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.

 

 

Living

On our last day, I knew something was askew with you. You were quieter. You didn’t tell as many jokes and stories. You didn’t make eye contact as often. You didn’t even wrestle the kids.

I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Maybe you felt left out of our chitchat. Maybe you had more trouble hearing. Maybe your blood pressure was off. But something wasn’t the same, and I sensed it.

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With my best dad

Other parts of our last day were perfect.

 

We drank a glass of red wine together. We always did that. You commented on your failure to perfect the gravy’s consistency, and I insisted it was perfect already. I always insisted your cooking was great (it was). I scooped up a huge spoonful of succotash and claimed I loved it. I didn’t. But you made it, and you loved making it, and I loved you.

Our last day was the day after Thanksgiving, but it was our celebration of the holiday. For me, lover of gratitude and all things gushy inside, what greater gift than for our last day together to be a day of giving thanks?

I carried my coffee outside. I couldn’t stop yawning; it’s easy to relax at your house. The two of us were observers during the family baseball game, sitting on the sidelines, cheering for the kids and heckling the grown-ups. When the boys argued over taking turns at bat, and my little Maggie became distraught, you distracted her by inviting her to sit on the porch swing. You always had a way of making peace in a tense situation without sticking your nose where it didn’t belong, smoothing out hurt feelings like a delicate linen dress, nice and slow.

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In our woods, 2011

While you sat on the porch swing, rocking gently in the shadows of the late autumn sun, I regretted forgetting my camera, knowing my smartphone would never capture movement and light and real moments. I watched you whisper to Maggie, wondering what you were saying, so lucky to have a grandpa like you, something I never had.

 

When I left, I leaned in close so you could hear me, and said, “Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you. I love you.”

I didn’t take any pictures of our last day together.

But we lived it, the same way you lived 69 years of your life, dodging bullets in Vietnam, driving your truck home down dark highways to make ends meet, crooning radio tunes in your bride’s ear with your big hands around her waist, casting bait into the White River, tossing your little girl up in the air and smoothing her long brown hair at bedtime, heaving two shotguns over your strong shoulder before your son could carry his own up the long hill when you taught him to be a man.

Maggie has asked what you are doing in heaven. She asks if she can talk to you.

Of course she can, we tell her. We tell her she can talk to you any time she likes.

scan_20161204-2We tell her you are fishing with your new fishing reel and taking care of her two cats and baby white chicken. She loves seeing this in her mind before she drifts off to sleep.

Many people, when they pass on unexpectedly, might have regrets. I imagine you have none.

You lived.

God will

There are some moments in life when I’m able to vividly recall exactly what I was doing at precise moments in time. September 11, 2001. 4:21 p.m., November 16, 2012. The moment when my daughter was born. And 10 a.m., May 12, 2014. The moment when my babysitter Keely called to tell me that she was interested in watching Maggie if I were offered a full-time English faculty position.

Dressing up as Velma for Halloween 2013, just to please my students who INSISTED  :).

Dressing up as Velma for Halloween 2013, just to please my students who INSISTED :).

That moment felt pivotal to me because I’d prayed for God’s will related to every aspect of my employment for almost an entire year. From the moment I heard the news that the community college where I taught as an adjunct English instructor would be hiring a full-time instructor in the coming year, I began praying. I prayed for nothing but God’s will, but I’ll admit that I sometimes resorted to fretting about the details in my mind. I wondered if I stood a fighting chance against other candidates who would apply, knowing that my experience in other workplace settings didn’t amount to much when stacked against years of collegiate teaching experience. I wondered if all of my hard work as an adjunct faculty member would pay off, or if I would find myself teaching one or two courses for the next five years before realizing that my dream of teaching full-time might never materialize. I wondered if I should apply for other full-time positions or go with my gut and stick to what I really had my heart set on—teaching full-time at the community college I’d grown to love and wanted to retire from someday. And lastly, but probably most important of all, I wondered if God would provide caring, qualified babysitters to come to our home. I’d worked in daycare settings as a college student, and daycare was a last resort for us.

I began to pray “God’s will” and “God, open the right doors and close the wrong ones” every single day about my dream of teaching full-time, even before the job had been posted and long before other people on campus started talking about it. Slowly but surely, God answered my prayers and provided bits of confirmation through words other faculty members said to me, emails and gifts and notes from my students, student evaluation forms, and staff members who encouraged me in true Barnabas fashion.

When I interviewed for the position, I felt complete peace throughout the process. Some of my friends commented and asked me about my demeanor, questioning whether I was excited or not.

“I’m excited, but I’m not sure if I’ll be the person who gets the job. I’m just waiting to see what happens. I’ve just been praying for God’s will, so we’ll see.”

Walking with Maggie on campus last fall

Walking with Maggie on campus last fall

I really meant what I said. In truth, I probably would have cried if I’d not been selected; I wasn’t just applying for a job. I was applying for the opportunity to fulfill a personal dream and to share my passion for learning and literature and writing with students for years to come. By the same token, I trust God’s timing, and I don’t want anything that isn’t supposed to be mine anymore.

But on May 12 at 10 a.m., Keely called and told me she wanted to babysit for me. A weight lifted after she hung up the phone, knowing that if I got my dream job, my baby would be in good hands, too.

One hour later, my boss, the division chair for the arts and humanities division, called me.

She told me I had landed the job. I might have squealed.

I don’t remember 95% of what she said on the phone that day because after she said, “Bethany, I’m not sure if you realize it, but your students really love you,” I started crying silently.

I couldn’t hear anything else. I hope it wasn’t anything that she hasn’t repeated since then.

God knew that I needed my babysitter to call me that day before I got that second phone call. My mentor always tells me that God goes ahead and plans in love. I know that’s what He did for me that morning.

I certainly don’t want anything that isn’t supposed to be mine anymore. But I am so thankful for what is mine today.

The only five-leaf clover I've ever found. I found it three days before I got my job. This picture will soon hang in my office :).

The only five-leaf clover I’ve ever found. I found it three days before I got my job. This picture will soon hang in my office :).

Last week, I went to work in my office on campus even though I am not required to work on campus this summer. It helps me to focus and accomplish a little more since my beautiful toddler can be a little loud and difficult to work around at home. After sitting at my desk and grading speeches for my online summer course, I rubbed my eyes and decided to go to lunch.

While walking down the hall, I caught a glimpse at my own reflection in the window of an office door. Seeing myself, I smiled and instantly felt gratitude wash over me.

This is my life, I thought. Wow. Let me never take this for granted.

God, thank You
for all that You’ve given me
for all that You’ve taken away
and for all that You’ve left me with.

 

No fireworks

On the most memorable Independence Day of my life, there were no fireworks.

DSCN2680Well, that’s not entirely true. I remember glancing across the horizon, over hills and pastures in the Oklahoma prairie, and seeing traces of a firework show in the distance as tears and sweat mingled on my cheeks. I stood alone in a field on an American Indian Reservation, having spent the day helping my fellow volunteers nail shingles and paint rails and complete other tasks to help a growing congregation build a new place of worship.

I was a total phony. I’d been raised in church all my life. I memorized the books of the Bible at age six and had the bookmark to prove it. I led prayers and events for my youth group regularly, but all of the Scriptural knowledge I’d acquired had mostly remained stuck in my head; the bulk of it had not made its way into my heart.

When my life took a tragic turn, I didn’t know how to marry my religious beliefs with reality. I smoked pot, wrote in my journals, and listened to sad, pathetic music instead. This got me through the roughest year of my life, but it didn’t bring me true peace. So on Independence Day, after the longest and most painful and loneliest year of my life, I stood alone in that field, and said the most desperate prayer of my life.

“God, if you can give me real peace, please do it.”

???????????????????????????????And He did. He didn’t need to display Himself with any fancy colors, loud kabooms, or expensive displays. He just moved all of those meaningless words that were stuck in my head down the ladder of abstraction deep into my soul in one fell swoop.

They settled there heavily. I felt full. I felt peace.

That’s a freedom that I’ll carry with me forever.

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

 

The real world

ImageSomeday, your father will
build me a sunroom
with his hands.

His sweat steadily
dripping, devoted to crafting
contentment in my soul.

And when the screens
keep the flies from filling
our minds with swarming,
buzzing reminders,

the three of us
will sit and sip
sweet tea together there.

And in the cool, quiet,
aqua dusk of summertime,
we will drift away

and sleep there,
the rhythm of cicadas
rocking away everything
but the world,

the real one,
the one God made
for the three of us.