Going off the grid

IMG_0505Last month, I sat at home with my daughter one chilly spring morning. Before my husband left, I had an eerie feeling that the power might go out. We live in the middle of nowhere, and our electricity often misfires when the wind blows a little too hard, or when the rain falls for longer than five minutes, or when lightning strikes. Against his better judgment, my husband caved to my whining and built a quick fire in our wood stove before leaving at 6:30 a.m., pulling his blue flannel jacket tightly around his body, holding onto his thermos full of hot coffee.

A few moments later, the house was dark and still. We lost power and went without it all morning, the wind howling outside, the temperatures steadily dropping into the low 50s, uncharacteristic for late spring in Arkansas. I was thankful for the fire in the wood stove and added logs to it periodically in spite of Maggie’s protests every time I stepped onto the porch to grab more firewood.

At noon, I curled up in a fleece throw next to my bedroom window, Maggie sleeping soundly in her dark bedroom. The house was blanketed in utter silence–stillness. Living in the middle of the country, surrounded by woods in the foothills of the Ozarks, I thought I’d grown accustomed to silence. But this sort of silence was almost daunting–even deafening. I hadn’t realized how commonplace the buzzing of the HVAC unit had become, how I’d learned to turn a blind eye to the little bright lights on the answering machine, the dishwasher, the coffeemaker, the stove, the alarm clock, how often I’d relied on this sort of background music of daily life to fill the vacant spaces–to entertain me, to keep me going.

As I sat next to the window, I realized that the birds at our feeder certainly recognized the difference that day. In particular, my favorite–the red-bellied woodpecker with the brilliant red head–seemed to understand. All day long for months, I watched the same birds through our windows, feeding at the same feeder, perched upon the same branches. That day, the woodpecker was not startled by anything, not aloof, unafraid. I’m no ornithologist, but I wondered if the woodpecker sensed the change in stillness, the lack of the motors running and the heaters kicking on and off around him. I wondered if he felt at rest.

Why don’t you be like that, Bethany? Why don’t you just be still and show up?

I couldn’t audibly hear God talking to me that day, but I felt Him say something like that to my heart.

That morning, as I frantically added wood to our stove (my wilderness girl skills are not stellar), I worried about the hundreds of dollars of food we’d lose if the power didn’t come back on soon that we had stored in our refrigerator and freezer. I felt nervous about being at home alone with Maggie. I felt restless about not having electricity, even though Maggie was perfectly content.

IMG_1850That morning, God sent my favorite bird to remind me to savor the stillness, to show up in the moment, and to rest with God. My favorite bird reminded me that God would meet all of my soul’s needs. That day, because we lost power for eight hours, I was more thankful for many of the amenities I normally take for granted. I gained confidence in my ability to take care of myself and my daughter. Because we lost power, I spent more time watching my daughter smile, laugh, read books, play silly games over and over again, wear hats, and kiss her face.

I can never get those moments back again.

There is no amount of money I can pay anyone to get those moments back again. All the buzzing and clicking and blinking drowns those moments out, I’m afraid. If I don’t unplug my soul from the grid once in a while, I’m going to short-circuit. If I’m not careful, I’m smothering what matters in my life–strangling the stillness out of my life.

Let me put off what so easily entangles me, God, and just listen to Your quiet, still voice more often.

 

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

 

Benign

Trying out my baby's puree cookbook while limited to a mushy diet for a week

Trying out my baby’s puree cookbook while limited to a mushy diet for a week

“Will you make me some flan?”

I scribbled this barely legible note with my left hand while nursing my daughter a few hours after having my tongue biopsied.

“Flan?” My husband looked at my curiously.

“Oh. Custard. I have no idea why I wrote ‘flan.’ We’ve never made flan.” Apparently the nitrous oxide had a longer lasting effect than I’d realized, and I’d mentally tripped into the tasty world of the Food Network.

Banned from talking for a few days, aside from mambo-jumbo baby talk with my daughter, which mostly consisted of echoing her adorable noises, I found myself in quite a predicament.

Silence is no stranger to me. I’ve learned to be quiet and still and meditate on Scripture, particularly in the mornings. I love writing, and for me, writing requires complete silence and total concentration. I’m surprisingly introverted, and I relish the lack of shallow conversation and the peaceful sound of all things at rest. I once spent an entire year without watching television or movies in my own home, partly due to budgetary necessity, and didn’t miss the din one bit.

But in my younger days, particularly prior to much spiritual reflection, step-taking in my recovery program, and relational maturation, I used silence as a weapon.

“Silence is often the loudest voice.”

It’s one of my favorite quotes. Yet, like all things, silence can be used benevolently or maliciously. I mastered the silent treatment. I pity former partners and family members who witnessed my silent-treatment skills. You might cross me, lie to me, steal from me, cheat on me, or verbally abuse me, but by golly, you would suffer as a result. I withheld myself. For days, sometimes weeks.

Silence has served me well as a means to closer communion with Christ. And it served me all too well as a survival skill and crutch, a tool by which I slowly destroyed relationships and tore away layers of others’ self-esteem. Since I no longer allow myself to wallow in self-pity for any length of time, and since I do my best to avoid the passive-aggressive tendency to resort to the silent treatment in times of relational turmoil, the prescription to be silent due to my biopsy felt like a prison sentence.

Lots of laughter with my two favorites

Lots of laughter with my two favorites

Although we live in a fairly isolated area, lovingly referred to as “The Sticks,” I relish every opportunity to communicate with my two favorite people, both of whom happen to reside in our home. We talk about everything. Well, my husband and I talk about everything. My daughter listens, I think, and attempts to respond by smiling, frowning, and creating a cacophony of amusing sounds.

Communication is the artery that keeps the soul of our family alive. If we stop communicating, which presents itself mostly in the form of verbalizing our thoughts and feelings, we cut off the flow of love and joy and laughter between us. Scribbling notes served its purpose for a few days, but it wasn’t the same as immediately sharing a joke or insight. Humming lullabies and hymns to my daughter pacified her need to hear my voice to some extent, but the puzzled look on her face spoke volumes to me.

Thankfully, the results of my biopsy were benign. My tongue has mostly healed, and I’m able to sing, chat, and pray aloud again painlessly.

I’m thankful, though, for the temporary hole in my tongue and for the silent treatment imposed upon me. Sometimes, you must lose a thing before you can fully realize its significant place in your life. Words are not simply words. They’re the glue holding the three of us together. I’m determined to choose mine wisely, to speak softly, and let nothing clog up the lifeline between us.

Greener grass

This morning, I awoke to the adorable chatting and fussing of my nine week-old infant daughter.

Moans and groans followed–not from the nursery monitor. From me. I attempted to separate my eyelids from my eyeballs unsuccessfully several times before managing to pry them partly open. I turned my bleary gaze toward the alarm clock.

6:33 a.m.

ImageAbout 30 minutes later than the time of day I used to set the coffeepot for back in the day when I worked a “real job” and got paid in actual cash for showing up and performing tasks. I contemplated the drastic 180 degree pivot I’ve made since then as I hauled my pathetic parts out of our warm, fleece-laden sanctuary and plodded a few painful steps into my bathroom to hurriedly brush my teeth before trudging down the hall to feed our daughter.

Thud, thud, thud.

My daughter heard my heavy, aching feet, attached to my still-sore knees from the after-effects of swelling during pregnancy. She began cooing and turning up the volume on her hunger protests. I pasted a semi-smile on my face, recited her special verse to her, and leaned over to lift her out of the crib, cracking at least three vertebra in the process.

“Babe.”

Silence.

“James?”

Peaceful silence, the sign that my better half had chosen the better path and stayed in bed a little longer.

“Babe, babe, please….”

A tired voice croaked in response.

“Yes?”

“Coffee, please. I need it.”

The champ managed to drag himself out of bed long enough to get the coffee going before collapsing once again into bliss.

As I sat in the recliner about to nurse my daughter, a lamp illuminating her chubby little cheeks as they grinned at me in anticipation of the goodness coming her way, I reminisced about the green, lush grass of my former life.

I’m not referring to my lawn, trust me. I used to celebrate when the parched heat in August finally sucked the life out of my lawn; I could finally stop paying those men with Bad Boy mowers to spend 20 minutes on my acre of land each week or relying on my generous friend’s husband to mow it out of pity for me.

No, I’m referring to the “greener grass.”

Image

Three years ago, photo by Say Cheese Photography

The lifestyle I led as a single, sexy lady who’d just turned 30. The beer and wine imbibed on my front porch under a full set of stars while carrying on scandalous conversations with my friends.  The cigarettes I carelessly smoked as accoutrements to all of my fashionable ensembles that clad my skinny arse. The concerts and coffeehouses I frequented with friends, one of my many cashmere or hand-knitted scarves casually knotted around my neck. The countless novels I consumed voraciously, my cats perched on the edge of my couch. The miniature meals I cooked for myself, never needing to consider plating for more than numero uno. The insistence that monthly facials were not a luxury–they were an essential budget item. The notion that having lunch plans AND a meeting after work meant I was swamped with responsibility. The absolute silence that enveloped my home–always–since I chose to rid myself of the annoying din of the television for an entire year.

Aahhh.

My daughter’s bright eyes gazed up at me, and she cocked her head to the side and flashed me a genuinely joyous grin.

I suddenly recalled that the grass on the other side was also cluttered with weeds and required tedious maintenance. Working two jobs at times and still not making ends meet due to living way beyond my means and to the debt acquired by my frivolous ex-husband. Driving one hour each way to arrive at jobs I wasn’t truly passionate about and dealing with, let’s face it, the inevitable work drama and estrogen fest resulting from too many females in close quarters. The creaks and crunches outside my bedroom window that kept me awake night after night as I attempted to sleep in a house too big for just little ole me, keeping my bedroom door locked just in case. The horrible dating experiences that resulted from my countless attempts to find companionship. The quiet ticking of my clock, as I sat curled up under a quilt in my living room, pondering and praying and contemplating and wondering and waiting.

By myself.

ImageAs I sang one last morning song to Maggie, her heavy little eyes closing and opening more and more slowly, I sipped the cup of coffee my husband had poured for me. The mugshot on the cup captured a tiny moment in time when my three week-old newborn baby lay cradled in my arms, squinting her eyes at the brilliant sky, our 100 year-old barn behind us.

My life is different now. I can’t sit on my porch in the morning with a cup of coffee and spend an entire hour watching the grass grow. I can’t show up at the spur of the moment to enjoy my friend’s excellent guitar picking because the one pair of jeans I purchased postpartum now sag too significantly to avoid mooning the public. I insist on screening family members and friends prior to their visits since many of them pooh-pooh the flu epidemic. I don’t have the luxury of spending two hours waking up before arriving at work, listening to my own loud musical selections while downing an ungodly amount of caffeine.

I get about five minutes before it’s go time each day.

As I burped my baby this morning, the sunlight barely creeping in through the sheer curtains, I listened to the nearly inaudible ticking of the same clock that used to count the seconds spent in mostly meaningless, lonely ways.

My time is almost always accounted for these days. Thank God that how I’m spending it matters.

ImageIt’s the middle of January, and the grass has never been greener.

Opening our mouths

“Silence is often the loudest voice.”

It’s one of my favorite quotes, and it applies to so many situations.

But not this one.

For 16 years, I’ve kept my mouth shut, barely whispering out of the corners of it to a few trusted people.

The first time I had sex, when I was 16 years old, I was raped by a trusted friend of the family.

The aftermath that ensued was much more damaging and painful than the experience itself. Since that day, I’ve suffered from shock, guilt, stress, and grief. I’ve watched, almost as a spectator, as the internalization of the trauma spilled out of me quietly, poisoning relationships, killing my joy, and ravishing my mind.

Of course, this was Satan’s intent. He’s been a pretty happy camper the last 16 years, I’m sure.

Recently, I started processing the event therapeutically as a 32 year-old woman and examined my responses to it thoroughly. I realized I’d barely skimmed the surface of the issue until now, even though I thought I’d handled it well and that the case was closed. I found myself digging deeper, so deep that at times, I felt despaired by the overwhelming task of climbing out of the abyss I found myself in.

From the moment it happened to me, I refused to tell my mom. I love her. I wanted to protect her from the pain of knowing and from herself, because I know how much she loves me, and I was afraid she’d wind up in prison if she knew about it. I’m pretty sure she would have. A few weeks ago, I finally spoke the truth about it to her. And because she’s grown so much as a person the past few years herself, she handled it beautifully. It turned out that my greatest fear—her knowing—turned out to be the final key that unlocked the doors to my own spiritual and emotional freedom.

Of course, Satan knew this, and that’s why he whispered to me, day after day, that she must never know. Now that I’ve chosen to speak and to let God do whatever He wants to as a result, Evil no longer controls my decisions. It doesn’t determine my course any longer. The blinders are off. The road is open. The light has come in.

And in a strange turn of events, a week after opening up to my mom, I learned that a friend of mine who is connected to the man who raped me was repeatedly sexually abused as a child. By whom? A trusted friend of the family. This friend told me that “with trust comes great power.”

And sometimes, when we choose to silence the voices telling us to shut up about it all and to keep burying it inside ourselves, God has the freedom to do great things. We give Him back the power when we let go of controlling who knows about our painful pasts.

My friend hasn’t told his family yet about his experience, but he asked me to share it anonymously via my blog today. His story echoes the quiet death that so many of us have died. But it’s also the beginning of the resurrection of a life someone else destroyed.

Maybe by letting our voices be heard, someone else will remove his hands from his mouth and start talking. And start healing.

My friend’s story

I have to warn you that what you are about to read will upset you. Read it when you have some time to clear your head, or curse, or cry. I have to tell you a few things that I am not capable of speaking out loud. I’ve tried and it seems impossible. Somehow typing it and hitting the send button is much easier.

In my search for pictures at Mom’s house, I have come across many of me as a child. I have little to no memory of my childhood. More disturbing is that I don’t even recognize the kid in the pictures. I have always struggled, and when I was younger, I just assumed that no one remembered their childhood, and it was normal. But the recent efforts to recall that kid in those pictures has spun me off into a place that I have been a few times in my life. It is my greatest struggle known by only a couple of people.  

I was sexually abused as a child by *Rick. The details are more than you want to hear and more than I can type. I don’t know how it started or how old I was. I don’t know how many times, but it was often and for years. I have spent my life protecting the people I love. Our family’s income, the home we grew up in, my siblings, my friends. I don’t know how my childhood friends ever met him. I don’t know how other kids ended up in his home or at the lake. But once they were, they were at risk, and so I kept going. I remember being asked to go as a “lifeguard” to make sure everyone was safe. I remember being convinced that if I got erect then I was enjoying it because if I wasn’t, then it simply wouldn’t happen. I remember how heavy his leg was laying across me. I have never dated a woman who slept in my bed and at some point didn’t feel like I had cheated on her or that she was fat. What I can’t explain is that there are moments still when I can’t have skin touching me or a leg across me. I sleep on my back with my arms crossed over my chest like I’m dead. It may be unrelated, but every time a woman laughs about it, I picture what I must have looked like with my skinny little arms and body lying in his bed trying not to move, trying not to wake him. If I try to remember the countless good things in my childhood, the weight of a leg on me takes over my thoughts.  

The struggles come in large waves. I’ve spent long periods of time with little to no pain. At the end of each wave, I foolishly assume that the periods of general happiness are here forever, and that now I am older and all is well. That has proven wrong every time and is doing so again. As an adult, I methodically planned his death on a couple of occasions. In one case an argument with a girlfriend may have saved his life. The struggle isn’t sadness but hate. I struggle with good and evil.  

God doesn’t need to show himself to me for me to believe. The devil has, and if there is a devil, then there is a God. I don’t hear voices or see ghosts; I’m not a crazy person. I do have an overwhelming desire to see him die. I want it to be me that he sees last on this earth. I want to hand him over for judgment.  

The birth of my son should have curbed me, and did for years, but today it is different. He is becoming a little boy. I see his innocence and vulnerability. Seeing him as he gets a little older is feeding an anger that I thought was gone. It is a little different this time. I picture someone hurting my son rather than me, and how I feel scares me. He asked me a few weeks ago what would happen if someone hurt him. He was probably talking about kids on the playground, but the answer that came out of my mouth was, “Dad will find them and kill them, and you will be okay”.  

The loss of Dad may be the worst part. Forgive what I’m about to say. I looked forward to his death. I wanted him to leave this earth knowing nothing of what had happened. It would have destroyed him. I felt like I had accomplished something by protecting him all the way to the end. Since his death I now hope the good Lord does me the favor of protecting him from it as well.  

I’ve spoken with my priest and broke down for two hours. He is the only man who has ever heard the words. It was the only time I’d ever said any of them. Father is a good man, but I think I overwhelmed him. I don’t know where to turn. I’m becoming a person that I thought I had defeated.
I consume books. Lately I have read several that have to do with brain development. That has opened up another world of anger. The idea that his actions help to shape who I am and how I act is very hard for me. I could type for hours so I will just simply stop. You’ve likely heard enough for one day. I’m sorry to burden you with this, but I do not know where to turn or what to do and am being consumed.

I’m praying that today you will cry out to God for my friend, and maybe for yourself, too. Keeping it quiet will kill you. Letting God slowly but surely speak to your heart and then open your mouth will salvage your faith and maybe someone else’s life. Trust me.