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.

 

 

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…

 

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.

 

Word of the year 2015

“Blessings fill your life.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have ruminated on this statement—which I perceive to be a truth given to me by God, not four short words typed on an index card and handed to me coincidentally by a random woman at a conference in October during a group meditation—for two months. I posted the card on my bulletin board in my bathroom, where all good quotes, verses, and cards wind up in my home; isn’t it where all mothers of toddlers spend their most reflective, quiet, serene, and precious moments during the day?

For the past two months—from the time I received the card through the remaining days of 2014—I assumed that God gave me this truth as my “thought for the conference,” which always evolves into something like my thought for the year, to help me stay focused on my blessings, or to keep my attitude in check and to help me focus on gratitude, a practice I hold dear.

“Blessings fill your life.”

I also had the fleeting thought—fleeting because my fall semester was so fraught with activity, mostly thanks to my stressful work schedule as a full-time English instructor—that perhaps this was a great reminder of a conversation I had with a young lady I mentor. This young woman recently graduated from college and embarked upon a career teaching high school this fall. We discussed her need to manage her time well, the need to carefully choose which meetings to attend, and which social activities to continue to participate in and which to discontinue.

“How do you do it, taking care of a toddler and teaching college and all that?” She asked in an exasperated tone.

“I say no. I say no a lot, and I don’t feel bad about it. I have just realized that I have a very full plate, and I only keep things on my plate which I enjoy, if I can help it.” I responded, without giving it much thought.

“Duuuuude.” She contemplated what I’d said, and we talked about the value of being picky about investing oneself in people, activities, organizations, and in anything that requires time. I told her that for me, I consider time my most valuable commodity because time is something I can never get back.

Looking back today, January 5, 2015, on that very conversation, I recognize my need to heed the wisdom from my own words five or six months ago.

Heading to work for the first time this fall, August 2014

Heading to work for the first time this fall, August 2014

I fiercely guard my time and schedule related to work and my life outside of the four walls of my home. For example, during the fall semester (my first semester teaching full-time as a college instructor), I carried an incredibly heavy load of courses. When it came time to submit scheduling preferences for the spring semester, I vowed one thing to myself: I would make more time for Maggie and for my husband, and I would never again burden myself with such a heavy grading load, either. One of the reasons I decided to pursue a career teaching college was the flexible schedule, which appealed to my desire to spend time with my family.

Many years ago, when I was much more motivated by external factors like money, power, and prestige, I would have been willing to work extra hours, take on extra projects, and do whatever it might take to impress every person on campus, even if it meant sacrificing time spent with loved ones. I’m simply not that person now. I love life, and nothing matters more to me than investing in my own life and in the people who matter most to me.

Thankfully, I work for an institution and supervisor who truly understand and appreciate that work-life balance. I can give my best to my students but still make plenty of time to give my best to my family, too. This spring, I am giddy about the schedule I have set for myself; I will actually spend my days off at home rather than at my computer in my office, endlessly grading essay after essay or speech after speech, relying desperately on my beautiful little blue Keurig for sustenance and support.

I have no problem saying no to appeals for my participation in social activities or non-profit organizations. I used to feel obligated to say yes to everyone who asked me to serve on a committee or board, to help organize a fundraiser, or to offer assistance planning an event. I love the camaraderie of working with volunteers. I enjoy helping others and the satisfaction of seeing events and projects completed. And let’s face it—I am an egomaniac. I love the recognition I receive when I do well and hear rounds of applause as a result.

But I have moved beyond that phase in my life, for the most part. I still write checks when God nudges me to support a cause. I volunteer for just two organizations—one is my church, and the other is an organization I will remain committed to for the rest of my life. I have come to understand that for me, there is more value in devoting myself in a full-fledged manner to this one organization than in volunteering a little for this and a little for that, spreading myself so thin that I never do any one thing very well or make any long-term lasting impact.

“Blessings fill your life.”

Our family, November 2014

Our family, November 2014

My plate is full. God has blessed me with a career that has exceeded my expectations. I didn’t even ask for it all, and I got it. God has blessed me with fulfillment in my friendships and mentoring relationships and commitments outside my job and family, too. And God has obviously blessed me with a beautiful daughter and great husband. And then there’s God Himself. If you read my blog regularly, you understand that God and I have a good thing going, contingent on the daily maintenance of my spiritual condition—no problems there.

As I approached New Year’s Eve, I began asking God for my focus for 2015 and praying for God to give me a word to focus on for 2015. He was silent. I hoped that some brilliant word would leap from the pages of one of the books I read during my morning quiet time. Nope. Silence.  I asked for prayer from two of my friends who regularly pray for me. I prayed for myself. Still nothing.

Then finally, on the morning of January 1, before my eyes opened, I awoke with words running through my mind. I don’t remember the exact words, of course, because it was 6 a.m., and I hadn’t even consumed coffee yet, but in the midst of the mental madness, I recall something to the tune of “Keep it simple.”

That’s it, God? Keep it simple? Are you sure?

Ever a doubting Thomas, I asked God to confirm this revelation to me in the Bible by playing Russian roulette with verses. I flipped open the Bible to various pages and read random verses. This rarely works for me, and it didn’t this time either. It was as if God were shaking his head and responding, “Really, Bethany?”

I sighed and picked up the two books I’d decided to read during my morning quiet time of reading, prayer, and meditation in 2015. At the end of the first section of the first book was the word “simplicity.” The whole passage’s concept was regarding unity or clarity of purpose. Hmmm.

I picked up the second book. On the opening page, a verse was featured in the center of the page, all alone. In the verse was the word “simple.” I read the introduction to the book. At the end of the introduction was an admonition. “We have found that this simple prayer helps.”

Okay. I’m with You. Thank You.

Some of us need gaping wounds to reach into before we’re willing to move forward. I’m one of those. God knows that about me.

“Blessings fill your life.”

Simple.

Oh. So this is the problem. Not until today did I make the connection between these two pieces of the spiritual puzzle that God asked me to play with Him. I couldn’t see the side of the puzzle with a picture—just cardboard.

See, I understand how to say no to outside requests for my time. I understand how to manage my work schedule pretty well and how to set boundaries and how to choose when working in my office makes more sense than working from home.

But the moment I walk in the door of the four walls of our small 110 year-old house, the full plate concept, the saying no to more activity, the keeping it simple idea, and being still notion all become much more difficult. Sure, Maggie has something to do with that. Managing a two year-old is impossible, really; accepting the impossible nature of the task is the closest I come to sanity, actually.

But it’s more than that. The problem lies within me.

One example of why moms of toddlers must embrace chaos

One example of why moms of toddlers must embrace chaos

When I am here, I feel incessantly driven to tame the clutter beast, to clean the messy spills and disinfect the germs, and to organize the tiny space that is our house. I feel driven to spend my time doing these things—and these things are distractions from the main thing: Maggie. Maggie is not concerned with piles of books, laundry, dishes, or tools. She merely wants attention. She wants to play. She wants our presence. When we’re here, particularly when we are all three together, she wants all of us to be together. As she has grown in awareness over the past six months in particular, she is no longer satisfied with being cared for by one parent while the other one cleans or does chores around the house. She wants all of our love all the time. Of course, this isn’t always realistic. Somebody has to clean up after dinner, and someone has to take the laundry out of the dryer, and someone has to scrub the toilet at least once in a while. But most of the time, Maggie prefers that we hang out with her.

I know that investing in Maggie is the best use of my time, of course, because she is our only one. She’s it—I don’t want more children, and as I am already aware, I cannot regain moments with her. I may regret many choices I have made in life, but I do not regret any time I have spent with Maggie. But as cognizant as I am of this truth, I still struggle with my obsession to tame the clutter beast in our home. I want less clutter. I want more space. I want more bins and tubs for storing things. If only we could add on two more rooms… if only he could pick up this and that… if only I could figure out how to actually utilize those 32 tips for small spaces instead of just thinking they sound like great ideas… Sigh.

When I find myself in this stressful place, I realize that I am creating my own internal chaos. I am not accepting my life just as it is for today, and I am not recognizing that blessings fill my life. My perspective is skewed. I’m not seeing that my plate is full—I’m just throwing more unnecessary, calorie-laden, tasteless junk food on top.

And I’m certainly not keeping it simple. I’m complicating things, externally and internally. I am a total sucker when it comes to managing and controlling the space within these four walls. Do I just desire qi, and need to study feng shui, because I grew up in a home that was cluttered?

Who knows, and who cares? I have learned that contemplating why is mostly a waste of time for me. The bottom line is that I’m creating the problem here, so I need to do something about it. I will take actions and leave the worrying about why to someone with more time on their hands—to someone without a toddler.

This year, I’ll try to walk in the door after a long day’s work and keep it simple, no matter how many mustard-coated plates fill the sink—to focus on the fact that blessings fill my life, every part of my beautiful life, and that I can simply choose to seek the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

2014 gift list

Over seven years ago, I started a painful journey toward becoming myself.

217491_505060962482_4965_nLately I have been contemplating some things I’ve learned since beginning this journey in 2007. So, in truth, my gift list this year is a compilation of lessons I’ve learned over the past seven and a half years but maybe only fully realized within the past year.

I consider these lessons learned to be great gifts I received from mentors in my life who are on the same journey. I get to place my feet in their footsteps, to ask them for help when I stumble, and to humble myself and ask for prayer when my own prayers seem insufficient and when my own faith feels feeble.

I have learned to be honest.

I haven’t always had the capacity to be fully honest with others, not even with God. I tried, rest assured, but I somehow seemed to come up short. As Sara Groves says, “Only the truth and truthfulness can save us.”

My inability to share my secrets kept me sick—really spiritually sick—for years. I was only hurting myself, but I couldn’t even see this realistically. I thought I was protecting people I loved from painful truths, in some cases, and in other situations, I thought I was sheltering the image of Christ or Christianity from being tarnished because of my sins and awful mistakes. The truth is that I was incredibly egotistical and unable to come clean with even myself regarding reality.

Bethany Dana 5 28 14Thankfully, because of the journey I began in 2007 and the mentors who’ve guided me every step of the way, I don’t live this way today. I live an honest life, even in the moments when it’s still hard today. I find people I trust to spill my guts to, and though they are few and far between, I do have people I trust with all of me today. I am who I am, and I make no bones about it, for better or worse. I work every day to keep a clean slate between myself and God, and as my main mentor says, “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It only matters what you and God know.”

I have learned to be faithful and consistent.

This ties in with learning to be honest for me, and this was a hard lesson to learn in multiple areas of my life. Fidelity is a valuable commodity in a fast food world. Until very recently, I didn’t even understand that for many years, I was afraid of being alone, and because of that fear, I replaced people, jobs, and even cities and homes at an alarming pace.

Last year, my self-selected word for the year was “still.” Part of my focus for the year, related to the concept of being still, was to practice spending more time in reflection and meditation with God—ultimately, to wake up earlier and to spend more time in the morning in prayer, meditation, and reading. I reset my alarm for 5 a.m. and began to up my coffee intake. This helped offset the lack of sleep. Becoming more consistent and faithful regarding my time with God led to numerous positive outcomes, too many to write about in one measly paragraph, but one of these is that I began to understand that if I showed up morning after morning, God was always going to be there waiting on me.

During all of the years when I had replaced people, jobs, cities, and homes repeatedly and quickly due to fear of being alone and fear of being unwanted, God had been there all along, waiting and wanting me. As Jennifer Knapp reminds me, “You’re the only One who’s faithful to me.” I know, I know… but I didn’t KNOW.

I hadn’t been willing to slow down long enough to look and listen—not long enough to let it sink in deeply enough to change the patterns of my behavior. Until my personal journey to becoming the real Bethany helped me see the truth about this matter, I just had to keep doing what I was doing for a little while longer.

I have learned that I have more to learn than I have to teach.

Kaleb and Mrs. WallaceI’ve learned this truth in the context of my personal life as a mentor of other women and in the context of my professional life as a college English instructor. This year, I had the privilege to teach approximately 230 students, both in the traditional classroom and online. Sure, I helped them to meet learning objectives, to improve their listening skills, to become better public speakers, to learn to write personal narrative essays, to compose their first research papers in MLA format, and to do all sorts of academic projects in class. I hope I helped them to accomplish much more than that, though.

As Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Having finished my first semester as a full-time instructor, I am thankful that I can say with a clear conscience that I did my absolute best to ensure my students learned well—not just about writing and speaking, but also about living.

I know one thing for certain—I learned at least 230 unique and beautiful lessons in 2014, and I’m grateful for each one of them.

The best part of the journey I’m on to becoming myself is that it has no end. There’s no graduation ceremony, no “I have arrived” moment. I get to keep growing as long as I’m breathing, because as long as I’m breathing, there’s hope.

“His mercies are new every morning—great is His faithfulness.” –Lamentations 3:23

Stalking stillness

That pesky red-bellied woodpecker.

IMG_0229I have stalked that woodpecker since I first noticed him, just a few days after we relocated our bird feeder, handmade by my very own Renaissance man, to a small garden plot right outside my bedroom window.

Each morning when my daughter awakens, her windowsill is one of her first stops. Gazing out of the blurry, century-old glass pane, she points and murmurs “bird… bird” as oodles of male and female cardinals parade back and forth between their nests along the creek bed and the bird feeder. The chickadees, with their stark white and black caps, and spotted, earthy sparrows flit from limb to limb along the tiny flowering tree branches next to the feeder, politely taking turns and never lingering too long over the seed. The gold finches and regal purple finches have lower social standards and squawk and peck at other birds who dare to snag a snack alongside them.

IMG_0526Occasionally, a cruel but beautiful blue jay makes its way to the feeder, bullies the other birds, and grazes as a lone ranger before venturing off to make some other bird’s life miserable.

IMG_9763And if I’m really lucky, I might spy an eastern bluebird, its crimson breast clashing perfectly with its soft blue wings.

Yes, there is a gamut of gorgeous birds gracing the space outside my window.

But the elusive woodpecker has been my focus. My obsession.

When my daughter is napping—because that’s the only time the house is quiet enough for this—I creep into my bedroom with a hot cup of coffee, carefully unlock the window latch, and slide the pane up a few inches. I wrap my furry throw blanket around my cross-legged body and lean in, hoping to capture my feathered friends on film. I’ve probably taken hundreds of pretty shots of cardinals, Juncos, and finches. They’re pretty birds, and they rest for long lengths of time; they’re not easily frazzled or frightened.

My woodpecker, on the other hand, is truly his own animal. He almost constantly moves, hunting and pecking for his prey or craning his neck from side to side, his eyes wary and vigilant. He contorts himself into impossible positions to find what he’s looking for, and once he’s found it, he scurries away to his sanctuary, the strong fortress of the giant old oak tree in our yard.

Most of the time, the woodpecker only appears when I don’t have the time to grab my camera. I see him when I’m changing Maggie’s diaper or reading books with her. Occasionally, I have a few seconds to get positioned for a great photograph, and as soon as he hears the window latch, he disappears. Oh! I’ve grown frustrated waiting for my chance.

IMG_0511This morning, as my fingers veered on the edge of frostbite while snapping pictures of a lovely blue jay, I caught a glimpse of my woodpecker’s blazing red cap in the background. I quickly inhaled and held my breath as I zoomed out, trying to maneuver the camera quickly but quietly.

And there he was, more still and at rest than I’ve ever seen him, staring at me, slightly obscured by the blue jay and the bird feeder. I had my chance, and I took picture after picture of him, often capturing just the tip of his mottled tail.

IMG_0505As I sat there, still and barely breathing for fear of frightening him away, I found myself loving him and feeling akin to him, a snapshot of Bethany in her old skin. Always busy and productive. Distrusting and suspicious of others. Alluring but aloof.

Afraid to stop moving.

Unable to be still.

To be still, my word of the year.

I’ve found the perfect bird to fixate on, one that requires me to while away the hours in silence. A creature that forces me to learn to be perfectly still.

2014 word of the year

I have worked the 12 steps of recovery for six years, and the meditation part of the 11th step has never been easy for me.

“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”

Serious yogi, 2010

Serious yogi, 2010

I’ve sat through guided meditations and struggled to resist the urge to giggle and to wiggle away the ants in my pants. I’ve tried focusing on my breathing (with varying levels of success in achieving something like relaxation). I’ve done yoga, too, and while I’ve improved my flexibility, I haven’t found my mind floating on a cloud.

Even though my husband has never participated in a 12-step recovery program, he has the annoying and enviable ability to achieve what looks like nirvana after just a few minutes of lying down with his eyes closed, breathing. Being. Ugh.

I finally asked him one night, when I felt beyond frustrated with insomnia, how he manages to meditate so easily.

“Simple,” he said. “I focus on something that I like. I go to a place in my mind. When I start thinking about other things, I turn back to that place.”

Well, that might occur naturally for Mr. Smarty Pants, but it hasn’t proved simple for me—probably because I’ve taken a simple idea and contorted it into a complicated process—a terrible talent I have.

The past few months, I’ve given my husband’s method a try.

December 2012

December 2012

I’ve found some virtual places of rest. I’ve gone hiking behind my old house, snapped twigs and sat on thick tree branches, gathered firewood, and overlooked the ridge at the top of the hill with my trusty companion, my black cat Shao Hou, following closely behind, silently. I’ve walked up past our barn on a moonlit night, the light casting contrasting shadows through trees, reflecting off dirt and rocks coated in quiet snow. I’ve traced my own steps and watched Shao Hou’s paw prints step in the hollowed places left behind by my Muck boots.

Last month, after one of the most beautiful snowstorms I’ve seen (and I haven’t seen many since I live in the South), our entire property was blanketed in stark white stillness. The neighbors with noisy trucks were nowhere to be found. Even the 14 dogs owned by the animal lover living a quarter-mile away bedded down and shut their traps.

Nothing moved. No one spoke.

But God did.

My feathered friends, December 2013

My feathered friends, December 2013

That morning, dozens of birds found their way to a patch of grass outside my bedroom window and pecked through the ice in search of sunflower seeds scattered by my husband the day before. While my daughter napped, I sat in front of the open window and snapped photo after photo of bright wings and orange beaks and puffy feathers perched on thin frozen branches. Aside from clicking the camera’s buttons, I didn’t move for 30 minutes.

I’d found a place to go, a place to be still. A place to be with God.

Each year, I choose a word to reflect on, a virtue to behold and to strive to attain. This year, my word is still. Ironically, there’s nothing to strive for since stillness is the absence of striving.

This year, I’ll seek out places of rest. I’ll let myself be silent. I’ll seek to be free of turbulence, waves, or currents. I will listen to the absence of voices and absorb the hush.

God is in the hush.

 

100_4467The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

–1 Kings 19