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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Word of the year 2016

I have a confession to make, and as a graduate of a liberal arts university (with a minor in religion and philosophy), this is truly crawl-under-a-rock worthy. I made a classic Christian mistake. I interpreted a passage of Scripture (Nehemiah 8:10) a) entirely out of context and b) in light of—wait for it—a contemporary Christian worship song rather than the context of the passage itself, the Jewish culture, or anything else reasonable or helpful.

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At OneDay 2000 (and yes, those are scrubs I’m wearing)

The embarrassing fact is this happened some time in college, and I’ve been running on the fumes of my lazy interpretation ever since. Has it caused me any major harm? Has it harmed others? Not necessarily.

At least one good thing came this Scriptural interpretation error for about 18 years. It opened my eyes to the truth that I’ve probably made similar errors numerous other times in my walk of faith over the years (incredibly humbling). Yikes—gotta keep my mental antennae up now every time I read the Bible for sure. What the heck was wrong with me? Were my emotions leading my brain or what? Who knows.

Here’s the problem.

I missed so much goodness by failing to see the big picture.

Each year since 2011, thanks to the prompting of my friend Denise Felton, I select a word as my focus or theme rather than making resolutions or setting specific goals. This helps me to stay centered and gives me something positive to meditate on; the appeal of choosing a word of the year also appeals to me since I’m a writer and have degrees in English—word nerd to the max, for sure.

This year, I felt compelled to focus on the word joy. If you read my previous blog post, you probably understand why. 2015 presented many challenges, and if I had to select a word in retrospect to represent my emotional state of being in 2015, it would likely be grief.

Who wouldn’t like a little relief from THAT? Joy hot fudge cake sundae with a little extra joy on top, please. And joyful cherry, too.002

I began researching joy and its word origins, reading articles online about the differences between happiness and joy, searching for quotes online and famous folks defining “joy,” and reading Scriptural passages about joy. All of this reading and research was helpful, but what stunned me—and quite frankly moved me to tears—was Nehemiah chapter 8. I knew I’d love verse 10 because, as I mentioned, I already felt attached to this verse because I’d belted out Matt Redman’s “Trading My Sorrows (Yes Lord)” more times than I can recall.

And I meant it—well, I meant that I WANTED the joy of the Lord to be my strength. Until the past few years, I didn’t even know how to allow God to be God in my life—I was my own god, managing and controlling and answering all my own questions and only turning to the real God as a last resort. So the whole “Trading My Sorrows” song and saying “Yes, yes Lord” thing was, at best, me paying desperate lip service to a noble concept I wanted to apply but simply couldn’t.

I recently purchased Sara Groves’ new album. The title track is Floodplain. I understand the song so well; the first time I listened to it, I gasped. She was describing the former Bethany.

Some hearts are built on a floodplain
Keeping one eye on the sky for rain
You work for the ground that gets washed away
When you live closer

Closer to the life and the ebb and flow
Closer to the edge of I don’t know
Closer to that’s the way it goes
Some hearts are built on a floodplain

And it’s easy to sigh on a high bluff
Look down and ask when you’ve had enough
Will you have the sense to come on up
Or will you stay closer

Closer to the danger and the rolling deep
Closer to the run and the losing streak
And what brings us to our knees
Some hearts live here

Oh the river it rushes to madness
And the water it spreads like sadness
And there’s no high ground
And there’s no high ground
Closer to the danger and the rolling deep
Closer to the run and the losing streak
And what brings us to our knees

Closer to the life and the ebb and flow
Closer to the edge of I don’t know
Closer to Lord please send a boat
Some hearts are built here

What happened to move me off the Floodplain is similar to what happened for God’s people, the Israelites, in Nehemiah chapter 8–God ultimately comes in for the win and fills them with more joy than they’d ever imagined. If I had taken time to read this chapter for myself slooowwwllyyy rather than rushing through it, latching on to the portion of the verse mentioned in the catchy Christian worship song all the cool kids were singing at the time, maybe I would have taken note of this as an 18 year-old kid… But maybe not. As Sara Groves states, “Some hearts are built here.” Mine certainly was.

Nehemiah, a servant of God who was serving as governor on behalf of King Xerxes, felt led to lead the Israelites who’d returned to Jerusalem out of exile to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He appealed to Xerxes, who granted him permission to oversee this task, and over a period of several months, Nehemiah worked tirelessly to make it happen but not without encountering numerous naysayers, some of whom threatened his life and tried to attack Jerusalem. While reading Nehemiah today, I felt exhausted at times—so I’m pretty sure he must have felt this way, too. There were times when the men did not even disrobe and disarm while sleeping for fear of being attacked at night. All this occurred while the people worked non-stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

When the Jewish people finally finished rebuilding the walls, Ezra, the priest, gathered the people together to read the Book of the Law. The people listened attentively, and Nehemiah and the priests said to the people, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law… “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated like this. And their joy was very great.  (Nehemiah 8:9-10, 17)

I never knew the back story—that the priests commanded the people to stop grieving and to find strength in the Lord via the avenue of joy that day.

And the back story goes WAAAYY back. These people returned to Jerusalem after being exiled to other nations, enslaved to nations and forced into God-knows-what kind of bondage. Many of their babies died from starvation before having a chance at life. I could go on and on. I’m not making this stuff up—read the books of the prophets in the Old Testament—it’s all there, and the atrocities committed against the Jewish people are horrific.

These people—the ones having difficulty holding back tears while the Book of the Law is being read for the first time after the walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt—these people are the survivors. But the priests see the big picture, and while they empathize with the mourning of the survivors, they also want to help the survivors thrive and move forward. They don’t want the people’s spiritual feet to remain stuck in the muck of grief. They want them to move into the clear, clean dry land of joy.021

This story—the story of the completion of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah chapter 8—occurred in the seventh month on the Jewish calendar during the Feast of Trumpets. This is the Jewish New Year.

It’s my New Year now.

This story resonates with me because it’s a beautiful depiction of what God has done for me, and it’s what I’m asking Him to do for me again.

After a long, hard year in 2015, I certainly relate to the overwhelming feelings expressed by the Israelites in Nehemiah. Like the people of Jerusalem, I am ready to celebrate like I have never celebrated before in 2016. I want to say at the end of this year, “And my joy was very great.”

As the wise king Solomon once said, there certainly is a season and time for everything. And there has been enough grief.

Excuse me, please. I must go heed the words of Nehemiah 8:12.

“Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.”

I know, I know… I’m taking the words out of context again… but for the love of chocolate…

 

Word of the year 2015

“Blessings fill your life.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have ruminated on this statement—which I perceive to be a truth given to me by God, not four short words typed on an index card and handed to me coincidentally by a random woman at a conference in October during a group meditation—for two months. I posted the card on my bulletin board in my bathroom, where all good quotes, verses, and cards wind up in my home; isn’t it where all mothers of toddlers spend their most reflective, quiet, serene, and precious moments during the day?

For the past two months—from the time I received the card through the remaining days of 2014—I assumed that God gave me this truth as my “thought for the conference,” which always evolves into something like my thought for the year, to help me stay focused on my blessings, or to keep my attitude in check and to help me focus on gratitude, a practice I hold dear.

“Blessings fill your life.”

I also had the fleeting thought—fleeting because my fall semester was so fraught with activity, mostly thanks to my stressful work schedule as a full-time English instructor—that perhaps this was a great reminder of a conversation I had with a young lady I mentor. This young woman recently graduated from college and embarked upon a career teaching high school this fall. We discussed her need to manage her time well, the need to carefully choose which meetings to attend, and which social activities to continue to participate in and which to discontinue.

“How do you do it, taking care of a toddler and teaching college and all that?” She asked in an exasperated tone.

“I say no. I say no a lot, and I don’t feel bad about it. I have just realized that I have a very full plate, and I only keep things on my plate which I enjoy, if I can help it.” I responded, without giving it much thought.

“Duuuuude.” She contemplated what I’d said, and we talked about the value of being picky about investing oneself in people, activities, organizations, and in anything that requires time. I told her that for me, I consider time my most valuable commodity because time is something I can never get back.

Looking back today, January 5, 2015, on that very conversation, I recognize my need to heed the wisdom from my own words five or six months ago.

Heading to work for the first time this fall, August 2014

Heading to work for the first time this fall, August 2014

I fiercely guard my time and schedule related to work and my life outside of the four walls of my home. For example, during the fall semester (my first semester teaching full-time as a college instructor), I carried an incredibly heavy load of courses. When it came time to submit scheduling preferences for the spring semester, I vowed one thing to myself: I would make more time for Maggie and for my husband, and I would never again burden myself with such a heavy grading load, either. One of the reasons I decided to pursue a career teaching college was the flexible schedule, which appealed to my desire to spend time with my family.

Many years ago, when I was much more motivated by external factors like money, power, and prestige, I would have been willing to work extra hours, take on extra projects, and do whatever it might take to impress every person on campus, even if it meant sacrificing time spent with loved ones. I’m simply not that person now. I love life, and nothing matters more to me than investing in my own life and in the people who matter most to me.

Thankfully, I work for an institution and supervisor who truly understand and appreciate that work-life balance. I can give my best to my students but still make plenty of time to give my best to my family, too. This spring, I am giddy about the schedule I have set for myself; I will actually spend my days off at home rather than at my computer in my office, endlessly grading essay after essay or speech after speech, relying desperately on my beautiful little blue Keurig for sustenance and support.

I have no problem saying no to appeals for my participation in social activities or non-profit organizations. I used to feel obligated to say yes to everyone who asked me to serve on a committee or board, to help organize a fundraiser, or to offer assistance planning an event. I love the camaraderie of working with volunteers. I enjoy helping others and the satisfaction of seeing events and projects completed. And let’s face it—I am an egomaniac. I love the recognition I receive when I do well and hear rounds of applause as a result.

But I have moved beyond that phase in my life, for the most part. I still write checks when God nudges me to support a cause. I volunteer for just two organizations—one is my church, and the other is an organization I will remain committed to for the rest of my life. I have come to understand that for me, there is more value in devoting myself in a full-fledged manner to this one organization than in volunteering a little for this and a little for that, spreading myself so thin that I never do any one thing very well or make any long-term lasting impact.

“Blessings fill your life.”

Our family, November 2014

Our family, November 2014

My plate is full. God has blessed me with a career that has exceeded my expectations. I didn’t even ask for it all, and I got it. God has blessed me with fulfillment in my friendships and mentoring relationships and commitments outside my job and family, too. And God has obviously blessed me with a beautiful daughter and great husband. And then there’s God Himself. If you read my blog regularly, you understand that God and I have a good thing going, contingent on the daily maintenance of my spiritual condition—no problems there.

As I approached New Year’s Eve, I began asking God for my focus for 2015 and praying for God to give me a word to focus on for 2015. He was silent. I hoped that some brilliant word would leap from the pages of one of the books I read during my morning quiet time. Nope. Silence.  I asked for prayer from two of my friends who regularly pray for me. I prayed for myself. Still nothing.

Then finally, on the morning of January 1, before my eyes opened, I awoke with words running through my mind. I don’t remember the exact words, of course, because it was 6 a.m., and I hadn’t even consumed coffee yet, but in the midst of the mental madness, I recall something to the tune of “Keep it simple.”

That’s it, God? Keep it simple? Are you sure?

Ever a doubting Thomas, I asked God to confirm this revelation to me in the Bible by playing Russian roulette with verses. I flipped open the Bible to various pages and read random verses. This rarely works for me, and it didn’t this time either. It was as if God were shaking his head and responding, “Really, Bethany?”

I sighed and picked up the two books I’d decided to read during my morning quiet time of reading, prayer, and meditation in 2015. At the end of the first section of the first book was the word “simplicity.” The whole passage’s concept was regarding unity or clarity of purpose. Hmmm.

I picked up the second book. On the opening page, a verse was featured in the center of the page, all alone. In the verse was the word “simple.” I read the introduction to the book. At the end of the introduction was an admonition. “We have found that this simple prayer helps.”

Okay. I’m with You. Thank You.

Some of us need gaping wounds to reach into before we’re willing to move forward. I’m one of those. God knows that about me.

“Blessings fill your life.”

Simple.

Oh. So this is the problem. Not until today did I make the connection between these two pieces of the spiritual puzzle that God asked me to play with Him. I couldn’t see the side of the puzzle with a picture—just cardboard.

See, I understand how to say no to outside requests for my time. I understand how to manage my work schedule pretty well and how to set boundaries and how to choose when working in my office makes more sense than working from home.

But the moment I walk in the door of the four walls of our small 110 year-old house, the full plate concept, the saying no to more activity, the keeping it simple idea, and being still notion all become much more difficult. Sure, Maggie has something to do with that. Managing a two year-old is impossible, really; accepting the impossible nature of the task is the closest I come to sanity, actually.

But it’s more than that. The problem lies within me.

One example of why moms of toddlers must embrace chaos

One example of why moms of toddlers must embrace chaos

When I am here, I feel incessantly driven to tame the clutter beast, to clean the messy spills and disinfect the germs, and to organize the tiny space that is our house. I feel driven to spend my time doing these things—and these things are distractions from the main thing: Maggie. Maggie is not concerned with piles of books, laundry, dishes, or tools. She merely wants attention. She wants to play. She wants our presence. When we’re here, particularly when we are all three together, she wants all of us to be together. As she has grown in awareness over the past six months in particular, she is no longer satisfied with being cared for by one parent while the other one cleans or does chores around the house. She wants all of our love all the time. Of course, this isn’t always realistic. Somebody has to clean up after dinner, and someone has to take the laundry out of the dryer, and someone has to scrub the toilet at least once in a while. But most of the time, Maggie prefers that we hang out with her.

I know that investing in Maggie is the best use of my time, of course, because she is our only one. She’s it—I don’t want more children, and as I am already aware, I cannot regain moments with her. I may regret many choices I have made in life, but I do not regret any time I have spent with Maggie. But as cognizant as I am of this truth, I still struggle with my obsession to tame the clutter beast in our home. I want less clutter. I want more space. I want more bins and tubs for storing things. If only we could add on two more rooms… if only he could pick up this and that… if only I could figure out how to actually utilize those 32 tips for small spaces instead of just thinking they sound like great ideas… Sigh.

When I find myself in this stressful place, I realize that I am creating my own internal chaos. I am not accepting my life just as it is for today, and I am not recognizing that blessings fill my life. My perspective is skewed. I’m not seeing that my plate is full—I’m just throwing more unnecessary, calorie-laden, tasteless junk food on top.

And I’m certainly not keeping it simple. I’m complicating things, externally and internally. I am a total sucker when it comes to managing and controlling the space within these four walls. Do I just desire qi, and need to study feng shui, because I grew up in a home that was cluttered?

Who knows, and who cares? I have learned that contemplating why is mostly a waste of time for me. The bottom line is that I’m creating the problem here, so I need to do something about it. I will take actions and leave the worrying about why to someone with more time on their hands—to someone without a toddler.

This year, I’ll try to walk in the door after a long day’s work and keep it simple, no matter how many mustard-coated plates fill the sink—to focus on the fact that blessings fill my life, every part of my beautiful life, and that I can simply choose to seek the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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

 

2013 word of the year

ImageIn 2011, I was inspired by my friend Denise Felton to select a word of the year. In 2011, my word was “freedom.” I knew freedom was a goal–I didn’t know that God had gone ahead, planned in love, and laid plans to free me from incredibly heavy chains of the past, enabling me to truly enjoy the love of my life and to later experience sweet reconciliation and redemption related to my deepest, darkest secret.

In two short years, I found freedom from my past, freedom to live in the present, freedom to love and trust, and freedom to dare to dream about the future.

This year, another friend of mine who was inspired by my “word of the year” journey toward freedom decided to select a word of the year herself. Call it peer pressure, but knowing that she’s already receiving blessings and insights related to the word she selected for 2013 really motivated me to start contemplating my own word for 2013.

Choosing a word of the year might be a random, quick process for some people. For me, it takes time. It’s simple–I pray and ask God to make it very clear to me which word to focus on–but it takes time. Yesterday, I prayed that God would reveal the word to me and that He’d make it clearer than usual because my brain lacks the ability to perform its typical functions lately due to lack of sleep (as a result of adjusting to life with my beautiful infant daughter).

“Lord,” I prayed, “I’d like to know if there’s a word you want to give me this year, something to focus on. But You might have to stick it right in front of my face, or I may miss it.”

ImageAfter finishing my prayer while sitting at my desk, attempting to alert myself with a cup of coffee, I opened my eyes and saw my word stuck right in front of my face. Literally.

A few years ago, I attended a conference for women in particular 12-step recovery programs. At the conference, we participated in a group meditation called a “whisper walk.” I’d participated in whisper walks a few times before, and each time, the phrases given to me to recite were precise messages from God that pierced my heart (and always produced tears, of course). One of the messages from the whisper walk was tacked to my bulletin board directly in front of my laptop.

“God’s light shines through you.”

Light.

A proverbial electrical switch flipped and illuminated my mind (perhaps the coffee kicked in at that exact moment as well). Of course, light.

My daughter was born in November. As we duked it out over the name selection process, we finally agreed to select two family names since we both prefer traditional names and wanted to honor our families as well. Our daughter’s first name, Margaret, means “daughter of light.”

ImageAs I spent many hours sitting, praying, and reading due to excessive swelling during pregnancy, I rediscovered a verse which I dubbed “Maggie’s verse,” Isaiah 60:1. Many years ago, when I was in my early 20’s, I spent a weekend at a women’s retreat for my local church. One of the women, who happened to be my accountability partner at the time, woke me up Saturday morning by whispering the most gentle, wonderful words to me:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come. And the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”

Ahhh. I remember turning my grumpy, typical morning frown upward and thinking, “Now that’s a great way to wake up in the morning.”

Each morning, since my daughter came home from the hospital, I have whispered those wonderful words to her as I gently rouse her. I sing the words to her in a made-up song multiple times a day.

Yesterday, after settling on “light” as my word of the year, I attached a leash to my overjoyed beagle and hiked into the woods behind our home. As my boots carried me down the well-worn paths I’ve walked many times before, the sunlight penetrated my body and warmed me. I began to realize that the word “light” was not just for my daughter; it is for me, too. God wants to be a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Psalm 119:105). He is willing to be my light and my salvation, giving me no reason to fear the darkness (Psalm 27:1). He has broken the chains of my past that kept me focused on dark shadows, and He invited me out of the spiritual cave I dwelt in, revealing a lighter world. He repeatedly reminds me that if I focus on the problem, it increases, yet if I focus on the solution, it increases.

This year, may I close my eyes to the darkness, look to the Light, and see more clearly than ever before.