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.

 

 

Platitudes

In memory of my friend Tara’s father, Jerry, who recently relocated to The High Resting Place, and in celebration of National Poetry Day (October 8), I’ll share this poem I wrote today during my lunch break. 

Platitudes

I am tired of losing
good people.

Contaminated by asbestos, you never
even lounged around, smoking Marlboro Reds,
drinking Budweiser or downing whiskey shots.

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Tara and Jerry

You built a farm
while you were young
and able-bodied. You taught and led
countless lives.

You focused.

You were relentless.

You raised your girls
with all your might,
then turned back the clock
30 years later and fathered
your grandson in lieu of
cruises and red car pursuits.

You gave every ounce of yourself.

Praying over you, soaking your
hands with tears in silent sobs,
I only asked Him
to let you go.

Enough is enough.

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Liam, Jerry, and Tara

Platitudes make me puke. But I
understand this now:

“Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

–Bethany Wallace, 10/8/15

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

2012 gift list

My first meal in 2012 on New Year's Day

My first meal in 2012 on New Year’s Day

Last year, I started a tradition of writing a gift list, recording the ways God had blessed me by teaching me a new lesson, adjusting my proverbial eyesight, or concreting an abstract concept. As I celebrated New Year’s over cabbage rolls with my then boyfriend and his family, I had no idea what gifts God had in store for me in 2012.

This morning, as I crept out of my newborn daughter’s nursery and quietly filled my mug with coffee, I reflected on how vastly different my world seems now compared to then. And yet one thing remains constant despite the myriad of changes whirling around me–God never ceases to surprise me. He blows my expectations away. He gives me what I do not deserve and withholds harsh and painful consequences that I do deserve. He dusts off places inside me I’d resigned as impossible to clean.

When I look back, I see His beautiful fingerprints all over my life.

These are a few of the gifts given to me in 2012.

  • The big picture. Throughout my life, God has allowed many negative and painful things to elapse. One of those things toward the top of that terrible list is the experience of being raped the first time I had sex at the age of 16. As many of you read about over the course of a series of blog posts on this topic, God did what He has rarely done for me before–He allowed me to see the big picture and brought many of the puzzle pieces together before my eyes, revealing to me various reasons and motives behind the question, “Why did this happen to me, God?”
    I am not sure why He chose to bless me with the information and insights He shared, but I am grateful nonetheless. I’m grateful for my good friend who shared his secret with me, which shed light on my own story due to the intricate connections between us and the man who raped me. I’m grateful for my counselor who led me through the valleys of shadow, death, and grief as I unearthed years of buried emotions. And I’m grateful for the clarity I found on the other side.
  • Forgiveness. As a result of this clarity, I found fuel to forgive the man who raped me. This sparked a series of revelations regarding sins and missteps I’d never forgiven myself for. Five years ago when I began the process of recovery in a twelve-step program for families and loved ones of alcoholics, God showed me in subtle ways that I must first forgive myself before finding fuel to forgive others. Since then, He has presented me with opportunities to apply this lesson learned to real life situations. Forgiving the man who raped me was a mountainous obstacle to overcoming this complicated roadblock to peace.
  • 001Timing. This year, God perfectly timed and ordered my circumstances for my maximum benefit. I believe He has always done this, but I haven’t always noticed. This year, I noticed. I noticed that He healed me from painful parts of my past just prior to surprising us with the news that we would soon be parents. I noticed that He pried the invisible calendar from my hands containing minute details of the order of MY plans for MY life and politely crushed it into a tiny paperwad before tossing it into the trashcan. I begrudgingly let go of my schedule, crossed out all the items on my to-do list, and let God reset the timer. I learned that it’s impossible to plan out every second of my life and that some of the most wonderful things occur when I stop trying.
  • About 30 weeks along, September 2012

    About 30 weeks along, September 2012

    Patience. Wise friends in recovery have warned me against praying for patience for years–if you ask God for patience, He gives you opportunities (which are often painful) to grow in patience rather than granting your wish and instantly filling you with the virtue. At least that’s been my experience. I did not ask God to let me become pregnant, but He blessed me with my baby anyway. As someone who has feared and loathed pregnancy my entire life, I did not look forward to spending 40+ weeks of my life dealing with the growing pains of pregnancy. Although I did not enjoy being pregnant and hope to avoid repeating that experience, I definitely gained patience as a result of the complications and symptoms I faced during pregnancy which were utterly out of my control. As I sat in my recliner for hours on end, I learned that letting the dust accumulate on the carpet for a few more days would not cause anyone any harm and that taking only one course in the fall semester would simply slow the rate of completion for graduate school, not stop it. I didn’t ask for patience, but I’m glad I got it.

  • Security. I’m not sure why, but ever since I was a child I’ve had an unfounded fear of someone breaking in to my house at night and hurting or murdering me and my family. I didn’t watch horror movies or even scary television shows as a child, so I’m not sure where this fear originated. After circumstances surrounding my experience of being raped, my fear of this increased and seemed logical rather than irrational. I have been known to refuse to sleep on the side of the bed closest to the door, to check the locks on doors and windows countless times, and to lie in bed for hours on end, listening to every little creak and groan of the floors, wind, and tree limbs. I’ve been too scared to sleep, literally and not so literally. In July of 2010, when I met my husband, the number of sheep required for counting each night began lowering.
    Tying the knot at our home, April 2012

    Tying the knot at our home, April 2012

    As I watched him choose good over evil, right over wrong, and truth over deception repeatedly, I believed his declaration of love for me more and more. I learned to trust him. This year deepened my trust for him in many ways. He cared for me selflessly during the roughest patches of my pregnancy. He encouraged me to quit my job in order to focus on finishing graduate school and resting during my pregnancy, promising me that he would take care of me financially. Having started working at age 13 as a tutor and never remaining unemployed for more than a few weeks ever since, trusting someone else to meet my needs felt foreign. But as I learned to still my worried mind, and close my watchful eyes, I found myself finally able to rest.

  • With my darling, November 2012

    With my darling, November 2012

    Fulfillment. I thought I’d felt fulfilled before. I’d accomplished plenty. I made all A’s in high school. I graduated from college with honors. I have maintained a perfect GPA in graduate school so far. I have held great paying jobs and managed people, events, and departments. I’ve donated my time and energy to serving others overseas and in my local community. I’ve reached out and helped others and experienced the joy of being used by God as a catalyst for growth and revelation in others’ lives. I had no idea that I’d never felt as fulfilled as I could, and I certainly didn’t expect that I’d feel completely fulfilled by becoming a mother. But I do.

If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that the unexpected gifts are always the best.

 

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.

Itsy bitsy spiders

I didn’t know that I love fishing until this summer. I got my fishing license, and James and I started going out on the river together as often as possible. I feel more at peace with the whole world when I’m out on the water, the wind whipping through my ponytail (and bugs hitting my sunglasses!). But it’s more than just the setting and the mood that makes me love fishing–it’s the thrill of reeling in what feels like a humungous catch and tossing it into the boat, knowing some great fish tacos will be in my near future.

The first time James took me fishing, I didn’t have a license yet, so I just watched. Well, I also pouted. I really wanted to fish, too! It’s not as much fun when you’re not experiencing it yourself–touching the rod, feeling the weight of the fish pulling against you, knowing that you made it happen and by pulling back at just the right time.

After getting my license, we went limb lining. We took the boat out at sunset and headed up the river to a creek. After connecting hooks to string, James painstakingly tied line after line to limbs, carefully maneuvering the boat through swamp-like darkness. I figured out rather quickly that limb lining was NOT my thing. Not only are there more bugs to feast on me at night, but there are also visible spiders everywhere–on any given limb, I saw three or four spiders with gigantic, intricate webs waiting to snare me if the boat moved an inch closer… or at least that’s what I imagined. The fear of a spider falling on me or brushing off a limb onto my head or shoulders grew as the darkness deepened and the boat crept along through the quiet creek. I admit I may have emitted a few very girly shrieks from time to time.

After hanging the baited lines, we took the boat to a small sandbar, ate a snack, and gazed at the stars together.

We headed back to check the lines. As we rounded the corner into the creek, James pointed out a small tree that seemed to be alive, wiggling and wrestling with an invisible creature in the water. We’d caught our first catfish! As James pulled the fish in and tossed it into the cooler, I felt myself swat the arachnophobia away. My one and only focus became the fish. I morphed into a fearless fisherwoman within a matter of moments. It felt like flying.

It reminded me that if I focus on the fish every day, I’ll find those nagging fears crawling away, leaving me with nothing but the sheer thrill of living.

Three prayers

Thanksgiving has always been tied with Easter as being my favorite holiday. Perhaps it’s because it’s my mom’s favorite holiday, and she makes a big deal out of it. Maybe it’s because I’m pretty anti-commercialization, and Thanksgiving (for the most part) is not as tainted by the world of marketing, advertising, and bows and packages. It could be because it’s all about family, and I happen to believe mine is pretty spectacular, unique, fun-loving, and quirky. And let’s face it–it’s about the food, folks.

My mom started a tradition years ago of going around the table and asking us to share at least one thing we’re thankful for. This has sparked some interesting conversations, jokes, and tears. One year, my sister revealed her pregnancy to us during this sharing time. Top THAT!

This year, as I thought about that tradition, I decided to take my turn around the table in advance and share with all of you a little something that’s been on my mind this week that I’m incredibly grateful for.

It seems that God has been stepping up His game in the prayer and faith department. I know He knows what I need–spiritually speaking and otherwise–and I’ve been having a sort of faith and trust crisis. Most days, I pray for God’s will. I don’t need to pray for specific things necessarily because I believe He’s got me figured out and can handle the details. But lately I have asked Him for some specific things, and He’s delivered. Every single time, I’ve been like a kid at Christmas when I discover that He’s answered my prayer.

Thursday morning, I prayed for rain in northeast Arkansas. The love of my life needed it. He’s a forester. Parts of his livelihood depend on it. That evening, it rained there. And the forecast changed to include more rain the following week than had previously been expected.

Friday morning, when he went to check his beaver snares on some land he’s managing for a client, I prayed that he’d find at least one beaver in one snare. We’d just talked, and I could sense in his voice that he was doubting himself or had some worries about the job he’d done. He found a huge beaver that morning, one of the largest he said he’d ever seen.

That evening, I had coffee with James, my friend Joey, and Joey’s parents. I decided that afternoon to go hunting with James and Joey the next morning. It was a total impromptu decision. I love the woods, and I’ve become a complete nature fanatic the past few years. But I’ve never had any real desire to hunt, even though James bought me a shotgun a few months ago. I’ve loved learning to shoot, but still, I’m not sure why I decided to go hunting. Anyway, I asked if they’d mind if I went along, and James said, “Of course not!” He looked pleasantly shocked. While we sat there at Joey’s mom’s dining room table, I said, “Oh wait. I have to pray that I’ll kill a deer with antlers. God’s been answering my prayers lately.” So I prayed for that right then.

The next day, we went out into the woods early in the morning and saw a few deer but didn’t get to shoot at any. We ate breakfast, took a nap, and went back into the woods for a few hours before sunset. As James and I sat under a tree hidden behind some brush whispering to one another, a lone spike appeared about 100 yards away. “There’s your deer,” he whispered. I got the gun, sighted the deer, and as I muttered under my breath hoping the deer would move into a clear area, the deer jerked and seemed spooked by something in the woods in a different direction. “If you want to shoot it, you better shoot it now,” James told me. So I shot it right in the lungs where he’d told me to aim.

After he’d assured me I’d DEFINITELY killed a deer, I was elated. We waited for a few minutes and then went and discovered the buck’s body lying about 10 yards from where I’d shot it.

Its “antlers” may have been small, but God heard my prayer, and He answered that one, too. He just has a sense of humor.

All year long, He’s answered my prayers. This is what I’m grateful for. He always knows what I need, even when I don’t. He has given me more than I could have asked for so many times and taken from me what He knew I wouldn’t have been able to let go of but never needed to have.