Will you be my friend?

In elementary school, I scribbled a few friendship invitations, carefully wrapped them 80’s origami style, and passed them to the girls I deemed interesting and trustworthy.

“Will you be my friend? Please check one: Yes, No, or Maybe.”

a0f0bb28519c347cd8063a6c40937768It was a trend, okay? A terrible one, but one which I still anxiously recall each time I choose to put myself out there to connect with new potential friends.

A male friend of mine once mentioned that when asking an older man to mentor him, he felt awkward energy, as if he were asking his mentor to prom. I laughed when he told me this.

But recently I found myself feeling the exact same way when I decided to step outside my comfort zone to invite my FOFO (formerly online friend only) to lunch. Kristi isn’t the first FOFO for me; as a writer, channel lean formats don’t feel threatening to me. I can truly connect with others without ever meeting them (to an extent). I enjoy reading others’ social media posts, commenting when appropriate, and browsing through their photos. As a career coach, it’s safe to say I’m a social media expert; I teach others how to use social media for networking and branding purposes.

Over the years, I’ve formed many solid work relationships and friendships in a virtual environment. I genuinely consider some of these people great colleagues and friends even though we’ve never met face-to-face. Some of them have offered me insights into running my business, advice regarding my skills and interests, and comfort and comradery during my darkest times.

But I don’t prefer to live and breathe in a virtual world.  There’s too much life to be lived, and living it together while breathing, talking, and of course, consuming great coffee is my preferred MO.

Sometimes life is easier when I stay on my side of the screen.

If I never meet you, and we never play the getting-to-know-you game, I invest much less time into what may or may not work. I don’t have to listen attentively. I don’t have to fix my hair or apply makeup. And let’s face it—I don’t have to be very vulnerable, allowing you to watch my facial expressions and body language while I tell you about my first marriage, explain my participation in organizations dear to me, or fumble through a political discussion.

If we never sit across the table and make eye contact, I don’t have to be the real me. I can be whomever I want to be—the best version of me—and keep the messes under wraps.

Yet when I met Kristi for the first time face-to-face at a chili supper, I knew we clicked. I also knew if I didn’t take action against my feelings and send the 2016 version of the “will you be my friend” note, I’d probably regret it.

So I did. I sent the cold Facebook message.

Fear followed. What if she politely blows off my invitation? What if she never responds? What if she rejects me?

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A reenactment of our first lunch date (The Pinto). Sorry for butchering your hair, Kristi.

She didn’t, and once again, my fears weren’t realized, and God reminded me of His love by meeting one of my deepest needs—genuine friendship.

She’s my current favorite FOFO. Each time we talk, my horizons expand. My brain wrinkles. And my heart fills with gratitude.

 

The question

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

I entered The Pinto, a trendy vintage coffee shop/eatery in downtown Batesville, and ordered my favorite caffeinated beverage—café breve—while waiting to meet with my FOFO (formerly online friend only) for lunch, coffee, and conversation face-to-face for the first time.

Half an hour later, deep into a great chat about grace and relationships, a mutual friend greeted us and stopped to talk. While discussing potential dates for this mutual friend, the topic of abstinence surfaced. The mutual friend asked us, “Did you have sex before you were married?”

This time, I only felt a slight sting before responding to this version of the age-old question, “Tell me about your first time.”

21 years ago, a family friend raped me when I was 16 years-old. It was the first time I’d had sex.

Immediately following this traumatic experience, I did what many PTSD-infected, confused, depressed teenagers do who’ve been sexually assaulted: I acted out. I used drugs and consumed too much alcohol, engaged in sexual activity with multiple people, and moved in and out of understanding God’s role in my life.

Prior to this horrible experience on July 11, 1995, I nearly bragged about my virginity, wearing it like a badge of honor while skating a thin line of promiscuity. I wore a freaking True Love Waits ring. I attended youth group twice per week and thought I really had it all together, and that if I just continued on the straight and narrow path, I would certainly succeed in absolutely everything I attempted. I believed that good things come to those who wait and that God rewards good behavior.

Obviously, those maxims proved themselves false. My world felt shaky, and I have plenty of poorly written poetry scribbled in my high school journals to demonstrate this.

One night, nine months after being raped, a boy I loved (who knew all about my assault) asked me if I believed in God and pointed me to the sparkling stars in a black, clear sky as evidence of His existence. I responded, “I do believe He exists. I just don’t believe He cares anymore.”

But that brief spiritual conversation served as a catalyst which sparked change in my soul, and a few months later I accepted Christ while standing all alone in an Oklahoma hay field, watching fireworks on Independence Day.

But I wasn’t set free right away from my past, my feelings, my PTSD, or my inability to make choices that reflected an ounce of self-worth. The chains were heavy. It was just the beginning of my spiritual journey.

I’m still taking it step by step.

I used to hate it when the topic of “firsts” came up in conversation. It isn’t so bad today, even though it’s still not the most pleasant thing to discuss. I’m content today to reflect on the past, knowing not even God can change the past and that I only have to mention my past wounds or mistakes if it will benefit someone else, for I “do not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it” (Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous).

I am not glad I was raped.

But I’m grateful for the many opportunities God’s given me to serve and love other sexual assault survivors.

I’m grateful for my brokenness because God proved His love to me by putting me back together again.

I pray He does the same for you.

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.

God’s big hands

422175_481118075239410_57455172_nWhen I was 10 years old, I met Harmony Culbreath. She brought nothing but sunshine to my life. My mentor defines elevator people as people who lift you up and basement people as people who drag you down; Harmony lifted me up. She was constantly smiling, cracking jokes, and singing with her deep, one-of-a-kind beautiful voice that gave me chills. I’d still rather listen to Harmony’s voice than to anyone else’s voice if I had to choose one person to listen to for the rest of my life.

I remember—and still laugh every time I think about it—a long minivan ride home from Little Rock. I am not sure what the trip entailed, but Harmony had ridden in our family van, along with me and my slew of sisters and parents. On the way home, in the back of the dark van, my sisters and I begged Harmony to sing popular rock songs and hymns to us over and over and over again and were mesmerized by her voice. My mom, on the other hand, eventually became annoyed at the junior high a capella karaoke and finally yelled at us and asked us to shut our traps and play the silent game. We were sorely disappointed. This put an end to Mariah Carey, Wilson Phillips, and the other tunes Harmony belted out for us in perfect pitch.

Harmony never seemed to display fear. If she felt afraid, she didn’t show it. Once, when we went ice skating—which she’d never done before in her life—she attempted a single axel. She actually made it halfway around before the toe of her skate dug into the ice, causing her to fall face forward into the ice. She scraped her face on the ice, creating a fairly nasty gash on her cheekbone. That didn’t deter her for long. She slapped a Band-Aid on the spot and kept on skating. Harmony had guts when it came to playing softball, too. She slid and pushed and shoved and was so aggressive that other girls were often so intimidated by her that she was virtually untouchable on the field.

I remember moments when Harmony shared deeply personal and intimate stories and memories with me regarding personal relationships, first dates, family secrets, and other internal struggles. Harmony was a genuine human being—she had the capacity to be honest and real. This is a trait that many people do not come by easily in today’s world. In some ways, this made her a more vulnerable person, but in other ways, it made her stronger.

1544453_10202971807282635_577239659_nObviously, Harmony was a renaissance woman. If she set her mind to do something, she did it. I think she must have applied this same fierce determination to her career, and it’s probably why she found success singing and performing for years while juggling her full-time job of raising four children. She didn’t half-ass anything in life, including being a mama. Harmony loved her babies, and she loved them well. Anyone who vaguely knew her, even online, could clearly see that Harmony’s focus was on ensuring that her four children knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were loved by her.

You can’t lose someone like Harmony and expect that life is just going to move on. Clichés like “God works everything out for the best” or “There’s a reason for everything” mean nothing right now. In fact, those phrases piss me off in situations like these.

10610566_10205781782930270_3974353586199131000_nAs someone who does believe in God—and I know Harmony shared this faith–I do attempt to work to accept reality and life on life’s terms. The reality is that Harmony is not coming back, and the reality is that her children are without their mother. I have found that what helps me in times like these is to stop focusing on the problem and to focus on the solution. Part of focusing on the solution is to focus on God’s goodness instead.

Okay—so where is God’s goodness in this situation? I asked myself this question the night that I got the news about Harmony’s death. Searching… searching…. Searching… I’ve got nothing.

Today, as I stood outside during my own daughter’s nap, I drank a cup of coffee while the wind whipped through my hair and dried the tears that flowed down my cheeks, the tears that have somewhat steadily flowed down my face like molasses since hearing this news. I began asking myself a myriad of rhetorical questions…. Where are her children? Who is caring for them? Are they crying right now and missing their mama? Who is going to comfort them? Who is rocking them now and singing those sweet songs to them that Harmony used to sing to them? Will they be in safe arms? Will they be fed plenty of food, and when they go to bed at night, will they be in a home that keeps them free from danger of every kind? Are they all together so they can retain some semblance of normalcy since their primary caregiver has been ripped from their lives? God, are you hearing these questions??? ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME RIGHT NOW?

And while those molasses-like tears began picking up their pace, I felt Him respond.

Don’t you think I’m capable of holding all four of them right now? Don’t you believe that I Am their Mother and their Father?

Yes.

So one more time, I’ll choose to trust God. His hands are big enough to hold all four of those precious babies.

Dirty dancing’s not THAT bad

The class of 97, on the White River, April 26, 2014

The class of 97, on the White River, April 26, 2014

Last weekend, I said a fond farewell to a former high school classmate whose life was recently cut short. His sister hosted a “Celebration of Life” service at a local restaurant; the White River rolled and roared along beside us as we recalled living memories of our friend driving recklessly while listening to rock-n-roll music, or sending $100 to someone desperately in need of gas money for a trip home, or talking about his love for fashion and his desire to design clothing someday.

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect–clear blue sky with a few puffy clouds here and there, a warm breeze, the bright sun blinding us as we took a picture together, with just one of us missing.

Some of the original Dirty Dancing crew a few years after the watch party :)

Some of the original Dirty Dancing crew a few years after the watch party 🙂

As I chatted with my classmates after giving my spiel about my friend, one of them reminded me about her birthday party in sixth grade, a fabulously naughty slumber party, complete with ghost stories and the movie my mom had banned me from watching, Dirty Dancing. I laughed as I remembered blaming the entire incident on my friend at the time; of course, I was THRILLED to have the opportunity to watch Patrick Swayze sway and kiss–all shirtless, of course. I might have had no idea about sex yet, but I had some idea about kissing, having kissed my New Kids On The Block poster of Jordan Knight every single night for about 367 days in a row.

The movie met my every expectation. The best part was the soundtrack. I still have yet to find a better soundtrack to a movie. Maybe it’s just the nostalgic junior high kid in me, but every time I hear the songs from Dirty Dancing, I can’t help but smile and sing along.

This morning, like a real grown-up woman, I helped my husband get my baby ready for the day, fried up turkey bacon and eggs for my family, spent time alone with God, and settled down at the computer to grade research papers. I glanced up at the calendar hanging on the bulletin board above my desk and noticed a date, seven days from today, with a big “35” jotted in red ink.

Oh yeah, I remembered. My birthday is a week from today.

And I’m not sure why, but suddenly the thoughts of saying goodbye to my friend washed over my mind–not with sadness, just with a sense of contemplation. And then for some reason, I caught myself humming the tune to one of those great songs on the soundtrack of Dirty Dancing.

Now I’ve had the time of my life
No I never felt like this before
Yes I swear. It’s the truth
And I owe it all to You . . . 

If someone ended my life and murdered me today, God forbid, or if my life ended for some other random reason today, I think this might be the song–or at least the stanza–that would capture how I feel about my life today–how I feel about God today.

Introducing Maggie to my alma mater, May 2014

Introducing Maggie to my alma mater, May 2014

This is the miracle–that if you’d asked me five years ago, or 10 years ago, to summarize my life with one song, I probably would have selected either some depressing hardcore rock song or an equally depressing gospel hymn disguised as a hopeful look toward heaven. Either way, I might have kept up the appearance of someone peppy and happy and carefree, but I carried around debts and burdens and pain nonetheless.

And then I started taking some steps, 12 of them, actually, that have helped me to just lay those burdens down one by one, piece by piece, and to give God what is God’s and to “not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.”

What a life, and what a God.

So maybe watching Dirty Dancing wasn’t THAT bad.

And turning 35 isn’t bad at all. It’s a blessing.

 

–Quote from The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, page 83

Dear Bethany

Thank you, Henry Petty, for asking me to write a letter to my old self.

Spring 1996

Dear Bethany,

Prom night 1996

Prom night 1996

You look amazing—really and truly. You don’t like your thighs and think that your waist is terribly out of proportion with your hips. You hate the fact that you inherited your dad’s oily, acne-prone skin. Someday you will realize that your obsession with your legs is ludicrous and that you should be thankful for having strong, athletic legs. You’ll understand that oily skin is less likely to wrinkle, and in 2010, you will look younger than you really are. You will look back at pictures from tonight and wonder why in the world you didn’t see yourself as a total hottie in your floor-length, strapless, black velvet gown.

Tonight will be a big deal to you in 2010.

You’re about to meet someone who will later change your life for the better. Someone who will prove to you that John Eldredge’s depiction of the “Wild at Heart” man does, in fact, exist. Someone who will teach you to have fun again and to take yourself and life less seriously. Someone who will undo decades of damage. Someone who God will use to show Himself to you over and over again.

Stop.

Stand right there for a minute longer. Wait a minute before you turn to talk to your friend Paul who you asked to prom just so he could hang out with his friends.

See Jessica’s date? The one with dark hair, so dark it’s nearly black? The one smiling at you? That guy.

Go eat your dinner with your date and then ask that mystery man to dance. Let him put his huge hands around your disgustingly tiny waist. Let him apologize for his lack of dancing skills and listen to him talk about Nathan and Nick and Jordan and Tony. Talk about how funny it is that you’ve spent the past year spending time with Tony while dating his friend and missed meeting him somehow. Watch his hazel eyes light up and the corners of those eyes crinkle up when he smiles at you. Listen to him laugh. Do you hear how real his joy is?

Now lay your head on his chest. Close your eyes and let yourself breathe for a minute. Everything disappears.

Remember that feeling.

In 14 years, after you’ve both made plenty of mistakes and loved other people and learned how to live life, you will feel that feeling again—that I’m-safe-and-home-and-he-won’t-let-anything-hurt-me feeling—every day for the rest of your life.

He will be yours.

Not now and not any time soon. You have to kiss some frogs. Lots of frogs. You can’t do better until you know better, after all.

Our first photo together a few weeks after meeting, with the friends who introduced us.

Our first photo together a few weeks after meeting, with the friends who introduced us.

You’ll know better in 14 years, and when you see this mystery man again, he will take your breath away. He will apologize for wearing ratty shorts and a t-shirt and $3 flip flops, and you won’t remember any of that. His hair will have turned from black to gray, and you’ll find it even more handsome and charming than before. You’ll remember thinking about how the light fell in through the glass doors of The Pantry restaurant behind him. You will feel silly for being so nervous on your second date; you will cry at your mom’s house, like a baby, at 31 years of age as you take a shower and painstakingly obsess over your still acne-prone skin. You will explain to your mom, as you bake an apple pie for your “fall party” themed date, that you have never felt nervous about a date before, but then again, you’ve never wanted a man to like you so badly.

Our wedding, 2012

Our wedding, 2012

Two years later, when you laugh hysterically and then weep uncontrollably after taking a pregnancy test, that man will simply take charge of the situation and propose to you while you lie in bed, feeling nauseous and unable to go to work. He will make you his wife and continue loving you, chili-cheese-fry-cravings and all. On your wedding day, you will close your eyes after he leans his tall frame down to kiss you. You will rest on his chest, just like you would tonight if you danced with him.

You won’t be able to take back those 14 years, but on July 31, 2010, you will wish that you could. And you will have grown wise enough to know that you can’t. You’ll just let him hold you now, today, in the moment, as often as possible.

You will believe that ending up here was worth all of the in-between.

And so will he.

And you will live happily ever after, just like you thought you never would.

Love,

Mrs. Wallace

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.”