Becoming Bethany

Observations on becoming and being

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


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


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


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.

Another Doctor’s Appointment


“We need to watch these numbers. If they dip too much lower, you’ll probably experience mood swings, depression, and a low to non-existent sex drive. So stay on the supplements,” my doctor advised.

I nodded. Of course I am concerned about staying healthy and will follow whatever guidelines necessary. Mood swings and depression are not symptoms I want but honestly in that moment, a low to non-existent sex drive didn’t sound too bad.

It’s difficult to be a 31-year-old woman who enjoys sex and is also celibate. I was celibate before I married and I have been celibate since my marriage ended. But when I was married I was (happily!) not celibate and would have gladly stayed non-celibate for the rest of my life.

Aside from the strictly biological purpose of procreation, I think the whole point of sex is to draw people together. It’s a deep and almost uncontrollable tug towards a closer relationship with another person. It’s a desire to know someone else more intimately. Sometimes sexual desire serves as the fuel to the courage we need to risk being vulnerable with another person.

I am celibate for religious and personal conviction reasons and I know how strange that may seem. I also find it strange sometimes. Sex is a natural and healthy desire that I am choosing not to indulge. I believe my sexuality and ways of expressing it are part of what makes me who I am. I affirm that a healthy sex life is part of being a whole person. And personally, I believe that abstaining from sexual relationships is currently an expression of healthy sexuality for me.

This personal conviction does raise a lot of questions. From other people and even from myself. Thankfully, I’m not the only one who has looked for answers to these questions. And in this new season, I have been drawn back to the wise words of monastics who have long wrestled with what healthy celibacy looks like.

Kathleen Norris’ book about contemporary Benedictines The Cloister Walk explores this part of monastic life. Monastics describe the wide-ranging friendships they have been able to develop (with both men and women) because they are focused on connecting in deep meaningful ways rather than personal sexual gratification.

One Benedictine sister describes celibacy as freeing her up to love all and to love all well. Rather than focusing her love on one person (as one would in a monogamous relationship), she is free to love more broadly. No one holds claim to her love exclusively.

These monastics are not disparaging sex or sexual relationships and often compare the disciplines of a celibate life with the disciplines of fidelity in a marriage. They do not believe themselves to be more holy because they are celibate and in many ways regard it as an honor to make the commitment.

In my personal experience, I have seen how my friendships have both deepened and broadened since my divorce. Some of this came with the vulnerability I felt free to live with after losing everything I thought I was protecting. Some of this came with my need to depend on others in ways I never had before because I was so personally weak and depleted. But I also think a large part of the change I experienced in my relationships was because I was not focused on intensely loving and caring for one person and had the capacity to love more widely.

And yet even with all the benefits I know I have experienced, I still miss sex. And there are still days I wonder if there is any point to unfulfilled sexual desire. Why is this part of who I am if it is not being engaged? How can I live in a sexually whole and healthy way as a celibate? Will I feel like I have missed out if I continue to be celibate for the rest of my life? Is the intense love and relationship that I miss found only in marriage or can it be channeled to other passions and people?

I don’t think there are easy answers or maybe any answers at all but I believe they are still worth asking and living into the tension they present. So yes, I am staying on my supplements and trying to take care of myself physically, emotionally and relationaly. Even if sometimes it feels easier to be out of balance.

Love is Not Efficient

Love is not efficient.

Chalk this up to another item on my “List of Things I Really Should Have Learned By Now” but I think I am only beginning to truly understand this. I think I have been somewhat blind to this fact because of how highly I prize efficiency. I hate wasting time and resources. Ironically, most of my drive for efficiency is to free myself and others up from mundane but necessary tasks so we can get back to the people and activities we love. In many ways my passion for efficiency is because of my love for other things. But I am only now learning love itself is not efficient.

It’s not that I mind other people and passions taking my time but I try so hard not to impinge on the time and resources of those who love me. Sometimes I have been so focused on not taking too much time or attention that I forget that that is exactly what love demands. When we choose to love someone or something, we choose to give him/her/it our time and attention. Depending on the level of commitment, that love may take everything we have to give and more.

I have written before about how difficult it is for me to need. I am very comfortable with being needed and have based my career and many of my personal relationships on being dependable, trustworthy, and able to come through in any situation. But my ability to depend on and need others is very weak. It is a part of being loved that makes me uncomfortable and easily injured.

In trying to learn to love well, I am learning to recognize what I need from those who love and care for me and to ask for it – even things as simple as time for a conversation or a ride to the airport. I have lived too long falsely believing that I am an inconvenience and burden to those around me. I don’t think I’m the only one who believes and lives this way. I wonder how much love we are turning down simply because we are afraid of being a drain on someone else’s time or resources.

Love is not efficient. There is no lean production model for love. The amount of energy we give to love does not directly correlate to what we get in return. There may be ways to up our output but it will not automatically lead to increased profits. Thankfully, it is also beautifully true that the love we are given is not based on our worthiness or productivity either. Mercifully, love gives us many more chances at figuring it out than any efficiency expert would give to a failing factory. There is no economy with love.

Peaches & Summer Solstice

FullSizeRenderOne of the more hipster things I do is follow a peach orchard on Instagram. It started when I stumbled across them searching for peach desserts (my favorite kind!). I don’t do Pinterest but regularly scroll Instagram for meal ideas based on a #ingredient. (I know that whole sentence was gag-level millennial but no apologies.) At first I was drawn in by their beautifully photographed recipe ideas but before I knew it, I was fully invested in their peach crop’s performance. Are there enough blossoms? When will the first fruit go to market? Will the peaches last through July this year?

Living in Los Angeles, I am pretty out of touch with seasons. Aside from our annual rainy January, it’s always summer, almost summer, or just been summer. Our produce comes from Mexico and Washington and even further places so I have access to almost any fruit or vegetable I want at almost any time of year. Without meaning to, my peach orchard follow became a window into the seasons of growing and harvest and rest that I do not experience but quickly became comically invested in.

I think we are all looking for ways to mark the passing of time. As children, it was your grade in school or birthday party. As adults, it is whatever job we had at a certain time, or person we were dating, or how old the baby was. It’s easy to mock all the “social media holidays” – Pi Day, Siblings Day, Star Wars Day, etc. But I think there is a reason they work so well for marketing. We want a moment, a space to stop to commemorate the things that are important to us and bring us joy, even if it’s something as simple as the discovery of pi or our love of a pop cultural phenomenon.

This summer I have been acutely aware of the lengthening and then shortening of daylight. I think it has something to do with the fact that I am taking public transportation and getting used to a new work schedule. I notice how bright the sun is in the morning walking to my metro stop and how long the shadows are as my metro train makes it way through East Los Angeles in the warm evening.

On the summer solstice this year, I felt a tightening in my chest when I realized the days will start getting shorter again. Was I grieving daylight? Or just suddenly aware of how short the days and years are becoming? Time seems to be moving too fast and too slow at the same time and sometimes I want to just sit down and push the pause button until I can gather my wits about me.

The blessing and curse of time is that we cannot control or alter it. The earth continues its revolutions around the sun at roughly the same pace it has since the beginning of time. I don’t want to waste the precious days and years I amgiven. I want to live them as fully and intentionally as I can. On the bad days when I am most tempted to just rush and get them over with, I am trying to learn to breathe and live through them. I am trying to learn to look for and savor that one glimpse of beauty I find in the phrase of a song or the orange of the trumpet-flowers crawling up the side of my apartment building.

I don’t feel silly about celebrating National Friendship Day or the first day of Autumn or any of the other days we have designated to mark the passing of time and our love of something. And when the peach orchard in Georgia has a particularly good harvest, I celebrate. Life is just too short and too long to not celebrate joy where we find it.

P.S. National Peach Pie Day is August 24 this year if you want to celebrate with me!