On Hawaii and The Senses

I was a pre-teen when we first started coming here. For awhile we came almost every summer. It’s not really one of my childhood places, it’s not where I grew up. But I have roots here. And they are specific in nature. 

My skin was covered in salt and sand and sun. I had spent a good portion of the morning swimming in the ocean with my daughter and by the time I came into the room to gather food for lunch my hair was large with frizzy curls and my cheeks were slightly pink. I glanced in the mirror and that’s when it hit me, like a wave knocking me over. 

I like what I see.” 

The thought felt so foreign to me that I paused to think about it longer. No it wasn’t a completely foreign thought, more like a visitor you only see on short rare occasions. And then I realized it was a visitor I was most familiar with in this place. I feel pretty in Hawaii. Attractive. Beautiful. Even sexy. 

Why? What is it about this place that makes me feel that way. Because I don’t normally feel that way. And honestly I could recognize the person in the mirror, she didn’t look all that different from the person I saw in the mirror at home. Sure her cheeks were sun kissed and her hair was wild and free and curlier than normal, but she still had the same flabby tummy and the same flat butt and the same blotchy pimply skin and the same wrinkles and the same slightly saggy breasts. All the things I normally focus on and obsess over, the things that make me feel anything but pretty or sexy or beautiful, they were all still there when I paused and looked again. But for a moment I could see those things and yet not see them, because what I felt was beautiful.

 

Something about this place makes me feel more alive, more beautiful, and more like a women than anywhere else I’ve ever been. 

Perhaps it is the timing this place holds in my life. It’s my coming of age place. 

My parents would come here on their own when I was a little girl and I wanted so much to join them, but I was always told I wasn’t “old enough.” 

And then one summer I was old enough. 

Coming here was almost akin to a rite of passage. My parents only let us come once we were old enough to make our own lunches and fend for ourselves. It was a place where everyone was responsible for themselves and got to determine for themselves how they moved through the day. I would run around all day on the beach, play in the waves, spent hours reading and sun bathing on the sand, and go for long walks by myself. While we were here I could determine my own days, I was the captain of my own ship.
This place makes me feel like an actual adult. Not in the way that buying a house or having a baby made me feel like an adult, but in the sense that this place communicates to me that I am old enough to make my own decisions and follow my own desires.

 

But Hawaii doesn’t just make me feel like any adult it makes me feel like a woman. And it makes me feel like it’s ok, even good to be a women in my own skin, in touch with the senses. 

Because everything here plays to the senses. 

For me Hawaii has always been a sensual experience, a place devoted to the senses and where sensuality was not something dangerous to be avoided, or something superficial to be pushed past, instead it was celebrated. 

My trips here were always about the sensations. The sound of the waves crashing, or the wind moving through the palm trees. The feel of the sand between my toes, the water enveloping my skin as I dove under a wave, the warmth of the sun on my shoulders. The way papaya seems almost to melt in my mouth, the sharp sweetness of pineapple, the flavor of perfectly cooked fish fresh off the grill. The view of a rainbow after a sudden shower, the vivid colors at sunset, the way the light plays on the water. This is a place made for the senses and somehow experiencing life sensually, fully engaging in the senses, leads me to a feeling of contentedness with my own being, with my own skin, with being a part of this world that is so full of color and sensation. 

The senses remind us that we are alive and that it is good to be alive. They tell us something all of our philosophy has struggled to understand and rarely gotten right. They tell us that we are physical body and it is good to be a physical body alive in a physical, beautiful, good world.

This practice of engaging in the senses somehow transforms the way I experience being in my own skin. It makes being in my own skin something good, not something to criticize or fix, avoid or overcome. 
Perhaps that sounds strange, but the truth is I have not always been in places where it feels ok and even good to be a physical being, and especially a woman. I am often still in places where I do not feel comfortable in my own skin or in touch with my senses, and I am surrounded by others who are uncomfortable in their own skin and with their own senses. 

We are not just spiritual beings who happen to have bodies. We are spiritual bodies. We are whole beings, not divided, and our bodies are not just part of us, they are us. The God who is One, created us as one. When I criticize and demean my body, I am criticizing and demeaning my heart, my soul, my very God-created self. When I criticize and demean my body I am criticizing and demeaning the image of God within me. 

Perhaps the first step towards moving away from the sort of body shaming and critiquing I am so good at is to recognize that I am one being not many. My physicality is not something to be avoided, feared, or ignored. Perhaps I need to start by celebrating the senses, engaging in them, fully experiencing them, letting them take me over and pull me into the present moment, because when I feel all the goodness and beauty of this world through my senses, when I experience the ways in which this physical body allows me to experience this amazing world, well, then it becomes a lot easier to see the good in my body than the bad. My own body gets to become part of the good, beautiful, amazing world I get to experience.

This world is clearly broken, and there is a lot that is heartbreaking and terrifying and gut-wrenchingly wrong, but it was also created good, by a good God who desires to give good gifts. And like this world my body is broken, it is not perfect, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. This physical body is still a good gift from a good Father, who values the physical so much that he refused to abandon it and instead chooses to redeem it. All of it. 
This body may not be exactly as I’d like. I may have more allergies than I wish, and according to my doctor, the asthmatic lungs of an 84 year old rather than a 34 year old. My stomach isn’t flat, it’s curved. My skin still breaks out almost as much as it did when I was 16. But this body of mine, it is good. It can taste and touch and see and hear so much that is good. 

This body is a grace, pure grace. 
 

So I pause and look in the mirror a little longer. Thanking my body for all it does to enable me to experience this one brilliant and beautiful life. 

And it feels good. 

And I like the beautiful girl that stares back at me. 

Grace and peace,

Bethany Stedman 


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Remembering Papa: A Glimpse Into Grief

Saturday:

My breath catches as I walk up the driveway to the front door. There’s a knot in my stomach and a fluttery feeling in my chest. My limbs shake slightly. The sensation takes me instantly back to the first time I walked up these steps. Was it really 11 years ago?

Bryan and I had recently gotten engaged and were right in the midst of planning our wedding when a trip to California landed us on their door step for dinner. I had heard so much about Raffi and Ginger and now I was about to meet the legend. There was a knot in my stomach, a fluttering in my chest and a shakiness to my limbs then too. The sensation had been similar, but the reason entirely different.

I so deeply wanted them to like me, to approve of the girl their grandson had chosen to marry. If I could go back I would have told my younger self to stop being so self-conscious because the legendary family figure I was about to meet, was not only legendary, he was also kind and generous and deeply loving. Before I had even made it through the door they were telling me to call them Papa and Gram rather than Raffi and Ginger. I didn’t need to earn their approval, I was already in, I was already welcomed, I was already part of the family. Bryan loved me and that was enough.

I don’t think I will ever forget the smile on Papa’s face or the twinkle in his eye that first time he greeted me and welcomed me into his house. He kissed my cheek as he spoke with the unique accent acquired through moving often and learning multiple languages from a young age, “Welcome! Welcome.”

As I walk up the steps now the house looks exactly the same as the last time we were here. I keep expecting Papa to come out and greet me with a hug. The best hug. But, everything feels different. He isn’t here.

The door is open already, perhaps anticipating our arrival, perhaps just left, forgotten by the last person who entered. Papa and Gram’s dog, Jake, comes over to say hello and two little dogs I don’t yet know run up to Sage as we walk through the front door. She bursts into a smile and I brush at my eyes with the back of my hand. I inhale sharply and push Sage through to the back yard, she wants to sit outside with grandpa. Once she’s content I leave her with my father-in-law so I can get her food prepared.

That’s when I see Gram. She comes towards me as I walk toward the kitchen. We hug. I want to hold her longer, to let her know how deeply I hurt for her. But, the hug is quick. I know if I linger long with her I won’t be able to control the sobs. She is facing my own deepest fear.

I move quickly to the kitchen and fill a syringe with food for Sage. As I stand at the sink images of Papa standing in this very spot flash through my mind. My eyes are wet now, but I know I can’t yet release myself to the tears. A single drop of water slides down my cheek and I brush it quickly away with the edge of my thumb.

By the time I make it back to Sage I’ve said hello to everyone. The group is intimate and full of red faces, and watery eyes – Papa’s sisters and their spouses, a nephew of Papa’s, a few close friends, and our group. We eat together and talk, share stories and memories, laugh and cry. The spread of meat and salad and fruit gets cleared from the dinning room table and pie and cakes get set out in the kitchen.

Before long it’s time for the kids to go to bed. Thaddeus is running a high fever and falls asleep quickly on the couch. I set Sage up with a movie on the iPad while I prepare her medications. As I move back and forth between the kitchen and the couch I find my husband weeping on the living room floor with his parents and sister. I cannot think of any time in my life when I’ve witnessed a whole group of people weeping together in that way. It feels like sacred ground.

Everything within me wants to go to him, to be with him in his grief, to weep as well in my own grief over Papa, but I know instinctively that the best way I can care for my husband is to let him have this moment, this sacred moment of pure grief with his family. I know that the best way I can care for him is to care for our children and relieve him of having to deal with parental duties for a night. So I walk quietly past and get Sage ready for bed. But I can’t stop the tears from coming now, I can only hold them at bay so they spill silently out of my eyes.

By the time Sage is ready for bed and happily engaged with a movie the group has gathered in the kitchen. They form a sort of semi-circle around the one counter that sticks out into the middle of the room. The wine has been put away now and replaced with vodka. Each person holds a shot glass of clear Russian liquid in one hand. They stand close, touching each other.

As I enter the room they all burst into laughter, the sort of laughter that is colored by both the grief and the joy of remembering.

“I’ll sneak in close to Bryan,” I think silently to myself, but then I see him. He is standing close to the counter, in the middle of the circle, his dad’s arm is around his shoulders and a few people stand sort of behind him. I can get to him, but it would feel like interrupting and this too feels like a sacred moment, I don’t want to break the spell. So I stand back a few paces behind him, watching.

Gram starts off the next toast, but it’s not really about Papa, it’s about Bryan. About how special he was to Papa and how much he loved him, how worried they had been about Bryan’s cancer and how grateful everyone is that he’s doing well. My breath feels heavy as my face wrinkles into tears. My arms ache and I wish even more deeply that we were standing next to each other, that his arm was around me.

“To Papa… and to Bryan.”

I raise my water bottle as they raise their shots and we all drink. The liquid doesn’t burn like alcohol, but it does feel grounding. Swallowing gives me something to focus on, something to keep the sobs from breaking out of my throat. I push the tears out of my eyes as I walk back to the couch to check on Sage.

 

Monday:

The day had been full – visiting with family, shopping for things still needed for the funeral, dinner at Fashion Island. Tears fill both kids eyes as we carry them up to the hotel room. I lay down on the bed next to Sage trying to soothe her overtired body to sleep. Eventually she closes her eyes but I know she isn’t fully asleep yet. If I move it will wake her. So I pull out my phone and take the opportunity of stillness to clear away the little red bubbles that had accumulated on the screen.

I check Timehop last, and as soon as I open it I am confronted with his face staring back at me with all the strength and all the softness that had always been there. I inhale sharp, and then slowly exhale. With controlled movements I slide away from Sage’s now sleeping body and walk over to where Bryan stands near the pull out couch he just got Thad to sleep on.

“Are you ok?” He asked.

“No. I’m not,” I snapped slightly, “I just need a break. I want to be on with the children so you don’t have to be, but today was hard. Thad’s feeling better and was all over the place. It’s just a lot and I sort of want to scream right now. It’s fine… I just can’t go to sleep yet, I need a little time to recover and unwind.” I can feel my shoulders tensing as I speak.

“Ok,” he walks towards me. “That’s fine. I know I wasn’t very available today and I appreciate everything you do for me and the kids. I know it’s hard traveling with them, especially Sage. Is there anything I can do now?”

“No, it’s fine. I just need some time. Maybe I’ll do some yoga.”

I pause and look around the room, “Actually would you get my mat from the car? It’s in the back.”

“Sure. No problem.” He says and heads out of the room.

I lay across the bed and take slow deep breaths.

The door opens and Bryan walks back in carrying my mat towards me. “I really do appreciate you so much. Thank you for taking care of things so I can just be with my family.” He reaches his arms around me and I can feel myself melting.

He holds me for a minute and then I whisper, “Papa was in my timehop tonight.” My voice cracks as I speak the words and my eyes begin to water. We pull slightly away and look at one another. “It was pictures from Geoff and Devon’s wedding, seven years ago.”

“Is today their anniversary?” Bryan asks with eyes wide and voice trembling.

“I don’t know… I don’t think so. It might have been a few days ago and this was just when I shared the pictures…” My voice trails off as tears flow more freely now, “They’ve had such a hard year.”

“I really want to see Geoff.” Bryan says and we both embrace again crying on behalf of Bryan’s uncle.
We glance at the kids and move into the hotel bathroom.

“I miss Papa,” Bryan says.

“Me too,” I reply, choking on the words.

There is now no attempt to hold back tears. We sit down on the edge of the bathtub and cry together.

Bryan talks and I listen.

I talk and Bryan listens.

I talked about things I saw in both him and his grandfather.

I sob and tell him my secret, quiet fear, “When Papa first got sick… I started praying, not only for his healing, but another prayer,” I pause, the words feel stuck in my throat. “I prayed ‘Not in the same year. Not in the same year, don’t take Papa and Bryan in the same year.’ And now…” I paused again to catch my breath between sobs. “I know it’s irrational, but now I feel like a ticking clock is hanging over my head counting down one year.” I barely managed to get the last words out between sobs.

Bryan touches my arm. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says.

It’s what he always tells me. We both know what a meaningless statement it is and how we have so little control over how much time either of us have on this earth, but somehow it still makes me feel better. I smile at him. We sit there for a long time more, talking and crying together.

“This is what I really needed,” I say. “More than yoga, or a break from the kids. I needed to really cry, to feel it all, rather than trying to hold it in.”

 

Tuesday at the Cathedral:

I push Sage’s wheel chair up to the outer edge of the pew and instruct Thaddeus to sit down near me. Bryan moves past the kids and works his way to the other end of the pew to sit next to his mom and sister. Next to them in the middle of the isle is the coffin. There are flowers on top of it and a small ornate bowl. Smoke rises in little curls out of the bowl. Frankincense, I assume. I watch the spirals rise, mesmerized for a moment, and think of how many others have watched this smoke hover over their loved one.

The kids sit quietly as I take in the surroundings. I know they won’t stay this quiet for long, but I’m grateful while it lasts. The cathedral is covered in golds and deep reds. There seems to be icons and paintings and stained glass in every direction I look. In the front big bundles of flowers rest on stands and a large portrait of Papa smiles out over the Cathedral, tears rush to my eyes as I look from the picture, which is so full of life and gentle love, to the coffin.

“Is that a bible?” Thaddeus asks pointing to a book resting in the little shelf on the back of the pew in front of us. The cover of the book has large Armenian letters sprawled across it.

“I think so,” I reply. “But we need to be quiet now, remember.” I whisper the words in his ear and he wiggles and nods his head in reply.

Two men in robes are speaking in Armenian now, they move from the front of the cathedral to stand in the isle directly in front of the coffin. I watch as they walk the length of the coffin until they are standing almost in the middle of church. They motion for us to stand. I take Sage’s hand in my right hand and Thaddeus’ in my left as I stand to my feet. We watch the men in robes.

Their words are foreign, I don’t understand their meaning, but the sound is beautiful. They chant the words in what is almost a song and I close my eyes to listen. Thaddeus lays down on the seat next to me and my eyes lift open again.

“We need to stand,” I whisper. But just then the priest motions for us to sit and everyone quietly does.

The men in robes move back to the front of the cathedral and in a heavy accent one of them precedes to read verses from the bible in English. There were no microphones or sound systems, his voice is soft and though it carries well to the second row I wonder if those in the back can hear at all. I still only catch a few words here and there, just enough to know they changed languages and that they are reading the bible.

I take one arm around Thaddeus and gently draw him close into my side, an effort to keep him from moving all over the bench. Sage points to the book with the Armenian title and makes a slight squeak indicating she wants it. I take the book and open it at random, holding it out in front of her with one hand while my other hand holds Thad close. She flips pages and I attempt to listen.

The priests are moving back down the isle and to the front of the coffin again now, directing us to again take to our feet. I stand and instruct Thad to stand. He doesn’t want to, I hesitate for a moment trying to determine if it’s somethings worth fighting or not. It isn’t. I let him sit. At least he’s being quiet.

I look towards the coffin, but my eyes fall on Gram instead. She has one arm wrapped around Geoff, who in turn has one arm wrapped around her. My mother-in-law sits in the pew directly behind Gram, and the two women grasp hands over the back of the pew. Tears cling to my eye lids and threaten to turn into full fledged sobs when I see them, these two heartbroken women holding hands and hearts as they grief a man they both loved.

Thaddeus yawns loudly and I look at him as I bring a single finger to my lips reminding him to be quiet. “What?” He whispers, “I needed to yawn.”

My heart breaks a little looking at him, knowing how little he understands the significance of this day, this moment. I wish he was older, more able to remember Papa. Sage pulls at my shirt, wanting to again look at the book which I had set down when I stood. Thankfully the priest is directing us to sit again now and I open it back up in front of her as I sit.

Soon the priest is directing Geoff to come up for the eulogy. He wears a robe as well, and stands at the front as he shares about his fathers incredible life. Thaddeus listens now. His head whips around to me with wide eyes when Geoff says that Papa killed a bear and made his own bear jerky, was held at gun point, saved an ally fighter pilot whose plane crashed, went sky diving, and caught a lobster as big as himself. “Really?” Thaddeus asks. “Yeah, really. Listen.” I instruct. He doesn’t know the half of it. This man, we grief, this man who’s name we gave to Thad as his middle name, was one of the bravest, most interesting men I’ve ever met.

 

Tuesday at the Grave Sight:

The back of my high heeled shoe catches slightly in the soft grass on the steep hill and I fumble to find my balance as I walk towards the grave site. There’s a tent set up with chairs under it but no one is sitting there. Gram and Geoff and a few other close family members stand a bit in front of the tent. The rest of the group spreads out on the grass behind it. I notice Tamara and Raúl standing on the other side of the red covering with baby Raffi in the stroller and I push Sage’s wheel chair over to them.

“Can I run down the hill?” Thaddeus asks at a volume that feels a little too loud.

“Not yet,” I whisper to him as I notice that the priest is already speaking, or rather chanting, again in Armenian.

The two robed figures who had made their way back and forth around the coffin at the cathedral now do the same here. Eventually they pour dirt, or something resembling ashes, out of a vile onto the top of the coffin. It was a stark picture, that quickly brought to mind the oft quoted phase, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”

The priest then invites the family to receive a blessing and family members move then into the shade of the awning to stand and wait their blessing. He priest moves from one to the other resting a gold cross momentarily on each forehead. It felt too quick and rushed. I wanted him to linger. I wanted time to pray blessings over each of them. As it was I glanced away for but a moment and he was finished.

A pastor friend of Geoff’s gets up and speaks now. He calls us to hope, reminding us of the hope we have in Christ. “We do not grieve as the world grieves.” I believe every word, I hold fast to the hope of the resurrection of the dead, but it falls a little flat on my ears.

I don’t want hope, I want to cry.

I want to feel the extent of the loss and separation and it feels right to do so in this moment. There will be time for hope, now feels like the time for lament. I don’t want to rush too quickly to victory. I know it’s coming, but we aren’t there yet. And right now I feel so deeply the need to sit in the not yet, the distance, the grief.

Perhaps it is not one or the other though, perhaps it is exactly right to hold hope, and hear hope, and be called to hope, even when our victory feels far off, even when we don’t want the testimony, we want the lamentation, even in the midst of gravesite grief.

I ponder the balance in my mind as I stare out over the coffin. The grave sits near the top of a hill looking out over a picturesque landscape of rolling hills scattered with graves. More graves than I can count. I begin to feel a little dizzy and shift my weight from one foot to the other. Thaddeus hangs on my legs and I struggle to keep my balance on the steep slope. By this point Bryan and Tamara have also moved to the shade of the awning and I find myself standing in a small cluster with Blake and Raúl, the three of us forming a group of our own – family, but not blood.

Soon white roses are being handed out to the family members in the awning, a symbol by which they can honor Raffi. I watch as one by one they lay their flowers on top of the coffin. My sight blurs with tears as I notice Stella, Papa’s sister, walking away from the coffin. Her face is wrinkled with sobs and she trips slightly before being caught by her son. The two awkwardly hold each other and cry as they catch their balance. My chest feels tight watching them. It feels as if we should all be sobbing, tripping, and breaking down, but at this point the group is largely controlled, quiet, somber.

The family finishes placing their flowers and the rest of the group is invited to take a flower and pay their respects as well.

“Would you like to go up?” Bryan comes over and asks in soft tones.

“Yes. I’ll take Thad with me.” I reply.

Thaddeus and I make our way over to the flowers and each take a red rose in our fingers. We walk slowly over to the coffin and lay the flowers across the top. Then I go back to get Sage. With some difficulty I take her out of her wheel chair and hold her in my arms, removing my high heels and walking barefoot now to be certain I don’t trip. The grass feels soft and cool on my feet. I struggle to hold Sage’s weight as she twists and wiggles, but we manage to get her a flower and get in line behind the other mourners. As we draw near the coffin I set her down on her feet and, supporting her under her arms, ask her to walk. She takes a few steps forward walking up to the side of the coffin. I smile thinking of how Papa had called once and told us that he’d had a dream about Sage walking and talking. I took a deep breath, brushed a tear away with the back of my hand, and lifted Sage up so she could place a flower on the coffin of a man who loved her and believed in her.

 

Tuesday at the house:

By the time we get there the house is full. Cars line the street on both sides. Traffic had made us late and a little bit cranky. I rush the kids inside, eager to find a place for them while I get Sage’s food prepared.

I recognize many of the faces, but most of them are unknown to me. We hand Thad a plate of food and direct him to sit on the couch to eat, while we prepare our own plates. I felt awkward and uncomfortable, not knowing who to talk with, not knowing what to say, not really wanting to talk at all, mostly just wanting to cry. I feel torn between my children, trying to keep Sage occupied and stay on top of her 15 minute feedings, but also wanting to keep an eye on Thad and make sure he doesn’t interject himself in ways that would interfere with the grieving of my husband or anyone else.

We stay mostly in the living room while the bulk of the guests gather outside. But often as I move around the house I catch glimpses of Geoff. Every time I see him he is talking with someone different. Every time I overhear him he is talking about Papa, and telling who ever he is talking to how much Papa loved them. His eyes are red and his cheeks are stained with tears. His grief is tangible but he isn’t letting it distance himself from others. He is fully present. Watching him, even from afar, feels like watching a work of grace in action.

Eventually I take Thaddeus upstairs to play a game of pool. The room is quiet and I can picture Papa standing in it with a cue in his hand. When we first told Thaddeus that Papa had died he asked a simple question, “Is he the one who taught me how to play pool.” In his young mind that is the memory that stands out to him and it seems fitting that we now play a round of pool at Papa’s wake.

I help Thad pick out a cue and show him how to hold it. Then I watch as he struggles to hit the white ball with enough force and precision to force another ball into motion. It feels like a quiet moment of oasis in the middle of a crowded emotional day.

Eventually I go back down stairs to give Sage another dose of food. I find Bryan outside standing by his mom and venture over for a quick hug before finding Sage. He’s standing directly under a shade awning used to block the sun from the patio and as I walk up it breaks crashing onto Bryan’s head. He stands for a moment, “I’m fine. I’m fine.” And for just a moment I really think he is, and then he begins to sink, almost as if he was melting in slow motion down towards the ground.

The whole group turns and watches. A doctor in the crowd rushes over. Someone runs and gets him some ice.

“I’m ok,” he says, “I think I just need to sit down.”

I follow him to the couch and we sit there for awhile mostly in silence. His parents come to check on him and sit with us. I watch the people moving about the house – from the patio to the family room, from the family room to the patio. They talk, sharing stories, and I again notice Geoff. His body language is open, a hand on someone’s shoulder, a leaning in, towards people. He cries readily, but he also smiles easily and laughs quickly too. He grieves with grace. He is concerned not just with his own grief, but also the grief of the other.

“I think I could use some fresh air,” Bryan says from beside me and we decide to go for a short walk around the block. We hold hands as we push the wheelchair down the drive way. Sage smiles, excited to be outside and moving.

The air is growing cool now as the sun sinks low. I notice the star jasmine growing in a neighbors yard and think of the star jasmine the kids had picked and rubbed between their fingers in front of the cathedral before the funeral. I wonder if jasmine will always remind me of Papa’s funeral now?

When we draw near the house again we can hear the voices carrying from the back yard out into the street. We don’t bother going through the house, but go straight around to the back. Bryan’s cousin stands in the middle of the crowd with a glass raised.

Toasting to papa.

Toasting to Papa’s mom.

Toasting to the rich family history and Armenian tradition of which they are a part.

We have nothing to toast with but our hearts drink in the words and toast for us. I squeeze Bryan’s hand and go to find Thad. When I come back outside I find Sage with flowers in her hair… jasmine flowers.

As the evening fades into night I find myself outside with Sage, waiting as the others say their goodbyes, so they can take longer without feeling rushed by the children. Geoff comes over and sits next me, thanking me for being there.

“I really loved your dad, Geoff.” I choke on the words but manage to get them out without completely breaking into sobs. I look away at Sage not sure if I could handle looking him directly in the eye.

“He really loved you too.” Geoff replies and I know he means it.

Papa may not have been my grandpa, I didn’t grow up with him, but I felt loved by him, every time I was with him, from the very first time I walked shakily up his front steps to the last time I saw him, weak, but still with the same caring smile and big hug ready for me. I brushed a few tears off my cheek. Sage honks the horn on the little toy car she is playing with and smiles up at us. Geoff and I sit and look at Sage as the night grows darker.

 

Grace and peace,
Bethany Stedman


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Summer of Awakening

On Monday I start teaching yoga classes at Genesis Yoga. I’m nervous (maybe more like terrified) and the closer it gets to Monday the more I know I should be on my mat preparing and yet the more I avoid it.

The theme and intention at Genesis Yoga for the summer is Awakening and this morning I’ve been laying in bed turning it over and over in my mind.

Awakening. What does that mean really? What do I have to say about it? I can abstractly understand so much that it means, but how do I explain experience in words? How do I lead people into an experience of awakening, of experiencing God’s presence?

The only answer I keep hearing as I turn the questions over in my mind is the same answer I always hear about writing: “share what you know.”

Write what you know.
Tell what you know.
Share what you know.

What I know is that I’m terrified about teaching this class. Terrified in a way that you can only feel about something that you really want, that hits at something deep in your heart and pulls at all your insecurities. I known it’s exactly what I should be doing. But this morning all I can think is, “Why the heck did I decide to do this? What was I thinking?” I’m irritable and angry and wishing I hadn’t decided to do this and I could just sleep away the summer instead.

But, I know that teaching yoga is holy ground for me, not because the classes I teach are holy, perfect, or life transforming moments for people (I’m quite sure that’s rarely the case), but because standing up and using my voice in that way is life transforming FOR ME. There’s something purifying in it for me. It’s ground on which I face my fears and insecurities and past wounds. It’s holy ground upon which I meet with the God who loves me, and made me exactly as I am.

What I know is that I have spent a lot of my life believing that my desires can’t be trusted, that they are only and utterly sinful. Friends, our desires can be broken, hurtful, and wrong, but not always. So often in scripture God listens to people and satisfies their desires for good things. In the Gospels we see Jesus asking people, “What do you want me to do for you?” Oh what a question, what an utterly beautiful question!

What do you want me to do for you? What do you really want?

God doesn’t want you to hide or stuff or kill those desires in your heart, the really deep ones, the really true ones, the really core ones, he wants you to bring them to Him.

The Spirit that made you also placed these desires in your heart. At the beginning of creation the Three-in-One called us very good, and that very goodness is still there, that belovedness, that core of who you are, it’s what God seeks after and is trying to restore. It’s still there.

Yes, our hearts are broken and they have enormous capacity for evil, yet at the core, at the center, the heart of who we are is still very good, full of God’s finger prints. God still speaks over his sons and daughters the words he spoke over Jesus, the first born, “This is my child in whom I am well pleased.”

Friends, for so much of my life I have believed that I can’t really trust my desires (even my desires for good things, even my desire to do this – to teach yoga) and that I don’t really have anything to offer the world.

I have listened to the voices that say,
“You aren’t good enough.”
“That person is better at this than you are, you should just let them do it.”
“You aren’t smart enough, you don’t know enough, you need to learn more first. Maybe someday, but you aren’t ready yet.”
“You will fail.”
“No one will want what you have to offer.”
“Your story doesn’t matter. Your voice doesn’t matter, at least not as much as that other persons does.”
“No one wants to hear what you have to say.”
“You’re too young (or at least people will think you’re too young since you look young) and they will dismiss what you have to say.”
“Your place is at home.”
“You have too many other things on your plate, you don’t have time to pursue desires, even if they are good ones.”

Friends, some of these are half-truths. But I believe them as full truths and the result of all of them is the same…I shrink back. I hide. I bury my desire, and along with it any potential talent I may have. I let someone else claim the land. I give up my power, my beauty, my goodness. I consider God a bad artist, a poor potter. I ignore the voice of the Spirit that asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

I sleep.

We sleep in the dark, under covers, often curled up in a protective position. Those who hide belong to those who sleep, not to those who are awake.

What I know is that God has been waking me up. Slowly. Tenderly. And oh goodness I still fight it and often want to run head first back under the covers. But Spirit has been there softly asking me to come out of hiding and into vulnerability.

What I know is that God has been asking me to own my voice, my story, the power and beauty of who I am as He made me, the beloved child He calls me.

The book of Hebrews tells us: “We do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.”

Over and over in scripture God tells us “be strong and courageous”.

But, friends, I can’t just quote scripture at myself and hope that will change what I believe. That is often the accepted Christian version of positive self-talk and it doesn’t really work – not fully.

Oh friends, this is hard work, slow work! It doesn’t happen over night or simply by effort. I can’t positive self-talk my way into believing I am beloved. All I can do is come to Jesus, pry open my heart, lay it all out in the open with him, and then wait in quiet and ask Him to speak. I need an experience of being the beloved, I need to hear him singing love over me; not once but over and over again. This is the work of the mystics, the contemplatives, and this is the work that transforms us into being the beloved. This is the work that wakes us up to the deep love of the Father.

Over and over again, when I show up openly and honestly before God and really listen, He speaks words of love over me.

We are valuable to him. He made us, not to hide, or shrink back into the shadows, but to be light and salt, life and love to those around us.

He wants to hear our desires, he doesn’t want us to shrink back, to hide, to disqualify our desires or our gifting, he wants us to come to him with all of it.

“Wake up, sleeper,
Rise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.” Ephesians 5:14b

I think we’ll be talking about some aspect of all of this in Monday’s class. If you are in the Phoenix area and you’re interested in coming. Class will be at Genesis church (the south east corner of 32nd St. and Thunderbird) at 10am on Monday. There’s childcare available ($5 for the first kid and $2 for each child after that).
I’d love for you to join me!

Grace and peace,
Bethany


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Four Years of Cancer

Four years ago yesterday we found out Bryan has cancer.

Realizing it has been that long filled me with more feelings than I can express. Grateful. Thankful. Overwhelmed. Afraid. Sentimental. I could go on.

Then today I opened my Timehop app and found that 3 years ago yesterday Bryan was having the largest surgery he’s had so far, to remove a 15cm tumor and all of the lymphnodes in his right underarm. It was the first sign we had that the disease had spread and it wouldn’t be the last.

I decided today to share a few things I wrote about that day four years ago and also about that surgery three years ago. These are pieces, glimpses, vignettes, that I thought I might use for a memoir, but lately I haven’t felt so sure what to do with them. I haven’t written anything about cancer in months. I am no closer to knowing how to piece together a memoir now then I was eight months ago when I stopped actively working on one.

These pieces are unfinished, disjointed, but I think they need to see the light of day. I need to revisit them to remember what we’ve walked through, how far we’ve come, and how real this journey still is in our lives. I need to share them. I need to know that others see our story, and we aren’t alone in it.

 

Morning April 11, 2012

The phone rings. I ignore it and go back to nursing my daughter. My three year old son snuggles up next to me watching a show on the iPad. Bryan glances at the phone and asks if I know the number, I shake my head, and he answers anyway.

Within minutes I’m sitting straighter in my seat on the couch, racking my brain trying to figure out who my husband is talking to. His side of the conversation only adds to my confusion instead of lessening it. His voice doesn’t sound quite right. Something is wrong. But I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is.

He says goodbye and sets down the phone.

“Who was it?” I ask right away, eager to solve the mystery in my head.

“The dermatologists office. They got the pathology report back from that mass that was under my thumb nail.” His voice is controlled and calm. “It’s melanoma.”

The words crash over me like a wave. I feel adrift. I can’t seem to focus or completely grasp what that means.

“I thought they said it wasn’t cancerous. I thought they said it was some kind of common benign mass that pregnant women often get.” I don’t speak the words, but they bounce in my head.   

“What does that mean?” Are the words that actually escape my lips. I know it is bad. I know it is cancer, but I can’t wrap my mind around it. Bryan’s young, only 28. He’s healthy. It doesn’t mean what I think it means, right? It couldn’t mean that.

“They want me to see a hand surgeon and an oncologist. They agreed to set up both of those appointments for me so we won’t have to. They will call back in a little while to let us know when they are scheduled,” Bryan replies. I can tell that he is trying to keep the conversation matter-of-fact to protect my feelings.

He sits down next to my son and wraps his arm around him. They snuggle for a minute.

My head feels foggy and everything seems like a blur. Is this shock? Is this what shock feels like? I start to shake involuntarily.

“I have to go to work.” Bryan’s voice breaks through the fog.

“Yeah. Yeah. Ok.” It seems strange for him to leave so soon, strange that there would even be work to do after news like that. “Yeah, your mom should be here any time to pick up Thad for their play date.” The world seems to pick up spinning again and yet I only feel like I am half on it.

Bryan moves to sit next to me. He brings his arm around my shoulders, pulling me in close to his side. There are tears glistening in the corners of his eyes. “It’ll be ok,” he says as our daughter stops nursing for a moment and looks up at him with her biggest smile.

He kisses me and before I know it he’s gone.

Evening April 11, 2012

“I wasn’t able to concentrate and decided it would be better to come home early,” Bryan explains as he walks through the door. There is a sadness in his voice that I had never heard there before.

We walk up to the park by our apartment. Bryan chases Thad through the grass with a new relish, holding him extra tight and extra long when he catches him. When he is not holding the kids, he is holding me.

We put the kids to bed early and sit alone at the dinner table. Our hands clasped in their own sort of embrace as we attempt to eat.

Tears shine in both of our eyes as we talk. In quiet voices we begin to process the new ground we are now standing on.

“I don’t want Thad and Sage to grow up without a dad,” Bryan chokes the words out as the tears that had been glistening in his eyes all day finally spill over his cheeks.

I have never seen my husband touched by fear and grief like this. My own tears flow freely as I move over onto his lap and wrap my arms around him.

Our lips find each other in a tender kiss and we abandon our food as we move into the bedroom.

April 11, 2013

The doctor comes into the waiting room. It’s not Dr. B., so I assume he’s there to talk to someone else. He walks straight towards my mom and me.

“Are you Mrs. Stedman?”

“Yes.”

He introduces himself as one of the doctors who assisted Dr. B. in the surgery and pulls up a chair across from me. There’s only one other person in the waiting room right now, but I still feel a little awkward that he didn’t lead us into one of the private rooms off to the side.

“The surgery went great. Your husband is doing very well.”

I sigh and say a quiet prayer of thanks.

“The tumor was larger than we had suspected. It measured 15cm. We had to take out all the lymph nodes in his right underarm and some of the one’s up towards his neck on that side as well. I have a picture of the tumor if you want to see.”

My mom and I look at each other. “That’s ok,” we politely reply.

We continue to talk for a few more minutes and he discusses what the size of this tumor means. We ask more questions. We get more answers.

“Did it not all show up on the PET scan?” my mom asked.

“From the PET scan we thought it would be about 7cm,” he replied. “Are you sure you don’t want to see it?”

I feel terrified to see the picture, but also somehow drawn to it. “Ok.”

He pulls out his phone and shows us. Stretched out next to a ruler is a mass of my husbands flesh. I can see the cleaned off skin on the front edge and the whole tumor which had stretched half a foot back into my husbands chest. No wonder he had been in pain.

My sigh of relief is quickly stollen from my lungs. My chest is tight. How could they not have known that it was that big? How could something that big have grown so quickly? He had a PET scan just a few months ago and there was nothing there, or at least nothing that was big enough to be picked up. Wouldn’t the scan that he had last week have shown the size of the tumor? How could they not have known? How could it have hidden from them? What else could be hiding from them now? All these questions wrap themselves around my chest and make my breathing tight and shallow.

“The surgery went well. He’s doing great.” The doctor repeats. And I repeat it again in my head, like a mantra, over and over again. “The surgery went well. He’s doing great. The surgery went well. He’s doing great. The surgery went well…”

————

I pick up the phone and call Bryan’s mom. “The surgery went well. The doctor just came in and told us Bryan’s doing great.”

“Oh thank God.” I can hear the anxiety still linger as she breaths this authentic prayer of praise.

“Thank you for being with Thaddeus. I know you would rather be here with Bryan.” I continue on to tell her more about the surgery and we share our relief over the phone.

“So, this is it, right? There is a very good chance that we won’t have to deal with melanoma again.” She almost sounds like she’s holding her breath as she asks the question. Looking for reassurance, wanting it all to be over so she can go back to life as it was. Hoping she can breath again.

I’m not sure how to answer her. I understand her desire. I feel her desire. But, I’m also stunned and silenced by her words. Has she not done any research on melanoma? Does she not know what this diagnosis means? I am silent for too long. I take a deep breath. I try to control my voice as I slowly swallow my own fears and answer, “Well…that’s the thing with melanoma…it’s always likely to return or spread…no…there isn’t a very good chance that this is it.”

The line was silent between us for a long while then.

I feel like I just handed her the death sentence for her son, and swallowed the death of my own life and love in the process. I have to break this silence. I have to change the tone.

“The surgery went really great, though. He’s doing really well. You guys will come down later tonight, right?”

We finish up the conversation on a lighter note and say our goodbyes.

———

“Hey, thanks for coming down.” I hug my sister-in-law and feel genuinely, overwhelmingly glad that she and her husband are here.

“How’s he doing?” They ask.

“He’s doing well. He’s out of surgery and the doctor came and talked to my mom and I, but we haven’t seen Bryan yet. He’s still in recovery. They said they will call when they are ready for me to go back.” I lead them around the corner and into the waiting room as we talk. My mom is sitting there holding Sage, keeping her distracted with a toy.

We all sit down together. We visit and talk. The mood is casual and relaxed. We all feel relieved after the long day of waiting.

After about an hour and still no word on whether we could go back to see Bryan, Tamara and Raul decide they should go. They are going to take Sage home with them and get her fed and ready for bed. It’s getting late now and she clearly seems tired. I feel so grateful for their help.

As they prepare to leave the conversation turns back to Bryan and the surgery.

“This is it, right? It’s over.” Tamara asks.

I remember my awkward and emotional conversation with her mom, and again feel stunned and confused.

“It’s never really over with melanoma.”

Grace and peace,
Bethany Stedman


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Fragile Confidence

Twice today I had opportunities to share small pieces of my heart and I shrunk back instead. I shared circumstances rather than soul. I stumbled over words and dismissed something that meant a lot to me rather than speaking boldly about it. I do this a lot.

I often withhold my heart from others, because consciously or unconsciously I make a decision about my worth, and the worth of what I have to share.

I decide for them that they wouldn’t care. I decide that it wouldn’t be as important to them as it is to me, and because it is so important to me (as all things that are of the heart are) I fear they won’t give it the attention or care I want, so it’s better not to share, not to put it out there. I shrink back.

“They have their own things, they don’t want to hear about mine.”

“Now’s not the time. They aren’t really asking for heart stuff, they are just asking in passing and if I go to heart stuff it will get uncomfortable.”

“They don’t really want to know. They are just being nice.”

Often thoughts like these move so quickly through me that I can’t tease them out or discern them, I just stumble over my words and pass up the opportunity before I realize it even was an opportunity.

At yoga today a women I respect and look up to, who I would also really like to get to know better (the worst combination for making me feel socially anxious) commented on my hair and then asked if there was something that prompted the extreme cut. It was a perfect opportunity to let her see heart, to maybe broaden this casual friendship. I sputtered and stumbled and mumbled something about it “just being time”.

Friends, this hair cut was about so much more than it “just being time.” It was something holy, something long coming, something necessary. It was something worth documenting and remembering, something worthy of a blog post despite my long silence in this space.

I wrote in the fall about snakes shedding skin, and the need to strip off what isn’t for me anymore. I’ve been sitting with that for a long time. A few things have peeled off, a few things are fighting to peel off now, there is constant shedding and re-evaluating, this last season has been full of it. But for awhile now I’ve been feeling a new season stirring. A season not separate or different from this season of shedding, of giving up territory that’s not mine, of breaking old chains, but a season that moves broader. I needed an outward symbol of this season. I needed a act that solidified the desire to not put old shed skin back on again. I needed a symbolic gesture that showed I’d been there, I’d shed, and now it was time to move on to new depths.

And more than that, I needed a new shedding, a shedding of the part of me that devalues myself. The part of me that feels about twelve even though I’m in my mid-thirties. The part of me that puts others up on pedestals and says they are so much better and far beyond me that I have no right to want to be their friend, or even to give them honest glimpses of my heart when asked. The part of me that makes myself small and young, incapable and weak, timid and afraid. The part of me that forgets that I have something to offer the world, that I do have value, and a voice, and a place.

I needed a haircut that not only symbolically shed layers, but that also was a bit bold, confident, spunky even. Something that made me look mid-thirties instead of mid-twenties. I prayed for bold confidence as the scissors snapped and the pieces of hair fell to the floor, confidence to be who I am, to share who I am, to believe that I am valued and deeply loved. 

Today, when I shrunk back from sharing even a small glimpse of my heart, I shrunk back from that prayer without even realizing it. So I’m realizing it now, I’m confessing it, I’m saying I want to live bold, authentic, open hearted, and confident. I’m tired of shrinking I’m tired of hiding.

Oh but, friends, change comes slowly, and even today’s story doesn’t stop there. I shrunk when it came to speaking about my hair and then I puffed up when the next opportunity to share heart came. Both times I hid.

Three different people this morning asked me how my first yoga class at my new home studio went last week. Here was another opportunity to share heart, instead I chose to highlight only certain things, things that kept the conversation light and comfortable, even things that made me look good without showing hurt.

I shared about how the room was full and how we ended up with more people than I expected because some of my friends brought their older kids to do yoga too.

But, friends, this is another area of my life that I need to document, that I need to process out in words, and for some reason I’ve been shrinking away from sharing, not just in person but even in writing. More than that this is an area of my life where I really need encouragement and advice and people to hold space for me. I need sisterhood in this area of my life and I’ve hidden from it. 

I’m terrified to start trying to teach yoga again. That’s the truth of it. Scared absolutely shitless. 

This desire to teach yoga started almost 8 years ago. It came at me with fire and passion and a vision that was big and beautiful and beyond anything I’d ever experienced. I wanted to do more than teach yoga, I wanted to usher people into the presence of the Spirit of God. I wanted to lead them in an experience of worship that was wholistic and complete. I wanted to shift things in their bodies, hearts and spirits. I wanted to preach and teach and walk beside them in tangible, physical, radical ways. I wanted a class that would be more than a class, I wanted a sisterhood, a tribe, a deeply bonded community who would hold space for one another, who would do more than practice yoga together, who would practice life together. I didn’t know anyone doing that. I had never heard of holy yoga, or Yahweh yoga, or Jesus & yoga, or anything like that.

I started a yoga teacher training program and at the same time started teaching whoever I could gather in to my home for free classes. I called it yoga and prayer or something super basic like that and you can find some of those early classes in the archives of this blog. I started with so much energy and then there were a lot of classes where only one person showed up, or no one showed up. This little seed of a dream started to show some small cracks.

Then I got pregnant and my world turned upside down and this little seed got buried.

Every now and then over the years I would start teaching again. A few months of classes in my home, a few weeks of teaching in my mother-in-laws living room, a random class here or there, a few classes for the college group at church, a few weeks of teaching corporate classes at my dad’s office, but nothing came close to touching that original vision. Every attempt felt like a breaking, a cracking in the dark. Each attempt ended in hurt or disappointment.

Most of the time tending to this dream has looked like tending to dirt (or tending to shit). I’ve spent money on trainings and mats, props and books. Always with the question, “why the heck do I keep doing this?” hanging heavy on my shoulders.
But isn’t that what it’s like tending to seeds before they germinate, before they sprout? You water dirt. You care for dirt. 

And some seeds have such long germination times.

Right now, having an entire room of my house devoted to yoga and tentatively starting to teach classes again, somehow feels different than other times I’ve tried to teach.
When I was praying this morning I had the perfect picture for it. This attempt feels like a sprout. It’s not the full plant I want it to be, but it feels like something green and alive, fresh and new. It feels different than attempts I’ve made in the past, it doesn’t feel buried. Something is breaking out of the dark. I can feel it. I don’t know quiet what yet, but it’s there.

Oh, but it is fragile, like one tiny shoot reaching out towards the light. It feels like it needs protecting, a greenhouse of warmth and encouragement. And though it’s there above ground, it’s main job isn’t to produce fruit or even grow much, it’s main job is still to put down roots, to soak up all of the nutrients from the rich soil that it can. 
So, class last week was good. It felt alive, a living thing bigger than me, but it also felt so fragile, so tender, so thin and small and easily destroyed.

Teaching again has meant breathing into a lot of hurt spaces for me, a lot of self doubt, a lot of fear of rejection, a lot of feelings of not being good enough, a lot of hard sticky spaces. It has meant a lot of falling before God and asking for a movement of the Spirit, for him to do a work in me and through me, for him to bring to completion the dream he gave me. A lot of praying for him to change how I see myself, to give me a right view of myself, not too high and also not too low. A lot of praying for bold confidence to value what he’s given me to share. 

Grace and peace, friends.

Grace and peace,

Bethany


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