The question

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

I entered The Pinto, a trendy vintage coffee shop/eatery in downtown Batesville, and ordered my favorite caffeinated beverage—café breve—while waiting to meet with my FOFO (formerly online friend only) for lunch, coffee, and conversation face-to-face for the first time.

Half an hour later, deep into a great chat about grace and relationships, a mutual friend greeted us and stopped to talk. While discussing potential dates for this mutual friend, the topic of abstinence surfaced. The mutual friend asked us, “Did you have sex before you were married?”

This time, I only felt a slight sting before responding to this version of the age-old question, “Tell me about your first time.”

21 years ago, a family friend raped me when I was 16 years-old. It was the first time I’d had sex.

Immediately following this traumatic experience, I did what many PTSD-infected, confused, depressed teenagers do who’ve been sexually assaulted: I acted out. I used drugs and consumed too much alcohol, engaged in sexual activity with multiple people, and moved in and out of understanding God’s role in my life.

Prior to this horrible experience on July 11, 1995, I nearly bragged about my virginity, wearing it like a badge of honor while skating a thin line of promiscuity. I wore a freaking True Love Waits ring. I attended youth group twice per week and thought I really had it all together, and that if I just continued on the straight and narrow path, I would certainly succeed in absolutely everything I attempted. I believed that good things come to those who wait and that God rewards good behavior.

Obviously, those maxims proved themselves false. My world felt shaky, and I have plenty of poorly written poetry scribbled in my high school journals to demonstrate this.

One night, nine months after being raped, a boy I loved (who knew all about my assault) asked me if I believed in God and pointed me to the sparkling stars in a black, clear sky as evidence of His existence. I responded, “I do believe He exists. I just don’t believe He cares anymore.”

But that brief spiritual conversation served as a catalyst which sparked change in my soul, and a few months later I accepted Christ while standing all alone in an Oklahoma hay field, watching fireworks on Independence Day.

But I wasn’t set free right away from my past, my feelings, my PTSD, or my inability to make choices that reflected an ounce of self-worth. The chains were heavy. It was just the beginning of my spiritual journey.

I’m still taking it step by step.

I used to hate it when the topic of “firsts” came up in conversation. It isn’t so bad today, even though it’s still not the most pleasant thing to discuss. I’m content today to reflect on the past, knowing not even God can change the past and that I only have to mention my past wounds or mistakes if it will benefit someone else, for I “do not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it” (Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous).

I am not glad I was raped.

But I’m grateful for the many opportunities God’s given me to serve and love other sexual assault survivors.

I’m grateful for my brokenness because God proved His love to me by putting me back together again.

I pray He does the same for you.

Doing motherhood like a dude

My closest friends may snort laugh in agreement when I admit that I’m a bit of a dude. I’m not just referring to my somewhat crude sense of humor or ability to belch with the best of them. I’ve also been accused of being cold and calculated when it comes to communication, choosing the content-only approach in terms of listening response styles, and often deferring to my analytical and critical nature, not just in the classroom, but in relationships as well. I will admit that I’ve been more in love with jobs than with men in the past and have found more fulfillment in climbing the ladder, corporate or not, and have thus poured myself into becoming smarter and better.

About eight years ago, my life took a turn for the worse—but ultimately for the better—when I faced challenging personal obstacles while going through marital and financial problems. I chose to become better, not bitter, and embarked on a journey of personal growth and recovery. Part of that journey involved me letting go of some of my die-hard defects of character which I’d never identified as defects—including that desire to run faster, jump higher, and fix every problem in the workplace. But old habits die hard, and I still find myself adopting that mindset in the here and now.

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Maggie savoring a cupcake from Mama, April 2015

A few days ago, I found myself scraping gunk from our hardwood kitchen floor beneath Maggie’s high chair while she ran back and forth between the kitchen and living room, pushing and slamming her huge yellow dump truck into the furniture and front door. I use the term “gunk” because I have absolutely no idea what the gunk consisted of. Yogurt? Maybe. I don’t know, and I don’t care.

After about two minutes of scraping gunk off the floor with a plastic putty knife—I’m not joking. It is the only tool that would remove the stuff.—Maggie decided I’d had enough of a break from play time. She grabbed my arm with her pudgy hand and forcefully demanded that we play together. I am sure there’s some fool in the world who would sigh and deny requests made by my precious princess, but it’s not going to be me. I give that baby what she wants.

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Maggie with one of her baby chickens, April 2015

So off we go to Maggie’s room, moving from books about rainbows and chickens to Melissa and Doug sound puzzles to pretending to blow bubbles from Easter eggs (I have no idea how she came up with that game, but it’s a cute one) to cooking potato chips in a skillet on her little kitchen stove… all in a matter of 20-30 minutes. I try to smile the whole time, come up with ways to insert little learning activities and lessons about life and emotions and God and the alphabet into conversations, and feel exhausted almost the entire time we are playing.

I am beginning to think I suck at this job of being Maggie’s mom; I used to think I was so good at it.

I remember when I worked at McDonald’s in high school, standing at the counter on a slow Friday night, our only customers choosing to use the drive-thru lane aside from a few families who’d come in to eat together. I remember wiping off the tables every 30 minutes and cleaning the bathrooms once an hour, only to have something to occupy my time and keep myself busy. For some reason, that feeling of killing time and staring at the clock in McDonald’s and waiting for the next shift to roll around reminds me of the feeling I often have as Maggie’s mom when I’m here alone with her—just waiting for her dad to get home from work, or waiting until nap time, or waiting until bed time so I can unwind and go to bed myself. I feel guilty writing this, but it’s the truth.

And then it hits me—I’m allowing the dude in me to be Mom.

Therein lies the problem.

I’m applying my analytical and critical, fix the problems in every workplace, run harder and jump higher and be smarter and better, lean in and dig my fingernails in and grit my teeth and work work work mentality to my RELATIONSHIP with my daughter. I’m approaching my relationship with my daughter as if it were a job.

But it’s not a job. It’s a relationship.

God did not interview me and hire me to be Maggie’s mom. I’m not being paid a salary to do the millions of things I do as her mom. I don’t undergo performance reviews, and no one manages me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMaggie is not a product of my hard work or an end result or trophy for me to put on a shelf or parade around in Facebook photos. It’s not my job to ensure brilliance before she attends Montessori Christian Academy so the staff will be super impressed by my ability to educate Maggie while also working full-time.

I’m going to try to remember that I’m not on the clock. Every second I have with my daughter is a blessing, but if I’m viewing my relationship with Maggie as work, I’m going to approach it with a tight jaw and will most likely place ridiculous expectations on both of us. And life is too short for that.

Quantifiable

Quantifiable     

Love is certainly
not
girl’s best friend, glitter pawned
for tears
post-divorce.

It is not awkward
silence
holding its breath between
us, heavier than the other
shoe suspended above
me, ever threatening
to fall.

It isn’t laying my body down
for the sake of relationship
a live carcass
my soul featured as missing–
plastered on cardboard milk cartons and
glanced at during morning coffee
then forgotten.

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Photo by Say Cheese Photography

Photo by Say Cheese Photography

But
love is

In the six hundred seventy two swings
of your axe, wood split
to stoke our stove
to kindle flames
into fires
inside our walls.

In the forty five thousand nine hundred
minutes spent smoothing
my only flesh
and blood’s auburn curls
while nursing her, singing dimly lit
tunes from Methodist hymnals.

In the three-pound
catfish, wriggling and flailing
its way to your parents’
house. In the smile you
kept while I showed
my prize-willing catch
to your dad, never deflating
my big-fish ego.

Our love is not
effortless.

By Bethany Wallace, 2015

                                                           

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

Dirty dancing’s not THAT bad

The class of 97, on the White River, April 26, 2014

The class of 97, on the White River, April 26, 2014

Last weekend, I said a fond farewell to a former high school classmate whose life was recently cut short. His sister hosted a “Celebration of Life” service at a local restaurant; the White River rolled and roared along beside us as we recalled living memories of our friend driving recklessly while listening to rock-n-roll music, or sending $100 to someone desperately in need of gas money for a trip home, or talking about his love for fashion and his desire to design clothing someday.

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect–clear blue sky with a few puffy clouds here and there, a warm breeze, the bright sun blinding us as we took a picture together, with just one of us missing.

Some of the original Dirty Dancing crew a few years after the watch party :)

Some of the original Dirty Dancing crew a few years after the watch party 🙂

As I chatted with my classmates after giving my spiel about my friend, one of them reminded me about her birthday party in sixth grade, a fabulously naughty slumber party, complete with ghost stories and the movie my mom had banned me from watching, Dirty Dancing. I laughed as I remembered blaming the entire incident on my friend at the time; of course, I was THRILLED to have the opportunity to watch Patrick Swayze sway and kiss–all shirtless, of course. I might have had no idea about sex yet, but I had some idea about kissing, having kissed my New Kids On The Block poster of Jordan Knight every single night for about 367 days in a row.

The movie met my every expectation. The best part was the soundtrack. I still have yet to find a better soundtrack to a movie. Maybe it’s just the nostalgic junior high kid in me, but every time I hear the songs from Dirty Dancing, I can’t help but smile and sing along.

This morning, like a real grown-up woman, I helped my husband get my baby ready for the day, fried up turkey bacon and eggs for my family, spent time alone with God, and settled down at the computer to grade research papers. I glanced up at the calendar hanging on the bulletin board above my desk and noticed a date, seven days from today, with a big “35” jotted in red ink.

Oh yeah, I remembered. My birthday is a week from today.

And I’m not sure why, but suddenly the thoughts of saying goodbye to my friend washed over my mind–not with sadness, just with a sense of contemplation. And then for some reason, I caught myself humming the tune to one of those great songs on the soundtrack of Dirty Dancing.

Now I’ve had the time of my life
No I never felt like this before
Yes I swear. It’s the truth
And I owe it all to You . . . 

If someone ended my life and murdered me today, God forbid, or if my life ended for some other random reason today, I think this might be the song–or at least the stanza–that would capture how I feel about my life today–how I feel about God today.

Introducing Maggie to my alma mater, May 2014

Introducing Maggie to my alma mater, May 2014

This is the miracle–that if you’d asked me five years ago, or 10 years ago, to summarize my life with one song, I probably would have selected either some depressing hardcore rock song or an equally depressing gospel hymn disguised as a hopeful look toward heaven. Either way, I might have kept up the appearance of someone peppy and happy and carefree, but I carried around debts and burdens and pain nonetheless.

And then I started taking some steps, 12 of them, actually, that have helped me to just lay those burdens down one by one, piece by piece, and to give God what is God’s and to “not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.”

What a life, and what a God.

So maybe watching Dirty Dancing wasn’t THAT bad.

And turning 35 isn’t bad at all. It’s a blessing.

 

–Quote from The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, page 83

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

 

2013 gift list

Before I move on, I want to look back—not to dwell on the past or listen to Sirens, as I might have in years past, but to gaze upon the beauty.

I started making a list a few weeks ago—my 2013 gift list. I’ve written a gift list ever since I started my blog at the end of each year as a way to express my gratitude for the growth and upward movement, for the blessings and kindnesses extended to me by others, for the truths I’d grasped. For God.

This year, I rattled off 10 items. Good things. Great insights. But I haven’t been able to write anything cohesive or clever. I’m sure this lack of creativity is partly due to lack of sleep, but I also came to the conclusion that I was struggling to elaborate because all the blessings are intertwined, with God being the tie that binds them all together into one beautiful year.

I remember specific moments that touched me, moved me, inspired me, and changed me. The memories are just snapshots of the big picture—reminders for me that this year, I would not change a thing.

015I remember sitting–for over 54,000 minutes this year—nursing and rocking my daughter, watching her miniature fingers and toes lengthen, her delicious fat rolls disappear, her eyelashes thicken. I resented nursing for at least half of those 54,000 minutes; I simply could not sit still in my soul, and sitting still in that chair drove me nuts. I’m not sure what changed, but when Maggie was about seven or eight months old, I suddenly found joy in nursing her. As she weans herself slowly but surely, I find that the fewer minutes we spend together in that chair, the more valuable they become. Each day, I thank God for the priceless seconds of warmth I share with my only begotten baby.

I remember feeling overwhelmed with pride while strolling with my daughter and husband 018on the sidewalks at Arkansas Tech University last spring, the sun setting and casting long shadows around us. Even though my baby didn’t sleep most of the night in the hotel full of teenagers—and neither did I—I managed to stumble through comprehensive exams the next morning and graduated with all A’s a month later. All the hours spent studying and reading and writing paid off, and I learned about much more than classic literature, theories of criticism, and teaching techniques. Amidst plenty of puking and ginger ale and crackers and swelling, I completed my course work ahead of schedule—just in time for Maggie’s arrival. I proved myself to be a tougher cookie than I thought I was.

I remember standing in my classroom at UACCB, a few months into my first semester as an adjunct faculty member, cramming textbooks, ungraded exams, and worksheets into my sleek black bag. One of my students, a tall, thin boy sporting a trench coat, sauntered up to me as the other students drifted out of the classroom. He began sharing his thoughts on the screwed up state of our society, and I listened, half intrigued by the depth of discussion and half annoyed that I would be late getting home. And then he transitioned into telling me a story about a confused, depressed teenage boy who tried to kill himself and about the lessons learned as a result. At that moment, I saw him through God’s eyes, and I knew in my gut that I’d made the right decision by choosing to teach English and “never get rich,” as my grandpa warned me when I selected my major in undergraduate school.

IMG_8379I remember receiving my six-year coin from my sponsor in my 12-step recovery program while my husband and daughter played on the soft blue carpet of her living room floor a few blocks away. I could scarcely eke out words when I accepted the small bronze coin, except to say thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you to the 50+ enlightened faces welcoming me around the folding tables in metal chairs, faces that I still see when I meditate on phrases like “let go and let God” and “forgiveness is me letting go of my right to punish you for hurting me.” Thank you to the woman who has held up the Light for me, showing me the steps to take to move closer to Christ.

I remember sitting on an old couch in the building where my local recovery group meets, seeing six of those faces of my old friends and sponsor smiling and interacting with the hungry souls in my local group. My two worlds melded together for a few brief hours; joy welled up in me as I listened to experiences and laughter and then watched the fruits of those hours blossom and grow in the months that followed.

I remember the moment when, after seeing the tears in one woman’s eyes as she discussed her desire to work the steps, I stood across from her in the dark parking lot and offered to be her guide. Relief and gratitude replaced the tension and fear on her face. We whispered in my kitchen one morning while my baby slept in her crib, sharing lives and starting the greatest journey together. Six months later, she opened her journal and cautiously explained her perception of God while my daughter crawled around us, scattering blocks and clapping her tiny hands. Astonishment appeared on her face when God shed light on some dark truths.

I remember watching Maggie roll over for the first time in her bedroom, her eyes shining IMG_8849with glee. I remember the first time she tasted snow this winter, her nose curling up in disdain. I remember the first time she said “mama” and “daddy” and “light” and a host of other words. I remember the first time we introduced her to our dogs, her eyes sparkling with amusement at their antics, totally devoid of fear or hesitation. I remember the first time she went to church with us, our wonderful pastor christening her with water from the Jordan River. I remember the first time Maggie ate peas, inhaling them and grunting with pleasure. I remember all of these moments because I was able to be with my daughter every single day in 2013.

And I remember the most beautiful moment of my life, aside from the moment I married James and the moment I met Maggie for the first time.

One long night, James and I awakened to the sound of Maggie screaming in terror, most likely from a bad dream. I stumbled into her room as quickly as possible, not even taking time to find my glasses. I reached into her crib and lifted her into my arms, resting her head on my chest and encasing her as I sat down on the couch in her room, swaying and singing softly to her. Her tears slowly subsided.

Then I felt a large, rough palm covering the smooth skin on my own hand; I turned my head to see my husband sitting beside me on the couch in the darkness, leaning in to the hug I’d started with our daughter. Maggie crawled out of my arms and nestled herself in the exact middle of us, her head resting on both our shoulders, her arms splayed out on both our chests. And we held her until she fell asleep, our love complete there in the silence.