper attitude about life. He did not have an easy life. Yet he seemed to always keep a smile on his face. He walked to work, and instead of whining about it, he just expressed gratitude when folks offered him rides.

Then I began thinking about the other guest contributors to this blog and how I came to know each of them.

Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy was one of my professors in college and now serves as a sort of writing mentor. I took a children’s literature course from her as an English elective my senior year. I didn’t expect to discover a love for a genre of literature I’d largely overlooked. But her passion for the subject matter and the warm, interactive, and exciting way she managed the classroom discussions sparked a real interest in children’s literature inside me. I began collecting children’s books, and when I became pregnant with my daughter, I already had accumulated quite an awesome collection.

My friend Linda Unger, another guest contributor, is an accomplished photographer, writer, entrepreneur, and also happens to be hilarious. I met her at a women’s conference about five years ago and found her enthusiasm for life to be contagious. She once spoke at that same conference and shared her life’s story and details about her spiritual journey. I will never forget the way she described how she came to know God; it resonated within me.

I met my friend Oona Love, another guest contributor, at a concert at Cornerstone Pub in North Little Rock, Arkansas, when she opened the show for my close friend, Cindy Woolf. Oona’s cover of a fabulous Fiona Apple song made me belly laugh non-stop for three minutes, and at that time in my life, I needed all the laughter I could get. Since then, I’ve come to know her a little better and respect her gentle, accepting way of loving others despite their differences.

My friend Erin Jennings, another guest contributor, once briefly dated a friend of my husband’s. While their dating relationship lasted only a short while, our friendship continued, and she became a very close friend and confidante. I’ve watched her as she has found the love of her life and expanded her family from three to six and do so with grace and ease.

Three of my guest contributors are brand new friends whom I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting in person. I met two of them, Toinette Thomas and Mary Agrusa, through groups for Christian bloggers on linkedin.com. I met Sarah Klesko, a fellow blogger, by following her blog and finding her posts inspirational. Thankfully, all three of these talented writers were willing to share their musings with me, too.

Guest contributor Amy Driskill went to college with me back in the day. She’s one of many people I’ve reconnected with via Facebook. Since reconnecting, we’ve learned things about each other’s lives that we certainly didn’t know in college, and it’s bonded us as friends.

Shelli White, a guest contributor, was a college student at my alma mater when I worked there as an academic coordinator for an Upward Bound program. Shelli worked as a tutor for us and used her math whiz kid skills to assist struggling high school students. Since then, her life has evolved, and she’s become a spiritually vibrant woman raising an adorable little boy.

One of my college suite mates, Zeda Paysinger-Wilkerson, served as a guest contributor once as well. Zeda and I were lab partners our freshman year of college. I vividly remember recanting our romantic tales to one another and giggling over the details. Zeda and I have remained close friends since then, even working together once at the same institution. She always reminds me that life is what you make of it.

I finally talked my former co-worker Jonathan Weigt into writing for my blog and am so glad he did. Jonathan worked with me through some pretty tough times in my life and has perhaps seen me at my worst; I’m really glad he now knows me at my best. His non-traditional take on spirituality and his sincere questioning of life’s most important questions challenge me. It also reminds me that even the most hilarious person (he’s quite funny) has a deeper side, whether it’s visible or not.

My nephew Jake (AKA Walter Pitts) agreed to write for my blog after his recent wild adventure in Eastern Europe. Jake’s on an extraordinarily fearless journey of faith. Having known him since he was just five years old, it’s been awesome to see how God has used each of his personality quirks and special gifts to serve others and make the world a better place.

I once had the honor of working with Debra Dickey-Liang. She served as the administrative assistant in my department, and she excelled at her job. She was dependable, loyal, trustworthy, and dignified. She still is, and seven years after working with her, I am delighted to consider her one of my closest friends. Despite the differences in our ages, we’ve found common ground in what matters. When she agreed to write posts for my gratitude blog, I discovered her hidden gift for writing and was thrilled to share it with the world via WordPress.

Then there’s my forever friend Mark Egan, who I first met when I was five years old. I watched him climb trees and emulated his skills. He taught me to shoot a gun for the first time (and didn’t get mad when I almost shot God-knows-what instead of the targets). He agreed to write for my blog after sending me some personal writing to proofread for him. I convinced him that he had underestimated his writing abilities so he agreed to allow me to share his piece with others. He will always be “a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).

As I contemplated on how I know each of these guest writers, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. This list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the other God-with-skin-on people who have walked with me through valleys, helped me climb over obstacles, and rejoiced with me as we enjoyed the view from the top.

With so much love in my life, having been surrounded by such diverse, beautiful, and invaluable people, I can’t help but believe that what Eckhart said is true:

“If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

 

Stepping forward

Thank God my dad won the “name the baby” battle. My mom, a Georgia/Tennessee, native, begged him to agree to name me Georgia. He refused.

Even though I’m grateful for narrowly escaping being dubbed as a child of the South for the rest of my life, I feel sorry for my mom every time I think about her wanting to include her Southern heritage into my name, and into so many other aspects of our lives, wistfully longing for her own childhood home while stuck in the dry, flat city of Wichita, Kansas. My dad, a Delaware native and son of Polish immigrants, had no connection to or reverence for the South. And although my stepdad tried his best to fit in when we moved to Arkansas, learning to speak with a Southern accent, adopting turkey hunting as a hobby, and even trading “you guys” for “y’all,” he probably never fully understood my mom’s emotional connection to the deep South.

While living in Kansas, I remember being vaguely aware of the differences in my mom and other parents. Her drawl gave her away, as did her affinity for grits, black-eyed peas, and homemade cornbread. Once, in a fast food restaurant drive-thru, my mom placed her order, speaking loudly and clearly. The drawl was too thick for the poor drive-thru attendant, and after asking my mom to repeat herself twice, she asked us to pull up to the window to order face-to-face. I’m sure my mom had finally had her fill of Dorothy’s stomping grounds, and after closing their eyes and pointing to northeastern Arkansas on a map, my parents scouted out rural towns for the best place to find jobs and raise a family.

Moving to Arkansas felt like culture shock to me and my sisters, and probably my stepdad, but to my mom, it was coming home, or getting close anyway. The landscape of our lives changed drastically that year, and quite literally. We abandoned the open plains of eastern Kansas for the rolling hills and dangerous roadways of the Ozarks. We no longer shopped at the mall, since the nearest one was at least 90 miles away. Instead, we joined the thousands of other rural Arkansans who rely on a combination of the nearest Wal-Mart and the local grocery store/deli/gas station for all our food, most of our clothing, and everything in between. We marveled at the payphones, which charged a mere dime per phone call that year. We learned to coat ourselves in insect repellant before catching fireflies and playing with our pets in the yard. We rejoiced at the joys of Southern cooking, sipping on sweet tea for the first time and frying up green tomato slices. We eagerly joined the nearest Southern Baptist church and walked the half-mile down our dirt road on Sunday mornings together to congregate and later devour the best church potluck food I’ve ever tasted in my life, prepared by the most viciously competitive elderly women on the face of the planet.

Of course, moving to Arkansas had its drawbacks, too. I reluctantly quit competing in gymnastics after discovering that the only local gymnastics facility consisted of the oldest and most questionable equipment I’d ever seen, along with the most reticent coach I’d encountered. I laughed when my fifth grade teacher announced that she hoped to not have to use her paddle on any of us, only to receive silencing stares from my classmates who knew all too well that she wasn’t joking. I missed the vast wheat fields and frequent gusts of wind I’d come to expect in Kansas, replaced by heavy, humid, long summer days.

When we moved to Arkansas, we stepped back in time. While I didn’t fully appreciate my parents’ decision to relocate our family at the time, I now understand their motives. They wanted us to enjoy life and take our time exploring the world. They desired for us to form a close-knit family, spending more time together than apart. They longed for us to understand the meaning of real neighbors, the kind you can call on for a cup of sugar or a last-minute ride to town in case of car trouble. They hoped we’d succeed in school and form lasting friendships in our much smaller classes. They seized the financial opportunity to take advantage of the stronger demand for professionals in their fields, and we all benefited.

They wanted to start over. And they did this by taking a step back.

Every time I sit on the porch of my old farmhouse with my husband, admiring the woods surrounding us, discussing our next fishing trip, I understand that by moving to the Ozarks and slowing down the hands of time in our lives, they pushed us further ahead.