A Decade of Yes

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Ten years ago today this man asked me to marry him. I don’t know how to put into words the past ten years.

We were so young then. Yes, young is really the only word for it. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. And, oh, there was so much we didn’t know.

I don’t feel so young now. Life and circumstances have aged us and changed us a lot. We are not the same people who said yes to love a decade ago. And yet every day that we keep saying yes we find a love that is infinitely sweeter than when we began.

We have grown and changed together. We have learned and questioned and shifted together. We have cried and fought and wounded together. We have made choices together. And we have found in one another part of ourselves.

This man, that I said yes to ten years ago, is part of me now. Because of all the yeses that we have said to one another since that day, we are now one.

And today I want to cling to him. Fiercely.

I want to cling to the life that I have with him and because of him.

Last night I rubbed his back with tears streaming down my face as he swallowed a pill full of poison. Chemo has been hard this week. He’s tired and nauseated. He’s slept through most of the week.

This morning he left for his chemo infusion without saying goodbye and my sensitive heart cried soft tears. All I could think was I should be going with him. I should be with him. I can’t not be with him. I don’t know what I would do without him. I don’t know what I would be without him.

I imagine that couples who’ve spent multiple decades together feel this even more. But, we’ve done a lot of living in our one decade of marriage. We’ve said a lot of yeses. And each yes has knit us closer together. We’ve shared a lot of life and love, hurt and hope. We are connected. And this threat of separation called cancer, it rips at me.

I had no idea what I was getting into a decade ago. But I knew that Bryan and I fit and a I know that even more now.

Marriage can be tough. Really tough. And marriages can die while both partners live on. Each “no” that we say to one another, each time we turn away, connection is cut and severed just a little bit.

I am so grateful that is not our story. I am so grateful for all the yeses that we have said to one another since that first yes. I am so deeply grateful for the ways that we have said yes to adventure and love and romance, in all the nitty gritty daily ways of real life. I am so grateful that even in the tough places, the heart crushing days, we can turn together and breath a sigh of gratitude to be together in the muck. 

There really is no one I would rather walk through this muck with than Bryan. Thank you, Bryan, for turning toward me a decade ago and every day since. Thank you for all the yeses you’ve said to me and all the opportunities you’ve given me to say yes to you.

I’m praying fiercely for another decade of yeses today. 

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Rejoicing in the journey,
Bethany

photo credit: Mikel Anne Photography

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Love is Infinite

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I sat there wanting to crawl in a hole. Not wanting to talk to anyone. Not wanting to answer the questions asked. I felt disconnected when I arrived and felt like I had to hold myself together because no one else was going to do it for me.

What happened to the hopeful openness with which I had started the year? Suddenly February comes around and I’m exhausted. I always hate January, but this one felt brutal. I started the year excited to reach out, to give, to love, and then illness struck one family member after another and I felt robbed. Like all of my energy had been stolen from me. And it wasn’t just physical. It was spiritual. It was emotional. There was illness even in my relationships.

“I want to go back to that openness,” I thought. “I want to care about people and love people and give.” But, the thought was only half-hearted. Instantly a battle was raging inside me – why was I resisting this so much? Why was I being so protective of myself after I had just set such a strong intention not to be, after I had just determined that this would be a year of looking outward instead of just looking inward?

And then I found it. That thought, that fear, at the center of my being… the reason… “If I don’t take care of myself no one else will. I have to protect myself. I can’t give more love because if I do I’ll be empty. And no one’s going to fill me up.”

There’s a fear within me that says love is finite. That it can run out. 

I believe in self care, but I think this sort of thinking is different. This is a closing off. This fear – that if I give I will run out, I will be empty, I won’t get filled myself – this fear leads to building walls and shutting down. It leads to closing oneself off. It leads to a hardening. There has to be another way.

There is value in recognizing limits, in setting boundaries, in self care, but I think at some point you also have to open up your hands and say “I choose love.” At some point you have to step out and trust that the love you give will return to you in full eventually. Trust an infinite all powerful and loving God to meet your needs instead of trying to meet them yourself. Trust that showing up in love for another person will ultimately lead to others showing up in love for you.

This is the way of opening. I have friends who would call it the “feminine way”. This opening, this fluidity of giving and receiving love. I don’t want to harden myself, seal myself off, try to pull myself up by my own boot straps and fill my own holes and longings and emptiness – or worse yet pretend that I don’t have those empty places. No, I want to chose love. I want to surrender again and again. I want to open and give – not expecting something in return from that person, but expecting that God will pour out love to fill all my places of lack. Expecting that love won’t run out.

Love is not finite, it is infinite, because it is rooted and flows from a infinite God. 

Lately I have forgotten. I have turned my attention to myself. I have given love begrudgingly and not openly. I have played the part of caregiver, but instead of giving love freely I have held tightly to each ounce of love I give away. I have counted each act and kept a tally of my giving expecting to be reciprocated in certain ways and being disappointed when I’m not. And I have wondered why I have felt empty. Love doesn’t work that way. Love doesn’t keep a record. Love doesn’t give begrudgingly. I have played the continuous part of caregiver, but my attention has been so pointedly on myself, on my seemingly limited supply of love, that I have failed to see the abundance of love all around me.

I have forgotten that love is infinite. It doesn’t run out. The more we give love – truly give selfless love – the more we are open to receiving love selflessly in return. I have thought that it was my job and my job alone to demand the love that I want, but have forgotten that God is love and that I need only accept love to receive it.

I keep asking for the love I want in my marriage, but I have been greedy in giving love. I have been a hoarder. I have felt I had limited supply and needed to ration it out. I have worried that opening myself up would mean hurt. I have tried to be loving, caring, and giving, but I have done so with one eye towards what I might get in return and if I didn’t get anything in return quick enough I shut down, because I need to protect myself. That is no way to live and no way to love.

I felt cheated of love in my mothering. I felt used by my children and unappreciated, forgetting that they are just that – children. I felt obligated towards them, more than I felt love towards them. Oh, how selfish my heart! Who has been the child in this relationship and who the adult? I know I have not acted like a loving adult lately. I have begrudged them the love they demanded, no the love they needed, feeling that they were stealing what little I had, instead of remembering that love is infinite and abundant in Christ.

I have closed myself off from friends and relationships and stopped taking active steps to reach out in community for much the same reasons. I thought love was finite and I thought I didn’t have enough to give. I forgot that it is in the pouring out of love that we make room and space for more of that infinite resource.

This is my confession. This is my truth. This is my breaking. I will remember. Love is infinite.

Rejoicing in the journey,
Bethany

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Intimacy Amidst Crisis

Little white lights wrapped the trees in the dark church courtyard, the warm night air feels soothing after the chill in the sanctuary where we had just heard the message on 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. My husband is on other side of the courtyard surrounded by a group of men. I glance over at him as I nervously rub my hands together. I try to fight back the tears.

 

I sit in a circle of women, all at the same stage in life, all with kids under the age of four, and I feel completely alone. Although there are things that I can relate to in what they are sharing, there is so much in my heart that I know they could never understand.

 

I wouldn’t have expected the topic of sex to bring me to tears, but it didn’t take long before I was biting my lip and blinking rapidly, my mind working overtime to keep my heart from breaking. Think about something else. What was she saying, oh yes, it’s so hard to be in the mood to be intimate when your kids are at this stage where they need so much from you.

 

I blinked back bitter tears. Yes, all kids need so much from their mom’s all the time, yes, all moms feel touched out sometimes, but they don’t understand, none of them understand. My daughter is two years old and has to be carried everywhere because she can’t even crawl yet, can’t even sit up on her own yet. She seems to only sleep if she’s nursing, waking up with nearly every attempt to put her down on her own.

 

I listen to them share the struggles of being intimate with their husbands while raising young kids and I can’t help but think I have those same struggles and more, but on top of all that I have to deal with the most insurmountable obstacle to intimacy I have ever faced – the fear of an uncertain future. The insecurity and vulnerability that comes from knowing my husband is fighting a deadly disease.

 

I sit quietly, not saying a word, because I have nothing to add to this conversation. My mind starts thinking back to the words that Jason, the pastor, spoke just a few minutes before. I think of the story he shared about a mentor of his who told him that he loved his wife’s wrinkles and stretch marks because they were monuments to the many years and life struggles that they had faced together. My heart cries out, “I want to grow old with Bryan! He’s the one I want to have see (and love) my wrinkles and sagging boobs. He is the only one who could feel a connection to my stretch marks because they are a result of birthing his children.” Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. My brain repeats.

 

I have looked forward to growing old with Bryan ever since our wedding day. Looked forward to watching him become the old man he already is inside. Looked forward to him telling me that he loves my wrinkles because they remind him of all the wonderful years we’ve spent together. Looked forward to dancing at our fiftieth wedding anniversary.

 

Just focus on the current conversation, I tell myself again.

 

The leader asks a question about what things we used to do while dating and newly married to encourage intimacy that we no longer do now. Someone makes a joke about showering regularly and we all laugh. I laugh, but my heart isn’t really in it.

 

I am thinking again about something Jason said, something about a study, a secular study, that showed that middle-aged protestant married women have the most satisfying sex lives. I hear in my head the sarcastic voice that only my internal dialogue can really pull off, “Great! There’s a high probability I’ll be widowed during that time, so I’ll just get to miss out on the most satisfying session of my sex life.” I don’t feel like crying now. I kind of feel like yelling. Hitting something!

 

It isn’t fair.

 

Someone is sharing now about the importance of putting your husband first, making him a priority over everything else. Someone else pipes in with how this makes the kids feel more secure. How many times have I had this conversation with friends. Putting your spouse first is a core of what I believe about marriage. I understand this thought, this conversation. In fact, I understand it better now than I ever have before.

 

But, I can’t understand my complicated feelings about sex right now. I can’t understand or even explain how much more vulnerable sex makes me feel now than it did before Bryan’s diagnosis.

 

And they wouldn’t understand. They couldn’t understand. I know I wouldn’t have been able to understand before experiencing it. I am not sure I can even explain it.

 

And I’m so glad that they can’t understand. Glad, for their sake, that none of them know what it feels like to face the potential loss of their marriage.

 

I think of my friend who’s marriage teetered on the edge of divorce for years. Perhaps she could understand a little – for in different ways we face the same insecurity. Different, sure, but similar. I have lost confidence in the surety of my marriage. I have lost confidence that we will be together for years and decades to come. And in loosing that confidence I have lost some of the security necessary in order to be truly and completely vulnerable.

 

Without the certainty of a sure future together sex has lost something for me. With death hanging over our heads being completely open feels too risky.

 

And I struggle. I struggle with all the normal obstacles to intimacy that arise with having children. But, I also struggle to stay open. To keep sharing my feelings with Bryan even though so many of those feelings now feel unsafe and unfair to share. To keep being intimate with him even when I feel insecure and our future feels uncertain. I struggle with both wanting more intimacy and wanting to hide myself away and protect myself.

 

And it all just makes me want to cry.

 

I miss him. I miss the certainty that we used to share. I miss the openness.

 

And yet I know that he’s still here. I know that I should be taking advantage of the fact that he is still by my side, still feeling healthy, despite the evidence to the contrary. There is a part of me that feels desperate not to lose him, desperate to have as much of him as I can while I can, that longs to spend hours in bed alone with him, skin upon skin, flesh upon flesh. And yet, there is another part of me that has already pulled away. Without a certain future, it’s just too risky.

 

The group breaks up and Bryan and I find each other again. We sit on a bench watching the others leave and my tears finally come.

 

It’s not fair. I feel so alone. No one understands. I didn’t want this. I wanted to grow old together.

 

I want to go back to the way it was. The way it was for all of our marriage up to this point, the way it was when we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, when we shared everything and were completely open and vulnerable with each other. But I don’t know how.

 

Cancer stands in the way and it is a mountain. It is an insurmountable, impenetrable, unmovable mountain before me.

 

Bryan wraps his arm around me and pulls me close. With tears streaming down my face we share a tender kiss.

 

Rejoicing in the journey,

Bethany Stedman

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Marriage, Change, and The Moon

I am not a constant. You are not a constant. And so none of our relationships will be constant.

Our friendships, our marriages, they will all fluctuate and change just as we fluctuate and change.

And we do all change. People are not constants.

Last night I had a dream about a couple I barely know, a dream that they were getting divorced and were each in turn sharing that news with me.

I woke up with one thought ringing in my mind: we are not constants.

I remember a friend telling me before I got married that the person you wake up next to the day after your wedding is not the same person you married the day before. People change. Each day is new and with it we are each new as well. The person you walk down the isle with will be very different from the person you walk next to as you walk your children to their first day of college.

We change.

I used to think that people never really change because I had never seen a radically changed life, dramatic change where someone goes from being one thing to being something entirely different nearly over night. Now I know better. I still think that that kind of change is quite rare. But, I know now that people do change, and radically so, but it doesn’t happen all at once. It isn’t in a flash. It’s like Anaïs Nin said:

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

We grow unevenly. We change slowly, first in one direction and then in another. We take a few steps forward, a few steps to the side and often a few steps back.

We may not feel the change taking place until we can look back. It is then that we see we are not the same person we were.

We are not constant. We are constantly changing, not only by growth, but by mood. The mood and climate of yesterday will inevitably be different from the mood and climate of tomorrow.

We are not constants. And so our relationships can never be constants.

This is both discouraging and deeply encouraging, isn’t it? It means that if a relationship is good it won’t stay as easy as it is today. But it also means that if a relationship is challenging, it also won’t stay this way forever.

I have been blessed with a fairly easy marriage. We are not perfect, but we are well matched and we have gratefully been given some wonderful role models and a host of tools for communication – these things are helpful. But, despite that we have still faced difficult seasons. In fact, I would say that we have been in the midst of a difficult season, a season where connecting and finding common ground has been perhaps harder than ever. It has not been a season of conflict (we have had those in the past), but it has been a season of distance.

We have been growing in different areas. Growing in different directions. Unevenly. We have been facing different struggles and facing them largely on our own.

I keep coming back to the picture of the moon. That great orb cycling through its seasons of varying brightness. At times all consuming in its fullness and at other times hidden so deeply as to not be seen at all. And yet always moving through this cycle again and again.

It is so much like the journey we face whenever we decide to be in relationship with another ever changing human being. At times there will be distance and darkness and at other times bright fullness, but I can guarantee this, it will always be changing.

We are not constant.

Today an old friend, one who loved me well through a season when I was perhaps unworthy of such love, one who I lost touch with for many years and only recently reconnected with, celebrated 35 years of being married to her husband. I had to wonder how many dark nights and full moons has their marriage walked through?

I am blessed that the moonless days of my own marriage have all been short and quickly followed by more and more light and love, but I know quite well that there is no marriage that is exempt from those seasons of distance.

Today I find myself not wanting to take my marriage for granted. I find myself wanting to do what I can to move past this current season and move into the next. I find myself praying for my friends marriages and for my own. Praying that we too would someday celebrate 35 years of marriage and that when we do the moon would be full.

Rejoicing in the journey,
Bethany Stedman

 

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Two-Part Invention

Today I cried at the playground.

Moms don’t have a lot of space for tears, and so they break their way through – unexpected, at undesirable times. I stand there, with Sage firming resting in the wrap at my hip, kids playing all around, mom’s chatting casually on the other side of the slide. And I turn another page.

It seems that I have cried with each page of this book. The more I get into it the harder it is to fight back the tears. You’d think I’d give up reading it, but these aren’t bad tears and somehow this book is woven from the fabric of my very being. I can’t stop.

I see in the writing my own hopes and dreams. My own tendencies and loves,

“The thought that I must, that I ought to write, never leaves me for an instant.” And I add: Nor me.

And I add: Nor me.

I read:

“I was struggling to write, to keep house, help in the store, be a good mother, and yet improve my skills as a storyteller. And that decade was one of rejection slips. I would mutter as I cleaned house, ‘Emily Bronte didn’t have to run the vacuum cleaner. Jane Austin didn’t do the cooking.’… In my journal I wrote: ‘There is a gap in understanding between me and my friends and acquaintances. I can’t quite understand a life without books and study and music and pictures and a driving passion. And they, on the other hand, can’t understand why I have to write, why I am a writer.”

And again flip the pages back to the first page I earmarked in the book:

“We do not know and cannot tell when the spirit is with us. Great talent or small, it makes no difference. We are caught within our own skins, our own sensibilities; we never know if our technique has been adequate to the vision. Without doubt this is true of my own work, too. I never know, when I have finished a book, how much of what has been in my mind and heart has come through my fingers and onto the page. This inability truly to assess one’s own accomplishment is what makes rejections so bitter. When I was receiving rejections from publisher after publisher, I wondered sadly if the book I had conceived in my mind had failed utterly in getting onto the page. This lack of knowing makes the artist terribly vulnerable. When I hand in a manuscript to agent or editor I am filled with anxiety until I hear: Yes, the book is there. It needs work, but it is there.”

And I think of my first attempt at a novel, which I only just days ago sent off to friends for editing.

So much of the life I want to lead is portrayed in these pages.

But so much also of the life I feel creeping up on me and hope never to be mine.

The struggle to write and become a writer are interwoven with the story of her marriage and ultimately the story of her husbands cancer. My own fears swell up as I turn the page.

I read:

“I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when the good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly.”

As I read this book I feel it. It lodges itself deep in my heart on so many levels. It is as if it was written for me and as if it was written for me at such a time as this.

I’ve been drawn to Madeleine L’Engle’s Two-Part Invention for years. I remember as quite a young woman seeing it on my parent’s shelf and wanting to read it. And yet, somehow, I never did. I must have picked it up to read a dozen times and yet as much as I wanted to read it, as much as I knew that I should read it and would one day read it, I also knew that it wasn’t time yet.

After Sage was born, when we were packing to move up to Seattle, our boxes were stuffed full and yet somehow I managed to squeeze it in – stollen off my parent’s book shelf.

When we moved into our apartment in the small town of Bothell, just north and east of the sprawling metropolis that is Seattle, I carefully looked at each book and then promptly packed almost all of them back up in boxes to store in our small attached storage. I didn’t pack Two-Part Invention back up. It was one of only about a dozen books that have sat on my shelves over the past year, and yet despite that I have never picked it up to read, until this week.

I feel almost as if it audibly called out to me. “Read me. Read me. Now.” It whispered.

And so I did. And it feels serendipitous to have picked up this book at this time and not before.

If I had read it when I was younger, I do not believe that it would have been anything more to me than a touching story book and a good book. If I had read it last year in the midst of Bryan’s melanoma diagnosis I do not think I would have been able to finish. It would have hit too close to home.

But, now, at this season, when my heart is still largely filled with thoughts of cancer and what that terrible foe might hold for us in the future, and when I am more firm in my identity as a writer than I have ever been before, this book comes as a God send. One of those rare books that I know I will look back on as formative, even life changing.

I turn another page:

“Prayer. What about prayer? A friend wrote to me in genuine concern about Hugh, saying that she didn’t understand much about intercessory prayer. I don’t, either. Perhaps the greatest saints do. Most of us don’t, and that is all right. We don’t have to understand to know that prayer is love, and love is never wasted.
Ellis Peters, in A Morbid Taste for Bones, one of her delightful medieval whodunits, gives a beautiful descriptions of what I believe to be intercessory prayer: ‘He prayed as he breathed, forming no words and making no specific requests, only holding in his heart, like broken birds in cupped hands, all those people who were in stress or grief.’
And George MacDonald asks, ‘And why should the good of anyone depend on the prayer of another? I can only reply, Why should my love be powerless to help another?’
I do not believe that our love is powerless, though I am less and less specific in my prayers, simply holding out to God those for whom I am praying.

What happens to all those prayers when not only are they not ‘answered’ but things get far worse than anyone ever anticipated? What about prayer?

Surely the prayers have sustained me, are sustaining me. Perhaps there will be unexpected answers to these prayers, answers I may not even be aware of for years. But they are not wasted. They are not lost. I do not know where they have gone, but I believe that God holds them, hand outstretched to receive them like precious pearls.”

And I cry.

Each tear drop a separate prayer escaping up to heaven.

A prayer without words, a prayer deeper than words.

I cry for my friends, Jane and Martin, fighting cancer far across the ocean. I cry for friends whose aching wombs have lost babies. I cry for friends who are struggling with job loss and financial crisis. I cry for my daughter, Sage, who may never walk or talk. I cry for myself for the threatening loss I fear. I cry for Madeleine and the battle her husband, Hugh, fought with cancer all those many years ago.

 

And tears become prayers. And the prayers echo.

 

And I turn back a few pages:

 

“I do not want ever to be indifferent to the joys and beauties of this life. For through these, as through pain, we are enabled to see purpose in randomness, pattern in chaos. We do not have to understand in order to believe that behind the mystery and the fascination there is love.
In the midst of what we are going through this summer I have to hold on to this, to return to the eternal questions without demanding an answer. The questions worth asking are not answerable. Could we be fascinated by a Maker who was completely explained and understood? The mystery is tremendous, and the fascination that keeps me returning to the questions affirms that they are worth asking, and that any God worth believing in is the God not only of the immensities of the galaxies I rejoice in at night when I walk the dogs, but also the God of love who cares about sufferings of us human brings and is here, with us, for us, in our pain and in our joy.”

 

Rejoicing in the journey,
Bethany Stedman

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