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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

15541547_626977790182_6637230077993858037_n

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.

13681047_616422862342_7593255184795955748_n

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

172225_512517135252_2038214_o

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.

Dream come true

A few weeks ago, in the stagnant heat of our storage building in July, I dug through boxes and crates. I hoped to find every last binder containing pertinent academic information that might help me teach college courses. I looked for the cute desk decorations I’d packed away in 2012 when I quit working at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville (UACCB) as an advisor mid-pregnancy in an attempt to focus solely on finishing graduate school. I searched every nook and cranny for books I knew I might want to reference or quote in class. I wanted to be prepared for anything. 

In my frenzied search for all things that might ever be of use to me at work, I came across a small white note card, a note card I’d  used while serving as Director of Career Development at Lyon College in 2006. The college emblem and my former name and job title were embossed on one side of the card. On the other side, though, was something of much greater significance. 

Samantha Hartley, Founder and President of Enlightened Marketing

Samantha Hartley, Founder and President of Enlightened Marketing

When I worked at Lyon College, I attended an event hosted by the Arkansas Association of Colleges and Employers; Samantha Hartley, the Founder and President of Enlightened Marketing, was the keynote speaker. I remember being completely energized by her presentation about social media and its benefits (and drawbacks). I felt compelled to share the information with other leaders on campus and to put into action her suggestions. 

After relocating to central Arkansas a year later, and finding myself somewhat disillusioned by the corporate world, I remembered how inspired I felt listening to her speak. I wondered if she would consider talking to me one-on-one about her ideas. As someone who takes the concept of networking seriously and doesn’t simply exchange business cards with people and move on, I sent her an email (thankfully I had maintained contact with her on Facebook and LinkedIn), and invited her to lunch. 

She accepted, but she suggested breakfast instead. It was a great suggestion–I’m still a fan of the place.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with Samantha to talk about goals and career ideas. I knew she was a very busy entrepreneur and felt grateful for the chance to pick her brain. I needed help. Specifically, I needed guidance from someone I admired, from someone whose career path I wanted to emulate. I did not want to remain stuck in a job or career I disliked. I knew that Samantha had been there, done that–and she’d done something about it. In fact, she’d been hugely successful when doing something about it. So she was EXACTLY the kind of person I needed to talk to.

My "vision card"

My “vision card”

Samantha listened to me. And she offered extremely helpful feedback based on what she’d heard. She suggested that I create a vision board. Since I’m an English major, and a word nerd, I created a list instead of a vision board. 

That’s what I found that day in my storage building, tucked inside an old binder. When it fell onto the floor of my storage building, I picked it up and read every item on the list. I gasped a little and felt my chest tighten as I finished reading the list as I realized that the list has come to fruition.

Every single item on the list has been realized in my current position as an English instructor at UACCB. I have more flexibility with my schedule than I’ve ever had before. My job is about making a difference in students’ lives, not about numbers and dollar signs. There’s tons of room for creativity; I design my courses with very little input from others. My boss is kind, supportive, and serves as a great mentor, too. I believe in the organization I work for; I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to say that wholeheartedly about any other employer, ever. Most importantly, I know that every day when I leave my house, I am going to do work that matters, work that impacts lives in a positive way. I’m doing what I am meant to do. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity to do it.

20140812_152712After I found my “dream come true” list, I sent Samantha a message and thanked her for her help and guidance. She reminded me that her own teacher once did the same for her; she believes in mentoring because “there have been pivotal people in my life who maybe said just one thing, but it was the breadcrumb that connected me to the next step on the path.”

She’s right. 

I had the chance to share this story with my Chancellor, Debbie Frazier. She encouraged me to share this story with my students. I think I will, and I know that by giving back to my students and by encouraging and supporting and teaching them over the years, I’ll be showing my gratitude to Samantha and to others who’ve encouraged me in the best way possible.

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.

 

Better

It’s a good thing we live in the middle of absolutely nowhere, wild-looking woods surrounding our home; otherwise, I might have worried that I’d be seen circling an invisible platform in the middle of our road, doing the Rocky victory dance after jogging 1/4 of a mile non-stop a few days ago.

My too-skinny self a few years ago

My too-skinny self a few years ago

Yes, I said 1/4 of a mile. I understand that the real runners and athletes reading this may scoff at my milestone. But I’m not a real runner. I haven’t even attempted to run–except to chase after my dogs or to catch my husband as he backs out of the driveway to tell him to pick up a gallon of milk–in about five or six years. Back in the day, I somehow mustered up motivation to train for and run a 5K with an athletic trainer/friend of mine. I met my goal, and then all of my running skills slowly atrophied. I began running two miles at a time instead of three. Then one. Then none. Then I sold my treadmill. Then I discovered the divorce/cigarettes/beer-and-wine/stress/migraine medication/worst-job-in-the-world diet, I lost 30 pounds in about six months, and I didn’t have it to lose.

But don’t worry–I gained most of it back after regaining joy, meeting the man of my dreams, and finding a much less stressful job. When we moved into our small old farmhouse in the woods, I decided I’d be a fool to forgo the opportunity to get fit by hiking on the trails behind our house. So I forged ahead and got back into great shape and made my two dogs pretty happy along the way, taking them with me on daily hikes.

Pregnant at about 32 weeks. I stopped taking pictures after that--it got too gross.

Pregnant at about 32 weeks. I stopped taking pictures after that–it got too gross.

Then I came down with the worst flu ever, and it lasted for five months. By “flu,” I’m referring to what others sweetly term “morning sickness,” which is the greatest misnomer since it occurred without fail all day long every day for five months. Needless to say, my love for hitting the trails was derailed. I tried walking on the road instead and kept that up halfheartedly throughout my pregnancy, but after gaining 60 pounds, and suffering from pretty serious edema and other hellacious symptoms, I found myself in the worst shape of my life after bringing our lovely daughter into the world.

I have read all the advice-laden books, and I know my body won’t immediately snap back into shape like a taut rubber band. I don’t expect it to. But I don’t want to sit on my laurels and pray for the fat to dissolve, either. So while my husband holds Maggie and plays his harmonica for her, I haul myself out of the recliner and hit the trails, huffing and puffing like the little engine that could, barely topping the highest hill before beginning the breath-catching trek downward.

A few days ago, after my hike, I decided to jog. I don’t know why. I honestly hate running, and I’m not good at it and never have been. I did run a 5K once, but it was hard and hardly worth the effort. I never experienced runners’ high, and I’m not sure I want to drop that experience into my bucket of accomplishments, either. But I jogged, nonetheless.

Me two days ago. Good enough for today :).

Me two days ago. Good enough for today :).

I wanted to stop after traversing roughly 50 feet. But I told myself to stop being a weenie and to keep going, even though my pace was perhaps slower than a brisk stroll. Somehow, I managed to jog 1/4 of a mile without stopping and without feeling completely miserable. So I celebrated, did the Rocky dance, and walked back home.

As my heart rate returned to its normal number, I wondered why it felt so much easier than it had in the past. It definitely wasn’t because I was in great shape–I already confessed that I’m in the worst shape of my life, hands down. The weather was a bit chilly, which always makes breathing while running a little challenging for me. And I was wearing my old Adidas running shoes–and by old, I mean old enough to be relegated to the shoe rack by the back door and repurposed as lawn-mowing shoes.

So what was my fabulous secret to success?

My guess is that I ran more easily because I wasn’t trying too hard. I wasn’t thinking about reaching a goal. I wasn’t setting impossibly high expectations for myself as I’ve done countless times in the past. And I wasn’t paying attention to the pain, either. I was just putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again.

And that was enough.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve been somewhat–okay, truthfully–a complete and utter perfectionist about most things most of my life. Whether obvious to others on the outside or not, I have always struggled to accept my best as good enough. I have punished myself mercilessly for the same screw-ups I’d pardoned others for. I have pitied myself for making poor choices rather than picking myself up, dusting myself off, and starting all over again.

About five years ago, I started turning that sad wagon around. With the help of the greatest 12-step recovery program and my fellow fabulous members and sponsor, I learned to be easier on myself. I dropped my expectations and just let God surprise me. I began forgiving myself for the list of sins haunting me and began making better choices.

I learned to pat myself on the back for progress, not perfection.

As I rounded the last curve in the road a few days ago after joyously celebrating my mini-jog moment, I remembered sitting in my bathtub about three years ago after ending a relationship that was tearing me apart for sundry reasons. My tears swirled amidst the bath water as I replayed my mistakes in my head and mentally beat myself up with a pretty big stick.

Then I heard God’s silent whisper in my heart.

“You did better today.”

And that was good enough.

It still is. I’ve got to be easy on myself and easy on the people I love. We’re all just doing the best that we can with what we have right now.

And I think that makes Him smile.