Becoming Bethany

Observations on becoming and being

Being a Good Neighbor

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Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of very few shows I watched as a child. I liked it better than Sesame Street or cartoons and I always felt a little sheepish about that. I thought I should know that those other shows were “cooler” but something about the kind man who had a trolley in his living room, talked to puppets, and sang songs left a stronger impression on me.

I liked the field trips he would take us on through his picture frame. I still can’t use a crayon without thinking of the crayon factory visit. I liked figuring out the moral conundrums of the Neighborhood of Make-believe along with Good King Friday. Lady Elaine Fairchilde always scared and fascinated me – truly a strong and complex female character on television.

But I think the part of the show that I liked the best was when Mr. Rogers had guests stop by to play music or talk about art or big things that were happening in the world. When I was a little, having people over for dinner was one of the most exciting things. I loved meeting new people and listening to grown-ups talk at the table and I would get a similar thrill watching Mr. Rogers have his neighbors stop by.

Mr. Rogers interest in his guests, his honest questions, and his obviously kind curiosity gave me permission to be similarly curious and ask questions of adults and people from different backgrounds from mine. Even now, I am still learning to ask the simple yet profound questions that were the essence of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I saw the new Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? last weekend and the part of his story that hit me the hardest was his insecurity about whether his work was making a difference in the world. He wondered if anyone understood the big work his show was doing or if everyone just saw it as a sweet kids show. When he was asked to do a PSA after 9/11, he asked if anyone would even care what he had to say. Little did he know that that PSA would be quoted and replayed after every national and international tragedy since then.

I happened to watch this documentary on the day Anthony Bourdain died which meant I ended up drawing connections between their work that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Anthony Bourdain’s shows also exhibited that kind of curiosity and inquisitiveness that draws people in and makes them feel more familiar than other or strange. The way Bourdain embraced other cultures through their food with open arms made the world feel close and accessible.

Anthony Bourdain’s shows made a Vietnamese noodle shop feel like it was part of my neighborhood as much as the BBQ joint in South Carolina. He allowed himself to be a learner and a teacher in each of these interactions and over the course of his career exhibited a greater humility, intentionally moving away from some of the brashness of his early career.

I have no idea what Mr. Rogers or Mr. Bourdain thought of the legacy of their work at the end of their lives. I hope they were proud of what they accomplished. I hope they know they inspired many to be good neighbors through asking questions and inviting others into our lives through food and hospitality. I know their work helped me be less afraid of asking questions and being curious of others. Their work gave me permission to keep seeking to know my “neighbors” and live in a wider neighborhood.

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Moth to a Flame

I love ceremony but even I felt a little silly for waking up at 3am to watch the telecast of the wedding of two people I have never met. My roommate and I settled into the sofa with English Breakfast, scones, and lemon curd. I expected fascinators and morning jackets and a beautiful bride. I did not expect to get choked up at seeing the joy of two brothers who have known more than their fair share of grief. I did not expect to cry at the sight of a mother’s love for her daughter. I did not expect to have any feelings at all for the new couple but ended up joining the rest of the world in wishing them every happiness. But the part of that telecast that made me feel like I was joining in something truly sacred was a ceremony that somehow both celebrated and confronted a difficult and complex history with such power and grace that I am still processing all of the ramifications of what happened on Saturday morning in St. George’s Chapel. A sermon that spoke of the way love has and will continue to turn the world upside down.

***

I know I’m in the minority as a millennial who actually enjoys religion. The way each culture has created codes, ceremonies, and celebrations to bring some structure to trying to reach God and connect with the infinite is fascinating and immensely beautiful to me. This month is Ramadan – the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. Muslim friends have described it to me as the part of the year when heaven is a little closer, when it’s a little easier to speak to God. The good Christian in me knows I should disagree with that idea and reaffirm my belief in Immanuel – that God is always near. But another part of me admits that there are times when God feels a little closer. I think you know those times too. Those times and spaces and situations when the lining between us and heaven seems a little thinner. When the thick curtain between right now and eternity becomes as translucent as a wedding veil.

***

I love the Church dearly but sometimes it feels like an unrequited love. It took me many more years to fall in love with the Church than it did to learn to love God. Loving God feels irresistible to me – like the attraction of a moth to the flame that the Sufi poets describe. Loving the Church has taken me time and effort and work. It has meant me showing up even when I am angry or hurt. It has meant opening myself up and being vulnerable and instead of being loved and accepted, being shamed or worse, ignored. But there have also been times when it has been as easy as talking to a best friend. When showing up has been a joyful homecoming. Learning to love the Church has been like learning to love in any other relationship – full of joys and sorrows. I believe it is worth it but it’s definitely not easy.

The sermon on Pentecost Sunday was from 1 Corinthians 13. About how love will remain when everything else has passed away. All of the good things I may be able to accomplish and all of the gifts and sacrifices I may make are nothing and will be nothing without love. But with love, those things can somehow continue long after me. The fact that anything I do or say or give has the possibility to touch eternity mystifies and humbles me. Looking at life through this lens brings priorities into focus in a way that makes codes and doctrines and heresies feel so much less important. It narrows the many questions I ask in making every decision down to one: Is there love here?

***

Love draws us in and holds us close but also disrupts us. Love soothes us but also challenges us. Love can be the most grounding present force but also touch eternity. There’s a singer songwriter in LA whose love songs make me cry every time I hear them. The chorus to one of his songs feels like it captures this dichotomy and echoes generations of religious mystics:

You’re one of the few things that I’m sure of. 
You’re one of the few things that I know already I could build my world of. 
One of the few things that I’m sure of, and I want you to unravel me.
Come closer, come closer.
I want you to unravel me.

Waking Up Somewhere Else

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I felt the warm sun on my forehead peeping out from under the duvet. I heard parrots chirping and Spanish speaking voices just outside my window. I smiled in the last moments of my dreaming before opening my eyes and fully committing to waking up. When I opened my eyes, I was confused and disappointed. For some reason my sleeping self thought I would be waking up in a hotel room in Puerto Rico instead of my apartment in Pasadena.

Maybe it’s because of all the moving I did growing up or maybe everyone has this experience but I am often confused about where I am when I wake up. Sometimes my sleeping mind forgets what bedroom I’m in or even what year it is and prepares my senses for a completely different environment than the one I am actually waking up in. I have woken up thinking I am in a different country, thinking I am 12 years old, thinking I am late for school, thinking I am still married. It’s always jarring, sometimes humorously so, but this morning it was just disappointing.

My sleeping self was remembering a time not that long ago when I thought I had everything I could ever want – my dream job with opportunities to travel and make an impact, a great community of friends, a spouse who made me laugh and made me think, an itty bitty apartment but right in the middle of one of my favorite cities, and lots of exciting potential opportunities on the horizon. I thought this was what adulthood would always feel like – working hard to pursue dreams and fulfilling them.

Five years later, I am not in the same place. My life looks very different and my experience of adulthood feels different too. Right now adulthood looks like a lot of persistence and grit and a lot of far-off-in-the-distance hope to keep pursuing dreams. It has been a lot of laying down expectations for self-fulfillment in exchange for just trying to be faithful to the next step. I haven’t quit working hard but the results from those efforts feel much harder won – if anything comes of it at all. It has been deeply confusing in a way that has shaken up my understanding of God’s goodness and faithfulness. It’s not that I have questioned whether God is good or faithful as much as my understanding of what those attributes really look like and feel like is changing.

I walked into church yesterday morning still feeling the dissonance between the life my sleeping self wanted to wake up to and the reality I’m actually in. I stood in the pew trying to center myself and be present. One of my favorite authors Kathleen Norris writes about being faithful to the actions of worship in community even when your emotions are not there. She describes it as leaning on the faith of others when one’s own faith is not enough. I fully expected this to be one of those mornings until the worship leader announced we would be learning a new song this morning. The first verse made my breath catch in my throat:

I’m so confused 
I know I heard you loud and clear
So, I followed through
Somehow I ended up here 
I don’t wanna think 
I may never understand
That my broken heart is a part of your plan
When I try to pray 
All I’ve got is hurt and these four words
 
Thy will be done 
Thy will be done 
Thy will be done

“Thy will be done.” Words we traditionally pray every Sunday as part of the Lord’s Prayer. Words I learned to say before I even really understood what a will is. Words I can recite without thinking – part of my liturgical muscle memory. Suddenly just saying those words demanded a level of trust that I wasn’t prepared to give.

What is God’s will? It’s a question we ask in sermons, books, seminars, and in quiet reflection. It’s a question I have asked myself as long as I can remember but yesterday the questions running through my mind were the scary ones I rarely admit to asking: Is it God’s will that I live alone for the rest of my life? Is it God’s will that I spend the majority of my waking hours in a job that leaves me spent and unfulfilled?

I don’t have answers to these questions but on Sunday morning instead of searching for another solution, trying harder, and pursuing more, I let the questions move from the closed off corners of my heart to rest out in my open hands. I repeated the words I have recited since I was three years old and asked for the grace to hope that the answers will be good. Even if not necessarily what I think I want.

The challenge is the same every morning. Whether everything is going the way I want it to or I am struggling for change. Every morning when I open my eyes to whatever my current reality is, the words are always the same – thy will be done.

A Desert Love Story

By August 2014, I was halfway through the year I fondly refer to as “the worst year of my life”. It was six months post-separation and three months after the revelation that infidelity had been part of the end of my marriage. I was limping through that summer. Trying to find my center and hold on to something as my life swirled around me in one awful soap opera worthy episode after another.

I talked my best friend into joining me for the trek out to the desert to a Benedictine monastery for a weekend retreat themed around the imagery of the Sacred Heart. I was not familiar with the Sacred Heart but it sounded interesting enough and mostly I was craving the silence and solitude that a desert monastery in the middle of summer can offer.

We arrived late in the afternoon and checked into the sparse accommodation. A simple twin bed, a sink, and a religious image on the wall made up the room. But already I could feel the silence and the desert start to creep over me like a cozy blanket. By the time we set down our bags, the bells chimed to call us to the evening prayer before supper.

All the retreatants followed the monks into the chapel in silence. The crucifix on the other side of the altar immediately transfixed me. It was carved of wood and painted in a southwestern design. Jesus was looking straight ahead while an angel held a chalice to catch the blood dripping from his side. It felt too earthy – more like a ritual for some animistic practice than something you would find in a church. I mumbled my way through the liturgy. My eyes barely leaving the image of the angel and the chalice.

When the service ended, I walked up to the crucifix. Closer up, I could see that the hole in Jesus’ side was hollow and from a certain angle you could see past a couple bony wooden ribs to the carved heart inside. The heart was lovely. Intricately carved and painted a deep red. I understood why the angel with the chalice stood there so patiently waiting for each drop. The mystical side of me wanted to reach up for a drop of my own. Just one, I thought. Maybe one drop will quench the desperate love-thirst I have been feeling. Or two. I could stand here and wait for two drops. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel so alone and abandoned and unloveable.

I sheepishly noticed that everyone else was gone at this point and the last monk was waiting just outside the door for me to follow. I hurried out – overly concerned about the extra minute I made him wait for his dinner. In the refectory everyone stood near their spot at the table for the blessing. We sat and then the monks took turns serving each person. An older monk with a crooked back and wise face brought me a soup bowl. A younger monk followed him with the soup pot and ladle.

The friendly monk with the soup pot smiled at me and asked, “Are you hungry?” I nodded. He ladled up a big spoonful of vegetable soup into my bowl. I looked up to thank him but before I could, he had already spooned another ladle full of soup into my bowl. “There you go,” he said and moved on to the next person. I stared at my full to almost overflowing bowl and could feel tears stinging my eyes. No man had served me dinner since my husband left our table to cook dinner for someone else. I felt silly that this simple gesture had moved me so deeply.

All I asked for was a drop and now I have a bowlful. All I asked for was a drop, I kept thinking. I ate the soup in grateful silence – tears still in my eyes. Just when I thought I was full, more monks appeared carrying plates of vegetarian lasagna. The double ladle of soup was just the beginning. All weekend long, at lunch and dinner, the monks served us our meals.

The times of prayer, the contemplation of the imagery of the Sacred Heart, the hours of silence in the desert were all beneficial. But what really moved my heart and brought me healing that weekend was men serving me food. I was essentially a stranger to them. We never spoke aside from the liturgy we read in the chapel and my whispered thank yous at the table. They did not know my story or why I had sought out their hospitality in the desert. But they loved me – through the simple gesture of welcoming me to their table and handing me plates of food.

Through the ladles in their hands, I glimpsed the Sacred Heart.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

I had an irresistible craving for chocolate chip cookies the other night.

It was late on a Saturday. It had been a really fun day but I was still coming down from a hard and tiring week. I was tired and probably just needed to go to bed but all I could think about was homemade-from-scratch-chocolate-chip-cookies.

We had all the ingredients in the house and it was late but not too late. But I didn’t make the cookies. The more I thought about it, I realized it wasn’t chocolate chip cookies I wanted as much as someone else to make me chocolate chip cookies.

In a past life, chocolate chip cookies was one of the ways my former partner would say he loved me.  When he had a long week or I had a hard day, he would say, “How about some cookies?” He would pull out the butter and flour, brown sugar and salt while I sat on a stool and ate semi-sweet chips. He knew the recipe by heart (Toll House, I think) but the measurements were his own.

Sometimes we would put a record on the turntable, usually he would get covered in flour, always we would talk. Maybe about the long week or the hard day, maybe about the state of the world, maybe about the obscure indie film we had watched the week earlier, maybe about those deep down fears of being insignificant.

That Saturday night I don’t think my chocolate chip cookie craving was for the cookies (as delicious fresh-from-the-oven as they are!) but for the community, the intimacy, the sacred space that is created when someone cooks for you. (Especially completely unnecessary food like a late night snack.) The space that is formed when all of the needs and responsibilities and to-dos are set aside for the hour it takes to whip up a batch of cookies.

I think I was feeling disconnected. I wanted someone to reach out and pull me back – to the center, to the sacred, to myself. As fervently as I believe in the full life a single person can lead, I don’t think it can be outside community. As content and personally fulfilled as I feel, I still need people to reach out, to make space, to step outside the hectic whirl and really see me.

I am still learning to foster that kind of community and to ask for it too. To remember that other people need opportunities to show love as much I need to be loved. Maybe chocolate chip cookies are exactly what someone else needed that Saturday night too.

When Vulnerability Hurts

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In the last several years as I have been learning to practice intentional vulnerability, I have been thrilled to see all the ways it has deepened and broadened my life. I have experienced immeasurable joy in deepened relationships, felt more free to love the people and things that I love, and become less ashamed and anxious about who I am and how (I perceive) others see me.

So far the joys and benefits have so vastly outweighed the negatives that I have probably over-minimized the painful parts of facing the world with as little artifice as possible. I have been reminded lately that sometimes vulnerability can hurt and hurt deeply.

The picture I have of vulnerability right now is like the soft belly of a hedgehog. I feel like I am walking through the world soft belly first instead of spines first. To live with greater vulnerability, I have decided to let go of some self-protective habits in order to approach others less threateningly and hopefully be approached more openly also.

The thing about a soft belly is that it is much more easily poked and bruised than spines. Something that would have just brushed roughly against a back of spines can injure a soft belly. My instinct in these situations is to curl up into a ball and become a pack of spines. It is very difficult to stay soft belly up when I have been hurt.

It’s not just hedgehogs, people are made to walk through the world soft belly first too. Our vital organs are much more exposed from the front than the back but that is the side we present to the world everyday. Face forward, heart forward, belly forward. The most vulnerable parts of us face the rest of the world. When we are insulted or belittled or betrayed or hurt, the words are usually directed to these soft parts of us.

I have also been realizing how my vulnerability can unintentionally hurt others. In my desire for deeper and more open communication, I can place a burden on others that they have not asked for. I’m realizing more sharply that sometimes a spiny back can seem less threatening than a soft belly because you do not have to worry about injuring a spiny back. Similar to the way some people are afraid of babies – not because they will hurt you but because you could hurt them.

Recently in an attempt to be transparent and vulnerable with those closest to me, I have both hurt and been hurt. It stings like betrayal and has the dull ache of grief and loss. Betrayal because it feels like I was only able to hurt and be hurt because of the level of vulnerability I shared. Grief and loss because the sweetness of these vulnerable and transparent relationships have been marred by the pain we inflicted – however unintentionally.

Right now I want to curl up into a ball and face the world spines first. Right now it is taking all my courage to keep facing the world soft belly up. To believe that the rewards of vulnerability and transparency in relationships are real and worth pursuing. To believe that the hurt I am experiencing as a result of vulnerability pales in comparison to the pain of a closed off and guarded life.

A Disappointing Year

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I’m not gonna lie. 2017 has been a pretty disappointing year. It’s been a year where many things haven’t panned out the way I thought they would – personally, nationally, globally. In a year filled with global tragedies and personal tragedies for more than a few dear friends, my concerns feel petty. But I also know I’m not the only one who has had a disappointing year.

This time last year I was filled with hope at the changes I believed were coming. I expected those changes would bring good things – increased social justice, growth and advancement, opportunities to push a little further into who I am and a little further out into the world. There have been changes for sure but not in the way I expected.

It’s been a year of hearing a lot of “no” and not a lot of “yes”. It’s been a year where more than once I have wondered if I’m headed in the right direction or totally missed my turn somewhere. It’s been a year where I’ve pushed myself past where I’m comfortable and then wondered if I am better or worse off for it. It’s been a year where the fear of failure and inconsequence has been making rustling noises just outside the door.

It’s not the worst year. And there were several unexpected changes that brought a lot of joy. (New sister-in-law! New nephew! My family all in the same country! A chance to work with amazing artists on creative projects!) The disappointments of this year are small in the grand scheme of life. It’s entirely possible that in a few years I won’t even remember them at all. But for now, they are dampening my hope for good things in a way that I don’t like.

I don’t believe in forgetting the past but I do believe in letting the past live in the past. I think being an adult is making decisions and then living with those decisions as best you can. Yet it is all too easy for me to let past failures and disappointments keep me from being brave and stepping out into something new and uncharted. Each disappointment makes me a little more cautious about being courageous again.

The beginning of Advent (and my birthday) are coming up in a few weeks and I am ready to push the restart button. I’m ready for renewed hope and dreams and vision for the next year. I’m looking forward to the holidays to taking a break, time with family, and making time and space for refueling my dwindling reserves. (My Christmas plans include a few days of silence and meditation at a monastic retreat center and I’m so excited.)

There are good things on the horizon. Irons in the fire. Exciting collaborations forming. Relationships deepening and expanding. There are always, always changes and I’m hopeful for a few good ones. I’m proud of myself for the risks I’ve taken even when the payoff isn’t what I expected. I’m not losing hope. I am just spent and tired now. This year has used up more of me than I thought I had. In an odd way, that is encouraging though. The wells of strength and courage and hope are deeper than I think.

The Most Shivering Sight

The most shivering sight
I have seen is
the death of soul.

It keeps me up at night
wondering where
the spirit goes.

Seeing a dead man walking
only more reminds me of
the pink of health.

Where does the spirit wander
when rejected from
the flesh and bones?

It must be lonely
and so deeply cold.

In Between


I have been waking up at 4am pretty consistently for the last couple weeks. Not afraid, not worried, not excited – just awake. But not really awake – drowsy awake. Not awake enough to get out of bed or do anything productive. Just awake enough to be hanging in the whirly space between sleep and not sleep. Dreaming and questioning the dreams. What do you do at 4am? It’s not night but it’s also not quite day.

The weather has been jumping back and forth between summer and autumn. One day last week it was 90F during the day and 55F at night. I wear clothes somewhere between summer and winter – unsure when I will be hot or cold at any given point in the day. The clouds roll in at night and stick around for the morning one day. But the next morning my room is as bright as noon by 6am. I shiver and sweat and am comfortable in rotation as I seek equilibrium through sweaters and sleeveless dresses.

I am working my way through my list of things to do and tasks to complete but with only a hazy idea of how to do what I really want to do. Excited and working toward possibilities but also feeling like I’m not passing the mile posts at the mph I thought I was driving. Am I there or on my way? Is this a rest stop or a destination? Do I just keep driving or get off the road and look at a map for a while?

Loud opinions ring in my ears. I listen to them all – closely. Trying to hear past the vocabulary to the fears and loves and passions underneath. Sometimes I think I hear something that makes sense, something that resonates with my experience of being human but the next sentence pushes me away with more force than a shove. I feel like a boxer hopping up and down, back and forth in a ring. Not quite engaging the opponent (because I don’t want an opponent) but also not feeling like I can just leave the fight. So I keep hopping and listening and hopping but not striking. I’m not convinced a hit would end the fight.

Working for Rest

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After some traumatic experiences a few years ago, I was feeling very disconnected from my body. It had started to feel like something I was dragging around rather then something I truly inhabited. I’ve never been particularly aware of my body but this was a new feeling of estrangement from myself.

I had always been curious about yoga but had never tried it. I’m not athletic or coordinated and photos of yogis’ contorted poses on Instagram intimidated me. After many recommendations and reading articles on integrating yoga into mind-body-awareness therapy methods, I finally decided to give it a chance. I figured I would make it through a couple poses and leave.

As I stepped into my first beginner class though, I was surprised that the first thing we were asked to do was to sit quietly and breathe. To listen to the air filling our chests and bellies and then slowly leaving again. I don’t know how long we stayed there breathing but when I opened my eyes again, I felt more embodied than I had in a long time.

The instructor then gently and smoothly talked us through a series of poses. The language she used to direct our positions made sense to me in a way that all my years of P.E. and high school sports never did. She spoke of the body lovingly. I was used to physical training that spoke of the body as something to be whipped into shape. Something we struggle to tame. Instead, she directed the transition to a new pose using descriptions that made sense to me like, “Your legs are heavy like earth and rooted. You cannot pull them up on your own. You must reach down with your arm which is light and free and pull them up that way. Let your arms teach your legs how to move toward the sky.”

Correcting and re-aligning that was not a rebuke or chastisement but an encouragement toward a better and more freeing way. By the time we got to savasana (“corpse pose”) at the end of the session I think I cried. I was so overwhelmed with this new way of thinking and talking about my body and movement.

I started practicing yoga more regularly. Learning new poses and new ways to think about how different parts of my body hold and release stress. How different parts affect other parts. My balance and posture has improved slightly but I’m still working up the courage to try any upside down poses. Some fears take more time than others to work their way out of my body. I quickly realized that savasana – the last pose of every session – is the most personally rewarding but also often the most difficult.

In English it is referred to as the “corpse pose” because you release all tightness in your muscles and just lay limp. Most people practice it by laying flat on their backs with legs outstretched and arms long by their sides with their palms facing up. It is a moment of surrender and also of rest. It is a reward for work completed and also a moment to refresh before heading back to real life.

In one particularly rigorous session, the instructor saw we were all getting tired and our poses were getting weaker. In an effort to encourage us to keep going she said, “You’re almost there. Remember we’re all just working for savasana.” The whole class laughed and found the strength to move through a few more poses knowing that rest and surrender was just a few minutes away.

That phrase stuck with me long after class mostly because it’s easy to see how it’s an encouragement for so much of life. Working hard on a seemingly never-ending creative project? It’s only Tuesday and you wonder how you can possibly make it to Friday? Trying your best to be a faithful friend, spouse, parent, colleague? We are working toward rest – whether that rest is a Saturday morning sleeping late or 30 minutes of quiet in the middle of the day to let your mind wander or finding the time to just enjoy the relationships we put so much work into or the Eternal Rest we are all working toward everyday.

I think we all long for surrender – when we can lay down our work and responsibilities and burdens and efforts and fears. For the moments we can open our palms to the sky and release control. It is not easy. Sometimes it takes everything within me to release control and surrender. To allow myself to rest and be refreshed rather than to keep working and pushing and forcing. It’s hard to believe that everything really will be ok if I stop moving forward even for a few minutes.