Honoring the Light.

… Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going.” -Rilke

I learned over the weekend that a friend passed away.

I had just sat down to a table at Garcia’s for burritos and horchata with Emily and Tammy before Addie’s reading at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Park, when I made the mistake of looking at my phone. There was the message: she was gone.

The news was something of a shock, like touching your hand to a hot stove. I was thankful in that moment that I wasn’t alone; a beautiful evening surrounded by friends proved a welcome distraction from the triggering affect of death now, like my mother has died all over again. The next afternoon hubs and I went for a winter hike where I could let myself trudge along in silence and reflection. The solitude, the sun casting long shadowy pines onto snow, the wind, the sound of my own boots crunching along the trail. It was the prayer I didn’t know how to utter.

Truthfully, I didn’t know her that well. In fact, we’d never met in person. We found each other through this strange web of connections known as the internet, which people are always quick to categorize as somehow less real. We connected through a series of links related to the Etsy Pinkwashing Debacle of 2012. She had metastatic breast cancer just like my mom. We bonded through our shared longing for a better way to honor those affected by cancer.

This I do for her today, sans pink ribbons and meaningless platitudes.

I’ll never have the privilege of standing at her grave or remembering the sound of her laugh years from now, but I’ll remember her spirit. I’ll remember her words, her story, her tenacity, her love. I’ll remember what it felt like to connect with her, another survivor, and how it made me feel less alone. I’ll remember the way that I felt her light, all the way over here in my little corner of the internet.

How do we honor the dead?

By taking up their tenacity, by telling their stories, by reflecting their light.

Rest well, sweet friend. You will be missed.

Out of respect for her and her family, I’ve chosen not to link to my friend’s blog or social media. This post is in memory of her, but it is also in honor of all those affected by cancer. If you or a loved one are living with it today, my thoughts and prayers are with you.

On Listening for Love.

Winter has worn down my resolve for routine, I think. At first I thought it was just January, but now, one week and two more snow storms into February, I’ve finally come to terms with the truth that my body only has one function in winter, which is hibernation.

Normally when I get home from work in the evenings, cooking dinner serves as the ritual that helps me unwind and separate my work-brain from my home-brain, as though the act of peeling the skin from a potato actually removes all the frustration and stress from my very thoughts. Something about that rhythm of peeling and chopping and sautéing and stirring and seasoning helps me clear my head, even when I’m tired. Lately though, I’ve just been too exhausted to cook with any creativity or regularity. My boundaries around appropriate circumstances for takeout (weekends, roadtrips, the occasional hyper-busy weeknight) have grown lax. Appropriate takeout circumstances now fall under one category : Bethany-is-just-too-damn-tired nights, and I’m averaging 4/7. The dishes pile up in the sink for days on end, grocery shopping and carting my loads through snow and subzero temps seems an insurmountable task, and in the end I just. can’t. make myself Do The Right Thing. I blame it on these cold, dark evenings when getting home from work at six feels more like getting home at pass-out-o’clock. Even my boundaries around ordering “healthy” takeout (Chipotle, Noodles & Co., etc., don’t laugh) have broken down. A few nights ago, hubs and I gave up all pretenses of responsible adulthood and drove straight to Portillo’s for giant, juicy cheeseburgers.

But if I’m being honest, it’s these moments when I loosen on my grip on Doing The Right Thing that I actually learn something about my life.

So hubs and I are sitting there at a booth in Portillo’s, munching on salty, piping hot french fries and mowing down on our burgers and telling each other about our days, when we hear the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” come over the speakers. Matt, ever the Beatles’ fanatic, started singing along when a curious look came over his face.

“When you hear a piece of music, do you hear it as a blur of sound or do you hear all the different parts of it weaving into one another?” he asked.

I chewed my bite of burger thoughtfully and listened to the song for a beat before answering, “mostly just a blur of sound.”

His smile widened at the thought. “Really? That’s so weird because I can’t listen to a piece of music without hearing every individual part.”

I wish I could have captured the smile on his face right then as he contemplated my response, the way he launched into a bit music theory with a careful dissection of the song, humming the base line and tapping rhythmically on the table in time with the drums, interrupting himself at just the right moments, a one man band even with a cheeseburger in his hand.

It was every conversation he and I had ever had in the middle of an argument, but wouldn’t you know, this time I heard it differently. We see and comprehend things in different ways because we are different people, and that’s not always a bad thing. My “healthy” boundaries and compulsion for Doing The Right Thing often lead me to forget this beautiful part of marriage in which we give one another a glimpse of how we see (and hear) the world. When they say that “two become one,” we often spend the next ten, twenty, eighty years trying to get the other person to repeat after us and say all the things we want to hear. It can be ear-splitting and deafening, silencing and heart-breaking, an exercise in erasing all the things we once appreciated about the other person until we are utterly alone.

In my worst moments, I’m the narcissistic rock-star, screwing up the lyrics and blaming it on my band-mate, trashing the dressing room and disappearing for a few days. I wander back, head hung low, humbled by the amount of trust that it takes to let myself and my loved one sing our own parts, together, in harmony, for better or worse.

Stop, listen. Do you hear it? That blur of sound, all those beautiful moving parts? That’s our life.

Book Review : Refuse To Drown

I have a stack of books I received at Christmas that are begging to be read, but there’s one book I read this past month that had me ignoring all the rest. Friend and biographer Shawn Smucker has released a new book, Refuse to Drown, and I was lucky enough to get an advance copy for review. From the moment it arrived in the mail, I couldn’t put it down. I think I read the first 75 pages in one sitting.

Refuse to Drown is the true story of Tim Kreider, his son Alec, and the Haines family murders (Lancaster, Pa., 2007.) With the help of Smucker, Kreider recounts the circumstances around Alec’s illness, crime, and confession. It is as heartbreaking as you would imagine : a father who desperately wants to help his son treat his depression soon realizes that it’s too late. The unthinkable happens, and two families and an entire community are left grieving.

The writing is raw and honest. Kreider’s heart for his son and the Haines family is apparent in every sentence and carefully constructed scene. (If you haven’t already, you should read Smucker’s blog post about the three year process it took to create the manuscript.) But I won’t lie; though I couldn’t put this book down, Refuse to Drown is a hard read. The reality of the situation – the gruesome murders, Alec’s illness and guilt, the life sentence – is absolutely gut-wrenching. I am being completely honest when I say that the story kept me awake at night.

Even so, I’m glad I read it. Refuse to Drown is a hard read, but an important one, because Kreider is offering the side of the story that is so rarely told. Do we need the victims’ stories? Of course. But what we’re all afraid to admit is that we need the other stories too, of the criminal, the sick, the grieving other half of the truth. We need the story of the father who loved his son and tried to help him, and who, when the unthinkable happened, did the right thing for the sake of his son, the other family, the community, and now for you and me.

There’s a small passage that I found especially telling, right after the reality of Alec’s actions come to light. Tim is so grieved by it that he doesn’t want to speak to Alec, but his fiance Lynn says something important.

“I had called him each and every night since he had been admitted to Philhaven. But on that night, I was disappointed, confused, violated – he had gone against everything I had taught him, everything I believed in.

‘If he was sick with cancer, would you call him?’ Lynn asked me. ‘This is no different. Tim, he’s not well. He needs you now just as much as he would with any other sickness.’” (p. 62)

We could talk all day about the very real differences between cancer and mental illness*, but we would be missing the point. The truth of mental illness is that without the usual cues and helpful symptoms that tell us when a person is sick and needs our help, conditions like depression are stigmatized. Kids like Alec are taught to see their struggle through a lens of morality instead of health. They feel isolated by it; they can’t articulate it. These are the circumstances that breed tragedy, whether it is suicide or homicide. For too many families, their loved ones’ mental health problems don’t become apparent until the circumstances are past the point of no return. How do we help those struggling with mental illness feel safe to admit that they’re not okay? How do we encourage them to get help before they bring harm to themselves or others? How do we make this “invisible” illness visible before it becomes a news headline? How do we bring about a justice that doesn’t only punish the person that committed the crime, but offer them healing for the illness that provoked it? Or do we really believe that locking away a mentally ill person and withholding treatment is justice?

In a dark room, Kreider’s words have flipped on the light that we may better see the whole story. He has turned the worst circumstances of his life into the best possible opportunity to help us ask the right questions. There are no easy answers, but maybe in talking about it and telling stories like this one, we can help one another find healing.

*Recommended reading : No One Brings Dinner When Your Daughter is An Addict (A father talks candidly about the difference in community support for his wife when she had breast cancer and their daughter when she was diagnosed with bipolar and treated for addictions. Lynn’s words reminded me of this.)

An Epic Journey.

Most of you probably know that for the past year I’ve been working on a book proposal of a memoir about my mother and her experience with breast cancer. Some of you have asked how the process is going. Some of you have asked when you can expect to grab your copy off the shelf of your local bookstore, bless your souls. I bask in your optimism.

This project has been a long time coming; I lost count of how many times mom and I elbowed each other whenever things got hard and said “more fodder for the memoir, eh?” This was said with wry sarcasm, but then one day, it wasn’t. “Let’s write a book together.” And it turns out that she was dead serious. (Forgive the pun. If you’re not laughing, well, she is.)

It was a project we began to dream about together. It was a project that she had the courage to conceive of, even if she wasn’t sure she would ever see it come to fruition in her lifetime. She sat down and in six months wrote 15 chapters all by herself. My mother (if you’re trying to picture her, imagine part Julie Andrews, part Lorelai Gilmore) was a woman who knew what she wanted and made it happen, whether it was defying doctors’ prognoses or writing a book about it.

Me, on the other hand? I know what I want, but I tend be a little less self-assured, a little more cynical, a little tip-toey around the things I want and how to get them. So when my friend sat down on my couch a year ago and said “now’s the time and I’m here to be your agent,” I was excited, but also scared. I waded in the shallow waters for awhile before feeling ready to dive in with this book business.

It was – as it always seems to be where I’m concerned – a problem of knowing just enough to stand in my own way.

Writing a book, in case you’re not aware, is a long, arduous path. It’s an epic journey. It’s Frodo taking The Ring to Mordor ambitious, complete with Orcs and the occasional giant, flesh-eating arachnid. Some call her Shelob, but her real name is Your Emotional Baggage, and she tends to emerge from your bedroom closet just when you’re about to write the most vulnerable parts of your story.*

But I digress.

The point is, I knew this going in. I knew that it would be hard and risky and frustrating and slow and terrifying and that there are no shortcuts and there are definitely no guarantees.

And knowing this perhaps slowed me down a bit. It took a few months to let the “OMG A PUBLISHER IS GOING TO READ THIS” performance anxiety to wear off, another month or two to crank out enough material to form a first draft of a proposal, another month to write a draft of a sample chapter, another month to edit a draft of mom’s sample chapter. And then another month after that to edit all of it into one cohesive proposal and send it to my agent. (In my defense, I was working a full time job and trying to maintain a blog… Oh little blog, poor neglected thing. File this under things they don’t tell you about writing a book : having an online platform is essential to acquiring a book deal these days, but growing said platform while working on a book is next to impossible. The system is rigged, you guys.)

A couple months after that, a publisher finally nibbled at the bait on my hook. A few friendly email exchanges later, we set up a time to chat over the phone.

“So what can we expect from this phone call?” I asked my agent. “Will we talk timeline? Numbers?”

“Friend,” he said very gently, “Writing a book has five steps. You are still on Step One.”

So you see, even in my attempts to prepare myself, I still was not prepared for this process. We never will be, so we have to be faithful and diligent to the process anyway.

The phone call with the nibbling publisher went pretty well. They complimented me on my writing and said they’d been following me for awhile (!!!!!), we talked about the proposal, I tried not to get too numbers-specific with my tiny little platform, we schemed about a possible opportunity, I got a little excited and over-promised on delivery, and in the end, no matter how hopeful I wanted to be about the whole thing, it just wasn’t the right fit. They were asking me to work on something separate from the mom memoir, and as much as I feel that this other project is a book I will write someday, that time is not now. It was a square peg in a round hole and lemme tell you: this method of forcing words does. not. work.

You know those writers that are all seven steps to the book deal of your dreams and three habits that helped me write a thousand words in an hour and start waking up at five a.m. and you’ll become a NYT bestselling author in 10 days? You guys. They’re lying. OR, maybe it did actually work for them, but it doesn’t work for everyone, and I am one of the everyone else whose best work happens in the hard, slow, quiet moments. And you know what else? That’s okay. There’s a lot of really magnificent people in this camp that have created beautiful things when they allowed the words to flow naturally from life to the page.

So over winter break I came to terms with the facts :

Fact A : forcing words is not my modus operandi

Fact B : rejection from a publisher can be a lot less painful and a lot more freeing if I let it.

It seems they were confused about why I had structured the manuscript the way that I had. At first their confusion raised my hackles and provoked a few fangs and growls, but after I thought about it for awhile and ate a few dozen bowls of ice cream, it hit me. I had picked the most straightforward (read: utterly boring) way to structure my manuscript possible. Why had I done that?

I did that because I was afraid to take risks with it. I was afraid they wouldn’t see my vision. So I chose not to have a vision and just to give the straight-facts version of this story, which actually isn’t the same as telling it true.

And when I finally understood this and sat down to give it another go, a whole new proposal came tumbling out – new premise, new chapter structure, new title, new sample chapter. One that feels a lot less Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and much more memoir-ish, the way a book about a person’s real life ought to be.

And as it goes, now that I have a second draft that I love, the project is in limbo. (Remember the part where I compared writing a book to LOTR? Just when you think it’s almost over, it goes on for another 45 minutes and you really have to pee. And we’re only on Year One, Part One, Step One, Lord help us.)

It’s in limbo because my dear friend and agent has taken on some new opportunities, and we both feel it would be more efficient for both of us if we found me a female agent that has the expertise to help me market this book. (I’m writing about breast cancer and womanhood, you guys. It is what it is.) And I feel really good about this decision, despite having to gear myself up for the journey that is finding a compatible agent.

So that’s my #realtalk about year one of my journey to publishing my first book.

And it taught me so much about myself as a writer. Believe it or not, I don’t say this begrudgingly. This first year in My Epic Journey to Writing a Book revealed a couple of other facts about myself to me:

Fact C : despite our recent decision to find a new agent, were it not for my friend sitting on my couch a year ago and offering to help me, this journey may never have gotten started. And for that reason, I have nothing but gratitude for him.

Fact D : all of this epic journeying so far has done nothing to dissuade me of the truth that I am, in fact, a writer. (Please point me to this sentence in this blog post later when I’m sobbing to you about how it’s never going to happen for me.)

If you’ve read to the end of this diatribe (with or without skimming), bless you. I’ll be back with updates as I have them, but until then, I’m hoping to appear a lot more regularly on this here blog with other thoughts about life and faith and all manner of bloggy things. Perhaps by the time the book deal actually happens, my platform might be a smidge bigger to please those pesky, numbers-savvy publishers. Either way I’m glad you’re here. I love you all. I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it weren’t for you.

*It helps to have a Samwise Gamgee for moments such as this. Thanks to my dear hubs, Matthew Jason, for casting light at every vital moment and never letting me go it alone no matter how delusional stubborn I am. And thanks to my friend and agent-now-helping-me-find-a-better-agent, Darrell Vesterfelt. You saw something I didn’t yet see in myself. I’m so thankful for you. And to the rest of you, dear friends and readers, thanks for your endless support and faith. We’re getting there, one step at a time.

One Word 2014 : Thrive.

I chose Faithfulness as my One Word for 2013. It’s from a favorite hymn of mother’s, the last one she sang to me before she died and the one we sang at her funeral. I had it inscribed as a tattoo on my wrist on the anniversary of her death last January.

The lyrics to the chorus go, “Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

But honestly, I think I got the Faithfulness thing backwards in 2013. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to achieve an elusive measure of faithfulness that would make me feel satisfied, confident and whole. And at the same time, I was trying to hide from the hard parts of faithfulness : the showing up and being present in my life every day, the vulnerability of it, the steady work that it takes – whether or not there’s an end or an accolade in sight. Yet when I sat down to make a list of everything that marked this year – books I read, music and movies I loved, places I went, people I met, friendships that flourished, words I wrote, tasks I accomplished – I was astonished by how full my life was.

For the record, this is what Faithfulness looked like in 2013 :

Books :
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman
Packing Light by Allison Vesterfelt
- A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver
– A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
– The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
– When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
– Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
– Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist
– Quiet by Susan Cain
– The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
– The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
– Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott
– Rereads: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Series & The Last Summer (of You and Me) by Ann Brashares, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneggar, Homecoming by Bernard Schlink

People I Connected With (online, some face-to-face) : 

Natalie Trust
Tamara Barrick Rice
Cara Strickland
Abi Bechtel
Suzannah Paul
Dianna Anderson
Dani Kelley
Benjamin Moberg
Micah Murray

Places I Went :
– The Dominican Republic : service project
– Eagle River, Wisc. : camping with the hubs
– Bloomington, Ind. : visiting friends from my study abroad trip
– Norwalk, Ohio : my first-ever speaking gig!
– Nashville, Tenn. : vacation with my hubs
– Fargo, N.D. : Thanksgiving with my sis in-law & niecey

Words I Wrote (most popular posts) :
Where Have All the Millennials Gone? Entitlement in the Economy & the Church
RELEVANT : Angelina Jolie and Every Woman’s Choice
I Am Done With Being Quiet
When It’s the Worst Thanksgiving Ever
When the Story Isn’t Mine to Tell
It is Good : An Ode to My Body
When I Say I Wouldn’t Trade It
On Mourning Mother’s Day

Personal Accomplishments :
got a tattoo
– paid off my credit card
– finally worked out a reasonable payment plan with Sallie Mae
– hubs & I both received raises AND bonuses from work
– finished & submitted a first draft of my book proposal + two sample chapters (update on this coming soon)
got my first-ever speaking gig

BUT SERIOUSLY. Why had I been so hard on myself about living up to a measure of faithfulness when all of this good stuff was already happening? (Why is this always the question I’m asking myself?)

I’m reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly right now, and in her chapter “Vulnerability Armory” she talks about our habits of deflecting vulnerability. As I was reading, I realized that “foreboding joy” is a big shield for me : living in a constant state of anxiety over the worst case scenario. I use it in an effort to prepare for and/or shield myself from pain, but it has kept me from fully living into joy. It leaves me desperate and insecure, unable to see the blessings in my midst and therefore totally ungrateful for them.

This year taught me that every time I think faithfulness is about me and my ability to measure up or follow through, it is in fact, about God’s faithfulness – His radical, loving, everlasting and totally unconditional faithfulness to us. Just as the hymn goes.

I decided that this year I want to put down that shield of foreboding joy. I want to stop letting anxiety and desperation control me. I want to notice the blessings in my midst. I want to act from a place of abundance and enough-ness, instead of scarcity.

And so, the word that I’m choosing for 2014 is THRIVE.

It’s not a list of goals to accomplish or taking the year by storm. It’s not behavior modification with a bunch of new habits. It’s not about measuring up or fitting a standard. It’s about being vulnerable enough to feel joy and practice gratitude.

Thriving is about living into His faithfulness to me.