Word of the year 2017

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

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

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Gulin, China–One of the images I focused on 

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

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

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

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

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

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Ozark National Forest

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

I am a leaf. He is the Water.

 

 

2016 gift list

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

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

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

 

1. I learned to take better care of myself.

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

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

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

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

2. I stopped holding my breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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4. I trusted God with outcomes.

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

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

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

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

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

5. I loved.  And I gained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real miracles

I am sick.

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

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

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hamming it up with my little red car

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

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

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

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

Tears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing reality is the greatest miracle I’ve lived.

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.

Doing

14358915_618953765392_1589227780450859615_nMaggie will turn four in November. I watched her sleeping tonight (since I couldn’t seem to fall asleep myself). She was wrapped up in my fluffy gray throw blanket, her golden auburn hair almost glowing against the darkness.

I wanted to keep her this way forever—peaceful, still, and breathtakingly beautiful. And tiny.

But of course I can’t. Maggie is moving, growing, learning, and thriving—and I’m grateful. She fluctuates between telling me she wants a big girl cup and asking for milk in a baby bottle at bedtime. Even though she’s been potty-trained for almost one year, she still requests a “Celly-grelly diaper” (that’s Cinderella pull-ups) when she wants to pretend she’s still a baby. She knows all her numbers and loves practicing counting, and she loves reading even though she resists learning about letters.

I could go on and on. I’m in love.

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Maggie, August 2013

When I was pregnant with Maggie, I quit working as an academic advisor due to pregnancy complications. I didn’t return to work until Maggie was about 14 months old, and then I only worked part-time as an adjunct English instructor for one year before accepting a full-time faculty position.

During my stay-at-home mom days, I will be honest—I struggled. It was the hardest job I’d ever done; the work never ended, and the client was often unsatisfied with my performance even though I did my darndest to please her. I felt insecure about my lack of financial contribution to our household even though my husband gently reassured me that staying home with Maggie was much more significant and helpful than any salary I’d ever earned.

It was tough to be where my hands were. I’m all about productivity; I like to make things happen. Being a mama is not about making things happen; it’s about letting things happen. Sigh.

Sometimes I found myself daydreaming about more enjoyable things to do while changing diapers or nursing Maggie. Even though I often wished for Calgon to take me away, I felt fulfilled knowing I was with the most important people doing the most important things on my to-do list every single day. When I had the opportunity to teach full-time, though, and to put my degree to use, I couldn’t resist.

The day I drove away from my house to teach full-time for the first time, I had a sinking feeling in my chest.

“You’re going to regret this someday.”

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One of the rare afternoons we spent together during my first semester of teaching full-time

That inner voice was partly correct. Although I thrive in the classroom and felt I’d found my niche teaching English to college students whom I still adore, I have many regrets about that time during our lives. My first semester of teaching full-time was like running the gauntlet. I taught too many courses—my fault for agreeing to do so—and too many writing courses which required countless hours of grading (not my fault since I didn’t select my own courses that semester). In the fall of 2014, I rarely arrived home in time to spend more than 15 minutes with Maggie and James before the sun set. I don’t recall cooking dinner once, but I’m sure I did… didn’t I? During the peak of my daughter’s cuteness, I slaved away to prove myself in academia.

But I found this to be true: if I’m excelling at work, I’m probably sucking at home, or at best, barely holding the pieces together while gritting my teeth and smiling, pretending to have it all figured out.

At the time, my remedy to missing Maggie’s life was to spend more money on her. I can’t count the number of times I said, “Maggie, Mama will bring you something cool today, okay?” She loved getting a fun gift—maybe a new rubber duck or a balloon—but sometimes she had tears in her eyes when I left for work.

I regret that.

I can’t change the past—not even God can change the past.

If anything has proven true in my life, it’s that God always gives me second chances and redeems the worst decisions I’ve made. He redeems outcomes.

I left teaching in December 2015 to accept a position as content manager of a small business I’d admired for over a decade. Two months later, I felt incomplete even though I was certainly making things happen and doing a great job. I missed my students; I missed teaching and applied for my old job. But I didn’t get the job, and even though my student evaluations as an instructor demonstrated 99% positive feedback, and my faculty evaluations boasted almost all 5’s, I wasn’t even granted the opportunity to interview for the position. Just a few months before, when leaving the college, I’d received an email from my boss stating that, “People talk about the ‘five percenters,’ but that category is not fitting for you – you are a ‘one percenter.’”

This 1%’er felt baffled, disappointed, and hurt.

I got over it.

I got over it because God gave me a new dream—to launch my own career coaching business and to harness my passions for career development, serving others, and mentoring. And thanks to my long-time mentor, my spiritual mentor, and professional friends and colleagues, I received ample encouragement and reassurance that I was more than qualified to help job seekers find their dream jobs. When I questioned whether I had enough experience to be considered an expert, and wondered if I should wait another five years before launching my business, my friend Dr. Steve Lindner said, “No, you’re ready now.”

I got over it because I found that since I have always believed in the power of networking, I’d made great alliances with various friends connected to other colleges and universities; these connections came through for me, and I was able to secure the chance to teach college part-time while growing my career coaching business.

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Maggie, spring 2016

And I got over it because while working as a content manager, I fell more deeply in love with my daughter. Each time our babysitter sent me photos of Maggie finger painting, hunting for armadillos in the woods behind our house, or eating Cheerios, I longed to be the one taking the pictures. I missed her.

And so I made right my wrong. I leaned out.

While listening to Natalie Merchant’s “Giving Up Everything” one day while driving home from work (in the dark, of course), I exhaled and made the decision to do just that.

I came home.

Today, I don’t earn enough money to spend extravagantly. I certainly don’t earn enough to buy myself an extensive fun wardrobe (complete with fabulous dresses with pockets) or trendy nail polish each season. Maggie rarely hears me say, “Mama will bring you something home.”

I’m already home, and I wouldn’t exchange time with my one precious girl for anything right now.

Instead of buying Maggie gifts, I’m giving myself to her.

When she wakes up in a few hours, I’ll say to her, “Mama has something fun for us to do today.”

Today we’re doing. We’re not buying.

And I’m feeling rich.

Outcomes

My three year-old daughter has been waking up around 2 a.m. for weeks now, tossing and turning in tears, crying out for us. A few weeks ago when my husband went into her room to console her, she cried out, “I want to go home!”

Over coffee, after she embarked on a playground adventure with our wonderful babysitter, we discussed Maggie’s recent bout with nightmares. What is the root cause? What does “I want to go home” mean? She rarely leaves the house without us, and when she does, it’s only for a few hours at a time. We were baffled. Had she been watching a cartoon that was troubling her? While we try to avoid helicopter parenting syndrome, I’ll admit to hovering over the remote. We don’t even let her watch the portion of My Little Ponies featuring the witches from 1985. Toddler nightmares are tough on toddlers, but I’ll admit that I avoid them for selfish reasons, too. At a loss, we agreed the best solution was to pray for her and comfort her. We shrugged our shoulders and moved forward with the day.

Later that morning, over my second cup of coffee on the porch, while listening to chirping birds and watching the sun continue to rise over the hilltop, I prayed for Maggie and asked God to relieve her of her bad dreams. God, please help her to sleep more soundly. Please help her to remember that we love her, and that she IS home, even when she’s sleeping.

Suddenly it hit me—God already answered her plea by refusing to answer one of mine.

That’s not exactly accurate, but I’ll explain.

Last fall, my longtime friend—the founder of the company I now work for—offered me the opportunity to join his company as Content Manager. At the time, I was happily working as an English faculty member for a community college. I wasn’t looking for another job, but the opportunity to write full-time, manage content for a company I’d admired for years, and earn a significantly higher income sounded wonderful. I accepted and worked part-time as Content Manager while finishing up the fall semester.

IMG_2836While I certainly enjoy my job, after working full-time for about two months, I found myself aching to mentor my students, teach in the classroom, and do all the things faculty members do. I knew my truer passion was connected to directly serving college students. I sucked down my pride and applied for my former position, even though doing so meant taking a huge pay cut. In March, before I even knew the outcome of my application, I opened up to my boss (and her husband, our company founder) about my feelings. They were completely supportive of my decision. In fact, they allowed me to begin working part-time in May to pursue my passion.

I began praying for nothing but God’s will. I’ve learned, through experience and through working the 12 steps of recovery, that any other prayer with any other intention is somewhat useless. If I pray for specific goals and wishes, I’m putting God in a box and rubbing on a little lamp, waiting for God to appear in a swath of sheer fabric. In my life, I’ve found more contentment and witnessed more miracles when I let God be God and do His thing in my life.

Wouldn’t it be a great Cinderella story if I were able to tell you that this fall I’ll be grading papers in my old office, brewing coffee in my Keurig, and forcing 200 students to listen to my horrible jokes again? But alas, that isn’t the case. I wasn’t offered my old job; in fact, I wasn’t even offered the opportunity to interview for my old job.

Is this God’s will? God’s “perfect will” that I’ve read about in countless Bible studies?

I don’t really think so. I believe we live in a broken, sick world full of corrupt people who make poor choices. As a result, God’s plans aren’t always implemented; we all make choices. Sometimes I make the right choice, and you make the wrong one (and vice versa). That combination doesn’t result in Plan A’s implementation.

But what I choose to believe is this, and I believe this because my life experience has never proven this wrong: regardless of the situations and circumstances that transpire, and regardless of choices made, God always makes the best of everything because He loves me and wants the best for me.

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Because God is able to work all things together for my good, I get to pursue a portfolio career. I get to continue working for people who respect my decision to pursue my passion. I get to work part-time doing professional work as Content Manager, from home, on a flexible schedule. My husband and our family members are working their tails off to complete an addition to our home, which includes my new office. I also get to pursue adjunct teaching positions online, which will provide me with continued teaching experience but plenty of flexibility. I get to pursue my dream of starting my own business as a career coach, which is something I thought would only come to fruition after my daughter had graduated from high school—and instead, it’s happening right now, a few days after my 37th birthday. Since my husband owns his own business, our family will be able to take an occasional fishing trip during the day if he’s not busy. This is a privilege we haven’t been able to enjoy until now.

The best part is that God has answered my Mama prayer about Maggie’s cry—I want to go home!—by not giving me what I thought I so desperately wanted.

Since I’m not going to be teaching full-time, I’ll be here with her every day. She will be home, and I’ll be here, too, helping her learn and grow. We’ll hunt for armadillos and skunks in the woods, and when she watches Peter Rabbit before lunch, I’ll hop on the computer to manage social media or edit resumes (hopefully).

I always come back to the simple prayer that never fails to ring true for me.

God, thank You

For all You’ve given me,

For all You’ve taken away

And for all You’ve left me with.

 

*Disclaimer: We recently learned that “I want to go home” refers to a cute playhouse Maggie’s babysitter took her to visit a few times. My husband has, therefore, agreed to construct a similar playhouse for Maggie on our property so that when she is literally home, she can “go home.” Kind of ruins the whole analogy I used here, huh? 🙂 

Word of the year 2016

I have a confession to make, and as a graduate of a liberal arts university (with a minor in religion and philosophy), this is truly crawl-under-a-rock worthy. I made a classic Christian mistake. I interpreted a passage of Scripture (Nehemiah 8:10) a) entirely out of context and b) in light of—wait for it—a contemporary Christian worship song rather than the context of the passage itself, the Jewish culture, or anything else reasonable or helpful.

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At OneDay 2000 (and yes, those are scrubs I’m wearing)

The embarrassing fact is this happened some time in college, and I’ve been running on the fumes of my lazy interpretation ever since. Has it caused me any major harm? Has it harmed others? Not necessarily.

At least one good thing came this Scriptural interpretation error for about 18 years. It opened my eyes to the truth that I’ve probably made similar errors numerous other times in my walk of faith over the years (incredibly humbling). Yikes—gotta keep my mental antennae up now every time I read the Bible for sure. What the heck was wrong with me? Were my emotions leading my brain or what? Who knows.

Here’s the problem.

I missed so much goodness by failing to see the big picture.

Each year since 2011, thanks to the prompting of my friend Denise Felton, I select a word as my focus or theme rather than making resolutions or setting specific goals. This helps me to stay centered and gives me something positive to meditate on; the appeal of choosing a word of the year also appeals to me since I’m a writer and have degrees in English—word nerd to the max, for sure.

This year, I felt compelled to focus on the word joy. If you read my previous blog post, you probably understand why. 2015 presented many challenges, and if I had to select a word in retrospect to represent my emotional state of being in 2015, it would likely be grief.

Who wouldn’t like a little relief from THAT? Joy hot fudge cake sundae with a little extra joy on top, please. And joyful cherry, too.002

I began researching joy and its word origins, reading articles online about the differences between happiness and joy, searching for quotes online and famous folks defining “joy,” and reading Scriptural passages about joy. All of this reading and research was helpful, but what stunned me—and quite frankly moved me to tears—was Nehemiah chapter 8. I knew I’d love verse 10 because, as I mentioned, I already felt attached to this verse because I’d belted out Matt Redman’s “Trading My Sorrows (Yes Lord)” more times than I can recall.

And I meant it—well, I meant that I WANTED the joy of the Lord to be my strength. Until the past few years, I didn’t even know how to allow God to be God in my life—I was my own god, managing and controlling and answering all my own questions and only turning to the real God as a last resort. So the whole “Trading My Sorrows” song and saying “Yes, yes Lord” thing was, at best, me paying desperate lip service to a noble concept I wanted to apply but simply couldn’t.

I recently purchased Sara Groves’ new album. The title track is Floodplain. I understand the song so well; the first time I listened to it, I gasped. She was describing the former Bethany.

Some hearts are built on a floodplain
Keeping one eye on the sky for rain
You work for the ground that gets washed away
When you live closer

Closer to the life and the ebb and flow
Closer to the edge of I don’t know
Closer to that’s the way it goes
Some hearts are built on a floodplain

And it’s easy to sigh on a high bluff
Look down and ask when you’ve had enough
Will you have the sense to come on up
Or will you stay closer

Closer to the danger and the rolling deep
Closer to the run and the losing streak
And what brings us to our knees
Some hearts live here

Oh the river it rushes to madness
And the water it spreads like sadness
And there’s no high ground
And there’s no high ground
Closer to the danger and the rolling deep
Closer to the run and the losing streak
And what brings us to our knees

Closer to the life and the ebb and flow
Closer to the edge of I don’t know
Closer to Lord please send a boat
Some hearts are built here

What happened to move me off the Floodplain is similar to what happened for God’s people, the Israelites, in Nehemiah chapter 8–God ultimately comes in for the win and fills them with more joy than they’d ever imagined. If I had taken time to read this chapter for myself slooowwwllyyy rather than rushing through it, latching on to the portion of the verse mentioned in the catchy Christian worship song all the cool kids were singing at the time, maybe I would have taken note of this as an 18 year-old kid… But maybe not. As Sara Groves states, “Some hearts are built here.” Mine certainly was.

Nehemiah, a servant of God who was serving as governor on behalf of King Xerxes, felt led to lead the Israelites who’d returned to Jerusalem out of exile to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He appealed to Xerxes, who granted him permission to oversee this task, and over a period of several months, Nehemiah worked tirelessly to make it happen but not without encountering numerous naysayers, some of whom threatened his life and tried to attack Jerusalem. While reading Nehemiah today, I felt exhausted at times—so I’m pretty sure he must have felt this way, too. There were times when the men did not even disrobe and disarm while sleeping for fear of being attacked at night. All this occurred while the people worked non-stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

When the Jewish people finally finished rebuilding the walls, Ezra, the priest, gathered the people together to read the Book of the Law. The people listened attentively, and Nehemiah and the priests said to the people, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law… “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated like this. And their joy was very great.  (Nehemiah 8:9-10, 17)

I never knew the back story—that the priests commanded the people to stop grieving and to find strength in the Lord via the avenue of joy that day.

And the back story goes WAAAYY back. These people returned to Jerusalem after being exiled to other nations, enslaved to nations and forced into God-knows-what kind of bondage. Many of their babies died from starvation before having a chance at life. I could go on and on. I’m not making this stuff up—read the books of the prophets in the Old Testament—it’s all there, and the atrocities committed against the Jewish people are horrific.

These people—the ones having difficulty holding back tears while the Book of the Law is being read for the first time after the walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt—these people are the survivors. But the priests see the big picture, and while they empathize with the mourning of the survivors, they also want to help the survivors thrive and move forward. They don’t want the people’s spiritual feet to remain stuck in the muck of grief. They want them to move into the clear, clean dry land of joy.021

This story—the story of the completion of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah chapter 8—occurred in the seventh month on the Jewish calendar during the Feast of Trumpets. This is the Jewish New Year.

It’s my New Year now.

This story resonates with me because it’s a beautiful depiction of what God has done for me, and it’s what I’m asking Him to do for me again.

After a long, hard year in 2015, I certainly relate to the overwhelming feelings expressed by the Israelites in Nehemiah. Like the people of Jerusalem, I am ready to celebrate like I have never celebrated before in 2016. I want to say at the end of this year, “And my joy was very great.”

As the wise king Solomon once said, there certainly is a season and time for everything. And there has been enough grief.

Excuse me, please. I must go heed the words of Nehemiah 8:12.

“Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.”

I know, I know… I’m taking the words out of context again… but for the love of chocolate…