Important

Maggie’s obsession with carousels began six months ago when Nettie, her grandma, brought her a coloring book with sketches of horses. The cover featured an intricately adorned carousel in Tennessee. Maggie was hooked. She began begging to ride carousels and asked questions about them daily. I blamed Nettie for that.

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Maggie’s first carousel ride was a little anticlimactic; the carousel, a rickety three-horse ride at Wal-Mart, wasn’t working properly. We deposited coins while she giggled and shouted with glee. And nothing happened.

Maggie kept riding, though. She pretended the horses were whinnying, kicking, and dancing. She sat atop that broken carousel for at least five minutes while we watched, amused.

A few months later, she rode an antique carousel at the zoo. I’ll never forget her face while the breeze caught her golden hair, her eyes closed and tiny teeth shining in the June light.

part0_13 (1)Nettie brought Maggie a toy carousel a few weeks later. The carousel’s status surpassed that of her “snowballs,” globes swirling with white plastic specks, sparkling glitter surrounding Baby Jesus and his mother.

I knew Maggie loved her carousel, but I barely noticed it. When she pushed a red button, the Christmas-themed figurine played electronic carols. I couldn’t make it through two of them without distracting her to play with something else or leaving the room to finish loading the dishwasher.

Until last night, I had never heard all the songs the carousel carries. We lay in bed together, the three of us, watching the mirrored column in the center of the ride scatter its green and red lights around her bedroom. She showed me which horse she loves most on the carousel and explained why. I hummed along to the tunes and held her soft, squishy hand and rubbed her warm, smooth back.

Six months had passed, and I’d never heard the music.

How much beauty in small places do I miss?

I often ask myself, “How important is it?” I typically prioritize big, urgent, prominent things. Work. Marketing. Chores. Meetings. Writing. Scheduled events.

Last night, I saw the world through Maggie’s eyes once again.

From now on, my response to that rhetorical question when presented with moments like this will be “Top priority.”

 

Move

The good old college days

The good ole college days

One dark, starry, windy night—not unlike tonight, with temperatures drastically dropping, warning of winter storms approaching—I crouched alongside dozens of my campus ministry friends during the week of final exams as a college student, creating Christmas cards for shut-ins and hospital patients, humming along to familiar Christmas carols. Suddenly That Still Small Voice rang out clear as a bell.

“Go see her in her dorm room right now.”

I kept humming and coloring and designing my card. I also began arguing with That Still Small Voice. It made no sense to stop what I was doing—because what I was doing made perfect sense—to go make an unannounced visit to a fellow student whom I had barely befriended. This particular student knew my name, and we joined the same student organization simultaneously, but in truth, we barely knew one another. To show up at her apartment uninvited seemed not only rude but also a little nuts, quite frankly.

“Go see her right now, I said.”

I felt my heart pounding this time. I capped the Sharpies and stood up, pulling my best friend, Kelly, aside. I felt slightly irresponsible about leaving the card-making party since I helped plan it, but what could I do? When you get The Call, you answer.

“Kelly, I think God just told me to leave and go do something. I have to go.”

She looked at me quizzically but didn’t inquire about the details. Having lived with me for one year at that point, I guess she’d grown to accept that my brand of spirituality was untraditional, at best.

“Okay—is everything okay?”

“Yes. I’ll see you later.” I zipped up my grey wool car coat and headed in the direction of the student’s room, the wind whipping at my back.

When I arrived, I knocked on her door. A scruffy-looking male answered. I immediately attempted to bow out, apologizing and offering to come back another time, but she asked him to leave.

So there I was.

“I don’t know why I’m here. God just told me to come see you.”

And then her tears fell.

And her truth came rushing out in waves. And I listened.

Mostly, I cried. And we hugged one another.

And she told me that she felt she was on the verge of death, and that God must have sent me to her that night.

And ever since, we’ve remained friends, even when we aren’t able to see one another for long periods of time.

A few weeks ago, I reread 1 Samuel 3 in the Bible. It reminded me of my own life, of the many opportunities—just like this one moment in time when I made a choice to listen to That Still Small Voice—to either listen to God or to blow Him off. I wish I could say I’ve always listened, but I haven’t.

It reminded me that each time I’ve chosen to listen and take action—particularly when what I’ve heard from God requires me to take action—I have NEVER regretted it. I am always the beneficiary or witness of some type of miracle.

What if I had kept foolishly, stubbornly, and selfishly coloring Christmas cards that night? Well, I guess a few more shut-ins would have received Christmas cards that year.

But my friend—MY FRIEND—might be dead. Or she might have struggled for a longer period of time, feeling more isolated and alone, knowing that not one person understood or knew about her pain. My faith in That Still Small Voice would not have grown tenfold that night. I would not have shared in her sorrow and later in her joy when God renewed her spirit. I would have missed a miracle. I would have missed out on love.

Let me never refuse to move when That Voice moves me.

Channeling Ginger Rogers

I’ve read the Christmas story in the book of Matthew at least a dozen times—too many times, maybe. I mumble along with the verses, chanting a Biblical “yada yada yada.” My eyes normally become glassy as I gloss over the familiar words.

But this morning was different. It seems that not only had I glossed over the words, but I’d also missed part of the meaning. My memory recounted God warning Joseph in a dream about Herod’s ill intentions, and my memory recalled God—once again in a dream—giving Joseph the “all clear” to return to Nazareth. But this morning I picked up on verse 22 for the first time. I read about God speaking to Joseph once more in a dream—this time to say “never mind.”

How had I missed that third dream message?

Did God change His mind? Did He make a mistake the first time and had to correct Himself? Was this a case of human will interrupting God’s plans? Did Joseph’s fear cause him to misinterpret God’s will?

I’ll never know.

What I do know is that I am not sure I would have heeded God’s warning that third time—I might have ignored him the first two times, too. I’m one of those stubborn souls who has to learn things the hard way—by trial and error and experience. The benefit of learning through my own experiences is that the lessons stick. I know what happens when I don’t yield to God, and I know what happens when I do. I like to think of my relationship with God—my life, really—as a dance between me and God.

TopHatFredAstaireGingerRogersI’ve been on an old movie kick lately—probably due to the classic Christmas movies playing repeatedly on Turner Classic Movies channel. Watching Fred Astaire dance alone is art in motion. I’m convinced that no other tap dancer will ever match Astaire’s level of skill, ease of movement, or natural rhythm. But watching Astaire partner with great female dancers is even more of a treat because he leads them so subtly, so gently that the leading isn’t even noticeable.

In my own life, my dance with God has had its graceful moments and its embarrassing moments, too, when my two left feet take over. When I don’t feel like holding His hand and following His lead, He behaves like a true gentleman and steps aside, allowing me to twirl and spin out of control and go in whatever direction I desire.

Joseph’s dance with God seems a little more graceful than mine. Joseph listened to God and paid attention to his dreams, which God used to speak to Him. But throwing plans to the wind and changing directions—literally, in Joseph’s case—wasn’t a small decision. Two other people were affected—Mary and Jesus (and maybe more children, who knows).

I wonder if Mary recognized how lucky she was to have Joseph by her side. When Mary became pregnant, Joseph listened to God and never left her side. Joseph led their little family through a few years of nomadic existence, fleeing danger and eking out a living in foreign lands. Even though each of his decisions might have incited cynicism, sneering, or rejection by others, Joseph stayed close to God and moved only when God moved.

Mary’s not the only lucky dame in the world. I’m lucky to have my husband, James, too. His life dance with God is a little less frenetic than mine. There have been fewer highs and fewer lows. He’s a bit of a rock. He isn’t the most vocal, outwardly pious person in the world (thank God). He doesn’t let fear dissuade him, and he doesn’t allow input from outsiders to change his mind, but he listens to God—and then he moves. For four years, I’ve been praying Psalm 1 for my husband—that he would be like a tree planted by the water, with roots going deep, deep to the core of God so that he would be strong and secure.

He is.

_DSC1797He’s rooted in God, but he’s not afraid to let God uproot him any time he pleases, and he lets God shine light onto the path in front of him, highlighting only one step at a time. When it comes to God and James, God is Astaire, and James is Ginger Rogers (minus the beautiful curly hair and flowing evening gown, of course).

It’s a beautiful effect—God leading Joseph, and Joseph leading his family. God leading my husband, and my husband leading our family. God as the choreographer, guiding us through the steps and creating beauty in motion.

And all I have to do is dance.

Leaning

Our voices reverberated off the cold concrete walls of the isolation room. I held my favorite patient’s trembling hand, his wrists shackled to the hard restraint bed. He swallowed tears while he choked out the lyrics to his favorite song.

Lean on me when you’re not strong. And I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on . . .”

His deep chocolate-brown eyes welled up again as he glanced over at me. He gazed at the ceiling and wept without making a sound.

It was my first real job after graduating from a small, private liberal arts college. I’m sure no one deliberately saddled me with delusions of grandeur, but I somehow came to believe that I’d enter the world of work like a boss (literally), wear a suit every day, stomp around in fierce heels, and edit interesting novels while sipping gourmet coffee and eating fluffy muffins every morning. Think Anne Hathaway post-promotion in The Devil Wears Prada.

The site of my first real job :)

The site of my first real job 🙂

As is the case with almost all new college graduates, reality steamrolled me into submission rather abruptly. After applying for countless jobs and receiving not a single phone call or interview, my friend Mike told me about a treatment facility for emotionally disturbed teenagers. Sure enough, the facility was hiring behavioral staff. At first, I shunned the notion. I’d just spent four years studying English literature and creative writing. Babysitting bad kids could not be God’s will for me. However, after three weeks of relying on my graduation gift money to provide groceries, I desperately drove out to the campus for my interview, the winding, quiet road a reprieve from the busy interstate.

“Now this job’s not for everybody,” Don Ray, the supervisor, mumbled through his thick beard. “You just follow me around for an hour, and you’ll know if you can take it or not.”

He fumbled with a monstrous set of keys as we approached one of the houses where 10 female patients resided. As he turned the knob, incessant shrieks and a cacophony of curse words assaulted my ears.

“What in the world is that?” I gasped, turning to Don.

He half-smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

“Your job.”

The door opened, and one of the female staff members greeted us, her legs propped up on a metal folding chair, arms crossed as she faced a closed door with Plexiglas separating us from the screams, insults, and punches of a wild-haired 13 year-old girl.

I couldn’t help but stare. This was the stuff of Girl, Interrupted.

A week later, I tried on a straight jacket for the first time during training. It was not exactly the type of suit I’d envisioned myself wearing at work.

I’m not sure if it was due to my petite 120 pound frame, Don Ray’s infinite wisdom, or God’s intervention, but I luckily landed my first stint at the facility in a boy’s house working alongside a slew of former football players and one woman, a middle-aged mother figure beloved by all the patients. I watched those former football players mentoring the male patients in every arena of life. They epitomized the father figures and role models the boys had missed before developing severe behavioral and emotional problems. They taught the boys to play basketball and Spades, to fold their laundry and dust the tops of shelves, and to treat others with the same respect they desired. They also didn’t hesitate to dish out serious consequences for undesirable behavior.

One of the male patients quickly became my all-time favorite. His cheerful smile, polite words, and hopeful attitude melted my somewhat Stoic—but ultimately fearful–exterior. “The Reverend,” as he liked to call himself, dreamed of becoming a preacher someday or a modern Martin Luther King, Jr. He inhaled history books and recanted stories of heroic men like Abraham Lincoln. He kept his room tidy and prided himself on his neat, well-groomed appearance. If I’d met him on the street, I would have assumed he had been blessed with a loving family who had taught him how to live the life of a model citizen and future change maker.

But he had no father, and his mother had abandoned him. Aside from his pastor and church family, whom he occasionally visited on outings, he was alone in the world.

And though he did his best to avoid dwelling on the truth of his situation, it occasionally got the better of him.

And so we found ourselves in that concrete room the week after his birthday. Six days in a row, after several apologetic conversations with his mom over the phone, he waited and watched for her face to appear through the tiny pane of the locked metal door to the house. But it never did. So for six days in a row, the two other staff and I winced as we watched the anger, hurt, and loneliness work its way out.

Even though singing with patients was unorthodox at best, I couldn’t help myself that day. I had to reach out to him with a thin thread of hope, just enough for him to grab hold of for a few moments. I wanted him to remember the people who were there with him and to help him forget about the faces that never materialized outside the door.

That day we developed a closer bond than before, and after that, he always held the door for me and went out of his way to make me laugh. He was different from the other boys.

One afternoon, while walking back to the house after playing cards in the gymnasium on campus, I heard him whispering to another male patient in a stern voice. I almost corrected him for reprimanding his peer, but when I heard the words, I paused.

“Look at that ass. Dang.” The other male patient snickered.

“Stop that. That’s Miss Bethany you’re talking about. She’s a lady.”

I smiled and kept walking.

At my 30th birthday party, a fundraiser in memory of my favorite patient

At my 30th birthday party in 2009, a fundraiser in memory of my favorite patient

That boy, that abandoned boy who loved God and held out hope in the midst of his messed up life, was special to me. So special that I once tried to find a way to bring him home with me for Thanksgiving or Christmas break. I guessed that the facility’s rules wouldn’t allow it, and that the red tape of the government agencies responsible for his care wouldn’t even consider it, but I asked anyway.

When that boy died a year later, I was glad I’d tried. Seeing his dignified, lifeless body lying in a casket broke my heart. I held his hand again one last time. This time, it was my tears that spilled over, leaving dark stains on the satin lining surrounding his still frame.

I stood there for a long time, just leaning on him.

The table legs

A much younger version of my Chumbles

A much younger version of my Chumbles

I’m lucky enough to have several half-brothers, but I don’t see most of them often or at all. I’m fortunate to have a nephew by marriage who is now a big college kid, but he’s busy traveling the world and engineering monstrous machines and dating cute girls. I’m also blessed with another nephew, my firstborn niece or nephew, Joshua AKA Chumbles. At the mature age of almost 12, I’m sure he might be appalled that I’m sharing his nickname with the world via the internet.

I like to think that Joshua and I have a special bond. I was there when he was born (well, almost… apparently my antics and attempts to ensure my sister received an epidural and other drugs were not well-received by the medical staff, and I was relegated to the waiting room for the final moments of her delivery). For several years, I lived in the same town and was able to be THAT aunt–you know, the aunt who attends soccer practices, not just games. The aunt who takes more pictures than the exhausted mother. That aunt.

One Christmas, when Joshua was almost two years old, my family and I celebrated and sipped on cider together at my mom’s house. Joshua toddled around, entertaining all of us with his rendition of Frosty the Snowman, leading the entire family in a parade, carrying paper towel rolls to mimic the musical instruments of the boys and girls on the cartoon he loved watching so much. During post-dinner conversation in the dining room, our quiet chat erupted into a caterwaul. Joshua’s panicked screams filled the room–well, the house, really–and everyone came running to see what was the matter.

Joshua had cleverly discovered, by careful crawling maneuvers, that he could position himself directly in the center of the base of my mom’s retro dining table–you know, the type with the metal hoop connecting all four legs at the base. The hoop served as the perfectly sized circle to encase a curious two year-old boy. Unfortunately, once Joshua had managed to crawl inside the hoop and stand up, grasping onto two sides of the circle, he discovered that he had no idea how to reverse his actions and get out of the ring of terror surrounding him.

So he cried. Desperately. He was inconsolable. Being THAT aunt, I quickly dropped to the floor and tried to rescue my precious little guy from this predicament. I tried prying his hands gently from the metal hoop to no avail. I talked to him and reassured him that we would get him out of the precarious predicament. Finally, my mom and sister lifted up on the table, raising it off the floor while I simultaneously lifted Joshua up and quickly loosened the death grip his hands had on the table legs. I pulled him to my chest and held him. His sobs instantly subsided.

My sweet baby girl, three weeks old

My sweet baby girl, three weeks old

Last night, as I collapsed into bed under mounds of covers, I found myself doing what any good insomniac does–thinking, mulling over, contemplating, ruminating, and worrying. As I contemplated the fact that my daughter would turn one month old in two days, I felt overcome with sadness and fear. Where had the time gone? Had I spent it wisely? Had I appreciated each and every smile and sound emanating from her adorable body? If one month had elapsed so quickly, would I wake up tomorrow and realize six years had passed? Would she still love me when she became a teenager? What if something happened to her? What if I couldn’t prevent it? What if? WHAT IF?

Suddenly, the memory of Joshua crying and clenching those metal table legs came to mind. In the mysterious way that God does, and in a way I can’t rationally explain, I heard Him whisper to me.

“You have to let go before I can get you out.”

My fears and anxiety have kept me encircled and self-contained for years. And just like Joshua that day, my cries and worries and pleading are all in vain if I don’t release my grip on those table legs so that He can raise me up, pull me out, and hold me.

And when I let Him, the sobbing in my soul instantly subsides.

2011 gift list

When I started blogging a few years ago, one of my first posts was published on Christmas Eve. Sniffling and wheezing with the flu while nursing my depression over separating from my ex-husband on December 23rd, I felt quite pitiful.

I’ve learned from wise souls that the best remedy for self-pity is gratitude. I decided to compose a list of gifts I’d received that year and post it on my blog. It helped me to see things that seemed so negative in a much more positive light, at least temporarily.

This Christmas season, I’m not going through a divorce, and I don’t have the flu (knock on wood!). In fact, 2011 has probably been the best year of my life in some ways. Nevertheless, in the spirit of the season of giving and receiving, I decided I’d share some of the gifts I’ve received this year with all of you.

  • The gift of education. After I’d worked part-time for about a month, I started toying with the idea of graduate school again. This wasn’t a new dream or fantasy of mine. I love learning, and given unlimited funds and time, I could easily become a career student. Given that I have unlimited funds, limited time, and financial responsibilities, I’d pushed aside the idea of higher education for years. One morning over coffee, I mentioned to James how much I’d love to take some graduate classes in English. “Well then why don’t you?”  Well, I don’t know, I thought. His encouragement motivated me to peruse programs, find one that worked for me, and go through the application process. A perceptive person once told me that when trying to make a big decision, it helped her to pray, “God, open the right doors and close the wrong ones.” I prayed that prayer daily while going through the application process, and He just kept opening doors for me. Right now, I’m awaiting the arrival of my books for my first three classes.
  • The gift of learning. Call us nerds, but at our home, we really love the history channel, the documentary channel, Jeopardy, and crossword puzzles. By watching more educational television and less train wreck television (such as Flavor Flav’s fabulous shows), I’ve gained the gift of enlightenment. I’ve also started taking suggestions about what to read or what to research from friends of mine and people I admire. Rather than “put it on the list,” I’ve just done it. And I’m glad I have. By being a little more open-minded about how to spend my time, I’ve learned about things I knew nothing about last year, and I’ve learned that I enjoy things I thought I would abhor.
  • The gift of time. In September, I got a new job at a community college. I was ecstatic about returning to the world of higher education, but I was also elated about the part-time nature of the position. I’ve had a job since I was 14 years old, and at times, I’ve been a bit of a perfectionist and workaholic. Now I’ve been given the gift of time. I can work part-time and not feel bad about it because I’m with someone who supports me and makes sacrifices to make that possible.
  • The gift of relaxation. Having functioned for so long while riddled with anxiety and stress, it’s taken me time to learn how to relax and give myself permission to do so. Learning how to enjoy what I’m doing while I’m doing it has been a process, and I’m still figuring it out, but I feel like I’ve made leaps and bounds this year. Being able to snort-laugh while watching an animated movie or just cuddle my dogs for 15 solid minutes without feeling antsy about moving on to another task is a gift.
  • The gift of trust. In February 2010, I got my second tattoo, the Chinese symbol for “trust” on my left wrist. At the time, it symbolized the importance of the role of trust in relationships, but it was also an extended index finger to all those people who’d betrayed me throughout life and had proven themselves untrustworthy. Since then, I’ve realized how very little I really trust anyone, including God, and that angry finger has fallen. Through the counsel of a wise mentor and the prodding of God during my quiet reading, prayer, and meditation time each morning, my eyes have been opened to my severe lack of trust. In almost all situations, when things have gone wrong, I have chosen not to trust God and to trust myself instead, and my failure to trust God has separated me from Him time after time. Thankfully, I’ve determined to continue to do my part to get closer to truly trusting both God and others. I have in no way arrived, but I’m on the right path.
  • The gift of freedom. Finally, this year, I have gained freedom. I chose “freedom” as my word of the year for 2011, and whether through self-fulfilling prophecy or divine fate, I’ve certainly found it. I’ve gained freedom from the past, freedom to live in today, and freedom to dream about the future rather than dread it. This year, I realized that I could have been living this way ever since unlocking my heart to my Creator many years ago. I just hadn’t let myself open the door until now. What a gift it is to step outside.

Gifts

It’s the night before Christmas. It really doesn’t feel like it to me, primarily because my head is so congested that I can’t enjoy the candle that’s lit and flickering on the table in front of me or the cider I drank an hour ago. I’m a pretty sensual person. I like to soak in the world around me completely and appreciate the seasons, the holidays, the tiny moments while they’re happening before they pass me by.

But this year, it’s been pretty stressful between things going on at work, home, etc. It hasn’t felt super Christmasy to me.

Thankfully, I had a whole week off work to relax and spend time with people I care about and enjoy being around. I can’t say it really got me in the “Christmas spirit,” but it definitely reminded me of the gifts God’s given me throughout this entire year. I had breakfast with a friend of mine who came into my life just six or seven short months ago this week. We had one of those conversations you never really forget, the kind full of epiphanies and deep, saturated moments that change the way you think about things and the way you view yourself and the way you live your life. Later, she told me I was one of “her gifts of 2009.”

So in similar spirit, here are some of the gifts that God has sent my way in 2009.

  • The relationship prayer, given to me by a friend I barely know. I’ve been praying this prayer for months, and it revealed truths to me and insights I really needed to lead me to big decisions.
  • A small, close-knit group of other couples to meet with to share personal things with and get feedback from to help me grow as a person and in my relationship.
  • The opportunity to teach a class of teenage girls and their willingness to share truly intimate moments of their lives with me and to accept me for who I am… and most importantly, all the things God taught me about myself in the process of teaching the class.
  • The chance to  remember that there’s a woman inside me who is soft, gentle, and vulnerable who wants to love and be loved.
  • Reconnections with friends from China who rekindled the love I have inside me for all things China.
  • The restoration of old friendships that came as a result of losing two people I loved.
  • A chance to learn how to grieve and to learn how to choose to let someone go when it would have been the selfish but easier choice to keep hanging on.
  • The beautiful opportunity to give back to Youth Home in memory of Andrew and to share it with people I loved on my 30th birthday.
  • The choice to live every day the best I can, one day at a time, knowing that I’m okay with who I am finally at this point in my life.

Hope this year has brought as many wonderful gifts your way as well.

Merry Christmas.