Friday, April 30, 2010

Prepare for Flair

There's this trick I use to help me prepare for flair.  I assume I'm going to be amazed by anyone or anything.  It could happen at any time: when I'm frying an egg, putting on socks, or standing in line somewhere.  If anything, I'm learning the obvious truth that things aren't what they seem.

I keep needing to learn this. 

The semester ended today.  I gathered final papers, shook hands, agreed to write recommendations, and voiced all the usual blessings a college professor might give.  Mostly, though, I recalled how much this particular group of students surprised me.

Living with flair means I throw out the stereotypes.  I abandon presuppositions.  I used to scan a room of people and determine, in advance, what sort of students they'd be:  the fraternity boys would be late every morning; the tattooed and pierced would be angry and defiant; the military students would be prompt and tidy; the athletes would be ambitious but average as writers; the quiet girls in the back wouldn't engage with me all semester.

I know stereotypes exist for a reason.  They might be generally true.  But this semester, I discovered every single exception to the rules of how types of people behave.  Nobody acted like they were supposed to.  The soldiers came late, and the fraternity boys wrote the most compelling papers, on time, and with flair.  The tattooed and pierced were the most loving and compliant of all.  The athletes were the best writers.  The shy girls provided ongoing humorous commentary.

I've learned to assume nothing.  This prepares me to receive the extraordinary moment when it comes.  When I tell that thing or that person what it represents--without giving it a chance to amaze--I'm sabotaging all the flair. 

I've been hanging out with strangers all day (hence the late blog post).  I'm in a wedding party with lots of folks I've never met.  When I met each new person, I prepared for flair by imagining how great this person must be, anticipating all the wisdom and inspiration they possess, and doing all I could to draw it out.   That's the secret to friendship, teaching, marriage, parenting, and even my relationship to myself.   No need for stereotypes.  No need for judgments.

I just want to prepare for flair.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ask This Question

Sometimes the flair you experience isn't your own.  Sometimes, the flair for the day is the flair you helped make happen for somebody else.

In the words of my wise hairdresser:  Sometimes you are in the spotlight, and sometimes you are the spotlight.  It's better to be a spotlight.  When I'm a spotlight, I'm shining light on another person, making a flair moment happen for them.

This is harder than it sounds.  First of all, I tend towards narcissism.  I tend to be overly self-involved, self-concerned, self-reflective.  When this happens, when I'm the center of my own universe, I can always tell.  I turn into a completely different person.  Every conversation is about me.  I interrupt to tell you about my experience, and I reflect on your words only insofar as they relate to something I'm thinking about.  I hate this person.

Today, during my haircut, I talked about how to make flair happen for others.  I wondered what it would look like to take my eyes off of myself and my day in order to deliberately create an extraordinary moment for someone else.   I knew the truth of this practice:  we are often most fulfilled when we are serving others.  It's wired into our DNA to find ourselves when we give ourselves away.

But how?

In any given day, I can be a spotlight by asking this question:

Is there anything I can do to help make this day extraordinary for you?   It's a long question, I realize.

So the flair for the day is this question I resolved to ask.  I started with my cat.  I leaned down and asked her, "Is there anything I can do to help make this day extraordinary for you?"

She brought me the yellow rope (see "A Rope and a Smile).  Easy.  I ran around the living room with this rope for a few minutes.  That wasn't so bad.   It even felt good. 

Later, after preschool, I asked my daughter:  "Is there anything I can do to help make this day extraordinary for you?"  I thought she'd mention Disney World.  I thought she'd bring out the list of wishes from every toy store she's ever visited.  I knew, I just knew that Polly Pocket would be involved.  I scrunched up my face and closed my eyes, ready for the worst.

"Yes!" she shrieked.

She leaned forward to shout in my ear as I drove.  "I want more of those envelopes.  The licking kind." 

"Why the licking kind?" 

"Well, we can send a letter, I can lick the envelope and send it, and they'll know I licked it."

Amazing, this concept.   

I looked at her eager eyes and clasped hands.  She was bouncing in her car seat.  "I can do that," I said.  Easy.  I just made another creature happy.  It cost me nearly nothing.  

What marriages would thrive, what friendships preserved, what wars averted if more people set out to make somebody else have an extraordinary day?

Living with flair means being a spotlight and making a great show for somebody else.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How to Survive Rejection

There's a way to handle rejection with flair.  I always come back to the same three truths to survive it.

When it comes--that awful companion, Rejection--and says no, I realize what the no signals.

It signals that I put myself out there.  It means I risked something.  It means I offered myself.  These are good things.   These are really good things.

But it doesn't make us feel any better in the face of a friend who spurns us, a company that jettisons our resume, a publisher who turns down our novel, or a family member who forsakes us.   It doesn't soothe the hurt that comes from hoping for something that doesn't come about because somebody--or just circumstance--delivers that awful no.

But three things do soothe.  Or at least they helped me this morning when I read another email rejection about a book proposal.  I want to live with flair, after all.  What does it look like to endure rejection with flair?

1.  We do what we do because it's our calling--our unique way to offer a gift to the world.  We do this whether or not it ever receives approval or recognition.  We keep doing it because we serve others, because we want to make a contribution for love, not for money or prestige or even anybody loving it back.  Phew!  Aren't you so glad your doing is not dependent on our loving it?  I had a student who didn't get a call-back for an audition for a major network singing competition.  But this guy was born to sing.  Did a rejection stop him?  That week, we asked him to sing for us in class.  He stood up, sang the most amazing renditions of various songs, and we cheered and hollered like crazy.  He's not going to Vegas, but he delighted us.  For that day, at that time, it was enough.  Somebody, somewhere, wants to receive the gift we offer.

2.  Every "no" is an opportunity for a "yes" somewhere else.  I think this applies to break-ups, schools that reject us, and jobs that fire us.  My dream school turned me down for graduate school.  I wept and wouldn't leave my dorm room.  I went to Michigan instead, certain I was doomed never to meet my Southern Gentleman.  My Southern Gentleman also got into Michigan.  You know the rest.

3. If I believe in a divine plan (which I do), I know that God does not withhold good things from his children.  If I don't get the thing I want, it means it wasn't good for me (at least at this time).  If it's good, and part of God's plan for me, then I can chill out and enjoy the wait. 

Rejection is good for me because it brings me back to reality.  It reminds me that I do things (write, teach, plan new projects) because I love to do these things.  That's the reward--not any prestige or wealth or even anybody loving it back.  And there's a divine mystery to the order of a life.  The no is also a yes somewhere.  I can rest in the timing and the plan of the yes

Rejection is a beautiful and terrible thing. It's awful in the truest sense of the word.  Awful:  to inspire awe and deep reverence.  I respect rejection.  I'm thankful for what it reminds me of and how it helps me live with flair.

Living with flair means to respect the rejection.  It reminds me why I do what I do.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Texture of Flair

We are sensate creatures.  We feel textures everyday: this firm keyboard, the spongy-soft of this office chair, the feel of a hard nail on my finger as I pick at it.  Often, throughout any given day, I can remember what I saw, heard, or smelled.  But rarely can I recall what it felt like to touch something.  I haven’t trained my brain, perhaps, to think about my life in terms of texture. 

But what if I did?  Today I was trying to distract myself from my exercise monotony by watching videos on VH1.  There’s a new Jack Johnson video that showcases him surfing in the ocean for the entire 3 minutes of the song.  Watching him surf and dive through the waves made me recall my own visit to the shore: the feel of hot sun on my back, the wash of icy water over my feet as I neared the ocean, and the prickle of sand and crushed shells under my feet.  I started to love this video for what it made me remember about the texture of the beach.  (check it out below!)

Then I started to hear what he was singing about.   
He sang, “cause you and your heart shouldn't feel so far apart.” 
I watched him surfing the waves and felt the memory of diving into the ocean.  But I wondered why the lyrics in any way matched the video.

Then I knew.    Jack Johnson (who directed the video), uses his hands and body to interface with this gorgeous ocean scene.  The whole video makes you focus on his hands and skin.  The water overtakes him; he smiles as he surfaces and touches the water with his hands.  He looks straight at me and sings it again: “You and your heart shouldn’t feel so far apart.”

When I'm touching something and enjoying its texture, it helps bring my heart into alignment with me somehow.  I'm happy when I'm enjoying a texture:  holding a kitten, petting the soft velvet nose of the horse in the field down the street from my home, or squishing a red raspberry in my mouth.  Living with flair means I take note of texture.  There's joy in touch.

As classes ended yesterday, a student gave me a hug (Darius Soler!  You made the blog!), and another one patted my shoulder.  It was a flairful thing to do, to touch me like that.  Why aren't I hugging people more, patting shoulders, linking arms?  I wonder if Jack Johnson would tell me to put my hands out and touch this world like it's the beautiful ocean that it is. 


Monday, April 26, 2010

How to Gather in Your Life

I hate that feeling of being scattered. I'm beginning to think that if I'm not careful, I will always tend towards an out-of-control life.

To scatter means to disperse in different directions. When I'm scattered, it means I'm investing energy in multiple, often opposing, directions.

The opposite of scatter is to gather in.

Today, I considered the difference between a scattered life and a life that's gathered in. Last semester, I was frazzled every single day. I was involved in 4 major campus projects including teaching 3 different courses and directing an unrelated project for another program. Besides this, I was freelance writing, meeting with graduate students, parenting, trying to be a great wife, serving my church, relating to my neighbors, and attempting to keep a clean house while preparing nutritious meals. And exercising. And remembering to do the laundry.

I lost it. I was angry and very, very moody. (Not flair)

So I decided that I needed to gather my life in. I wondered what would happen if I directed all my energy in one direction and not ten. Here's what I did:

I thought about where my home is. I thought about where my natural pathways are: where I live, where I walk, where I drive. I decided to focus energy there. I narrowed the scope of my life to a radius of a few miles (literally). Instead of spinning out of control, I gathered in. I cared for my neighbors as I walked to school. I helped launch a neighborhood fitness group. I didn't leave my neighborhood. I even attended a neighborhood church rather than driving to the other side of town. If some offer came along that made me leave these natural pathways, I said “no.” I stayed in.

In my professional life, I gathered in by only teaching one course and directing energy towards making it great and teaching it multiple times. I directed my freelance writing projects to relate to my course work. I declined directing programs that didn't relate to this one course. I reduced my professional life to one natural pathway, and I developed it with flair.

Gathering in increased my energy and my capacity to be fully present and refreshed each day. Gathering in made me narrow my scope to my neighbors, my one course, and my family. I say “no” to everything else. It's simplified my life.

It's helped me live with flair. A scattered life, diffused and diminished of power, isn't a fun life to live. It's a tired life, a moody life, a life that feels spent before noon. A gathered life feels simple and energized. There's time to reflect, learn a dance, cook a gourmet meal, and keep a blog. There's time to drink coffee with a neighbor, hunt for a turtle in your backyard, or make homemade pizza with a child.

Living with flair means I gather in.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

What Does This Spell?

My preschooler has a little etch-a-sketch with a pen that lets her write letters. We were driving down the street, and she wanted to play this unusual game.

She wrote any letter she could think of, in any order, to see if she could create a random word. She can't read yet, so she'd put the letters together, turn the little screen around and ask, “What does this spell?”

I called back: “Take a minute. Sound it out.”

She spelled things like “AEB” and “AECC” which sounded like no word she recognized. So she tried again until something sounded right. Soon, she announced the new game variation. She asked me what words could she make if only the letters were in the right order.

I tried my best to put together various permutations of whichever letters she wrote.

Finding meaning in the scrambled letters satisfied her so much. Why did she want to do this? What made it so satisfying?

Meaning making, for a preschooler, isn't so far from what it means to find daily flair. It's like my day produces a jumble of signs and symbols, and I try my best to rearrange them into something meaningful and something that feels important and right. But why do I do this? What good is it to philosophize about the meaning of small things?

I have to recognize the higher narrative that my life fits into. Searching for whispers of meaning in the rush of a day—in the scramble of conversations, events, and thoughts—helps me realize some divine presence in it all. There's flair to be found in the fray. There's something to learn, something to teach, somebody to love in it all. But I have to figure out a way, like my daughter, to recognize the word when it comes.

Writing my daily flair is a way to take a minute and sound it out.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

50 Ways to Stay Out of Trouble

It's a big weekend in my town. It's a big party weekend. This means I avoid campus and expect a really low attendance in my early classes on Monday. It's always the same story: students act out this script of what it means to be a college student.

Last year, a man came to my office hours and asked me if I had any ideas for how he could stay out of trouble. He'd been arrested, he'd had several underage drinking citations, and his GPA had plummeted from a 4.0 to a 1.7. Feeling like he'd squandered the last four years of his life, he asked me what I did for fun that didn't involve getting drunk. He wondered what a life looks like that doesn't involve partying. As I talked about my own college years, he started to make a list for himself. He was writing a new script.

So, as a shout-out to my students who want a different script for their evening, I'm providing 50 ways to stay out of trouble. I once heard a speaker say that the definition of pleasure is: “having fun with no negative consequences.” Living with flair has something to do with experiencing pleasure in ways that don't harm you or anybody else. Hence, my tried and true 50 ways to stay out of trouble.

1.Learn the moves to “Beat It” (or Thriller, or Single Ladies, or any dance)
2.Cook a gourmet meal with your friend. (Remember: good things happen with cutting boards)
3.Play improvizational games (Watch “Whose Line is it Anyway” or just play charades)
4.Organize your desk. (This will feel really good)
5.Do a movie marathon of 1980's John Hughes movies. Or James Bond. Or Spielberg.
6.Visit every coffee shop downtown and evaluate each one. (I did this one Fall semester)
7.Plant something. (I'm doing this now)
8.Call your parents. (I should do this)
9.Call somebody from your childhood.
10.Read a bestselling novel. Then go talk to people about it. Book clubs are cool.
11.Go thrift store shopping.
12.Find neighborhood garage sales and buy unusual things.
13.Go to a local park and swing very high so you can jump out of the swing.
14.Go for a long walk. See if you can walk for an entire hour.
15.Search for new music on iTunes. Fall in love with a new band.
16.Get into a fascinating conversation with a stranger.
17.Go to church.
18.Plan some dreams for the next decade. Write out your personal mission statement.
19.Help somebody do something.
20.Watch people. Tell a story about their lives.
21.Learn a new sport.
22.Start a “flair” blog and tell me about it.
23.Get a great night's sleep.
24.Go to a fancy grocery store and buy the most expensive chocolate just to try it.
25.Go to a pet store and hold all the new kittens and puppies.
26.Find a creek and sit by it.
27.Build your own kite and then fly it somewhere. You can google instructions.
28.Start a collection of some really obscure thing.
29.Learn to draw something.
30.Make a flip book comic.
31.Go in search of the world's most comfortable slippers.
32.Learn a different language. (I want to learn Chinese this summer)
33.Go to a toy store and play with the toys.
34.Hang out at a bookstore and read for an hour.
35.Volunteer to help at a shelter or a community center.
36.Join a club.
37.Drive down a country road. (Rt. 550 changed my life)
38.Learn double dutch jump rope.
39.Do something that gets your heart rate up for 40 minutes and see how good you feel.
40.Practice being alone for an entire evening.
41.Donate stuff you don't need.
42.Read a chapter in a textbook because you want to learn something, not because it's on the test.
43.Reread a book from your childhood. (I reread To Kill A Mockingbird)
44.Hiking. Camping.
45.Make a scrap book.
46.Invent a game to play.
47.Create an ad campaign to motivate people to do something.
48.Teach somebody how to do something.
49.Watch an entire season of a show on DVD in one day. 24? Lost? The Office?
50.Make water your beverage selection for the whole weekend. Hydration can change your life.

So there. Here's to living with flair.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Cutting Board Cure

Whenever I get my cutting board out with friends or family, good things always happen. I remember chopping garlic and fresh ginger with my boyfriend (now my husband) on one of our first dates. We were hungry after playing tennis, and we had to find something in my kitchen for dinner. Afterward, he offered to scrub my stove. I was in love.

And it's not just a woman thing.

Cutting boards are manly; don't be tempted to apply the pioneer woman or 1950's housewife stereotype. Have you seen Cake Boss, Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, or Emeril on the Food Network? This is why I can tell a group of men that good writing is a lot like good cooking. They nod their heads and start thinking about crème brulee and reduction sauces. It's not a woman's domain anymore.

So I have this theory about cutting boards and love. You start to love the people you cook with. You just do. Maybe it has something to do with working towards a common goal and enjoying the fruit of your shared labor. It's hard to be angry with someone when he's chopping the onion you need for the soup. It's hard to be bitter and stressed out when you have to stand there rolling out pizza dough on a nicely floured cutting board. It has something to do with choosing to take the time to do it.

I've been stressed out today. Who isn't? And I've been impatient with my daughter for demanding so much of my attention all day. And I've been mad about having to clean the bathrooms. I don't have time for all this.

So I got out my cutting board. I didn't have time to do this. It was lunchtime, and I asked my daughter if she wanted to make homemade pizzas. Of course! Really, Mom? Really? She sat by the counter, right by my side, spreading sauce on the crust and then sprinkling ridiculous amounts of cheese on top. She took her time, slowly spreading, slowing sprinkling. We relaxed as we waited for them to cook. Then we relaxed more as we ate them.

Then I hugged her. Then she hugged me.

The cutting board saves the day once again.

Living with flair means bringing out the cutting board precisely because I don't have the time for it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Admiring the Raw

I’ve been practicing a new flair attitude. I want to admire people.

Admiring somebody seems gushy and cheesy; we think about valentines or romantic movies. But the real meaning of admire is to esteem, respect, and have a high opinion of someone. I want to be the kind of woman who thinks highly of all kinds of folks for good reasons. What I admire about people can reveal to me what I value. It tells me what my heart thinks is good, noble, and right.

I used to admire wealth, prestige, and my appearance more than anything. It’s embarrassing to admit how much. For almost 2 decades I pursued every accolade possible. I admired people with advanced degrees, people with political power in Washington, and couples with the kind of wealth that lets them own several vacation homes. I admired beautiful women who dressed fashionably and went to the salon on a weekly basis. I had the time and means to live that way. I hung around people like that, at those sort of houses, and at those kinds of parties.

I wasn’t happy.

Today, I'm a completely different person. I can tell just by what I admired over the last few hours. My days, not surprisingly, are devoid of material wealth, prestige, or a salon appearance. I live in a small town in a rented house; nobody even cares about my academic degrees; my hair is still in a pony-tail from this morning. I can’t remember if I washed it.

But I did something right today:

I admired—with flair—my daughter’s incredible 2nd grade teacher for her creativity, devotion, and genius lesson plans. I admired a man battling cancer while I ate biscotti in his kitchen. I admired a salesperson who treated me kindly. I also admired three girls who rode their bikes up a huge hill without stopping to catch their breath.

I even admired the dogs in my neighborhood for their consistently joyful tail wagging.

I just admired my youngest daughter for enduring strep throat with a good attitude today. And now, I’m off to admire my husband who just left to pick up a new prescription of antibiotics.

Living with flair means learning to admire the authentic thing, the raw parts of really living, that show me what is so good and right about my life.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Crying (with flair) in Front of My Students

Every once in a while, students make me cry. I didn't make a fool of myself or anything. But I did cry.

It's all because of these particular students who are so great in spite of traumatic childhoods. I know, I know, it sounds cliché that I would cry about students who suffer and yet find so much beauty and joy in life, but what can I say? I cried.

I imagine writing teachers all over the world cry. I hope they do.

I read these memoir essays—these collections of memories—and I can't believe the profound complexity of a life. Asking students to make sense of important memories that shape their identity might yield anger and hatred (the classic victim memoir genre). But these students do the harder work of gleaning the beauty from the horror. They showcase the wisdom they've accumulated. They interact with others with patience, gentleness, and this curious sense of love that the rest of the class notices. Their suffering enables a particular attention to the needs of others. Instead of narcissistic victimization, they use their stories to care for others. It's amazing to hear about the future careers they imagine: social work, nursing, counseling. They have a gift to give back! How, at their age, can they see their pain's wisdom as a gift to give?

I know these students have spiritual backgrounds. They must believe in the goodness of God and the way, at least in the Christian tradition, suffering always leads to beauty. There's always a way to make sense of it.

So I cried for the truth that suffering can and will bring joy.

Living with flair means acknowledging the stories of others on the journey. It means recognizing the hard task of re-framing our worst memories into pathways to beauty and wisdom. And if the acknowledgment brings tears in front of a class of college students, so be it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Double Dutch Challenge

I learned Double Dutch with the neighborhood children.

I did it. Seriously, I did.

It was a community effort. One mom bought the jump ropes at a sporting goods store, one mom offered her vague memories of how to do it, and one mom agreed to turn the ropes with me.

We read an instruction booklet first.

So there we stood, us moms and dads, with all these children around us, rising to our newest neighborhood flair challenge: Learn Double Dutch jump rope.

It’s a terrific game to learn. Think about the fact that two ropes are turning in opposite directions, fast, and some child (or adult) jumps over these ropes in a sequence that resembles running in place or else doing little hops to avoid getting tangled up. We practiced turning the ropes (that’s a sport in itself), we sang traditional jump rope songs (something about candy), and soon, 6 children learned this skill. We cheered each time. We slapped high-fives. We celebrated like we were at the Olympic Games.

And then it was my turn.

I am an older woman, remember. Put it this way: I jiggle in places and need support in more ways than one. But I always wanted to learn Double Dutch, and for whatever reason, I never took the opportunity.

Well, now. If I’m going to live with flair, I can’t let this be.

It took me two tries, and I did it. I maybe jumped 5 times in total, and I didn’t get tangled up in ropes or anything. It’s actually not that hard once you learn to jump really fast. Now I’m moving on to performing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” moves while I Double-Dutch (thanks for the suggestion, friends).

What made it an overwhelming flair moment? Double Dutch represented the best of community organizing. We set a goal, we divided tasks, we gathered to accomplish our goal, and then we celebrated. As I teach my family about community service, I instill the value of building a neighborhood. We are learning how to gather people together around common goals.

Our neighborhood values physical fitness and raising children with the skills they need for life-long health. We can’t do this alone. We need the group.

Something about this shared task of learning Double Dutch felt truly authentic. I'm not sure how to define it other than to tell you that authentic community involves jump ropes. I keep them in my minivan at all times.

Besides, life is hard. Some days I feel like I’m trying to jump over ropes going in opposite directions with out-of-control schedules, sick children, working, and just living. But then I look up, see my community with their hands on the ropes, steadying me, encouraging me, looking me straight in the eyes and saying: You can do this, Heather! Ready, Set, Go! And the ropes turn, and the neighbors cheer, and then I’m doing it! I’m doing this impossible thing that I couldn’t do just yesterday!

Having a neighborhood that comes out to play after dinner is community flair. We value exercise, and now, we value it with flair. Living with flair means keeping jump ropes in the back of your minivan just in case the neighbors come.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How to Savor (and Lose Weight) with Flair

Living with flair means to savor. You take the smallest thing (a punctuation mark, a turtle, a hand in the wind), and like some judge on Iron Chef, you test its quality. Then you announce its worth. Announcing the worth of small things has changed my life this month. I anticipate the greatness of common moments.

Today's "flair moment" came in the form of a meat cake. They do exist. A friend celebrated her 28th birthday party at my home last night, and someone honored her with a meat cake. The frosting was mashed potatoes whipped as lovely as buttercream. The rosettes were perfectly formed swirls of bacon. It was food art at its best.

I tried a little--just enough to savor the taste. Appreciating its artistry provided more pleasure than the actual eating (although it was good). I love to consider the art in food. Give me sushi or lemon meringue pies, and I'll enjoy the composition and admire the chef. I tend to not overeat when the food itself is lovely.

And food is lovely. Why don't I notice it? Eating is common; I do it usually 3-5 times a day, every single day of my life (sometimes more--sometimes a lot more). I tended to not notice my food, though, until this year.

I've lost 35 pounds, and it has something to do with living with flair--with savoring things. Stopping to enjoy the beauty of my food has helped me not shove it so quickly, and in such large amounts, into my mouth. Can eating be an act of thanksgiving, of worship, of . . . flair? I want to savor flavors, textures, colors, and smells. I want to take small bites and be completely satisfied with the greatness of small portions. I really don't need more.

Living with flair means savoring. And, as a result, being satisfied with much less than I thought I'd need (in my stomach and in my life).

Sunday, April 18, 2010

5 Ways to Write with Flair

If I'm going to live with flair, I have to think about communicating with flair. Most of us will have thousands of occasions for writing in the next year: emails, text messages, resumes, blog entries, cover letters, articles, love letters, essays, reports, memos, or our next big novel. After ten years of teaching, after reading over six thousand student essays (I counted once), and after analyzing more grammar books than any person should, I wrote this book called "How to Write with Flair." And then I thought about living with flair, and well, you know the rest.

But back to how to write with flair.

It's easy. I know 5 tricks. Ready?

1. Choose a verb with flair. Eliminate feeble verbs (am is are was were has have had seems appear exists). These verbs don't show anything happening. Use exciting verbs. I love verbs like grapple and fritter. Grapple with strong verbs to fritter away the feeble ones.

2. Toggle between the Big 5 punctuation marks: Semicolon, colon, dash, parentheses, comma. Here's a paragraph that embeds these tricks.

When you want to create complexity and voice in your writing, try using the Big 5. To highlight a part of your sentence--like this one--use dashes. Dashes shout. On the other hand, if you want to whisper and share a secret with an audience (like this one), use parentheses. Parentheses whisper. Semicolons confuse most; they unite full sentences that belong together because the second sentence explains or amplifies the first. Commas help the reader along by following introductory clauses, or they combine two sentences when you want to use a conjunction like and, but, for, or, nor, so (We can talk later about this; commas are really hard unless you had grammar instruction as a kid). Finally, the colon designates that a list or definition will follow. So the Big 5 include: semicolon, colon, dash, parentheses, comma. Do you feel smart?

3. Vary the length of your sentences and change the way they start to create rhythm. See sample paragraph above.

4. Garnish your paragraph with some clever wordplay if you can. Common cleverness in writing includes: puns, repeated first words, self-answering questions, understatement, just being funny, just being YOU.

5. Engage your audience. Establish rapport by talking to them. Are you wondering how this works? Just notice them in your writing (like I just did). Make it obvious that you are talking to people.

Try these simple things to create some flair in your emails or reports today. Enjoy some written flair.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Holy in the Dusty

I think you can clean a basement with flair. It takes some imagination though. Right now, I'm covered with dust and dead ladybugs. Cleaning a basement this morning made me think about what motivates me to do it at all:

1.I have to believe in the inherent rightness of order and beauty.

2.I have to believe it can become a holy place. Why not? Why couldn't wonderful and miraculous things happen in my basement?

Living with flair means turning the boring and hard into the stuff of wonder.

Cleaning a basement means you touch objects: papers, toys, stuff. Then you reminisce briefly. Then you toss that thing in a bin for Salvation Army, a recycling bin, or the Big Black Trash Bag. I realize the deep psychology behind my attachment to objects. There's a story attached to each one; I know this. But there's also freedom in moving on to new stories, cleansing a home, and getting some fresh air in.

I have to make space for the new.

As I cleaned my office in the far recesses of the basement this morning, I thought about how to sanctify it somehow. As I cleaned, I tried to set it apart for the use it would have. How much grading, lesson planning, reflection, writing, or correspondence happens right in that space? What if, as I cleaned, I prayed that the space would be used for good, for blessing, for unimaginable joy? Why do we think churches or temples are the only holy sites?

I moved onto the unholy play area. As I tossed toys and torn Polly Pocket dresses (those things are the bane of my existence), I prayed over the new space. Could God infuse the playroom with wonder, creativity, and friendship? Could miracles happen in my dusty basement? What children would play here? What students would gather? What family memories would happen and be stored deep for generations?

My prayers, often, are too limited in scope. Not today. Not in my basement.

Cleaning a basement has something to do with cleaning the heart and mind and inviting beauty in. Living with flair means setting apart the dirtiest and dustiest (the bowels of a house!) for a joyous use.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Flair for a Lifetime

I'm trying to train myself to notice things. That's really what living with flair means. I try to notice interesting things about the day and connect these moments to larger questions about life. Simple. Sometimes this practice results in ridiculous amounts of joy and laughter.

Take, for example, my afternoon drive in my minivan to go return overdue library books (not flair).

In my attempt to notice (literally pay attention), I tried to deliberately watch people as I waited at a stoplight downtown. Maybe I'd find a bit of flair in doing this.

All of a sudden, I saw this really cute guy out of the corner of my eye. In a college town filled with guys, this one caught my attention. In a brief glance, I noticed his sunglasses, his jeans, and how he had his hands shoved into his pockets. I looked away, embarrassed that I would notice hot guys in the crosswalk at my age. But nevertheless, I had to look back. I wanted to get one more look at this gorgeous guy.

I looked back and started giggling. I knew that guy. The guy was my husband! I'm not kidding! It was! He was walking back to his office from a lunch appointment. I'm laughing as I write this.

I called him immediately.

So it was his flair for the day too.

I suppose living with flair has something to do with loving deeply, noticing that person because you've chosen to pay attention, and then telling that person exactly what you see. Seeing my husband in a different setting caught me by surprise. And I noticed him. That kind of flair can last a lifetime.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Rope and a Smile

Every morning, without fail, these two little boys find me on the walk to school, and they ask me for a “cat story.” They know I have three cats. Don't worry: I heard that you don't become a crazy cat woman until you have 5 cats. I'm well below this threshold. And don't worry: this won't become a blog about my cats.

So the boys wanted a cat story. Here goes:

My little black and white cat likes us to run around the house, dragging a yellow rope she found somewhere. Recently, she's learned to find the rope, grasp it in her mouth, and carry it to wherever we are sitting (this is a big deal for a little cat). If I'm busy, she finds anyone who'll help. She brings the rope, drops it by a foot, and then meows and meows for somebody, anybody, to drag this rope for her to chase.

She's relentless.

You'd think this would annoy me; it delights me instead.

I recognized something about this little kitty. Cats are supremely independent, supremely aloof. And yet, what does this cat do? Learning to carry a rope to me, dropping it like that, needing me so much, is cat flair. She temporarily suspends her superior, I-don't-need-you, cattitude. She knows she can't make the rope jiggle and race across the living room. This cat knows her limitations. This somehow doesn't bother her. That's the flair.

Why is it so hard to admit when I have a need that only another person can meet? I'm the type of girl who would find the rope, even drag it someplace in hopes of playing, and figure out a way to make it move myself. What's with this attitude of independence? When was the last time I admitted to somebody that I needed them, really needed them?

Living with flair means acknowledging my limitations and approaching others for help. We think it annoys people, but more often than not, it delights.

Running around my house with an old yellow rope and a cat on my heels makes me smile. It's a gift to me, not her.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why Men Need Playdates

I'm amazed with the sort of texts I receive on any given day. I'm underwhelmed by the kind my husband might get. For example, in the last two days, my girlfriends have texted me about new underwear, how much they love iced mochas, invitations to try on dresses, coffee dates, random comments about life, how much they love me, or about arranging various playdates with our children.

My husband? He maybe gets calls about when the minivan is ready from the autoshop. What men are texting him to celebrate new underwear or fantastic coffee drinks? I know he's busy working and, you know, fixing things, but doesn't he need to connect with guys? He does! He does!

This is why the women in my neighborhood intentionally arranged a playdate for all of our husbands: Friday Night Poker. Nobody knows the secret mysteries of this night, but we surmise it involves lots of laughter.

"We should do this more often," somebody said at the poker night. "If, that is, it's OK with everybody."

So this week they are playing pool. When my husband needed to call one of the guys to arrange the night, he had to use my cell phone to find the number, and I had to call and talk to the wife first, who then found her husband and handed him the phone.

I know not all men are like this. But I wonder if most wish they had a playdate this weekend. Most men have trouble, unlike women, inviting men alongside them as they live life. Women, on the other hand, invite other women into nearly everything (bathrooms, dressing rooms, our kitchens and living rooms).

Seeing the joy of those guys getting together for now regular playdates has been on my mind all day. Living with flair means I facilitate friendships between the men in my life. Surely, they need it. Surely, they love it. They may not talk about underwear (maybe they do), but at least they are talking. Living with flair means honoring the men in my life who don't have time to text all day about clothes or coffee. Maybe they would if they could. I think men need to have deep friendships, and for whatever reason (schedules, exhaustion, fear) they sometimes don't. My flair for the day is intentionally being the kind of person who encourages playdates for men in my life.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Finding Some Flair in Pain

I have a bad knee. One of these days I'm going to have to get a new one. My right knee has a personality of its own. Ever since a surgery I had in college, my knee has attitude.

Today it's in a bad mood. So it hurts. It really hurts. I can't sleep when it gets that way, and I wake up grumpy. And then I think about the fact that it's hurting all day. Then I'm mad at my knee. And then I go crazy trying to think about what to do with the pain.

So here's what I did for my out-of-the-ordinary flair moment:

I thought about all my knee has done for me in my life: the carpet burns it has endured as I crawled as a baby, the bike crashes it has absorbed, the stitches from that summer I fell at the pool, the times it had me kneeling in prayer, the beautiful landscapes it has taken me to, the nervous taps from my fingers it received all those long school days, the skirts it peeked out from when I was finally allowed to wear a miniskirt (hello 80's), the garter it held up on my wedding day, the babies it bounced, the dirty hands wiped on it from children, the floors it helped scrub, the way it lets me dance (I'm getting better at "Beat It"), the walks it takes to school, the way I slap it in the coffee shop when seated with friends who make me laugh, the frisbee it lets me catch, impossibly, by the jump and the mid-air turn last night(that's why I'm in pain). . .

Oh, the knee!

I'm not mad about my knee. Living with flair means being thankful for that darn bum knee. So, yes, it's really painful today, but do you want to hear about how my knee once peddled me along the Potomac River at dusk? That day, I remembered loving my life because of the fish surfacing, because of the golden sun that lit every leaf with some magic radiance, and because of the hope I felt back then that my life could become extraordinary. I was 10 years old.

It's not a solution to pain. But thanking my knee prevented another, more despairing pain: bitterness. Living with flair means I choose the beautiful and not the bitter.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Flair in the Face

I’ve never met anyone who loves his or her own face.

This morning, as I put on lipstick (hey, you can take the woman out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of a woman), I had a flashback flair moment.

When I was eighteen years old, a woman I didn’t know stopped me as I was bending down to talk to a group of children at a summer camp where I worked.

She pulled me aside as the children ran on and said, “You have such a loving face.” Loving? Loving? Not beautiful? It was a strange and wonderful compliment. She continued to tell me that she saw how my face was loving the children.

As I put the lipstick down this morning, I thought about how that single statement changed how I think about my face. I started to love my face and what it could do. I still love make-up. I still curl my hair and pluck my eyebrows. I still conceal the dark circles under my eyes. It’s fun to primp sometimes.

But I don’t obsess about whether or not I’m beautiful.

Living with flair means loving my face because of whom it can show love to. And it means accepting (and giving) strange and wonderful compliments that have the power to change a life. That stranger used 5 words to strip away my fixation on beauty. It’s over a decade old, that compliment. But it’s my flair for today.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Giving an "F" with Flair

You already impress me; you don't have to earn my approval.

I believe this when I look at my students. It's my theology of teaching (and life). Just as favor is bestowed on me, I bestow it on my students. This means students amaze me regardless of the paper they turn in. This makes grading hard. When you believe the best about people, when you see their inherent dignity, you find it nearly impossible to even give a B- without suffering internally. The "F's" nearly hospitalize me.

“This hurts me more than it hurts you,” I told a student once.

“I believe you,” she said.

On my evaluations that year, she wrote that I was more traumatized by her C in the class than she was. And it does traumatize me. I think it has something to do with living with flair.

I like to find what's right, not just what's wrong. It's a different way of looking at a paper (and a life). It's easy to criticize; it's easy to complain. Anybody can do it. What's not so easy is finding the hidden gem of what's right.

Flair means subtext. I have to look beneath the surface of something and glean the good. When it comes to student writing, I try to see what they would have said if they could have. I want to honor that, even if I have to fail a student.

Living with flair means I see beneath the error: the sloppy sentence construction, the incorrect comma, the feeble verb. It means I practice reversing the culture of criticism and complaint. I find the good, name it, and then evaluate what could improve.

There's some beauty there, some perfectly crafted essay (or life!) buried beneath the mess.

I love what the poet Carl Sandburg's wife wrote to him on a postcard at the lowest point in his writing life. She said, “You are great and great! I know the poems are in you, Carl. We just have to get them out of you.”

Living with flair means I draw out what's often hidden beneath the sloppy, the incorrect, and the feeble. I find what's right. As I'm grading this stack of papers today, I do it with flair. It means celebrating and not just criticizing.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

What a Pancake Can Do

I just threw a pancake across the kitchen, and my husband caught it on his plate. The sticky syrup helped snag it. He laughed and said, “Now that's flair.”

We have a Saturday morning pancake ritual. Many families in our neighborhood do. There's something about all of the neighbors, nestled in their cozy kitchens, eating pancakes in their respective houses that triggers the flair sensor.

The pancake ritual connects me to my family and my neighbors. I'm thankful that I can expand my sense of family to include an entire neighborhood. Rituals are like that: they connect people. We have a great neighborhood, but we didn't always feel so connected.

This year, we put some rituals in place. We have a walking to school ritual, an evening bike riding and jump rope ritual, and a monthly potluck ritual. These patterns bind us together and create a wonderful community.

My sociologist friend (the same one who learned the “Beat It” moves in my kitchen with me) talks about the importance of ritual in relationships and in larger communities. Rituals are the mark of connectedness; they are sacred spaces that unite people. So when I'm drinking coffee with my husband at the same time every morning (7:00 AM—the kids are running around getting backpacks packed and teeth brushed), I feel close to him, secure, and connected. Our family rituals like dinner time questions, reading before bedtime, church on Sunday morning, or any host of regular, predictable events make us feel settled. In fact, if we try to change a family ritual, the kids will say, “But Mom, it's tradition.”

So my flair for today is flipping pancakes with my family. I used to think that flair needed to be unique and unpredictable each day. But this morning, I realized the flair in the regular routine. The fact that it's regular (same time, same ritual) makes it flair.

Friday, April 9, 2010

What if I were loyal?

I had a sublime experience last night that carried into my morning so powerfully as to eclipse any other possible flair for the day.

I entertained a woman who owned a service dog. This black lab sat all night at our feet, waiting to take action in case my new friend had a seizure. The dog can predict up to two minutes in advance if the woman will have a seizure, and then he alerts her by tapping his nose on her thigh. Then the dog leads her to a safe location, helps her to the ground, secures a perimeter, and then stretches out on the ground beneath her head until the seizure ends. It gets better. The dog can also go get help by opening doors, retrieving cell phones, and even finding a dominant presence (usually an alpha male) in a room who can call 911.

I looked at that dog lying peacefully at our feet. No way.

Guess how he knows. Smell alone. The dog senses slight variations in the way my friend smells. Before a seizure, a chemical emits from glands on her neck that the dog perceives.

What? I looked again at the dog. I had to know more.

Apparently, the dog is just like other dogs: he plays, he runs, he eats, he poops. But at all times, he's tuned in to my friend. He senses any variation and takes immediate action.

I felt overcome by awe. I also felt something that surprised me.

As the woman talked about the dog sleeping close beside her, waiting with eagerness for her to emerge from a shower, or just noticing the slightest change in her smell, I considered how thankful I've been for people who "tune in" to variations in my moods, my health, or my well-being. I remember difficult times in my life when friends sensed a variation in me, led me to a safe place, tried to make me comfortable, and called for help if I needed it. Am I that loyal to my family, my neighbors, my coworkers and students that I can sense a variation, offer help, secure a perimeter, and provide comfort? What does that look like for me to "tune in" to people in my life?

When I'm not myself, I've had a friend say, "You don't seem right. Can I help?" Am I close enough--tuned in enough--to people in my life that I can observe these things? I want to be.

Living with flair means tuning in to others, providing help and comfort, and getting help for them if I need to. Living with flair means I notice subtle changes in others that might indicate something deeper. I want to be the one who secures a safe spot. Maybe one of my friends needs to rest on me until an episode passes. It's flair to be that loyal. It's not just for the dogs.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Sign of a Happy Adulthood

I heard once that the greatest gift you can give a child is boredom.

Dear friends of mine just left from an overnight visit. This family has five children who have mastered the art of play. You can send them out in a yard, and within a few minutes they've devised a game. They also know how to get dirty faster than most children. The mother said to me: “The sign of a happy childhood is dirty children.”

Because this family stayed a part of the morning today, my youngest daughter asked if she could “take the day off” and miss preschool. Well, then, what would we do all day? I wondered what it would look like to not schedule one thing. What if she just got dirty? What would happen if I observed this child, created deliberate boredom, and just sat back and took note? So many other cultures and so many other mothers just let their children be. Could I be one of them?

Left on her own, she jumped rope, rode her bike, picked flowers, sang songs (even ones to God), made a bakery out of sand and grass in pie pans, dipped cookies in milk, and went to her room to check on the status of her window greenhouse. Two days ago, she planted cucumber and green bean seeds. Today, they sprouted. She's amazed by this. Now she's back to running around somewhere. Oh, and she's absolutely filthy. My friend would be proud.

If one of the gifts I give my children is boredom, and the sign of a happy childhood is being dirty, I wonder what great gift I need as an adult. What's the sign of a happy adulthood?

Taking the day off with my daughter, doing nothing but sitting and watching her, feels like flair. No schedule, no stress, no rush. In fact, if you try to rush a child, guess what happens? Tantrums. Tears. And when you try to rush an adult, the inner landscape is no different.

Living with flair (and perhaps the gift I give myself) has something to do with the space for boredom. Even if I have to schedule a space for absolutely nothing, I'm on my way to a more vibrant adulthood. In that bored space, I can let my mind tell me what it needs. My daughter enacted the very rituals that I find I need to feel balance: exercise, time in nature, artistic expression, worship, snacks, and cultivating something. A doctor once told me that a healthy adult needs to know 5 or 6 ways to refresh and relax. The average adult can't think of one—unless it involves watching TV which, ironically, stimulates the brain instead of soothing it. My daughter's bored day—taking the day off—taught me something about living with flair.

I need to enjoy some boredom. There's flair in just sitting. Like those little seeds in the greenhouse window that don't do anything but sit and then bloom in the sitting, I wonder if I could really be still and unscheduled for a day.

I'm wondering if I can go dig up some earth somewhere and get really, really dirty.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What My Starbucks Apron Would Say

I broke up with Starbucks last year (who can afford it?), but every once in awhile, we get back together. The barista taking orders today had on this glorious apron that said, "Coffee Master" underneath the Starbucks logo. I asked him what he had to do to become a coffee master. Apparently, it involves a nomination and a year of training.

The barista making the coffee, a kind older woman, (she offered me extra shots of espresso--why not?) had nothing written beneath her Starbucks logo. She told me that nobody has nominated her yet. I cupped my hands in a whisper and told her I had a sharpie in my bag. We could write "Coffee Master" on her apron and nobody would know the difference. She laughed out loud.

As I watched her concoct my drink, I wondered about Starbucks. Why is Starbucks so unapologetic about what it's good at? Why can they, without any hesitation, ask employees to boldly display a claim like "coffee master?" The concept resonated with me because I just finished teaching two classes on memoir writing. I asked students to write down ideas about some experience they've had that allows them to offer wisdom or insight for another person. So many students said, "I'm so boring. I have nothing to say to anyone."

Not flair. Not flair at all.

Don't most of us feel this way? But what if I had to wear an apron to display what I was best at, what I knew I could contribute, what I'm sure could help others? What would it say? And why is self-esteem so troubling for us? Finding what we're good at seems so hard, and yet, I practically wrote an essay this morning at kindergarten registration when the form asked me to tell them what my daughter's "special talents" are. Could I have written with the same enthusiasm about myself? We so easily find the good in others.

Starbucks has never had a self-esteem issue. Maybe they could market personalized aprons for the rest of us.

People are coffee masters, grill masters, yoga masters, master craftsman. Couldn't I think of just one thing I could put on an apron that signified my contribution? Maybe it would be "master of the dishes" or "master of bedtime snacks." Maybe I've mastered suffering or mastered survival. Whatever it is, I want to be unapologetic about it.

Living with flair means I think about what my life experiences qualify me for, and I can celebrate that like the Starbucks barista who knows she can make a great cup of coffee.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Finding the Flair in Trash

You'd think that my trying on a fancy dress with sparkly shoes (I'm in a wedding) or going to a nice lunch out today would constitute flair. I'm amazed with what doesn't trip the flair sensor in me. I'm stunned with what does.

I wake up each morning, and I start looking for my flair moment. I can't wait to discover it. Surprisingly, none of these moments have had anything to do with dresses, shoes, or even food (and I love food: I'm still remembering an amazing carrot cake cupcake I ate).

It's always the common thing seen in an uncommon way. Flair erupts from the banal, not the sparkly.

While in the Lowe's parking lot a few hours ago, I saw a man notice a piece of trash in his path. When he bent down to get it, the wind blew it just out of his reach and in front of my car. I braked and watched him scurry after the trash, lean down, nearly reach it, and have the wind swirl it out of reach again.

It felt like I was watching a Charlie Chaplin movie. After two more attempts to hold the piece of trash with his foot, the man finally grasped the paper, held it up in victory, and went to find the trashcan. I rolled down my window and screamed out, "Nice job! You did it!" He held his fist in a cheer, laughing with me. It was a small victory, but so important. Maybe it would be the only battle he'd win today. I had to celebrate it.

Living with flair means I celebrate every small victory. And I mean celebrate (you have to cheer with somebody--hold up a fist and pump it in the air). Cheering with a stranger about picking up trash was flair.

It wasn't sparkly at all. I didn't even have to pay for it. In fact, the stuff I want to wear or eat or buy seems like counterfeit flair to me. It's not the real treasure.

Living with flair means I can find joy in trash because that's the treasure.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Student Excuses and Flair

I receive some fantastic excuses about why students miss class. Usually these involve recovering. (Cancun recovery, Birthday party recovery, first day of Spring recovery).

I have an unusual teaching philosophy. I value flair, so if you’re going to miss class, you might as well do it with flair. This means I want the true story, rich with sensory detail. And by all means, use a semicolon somewhere.

Today’s flair moment arrived in the form of an email in which a student describes the scene of his car breaking down: anti-freeze spilling everywhere, profuse smoke, a behemoth truck! (all his wording). I wasn’t mad; I was proud.

I have ten classes left to teach 50 students how to write with flair. Today I reminded them of the romance of the semicolon, the whisper of the parentheses, the shout of the dash. I talked about flavor and tone. Writing with flair means I turn each sentence into a masterpiece.

Living with flair means I turn my life into a masterpiece. It means I find some flair even in my highway breakdowns. Besides, the world needs more true stories of why we aren’t where we’re supposed to be. There’s a story there, ripe with flair, that makes what’s important not what event we missed, but what experience we had while we were trying to get there.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Flair Disaster

Today in church, during the most reflective part, a little girl in a soft pink Easter dress spilled her grape communion juice. It trickled down her dress and pooled on the floor beneath her sandals. I was sitting two rows behind her.

Quickly, her grandpa and grandma (who happened to be the pastor and his wife!) found a cloth and began to wipe her dress and the floor. Her father joined in, trying to minimize the damage. And then, her mother--hawk-like and decisive--turned from her seat at the end of the aisle and made her way to where her daughter sat.

I felt myself bristle. Would this mother scold? Would she grab her daughter and drag her out of the church, shaming her for distracting the other worshipers? Was the Easter dress expensive, and would the little girl be punished for staining it?

The mother leaned down to her daughter. I couldn't see the daughter's face, but she had her head down, shaking.

The mother took the child's face in her hands, firmly, tilting the chin up.

Then, looking clearly into that little girl's eyes, she kissed her cheek and smiled.

It's Easter.

Something about the way that mother held the girl's face, something about tilting a chin up, something about that soft kiss overwhelmed me. It was a picture of God's grace: choosing to love and not shame, lifting a face, covering a stain with a kiss. It was Easter flair.

Maybe I was so struck because I studied the emotion of shame in graduate school. When we feel tormenting inferiority because of a shortcoming, the body's response is to look down. We hide. We cannot endure the gaze of an audience.

But this mother tilted the child's face up. By refusing to allow the shame response, this mother locked eyes with her daughter and gazed with love and unconditional acceptance.

Later, I saw that little girl laughing and running around at an Easter egg hunt. The bright stain on her dress made no difference to her. But it could have.

Living with flair means I take a face in my hands (even if it's my own), tilt up the chin, and choose to love regardless of the deep stain. Who isn't walking around with grape juice on their clothes? Who isn't that child? Who doesn't need a love like that?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Throw Back

There you are, eating a burrito or picking at a hangnail, and all of a sudden, it happens: You have a thought.

I wonder about this. I read recently, in a Richard Selzer account, that "a surgeon knows the landscape of the brain but does not know how a thought is made." Does anyone? Does anyone know how a thought begins? It's a mystery to scientists.

Today, as I was drinking coffee and watching sunlight filter through the potted tulips, I had a thought. I wondered what great thing I might do in my life. It was a nanosecond of a thought.

I closed my eyes and thought about the great people I know. I concluded that every great person I know has sacrificed deeply. They live for a mission that’s bigger than their own comfort. As I sat there (very comfortably) on my couch with my just-right coffee, I wondered if I could rise to the challenge of mission. What would it take? And why do people do this? Why some and not others?

I sat there, reflecting on a life's purpose. What does it mean to reflect? Is it useful? Reflection means to pause in the day and contemplate what I’m doing and what it means. A reflection literally is a light or sound wave being thrown back from a surface. I want to let things I observe and experience be “thrown back” in my face; I want to consider them deeply and fit them into the narrative of my life.

If a reflection is a “throwing back” of light, I wonder what I throw back to people when they observe me. What do I reflect, what do I teach?

My moment of reflection stirred something up in me. But I almost lost that thought in the rush of life. I could have ignored it altogether. (I mean, even at this very moment I'm thinking about 20 other things including but not limited to: how to manage the ladybug infestation in my house, how many calories are in a serving of ham, or why all the kids like that Iyaz "Replay" song). That greatness thought, like some shooting star across a dim sky, was barely there, embedded in the mush of neurons. I just had to figure out a way to hold it in place, let it do its work, and honor it today.

I want to be more reflective. I want to teach my children to develop curious, reflective minds. I want to be able to ask them, each day, what they wondered about. (I'm not sure how to guarantee this. I briefly considered sending the children to their room to meta-cognate before lunch.)

Living with flair means I let my experiences "throw back" something to me.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Luring the Turtle

Today I tried to lure a hibernating turtle out from underneath my back porch. I actually devised an elaborate plan. Coaxing turtles into the open isn't necessarily extraordinary, but why I did it felt like flair.

My elaborate plan involves calling to our turtle and leaving fruit around the yard. I realize this is ridiculous. But still.

I know he's in there. Last fall, I fed him tiny slices of fruits and vegetables. Then, in a bombardment of freezing rain, winter came early. The turtle burrowed deep somewhere in my yard, and, since we couldn't find evidence of digging, we assumed he went where it was warmest: under the porch near the house.

Spring is here. Let the turtle emerge!

Today, I circled the yard, looking for that beautiful box turtle. As I walked among all the green shoots in the garden, I knew in my mind that the hunt was completely useless. Our turtle most likely departed for the woods long ago. Chances are slim he's anywhere near my yard. He might be in another state by now.

But my heart--and the glimmer of childhood left in me--focused my eyes to spy any hint of that brown and yellow mosaic turtle shell. No turtle. But I'll wake up tomorrow wondering if today's the day I'll be drying dishes at the kitchen sink, look out across my back yard, and see him lumbering towards the apple slice I've left for him.

I'll circle the yard tomorrow, too. It's good for my soul.

Living with flair means I hunt, despite the odds, for what might be.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Hand in the Wind

Sometimes flair bursts into our lives in obvious forms: a promotion at work, good news from the doctor, a first date, or an unexpected gift. Other times, we consciously create flair. We do something out-of-the-ordinary like take a vacation, enjoy a nice dinner out, or challenge ourselves to try some new sport.

Today, I tried to plan my flair. It involved taking the girls to a beautiful creek. And while the whole morning made us smile as we splashed in a creek collecting rocks, it didn't create that stop-me-in-my-tracks reflection moment so characteristic of flair.

What did was the split second I decided to thrust my hand out of the car window to feel the breeze as I drove home from the creek. I spread my fingers out, then did that undulating wave-like motion to feel the air flow, and finally, like some large awkward bird, I actually started flapping my arm in the wind. (If you happened to be driving behind me and wondered who that crazy woman was on the road today, yup, that was me.)

Soon, the girls copied me. The older one said, "Are we allowed to do this?" and the little one just said, "Ahhhh! That's feels nice." There we were, driving down the road, flapping our arms. Fully alive, fully enjoying the rush of wind on our hands. We couldn't help but laugh.

Flair does that.

It was a small decision to enjoy the wind with my hand. And it made me think about other tiny gestures of the body. Maybe today I could stop, lay down on the warm grass and turn my face toward the sun. Maybe, no matter how stressed I feel or how trapped I am in a schedule, I could open a window somewhere.

Living with flair means I let my hand enjoy the wind.