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.

The best and worst of 2015

The truth is I’ve never read The Tale of Two Cities.

After spending 20 minutes scouring SparkNotes—yep, SparkNotes (the shame of it)—and reading quick online plot summaries and popular quote interpretations, I found myself sitting at my white handmade desk at 11:15 p.m. the night before Christmas Eve, tissuing away tears. It might have been the mention of the Christ-figure Carton and his martyrdom, or maybe it was Manette’s inability to tear himself away from making shoes even after being released from prison that got me choked up. I don’t know. But I decided to order a copy of the old classic and conquer it in 2016.

What drew me to the text in the first place was my recollection of the infamous opening paragraph and how well it reflects my sentiments regarding 2015.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . .

I won’t even begin to apply the quote to the universe or to philosophize about the state of the Union or the world at large, ISIS, global warming, technology and its effects on Generation Z (or the rest of us for that matter), or the countless other sociopolitical problems we face.

For today, I’ll stick to my own neck of the woods and my little life.

I wish I could not relate to the opening lines of The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I wish I considered these lines ridiculous and over the top. But I relate—I relate very well.

Each autumn, I attend a women’s conference that renews me spiritually. I participate in a group meditation that’s particularly meaningful to me and am handed a phrase which seems to always ring true in the coming year. Call it self-fulfilling prophecy, if you like, but I consider it a positive promise of sorts from God, or something hopeful to work toward or claim. In 2014, the phrase I was handed was “Blessings fill your life.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Indeed—blessings have filled my life this year. Some of them have overwhelmed me with their enormity. God has blown my expectations out of the water in many ways, redefined “miracle,” and allowed me to observe others’ miracles, too.

But this year also brought bone-crushing, soul-splitting grief. I lost several friends whom I dearly loved—and the means of loss were ugly, confusing, and left me with more questions than consolation. When I asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” I didn’t hear a pretty piano playing a sweet hymn in response. I heard nothing.

In those times, I tried to keep doing what worked for me spiritually—to daily maintain my spiritual condition. But sometimes, many times, I just sat outside at night and looked at stars and said nothing at all, and I think He was okay with that. Other times I hated Him and all but spat at Him. I’m pretty sure He was okay then, too. He is God, after all. He is a Big Boy and can handle my humanity, even when I am embarrassed by it.

During those times, I had no idea how “Blessings fill your life” applied to me, but the card emblazoned with the phrase haunted me from my bulletin board. I wanted to throw it in the garbage but never did.

I’m glad I didn’t.

The best of times made their way back around again, and when they did, they did not disappoint.

There’s too much of the best to spell it all out, and quite frankly, some of it is too personal to share. A long time ago God somehow explained to me that we’d share many amazing moments that would blow my mind and steal my heart along this journey together. I learned that if I shared all of them, or even most of them, they’d lose their power somehow. So I pick and choose what I share.

One of the biggest miracles and strangest turn of events occurred in relation to employment. In June, I reconnected with a friend/business acquaintance, and dozens of prayers, careful decisions, and two months later, he and his wife offered me my current position as Content Manager of their company. I’m not joking when I say that I’ve dreamed about working for this company for a decade; seeing God fit multiple pieces of a complicated puzzle together seamlessly this summer was nothing short of breathtaking.

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With my bosses/mentors/friends, Steven & Faith Rothberg

I recently traveled to Minnesota to train for a few days. We worked like dogs, but I never felt tired until I closed my eyes at night. While recalling specific conversations and moments with a team member recently, I realized that not once while training and brainstorming did my bosses say, “Oh no, we just can’t do that,” or “That’s not a good idea.” Perhaps THIS is why I’m overcome with gratitude every time I think about work.

This year I also realized that losses and flaws are often my greatest gifts.

While driving back from the airport after traveling to Minnesota, alone, tired, and ready to see my little Maggie who I knew would be ready to see me, I hurriedly drove at sunset while chugging cheap coffee. I suddenly felt a moment of panic when I realized I couldn’t recall if I’d taken the right exit or not. What if I didn’t, and I am heading in the wrong direction? I really have no idea where I’m going. I paused, took a deep breath, and prayed for guidance. I decided to call my husband for help even though I hated asking for his help while driving because believe it or not, he can be a little cocky at times.

When he answered the phone, he was calm and helped me right away. I was heading in the right direction after all.

Something in my mind clicked; God seemed to be saying If you never felt fear, you would never trust Me.

Oh my God. You’re right. Thank You for my fear.

I couldn’t believe I was driving down the road thanking God for my FEAR. What a gross thing to be thankful for. But for me, an egotistical, independent perfectionist, a little fear may be necessary to keep me coming back.

That got me thinking about the rest of my “best of times and worst of times.” The most painful moments when I have been smothered by grief have felt the worst, but those moments led me to seek the Comforter, the only One who can fill gaps in me. I’ve felt frustrated and at a total loss when my toddler doesn’t comply and goes in the opposite preferred direction, but this reminds me I’m not in control and Who Is. There have been many times this year when I felt too overwhelmed to speak or write. I learned that God and I communicate just as well as two silent beings.

Blessings have filled my life after all.

 

Grief, personified

Grief is nearly a person.

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He pulls up his small rickety
wooden chair and sits
quietly beside me.

He is my ill-mannered guest.

He never arrives
promptly, showing up at the most
inopportune moments, scratching his
chair legs across marble tiles
during grand openings, portraits gawking.

Or shoving the splintery old chair
right in the midst of our crowded
Thanksgiving table last year, just after
laughter filled our bellies.

What a bastard child, Grief.
Wanted by no one, really.

Grief is my pseudo friend
who wears out his welcome,

My whining toddler
his yearning insatiable
even after countless
tears, tissues, Ben & Jerry’s,
pounds.

Grief is my fifth half-brother
little known yet blood-close,
watching me rest my weary
forehead upon her shoulder
tonight, staring rudely
from the corner.

Grief sometimes has palpable
clay-covered palms, a ghost-like
lover, whispering memories on
wings of blue and black butterflies
at dawn in my backyard, or piercing
through winter’s horizon across
my frozen windshield.

Grief has never written
me a long, perfumed goodbye
letter. He simply stops
dragging his rickety chair
legs across my floor,
leaving me
with silence
again.

–Bethany Wallace, 10/14/2015

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

Leaning

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

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

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

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

The site of my first real job :)

The site of my first real job 🙂

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

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

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

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

He half-smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

“Your job.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled and kept walking.

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

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

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

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

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

For all of it

My mom’s infamous bikini-clad turkey

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. This year, we’ll celebrate it a little differently since we’ll be caring for a brand new baby and won’t be able to participate in family festivities. I’m hoping and praying that our families will feel sorry for us and deliver some of their delicious dishes to our doorstep :).

Regardless, we will have plenty to be thankful for–namely, our brand new baby girl who will undoubtedly change our lives.

A simple gratitude prayer has resonated within me the past few days. It seems that my husband and I have been bombarded with blessings, surprises, bad news, and challenges all at once. With our baby set to arrive any day now, we’ve been feeling overwhelmed, broken-hearted, and hopeful, all at the same time.

“God, thank You for all You’ve given me

For all You’ve taken away

and for all You’ve left me with.”

This prayer captures our lives right now–and really, it defines my life in general at any given moment. While most people tend to have an overabundance of things given, things taken away, or things left on any given day, sometimes the categories blur together. In fact, I find that my faith grows the most during blurry times when I simultaneously feel hopeful, desperate, and sorrowful.

In times when it seems He has taken away many things from me–or at least allowed things to be taken away from me–it’s easy for me to dwell on despair, depression, and grief. And while it’s healthy for me to spend some time grieving and even digging into pints of Ben & Jerry’s while watching old Humphrey Bogart movies accompanied by Kleenex, it’s not healthy for this season to last for too long. When I’ve lost the most significant things in my life–marriages, my role as a stepmom, my father to divorce and drugs, my innocence to rape at age 16, loved ones to death, and my own financial well-being–I’ve shamelessly participated in self-pitying-ice-cream-time on each occasion, in one form or another.

But I can’t stay there.

Because there are two other lines to the prayer. It’s not just about dwelling on the sad, pathetic things I’ve lost and throwing my own pity parties. It’s about recognizing and being grateful for all He’s given me–and after losing precious gifts, no matter the source of the loss or the identity of the taker–recognizing and being grateful for all He’s left me with.

Me and Beijing

Rather than spill my guts about one of the bigger losses in my life, I’ll share a story about my cats. I once adopted a kitten named Beijing. This kitten was seriously the most affectionate, infant-like kitten I’d ever known. He was neutered too early, and immaturity resulted, which is a common outcome when clinics don’t follow best practices for neutering. However, I accepted Beijing for the baby he was. He slept right next to my face. He nuzzled himself in fleece blankets and attempted to nurse corners of the blanket. He ate anything and everything (as his weight and size reflected). He played well with others and knew no strangers.

Unfortunately, his love for others might have led to his demise when he was attacked by some creature in the woods behind my house in 2009. Bleeding profusely, I wrapped him in his favorite blanket and drove maniacally to the after-hours vet clinic. After examining him, the vet concluded that his chances of survival–if he underwent surgery upwards of $4,000–would be about 15-20%. Not only did I lack the financial means to pay for said surgery, but I also knew that the odds were against him. I saw his pain and knew the best thing for him was to let him go. So I did.

I didn’t want to. He was a real source of joy and comfort to me. Losing him, and particularly losing him in the midst of my rapidly unraveling marriage, crushed me. I grieved his loss heavily for a few weeks. The feelings of sadness were never totally eradicated; I still feel pangs of grief and sorrow when I see pictures of him or when friends remind me of the funny things he used to do.

But I thank God for helping me to let Beijing go and to end his pain as quickly as possible. I don’t believe God killed my cat. I know that God’s in control, and He could have miraculously healed my cat, but for some reason, He didn’t. I don’t have to understand why; while my losses have been great in life, my gains have been greater.

Me and Tigger

In February, I awoke one morning to a tiny cry outside the back door. I still had two other outdoor cats, but I knew the cry was too tiny and too shrill to blame on either of them. I opened the back door in freezing temperatures to find a miniature tabby kitten hiding on the porch beneath objects. I brought him inside and fed him some milk and wondered how my then-boyfriend would react to this new addition to our family.

He loved him. This surprised me at first because he is not a cat lover; in fact, he has never enjoyed being around cats his entire life. But Tigger is different. From the moment I scooped him up into my arms, I recognized that there was an eerie resemblance between Tigger and Beijing. Physically, they resemble one another remarkably. But it’s more than that. Tigger is just as cuddly and playful and comical as Beijing was. Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes when I realize that God might have given me Tigger to fill a hole left in my animal-loving heart after losing Beijing.

For everything that I’ve lost, there’s something greater and more beautiful I’ve gained, even if it takes time to see it.

How can I dwell on all He’s taken away when He’s given me and left me with so much?