Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hold My Hand

Children hold hands.  They just do.  As I walk the children to school this morning, I notice how many of us hold hands naturally.  I wish we were all doing it.

When do we stop?  When did we become so self-conscious? 

Normally, we might hold hands to pray, to pull someone to safety, to keep our balance, to lead someone along, or to keep together in a crowd.

Whatever the case, when my hand rests in yours, it says, "I'm here with you."  It's a mark of belonging, of protection, and of love.

Maybe in other cultures, in other communities, hand-holding remains common and abundant, natural and obvious.  But here, I wonder if we aren't making physical gestures of belonging, protection, and love enough.

I watch my daughter enter her new kindergarten class.  Complete strangers!  She finds a little girl (a pony tail and sparkly sandals) who also likes turtles and Polly Pocket, and as I watch them interact, I see that smile and movement together that signifies I found you; I see you; I like you

When it's time to circle up on the carpet with the teacher, those two hold hands.  How natural, how obvious.

Living with flair means I hold a hand.  Could I do it?  Could I walk hand in hand with neighbors, colleagues, friends and not just my children?  Here, take my hand.

I found you; I see you; I like you.

(Photo "Hold My Hand" courtesy of Elizabeth Ann Colette)

Monday, August 30, 2010

That Hilarious Staples Commercial

There's a hilarious Staples commercial that never fails to make me laugh.  You know, the one with the father dancing in the aisle saying, "You're going back!"  Meanwhile, the children sulk.  The commercial captures that end-of-summer mood so pervasive among parents right about now.  However, this particular commercial misinterprets the attitude of most children in my community.

Yesterday, for example, a little boy rushed over to me to describe his backpack and school supplies (down to the color of the pencil grips and the size of the erasers).

These children are ready.  

I keep asking my daughters if they want to go to the pool, and my oldest says, "Mom, I'm done with summer.  I have to sharpen all these pencils and arrange my erasers."

At this very moment, I'm observing a beautiful mound of pencil shavings on the carpet.  I pull out her eraser pack and smell the soft pink rubber.  Could someone bottle the smell of new eraser and pencil shavings?  Could we market room spray?  Potpourri?  Yankee Candles called "Back to School"?

I'd buy it all.

My youngest (the one I just brought home from the hospital in that little hat the size of my palm, the one who just started walking, who just slept through the night) has her pencil case ready.  Her purple backpack is by the door.  She'll hardly sleep tonight because tomorrow marks the day it all begins.  She will learn marvelous and life-changing things in kindergarten. 

I want to keep this momentum going all our lives; returning to school--that community of curiosity, wonder, complexity, and beauty--should always be this exciting.  The anticipation of learning, amplified a thousand times in the heart of a 5 year old, might challenge us all to greet the day with that same enthusiasm.

We'll have not one pencil but a dozen in multiple colors.  We'll have our backpacks by the door.  We'll hardly sleep tonight because of how great tomorrow will be.

Living with flair means I'm too excited to sleep because of what I'll learn and friends I'll meet tomorrow.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

How I Detangle My Life

Before church this morning, I participate in a daily morning ritual with my daughters:  I detangle their hair.

This is not fun ever.  We employ various products, special brushes, and gentle mother-strokes to get their hair orderly and smooth.  They used to cry and shout about this.  Now, they resign themselves to it, clenching their jaws, staring stoic into the mirror to endure the process. 

As I'm brushing and comforting, I wonder about this process. Tangle, as a verb, means to mix together in a confused mass.  The verb actually approximates "confuse" more than any other verb.  Confusion refers to "the state of being mixed or blended so as to produce indistinctness or error; indistinct combination; disorder; tumult."

As I think more about tangles and confusion, I think about my own mind.  If confusion results from blending what shouldn't be blended--of mixing up what doesn't go together--then something about peace, order, and enlightenment involves separating out parts.

In the past, confusion always resulted when my emotions disagreed with the truth of what should be or should happen.  My feelings clouded a topic, tangled up the truth of a situation, and made a mess in my head.  I had to part my feelings from what was actually true. 

Working to separate tangles reminds me to do the work of parting my emotions from the truth regarding a situation.  Just because it's appealing to my emotions doesn't mean this or that action is right.  And just because I don't want to do something or it's painful doesn't mean it's wrong

As we leave for church, I'm thankful for a truth outside of my own perceptions and my own feelings.  I read the Bible and learn the commands of God because they tell me what is true and right about my life and my interactions with others.  I can make decisions, plan a course, leave a situation, or enter a new one based on ancient (but so current) wisdom. 

It's the ultimate detangler.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Taste of My Own Medicine

For all my talk of releasing children into nature, with nothing but pure imagination and the grass beneath their feet, I'm not one to take any time--as an adult--away from technology to just relax outside with no plan, no agenda. Is nature only good for the young?  What would happen if I joined them? 

How would I do it?  Would I be barefoot?  Would I look for frogs or collect random sticks? 

Leaving the cell phone and the netbook behind, I placed myself under a tree in my front yard.  The children played by instinct with the sort of freedom and abandon of fish finally released into water after nearly suffocating on land.

But for me, this environment of dirt, grass, pebble, and twig threatened to destroy my pedicure more than relax me.

But I stayed on, noticing the shade and breeze against my body.  I settled into the earth, introducing myself by removing my shoes.  I curled my toes around the grass and took a deep breath.  A moment later, a single white garden spider crawled over my big toe, and two ants found my left arm:  my welcoming committee. 

I'd been incorporated.

I was in.   

At one point, I opened a book and leaned back to read in the grass.  Afternoon shadows grew long, and the wind was cool.  The girls laughed and chased an enormous toad.

Their voices faded into the background of songbirds, the rustle of leaves above my head, and the hush of my own slow breath.   What peace was this in my heart?  What soothing balm? 

Tomorrow, I'm telling my children to send their mom outside.  She can't come in until dinner.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Love Stockpile

All afternoon, my daughter's been riding around on her bike.

She's collecting acorns.

She loads her pink basket and rides back to a rugged old tree--the one that's really three trees converging into one trunk--and fills it with her acorn treasures. 
As autumn approaches, she's thinking about the squirrels.  What if she stockpiled, for days and days, every acorn she could find?  What if she put them all in the tree?

One morning, a discouraged and unsuspecting squirrel would come upon that stash of treasure and go wild with pleasure. 

In terms of squirrel joy, could there be anything better?

The enthusiasm with which she goes about this task of storing acorns simply to bless another creature who can neither reward nor thank her makes me wonder if she's tapping into some spiritual truth (the kind that children always know but adults forget) about generosity.  

I find myself gathering acorns with my daughter.  Other neighborhood children join in.  We talk about the squirrel who will rest, on one glorious day, from all his labor, and bask in the light of the sun.  He'll have so many acorns!  We giggle and smile and go back to find more.

Every time I pass by that old tree,  I think of ways I might create reserves of treasures for, not just squirrels, but family members and neighbors.   I pray I can give extravagantly, unexpectedly, and secretly.  Living with flair means I delight in that kind of giving. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A face without freckles is like a sky without stars.

This morning, I have a great conversation with a rising 5th grader. This is the daughter of the mother who says the sign of a happy childhood is dirty children. This family doesn't own a television set, and they don't play computer games.

So what do they do?

Well, for one thing, this 5th grader has launched a dog care business and reads everything she can about dogs.

She has a subscription to Dog Fancy magazine. 

I tell her that there's a German Shepherd puppy down the street, and she says, "Give me two days with that dog, and I can train him to do anything."

This girl plays piano and improves upon Pachelbel's Canon in D with her own embellishments.  She can sing harmony with her parents.  She wants to start a blog to give advice to pet owners. 

She has freckles.  Watch out.  Somebody needs to make a movie about this girl (and all of her siblings).  

I'm convinced that 5th graders, in the absence of television, can change the world.

We talk on my sidewalk (after she's shown me her double-dutch jump rope skills), and she mentions something a woman told her at the ice-cream shop.   She said, "A face without freckles is like a sky without stars."  My 5th grade friend knows it's true.

This girl already has a slogan about her own beauty. 

We need more girls who launch businesses, develop their abilities, and move on confidently with their lives, assured that their freckles are absolutely astonishing in their beauty.  

I ask her why she's so smart, so wonderful. In fact, all the children of her family exhibit the same zeal, the same flair.  She says, "Well, all the kids like me don't have televisions. I think there might be a connection." 

And then we're on to a new topic of how she might be able to train my cats to shake hands.  "It's hard and will take a long time," she says, "but it's not impossible."

Of course not.  Not for her.

Meanwhile, I usher my children outside.  The oldest one finds another caterpillar egg, and the youngest one prepares the butterfly pavilion to take care of it.  They are filled with wonder.

After that, another mom comes over and, together, we teach both girls how to jump into the double-dutch ropes.  We've just had lunch, and they are back outside, running with the wind in their hair.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When You're Disappointed and Bitter

With so many tomatoes, how could I not make homemade sauce? 

It's violent. 

You take tomatoes and submerge them in boiling water for a few seconds.  Then you drown them in ice water.  Then you skin them.  Then you remove their seeds.  It feels like some torture process.  I chop; I puree; I simmer everything down to a thick sauce.

You have to do it this way.  No other process removes the bitterness; no other process releases the flavor.  

My daughter's helping me peel and chop garlic.  We've been disappointed, bitter, all morning because she didn't get the teacher she wanted for kindergarten.  None of her friends are in her class.  Head hung low, mouth in a frown, she's experienced this first violent assault on her expectations, her hopes, her dreams for her life.  

"Sometimes it's like that," the older one says.  "But the best thing about kindergarten is making brand new friends. You'll see."

She will see.  It is like that.  No other process will teach her how to rise above her disappointment.  No other process will release her from her rigid control of what must surely be the best life.  Released like that, her life can be that sweet aroma--that beautiful flavor--of a person who knows how to find good in any pain. 

No other process will do that for her. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What You Can Do with a Macy's Bag

The big red Macy's bag (the one somebody gave me) almost disappeared into the closet.  My husband dug it out a few days ago and used it to store our massive harvest of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and squash. 

"What are we going to do with all these vegetables?"

That giant Macy's bag has been sitting next to the kitchen counter for several days.  We've already made vegetable deliveries to neighbors, and still the end of season harvest overflows into our kitchen.  We could freeze them, can them, or give them to the local Food Bank to feed families in need.  

All morning, I've been looking at my bright red Macy's bag filled, not with glamorous clothing, but with vibrant veggies.

Over a decade ago, I traded in my Macy's style for a completely different life.  Working for a non-profit organization and teaching part time, for minimal pay, means our family shops and lives differently.  We're more thrift store than Macy's, more backyard garden than Wegman's or Whole Foods. 

But we've never had so much extra.  We left an extravagant life, and we've ironically never had more

When I wonder what I'm missing, I laugh when I look at my Macy's bag.  I give more away than I take in. It seems miraculous on some days. God promises abundance when we follow him.  He isn't kidding.  I'm so thankful for that today. I'm so thankful for that upside down truth: the more generous we are, the more comes back to us. 

Living with flair means I fill my Macy's bag with things to give away because I have so much.  

Monday, August 23, 2010

After All These Years

Every so often, I have a student who fits the category of "non-traditional."  These students always inspire me.  Some include single parents returning to school, full time workers who attend school part-time, soldiers returning from military service, or senior citizens who wish to learn a different subject. 

It takes courage to sit in a classroom of typical undergrads when you are in a different stage of life; you sit there and wonder if you can keep up or enter into the same conversations.  It takes courage to get out your notebook and pencil from a backpack that's been buried in your closet for 20 years.

They have flair.

Could I do it? 

Non-traditional students don't go home to dorm rooms.  They raise families, recover from battle, manage full-time jobs, and then--then--they can sit down to write their first essay that's due for my class.  They won't be at that fraternity party or that pep rally or that ice-cream study break. 

I'm rethinking education:  I want to make every lesson plan an act of service to advance these students efficiently in the direction of their dreams.  I don't want to waste time, assign texts with exorbitant prices, or set unreasonable expectations.   I'm suddenly aware of the lives students live when they exit the door: their night shifts at Wal-Mart, their babies at home, their aging bodies. 

Not everyone follows the same life narrative.  Especially in this economy. 

I'm also rethinking how I interact with everyone--not just my non-traditional students.  Pursuing education in nontraditional ways represents an act of courage.  For some of us, waking up and putting on our clothes for the day is an act of courage. We make coffee, greet the day, and no matter what backstory has derailed our plans, we press on in our nontraditional paths to our dreams. 

Living with flair means recognizing courage when I see it.

(photo: Rennett Stowe /flickr)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Delighted In, Rejoiced Over

While trying to get the children back on their school bedtime schedule, I have them tucked in at 8:00 PM.  They are hardly tired.  I tell them I'll sit in the armchair in the corner of the room while they fall asleep.

I feel like the Mother Bunny in that old favorite, Goodnight Moon (only I don't have knitting needles, and I'm not one to sit still).   

I have a gazillion things to do.  Besides making lesson plans, I could tidy the kitchen, fold another load of laundry, mop the kitchen floor--the usual. 

Instead, I stay put in that soft corner-of-the-room armchair. 

And then the most unusual thing happens.  I think it would be a good idea to sing.  It almost--don't think I'm crazy--feels like God wants me to sing. I have never been able to sing.  Couple nerves with probable tone-deafness, and you have a recipe for musical disaster. 

But I start singing every old hymn I know.  I'm singing over my daughters and imagining wonderful things for their lives.  It feels like I'm rejoicing and that I'm taking enormous delight in them with those warbling notes. 

The girls quiet down and fall fast asleep in 15 minutes.  I stay put in that chair and sing for a half hour more.  I feel closer to my family and somehow closer to a picture of how God feels about me. 

Something calls out to my soul as I sing.  I remember this verse from Zephaniah 3:17. 

The LORD your God is with you,
       he is mighty to save.
       He will take great delight in you,
       he will quiet you with his love,
       he will rejoice over you with singing."

I think of God sitting in the armchair in my own bedroom.  I fall asleep--delighted in, rejoiced over.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

What's Worth Keeping?

Yesterday, my oldest daughter had to choose one object from home that best represents her to share with her class.  The teacher wrote:  "Find one thing that best describes who you are."

She said she'd choose one of three things:  her Bible, her journal, or a photo of her cats.  She values God, her writing, and her family members (OK, they are cats, but still). 

I'm cleaning my bedroom and I pass over various things I've collected over the years:  jewelry, clothing, books, candles.  Was there anything precious in the whole lot?  Was there anything I could say best represented me--the way my daughter could find the essential core of her identity in 3 objects? 

Cleaning day suddenly becomes so much easier.  I don't need so many things.  I can pare down to essentials--the things that represent me and what our family values.  If it doesn't fit into that essential core, I can recycle it or give it away. 

I'm seeing toys and trinkets differently.  I start to visualize what it means to give my children objects that can begin to represent their core identity.  God, creativity, relationships.  Can it be that simple?  Suddenly, cleaning never felt so pure, so right.  Suddenly the toy aisle and clothing section of stores don't have the same pull.  Sure, I can buy things as diversions to fill up the days (as I often want to do for myself), but when it comes right down to it, what lasts (and what we want to keep) we can't even hold in our hands. 

Parenting--and living with flair-- might be broken down into these three things:  God, creativity, and relationships.  Does every room I'm cleaning help foster these three things?  If not, I'm rearranging the space and purging the objects within it to make room for flair.

Friday, August 20, 2010

When You Have to Wait for Something

I've been watching a chrysalis in my garden for a week now, and today a gorgeous butterfly emerged.  She's finally here!

She's a female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

She waits for the right time.  If it's too cold, too windy, or too wet, she knows.   She'll proceed another day, another month, when conditions are perfect. 

Today's her day!  So why in the world is she just sitting there? 

I read that after she comes forth from the chrysalis (a great word: from the Latin chyrsallid and Greek chrysos meaning "gold") she pumps her wings full of blood, and then she's required to sit very still and let her wings dry. They have to harden in order to support her in flight.

This could take three hours.

How hard must this be for her to wait, very still, when she was made to fly, when she's been waiting for this her whole life?  

As she waits, she's extremely vulnerable to many predators (birds, spiders, ants, wasps, snakes).  She's delicious and vibrant and without any defense.

I think about her all morning.  My youngest daughter and I creep around the garden barefoot, dew soaking even our legs.  We approach her, and she doesn't move.  She can't.  She's not ready, not even a little bit.
How could I not think of those of us waiting for things--letting our wings harden--in that fragile and dangerous time (dangerous because of the lies that assault us) when something's just about to happen but we aren't quite ready?    We have to stay still and obey the process.  We can't rush.  Our whole flight depends upon it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How to Handle Another Rejection

This morning, I get another rejection for this one novel that I just loved writing. I thought it was so clever, so unique, so compelling.  I wanted everybody to read it. 

I cry and cry.  My children come around me and the little one says, "Mom, you should just write children's stories.  You're so good at making stories for us."  And then the oldest one says, "You know it takes years to get a book published."  She's licking a popsicle and nodding her head.  She actually pats me on the back.

Here, have a lick. 

My wise neighbor (the one who danced in the kitchen with me) tells me:  "Don't you dare say that you got a rejection letter.  It's a revision letter.  Rejections are opportunities for revision." 

And my husband (the one who said, "Just because there's space doesn't mean you have to fill it) says:  "Don't you remember what Jack Nicholson said when he won his Oscar?"

He said, "I'd like to thank my agent who ten years ago said I had no business being an actor."

I would like to thank my agent.  The more I survive "revision letters" the more I get to the heart of why I write at all.  I just have to, and I'll revise until I get it right.  Living with flair means I learn the art of revision. 

Re-vision: seeing again, seeing new, seeing differently.

Isn't that the core of living with flair?  In small ways and large ways I'll take a fresh look and reshape, not just my novel, but everything that makes up the narrative of my life.  When it feels like rejection, I'll take another look.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Great Quote from Sweetpea

Last night I took my oldest daughter to a Secret Keeper Girl event.  The whole evening aims to inspire young girls to live differently in a culture obsessed with beauty.  A Secret Keeper Girl, I'm told, is kind, modest, and loves God.  Besides seeing a slide show of Disney Stars without make-up and untouched photos of celebrities, my daughter saw a fashion show of exciting clothing for young girls that doesn't sexualize her.

You're beautiful!  You're beautiful!  You're beautiful!  God made you!  Let's celebrate you! 

You know I have tears in my eyes as I'm thinking that the Secret Keeper Girl organization is really a search and rescue mission.  I look around at hundreds of little girls who already face pressure to be. . . beautiful.  As moms and older teenagers dance on the stage, I'm watching my daughter pump her fists and clap her hands in that unselfconscious way I can only hope remains for the rest of her life.

It gets better.  At one point during the evening, we see a trailer for a new Veggie Tales movie, "Sweetpea Beauty."  The girls already know from Psalm 45 that there's a king who "is enthralled with [their] beauty."

As described by Nichole Nordeman (who works on the music for the film,) in "Sweetpea Beauty," a common girl roams the forest finding beauty "in all sorts of unconventional things that might not be considered beautiful to anyone else. Her friend Prince Larry says to her, 'How is it that you find beauty in everything?' And Sweetpea says, 'I don’t. It’s God who sees beauty in everything. I just choose to agree with Him.'"

Nordeman adds on, "And I thought that was a great way to look at ourselves. God’s the one who sees us as beautiful, and we can either choose to agree and say, 'Thank you. I feel cherished and loved and I choose to believe that,' or 'I disagree' and work like crazy to improve on His work.'”

My daughter leans over and says, "Mom, we have to watch this movie."  

Sweetpea should write this blog.  It was a great evening for me.  My heart knows that finding flair in unconventional things that others might disregard comes from agreeing with what God has said about this marvelous, marvelous world.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What's Wrong with This Picture?

As someone who--for nearly a decade--was an expert in unhappiness, I'm learning what makes living with flair so important.  At our worst, we become deeply cynical and disillusioned with our own lives.  Everything's wrong.  Nothing's working.  We want to abandon ship and find new lives somewhere else.   We become desperate for change, desperate to feel alive, desperate for love. 

We need to catch each other in our descent and turn our faces back to the light.

We need to find the flair right here in the muck.  We need to rise above it.  Our happiness is at stake. 

It's just too easy to find out what's wrong.  We do it naturally.  My natural inclination is to figure out what's not working, what's out of place, what's off kilter.  The brain seeks proportion and harmony, so we easily identify variation and error.

But we get stuck there in despair.  We can't move forward.   Or else we take drastic measures to put things right.  We act out of fear and confusion. 

Maybe a better technique means I find out what's right.

What might happen if I focus on those small nuggets of good in whatever wrongness or sorrow I'm experiencing?   Most days, the temptation to criticize and complain takes over the whole landscape of my soul like clouds moving over the sky.   My heart aches and I sink down into the mire.   God is neither good nor trustworthy in this particular landscape.  I let that lie fester and bleed out. 

But not today.  I commit to finding what's right in any wrongness or sorrow or anything I'm missing or hating or dreading.  I turn that thing to face the light and find out what's so right.  That one right thing might be the bright hot air balloon that keeps me alight so I can find perspective, hope, and joy in the midst of the dark cloud. 

I'm still in my life with all its drama.  But instead of sinking down, I'm rising above it in a glorious ascension. 

(Landscape photo courtesy of Ian Britton at freefoto.com and Hot Air Balloon by Beverly and Pack flickr)

Monday, August 16, 2010

How to Hug Someone Right

Today I hugged Anthony the Cashier.  I'm at the grocery store, and I spy Anthony.  He doesn't look so happy.  I found out last week that two of his closest friends died in the same weekend--unexpectedly.  Ever since I heard that news, I've been making up excuses to go to the grocery store in case Anthony is working.

I wouldn't know what to say or do, but I just wanted to stand in his line with my groceries and be there.  

So I'm in his line today.  I say something about how sorry I am for his loss.  I tell him how much joy he always brings everybody and how I wish I could help him feel better.  He thanks me, compliments my necklace, and, in true Anthony form, celebrates with my children about the back-to-school cookies we are obviously going to make today. He makes us feel so good, and he's the one suffering. 

Just as I start to walk out the door, he comes around in front of me and opens his arms wide for a hug.  He's grieving.  His eyes have been crying for days.

I hug him right there in front of everybody.  It's a long, real hug.  And as I'm hugging him, I'm sending him all the mother love, all the God love, all the kind of love I can imagine exists in the world, right into his body.

And, I'm not kidding (and yes this confirms my nerd status), but I think of Arwen and Frodo.  The line in the Lord of the Rings movie that always gets me in tears is when Arwen holds Frodo when he's just about to die and says:  "No, Frodo, no!  Don't give in.  Not now."  And then she prays:  "What grace is given me let it pass to him...let him be spared....save him."

I know I'm not Arwen, and Anthony isn't Frodo, but the concept that I could pass on to somebody "what grace is given me," made that hug so important today.  Spare this person.  Save them.  Anthony's not literally dying, but emotionally he is.  

Why aren't I hugging everybody with the urgency of Arwen?  There's more pain in this world than could fill a million blog pages.  I want to reach out my arms and embrace as many people as I can.  Who cares if it's in the grocery store with somebody I don't really know?  Living with flair means I hug real and long.  I hug to pray that whatever love I know can pass into that soul before me.  

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Real Message in a Bottle

Yesterday, a message in a bottle arrived in my mailbox (complete with postage, sand and shells from the beach, and a scroll).  Apparently, you can send anything in the mail.  

I have the world's greatest sister.  Every year, her family sends us a "message in a bottle" (in a recycled plastic bottle!) from their beach vacation spot.  Her boys fill the bottle with tiny shells, warm sand, and a handwritten note from the sea.  When my girls pull it from the mailbox, you would think they'd just struck gold. 

This morning, my daughters fought over toys, begged to play a computer game, and cried at least twice each over some wrong done to them.  In desperation, I ushered everybody into the kitchen and dumped the message in a bottle out onto the counter.  I didn't speak.  They didn't speak.  They slowly picked up the tiny shells, began to inspect each one, and suddenly, peace like the ocean at dawn settled over the home.

Then, the questions come:  

"How do they get this way, all different and perfect?"
"Where has this shell been?"
"What lived inside of it?"
"What causes the different sizes and colors?"
"Why didn't it break when the waves crashed?" 

I suppose I learned (again) that toys and computer games that don't allow for this kind of questioning, this kind of wonder, aren't helping my children much.  It's the same story I've read all summer:  I have to get us all to places and objects that generate mystery, beauty, and awe.  That's the way to live with flair for our whole lives.  No greed, no conflict, no suffering in the presence of something small and beautiful that we can observe with wonder.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

So Uncool

Last night I brought my favorite game (Scrabble) to a swank wine and cheese party. All the women looked like they just came from the Sex and the City set, and I walked in with not wine under my arm but SCRABBLE.  Nobody wanted to play.  Nobody.   I'm still not over this.

Anybody want to come play speed-scrabble and then psychoanalyze the board with me? 

The thing about being uncool and very, very interested in words is that I really don't fit in lots of places.  Maybe you feel the same way.  Today, I'm curious about something you love that makes you not fit in many places.  I'm dying to hear from you. (It will make me feel better about last night). 

Living with flair means embracing what isn't cool about me.  Scrabble is the best game ever.  I'm standing by that.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Easiest Way to Persevere

There's just too much to do.  That's the problem today.  Most people have a threshold.  They can balance just so many plates in the air, and add just one more, and the whole operation comes crashing down.  Some of us respond with a paralysis and a moodiness that we can't beat.  We are overwhelmed and stressed out.

I'm lying in my bed, and I think of what needs to be done today.  It's huge.  It's mammoth.  It's impossible.  But then I remember one of the best coping mechanisms for that overwhelmed, stressed out, paralyzing, moody feeling of "I can't do this."

I think about tiny chores.  It's a simple truth your own mother probably told you when you had to clean your room.  When the chores seem too much, you just break them apart into teeny, tiny chores. 

And they have to be tiny chores.  Remember, we are overwhelmed and stressed out.  We can't tackle cleaning the basement, but we can clean this one inch of desk.  I need that small accomplishment as activation energy, as catalyst, as fuel.  Then, a reaction starts.  A glorious, vibrant one. 

So I start in the smallest division of my mammoth task as possible.  I do one inch, then the next inch, then the next and next and next.  You fold this one shirt.  You clean this one dish.  You study this one page.  You write this one sentence.

And soon you've written a dissertation.

I'm persevering through the day, and all of a sudden, the stress drains.  The finished tiny chore gives me a power that moves out in concentric circles like a stone I've thrown on the surface of the water.  I can do this next thing and then this one and that one. I'm inspired!  I'm energized! 

Perseverance is "steady persistence in spite of difficulty." I don't have to do everything right now. There's difficulty here, opposition there. But I can do one inch and see what happens.  I can keep doing my inches, steadily.  It's like starting to exercise.  You just put on your shoes and say you'll go these few steps.  Maybe you'll walk or run to the mailbox out front.  That's good.  That's the inch.  Later, you could run to the stop sign.  Next week, I won't even be able to catch you. 

Do the inch.  Living with flair means I think of this task in terms of the inch

Thursday, August 12, 2010

My Fight with a Ballerina

Early this morning, as the rain drizzles down, I drive across town to a ballet studio.  I've never in my life been anywhere near a ballet studio--at least not one like this. I walk in, moody as the sky.

Classical music, nearly muted, emits from a hallway.  I follow it until I'm facing a wall of windows peering in on a room lined with mirrors and ballet bars.  A sign on the door says a famous visiting Russian ballet instructor is giving lessons.  I lean against the glass and can't believe what I see:  Rows and rows of young men and women--maybe sixteen years old--dancing in leaps and turns and impossible acrobatics.  The women have tight buns in their hair, and their pink tights and black leotards move in strict unison. 

Why aren't they still sleeping like normal American teenagers in summertime?  How long have they been here?

It feels like a foreign country.  I'm only here because my daughter is five and obsessed with ballet shoes and twirls.  I'm only here because we've saved money for one activity, and as I tuck her in at night, she looks up at me with her hands clasped under her chin and asks, wide-eyed, "Mommy, when, when can I be a ballerina?"

For such an elite dance conservatory, the lessons are cheap enough for us to afford one day of dancing a week.  I approach the receptionist, fill out some forms, and then have to wait while she answers a phone call.  I find myself pulled back, like a planet in some larger planet's gravitational pull, towards those dancers.

I'm back at the glass, looking in on this new universe.  Now the dancers are lifting one leg high up behind their bodies and extending one arm out in a perfect line as if beckoning me.  Their bodies are suddenly so beautiful, so exact in movement.

I steel my face.  Why are tears coming to my eyes?  I've resisted ballet lessons for months.  There's no useful market value type of skill here.  I'll pay a fortune, and what will come of it?

Then, it happens.  One teenage girl extends her hand towards me and balances while her leg lifts behind her.  She looks down and then up to meet my face.  Hers is one of determination and sweat.  Hers is a face steeled in a different kind of focus.  She looks me in the eye and, for a single moment, smiles at me.

Oh no you didn't.

I'm her audience; she's dancing for me now.

As that girl dances, I'm so overcome by the beauty of it that I can't remember where I am or what I have to do today.  I'm lost in wonder.  How dare she do this to me.

They are doing all of this for me, for us, for anybody who takes the time to watch. 

I want to rush into the studio, stop everything, and extend my arms wide. I want to gather everybody to me and thank them for this supreme act of service.  I imagine dancers in other studios all over the world.  They are artists perfecting a piece.  Bound to the audience, they perform for us.  I imagine writers, film makers, painters, musicians, scultpors, photographers, actors.  I think of ways they sacrifice, burdens they bear, lifestyles they endure because they must develop their particular art for us to experience. It's a service industry.  It's a profession of joy-giving and beauty-making. 

C.S. Lewis said that "art has no survival value, but it gives value to survival."  My daughter might never do anything at all with her ballet passion.  It might come to nothing.  It doesn't matter.

It's beautiful. 

Living with flair means that I acknowledge that beauty has no market value.  It's too good for that. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How to Write a Love Note

You have to write it in your own handwriting.

And you have to hide it for the person to find later (when they least expect it).  

A few days ago, a friend of mine led me back to her bedroom to show me something very precious, very secret.  Stored within a tin container by her bed, hundreds of tiny notes, carefully folded and faded with time, made this beautiful monument of paper love.

My friend explained that whenever she left home for any reason--camp, a trip away, college, marriage--her mother wrote a little note and hid it somewhere.  Days later, my friend might find a love note tucked in a pajama leg, a Biology textbook, a towel.  The notes were simple and often silly.

"But it showed us all how much she loved us," my friend recounted, describing a mother's love in hidden notes for all of her children.  On this very day, that mother turns 60 years old.  To celebrate, friends and family were invited to send that mother handwritten love notes in the same style and form (rhyming couplets, whimsical messages) that she had composed all those years for her own children.  I imagine her bedroom might be covered with them today.

My friend shared this beautiful tradition with me in hopes I might pass it on to my own children.

That night, I wrote two handwritten love notes to my daughters.  One I hid under a pillow, and the other I hid within the pages of a book my daughter was reading.  When they found them, I watched them giggle and smile.  They came and hugged me.  My oldest daughter carefully folded her love note and went to her room.

I watched her put my note in a little basket by her bed.  When I went to look where she had put it, I found every handwritten thing I'd ever written to her carefully folded, stacked and stored.

Hidden love notes, handwritten and often silly, might be the scaffolding to aid how a secure life is built.  She pulls on a jacket, digs deep into the pockets one impossibly cold and dreary winter day when life weighs her down (as it will), and there she finds a love note.  It might just change everything.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What's on Your Kitchen Floor?

Late last night, I get out the bucket and the mop.

I mop my kitchen floor.

It's nearly 10:00 PM.   I fume that no matter how clean I try to keep that floor, it gets filthy. Cleaning day is Saturday.  It's only Monday night, and here I am, mopping the filth. I can't bear to wake up to it. 

The children sleep soundly.

I mop, and then I start seeing the whole thing differently.  I'm not mopping.  I'm reading.  I read a narrative on that floor.  I have filth because we run through mud and sand.  We drag wet towels in from the pool.  We spill cinnamon and sugar and butter that missed the toast.  There's spaghetti sauce here, honey there.  I mop ground up glitter from the fairy doors we made that morning.  Bits of twigs and parsley from the butterfly pavilion we constructed for the monarch caterpillar just now building a cocoon, scattered into the corners, come clean with my mop.

Peanut butter, eggs from the omelet my daughter made herself, pencil shavings from her new pencil for her journal, coffee drips from my own cup, a cat treat crammed into the tile. You can read a kitchen floor like some book of days.  We have lived for the past 48 hours.

One day, my kitchen floor won't need a mop at all.  It will shine clean. This won't be a good day.

I leave the bucket and mop out when I finish.  I will need it again tonight and every single night for the next 18 years.  By the time the floor shines clean, I have tears in my eyes.  Thank you God for this filth.  My kitchen floor has the kind of flair I love. It's a book I could read every night before bed.  Let it be a good one. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Middle of the Night Question

In the middle of the night, my daughter finds me and asks:

"Mom, is it true that moose are going extinct?"  The question has her up, alert, and worried.

"I don't think so," I say quietly.  "I will find out for you."

The truth is, I haven't thought about a moose in 15 years.  The last time I even remember reading the word "moose" was when I read Elizabeth Bishop's poem by the same title.  In that poem, a moose approaches a bus of travelers.  The moose, Bishop writes, "looks the bus over, grand, otherworldly," and later, the poet wonders:  "Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy?"

This morning I read that moose aren't going extinct (although in some regions, their habitats are threatened).  Their conservation status falls under the category "least concerned."

My daughter is relieved, and I'm left wondering why I'm not waking up in the middle of the night concerned.  Children tend to be concerned with everything, and for some, concern about the environment and endangered species keep them up at night.  My kids remind me about the recycling and the lights I leave on in rooms I'm not using.  They turn the faucet off when I'm brushing my teeth.  They remain concerned while I worry about what's convenient or only within my immediate experience.

Being woken up to consider the moose--the one I'm supposed to be "least concerned" about--taught me that living with flair means I concern myself with the world outside of this bedroom.  There's a moose somewhere out there, grand, otherworldly.

(Photo from USDA Forest Service, Superior National Forest Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Just Because There's Space Doesn't Mean You Have to Fill It

For the first time in 9 years, I'm going to have space.  Space and time.  Both my daughters will attend elementary school from 8:30-3:00 PM. 

Already, I'm filling up those future days.  I work part time and help coordinate ministry events with my husband.  I write novels and design college writing courses on the side.  Saturday morning I clean the house.  If you read this blog, you know that I keep busy.  I'm driven by some unseen force to produce, to achieve, to be recognized.   That's my dark side.

And it's showing up again as this new school year approaches.  I'm already thinking about new projects and new campaigns. I'm wondering what group I can organize, what new courses to teach, and what new novel I'll conceive.

My husband, the wise Eagle Scout that led me to the still water on our anniversary hike, said this:

"Just because there's space doesn't mean you have to fill it."

I stare at him, mouth agape.  Whatever can that mean?  I don't even know what that would look like.

This morning in church, I talk to God about my drive to fill space with as many things as I can.  What am I doing?  Whose affection am I trying to win? What prize am I racing toward?  I ask God to show me how to be led and not driven.  I ask God to show me what it would look like to have so much space in a day that I could rest, listen, and respond to my life rather than reacting in a rush of furious energy.

So I'm not filling space this fall.  I've turned down 3 offers for more work this week. I even said "no" to a teaching offer and a writing project.  Cheers!  High-fives!  I'm going to feed my soul and practice not filling space.  

I need space to be led by God and not driven.  I'm still not sure what it looks like to slow down and sit in empty space.  But whatever it is, it's a new thing.  It will be my less frantic form of flair.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Little One, Unplugged

Like so many other moms, I'm trying to limit all TV and electronics this summer. I've read too much research about what "screen time" does to a child's brain.  It's hard, but I have to unplug.  Will my daughters' creativity and imagination indeed flourish in the absence of television?  Is this summer insanity of bike riding, mud pies, swimming, long walks, and crafts, crafts, crafts worth it? 

Last night, we decide to snuggle on the couch and watch a show.  My youngest daughter says she likes to watch TV with her eyes closed.

"I like to just hear the words," she says. "My brain makes better pictures than the TV can."

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Disgusting Flair Moment I Couldn't Help

I'm emptying a litter box this morning, and I think to myself that it's impossible to find flair in a moment like this.

I didn't even want cats.  My animal loving, tender-hearted husband rescued two and added them to our already happy, one-cat family.  You know that story (with pictures) from an earlier blog post. 

With three cats, you have to empty the litter box.  If you don't, they won't use it and will find other places to go.   

There I am, combing the litter for those little deposits, finding them, clearing them out, and smoothing the litter for a fresh new day, and I realize how satisfying it is to prepare the litter box like that.  It is so. . . cleansing. 

Combing for the refuse, removing it, and smoothing out the area makes me visualize my own mind.

I realize this is disgusting and a little bizarre.  But if I'm going to be true to the flair moment, I record these things out of duty (no pun intended).

If you've never emptied a litter box, you might not know you need one indispensable tool:  The Pooper Scooper. 

I want one of these for my mind and heart.  I'd run the Pooper Scooper along the surface of my mind, gather up any trash, and get it out of there before it stinks everything up.   And I realize I'd have to do it daily to keep things fresh.   Remove the complaining, the negativity, the gossip, the worry.  Remove the fear, the stress, the jealousy.  Just lift everything up with the Pooper Scooper and get it out of of there.

So that's the flair for today.  Sorry about that.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Real Oscar Moment

I'm walking down the street, balancing two fruit tarts in either hand.  The neighbor at the end of my street (the Italian Mama!) has invited us for dinner.

They weigh a lot for fruit tarts.  As I walk, I start thinking about the task of carrying things in my arms for long distances.  It doesn't happen very often.  Something about living in America, something about prosperity, something about modern conveniences means I don't carry things anymore.

I know women in other nations who carry laundry to a river to wash it against the rocks.  Those same women carry rainwater into their homes to bathe their children.  Women in Kenya, at this very minute, are carrying their sick family members to villages miles away to find medical help.

I'm carrying fruit tarts.  

What are other women carrying in their sturdy arms today?  What physical burdens do they bear?  I thought of the woman in Proverbs 31 whose "arms are strong for her tasks."  People who carry heavy loads often have a strength, a resolve, and a hidden joy.  Theirs is a particularly robust form of flair.  But nobody celebrates them with recognition or reward. And they don't seek those things.  

We ate the fruit tart, and all evening I'm thinking of people carrying heavy loads.  Who honors them?  I wake up, still thinking of them.

As the morning progresses, 3 events transpire in rapid succession.  First, I read a paragraph about the temptation to build a reputation, to seek fame, to chase reward.  The author quotes Philippians in the Bible and shares how Jesus was "of no reputation," and did not seek to exalt himself in any way.  He "made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant."

Then, I help a friend pack up her apartment for the moving truck.  She's a professor who has served me on many occasions, and her whole vocation involves serving students.  At one point, she brings over a golden statue.  It's an Oscar!

I take it in my hands.  It's heavy.  Somebody gave her a fake Oscar for a present, and for a few minutes, we give each other imaginary acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards.

I carry it in my arms--this symbol of fame and wealth.

I'm not thinking of movie stars.  I'm thinking of women carrying heavy loads.

And lastly, my daughters return from Vacation Bible School with a craft that displays the exact same verse in Philippians about the servant of no reputation.

Might I live as a servant with no reputation?   They carry the heaviest of loads and shine brighter than any star.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

You, the Expert

I know many experts.  I have friends with cooking expertise, exercise expertise, teaching expertise, spiritual expertise, and parenting expertise.

They read, they study, they take classes, they interview others. These folks are wise

I call them all the time.  Just this morning, my sister, an education expert, talked me through my stress about my daughter's kindergarten assessment.  Yesterday, I called my friend, a cooking expert, to ask the proper technique for storing or freezing my scads of garden basil.   Then I talked to another friend who knows how to counsel me through spiritual questions. 

I even have bug experts in my life.  I place emergency calls when weird looking insects attack my tomatoes.
A vibrant mind continues to learn.  Interesting folks, I read, have at least 5 topics they study.  As they age, they continue to grow in these areas, accumulating wisdom.  And then they teach others.  Normally, I think of expertise more narrowly.  But why not journey towards more topics? 

If I had to choose five, I'd pick subject areas like prayer, writing, teaching, parenting, and marriage.  Maybe I could make these more specific and pare down each category into 5 subcategories.  At that rate, I will have things to learn and do even in my 90's.  Maybe I could assign a decade to each topic so, for the next 50 years, I'd have ways to grow.

My husband does this with his passion for history.  The 30's? Revolutionary War.  The 40's?  Civil War.  He spends 10 years reading everything he can on a certain historical topic.

This is why we have so much to talk about on date night. He doesn't experience that strange land called Boredom. 

Living with flair means I study to become an expert.  Maybe for this year of flair, I could expand my topics beyond semicolons and dashes.  Maybe I could become an expert in Italian cooking or dressmaking.  I'm on my way.

I want to have passion and growth until the day I die.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

3 Skills to Pass On

The flair moment came as I thought more about an article I read yesterday called, "Redefining Education:  Cultivating the Soul", written by Thomas Moore (who happens to have been a monk, a professor, psychotherapist, and musician).  He writes this: 

"There are many items we assume can't be taught that will simply fade away if we don't teach them: manners, civility, good language, mature love, good art, self-awareness and reflection, intelligent reading, responsible travel, care of one's home and belongings, a sense of the beautiful, intelligent spirituality and empathy for our fellow citizens on the planet. This is a small part of a much longer list."

All morning, I've been thinking about Moore's words.  How am I cultivating these traits in others (and myself) as a parent and as a teacher?  As I help students prepare professional materials (resume, cover letter, mission statement), I always remember what they report was most useful of all.  It's not the PowerPoint slides about effective resume design or how to format a cover letter.  It's the week I take to teach them these three things:

1.  The art of Conversation
2.  The art of Conflict Resolution
3.  The art of Community Organizing

When we discuss and practice these things, we know we tap into a lost art form of living well in community.  Students who know how to engage others in conversation, how to manage disagreements, and how to gather folks together to solve problems succeed more in work and in life.  They know this, and time proves it.

The lost art of living vibrantly in community needs revival.  This week, I'm reminding my family how to ask good questions in conversation (What was that like for you?  Would you tell me more?), resolve conflict well (listen, summarize, find common ground), and organize community events to examine and confront problems in our community (fitness, education, environment).  Perhaps these three skills will capture the essence of Moore's hopes for education. College students find them life-enhancing and often life-changing.  I know my family will too.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Interrupting Chicken

I'm told I need to pick my children up in the sanctuary after their first day of Vacation Bible School.  It's a ranch theme, and I'm already smiling at the teenage helpers dressed in overalls, bandanas, and cowboy boots.  I'm a little early, so I sneak in to see the skit that one group performs on the stage.

I can hardly hear them speaking because of the chickens. 

Yes, chickens.

On the corner of the stage--as decoration in a nice cage--three chickens squawk as loud as they can.  Somebody thought that chickens would be a nice touch, I'm sure.  Somebody had to pull some serious strings to get live chickens in the sanctuary.

The chickens sit on that stage and squawk so loudly at the exact moment anybody tries to speak.

I start laughing.  The other parents coming in behind me start laughing.  Then, all the children are laughing.  They call the chickens the "interrupting chickens," and it's obvious who steals the spotlight.  

It's never a good idea to use creatures as decoration, and apparently, you can cage their bodies but not their voices.  Those chickens took down a room full of humans.  I imagine some disgruntled volunteer went and released them.

Meanwhile, I'm asking my children about God, what they learned about the Bible, and what sort of ways they might have developed good character this morning.  They stare at me, wide-eyed, and announce that they actually witnessed interrupting chickens.

Chicken in a cage flair.   If only I could be so confident in the power of my own voice.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Google Street View and Happiness

Sometimes when I'm missing certain places, I'll visit them using Google Street View.  I can walk down childhood roads, visit old neighborhoods, observe favorite restaurants or city streets, or spy on my own house--all thanks to Google's Street View.

And sometimes, when I'm imagining what life must be like in a different city, I'll visit University of Melbourne in Australia, cruise a street in Beijing, or explore Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood or 5th Avenue in New York.  Yesterday, I even drove down US 25 towards my favorite summer spot in the mountains of North Carolina--all clicking my mouse on Google's arrows that lead in whatever direction I choose.    

It's always tempting to believe that a better life exists in another location.

I want to believe that my location is what makes life good.  If only I were in this place or that place or here or there.  But the deeper into the life of faith I travel, the more I realize the truth behind the writer's statement in Psalm 90 that "the Lord himself is our dwelling place."  And this morning before church, I read in the book of John where God says that "he makes his home" within us. 

How curious:  I dwell in God, and God dwells in me. Sometimes I think God lets me leave certain places and arrive at others just to learn this truth.  If God is my dwelling place, it doesn't matter where I am; I'm home.  It's the Spirit of God that makes any location marvelous.  Can this be true?  I want it so badly to be. 

Visiting locations from my desk reminds me that my happiness isn't found in a place.  It's within me-- where God dwells.