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.

Taking a stab at it

Casey Punkin 1God has used several medical professionals in my life to be His hands and His voice—my counselor, my doctors, and my physical therapist. I’m thankful for my friend and physical therapist, Casey Bush, who earned my trust over the past year and has brought physical healing to me and reminded me to be patient with myself, to reach out and ask for help, and to be open to new ideas. Casey, this one’s for you :).

 

“Is that okay?” I asked my friend and physical therapist, Casey Bush, as she twisted my arm behind my back, handcuff style, coaxing my scapula out of its hiding place.

“What do you mean? What does it feel like?”

“Well, it feels like. . .” I took a deep breath before answering. “It feels like nothing. I mean, I really can’t feel anything. It just doesn’t hurt anymore.”

She laughed. “Yep, that’s what we’re going for.”

Having recently earned her certification for dry needling, my physical therapist—who’d also become a trusted friend—was utilizing my upper back and neck to try out her newly honed techniques.

I’m not normally a great crash test dummy for anything, much less an eyebrow-raising, little-known practice. I’m not a crunchy granola girl. I don’t make my own detergent, and I don’t slather oil on my acne in hopes of waking up with clear skin. Sure, I’ve paid for an occasional massage, and I’ve popped a few rounds of probiotics, but aside from that, I stick to pretty traditional, science-based remedies and treatments. Call me chicken, but I like predictability. I like proven methods. Honestly, if I’m spending money, I want to know what I’m paying for, and I want a moderate guarantee of a return on my investment.

So what in the world was I doing lying face down on a massage table with ten dry needles sticking out of my upper back?

I was desperate, that’s what. I was desperate, in pain, and out of options.

I first visited Casey for a physical therapy consultation in March of 2013, five months after the birth of my daughter. After gaining 60 pounds during a pretty horrible pregnancy, and undergoing a harrowing delivery experience that required a slow recovery process, I grew impatient with my body as I realized that due to a number of factors behind my physiological control, I had not recovered much at all, even though I’d lost much of the weight. One of the worst aspects of recovery was chronic back pain. I was a willing patient, and I did all the stretches, exercises, and treatments to the best of my ability, and I saw minor improvements.

As Maggie grew and became more mobile and required more bending, stretching, and lifting on my part, I found that my body was literally unable to keep up. I had to modify my activities to meet her needs, and I felt pathetic. Thankfully, my husband pitched in considerably and lightened my load. Still, the pain never left me; it was a constant annoying companion, like a soggy diaper that immediately soaks itself after changing—mamas will understand what I’m getting at.

Most mornings, I woke up and winced when turning my head, pain shooting down my spine. I stretched out on the heating pad, hoping for relief, even though I knew it wouldn’t do a bit of good. I usually prayed in silence. Ironically, I didn’t pray about anything related to my physical condition. I’m not sure why—I guess I have grown tired of throwing my own pity parties over the years. I just prayed about my day, for God’s will, for the ability to have a good attitude, and for the motivation to get out of bed regardless of my circumstances. Then I sucked it up and got up and went about my day.

Throughout the day, I found ways to make it through. I don’t mean that I took ibuprofen or pain pills all day. I mean that I leaned back on the couch when reading to Maggie, or I rested on the floor and stretched while she built towers of blocks, or I did pelvic tilts and planks while watching her dance. During her naps, if I could sneak away from grading essays or responding to urgent messages, I rested on a heating pad and hoped for relief. I just tried to make it through the day. In addition to the back pain, the muscle tension triggered even more migraines than usual, and while nursing, I was unable to take preventive migraine medication. All day long, my back burned and ached, and about 10-15 days out of the  month, a migraine accompanied the back pain. Sometimes this combination brought me to tears, but mostly it frustrated me, kept me from enjoying my life and accomplishing tasks, and reminded me that despite my efforts to care for myself, it wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t working.

That desperation and realization—acceptance that what I was doing wasn’t working—is what led me to the point of lying face down on Casey’s massage table with needles sticking out of me. I felt like Po in Kung Fu Panda and wondered if my face would wind up contorted in some silly position. Casey assured me it would not as she gently poked and prodded my muscles for almost an hour as the sun set.

Casey left, and while I felt instant relief, I was hesitant to become too hopeful. I wasn’t sure if the dry needling or the massage had provided more help. I washed dishes, cleaned the kitchen, cuddled Maggie, and headed to bed as usual.

The next morning, I woke up to the sound of Maggie calling sweetly and insistently for Daddy.

Perfect, I smirked.

“Sounds like she wants you and not me!” I laughed.

He smiled and agreed to get her up. I turned over in the bed, pulling the plush gray, satin comforter over my shoulders. I yawned and stretched, weighing my options. Should I lie in bed and rest for the next 20 minutes? Should I scurry into the kitchen before Maggie sees me, grab a mug of coffee, and rush back to bed to read and spend some quiet moments with God? Or should I turn the heating pad on and spend a few minutes easing my aching back muscles before I have to—

My back muscles.

Oh my gosh!

I nearly sprinted to the kitchen, grabbed a cup of coffee, and headed back to bed with a grin on my face, settling back in bed with my book. Before I opened it, I sat in a near-stupor, fascinated at the lack of pain, amazed at my ability to turn my head from side to side without coming to a single point of pain. I performed a series of stretches which usually made me grimace. I felt nothing but a moderate muscle tension, a feeling that I assumed is what normal people feel when they stretch.

Tears of joy smeared the pages of my book.

I had no idea how much pain I was living with until the pain was removed.

I felt like an old soul in a new body, and I was overcome with gratitude.

 

 

Red lights

red lightI’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. Even as a little girl in the back of my mom’s banana-colored Cutlass Supreme, I remember the 30-second daydreams at every red light.

When our car came to a halt, along with countless other cars at the four corners at every intersection with a traffic light, I glanced around at the other cars—not because I am fascinated with automobiles, but because I am fascinated with people.

What did that woman with curly blonde hair, sunglasses, and a cigarette think about at night when she went to bed? Did she have children at home, or was she living the single life? Did she lie on her couch and eat bon bons and watch soap operas all day long while wearing pink mumus? Did she work in a factory, or did she teach elementary school?

And what about the old man in the big blue pick-up truck? Did he have any grandchildren? Did they come visit him, or after his morning paper and coffee and chat with his former farmer friends at the café, did he return home to an empty, quiet house and sip sweet tea on the porch with his basset hound? Was he cold-hearted, and as a result, had no contact with his family? Or was he loving and affectionate, giving them gifts and sharing his war stories and teaching them how to fish?

It might have been my creative side preparing itself to write in the future. It might have been my tendency to stick my nose in other people’s business rearing its unattractive head. It might have been my big fat heart protruding itself through the pane glass of the car window, wondering and wandering at the vast amount of life at every street corner every day.

Sitting on our front porch, my husband and I often watch the sunset together with our daughter in the evening. This spring, the insects reappeared and began buzzing and hovering and clouding the horizon. Being the anti-bug advocate in the family, I reached for the repellant and fly swatter. Being the wildlife biologist in the family, my husband sat and gazed at the swarm of gnats illuminated by the sunlight.

Sunset view from our front porch, June 2013

Sunset view from our front porch, June 2013

“There’s a lot of life right there. A lot of life.”

I may not be able to muster up a similar sense of wonder regarding the flies on our porch, but I still find myself fascinated by the human lives around me today. Only it’s amplified now. After having my daughter, I don’t just gaze around in curiosity. I feel a crushing awareness in my heart that each of the people surrounding me, everywhere I go, have souls. They all have eternity ahead of them, either with or without Christ. They are all who they are today because of who the people in their lives were way back when.

This unavoidable awareness makes me less likely to judge people at red lights, people on the sidewalk, people at the health office, or people in Wal-Mart. They all have lives. Complicated, painful, tumultuous lives. They all have multiple relationships, and their choices affect other people every day. They might be in excellent health, or they might be a few days from taking their last breaths. They might be in touch with their families and feel loved and appreciated. Or they might be alone in the world with no one to call and no one to hold. They might be using drugs, or they might be sober. They might have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and running water to call home. Or they might sleep under the bridge near Polk Bayou. They might have been abused and mistreated their whole lives, or they might have the simplest, most pain-free lives imaginable.

My precious baby, June 2013

My precious baby, June 2013. Photo by Jessie Covington.

Regardless, all the people I encounter were once just tiny babies. They were innocent, small, helpless, dependent babies. They all made adorable facial expressions, learned to clap for the first time, cried for their mamas when they were tired and cranky, and laughed at the amazing new world around them.  Just like my little girl, they were bursting with hope, promise, and potential.

And like all babies, they grew up. Some of them might have been as lucky as my little girl, having two parents living in the same house who love each other and love her unconditionally. But I know that some of them weren’t as lucky. Some of them cried themselves to sleep too many times. Some of them weren’t held and carried but were hit and ignored or abandoned. When I look into the eyes of people I meet and see nothing but pain, emptiness, or rage, I know that something must have gone terribly wrong at some point. Maybe they were hurt by others. Maybe they’ve hurt others, too.

I will never know the stories of all the grown-up babies I encounter. But when I see them, I remind myself that just as God loves me as His child, and sees me as His precious creation even though I have repeatedly screwed up, He sees all the grown-up babies as His children. Some of them know Him as their Daddy. Some of them don’t. But He loves them all anyway.

And that’s what He’s asked me to do. Just love His babies.