Day 26: Dear writers

*Day 26 in the Dear Gratitude project is by yours truly again–only four more days of this project left!*

Dear writers,

You have shaped who I am, and you’ve shaped what I do.

When I began to read

When I began to read

Thank you, Beverly Cleary, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ann M. Martin, E.B. White, Francine Pascal, and the rest of you who wrote the children’s literature I still love. I carried your creations with me everywhere. I crawled under my bed, books in hand, with a flashlight night after night. I fell asleep there, midway through a fascinating story that transported me to Wilbur’s pen or to Sweet Valley High or to the woods of Minnesota.

Because of you, I started writing my own stories, complete with intricate concrete descriptions of characters and settings. I stole phrases from you and learned to incorporate figures of speech and theme and symbols into my stories. My mom thought I was a genius; I’m sure my stories weren’t much better than any other fifth grader’s. But her encouragement led me to write more, and as my former creative writing professor, Andrea Hollander, wrote on my poems countless times: “Keep writing!”

So I did.

I kept reading, too, because I discovered more of you as I grew older, and reading your words helped me write my own. I developed my own taste for literature, and I pooh-poohed the notion that I ought to read classics for the sake of reading classics. I probably annoyed my college professors at the small, private, liberal arts school I attended, who touted the likes of Faulkner and Shakespeare incessantly. I had no real use for those guys. I knew what I liked, and I did my best to avoid wasting time reading things I didn’t like. I tried reading awful books like Wuthering Heights on multiple occasions–my mom always taught me to try something more than once before deciding to cross it off my list. Those same professors introduced me to some of you who are now my favorites–Cormac McCarthy, Sherwood Anderson, Chaucer, Nye, Kinnell, Wordsworth, and Steinbeck.

I stopped spending time with  all of you after graduation. I was sick of you, honestly. I needed a break.

I took one for several years. Then you, Tolkien, reminded me how wonderful it felt to curl up in a warm blanket on a cold night, mug of steaming cocoa in hand, and turn the musty pages of an old book to the tune of my cat’s contented purr. I was hooked again. I started reading all the books I’d bought in college but had only half-read due to time constraints. To my surprise, I liked some of them. I formed relationships with more of you–Welty and Joyce, to name a few. I dug into non-fiction, too, and my perceptions of the world were altered by you: John Eldredge, Wendell Berry, and Dan Allender.

Thanks to all of you–writers who moved me–I decided to go back to school to pursue my Master’s in English Language and Literature. And now I’m teaching students how to write, how to use words as tools, how to shape the world with language.

Thank you, writers. Thank you for teaching me, inspiring me, transporting me, entertaining me, and changing me.

I hope my words do the same for someone else someday.

It works!

My turkey painting by Michelle Young of MY Moments

My turkey painting by Michelle Young of MY Moments

I have a friend who sells fat-burning wraps which apparently really work–the name of the company is It Works, after all. I can’t personally attest to the company’s claim, and I don’t know anything about the science behind the products, but I do know one thing: whatever works for me is what I’m going to keep doing.

Recently I read an article by John Piper about gratitude and motivation. Piper reasons with readers and outlines a theological basis for his claim that gratitude is “a species of joy which arises in our heart in response to the good will of someone who does (or tries to do) us a favor.” He goes on to discuss what gratitude is, isn’t, and what it ought to be. And I agree with Piper.

At the same time, I’d like to go on the record by making the most important claim of all about the habit of gratitude: it just works.

That’s it. Is it selfishly motivated? Maybe, at times, depending on the person and circumstances. Is it right or wrong to be thankful for material things rather than people and higher concepts? I don’t know. If my motives for making a gratitude list are to improve my emotional state or attitude, am I being selfish?

Who cares?

I’m the first to admit that I have cared about lofty, heady issues way too much in the past. I cared more about being right than I cared about being happy. I minored in religion and philosophy. I’ve read countless articles, books, and blog posts arguing this point or that, providing plenty of rhetorical arsenal for people like the old Bethany who still need to search for the answers and convince others that their answers are incorrect.

That’s just not me anymore (most of the time, thank God!).

Six and a half years ago, I reached a spiritual breaking point. I found help climbing out of the pit through an anonymous 12-step recovery program for families and loved ones of alcoholics.

I had developed lots of bad habits. I’d become controlling, manipulative, judgmental, critical, cynical, depressed, anxious, and desperate. Ugh. Thankfully, the way of life I found worked for me, and today, the real Bethany keeps emerging little by little.

This program is one of action. It demands that I take action based on what is right, not based on my feelings. One of the ways I do this is by practicing gratitude.

God used the habit of gratitude to help change my attitude and outlook on life. The first step in developing this habit was to keep a daily gratitude list of three items–wholly unique every day. At first, it didn’t change any of my feelings or actions. I kept the list begrudgingly at first because I had been asked to do it. My attitude was not yet transformed :). After a few months, I noticed myself paying more attention to the good moments in my day, to the kind acts of the people around me, and to the beauty in the world. Why? I was looking for items for my gratitude list. I’d become accustomed to focusing on the good, and my focus on the good had minimized the appearance of the bad.

Lo and behold, a few years later, gratitude had become the norm, and grumbling, whining, pitying myself, and worrying began falling to the wayside.

The more I focus on what I have to be grateful for, and the more energy I expend thanking God and thanking others–either in words or actions–the less time and energy I have to dwell on things that bum me out, make me worry, or piss me off.

I make gratitude lists, in my head and on paper. I choose to bite my tongue when I want to whine and moan and try, instead, to say something positive–usually expressing gratitude for someone, or pointing out the good around me. I give gifts–whatever I have to give–because my heart is full of gratitude for God’s love and the miracles He’s done in my life. Giving to others gives me an outlet for that love. I deliberately look for opportunities to thank people who’ve made a positive difference in my life. I try not to post negative comments or updates on my personal social media pages or blogs; instead, I choose to share what’s good. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing negative in my life today. I just don’t feel like focusing on the negative anymore. I also encourage others to be grateful because if the people around me are positive and thankful and mindful of God, then they’ll encourage and motivate me in return.

Isn’t that selfish?

Probably. But that’s okay with me.

I just want to do what works–what helps me make progress.

glory of God quoteI’m primarily concerned with becoming more of who God wants me to be–more of who He made me to be. The Bethany I want to be  is happy, joyous, and free. She worries less and trusts more. She smiles in the face of adversity and laughs over spilled milk. She takes pleasure in spending time with people she loves and loves the people God has put in her life. She celebrates beauty. She is, as John Eldredge puts it, “the glory of God–[wo]man fully alive.”

Life is too short to spend my time picking apart something that works. Gratitude works.

I’ll take it, chalk it up as a blessing, and keep doing it.

 

 

 

 

Top 12 things I’m grateful for in 2012

Recently I wrote a blog post for my personal blog, My 2012 gift list, and listed the most significant gifts I received in 2012. I didn’t list tangible objects or even relationships on the list–I limited my gift list to the intangible yet priceless blessings I received in the form of lessons, inspirations, and virtues.

Today I thought it might benefit my soul to take a look back at 2012 and identify the top 12 things on my annual gratitude list.

  1. DSC_0075_edited-1Margaret Jacqueline. This year, my husband and I were surprised to learn that we had unintentionally created a human being. We were ecstatic to learn that we would be parents, and we are overcome with joy to share our lives with her each day. I’m truly grateful for her health throughout my pregnancy, for a safe delivery, and for her health and happiness every day since then. At six weeks old, she’s already living up to the meaning of her name and bringing sunshine into every moment of our lives.
  2. Health. Going through a somewhat rough pregnancy fraught with rough patches, complications, and negative symptoms made me much more aware of how blessed I am to be healthy most of the time. As I recover from delivering my baby, I continue to pause each time I realize just how good I have it. I can clean my house myself. I can bend over and pick things up and exercise. Not everyone I know can do these things, and I’m grateful I can.
  3. A’s. This year I completed 24 hours of graduate school and somehow, in spite of five months’ worth of morning sickness, ten months’ worth of migraines, and severe lack of sleep, I managed to make A’s in all my classes. I am so thankful God enabled my brain to function well in the absence of sleep, but more amazingly, in the absence of caffeine :).
  4. 033My husband. This year I married the one man who encapsulated the wish list I wrote months before I met him. I call him my “Wild at Heart” man; as an avid John Eldredge fan, I decided (one month before I met my husband) that I would ask God for a man like the one described in John Eldredge’s book. I knew it was a long shot–I’ve been divorced twice and knew I might be asking for something I’d never receive. But God blew my expectations out of the water, brought my husband into my life, and has blessed us with a trusting, peaceful, romantic relationship that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
  5. Real friends. I’ve always learned when going through trials and tribulations which friends were true friends. This year, I also learned which friends love me enough to celebrate the blessings in my life despite their own schedules, difficult circumstances, or limitations. All year long, I felt showered with blessings by my friends in various forms–phone calls, messages, cards, gifts, visits, acts of service and kindness–and I’m really thankful for each real friend in my life.
  6. Reality. I often live in fear of things out of my control–I worry and fret over things that most often never come to pass. This year, I learned that what I fear is not as scary as I thought, and that all the time I spent worrying could have been spent positively–writing, praying, or laughing. When I was pregnant, I worried that I’d wind up covered in stretch marks on my stomach. I didn’t get a single one. I was afraid of various complications during and after delivery, including prolapsed bladder. I’m happy to report that I pee perfectly well. I’m grateful that in many cases, reality is much kinder than I give it credit for.
  7. Our church. I spent over two years searching for a church that fit not only my credo but also my picky preferences. This year, God matched us up–and used a persistent friend of mine in the process–with a church that matches our needs and wants and then some. We already had our own personal relationships with God–we just didn’t have a group of people to share those relationships with. Now we do.
  8. Gratitude. It seems funny to list gratitude on my gratitude list, but I really am grateful for it. In 2012, I listed “be more grateful” as one of my bucket list items. In order to motivate myself, I started this blog. Since then, and about 125 blog posts later, I’m pleased to report that it worked. Writing blog posts has served as a catalyst for my personal growth. I find myself contemplating my blessings in order to create new blog posts; I spend more time focused on what I have to be grateful for and less time mulling over what I’m missing.
  9. Recovery. I’ve been a member of a twelve-step recovery program for family members and loved ones of alcoholics for over five years now. This year, I committed myself a little deeper to developing our itty bitty local chapter of the program and to attempting to share some of the experience, strength, and hope I’ve found with people around me who might benefit from it. I started praying for our local group and asked God to multiply our efforts; He has. The group has tripled in the past few months in membership, and new people show up periodically, too. I reconnected with my sponsor who lives in another town and continue to experience insights and growth as a result of our relationship. I’m sure this item will be on my gratitude list for years to come.
  10. My employment status. Having been willfully unemployed since July, I’m super grateful for the opportunity to not work. I’ve worked since I was 13 years old. I’ve tutored children, taught gymnastics, served french fries, cared for emotionally disturbed teenagers, taught classes, edited resumes, sold software, and advised college students. But this year, my husband decided to give me a break and let me focus on graduate school instead of on earning an income. Now that I’m caring for our newborn daughter, I’m continuing that hiatus from the world of paid employment and am thankful for the chance to do so.
  11. RPM’s. For those of you who aren’t fortunate enough to have reaped the spiritual benefits of a recovery program, RPM stands for reading, prayer, and meditation. Some of you who foster your own personal relationship with God might refer to RPMs as devotional time. No matter which way you slice it, spending time with God is one thing I’m most grateful for this year. Having gone through some very tough spiritual valleys earlier in the year, which I thankfully found my way out of with the help of a great counselor, I learned to depend even more on my time alone with God. Each morning, I spend a little (or a lot, depending on the day) time with God reading Scripture, praying, and meditating on what I’ve read and on the nuggets of wisdom He imparts. Life without RPMs for me means spiritual atrophy. I’d rather keep growing.
  12. Prioritization. This year, I learned to let go of some of my priorities in lieu of more important things–namely, my own health, my marriage, my daughter, and my education. I could have kept working in order to earn more money to pay for more things that I really didn’t need to begin with. I could have opted to continue shopping, running errands, and eating out after my doctor advised me to spend more time with my feet up to reduce swelling and heal my injured back. I could have invited our entire family, church body, and list of friends to visit us at the hospital and come by our house in order to keep myself from feeling lonely. But I think I chose more wisely instead. I decided to stay home and focus on what matters most right now. I decided to take care of myself rather than take care of others or entertain myself. And I decided to limit my daughter’s exposure to a very germy world in the midst of flu season. And I’m grateful I made these choices.

It’s been a pretty wonderful year. I’m thankful for the chance to share it with each of you.