An Open Book with Many Chapters

Anyone who knows me now knows I believe in the power of testimony. The following is an update of an older post called Darkest Days. I’m not going to lie, I’ve got some boney skeletons knocking around in my closet. Much of my life is shared in this blog space, but there are more chapters to come. I am not perfect, but I am honest and open. I’ve lived a lot of life so I have good chapters and bad chapters and chapters where I’ve had to recreate myself. I’ve been accused of sharing too much of being an open book. To some extent that’s true, however, only the people I trust the most get the unedited version of my story.

Photo: Mircosoft Clifpart - a candle burns in the dark
A light unto the darkness

I recently read that experience without sharing leaves no room for growth. Instead, bad experiences turned inward make you bitter and isolated. Wow! Been there, done that, brought home a whole crate of T-shirts. So here I am opening myself up, exposing the dark. I am not a fan of bitter and isolated.

I will be honest, at times I have had an ungrateful heart. I think at one time or another we tend to want things now, instead of later. We ask, “Why me?” or “Will this ever end?” Jumping into a big ole’ pity pool, wallowing in it, and never looking to the future. Sometimes I have to look at where I have been to appreciate what I have now. This is a lesson, I have to remind myself often. 

Everyone has to suffer through hard times and dark periods in their lives. I have often heard it said, “It is not the situation, but how you handle the situation that matters.” I suppose that is true to some extent, but what about those situations that you don’t handle with grace?

In those times, when you don’t make the best decisions, you end up on the wrong side of things. Somehow you make it out alive. Do you hold on to that shame and hurt, hoping no one will ever see the darkness that lives inside you? Are you bitterly ashamed of your past and pray no one will ever know the true you?

That hurt and shame keeps you from being the best version of yourself, you are bogged down in mire of your mind and everything that has gone wrong in your past. But God has created you for more than that, you are not your past, you are not what has happened to you. You are a new creation, it is time to wipe the slate clean, start fresh. We are to learn from our mistakes, not live in them. But, it is so easy to take on that role. 

I am certainly no stranger to dark times. As a matter of fact, if you had asked me in the early 90s where I would be now, my answer would have been, “Dead.” After the death of my young husband when I was 19, I descended a dark and treacherous path.

You see, I had convinced myself that it was my fault, and I felt like those closest to me blamed me and hated me for his death. Beyond that, I convinced myself I didn’t deserve anything or anyone good in my life. I sought out dangerous people and compromising situations. I dated all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. I just couldn’t buy into the premise that I was worth it, so I treated nice guys horribly and kicked them to the curb. Being abused, became my normal because I thought I deserved it.

I battled with my worth and my past for years. It haunted me. More than once, it almost killed me. I felt alone, isolated, and scared of the person I had become.

I didn’t have the strength to walk away from the things that had beaten me down. It took a series of unfortunate circumstances (isn’t that always the case) for me to seek a counselor. Many see counseling as a sign of weakness. I see it as the strongest moment of my life. It’s where I began to see past the darkness.

I had spent so much time railing at God. Screaming. Crying. Why? Why? Why? For me, coming back to a faith I had lost, saved me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Everyone wants the quick fix. There isn’t one; there is no pill, no magic bean, and no physical interaction that can take away the pain you try to hide, medicate, or abuse out of view. Counseling takes time and work, hard work. Faith takes believing. God never said life would be easy. He never said bad things wouldn’t happen. By surviving your worst situation, you can encourage someone else. But God can’t use your story unless you are willing to tell it. 

The rest of the story is that 35 years after losing my first love, I lost my greatest love. A person who knew the darkest secrets of my soul and loved me anyway. A person I shared everything with, someone I could be myself with and they could be themselves, a best friend, a lover, and a confidant. Someone who enjoyed being around me and me being around them. It wasn’t perfect, but it was priceless.

The hole he left in my heart, I thought could never be filled. Once again I found myself feeling unworthy, alone, and unloved and making poor choices because I felt there was nothing better for me out there. I had been through it before, I knew the path.

But God puts people on your path, people who speak life and not death, who remind you that you know a better way. People who tell you it is ok to love yourself, that you have worth and a purpose, to make you remember who you are, and why you are here. 

Looking back on my past now, I am more grateful than ever, not only for where I am now but that I made it through. I may not have the nicest house, or drive a new car. I may never find someone who loves and shares everything with me again. But I have love, abundant love. The people who pour into my life love me and care about me. So, I have riches beyond gold and silver. God told me that I am beautifully and wonderfully made and that He loves me in spite of myself.

Isaiah 61:3 (KJV) says this:
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord that he might be glorified.

God gave me beauty from the ashes of my life and gave me joy for my mourning. I exchanged my heavy heart for a garment of praise.

I am no expert and I can’t wave a magic wand and fix problems. If you are hurting, I strongly suggest finding a counselor, someone who won’t try to fix you with a pill. Find someone who will listen and lead you on the right path. Know that you are NEVER alone, God always walks with you, even in the dark times.

Now you know a little about my darkest times and how it has made me grateful for the light. So, will my journey into dark places help you? I hope it does. I don’t believe in beating people over the head with my Bible, I believe in sharing what God brought me through. We don’t have to have the same belief system for someone to see and empathize with what someone else has endured, overcome, and survived. We all need hope. I pray you have hope for a better tomorrow. 

Republished and edited from June 2013.

Building Bridges

Sharing your story can be one of the most powerful tools to cross the divide that seems too vast to navigate. It builds a bridge that crosses the divide and encourages reconciliation. I believe it is the building block of any good relationship. Be intentional. Listen. Treat people with love and respect. I love to hear other people’s stories. I need that in my life. When we share our stories and find commonality we lay that cornerstone for true connection.

So how does my story build a bridge? I think by being vulnerable and sharing you help others. Someone who needs to know they are not alone, someone who needs to know you can overcome. It will resonate with some and not with others. The people it strikes a chord with may have a similar story, or they may have empathy or are just curious about who I am now. I think the Divine Master puts it before the people who need it and those that don’t scroll on by, and that’s ok. I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, you can’t take yourself too seriously.

So here’s a glimpse of my story, I hope it resonates with someone out there.

My younger years were pretty tough, by the time I graduated high school, I had moved 16 times. I lived in a town with no diversity from the time I was 7 until I was 17, I am the illegitimate daughter of a divorcee. I was born in the 1960s before divorce was as common. Coupled with my family issues, my childhood was unstable at best. At times I was considered too good for my raisin’ and other times I was white trash who came from the trailer park. I had a sprinkling of middle class, depending on who I was living with at the time, but those experiences were short-lived. I didn’t have a lot of stability.

Moving all the time as a kid prepared me for life with a military man. My husband served 15 years in the Army. Military life exposed me to a diverse community. The inclusion in the neighborhoods I lived in was beautiful. When spouses deploy, you band together to help each other. Struggle tends to bring people together.

When my husband separated from the Army, we moved to Knoxville. It is now the place I have lived the longest in my entire life. I have been here 21 years. I love it here. When we first moved here I intentionally looked for a community that was diverse. I struggled. I was disheartened. It is said that 11am Sunday is the most segregated time in America. I believe that.

When we moved to our little country house in east Knox County, we visited a black church just down the road, they were so open and welcoming. They showed us so much love. We were “fostered” by a family that now almost 20 years later, still loves me. They have been with me through the good, the bad, and the heartbreaking. There are only a chosen few from my own family that have done that.

Sitting across the kitchen table every Sunday with our newly found “foster family” we shared our stories, who we are, we talked about life, religion, fears, hopes, and dreams. We found we weren’t so different at all.

I found out that poor white food is the same as soul food. I think soul food is a great description of the relationship-building that happens around a kitchen table. It fills your soul in so many ways. Sharing a meal creates a bond. One of the greatest gifts I ever received was when Mama Lee gave me her recipe for mac and cheese. That’s an honor ya’ll. It’s family.

Daddy Lee before he passed away would take my skinny, very white late husband to other churches and introduce him as his son. Both he and my late husband got such a kick out of it. As someone who didn’t have a good family life, this space became sacred. It filled a need that we didn’t even know we had. At Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas, weddings, and sadly funerals we were always included. They know our story, we know theirs. We built a bridge together in our community. It is a beautiful thing. Even today, I try to spend some quality Sunday time with this family that loves me, even though I am not their blood.

I struggle with the modern church right now, too often I see them building barriers rather than building bridges and it hurts my heart. The church isn’t the only place you can build a bridge. During COVID I think community-built bridges became overgrown and underused and need a little revitalizing. We all need to work on our bridge-building skills.

A study by Michigan State University found that living in isolation can be dangerous for individual health and maintaining diverse relationships is just as important, if not more, than having a large number of relationships. Specifically, we found that individuals with more diverse relationships had a lower risk of mortality and experienced less cognitive and physical decline. Socially isolated adults have a 29 percent higher risk of death compared to those not living alone.

So think about the people you know, do they all look just like you? Do you know people of other ethnicities, other cultures? Do you know people in varying age ranges? Do you know their story? Have you asked? Be observant, ask questions and apologize when you don’t understand something. Be respectful and loving. Be inviting, have lunch with someone new and just get to know them, be genuine, be intentional, and spend some time really listening. You will be amazed at how much you have in common.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other just as God in Christ also has forgiven you, (Ephesians 4:31-32)

To Thine Ownself Be True

The title is a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, act 1 scene 3. I do love a good Willy Shakes play and prose. I also love the wisdom in this quote. Throughout the tumultuous portions of my life, I ignored my own inner voice and wound up worse for it.

To thine ownself be true poster quote

As I strive to become an updated version of myself, I have fallen into familiar patterns from my past long ago. A time when my thoughts weren’t clear and my heart was troubled. Ignoring that small inner voice lead me down a path of self-destruction by overshadowing myself, and leaning into codependent relationships.

Speeding forward, without thinking of the outcomes, was a common theme of my youth. And now, I find myself making those same mistakes. I got carried away, I thought I was older and hopefully wiser, but here I am. I know I can’t do that anymore, even as much as I want to feel young and alive again. I also want to be responsible and secure. Those things seem to be at odds.

I have had to step back, step away, look inward, and ask myself some hard questions about who I am, what I want, and where I want to be in my life. I have to remind myself that there is nothing wrong with finding those answers before I press forward. Romantic love isn’t the goal for my life. That still, small voice inside me says there is more. Am I listening?

Take the time to listen to what that small, still voice is telling you. Quiet all the chatter, all the outside noise, just listen.

It’s uncomfortable, it’s hard to sit in silence and listen. I forget that prayer isn’t supposed to be a one-way street, with me lifting up a litany of needs or wants. God gave me two ears to listen twice as much as I talk for a reason.

What I am finding is the little things that bother me, are telling me something. My soul feels the uncomfortable places down deep and sends up red flags that require my attention.

The things that bother me aren’t the fault of the other person. They are who they are. I am not here to force change on anyone, just as I don’t want anyone to force change on me. Change happens, good or bad, it is inevitable. Who I was 10 years ago is not the person I am today, nor will the person I am in 10 years be the same as today.

What troubles my soul is what steals my joy and by contrast what brings me joy. I have to weigh those costs. I can’t hold close to that which robs my joy. I have fought a hard, lifelong battle to be joyful. I can’t settle for less. I can’t settle for less because someone else wants or needs me to. I can’t settle for less even though it might hurt someone else.

If I settle for less it is hurting me. If I give, and lose myself, what have I gained? I refuse to become a shell of who I am to fit into a mold I don’t want. I won’t do that. I won’t let my joy be stripped away slowly, for anyone. Lifting someone up while you are drowning, doesn’t give you life, in most cases, it drowns both of you.

You may ask, what strips the joy from me? What keeps me from being true to myself? While that list is an ongoing learning curve, I have found that I do it to myself. Most of the time I don’t realize it until much later. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.

It’s that thing I should have said and didn’t because I didn’t want to come off as nagging, bit**y, angry, upset, or whatever.

It is letting things slide, to avoid a tirade or an uncomfortable conversation.

It is not saying what I really mean because I am saving someone’s feelings.

It is knowing something doesn’t feel right and remaining quiet.

It is being something I detest, passive-aggressive.

When I do these things, suddenly I look in the mirror and I don’t like the person I am becoming.

I strive to be a person who is true, and honest, and whole. I need that for myself. I may never get there, but I’m trying. I have gone from being a “we” to just “me.” I think I was good at being a “we.” Now, I have to become good at being a “me.” Finding me. Liking me. Loving me. All those take work. It is not a straight path.

At first, I thought a romantic relationship was what I needed to be valuable. I am finding out I have been valuable all along and I don’t need a relationship to define me or what I want out of life.

It is not about deserving more or wanting more, it’s about being true to who I am and who I want to be. It feels selfish, maybe because I have never made a conscious decision to stand for what I need to feel whole. It’s about maintaining my independence and not defining myself through a relationship. I am finding that I need space.

I have spent much of the last few years feeling invisible. I’ve been longing to be seen, to feel attractive, to connect and feel alive again, to have deep conversations that connect me to a person and make me feel like someone understands. It is a powerful thing when someone listens and connects. I think everyone needs that on some level. I am learning that level doesn’t have to be romantic. I am blessed to have a great tribe of friends and people who love me and pour into my life on so many levels.

Romance is a great and wonderful thing, but it is not what I need right now. And, that’s ok.

The Duds of Online Dating

Ah, the joys of online dating. I’ve sort of given the whole thing a break. Although, there is still a site that I’ve paid for, where my membership is still good until the end of March, and my profile is still live. I figure, I paid for it, may as well see what pops up. (No pun intended.) I’m nothing if not frugally curious.

As I’ve said before, there are several things in online dating I find quite hilarious. I just can’t help myself. I recently found an article that had a list of online dating etiquette. I thought many of these tips were very common sense. I have yet to see the etiquette for when you run across a profile of someone you actually know. Do you throw the phone? Do you act as if you didn’t see it there? Do you do the absolute, wrong thing and say “Hey, how’s it hangin’?” So as not to cause any misinterpretation, I aim for a polite, “just wanted to say hey and happy hunting.” I mean really it’s just a conversation that no one ever answers, so you may as well be polite.

Anyway, I thought I would share a few of my more humorous online dating encounters. Let me preface this by saying, the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Encounter #1 (and my favorite) was a superhero. BATMAN! I have to tell you, I laughed until I cried. I was so amazed that Batman liked me, I mean wow, it is not every day you get a message from the caped crusader! His profile was the Michael Keaton version of Batman, so I was intrigued. I mean who wouldn’t be? I am a special blend of playful and snarky, so I had to ask questions. His profile said he was from North Carolina. I knew there was a Batcave, NC, so surely this was the real deal. His profile also said he was 5’11” (somehow I thought he would be taller?). So, I asked if he wore heels? It said he had kids. I asked if he still counted Robin his ward as a dependent? Was Batgirl also his? I’m not sure I remember the storyline. I also think he lied about his age, he said he was 45. So I asked if he was sure? Little did he know, my first words were “na na na, BATMAN!” when I was 1 in 1966, and Batman at that time was a grown man, so something is not adding up here. Even if he were the Michael Keaton version he would be older than 45, right? Hmmm. He didn’t respond to my questions and he never messaged me again. Oh, well. I guess a superhero was too much to wish for.

Encounter #2 was with Rigger. He worked on an oil rig and loved to cook and CLEAN. Really? I would think that would keep you really busy on a rig. He texted a wonderful game, was sweet and funny and enjoyed witty banter, was somewhat intelligent. Until I started asking personal questions. The oil rig he worked on had security and could only text, no phone calls, no video chats, no photos. Right. Did he miss the part about me being an Army widow? I got skyped from war zones. Let me call bulls**t. The story (after 2 days), he was coming off the rig in a month. He really wanted to come to see me and stay in Knoxville because it sounded so beautiful. Hmmmm. He got really defensive when I said I had Googled him. He didn’t exist anywhere he said he did. When I told him I didn’t want to meet with anyone who couldn’t video chat and at least prove they were who they said they were, things got dicey. And again, my snarky side jumped out and asked for a photo of him holding his driver’s license. How dare I ask for a picture or a background check. Oh dear, there goes another one.

Encounter #3 was the Flying V. His profile photo was of a wild-haired 80s guitarist holding a beautiful classic Gibson blond Flying V guitar. So I complimented him on his guitar (I love music and it was a fine instrument). He liked fluffy girls and thought he should come live with me because Knoxville has such a bitchin’ music scene. Knoxville does. He shouldn’t. He thought I was cool because I knew what he played and he obviously thought that meant he needed to move in with me. He was devastated when I told him I had a roommate. Things when downhill at warp speed, and another one bites the dust.

Encounter #4 was Who’s Your Daddy? A very nice-looking truck driver who thought I was an amazing lady of exceptional caliber. We talked on the phone a few times and the conversation was going fine. Until I asked, “How many kids do you have?” I thought it was a perfectly normal question, right? Until he answered, I’m not sure. Wait, what? You don’t know how many children you have? I’m thinking player or sperm doner, either way, I think I’m out.

Encounter #5 Momma’s Boy – I should have known better than to even respond to this one, but I was flattered. He was 45, so 12 years younger. I thought, maybe he can keep up with me. It seems that the nice fellas I met who were my age all went to be at 8 pm and that’s just not me. So, I was hopeful. I have a co-worker whose hubby is 9 years her junior and they have a wonderful relationship. You never know, right? So I meet the fella for dinner. He was late. He arrives after I already had a table, a drink, and an appetizer. I’m polite, say something about the traffic or road construction. He says, no, he’s helping his mom. Ok, that’s sweet. Then he proceeds to tell me he lives in her basement and is unemployed. She actually gave him money to go out that night because he helped her. Can, I pick them or what?

Now, I know I can be a bit much. I laugh too loud. Sometimes my filter is broken and things just come out of my mouth that should have stayed in my head. I tell the truth to a fault, but I try not to hurt anyone’s feelings. You always know where you stand with me. I am diplomatic. I can’t sit still when music is playing. I’m colorful. I’m creative. I’m overweight. I’m active. I love to dance, especially in my kitchen barefoot. (Lord, knows my kitchen isn’t for cookin’.) My hair color/style changes on a whim. I have never been accused of being boring or sedate. I am fiercely loyal. I have a huge heart for people, animals, and the world. And a whole host of other things. I would definitely say, I am an experience. I’d like to think a positve one. About a week before Andy died, he came into the kitchen, where I was dancing and singing (badly) putting away dishes (remember my kitchen is for dancing) and he whispered in my ear, “life with you is never boring.” That is one of my most treasured memories. Life should never be boring.

I must say, I really try not to be judgy, I think most people who know me would say I’m not. Online dating makes you judgy. I can’t help it. It does. I hope you won’t judge me too harshly and I hope some of my adventures have been a cautionary, fun glimpse into my world. If you have someone to love, love them with all that you have. Appreciation is often overlooked. Live life to the fullest, it can change on a dime.

Thanks for reading.

Beautifully Broken

Thinking about the different twists and turns my life has taken, I sometimes wonder, “How I am still standing?” My life has had so many unbelievable chapters, I am hesitant to talk about them in great detail, or all at once. It seems too hard to believe that so much has happened to just one person.

Yet, it’s just me. All the twists and turns have made me who I am. And I like who I’ve become. I try to be a person of integrity, humor, and a bit of sass. Sure, when I look in the mirror I don’t always like what I see, but I’m a work in progress, as we all are. The cover doesn’t always match the book. There is a song I like by Gov’t Mule called Beautifully Broken, there is a verse that goes something like, “She’s so beautifully broken, shaped by the wind, dangerously twisted…” That’s how I feel sometimes.

Mosaic heart by charmin foth

I have often described Andy’s passing as the event that shattered me. I felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to the full-length mirror that was my life. The force of the blow exploded my world into a million sparkling pieces and left them at my feet to figure out what was next.

Amazingly though, this isn’t the first time I’ve been shattered, I’ve been broken so many times that some of the fragments have turned to dust and there is no picking up those pieces. The dust gets swept under the rug. I don’t think a person ever loses the trauma they survived, it comes back from time to time as the dust blows around and you have to sweep it up again.

Each time my life shattered, I bent over and started picking up the pieces and gluing me back together, one piece at a time. I didn’t know what else to do. I have never been a negative person, I truly believe every experience teaches us something. There is a Nelson Mandela quote that says something along the lines of “I never lose, I either win, or I learn.” So, I am learning as I go. Living is about learning.

For the last two years, I have picked up one piece after another and put it back where I felt it fit best. Remembering parts of me that I lost, finding new colorful pieces to add. The thing about shattered mirrors is you see yourself from every possible angle. If I’m honest, I know the parts that need work, the parts that don’t show me in the best light, the parts that are rough and jagged, the parts that are smooth and shiny, there are so many different pieces, but they are all me. All the pieces still fit together, just not in the same way.

I shocked myself. One day I looked up and almost all the broken pieces were put back together. The mosaic of shattered pieces had created a beautiful heart that was ready to beat again and a spirit of resilience I want to share with others. The mirror of my life will never be a solid mirror again, but by being broken, by God helping me piece it back together, I have become something new. My life doesn’t look the same as it did before, truly, I’m not the same person I was before. Each time I have been shattered, and I get it together again, I am different. Life shapes us, the mosaic changes. It is still the same pieces creating a new piece of art. It is hard to understand, but I am the same, yet different.

Ashlee Simpson also has a song called Beautifully Broken. She sings, “I’m beautifully broken and I don’t care if you know it, I’m beautifully broken and I don’t care if I show it.”

I like who I am now, I’m not perfect and never will be, but who wants perfect? Perfect is boring. I would much rather be real than perfect, and I think I’m finally comfortable with that concept. I recently told someone, we are all broken, and it doesn’t matter how broken we are, it matters what we do with the pieces. If the pieces of my brokenness can somehow help mend the pieces of your brokenness, I think that’s God at work in His truest form.