Monday, May 31, 2010

Commemorating with Milk

We couldn't make the Memorial Day blueberry pancakes this morning because we ran out of milk.  I was the one dressed already, so I volunteered to drive to the store.

It was a little after 8:00 AM.

It was just a trip for milk.

I left my children in their pajamas and my husband hovering over his ingredients.  I'd have to be quick.

I'm turning the corner out of our neighborhood, and all of a sudden, like something bounding out of a dark woods into my car, I'm aware that I'm really, really happy.  The realization struck with such force that it astonished me.  For someone who battled the black haze of depression for nearly a decade, I am still amazed and celebrate the sheer joy that accompanies feeling good.

I was so thankful this morning to be alive.  I was so thankful for what the holiday weekend represented--commemorating soldiers who died to secure freedom.  We'd commemorate them in ways they would want us to: we'd eat pies, swim in the public pool, gather for a potluck dinner.  What a gift this life is--this simple life that bursts with beauty in all these hidden places if I just look . . .

Living with flair means I commemorate, with ceremony and observation, how thankful I am for battles won, large or small. And I remember the fallen by being fully alive--fetching milk early Monday for blueberry pancakes eaten in peace, with a family, around a simple kitchen table.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Why Do I Like Watching Things Burn?

I shouldn't like to watch things burn so much. Think about it:  I'm taking pleasure in the disintegration of something, the dissolution of some object into nothing but gray ash that floats up into the atmosphere or settles hopelessly beneath my feet.  Last night I sat by a beautiful campfire in my neighbor's backyard.  The children, otherwise distracted, came around the fire just to watch things burn. 

I could have sat there for hours.  Transfixed, I had to wonder:  why do I love to watch things burn?  Why do most people?

Living with flair means asking the sort of question to get beneath my experience.  So I stared at the fire.  My children stared, hypnotized.   I even recalled my entire history with campfires and what things I used to throw in.  Magazines burned with prettier colors. Marshmallows exploded and elongated into these snake-like black creatures.

My children, too, enjoyed watching marshmallows burn more than eating them.  


I finally thought of this:  We really don't expect things to fall apart.  We're used to permanence.  I see things around me as intact, stable, and predictable.  A stick is a stick.  Newspaper is newspaper.  Marshmallows are marshmallows.

But put them in fire, and all of a sudden, the true constitution appears.  These stable objects transform into mere ash, residue, that looks all alike no matter what unique appearance it had to begin with.  It's just a chemical reaction, completely understandable, and yet it produces such wonder, such peace even, as I watch the burn.

Outside of the boundaries of the campfire, though, that fire has such destructive power that it could take down my whole city. 

It terrifies me, that power.  And yet, sitting around a campfire, I get to observe that power from a position of safety.  18th century philosophers would say this is a sublime experience; it's a simultaneous fear and attraction.  And when I encounter a power stronger than myself, even in a little backyard campfire, I'm humbled and put in my place.  I see into the reality of my world--the black ash underneath it all.  

Fire makes me think of the fragility of things (my own fragile self).  Living with flair means appreciating a campfire for more than just the s'mores it makes.  It means understanding the fear and power that accompanies all truly beautiful things. 

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Short Rant (I Never Thought I'd Be Ranty)

A popular blog I read this morning suggested that one pathway to happiness is to "imitate" a spiritual master--someone like Jesus.  I cringed.  The not-flair bells rang.  I frowned and felt the same way I do when somebody tells me to just "try harder" and I'll find holiness.  It's just not true.  Telling a person to imitate a spiritual master to find real life and joy is like telling a cardboard box to act more like a computer in order to come alive.

Imitation doesn't change the inherent problem I have.  I need an infusion of grace, not an imitation of one.    

Imitating a master is also like telling two people to stare at each other and imitate a relationship.  I don't want to imitate love.  I want to be in love.  Imitation isn't the trick.

A relationship with God is a romance.  It's an infusion of power, of love, of joy, of deeply knowing.  It's not imitating a master or doing what Jesus would do.  That kind of life doesn't work.  It never has.

That's why the gospel is good news.  I want to know Jesus and have him give me the power to live the life I'm supposed to.

Christianity isn't a religion of imitation--of acting more like Jesus.  It's exchanging our weaknesses for his strength, for inviting his presence into our lives, and for depending on his love and peace on a daily basis.

It's not imitation.  It's infusion.

I'm off to the pool.  My children have been in their bathing suits since 8:30 AM.  The towels and sunscreen are all in a row.  The snacks are ready.  The goggles are tightened.  We could sit on the couch and imitate swimming, or we could dive into that delicious water.  I think I know what we'll choose.   Living with flair means I'm experiencing a life of joy, not imitating one.

Friday, May 28, 2010

My New Approach to Catastrophe

Driving home from preschool today, two bubbles floated across the street like they had somewhere to get to.  I couldn't see any sign of someone blowing bubbles, or even any other bubbles, anywhere.   They must be mighty resilient, I thought.  One was bigger than the other, and it looked like a mama bubble and a baby bubble.  I imagined the wind, the buildings, the people, or even the animals they might have encountered before crossing my path.  And yet they remained intact, beautifully sparkling in the sun while floating just above my car.  Resilient. 

I said the word aloud, and my daughter repeated it.

"It's a great word," I told her.  I had actually looked the word up that very morning. My friend and I were talking about parenting, and she mentioned wanting to raise resilient children.  She advised me not to constantly rescue my children, to not be afraid to let them suffer, and to realize that adversity creates strong children. 

All week, I've been trying to rescue my older daughter from the bossy, mean girls who roll their eyes on the playground and insult her.  I'm the mom who calls the teacher and wants to be there, mediating, controlling the situation, and ensuring total peace and happiness for my child. 

Last night, I gave up the fight.  I'm lying on the bed with my daughter.  I'm listening to her talk and talk and talk about the mean girls, about the bullies, about the gossip and jealousy.  For once, I don't try to solve it; I don't go email the teacher again.  I've been doing that all year.  For the rest of my daughter's life, there will be mean girls.  I can't save her, no matter how hard I try.

"Look," I said.  "You are just great.  I love everything about you.  You will figure out a way to handle those girls.  I believe in you.  God is with you.  You can figure this out."

"I know," she said, smiling with that one loose tooth hanging by a thread.  "I totally will."  
The dictionary tells me that a resilient person possesses the ability to recover readily from adversity.  In science, resilience refers to the energy a thing can store up as it deforms or is put under stress that it releases as it reforms.  In organizations, resiliency is the ability to positively adapt to the consequences of a catastrophic failure.

I'm praying that she's storing up energy from this, that she'll learn that ready recovery skill, and that whatever catastrophic failures come, she can positively adapt. Tonight, I'm telling her I'm so proud of the resiliency she's already shown in these enormous eight years.  

Resilient girls can handle anything.  Put that on her resume!  Put that in the cover letter!  I survived recess today.  What did you do?  

This way of living with flair is the only way I'll survive parenting.  Living with flair means I value raising resilient children.  It means I embrace adversity myself for what it's storing up in me. 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Huge Gardening Mistake

Last night I bragged all about my blueberries, my strawberries, and even my blackberries.  My dear friends, older, wiser, and experts in gardening asked if this was their first year in the ground. When I said, "yes," they cried:

"You need to remove that fruit!  Pinch off the blossoms, too.  Do not let those plants produce!  Not this summer, and not next summer either."

All week, we'd been so happy about those blueberries and those ripening strawberries.  I had imagined my blueberry pies, my strawberry smoothies, my blackberry jam.  There was no way I was going to destroy that young fruit and those beautiful blossoms.  Who were these people to suggest I would have to be patient for two more summers?  (I realize that most of my friends know this about berry plants.  I somehow missed the information.)

"You have to.  You just have to do it.  Make your husband do it," my understanding friend said. "But it has to happen."

This counter-intuitive and destructive move would make my plants thrive.  If I take away the fruit, the plant directs the energy and nutrients to the most important part of the plant: the root system.  A new berry plant needs a few years to make an indestructible foundation of roots.  Then, we can enjoy the fruit.  It would take three summers. 

"I know it's hard.  It killed me to do it to my own fruit plants," another said.

So this morning, with my daughters (and me!) safely away from the garden, my husband prepared our plants for abundance by deliberately diminishing them.  All night I'd been thinking of what my friend said as I sat there with my mouth hanging open, refusing to believe the truth about my plants.  I had to figure out what spiritual process this represents, what truth about the universe this destructive act mirrors. The flair project depended upon my ability to find the right in the wrongness. 

She said, with such love and wisdom:  "You've lived here three years, right?  Weren't the first two hard?  And now, in your third year, everything's going so well."  I thought about the principle of three years.  Maybe it was true.  Maybe God knows that I need seasons of total emptiness, no fruit, not even blossoms, in order to get my roots deep and strong.  I thought about marriage, of raising those babies to toddlers, of moving to new places and starting new jobs.  I thought about years waiting for manuscripts to be published, friendships to form, community to thrive.  It never all came together that first year, and maybe not even the second.  But the third year?  Fruit did come.

Maybe God feels like I do--the sadness, the loss--pruning away the obvious signs of productivity.  In those years when nothing seems to happen, where nothing seems to bloom in my life, I'm putting down these awesome roots.

Just wait.  It might not be this year, or even next year. In her book Anonymous , Alicia Britt Chole describes the spiritual process of our hidden years.  She writes,  "Abundance may make us feel more productive, but perhaps emptiness has greater power to strengthen our souls."

Living with flair means I'm strengthening my soul when there's no fruit in sight.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

One Good Prayer

This morning, I had a few minutes before the walk to school, so I took out my prayer journal. What did I need?  What did the neighbors need?   Many things came to mind, but one thought kept recurring.  I knew I might pray for prosperity, for health, for safety, for success, or for any host of material things. God says we can ask for anything.  But I knew to pray this:

"Jesus, help us see you today." 

Jonathan Swift wrote that "vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others."  When I look at this day, right now, I know that God is at work.  And he sees what I don't see.  Through suffering, through disappointment, through fear, through loneliness, God sees what I don't see.  I want vision to see, with God's help, what is otherwise invisible.  That's flair. 

I want to see what God sees.  I want to pierce through that layer of my circumstances to perceive that invisible script that God writes.  These marks of God's intentions, of God's goodness, of God's love, are here.  I pray that God sharpens my vision so I can see them. 

My sleuthing for daily flair is really a prayer to see the invisible thing--that underlying beauty and goodness in any situation, no matter how bleak.  It's a prayer to identify, in every circumstance, the marks of a spiritual process.  When I see that process, I'm suddenly released from fear.  I can find hope and love here, even in pain or confusion. 

Living with flair means seeing the invisible thing. It means offering up a prayer to find God in whatever situation I'm in because, surely, he is here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lesson Two from the Italian Mama (in 100 Words or Less)

Today I studied meatballs.  You need to clothe the meatballs with breadcrumbs (from the ancient bread in the back of the fridge), brown them a little, and then let them cook all day in the sauce. 

This way, they won't fall apart. 

Meanwhile, the little girls in our neighborhood worry about their clothes, their friendships, their popularity.  I think about clothing them generously with that ancient kitchen love--the kind passed down from generations upon generations of mothers who build families as they build recipes.

Keep these children strong, clothed in the ancient love, so they don't fall apart.      

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Bad Day Mantra

As far as bad days go for a five year old, this one ranks high.  While at her yearly check-up, she discovered she might need glasses, was told her spine might be slightly crooked, and, to make matters worse, endured two shots in both thighs.  My job was to "restrain" her arms and legs as the nurses jabbed the needles in.

Not flair.  No, this was not flair at all today.

We left the doctor's office right at lunch time.  Dairy Queen was on the way home, so we pulled in.  The whole time, I'm trying to comfort her, but nothing's working.

As we order food inside, I begin telling our server all about my daughter's horrible day.  Hopefully, some ice cream will help matters.  A few minutes later, this same server came to our table.  Seeing my daughter still tear-stained and sniffling, I said, "We are just having a really bad day." 

"Well," she said as she handed us our food, "there's a lot of day still left."

My daughter looked at her and smiled.  The thought of "a lot of day still left," worked.  The radical concept that the day wasn't doomed just because of a bad morning transformed this little girl's world.  There was still time--seconds, minutes, hours even--to redeem the day.  There was still time for flair. 

I wanted to kiss the server.  I told her that her comment would change the course of our whole day.  Once again, language well-timed and well-spoken can create a new reality.  The comment created anticipation.  Something good would come.  And by the time we'd finished lunch, ice-cream, and some laughs in our booth, it already had.

Living with flair means remembering "there's a lot of day still left."   Even if we're down to seconds, there's still time for flair.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Blessing We Need

A girl with a stuffed unicorn stood by the restrooms at church this morning. I've been seeing unicorns everywhere, and each time, I have a little flair moment. Here's why.

I learned recently that a gathering of unicorns is called a blessing. I just love that. Animal groups have some strange names. Alligators are a congregation; barracudas are batteries (did you know that?); sea birds are called wrecks; bullfinches are a bellowing; zebras are a crossing; rhinos are a crash, and owls are a parliament.

But a group of unicorns is a blessing.

The gathering of beautiful creatures, more divine than earthly, isn't just the stuff of lore and legend. As I left the bathroom, I walked into the worship gathering of our church. It suddenly occurred to me that I was in the presence of the divine, the holy--in the people.  

It suddenly stuck me how much I loved the people.  I knew all those people, and all those people knew me.  I could probably raise my hand and ask anybody for anything and the answer would be, "no problem."   

One man had broken his ankle and, on crutches, rose to the applause of the rest of us as we cheered in hope of his full recovery.

 And those people--those creatures more divine than earthly--were my blessing.  They were my group and my joy both.  

People go crazy in isolation. People die in isolation; they can lose their vitality and their strength. But in groups, they thrive, they enhance one another, and they accomplish more together than they could alone.   They bring forth the glory of God.  

In the Scriptures, Satan drives people to solitary places. In fact, his best work is accomplished when we are alone.  For example, Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man who “drives the man into solitary places” (Luke 8: 29). And we learn in the book of Peter that the enemy of our souls "prowls around like a roaring lion waiting to devour" (1 Peter 5:8).   He must search for the loner.  When I watch nature shows, I'm always struck by the skill of the lion. He preys on the lone gazelle, the one that gets away from his group.  The isolated, the ones separate from their group, are the ones in the most danger. 

If only we could see that left-out person as part of ourselves.   If only we could boldly move forward, extend a hand, and invite a stranger into our blessing.  Our story has many more characters to include.   

If only we could see the divine calling to participate in each others' lives. 

We are interdependent at our best, much like tiny streams that, when we link up, become mighty rivers that nourish entire landscapes.

I need to join my blessing. Whatever it takes, I need to. Living with flair means seeing my community as more divine than earthly and part of my own self. Within my blessing, I gather in the stray gazelles when I'm strong. And when I'm weak, I look to the others to circle around me and bring me to safety. 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

After the Limo: Before and After and the Flair of Going Home

Here's the picture of my friend 2 years ago.

She told me I could use this picture (besides, it's the front page of the paper today and in local news). Below, you'll see the "after" shot.   Here she is after we exited the limo and transformed her for her big reveal.  You'll see me looking hyper as usual. 

After all the glitter (literally we had glitter dust on us) and glam (think Movie Stars), my friend looked at me around 9:30 PM, and we both knew it was time to go home.  It was an amazing, enchanted night with cameras, crowds, dancing--the works.  But when it got late, we just wanted . . . home. 

We drove back in my old Honda, back to our old neighborhood, back to our regular lives.  For an entire day, we were movie stars, but this morning, I woke up thankful to just be home.  Today I knew I'd be making pancakes, transplanting those seeds my daughter planted in the windowsill, and going to visit that newborn foal this afternoon.  Monday, I'll walk the kids to schools, and later, we'll do double-dutch in the parking lot.

Living with flair means wiping the glitter off and enjoying the simple things.  I loved the moment my friend looked at me and said, "I'm ready to go home."  And did I mention that when we got there, her entire house was sparkling clean?  A crew came and transformed her house while she was busy getting the makeover.  Going home does feel better when you walk into a crystal clean house.  Which reminds me:  Saturday is cleaning day in my house (after pancakes and before gardening), so I'm back to the mundane, the anonymous, and the ordinary.  I can't wait to enjoy a day of regular flair.  

Photo courtesy of Centre Daily Times (Craig Houtz)

Friday, May 21, 2010

You Never Know When a Limousine Will Show Up

You'll never guess where I am.  Just a minute ago, I arrived here by limousine to a full day makeover. But it's not for me; I'm just accompanying the winner of an extreme makeover contest in our town.

A few months ago, I wrote a little essay about a local mom who inspires me.  The winner of this contest would receive a full makeover (wardrobe, jewelry, massage, nails, hair, gym membership, new smile, makeup, housecleaning, a Wii Fit, photo shoot, and tons of other prizes).  When I heard about the contest, I had to nominate this mom.   She's lost 100 pounds this year, but that's not even the most important thing.  She's totally transformed her whole life.  She's been on a journey to find emotional and spiritual health.  I just love this girl!  I love sitting next to her in church, worshiping God and seeing her write down every word the pastor says.  I love seeing her choose hope and optimism even in hard circumstances.  She fights for happiness, and I just admire her so much. 

So all day, she gets to enjoy an incredible makeover.  Not only that, but at 6:00 PM she arrives (by limo) to her huge reveal party--just like you see on TV!  The press will be there: local news and ABC, magazines, photographers.  It's the coolest thing to be a part of.

The real story here is that change is possible.  This friend has had an impossibly hard childhood.  She's taught me that the past does not determine your future, and you can change your life.  Right before we got in the limo, I shared two  Bible verses with my friend.  I said, that "those who look to God will be radiant" (she is totally radiant right now), and that "anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.  The old has gone, the new has come " (The new woman is here!).  In fact, I have to sign off; she's nearly finished with her massage, and we are moving on to the hair salon.  More later (with pics I hope).

Living with flair is getting into a limo with someone who deserves a makeover.   It means going on the journey with friends who want to change their lives and being ready to celebrate.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Best Definition of Courage

My daughter and I were talking about taking her training wheels off and learning to ride a bike.  She became very quiet and said, "You know, Mom, little hills mean little boo-boos.  And big hills mean big boo-boos."

I said, "So I guess you want to avoid the big hills on your bike." 

She paused and said, "Oh, no.  It just means we need a bigger first aid kit."

There you have it:  Courage means I ride full speed ahead, anticipate the wounds, and prepare with a great first aid kit.  For my daughter it means Hello Kitty band aids.  For the rest of us, it might mean we fill our kits with authentic friendships, strong ties to a community, a vibrant relationship to God, and the kind of space to heal.  It's not the height of the hill that matters.  It's not the danger, the risk, or the potential for failure.  Wounds are likely.   So I build the best first aid kit I can.  That's some 5 year old flair.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

2 Lessons from an Italian Mama in 100 Words or Less

1.  The mistake people make with their sauce is not letting it simmer long enough.  No rush here with my sauce or my life.  

2.  As I listed ingredients learned from my first Italian cooking lesson, my Italian Mama neighbor leaned over my shoulder and said:  "Don't forget the most important ingredient." She paused, closed her eyes, put her hand over her heart, and said:

“You must put on your Bruce Springsteen music.”

Italian Mamas have soundtracks--undercurrents-- of passion, good hearts, and kitchen talent.  What soundtrack, what undercurrent, flows beneath my life? 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bring on the Whimsy

This morning, I saw my neighbor's dog, Murphy, walking in a bright yellow doggie raincoat. He stood up on his back paws and greeted me, looking more human than canine. Then, I saw a little girl carrying an umbrella shaped like a dragon over her head . Huge pointing scales, triangular and menacing, slithered down her back. I felt like I had temporarily entered some whimsical world where dogs act civilized in bright yellow rain gear and little girls enjoy the protection of dragons atop their heads. I looked up just in case an owl should swoop down to deliver my mail.

Why do whimsical things delight us so much? Why do we recite The Jabberwocky or go see Alice in Wonderland and Avatar? Why are we so entranced by the world of Hogwarts or Narnia or Neverland?

The little dog turned human or the girl with her dragon ripped open the rational world for me this morning. All at once, I thought of a fantasy world, an alternate reality existing parallel to my own. In this world, the rules are all different. It's the Mad Hatter's tea party on this side of things, and I barely know how to get my footing. It's dangerous, weird, and most of all, wonderful.

Whimsy refers to something playfully odd, something unpredictable, childish, and given more to imagination than reason or experience. Whimsy indicates a suspension of the rational and predictable. It opens a doorway into another realm, another way of thinking.

In this way, whismy helps my spiritual growth.  It's a whisper of the supernatural.

Whimsy and fantasy—the odd, the seemingly impossible--give spiritual truth a plausibility structure. I want to encourage the type of living where we can believe in what we cannot fully fathom. Whimsy, which makes me stop and reconsider, tears apart the structure of my otherwise orderly and rational day. And in that sliver of space—that wrinkle in time—a life of faith blooms.

So bring on the dogs in raincoats, the dragon umbrellas, the fantastical, and the absurd. We are made for more than we can imagine, and to stop and consider it—the flair of it—ushers in the spiritual.

Whismy lets in the crack of light that pushes me onward to truth. Living with flair means I consider the crack of light. It opens my eyes to another reality--the kind of reality where God tries to get my attention through the out-of-the ordinary thing.  Living with flair means to be attentive enough to see and respond.  

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Tool to Measure Success

Somebody asked me recently what my professional goals are.

I used to be incredibly ambitious.  Now, not so much.  Part of the reason is that, as I age, I realize the things I was ambitious for--money, prestige, fame--don't retain the same shimmer after too long.   The problem with ambition is that it keeps my focus on some future manifestation. 

I will know I am successful when. . . 

I ask myself, and my students, to find a career that they love so much they'd do it for free.   Today I will add:  love it so much you'd do it for free and for absolutely no recognition. You love it so much you could do it. . . anonymously.  You'll measure success, in this case, by a completely different standard. 


It's hard to talk about these things when we need to earn a good living.  We need to pay the bills, provide for our children, and stock the refrigerator.   We often don't have the luxury of thinking about the larger questions about our work when we have to pay the electric bill today.  But sometimes it's good to ask ourselves what motivates us to try so hard all the time.  Beyond the paycheck, what are we really doing? 

With money and prestige out of the picture, what would motivate someone to succeed in a particular line of work?  And how in the world would they define success?    As I think about living with flair, and in particular, working with flair, I wonder what to be ambitious for.  Is it to serve others well, to advance knowledge in my particular field, to love every coworker, to build community in that workplace, to think about a mission to create beauty, order, or healing somewhere?  Is it to fight for injustice or to awaken spirituality?  Is it to provide for my family?  It is to work with excellence, to the best of my ability?  Or is it because I must do it because of a calling--because I'm made to do it--regardless of how my gifts are received or if they do anything?

These things are good and right. 

Another friend asked me what the goal of my blogging adventures are.  A book?  For the first time in a long time, I was able to say that the goal was just to write, everyday, and record special moments that made the day great.  The project is its own reward.   I'm ambitious for living intentionally enough to find joy in the common thing.

When I measure success by a different tool, I'm suddenly free to do what I'm supposed to do--what I'm made to do--and not imprisoned by any other standard.

Living with flair means being ambitious for the right things-- for the sorts of things that can't be measured by dollar signs or followers.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

When it Looks Like Chaos and Abandonment

My sassiest daughter was playing school with her big sister this morning before church.  Apparently, they'd set up a whole imaginary classroom with imaginary students. All of sudden, the little one starts stomping around with her hands on her hips.

“I can't do imaginary anymore!” she yelled. 

I laughed out loud. Watching her with her hands on her hips, saying in exasperation, “I can't do imaginary anymore,” gave me the same feeling as when I hear her singing that Sugarland song about not settling. There I am, driving down the road, minding my own thoughts, and this little girl will belt out:

I ain't settlin'
for just getting' by
I've had enough so-so
for the rest of my life. . .

It's the kind of sass I like in a girl. She doesn't want so-so or imaginary, and neither do I.  We want to fully inhabit the lives God gives us.  We are learning that ordinary is extraordinary when you figure out what you can learn from it.  We aren't settlin' if we can help it.  We aren't letting one moment go by without finding out what it means. 

We are getting better at it.  This morning, in the cool breeze of 9:00 AM, something caught my eye as we pulled out of the driveway.

Blue and wispy like the tip of some fairy's wing, leaves danced across the base of the oak tree by my house. I stared harder, confused about the blue leaves tumbling around on the lawn.  My husband stopped the van, and I got out. There, like tiny crumbled scraps of blue construction paper, balls of feathers unfolded to show little beaks. Obviously abandoned, obviously fallen from a high nest, these bluebirds strained their heads and wings hopelessly. They seemed cold, sure to die, and starving. I looked up through the branches of the oak tree. High up, higher than the rooftop, the tangle of sticks and leaves sat.

The whole family gathered solemnly around the oak tree. Believing we were seeing dying birds, the girls shouted: “We need to call the pet store! We need to call animal rescue! Help!” We all ran inside, frantic as we tried to find the phone book. My husband, calm and sure, went to the internet to find out what to do.

And we prayed.

A moment later, my husband spread the good news: These weren't dying birds. They were fledgling birds. There's a big difference.

Fledgling is a great word. It describes a young bird (or person) who is new to the scene. This person has just left the nest and is almost ready to fly. They still need help, but as they flop around, looking hopeless, they are actually building strength to fly. To the inexperienced observer, a fledgling looks like a dying bird. The feathers look all rumpled and broken, and the body is limp. What I saw, when I looked at those bluebirds, was chaos and disaster and, worse, abandonment.  

But it was actually a highly controlled, intentional situation.

Later, I sat in church, so thankful for the truth about my fledgling times. What I see as chaos, disaster, and abandonment (by God or others) is actually a highly controlled, intentional situation. God knows I need some time to strengthen my character and my resolve. He knows I need to flop around a bit first.

And I was thankful that my daughter who can't do imaginary didn't have to this morning.  She could sit and look right out at the real world in her front yard.   And this girl who won't settle for so-so learned that rescuing birds isn't about removing them from their situation or creating better circumstances.  Sometimes it means keeping them right there in it because it's where they are supposed to be.  

Living with flair means that I might reinterpret chaos, confusion, or even disaster as part of a highly controlled, intentional situation.  God, like the mother bird, knows exactly what's going on.  Later today, I saw that mother bird seeking out each fledgling with a worm in her beak.  She found all six of them, no matter where they had tumbled, and nourished them fully.  They'll fly by evening. 

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Seeing a Newborn Foal

Last night, I heard a rumor that newborn foals were in the campus barn. Campus barn? Where was that?

“Honey! Baby horses at some barn! Let's go.” He got in the minivan without even thinking this might be a strange activity so close to bedtime. But if we are going to live with flair, we want to embrace some adventure. 

We drove to campus and found the right road. “This doesn't look right,” I kept saying (I'd never been before, but it just didn't feel like it could be a magical place with newborn horses. It was too urban, too busy). My husband encouraged me to “just keep going” and that we'd find something eventually. I took a sharp right and then a left down an unmarked dirt road.

“Just keep going,” he said.

I did.  In silence, we drove.  We should have turned around and gone straight home.  It was bedtime, and besides, the sky was threatening some thunderstorm.   We'd never find the place anyway.  

Then, like we'd entered Narnia through the wardrobe, an enormous expanse of rich green meadow opened before us. To the left, a single white barn.  The surrounding campus evaporated; there were no other buildings in sight.

We had entered a hidden pocket of paradise right in the middle of a town.

The setting sun made the meadow golden and deeply green with light and long shadows. The brewing storm made the air heavy and electric.  The barn was quiet. Was this the right barn? We left the minivan, not even bothering to close the doors.

In the cool of the barn, we walked by each stall, one by one. All empty, except for two stalls near the end. We peered in, straining our necks. We held the girls up so they could see. There were real live horses in there. 

Two chocolaty brown mares and caramel one-month old foals snuggled into one another in separate stalls.

I'm a city girl. I grew up outside of DC, and I've never seen a real foal before (except on TV or in picture books). Amazed at the tiny legs, so unsteady, I held my breath. He was. . . tiny.  I couldn't believe that just a moment before, I was driving through suburbia, and now this.  What could be more beautiful on this evening? 

A few minutes later, we left the barn from the opposite entrance. As I turned the corner, I froze. Six enormous mares, their coats shining with light, hovered over six separate foals—right in front of me. Each foal mirrored the mother's movements exactly as she roamed the meadow. That fragile creature was not only guarded by the mother, but by all the mothers.

Here, in this place, all is well as a mare protects a newborn foal.

We discovered a young woman who rents a room by the barn to care for these horses night and day. Her face shines and her heart seems at peace. Nations battle, people suffer, but here, in this barn, a girl cares for horses and instructs visitors when they can come back to see a new foal due in just a week. The pregnant mare, Skipped Emotion, stood proud and tall in her stall.

We'll be back in a week to see the newcomer. We'll be back to congratulate the mother, whose presence brings forth everything but skipped emotion. In fact, for once, we are fully in our emotions—awe, wonder, joy. We are coming back for more.

Living with flair means marveling at foals. It means leaving your home, even though it's bedtime, to find a secret barn cloaked by campus all around. It means you “just keep going” until you find the right road. You'll find it if you just travel in far enough.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Strange Way to Refresh Yourself

I'm used to thinking of personal refreshment in terms of spa days and vacations.  Today, I remembered a bit of wisdom that reoriented my thinking.  The flair moment came in the form of sweaty boys and mulch. 

On my drive downtown this morning, I saw a group of young men spreading mulch in the flowerbeds that lined the sidewalk. They were laughing, embarrassed maybe, as the cars at the stoplight stopped and observed them. The wheelbarrow of mulch wobbled between one boy's arms, and the pitchfork in another boy's hands took aim and missed the pile altogether.

I was thankful for their work to renovate those beds.  They were giving that space some flair.  And I knew, too, that the work would bring some flair to them as well. 

Community service is like that.  

It's service that intends to renovate us as we renovate our community. There's something about taking care of a community—those that need help, those that are suffering, or those places that need cleaning—that renews and refreshes the spirit, too.

As I drove past those boys, I remembered a verse from the book of Isaiah, chapter 58:

“If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.”

When I spend myself on the needs of my community, I ironically find a form of refreshment. My night becomes the noonday; my darkness turns to light. The promise of God guiding, satisfying, and strengthening me in that process represents the paradox of Christianity: you find yourself as you lose yourself; you become fully alive as you die to your own self-obsession.

You would think, in sacrificial service, that a frame would weaken, that a body would exhaust itself.  But instead, the strongest frame, the most nourished individual, is the one who serves others.

Watching those boys spread mulch on that sun-scorched sidewalk reminded me that serving a community, even in small ways, contributes to our well-being.  When we find a need outside of ourselves that we can meet, we can renovate, not just another person, but ourselves.

Living with flair means I meet the needs of others and delight in how it refreshes me.  Spas and vacations are great, but greater still might be taking care of a neighbor (or spreading mulch in her flowerbed).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Best Verb to Keep in Your Notebook

Great living is a lot like great cooking. You want to take the ingredients of the day and create 5 star masterpieces. You want to arrange what's given to you (like on Iron Chef), and make something so fantastic that you close your eyes and sigh (like the judges) when you think about it.

I'm not a great cook.  Fortunately, I have a chef friend.

Today she explained what “braising” meant. Braising something means you apply low heat, lots of time, and moisture in order to soften something hard and unsavory into something delicious. She was braising cabbage, I think.

I stood there and wrote in my little notebook the definition of braise (you have to keep a notebook if you are searching for flair). I like this new verb. I'm going to tell students they need to braise their ideas, break them apart with some intellectual heat, some time, and some emotional juice in order to present that concept the best way.

I use cooking verbs like percolate, stew, and saute, but I haven't used braise ever in my whole life. It's a great verb for cooking, writing, and now, living

Everything that happens to me in any given day passes through some intellectual heat, some time, and some emotional juice in order to arrive at flair. I braise the day to get to the good stuff. It keeps the hard parts in me soft.

It's the art of reflection, and it teaches me how to have insight. It's not as if we wake up and find flair arriving on our pillows in a package we recognize. It takes some work: some heat, time, and moisture. It takes energy and emotion to actively find the larger importance.

Insight means to look within the thing, to go deeper.  It's mining for a new understanding about my day using the common, daily ingredients I'm given.  People with insight train themselves to see, not just with the senses, but with the mind. In other words, as I live, I think about what something symbolizes or represents. I put a flair lens over my eyes and pray I see it when it comes.

Braising my experiences creates steady hope and steady joy for me. It feels so good to have this lens, especially after knowing the dark days of depression and hopelessness for nearly a decade of my life. I want to braise the day and make it all soft and delicious. It makes me live well and intentionally. 

Living with flair means writing down the word "braise" in a little notebook and thinking about living (not just cooking).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What to Offer a Mean Person

Something spiritual happened in the drive-thru as I was paying the cashier today.  Everybody inside the place was scowling and sulking around.  They seemed so angry and so inconvenienced by my presence at the little sliding window.   These people need some flair, I thought. 

I decided to ask God for help.  Those people needed a blessing.

To bless is a way of inviting the power and presence of God in.  It's a means of imagining the best for someone and infusing some situation with hope and joy.

"God, could you bless these people?" I muttered. But then I rolled my eyes at myself.  Was that the best I could do?  That blessing had no pizazz.  If I'm going to pray for good things for people, I want to do with with flair. 

I tried again:  "God, could you give these workers unimaginable strength and joy today? Could you somehow remind them how wonderful and beautiful they are?  Would you bring good things into their lives?  Would you fill them with the kind of hope and security that will sustain them forever?"

Then, as I was leaving the drive-thru, a frowning older man nearly drove into my car.  It looked like he hadn't laughed in decades.  I took a deep breath, still wondering how I could be more creative in blessing people.  I wanted to get specific.

"God, I hope this old man can laugh so hard that tears come out of his eyes today.  I want him to slap his thigh and hang onto his friends for balance because he's laughing so hard."  

I pulled out of the parking lot, and a frantic and stressed-out UPS man darted in front of me.  So I prayed he would enjoy a profoundly delicious lunch. It was all I could think of at the time!  Then I drove past some stern looking utility workers who seemed annoyed that I was driving past their work zone. I prayed that they would have wonderful evenings with their families--the kind where everyone feels cozy and loved.   

Offering blessings today saved me from a bad mood and road rage.  It reminded me that, in some mysterious way, I can invite the good and the beautiful into a stranger's life. God commands that we bless and not curse, so I want to do it with flair.   What if I did this more often?  What if everybody did? Living with flair means I'm not just enjoying this power and presence, but I'm also giving it.   Next time I get in my car, I'm going to eagerly anticipate meeting grumpy people who need a stranger to bless them.  And I hope that, when I'm a grouch, somebody is blessing me.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

When Temptation Comes, Tell Yourself This Story

Today I celebrated not giving in to an obvious temptation.  Perhaps this victory will carry over into larger, more insidious ones.

I've been thinking about temptation all day.  Daniel Defoe, one of the first known novelists, wrote that "we are instruments of our own destruction."   We hurry towards things that are not good for us.  We run away from things that are.  Why can this be?  

This concept rings true primarily because we are experts in self-deception.  We are very good story tellers.  

I wonder what story I'm believing that makes the perceived benefit of that thought or action outweigh the harm it causes.  It's amazing to me, for example, that a bowl of chocolate ice cream can overpower me.  I can be ruled by appetite.  Here I am, a full-grown woman, strong and sure, and yet, I'm brought down by sugar and chocolate.   No matter what resolution I make, it wins.   Sugar wins.  Sugar!  Isn't that just. . . ridiculous? 

And it's not just food.  It's overindulgence in many things.  

But not today.  I had this moment--this flair moment--when I figured out why the temptation wins in my life. Temptation wins when I change the story of what harm that thing I want brings.  I tell myself only half the story (the good part).  And it makes sense.  I teach rhetoric.  I was a debater.  I know how to persuade, and I'm really good at convincing myself.  

Today I told the whole story.  I told the story of what happens when I do what I shouldn't do.  I stopped and worked out the extended narrative--the director's cut.   I let myself imagine myself doing that thing (in this case, eating the entire carton of ice-cream).   But then what?  If I tell the whole story of what happens next--after giving in--I remember the false promise.  I unmask it, reveal the lie, and tell the truth about it.  There's no life in the chocolate ice cream.  It's just empty calories that provide exactly 3 minutes of chocolate pleasure followed by 3 days of getting back on track with my diet.  It's not worth it.  It's not that good.

Telling the whole story of what happens when I give in to temptation helps diminish its power.  It's one way out.  Living with flair means I see the full story regarding my choices.  It means I become aware of my capacity for self-deception and tell the truth instead.  That thing I want to do is just not that good.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Being Futile and Unproductive for Love

Today, I searched for a missing Polly Pocket shoe.

The shoe in question is about the size of two grains of rice.  Polly Pocket shoes are the bane of my existence.  And we have so many containers of them.  We have 8 years worth of Polly Pocket garage sale finds, gifts, and hand-me-downs that our shelves in the basement overflow with tiny rubber doll accessories no bigger than your thumb.  And in that universe, one tiny dark pink shoe was somewhere, suspended in a galaxy of shoes.

I could have told my daughter that Polly needed to go barefoot.  I could have lied and said that the shoe was gone.  I could have just told her that there was no way in the world I would leave my desk to spend hours sifting and sorting for a doll shoe.  Besides, it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things.

But I did it.  On the fourth container (and almost an hour later), I found the shoe.  You would have thought we had struck gold.  We squealed and jumped around.   She held it up like some Olympic medal. 

We lost an afternoon on that shoe.  (I think it's missing again.  I can't find it anywhere.)

So in the center of this ordinary day, the mass around which everything else orbits, was that insignificant shoe.   That shoe represents the type of world I want her to know.  It's a world where people stop their work to help a child find what matters so much to her.  It's a world where we recognize what seems futile and unproductive to us might just be the very thing that brings delight to another person. (My husband, for example, watches American Idol with me because I like it.  It's growing on him.  And I watch woodworking shows with him.  They are still boring.) 

If I'm going to live with flair, I want to offer the kind of love another person wants to receive.  It's not easy to give.  It may seem like a huge waste of time.  But what I devalue might just be what a person I love cherishes.  I want to recognize what others think living with flair means.

For my daughter, it's finding a shoe.  And so I'll search for it.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

3 Questions that Set Me Straight

This time last year, I was mad about everything.  I was jealous of other mothers and their resplendent brunches, their new jewelry, and their country club life.  Why couldn't I just have more money?

I was jealous that Rob Reiner was filming a movie, "Flipped," in my old backyard (the one I left to move here).  I should have been there, serving coffee to Hollywood celebrities and awaiting my invitation to star in the movie.

I was jealous of other women (friends from college) who had political and academic power.  That was supposed to be me there on Capitol Hill or at that podium.  It was weird how jealous I was.  It was the kind of jealous that ate my insides and made me stomp my feet in the kitchen as I told my husband how wrong everything was.  I was supposed to be a different person by now.  Why was I here, in this town, with this life?

The rhetoric of my life was "if only." 

So exactly one year ago today, I sat in church, jealous and ridiculous.  I had just finished writing something about how if you ask yourself a good question, the right question, you could get yourself out of any bad mood.  I knew I need to ask spiritual questions.  That seemed right (after all, I was in church).  So I wrote:

1.  Is knowing God better than anything? (as J.I. Packer asks: "For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?")

2.  Will I live the life God asks me to? (Here, in this town, with no retail, no glitz?)

3.  Will I pursue wealth or godliness? (Seriously?  I need a whole new summer wardrobe with sparkly flip flops.)

These questions mattered so much to me because in a split second, like lightening forking through the roof and straight into my heart, they reoriented me.  They set me straight.  They reminded me that my happiness comes from surrender to the spiritual truth that governs my life.  

The first recorded question that Jesus asks in the Gospel of John is, "What do you want?"  I love this question.  I love the disciples' answer even more.  They essentially ask him where he is staying.  They want to be where Jesus is.  They would leave everything to be in his presence.  So Jesus says (strangely), "Come and see."

When God says, "What do you want," the answer from my heart is: "To be in your presence."

God, always the pursuer, always setting up a way to delight us, just says, "Come and see."

That morning, a year ago today, I imagined God asking my jealous heart: "What do you want?"  And I wrote in my journal: To be in your presence.  But is it really enough?  It is really worth it to pursue spiritual instead of material wealth?

And God said: "Come and see."

It's been a year.  What a year of enjoying the life God has given me.  Nothing more, nothing less.  When I open my eyes to see the wonder and mystery of God, the jealousy dissolves.  Living with flair today means I continue to "come and see" what God wants to prove to me about the sufficiency of Himself.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Gift for Every Mother You Know

Today was chilly, windy (hair in my face no matter which way I pushed it around), and gloomy. We drove out into the country to a far-off nursery to buy some berry bushes for my latest gardening adventure. And when I say country, I mean country. The roads were unmarked, narrow, and tumbling over the landscape like an afterthought. A creek skipped by on the right, and cows fed in fields on the left.  They were so close to my window I thought I might reach out and pat a nose.

Eventually, we arrived at huge nursery.  We left the car, met the wind and cold, and, hunching down and running, we slipped into the first greenhouse. 

Immediately, warmth.  My daughters sighed with pleasure and stretched their arms.  Everything here seemed abundant: the moist air, the fragrance of blooming things, the tangle of vines and hanging plants overhead. I looked at all the gorgeous flowers and thought of the ripping winds outside. They'd have never made it without this greenhouse.

Standing there, seeing that little Eden of beauty set against the gloom and fierce wind, I thought of—not flowers—but people. More specifically, I thought of mothers.

I think of the moms I see that remind me of myself back then. I see the vacant stare, the lifeless smile, the numb conversation of a mom who is just trying to get a warm shower and go to the bathroom without somebody crying. Beneath the exhaustion, the stained t-shirt, and the post-pregnancy figure, there's a woman in there--vibrant, sassy, powerful.  There's something in her that wants to bloom. 

If only she had a greenhouse--a little paradise to keep her safe and warm so she could grow too.  If only we could create the conditions that help her put down strong roots, stretch high out, and bloom, bloom, bloom. 

What does a mom need?  She needs to be protected and nourished so she can fully develop into the woman she's supposed to be.  She needs friends who ask her about her ideas and her dreams; she needs a community who will spur her on and enable her to take risks in any direction she chooses.  A mom needs people who don't limit her scope, who don't assume anything about her, and who recognize that she is a growing thing--like a tender vine in a greenhouse.  Our children aren't the only people that need to grow in our homes.  Babies aren't the only people that need swaddling. 

If a mom doesn't grow and ripen, she shrivels.  Moms need communities that value her spiritual, physical, social, emotional, and (if she wishes) her professional growth. 
As I stood in the greenhouse today, I thought of how much I want moms everywhere to live with flair.   A great Mother's Day gift (that we might give all year to every mom we know) is the mindset that the mother you see wants to grow too.  The roads are unmarked for her; she's out in a far country.  Motherhood can be her time to shrivel or bloom.  Get her to the greenhouse! 

Friday, May 7, 2010

7 Beautiful Things

1.  Hearing that my neighbors are celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary by recreating their first dates.
2.  Seeing a brown bunny with a huge cotton tail hopping in the yard.
3.  Putting maraschino cherries in my drink just because.
4.  Listening to my husband on the phone as he arranged to borrow a truck to deliver compost to the backyard for a new vegetable garden.
5.  Feeding the pet turtle, Stripe, that I'm babysitting for two weeks.
6.  Wrapping myself in a huge green blanket as I write this because my basement office is chilly.
7.   Knowing that a friend with seven children received a day of housecleaning as a Mother's Day gift from her husband.

It's May 7th.  Another ordinary day in my neighborhood.  Seven different moments made me happy today, and it's not even lunch time yet.  As I wrote this list just now, I asked myself what made each moment so full of flair for me.

They each triggered a special memory:  nervous and romantic first dates with my husband, chasing rabbits in a field when I was eight, ordering Shirley Temples with my father at fancy restaurants, growing the hugest tomatoes as a kindergartner (I still can see them in my mind), finding turtles on the banks of our backyard creek as teenager (I was too old for this, and yet I knew some things you don't outgrow), wrapping my friend in this green blanket as she slept on my couch one weekend nearly a decade ago, and remembering a best friend before she was married, before her life became the day-in and day-out of raising kids, and knowing she could rest today as someone else scrubbed her toilets.

The brain is a file cabinet of memories we turn into beautiful narratives.  We thread the present moment into this quilt of memories and find its place in relation to all we've been through.  What I love about living with flair is that it embeds my thoughts in the now while allowing deep reflection into past joys.

It's not a future thing.  It's never a fantasy about what should or will be.  Living with flair is fully experiencing the day, connecting it to what we love and loved, and staying in that place of joy.  No need to imagine a different life.  No need to ask what's missing.  It's all right here.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why You Should Make a Fool of Yourself

Some students who regularly frequent local bars recently told me that the reason why college students drink so much is because it's the only time they don't feel self-conscious. Alcohol makes them feel free to be themselves. Without it, they worry so much about making a fool of themselves.

Today I reasoned that making a fool of yourself might not be such a bad thing.  In fact, it might just be flair.

I remember being terribly self-conscious in high school and college (who isn't?). I remember agonizing over whether people liked me and whether I was impressive. Years of trying to manage other people's perceptions of me exhausted me.

But in one terrible semester of graduate school, I stopped trying to impress people.

That year, I nearly failed out of school. A certain professor mocked me publicly, claimed I wasn't fit for graduate school, and implied that there had been a mistake in the application process that allowed me into a Ph.D. program. The tormenting shame I felt for that (and for nearly every mistake I was making personally that year), drove me into hiding and despair.

And it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.

Before that year, I was self-conscious to the point of never being my true self. But when my worst fears were imagined and everybody saw me as a failure, a beautiful thing happened.

It wasn't that bad. It actually felt like freedom.

I was free to be exactly who I wanted to be. I stopped expending energy on wondering what people thought (I already knew—it wasn't good), and instead I asked myself what I could do to serve the academic community there. I figured out how much I loved teaching, I wrote an entire dissertation on the emotion of shame (how convenient!), and I didn't have to try to earn anyone's approval (I already lost it). And of course, as these things always go, I had more friends, more accolades, and more respect from professors than ever. That one grumpy professor even apologized to me.  People like people who aren't self-conscious.  They like people who can make a fool of themselves. 

I haven't struggled with self-esteem since then. What drives self-esteem issues is a profound fear of being exposed as a loser, a fraud, a fool.  Well, maybe we need to be exposed. 

I wonder if college students wouldn't drink so much if they gathered their friends together, admitted their weaknesses, regularly did ridiculous things that made them supremely self-conscious, and tested the theory that we'd all love them more because of it.

Why not practice letting people see you at your worst? When it happens to you (like it happened to me), you recover, you find that people love you even more, and you stop trying to impress everybody.

Living with flair means testing the theory that we'll love you when (not if) you make a complete fool of yourself.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Extra Chair Revolution

A revolutionary is a person who actively participates in a revolution. A revolution, I just read, is defined as: a drastic and far-reaching change of thought and behavior. Defined this way, I like to think about my search for daily flair as a revolution for me. It's a daily choice to find the good, the beautiful, and the meaningful in the rut and hum-drum of a life. And once I notice it, I have to proclaim it and act in response to it. I want to revolutionize the dark days; I want to let the light in.

Last night, a boy knocked on the door with little marshmallows and toothpicks in his hand. He invited my girls to help him build structures out of these materials.  Afterward, they were outside, running barefoot, playing hide-n-seek in the yard.

I cooked dinner with my husband. Nothing fancy: burgers, some pasta, some corn, some sweet potatoes. All of a sudden, the little boy came into the kitchen and said: “I've got to call my Mom.”

“Is everything OK?” I asked.

“Yeah. I just gotta call her. I'm gonna tell her I should probably stay for dinner.” Apparently, the kids smelled the food cooking.

“Sounds good.” I smiled. I love impromptu dinner guests. In fact, I keep three extra chairs on standby with extra place mats for our round table. Years ago, my husband and I had this policy that we'd always make more food than we needed for a “just-in-case” dinner guest. Every so often, a student or a friend will stop by, and as 6:00 PM rolls by, I just pull up the extra chair. We've never had to say we didn't have enough for dinner guests.

It's a hospitality revolution for us. My house isn't clean. The food isn't anything great. I didn't have to send out invitations or have party favors or anything. I just had to pull out an extra chair. Spontaneous hospitality for the neighbors is part of our lives now.

Having barefoot kids coming in for dinner and then rushing out for another game of hide-n-seek was my flair for today. I'm so glad I had extra corn and burgers just in case.

Living with flair has something to do with being a neighborhood revolutionary. It means having extra chairs to pull around a dinner table. It means having friends who know they should probably stay for dinner.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

2 Ways to Handle Life Transitions with Flair

You can handle a transition (new job, end of a semester, a new marriage, a death, a birth, anything new) by:

1.  Reminding Yourself of your Personal Mission Statement
2.  Imagining a Kite

I know, this is not what you expected today.  Let me explain.  I get depressed and anxious every time I enter a new life phase.  I don’t like change.  Not many people do.  As I sat down to try and figure out how to handle my transition to summer with flair, these two things grounded me.  Since a change of routine disables all our normal coping mechanisms, sometimes the body fights by any host of symptoms: anxiety, depression, fear, uneasiness, and sometimes a paralysis (you want to sleep all day and not face the new).  It’s like my identity crumbles apart with change.  This doesn’t have to be the case.

I remembered the semester I made myself write a Personal Mission Statement.  I promised my students that a mission statement helps us make good choices, enables us to navigate change, and delivers us safely to the other side of life transitions.  Mission statements stabilize us.  Today, mine anchored me.

Finding a mission statement takes time, but once you write it down, life feels more settled.  Here’s an easy way to frame a mission statement:

I am devoted to__________________________.
My goal is to ___________________________ by _______________________.  (use strong verbs here.  See "5 Ways to Write with Flair.")

So, for example, here are some of my mission statements:

I am devoted to excellence in teaching.  My goal is to build writing communities by generating atmospheres of trust, acceptance, and inspiration.


I am devoted to being a fun mother.  My goal is to create lasting memories for my children by planning unmediated nature experiences, building a neighborhood, and training them in the art of friendship. 

I am devoted to being a great wife.  My goal is to support and inspire my husband by helping him fulfill his dreams, partnering with him in his endeavors, and creating an environment of predictable joy in our home. (That last part is a stinker for me.  Pray for me.) 

When I recall my mission statements, I always feel less unstable.  No matter what transition I’m going through, my mission statement remains fixed.  It tells me that I have goals to pursue even if everything in my schedule unravels. 

Now for Part Two:  Imagine the Kite

Last night I watched my children fly kites.  A kite is what I feel like when I'm undergoing a transition.  I dip and I dive, I crash land, I jitter and jounce.  But if I remember I am tethered and held by a Strong Hand, I can relax and know that eventually, I’ll find the right air current and soar.  

Living with flair means I'm assured of my mission, and I relax on the journey up. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sound the Alarm!

Apparently, word spread that I wasn't in church yesterday.

"What did you tell people?" I asked my husband.  I was in bed, still in my pajamas, destined for the flu.   

"That you were tired, really stressed-out, and probably getting sick," he said.  Meanwhile, he collected the children to take them to an afternoon movie so I could sleep in a quiet house.

Then, my oldest approached me with her fist holding a crumpled up dollar bill.

"What's this?"  I asked her.

"It's my tooth fairy money from my piggy bank," she said, very seriously as she put it slowly beside me.  "I want you to have it in case you need to go to Starbucks later."  

I had husband love, daughter love, and then, and then, some completely unexpected neighbor love.

At 5:30, neighbors came over with dinner.  This amazing family brought me teriyaki pork tenderloin, fruit salad, green beans, rolls, potatoes, and ice cream for dessert.  I hadn't been in the hospital or anything.  I didn't even have a fever. They just heard I was tired and maybe getting sick.   

Then, this morning, another neighbor handed me a pack of those mocha frappuccino drinks to sustain me while working today.

"How did she know I love those?"  I asked my husband.

"It was either that or a bag of beef jerky.  You're sort of easy to please."  

It isn't like I'm on my death bed.  I was just really, really tired from a long semester.  I sounded the alarm on Sunday morning, and the family and neighbors mobilized immediately.  I know what happens when a mom takes a day off.  All of a sudden, the whole operation jams up.   There's a clog in the wheel; everything overflows.  She feels guilty and lazy because, after all, she's still breathing and can therefore empty the dishwasher. 

But I had to do it.   Living with flair means sounding the alarm if I have to. It means receiving from a community.  I want to be strong enough to stay in bed and strong enough to accept help.  And today, because I know what it feels like to be loved with a meal, coffee, and a quiet house, I know just what to do if I hear that somebody else is tired and stressed out.

My neighbors have flair.  Bringing unexpected dinner and iced mocha frappuccino drinks to a tired woman is a beautiful, and so appreciated, form of flair. Community flair--that's what helped me get out of bed today.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why Professors Can Also Be Christians

It’s possible to be a scholar and a Christian.   It’s possible to study neuroscience, understand the process behind how we age fossils, know the mechanism of evolution, immerse yourself in various spiritual paths and still proclaim, with a resounding “yes,” that Jesus Christ is the one true God.  Many professors have deeply held spiritual beliefs.  Students, I find, have a hard time believing this.  Let me set the record straight. 

I believe the claims of Jesus because I don’t base my faith on my experience (I read too much neuroscience to be able to validate my perceptions of God as truth).  And although I feel, on a daily basis, what I describe as the peace and love of God in my life, answered prayer, protection, provision, and joy, I’m not a Christian because of emotion or experience.

I also acknowledge Jesus because I know you don’t need to discount science.  I’m married to an organic chemist, after all.  I honestly don’t understand, with 100 % certainty, the matrix behind creation or how species evolved (I wasn’t there).  The more I read, the more I observe, the more I see mystery and the limits of human understanding.   I’m not afraid of science; the deeper I delve, the more I’m amazed.    

When students ask me why I’m a Christian, I tell them it’s because of the historical Jesus.   As a college student, I read the entire New Testament because I had to be absolutely certain that Jesus made claims to divinity and that his body was resurrected as proof of his claim.  Why, I reasoned, would I stake my life and my reputation as a future scholar on some hogwash that wasn’t true?  I needed to come to terms with the claims of Jesus. 

What I found when I read the eye witness accounts of Jesus of Nazareth included miraculous demonstrations of power:  controlling weather, healing diseases, curing blindness and paralysis, knowing a person’s thoughts, multiplying resources like bread, wine, and fish, casting out demons, and predicting the future.  As I read, I wondered to myself why people worshipped this man.  And why did he cause such a political stir?  Other people, as the scriptures and historical documents report, did miraculous things.  Healers, psychics, and sorcerers had been around for a while (they made big money).  Other men, in other cultures, claimed to have the power of God.  They even performed miracles.  I’ve even read other cultures, in other times, have their own virgin birth narratives. 

But when I examine the resurrection of Jesus’s body, when I analyze the reports of who saw him, and when I read how I could know God, I had to listen.   I also had to listen to the hundreds of prophecies, written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, that talked about his life and death--and resurrection. 

The religious rhetoric imprisoning Christianity makes it nearly impossible to talk about it.  I don’t even know how to begin.  What I can say is that I acknowledged, in my mind, that Jesus was the incarnation of God.  Scripture talks about “receiving Jesus” into my life, so mentally, I asked the spirit of God to reside in me.  As someone who reads about the brain, I’m not sure where the Holy Spirit actually dwells in a person, but I know Jesus claimed that receiving the Holy Spirit meant you had a Counselor and a Comforter.  Jesus also claimed that by receiving him, I’d have eternal life that began now.  In other words, the spiritual death that accompanies our separation from a holy God wasn’t a future death.  It was the reality of my life before knowing God ("sin" is one way to describe it).  I had no “relationship” to God.  When I began praying to Jesus, I became alive spiritually. This meant that I began to enjoy worshipping God, praying to God, listening to the instructions and promises in the Bible, and most importantly, relishing the favor of God.  I also had power in my life to become the type of person God wanted me to be.   

I didn’t go to church today.  I was too tired (grading, a big wedding, everything else).  As I lay in my bed, I thanked God that my going to church doesn’t help me impress God.  I’m deeply loved, completely free, and completing confident that I am known by God.  I go to church to enjoy praising God with other folks.  I don’t do one thing to earn God’s love; I also can’t do anything to lose God’s love.

So, in case you wondered, that’s why I’m so happy and full of energy when I’m teaching.  That's one reason why I can live with flair.  God’s love is unfathomable; it sets people free.  My teaching philosophy has much to do with the love and acceptance I extend from knowing God.  

Now you can say you know a professor who is also a Christian.    

Living with flair means seeing the harmony between the life of the mind and the life of faith. 

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why You Should Sneak into the Kitchen During a Wedding Reception

During a wedding reception today, my youngest was fascinated by the food servers.  They'd disappear behind swinging doors and return with iced tea at exactly the same time you needed more.  After the cake cutting, several servers took the cake away on a little silver cart.

“Mommy, where are they taking it? When am I getting my piece of cake?”

As we waited, she became more and more agitated about the cake, her piece of it, and what in the world was happening behind those swinging doors to the kitchen. As a way to pass the time, I helped her try to imagine the secret world of reception hall kitchens.

“Can't we just go back there?” she asked. 

I asked one server if we could watch the cake being cut for the guests, and he reluctantly agreed.   We tip-toed  back, deep into the heart of the kitchen, lifting our dresses to keep them out of the way.

Seven sweaty servers, like nervous surgeons, stood around this delicate and elaborate cake. My daughter peeked around my back to view this inverted perspective of wedding receptions. Back here, in the heat and pressure of food service, the reception experience was being made for the rest of us by real people.  Tired people.  People who looked up at us, embarrassed, like we'd just caught them all skinny dipping.  

They apologized for not working faster. 

When we returned to our table, my daughter waited with her hands in her lap. She didn't say a word. The cake came in due time, and instead of just enjoying it, she appreciated it. 

Sometimes I need to remember to take myself and others back behind an experience—to see how it's being made for us. There's an infrastructure to our lives that other people make on their backs.  It's not just food service.  It's any service that we take for granted that makes our days happen.  Someone is picking up the garbage, sorting the recycling, delivering my mail, or keeping the street lights working.  Maybe I wouldn't demand so much if I could just journey back and see what's going on from a different perspective.

Living with flair means to sit with my hands in my lap and not demand my piece of cake.