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.

 

 

Will you be my friend?

In elementary school, I scribbled a few friendship invitations, carefully wrapped them 80’s origami style, and passed them to the girls I deemed interesting and trustworthy.

“Will you be my friend? Please check one: Yes, No, or Maybe.”

a0f0bb28519c347cd8063a6c40937768It was a trend, okay? A terrible one, but one which I still anxiously recall each time I choose to put myself out there to connect with new potential friends.

A male friend of mine once mentioned that when asking an older man to mentor him, he felt awkward energy, as if he were asking his mentor to prom. I laughed when he told me this.

But recently I found myself feeling the exact same way when I decided to step outside my comfort zone to invite my FOFO (formerly online friend only) to lunch. Kristi isn’t the first FOFO for me; as a writer, channel lean formats don’t feel threatening to me. I can truly connect with others without ever meeting them (to an extent). I enjoy reading others’ social media posts, commenting when appropriate, and browsing through their photos. As a career coach, it’s safe to say I’m a social media expert; I teach others how to use social media for networking and branding purposes.

Over the years, I’ve formed many solid work relationships and friendships in a virtual environment. I genuinely consider some of these people great colleagues and friends even though we’ve never met face-to-face. Some of them have offered me insights into running my business, advice regarding my skills and interests, and comfort and comradery during my darkest times.

But I don’t prefer to live and breathe in a virtual world.  There’s too much life to be lived, and living it together while breathing, talking, and of course, consuming great coffee is my preferred MO.

Sometimes life is easier when I stay on my side of the screen.

If I never meet you, and we never play the getting-to-know-you game, I invest much less time into what may or may not work. I don’t have to listen attentively. I don’t have to fix my hair or apply makeup. And let’s face it—I don’t have to be very vulnerable, allowing you to watch my facial expressions and body language while I tell you about my first marriage, explain my participation in organizations dear to me, or fumble through a political discussion.

If we never sit across the table and make eye contact, I don’t have to be the real me. I can be whomever I want to be—the best version of me—and keep the messes under wraps.

Yet when I met Kristi for the first time face-to-face at a chili supper, I knew we clicked. I also knew if I didn’t take action against my feelings and send the 2016 version of the “will you be my friend” note, I’d probably regret it.

So I did. I sent the cold Facebook message.

Fear followed. What if she politely blows off my invitation? What if she never responds? What if she rejects me?

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A reenactment of our first lunch date (The Pinto). Sorry for butchering your hair, Kristi.

She didn’t, and once again, my fears weren’t realized, and God reminded me of His love by meeting one of my deepest needs—genuine friendship.

She’s my current favorite FOFO. Each time we talk, my horizons expand. My brain wrinkles. And my heart fills with gratitude.

 

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

As sick as our secrets

Smiling through the sick secrets in my life, 2000

Smiling through the sick secrets in my life, 2000

“We’re only as sick as our secrets.”

I’ve heard friends say this phrase repeatedly in the rooms of recovery for almost six years.

This week, an old college friend of mine was arrested and charged with multiple counts of possession of child pornography. I sat through several religion and philosophy classes with him, sang worship songs alongside him, and watched him help start a campus ministry organization. When I learned about his arrest as I unrolled our copy of the local paper, I was not surprised.

Don’t get me wrong. This guy seemed to have his stuff together, serving his church and community by working as a youth pastor and teacher. He was recently married to a lovely lady and had a bright future to look forward to. Honestly, I always viewed him as better than me, more together than me, much more fundamentalist in his beliefs and behavior, and certainly more in control of his sinful nature.

I just wasn’t surprised to learn of his arrest because I’ve learned, through my own walk with God and personal struggles with right and wrong, that things are not always what they seem. And certainly people are not always who they seem to be.

Not long ago, a childhood friend of mine was convicted on similar charges related to filming minors and other women without their consent. I shared Skittles with this kid at church camp in sixth grade. I nailed roofing shingles next to him in Oklahoma on a mission trip in high school. I climbed the Great Wall of China with him as part of a service trip teaching English as a second language to college students. And I felt very proud of him as he became a pretty well-known local evangelist. He, too, had a beautiful young wife and had just started his own family.

And then the truth came out.

I don’t know the ins and outs of my old friends’ sins. I have compassion for their families, and I wish that I’d been able to offer some help or extend a way out to these old friends who are now facing legal consequences for their actions. As someone who was raped by a close family friend at the age of 16, I know firsthand how far and wide our secret sins can impact others. The man who raped me is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The man who abused him is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The cycle of secret sickness infects and wounds and scars all those caught in the tangled webs we weave.

Sometimes we only see part of a much larger and more complicated reality.

I faked my way through life while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I managed to maintain a 4.0 grade point average while smoking pot almost daily for a year. I served in campus ministry organizations while struggling with sexual sin on and off again in my own life. I pretended to have blissful marriages while being affected daily by alcoholism and drug addiction in my home. I have cheated, lied, and felt worthless, all with a smile plastered on my face.

007Until I got real honest with myself, with God, and with the people I love.

I’m thankful I don’t have to hide from the truth today. I have no desire to keep secrets. Secrets kept me sick for years. I’m not willing to pretend things are fine when they’re not. I’m not afraid to look at the past. Not even God can change the past. I’m not afraid to face who I am today head on—God has enlightened me and shown me time and time again that if I am willing to live in the light, the darkness will not prevail. Any time I’m tempted to do something and feel that it might be better to keep it to myself, chances are it’s something I’d be better off without.

It’s my prayer that I might become more honest with myself and less judgmental towards others. Just because I can see the horrible truths in others’ lives doesn’t mean I’m not harboring plenty of horrible truths myself, unless I choose to live in the Light and honestly look at the truth of who I am every day.

“Only the truth and truthfulness can save us now.” –Sara Groves