When Holding onto Fear is Easier than Facing It

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One of the most fulfilling and highly sought-after courses in college was called “Problems of Personal Adjustment.” Students were tasked to identify a underdeveloped area of their lives and complete a semester-long project of self-improvement. Most of my classmates found creative ways to better themselves. I remember one friend learned to cook, and by the end of the semester, she felt comfortable hosting a dinner party for our professor as her culminating project.

I decided this particular semester would be the time I’d finally address a long-held phobia that I’ve held onto since I was seven years old, and I signed up for the required counseling. I remember at the initial intake session, the counselor asked me if there was any reason I was holding onto my phobia instead of letting it go. I tried not to let my jaw hit the floor as I incredulously shook my head. Who would want a fear of this caliber hanging over them day-in and day-out?

Would I be willing to desensitize myself to my fear and let it go completely — or at least enough so that I could flip the channels on a TV without covering my eyes (you know, just in case the creature was lurking on the very next channel as it sometimes does). And was sitting here with this graduate student counselor how it was going to happen?

Spoiler alert: It didn’t happen. I’m still afraid. Irrationally, admittedly, afraid.

Counseling didn’t work for me that semester, but because I haven’t tried much else since, I still carry this phobia around with me. Perhaps it is because I have a definition in my head of what it is I’ll be able to do if only I am not afraid anymore. But maybe my goal is all wrong. Maybe I’m going about it all wrong by ignoring it. I realize that the extent of this particular fear is completely irrational and debilitating, but I’m also terrified to face it in order to heal. The mishaps of an inexperienced counselor were damaging enough!

In a devotional I was reading this morning, I arrived at a section called “Brave Enough to Pursue Healing,” and without even reading what Annie F. Downs had to say about it, that intake session from over a dozen years ago came flooding back. Have I been holding onto this specific phobia for so long because it’s easier to be afraid than to face it?

Have I been holding onto this specific phobia for so long because it’s easier to be afraid than to face it?

Some amount of fear is beneficial when our fear is something that is actually unsafe, as mine is. But what is the purpose of those fears we carry in silence, preventing us from taking risks that could be fulfilling and fruitful? Perhaps we are afraid of the “what might happens” — what might happen if we try to mend a broken relationship, or try to start a new friendship, or head in a direction different than the well-worn path we’ve always taken, into unknown territory?

To what extent do we let these silent fears, such as  loss of security, stability, or taking risks in friendships, become as debilitating as an irrational phobia?

“I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears (Psalm 34:4, NIV).”

What fears need your acknowledgment? What heavy fears can you shrug from your shoulders and allow His steady presence to walk you through? What fears have you allowed to become larger-than-life? And–dare I ask–what fears have you allowed to control you by holding you back from the calling God has placed on your heart?

As my counselor asked, is there a reason you’re not willing to let go of this fear?

Today, ask God to help you take one small step toward acknowledging the fear that is holding you back from where He is calling you.

Being Mindful in Simple Family Moments

One day they_ll realize we intentionally carved out that time for each other and guarded it fiercely against our bulging calendars.

Captivated in a moment of complete mindfulness, I scanned my backyard on Saturday night at the imperfectly-perfect happenings all around me. My older boys were deep in imaginative play in their mud kitchen, scurrying around filling orders from fictional customers while singing something unintelligible.  My toddler, safely gated in on the back patio, was happily splashing away at the water table, seemingly-carefree despite his now-sopping play clothes. Just living his best life. The large ceramic water feature behind me, installed by previous owners, mimicked the sounds of a serene brook. As I flipped a glossy page of the large hardcover in my lap, my husband used a poker to put the screen on our family’s fire pit as we waited for the flames to diminish so that we could gather to make s’mores. It was 9:38 PM, long after my kids should have been in bed, but we were taking advantage of the dwindling daylight and the brief gap in storms to carry on a relatively-new tradition.

I took it all in — all of it — as I thought about this simple family tradition we committed to at the end of last summer. The sounds of crackling wood and trickling water, the smell of smoke and yet another impending storm, and the sight of my family all around me all made deposits toward my own self-care while drawing my family closer together.

The sounds of crackling wood and trickling water, the smell of campfire and yet another impending storm, and the sight of my family all around me all made deposits toward my own self-care while threading my family closer together.

Today, I’m so honored that Emily Sue Allen chose my essay to feature on her site, Kindred Mom. I hope that my family’s simple tradition will both inspire you to spend quality time with those closest to you while granting you the permission you need to make room for moments such as these.

You can read my essay here at Kindred Mom. If you are a new reader, welcome. Thank you for stopping by. I’ll hope you’ll find what you need.

Ashley

 

When God Restores Weakness with Renewed Purpose: Living with Spondylolisthesis

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Time is often conveniently and unofficially measured by milestones. If we want to be technical, we can sometimes quantify those milestones.

  • Seventy: My grandparents just kicked off the start of their 70th year of marriage together, the official milestone only a year away.
  • Ten: the number of years I have been a School Counselor. Also the wedding anniversary we just celebrated on a hot air balloon ride!
  • Seven: My body has been pregnant, miscarrying, or nursing for over seven years with no break. The end of this streak will be an emotional one, simultaneously bittersweet and freeing. It will be marked not only by the passage of time but by all the memories and moments in between. 
  • Six: The number of years we have been cloth diapering! (And parenting!)

Oftentimes, we mark time with “before and after” a major event, a critical turning point in our stories. Schooling, births, accidents, losses, jobs, moves. Befores and afters. Achievements. Milestones. 

Today would otherwise pass by, a normal day, unacknowledged for what it is to anyone but me. But July 16, 2018 delivers its own silent milestone. Today marks the day I have lived exactly half my life with a cadaver bone in my body. Someone’s priceless donation holds my spine in place, downgrading my Grade 4 spondylolisthesis diagnosis to a Grade 2 so that I could live a stronger life. Seventeen years ago. 6,209 days ago. July 16, 2001 separated all things “pre-op” from “post-op.” The day I had to quit 13 years of ballet, give up a minor role in my recital, and quit my Cross Country team for good.

That morning, just after being prayed over by my pastor, I received both an allograft and an autograft. An allograft is formed from donated bone, and an autograft is harvested from the patient–in my case, grafted from my hip through the same large incision, a once-seering-red scar now the silvery pink prime meridian of my back. As a teenager undergoing a surgery typically performed on an octogenarian, the bone in my hip was still thick enough to scoop from the iliac crest and form around the new fusion, which would later facilitate and support new growth.

My own bone was repurposed, engineered by God for its first 17 years as an unassuming but important piece of my hip, yet all the while He knew it would later help anchor the weakest crux in my body.

Unbeknownst to my 17-year-old self, this new anchor would grow and strengthen my spine to support some of the most life-giving work my body would ever do. Dancing with my husband at our wedding. Carrying and birthing babies. Running marathons. Nursing babies. Sitting with students at school during their most vulnerable emotional breakdowns. And all my life yet to come.

It would also allow me freedom. I can continue things I used to love and have new adventures with my family. My “after” includes long-distance running and even a semester of ballet in college. It’s a handstand on the Four Corners, a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. Hiking Glacier National Park and walking the streets of Dublin, Ireland. Exploring Arches National Park and climbing the steps to the top of the Griffin roller coaster at Busch Gardens. And just this week, climbing into the wicker gondola of a hot air balloon just before its launch and climbing back out after a safe landing.

As Christians, we are each a “before and after” story. Christ rescued us from the sins of our former lives, building us and refining our gifts to serve His kingdom purposes. Our gifts were dormant, but it took the element of renewed purpose to draw them out. He gives us freedom from our past sins, even as we continue to fall short.

The “Ortho Info” website describes an allograft for a spinal fusion as acting “as a bridge that allows the natural bone to grow through its surface.” God breathed new life into that cadaverous bone, designating it to strengthen all the other working parts of my body, each serving a specific and unique purpose but working in tandem. It fostered new growth and restoration while continuing to strengthen and refine itself with newfound life and purpose.

“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (NIV, Romans 12:4-5)

Before we can minister to others, we have to care for our own spiritual well-being. That restoration comes through time in the Word and time spent in prayer with God, through fellowship with others, through acts of worship. It is necessary and restorative in times of both weakness and strength, in times of both confidence and of insecurity.

I don’t know whose life my cadaver bone supported before mine. I don’t even know whether it was in a girl or boy, man or woman, or how long it lived. I don’t know the circumstances that ended its first purpose, or what led the person to commit to part with it. I don’t know where it traveled or what adventures it’s been on. But I met it with gratefulness and a sense of renewal that it would restore a failing part of me.

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Invisible to the naked eye, I can feel it. I can still see its eerie glow on my x-rays, my own bones dull in comparison, a strong new stake fusing my lumbar to my sacrum. That very spot on a good day is a dull ache, on a bad day creates a pain radiating down my left leg and stiffening my entire body. Lately, it has been the latter.

Spondylolisthesis is an invisible, painful disability I carry every day, accompanied by its cousins, scoliosis and painful sciatica. But just because it’s invisible to others doesn’t mean I need to ignore it. My routine maintenance fell to the back-burner right after I had my third baby a year ago. Driving 56 miles to and from the doctor with three little ones in tow on a regular basis just wasn’t a priority, although it should have been. Careful maintenance had usually kept the pain at bay. Specific, low-impact exercises during pregnancy stretched my piriformis enough to take pressure off my sciatic nerve, but since then, the pain is back with debilitating vengeance.

Healing this time will require frequent trips to the doctor, slow and careful stretching, and frequent ice. It will necessitate pulling out my orthotics to use not only for running, but all the time. I have flat feet, which push my pelvis forward, putting all the weight I carry on my lower back. Orthotics correct that misalignment by creating an artificial arch.

I also shudder, remembering the dreadful white plastic body brace I wore in high school. Anytime I had to bend or sit, I had to unlock a hinge that connected the brace around my torso to the brace down my leg. When the brace finally got to come off for good, I instinctively walked for months with one arm behind my back, protecting the vulnerable scarred area. My muscles would spasm against any slightest touch. I went to physical therapy after school every day to build back up the muscles of my left leg, encased in plastic so long, to match those of my right leg, which had to overcompensate. The massages at PT left me in tears. It was work, and I pushed through. Because of the brace, I learned to breathe differently and sit perfectly straight, which are ingrained habits even 17 years later. 

Our faith needs routine maintenance to remain a constant dialog with our Creator. We can’t take our faith for granted, because when we do, it becomes strained and weak. We become thirsty and forget to reach for a drink from our Healer. But when we get off-course, we can ask for help. We can bow in prayer, asking God to lead us back to Him. We can pull our Bibles off the shelf and allow His Word to lead us, and He will restore us again. He will support us at our weakest points and breathe new life into what feels bereft.

In what areas do you need His leadership now? Take a moment to pray over it. Allow God to point out your weak points, and listen for what He might be asking you to repurpose or restore so that you can continue to build His Kingdom.
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If you would like to know more about my journey in spite of spondylolisthesis, you can read herehereand here.

Navigating God’s Call

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Have you ever felt God calling you in one direction, but you chose something else? Perhaps God was calling you to adopt, and you didn’t, or He was calling you to leave one place to pursue a completely different calling. Maybe He was preparing and leading your heart in one direction, but you were too afraid to listen.

Is it possible to disappoint God? Sometimes it feels like choosing His direction requires a huge leap of faith that we just cannot summon. What does that say about our faith–and our faith in His provision? I’ve said no to God’s plans before, when the dream didn’t seem to work out on paper, or when others in my life were not on board. I’ve talked to people who said no to God’s call. With what, then, are we left, when we try to navigate on our own? Will there be a second chance later? Will God ultimately bring us toward His calling even despite our own weak attempts at navigating?

What do we do, then, on the other side of our decision? There is a sense of guilt weighing on my heart even as I pray for a heart change. The prayer for a heart change isn’t even to do what I feel God nudging me to do, because my heart is already there, too. My prayer is that my heart will change and be rejuvenated for where I am now, in my current season, even as I continue to seek what I know God is calling me to do. I’m not abandoning His call. In fact, I’m actively pursuing it, even as I write this morning. But did His call for me require a bigger leap of faith than I am taking right now? Why am I allowing it to be about my comfort zone instead of His beautiful promise of provision?

I’m continuing to put one foot in front of the other toward my God-shaped dream, always seeking what Emily P. Freeman refers to in her podcast as “The Next Right Step.” I have so many goals this summer. Self-care is also very high on my list, especially after last summer.

But even so, I continue to wonder, am I disappointing God? Can we ever disappoint Him, even as we remain in the very seasons He once called us toward? Psalm 90 in the Message ends with, “And let the loveliness of our Lord, our God, rest on us, confirming the work we do. Oh, yes. Affirm the work we do!”

“And let the loveliness of our Lord, our God, rest on us, confirming the work we do. Oh, yes. Affirm the work we do!”

Lord, I pray that you will inspire me in my work, when it’s easy to feel defeated by situations I cannot fix. God, you have given me a strong faith. I cannot disappoint you if I believe in You and love You and continue to work through this, always seeking You. I want to listen so badly, and allow you to grant my anxious heart peace. I made a decision in fear because I was scared to step out in faith. I continue to seek Your holy wisdom even as I allow my current season to slowly make way for the dream you have placed on my heart. Amen.

Striving for Work-life Balance

Storm clouds roll in over the hill in my backyard, pregnant with impending rain, much needed with the forest fire raging an hour away, already doubling in size despite the frontline of firefighters poised for battle. The seven-degree temperature drop and the rolling clouds blocking the sun cut the edge off the blaze of the 88-degree afternoon just hours before. My boys set buckets around their homemade outdoor mud kitchen, excited at the prospect of full buckets for tomorrow’s muddy culinary pursuits.

I love the way that even as the gray-blues of the sky darken, the grass turns a bold and vivid green. The coming storm catches my breath as I inhale the refreshing smell of spring and freshly-cut grass. Just minutes ago, my husband and his John Deere raced the storm and won. The wind gathers momentum, ferrying sweet fragrances of my neighbor’s pink dogwood across my patio.

My husband is the first to notice that the tree beside the patio, for so long bare from winter, now has tiny new translucent green leaves emerging, the first layers of shade over the outdoor wicker sofa my husband insisted on last season. I am so grateful for the sofa now, my outdoor writing and reading perch. My boys rush to get the cushions inside as the storm clouds threaten, their tiny bucket brigade passing and tossing pillows past the glass door. I count 15 more working days until summer and a much-needed respite from my counseling office and the near-daily deluge of conducting threat assessments with children born just this decade.

@TENDINGWILDASHLEYBARTLEY.COM

People often ask me why elementary school children need counselors, even as I drown in the busyness of appointments, classes, small groups, parent phone calls, drop-in meetings, and schoolwide projects. I’ve seen everything from friendship drama and separation anxiety to abuse and neglect, suicidal ideation and pacts, and parents incarcerated for drug use. In fact, I hope I’m not becoming hardened in my position–in ten years as a school counselor, I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Children are not immune to their own problems and to those of their parents. I’ve had so many children lose parents through death or incarceration that I’ve run small groups so that kids can see they’re not the only ones who’ve faced significant losses. Groups offer them a safe place to learn and practice coping skills. It is a fine line in finding time for prevention activities in the classroom in the midst of putting out fires in the confidentiality of my office.

Our realms as school counselors fall into the acronym ACES – academic, career, and emotional/social. It’s up to us to prioritize the demands that come on a daily basis. I’ve learned not to make promises even as a recovering people-pleaser.

Maintaining balance between this heavy work and raising three small boys forces me to simplify routines and prioritize commitments. After nearly six years of juggling both roles, I’ve established many new habits that have just become a way of life, from the layout of our home to my carefully crafted yeses and nos. I’ve intentionally created functional spaces throughout our home, once problem-areas, to make life run more smoothly. We just changed the guest room off the kitchen into a playroom (the day my baby swallowed a screw), which corrals many of the toys and large ride-on vehicles out of sight. We also made a mudroom of sorts using a blank wall across from the garage door, where each kid has his own hook for a coat and backpack, basket for shoes, shelf, and hanging area for schoolwork. We transformed the sitting room by our front door, once lost in its purpose, into my personal library and writing space, my retreat without leaving the house.

Sometimes people assume that I’m too busy if I have to say no to a perfectly good offer. But that’s not the case at all. Yes, we’re busy, but I use my yeses and nos judiciously so that we are not overwhelmingly busy. Being available for quality time with my boys, especially after being away from them all day, is just as legitimate excuse as any. I love being able to come home and enjoy time outside, time with my boys, traditions with my family, without rushing out to one obligation or another. Being open to spontaneity in spite of being a meticulous planner by nature is rewarding in its own rite.

Sometimes I even wonder if I say no too often! But then I remember my life of yeses, the life I used to live, and how hectic and unfruitful that time was. In fact, I have a hard time remembering it all because it was so frantic. Even back then, with a baby in tow and another on the way, we were out of town most weekends running half and full marathons, pulling long hours at work, and racing to get out of the house in the mornings. We were involved in all areas of our life and were quick to say yes if someone asked a favor of us. I’ll admit that some of that hasn’t changed, but we’re much more cognizant and careful about it now.

My work as a school counselor offers a much-needed perspective of gratitude on a daily basis. I have a plaque from Hobby Lobby on my desk at work that reads, “Children only have one childhood.” The reminder is both heartbreaking and inspirational, both for my students at school and my children at home. I constantly wonder whether I’m doing the right thing (see previous post), if I’m doing enough by dividing my time and attention. Do my students know I care about them, even if I struggle to remember all 700+ of their names? Do my own boys know that I’d spend every waking minutes with them if I could? Are they aware of the sacrifices their daddy and I make for them?

There’s no right or wrong solution to this. I’m doing what I know, and I admire those who can walk boldly in whatever path they choose for their own family. But I’m also trying to keep an open mind, reevaluating each season what else I can simplify to avoid spreading myself too thin. The worst thing that could happen would be that I’d burn out. That I’d lose heart in my pursuits. And sometimes I already feel that way!

Self-care comes in many forms. Unfortunately the many options that work for me happen so infrequently, but it’s up to me to recognize the importance of self-care and build it in, no matter how small. I know I’m a better person for it, as a mama to my kids and a confidant to my students. I just pray God will continue to cultivate and guide my heart in His calling, whether what that looks like changes or remains the same in all the different seasons of motherhood.

And speaking of seasons, my curly-haired five-year-old redhead just came in and asked me if he could shave his head for summer.

What does simplifying and self-care look like in your current season?