Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why I'm Making a Rite of Passage Ceremony Today

Today, we celebrate my daughter by a rite of passage ceremony that we've been thinking about for a long time. 

We are getting her ears pierced. 

As I think about rites of passage, I realize that precious few exist in our culture to celebrate girlhood--not adolescence or graduation or marriage--but just being a young girl.  I wanted the ear piercing to have ceremonial, symbolic importance that she might remember for her whole life.

We will have friends and family there to witness the event.  

I wrote a letter to my daughter for her to read about what her ear piercing symbolizes.  I wrote that whenever she sees her earrings, she will remember God's love for her, her family's love for her, and her realization of her own worth--far more precious than any jewel.   We are making a rite of passage to initiate her into the next stage of her growth.  These next few years will mean so much in terms of identity formation, and I realize the role that ritual, symbol, and community will play in that secure sense of self.

I turn 35 years old this week.  I wanted my daughter's ear piercing to coincide with my own rite of passage.  She has five years until high school, and I have 5 years until I turn 40.  What will we make, together, of these next years?  When I look at my daughter's earrings, it will symbolize my own journey as a woman and a wife and a mother. 

And I need friends and family to witness this.  

Symbols and rituals help build a meaningful life.  We can pass them on, weave together a beautiful history, and mark our lives by them.  When I look at my daughter's earrings, I will remember what they mean. 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

You Weren't Alone Today

Do you remember when I cried while mopping my kitchen floor because I was thankful for the filth?  Well, today I bring out my mop to clean the floor once again, but this time, I think of a different narrative.

I imagine who else in the world is mopping a kitchen floor at this exact moment.  Of the 6 billion folks living on the planet today, chances are good that somebody is also mopping a floor.  Maybe thousands of us are.

And then, I start imagining you fellow moppers:  your countries, your lives, your particular sorrows.  I can't help what comes next:  I start praying for unnamed, unknown people. I pray that you would find joy in the work; I pray that whatever happens on your floor today would be a good thing.

Then I go about my morning.  But something has changed in me.

I wash dishes, and I imagine other people who are scrubbing breakfast dishes at this exact moment.  Next I fold laundry and wonder who else of the 6 billion of us are folding underwear right now.  I smile and giggle to think of this community of underwear-folders.  And then I say a prayer for the people folding underwear out there. 

I'm not alone in these tasks.  I'm never alone at all.  We are all in this together--you, me, and people all over the world--mopping floors, scrubbing dishes, and folding underwear.  We did it together today.  So if you felt alone, you weren't.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Would We Have Done This?

Down the big hill and towards the school, some new neighbors moved in last Spring.  I met them once, and since then, our paths have not crossed.  Nobody on my street really knows them. 

Our community holds Trick-or-Treating on Thursday night, and as we approach this new family's house last night, we are already freezing in the darkness as wind whips underneath our costumes.  Then, I see a sign in the yard.  It says: "Wecome!  Come in for Hot Chocolate, Cider, Coffee, Tea, and Donuts."  Like a beacon of warmth and cheer, that house glows from the sidewalk.

We can't resist.  We swarm the place.  We stay awhile.   

The family nobody knows cleaned out their garage and turned it into a little barn with tables and chairs for neighbors to rest during Trick-or Treating.  The couple dressed up as farmers, and as they pour cider and pass out donuts to us--strangers--they laugh and smile and introduce themselves.

The family none of us knows is now the family that everybody knows.

This family models how to enter a community with flair.   The next time I feel lonely, left out, or unknown because I'm the new kid on the block, I'm not going to wait around for the Welcome Wagon.  I'm going to make a sign, clear a space, and offer the kind of hospitality that folks can't resist.  The kind of hospitality that makes people stay awhile. 

I love my neighborhood.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Your Most Memorable Act

Last year, my daughter's teacher asked me to provide some healthy Halloween treats for the 2nd grade party.  Everyone knows how terrible I am at anything involving baking, crafts, or decorating.  I try, but when it comes right down to it, I'm just not good at these things.

Halloween Boo Platter

I am good at words, though.  And I recalled the wisdom of my friend in Texas who says firmly, "Heather, God gave these children to you.  You are the perfect parent for them.  Your gifts are perfectly matched to their needs."  So this time last year, I arrange some vegetables in the shape of the word, "Boo."  I have no idea what I am doing.  I take some foil, make a pattern, and fill it in with vegetables.  That's about as crafty as I get.

The Boo Platter
Despite my anxiety about this platter (was it cute? would the children love it?), I bring it to the school party.  My daughter beams.  Children come over to read the word, and they laugh and eat vegetables because they are in the shape of a word.   It isn't even that beautiful as you can see by this photo. (Feel free to comment to make me feel better about this). 

Story over.  A year goes by.

This week, my daughter bursts from the school doors and calls out, "Mom, I signed you up to make treats for the Halloween party.  Everyone wants the Boo Platter!  Let's make another Boo Platter!"  She's holding my hand, staring up into my face, and talking about this Boo Platter like it's become a public school legend.  

I wake up this morning and arrange the foil in the shape of a word.  It might be the most important thing I do today, the thing that matters as the years go by.  God made me a certain way, and when I act out of that authentic self, I leave a beautiful mark.  A simple embellishment--in my style--to a platter created a memory--a tradition--that children remembered and needed.   These small acts that I think make no mark, that make no difference, that seem silly and awkward and out of place, actually embed themselves in neighborhood memory. 

Living with flair means pressing on in small embellishments that flow from my personality that help shape a family and a community. Sure, some other parents made more creative and impressive things, but what my children remembered and love was a word.  Because that's me. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Be Impressively Vulnerable

Yesterday, I admit to my dear friend that I'm not good at being vulnerable.  I'm better at listening and giving advice and pretending I have it all together.  I'm better at being cheery and funny than admitting when I'm not feeling well.  Maybe, deep down, I think that folks won't love me as much if I admit my struggles and my weaknesses.

I spent five years studying the emotion of shame.  One would think I could see through my tactics!  We hide away and protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable.  We preempt the mere possibility of feeling inferior, exposed, or judged by tucking ourselves away in protective spaces of various forms.  But my research regarding shame proves this:  when we make ourselves vulnerable, we create pathways for intimacy.  Our capacity for intimacy directly correlates to how vulnerable we are.

My cats perform dramatic displays of vulnerability.  When they roll flat on their backs and expose their tummies, they welcome affection.  Dogs enact even more impressive acts.  With incredible submission, a dog will lay down, roll over, and endanger himself by revealing an unprotected belly and throat.

In the animal world, showing the belly and offering submissive gestures signals love and trust.  What submissive gestures might I enact to signal to my friends that same love and trust?  A willingness to expose my underbelly--those weak and unpleasant things about me--might seem dangerous and shameful. But these impressive acts of vulnerability are what make friendship happen. 

Who wants a friend who can't be vulnerable?  Who wants a life shackled by the fear of shame?  Roll over, show your belly, and just see what love you find.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

This Doesn't Happen Every Day

As we walk to school, we find a cell phone and keys tucked away into the hollow of a tree.  These treasures arrive some days and leave by afternoon.   It's so. . . intriguing.  I imagine the tree in To Kill a Mockingbird and the gifts the children discover as they walk to school. 

Our walk to school, once mundane, now offers a complicated plot twist.  Who owns these things?  Why are they here? 

The crossing guard announces that she hides these items in the tree as she goes about her work.  She retrieves them after her shift. We slump down, the intrigue gone.   For a moment, we had a real riddle on our hands.

And we loved it.  We need intrigue.  I'm in the presence of the intriguing when I can't help but be curious, when I can't help but ask questions.  Intrigue, according to my neighbors, drives us to read novels, to absorb ourselves in television and movie plots, and to abandon everything to learn more and unravel the complicated twist.

I've got to see the intrigue, even in a town like this, on a day like today.  

As we approach the school, we gaze up to the morning sky and the tall trees surrounding the building.  A deafening crack interrupts our chatter.  One of the tallest trees, bare and majestic, splinters and falls.  As it falls, it takes another enormous tree down with it.  Children, parents, and school administrators stand there, paralyzed by the power of it.   Is this really happening? 

How intriguing this whole scene is!  We're delighted by it, entranced and curious.  We search and discover the ground crew, blocked by school buses, who orchestrate the event.

These things don't happen every day.  Intriguing trees have taken over my morning. 

What else can I find about today that truly intrigues?  If I lift my eyes, I might just see something.

Monday, October 25, 2010

3 Rules of Civility

As I teach about "civility"--showing politeness and regard for others--I realize how foreign of a concept kindness has become.  I ask the class why it's so hard to be civil.  We practice writing arguments that persuade others, and adopting a civil tone makes all the difference when trying to persuade. 

"It's more interesting to be angry and mean," one student insists. 

It's true, perhaps.  It's more entertaining to insult another person than to argue with fairness.  And it's easier. 

It's hard to be kind.  It's nearly impossible to be civil when we feel so passionately about our beliefs.  We speak from our anger and our passion.  

But our anger and passion do not always persuade.  

If we want to begin to have conversations that change individual minds (at least in today's communication climate), we have to begin from a point of fairness.   

What does it mean to be fair?  We mention 3 ways:  recognizing a good intention within the opposition, uncovering the story that generated their viewpoint, and summarizing their opinion without condescension.  Only then have we fostered a suitable communication climate where people feel heard and ready to engage. 

"This is hard," we all agree.  It's hard because if we feel condescending--if we feel superior--it inevitably comes out in our speaking and writing.  So we have to admit some difficult things about ourselves.  We have to admit we don't know everything.  We have to concede points and believe that our opposition's viewpoint might contain an element of truth.  We have to treat that enemy with dignity even if we disagree with their point of view. 

Only then can we hear people.  Only then can we open the door to a conversation.  Civility in conversation means we are discussing, not fighting.  We are finding common ground, figuring out what we believe, and journeying together towards truth. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Glorious Death

Autumn Leaves
I'm looking up into the autumn leaves, and I realize I'm watching a glorious death.  These colors--this vibrant display of glory--come at the point of death (technically the disintegration of chlorophyll).   This beautiful moment represents the end of life for these leaves.  I don't name it as tragic.  I revel in this autumn landscape.  I take a picture and marvel.

What forms of death are glorious?  When, like these leaves, is death a moment of glory?

A Glorious Death
I think of when the will bends to God in a moment of surrender.  I think of what it means to become absorbed in divine purposes--letting my right to my own life, my own plans, and my own demands disintegrate like chlorophyll.  Like autumn leaves, I am most beautiful when I'm at the end of myself.  The Christian life might be seen as a glorious dying--a surrender of self--to become a child of the one whose Glorious Death wasn't tragic but victorious and radiant.

Decaying Tree
Later, I hike through a forest and come upon a massive decaying tree.  I think of this as a glorious death as I imagine the refuge and nourishment such a dying tree provides for the ecosystem.  Might I see my own life as a fallen tree, bowed down, dead to self, so that I might find the life that's truly life?

A life surrendered might feel tragic and painful.  But not for long.  It's nourishing, radiant, glorious.  We see and marvel.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Annoyed or Delighted?

Whenever it's time to make up a bed with fresh, clean sheets, it's as if the cats know.

They run to the bedroom.  Soon, I wrestle two kitties out from underneath the sheets.  They return to burrow and tumble, peek out and retreat.   I coax them out, urge them to the side of the bed, and start to make the bed again.

Just as I tuck in the last corner and turn to smooth the blankets on top, I see the perfect round lump right in the middle of the bed and under my sheets.  

These cats!  They infuriate me!  I start from the beginning and remake the bed so the sheets and blankets rest smooth and precise.  Somehow, a cat wriggles his way back up beneath the covers and lounges there.

I hear purring.  I hear satisfied and taunting purring.

I look at that rumpled mess of a made bed.  No order, no smooth lines.  Finally I realize that as long as I have these mischievous felines, I will have a lumpy bed.  You can't make a bed properly with cats around.

Once I realize this, I just go about the process of making the bed differently.  I loosen the corners, I fluff up the blankets, and I invite a cat into caverns and caves I design. 

Those things I resist, those battles I fight, might be moments of surrender to the annoyance.  Some evenings, I retire to bed to see round lumps hiding under the covers.   Purring.  Loud purring.   It's funny.  It's endearing.  It's a source of delight.

Could the things that annoy me the most become a source of delight somehow?  Those things about my family members that I want to change might become endearing things.  Things I would miss if I didn't have them around.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Your 30 Minutes of Free Time

I ask my students what they would do if I gave them 30 minutes of free time.  What if I let class out early?  How would they spend their time if I gave them recess?

With unexpected minutes given them, they'd drink more coffee.  They'd study more for the exam at 10:00 AM. They'd prepare more for a presentation. 

A recess refers to a period of time when a person or group is temporarily dismissed from duties.  In schools, teachers mandate recess.  Children go outside to play, and they do not feel guilty about missing work or losing precious minutes of productivity.

Other cultures regularly foster guilt-free recess moments in the form of a siesta or tea time.

I'm thinking of instituting siesta, high tea, or recess as part of my day because in the absence of a mandated time, I fear American culture resists free time.   

Stop everything.  Go outside.  Relax and just enjoy something.  For 30 minutes--without my phone or computer--I have to go play.  I might rest on my bed.  I might sip a cup of tea.  I could even kick a ball around in my driveway.

Once I asked a woman to share with me her top 5 ways to relax and rejuvenate.  She couldn't think of one.

Recently, my children forged a trail through a forest so vibrant with autumn colors it seemed the heavens spilled paint down.  I walked with my husband and a neighbor as the sun set through the pine trees with that unmistakable golden light. 

The world moved on around us--the hustle and bustle--but out here in the woods, we had recess.  Maybe tomorrow we'll have afternoon tea.  Maybe Sunday we'll take a Sabbath siesta in a homemade fort.  Whatever form it takes, I'm ringing the bell to release us out to the playground.

30 minutes of free time built into our day--like a class we have to attend--sounds like rejuvenation:  restoring vitality, making us fresh again.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

When "Plan A" Fails

Green Tomatoes Before the Frost

We hear that a frost will come this week.  It seems so tragic:  dozens of beautiful tomatoes that never had a chance to ripen. 

But all is not lost.  As novice gardeners, we take advice from a master gardener in our community.  She tells us to harvest our green tomatoes, wrap them in newspaper, and tuck them away in a closet.  In several weeks, we'll have a bounty of luscious, deep red tomatoes. 

I've never ripened tomatoes this way.  It seems unusual and unnatural.  It's an entirely different means to a harvest. 
Wrapping tomatoes in newspaper

We eagerly wrap tomatoes like little gifts and hide them away to ripen.  We'll peek in on them every week and watch their progress.  It's not the way it's supposed to happen, but it works.  It's exactly right for this season.

I'm up to my elbows in unripe tomatoes that will ripen in an unexpected way--a way I didn't imagine existed.  No God-given dream in my life has turned out in the manner I imagined.  The right process, the plan that was supposed to unfold in a particular way, veered off into orbit and produced a harvest in a different way, under different conditions.  I've learned to trust this concept.  I've learned to accept, trust, and then rejoice when Plan A fails.

I hold my dreams loosely--gently wrapped and tucked away.  God knows when and how they'll come about.   

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What You Bring to the Fight

A great big dog and his owner arrive at our front door yesterday.  This neighbor has stopped by to visit on the front porch, but while fumbling with his gloves, he lets the leash loose.  The enormous dog squeezes past the screen door and rockets into the house.

Our cat, Louie, sits in the foyer, minding his own business.  He's licking a paw; he's yawning. 

And then, in a blur of fur and teeth, the dog nearly devours my cat.

Louie barely escapes.  He then exits the scene in what I think is a cowardly retreat.  But no!  That cat has hidden himself from view momentarily.  While hiding, the cat puffs out his fur in a magnificent display and returns to fight. 

Huge canine beast verses tiny (but now very fluffy) kitty.  There's no chance, folks.

But Louie knows he can dominate by speed, sharp claws, and clever maneuvering.  Size does not matter when you know what you bring to the fight.

We intervene and stop the brawl.  But all night, I'm laughing about Louie's bravery.  I'm chuckling about how he hid away, like Clark Kent in a telephone booth, to make his Superman transformation of fluffed-up fur that wasn't even impressive. Did he not realize how out-sized he was?  Did he not think of the danger?

It's ridiculous to take on such a monstrous dog.  But in kitty logic, size rarely matters.  Besides, Louie knew that my husband had his back.  And this was his turf.  No dogs allowed. 

That cat has flair.  His confidence, despite his size, amazes me.  Might I enter my mental and spiritual battles with the same fervor?  The enemy looms large, but I know what I bring to the fight.  I know who has my back.  Kitty logic might just save the day.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Little Secret

A student announces that she's no longer drinking.  At the beginning of the semester, she tells us she's known for partying, but today, she wants to stop it all.  We cheer for her.  Suddenly, the class feels like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  I don't mind at all.

I tell her that my husband and I aren't drinkers.  In disbelief, she smiles and asks, "You aren't?  Really?"  Other students chime in that they, too, have abandoned the drinking scene.  Here we are, at one of the top party schools in the nation, and some students opt out.

They're seniors.  It's a lifestyle they can no longer sustain. 

"I need to know more people like you," she says to them.  She needs to be able to imagine a world where people have nothing to recover from in the morning.

All day, I ponder choices I make that I need to recover from.   It's not just over-consuming.  Something as simple as staying up too late makes the morning horrible.  Last night, I sit down to work, and I realize how sleep-deprived I am from the night before.  Instead of working, I could get a good night's sleep.

So I go to bed.  Early.  

My choice to sleep seems profoundly spiritual.   I wake up without needing to recover.

I love that my students are thinking about the kinds of living they can sustain.  They make me think deeply about my own choices--what I can sustain for well-being, and what I can't sustain and harms me--everyday. 

I want to wake up without needing to recover.  That's another secret for health and mood:  if I need to recover from the night before, I wasn't living with flair.

Monday, October 18, 2010

5 Blisters

I count 5 blisters on my hands.

I touch each one.  A blister is the fluid that collects to protect the skin underneath from damage.  With that bubble of liquid in place, the layer below stays safe and can heal from whatever assaults it.  The blister is the skin's defense mechanism.

These particular blisters arise out of an afternoon of raking leaves and building leaf houses with my daughters.  We map out rooms to our imaginary homes and pile up leaves for walls.   In our minds, the architecture rises up, brick by brick, and materializes over our heads.  An imaginary fire roars in the fireplace.  An apple pie bakes in the leaf oven.

It isn't until I come inside to grade papers that I realize the damage to my hands.  These blisters are perfect protection from what I didn't even perceive was wrong.

I didn't tell my body to do that.  I didn't even know it was happening.  What an intricate design the body is that it protects and repairs without our permission, without our even knowing!  So while I'm off imagining a life in leaves, something makes that layer I need to live outside of imagination.  It's protects me when I don't perceive harm.

Blisters remind me of God's loving protection--the kind I don't invite or often value, placed right in my hands so I can heal.  

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Not To-Do List

Instead of a to-do list, a friend of mine suggests a not to-do list.  I'm at a conference all day teaching about writing personal mission statements, and I present the idea of a not to-do list, as in "what I am not going to do today in order to do what's best and more aligned with my life purpose."  People who aren't taking notes suddenly start writing. 

It's revolutionary for me:   I will write a list of all the things I will not do today.  I will make some space somewhere.

Two different people ask me how I handle the guilt I feel about that.  "Won't I feel so guilty?  Won't I disappoint so many people?"

Yes, you will.  You will disappoint people your whole life.  And those people need to be disappointed every once in a while because you can't meet all their needs.  You weren't designed to.

And the whole world will not fall apart if you say "no."  

As I leave the conference, I'm so tired that I literally cannot speak.  I need to rest.  So I walk in the door, and I make my mental not to-do list.  I will not do a load of laundry.  I will not grade one single paper.  I will not call this person back. 

I collapse with my daughters in their bed.  I start reading aloud from the Children's Story Bible by Catherine Vos.  It's taken us several weeks to get through the book of Genesis, and now, we are nearly finished with Exodus.  As I read the 10 Commandments, my oldest daughter asks me why our family isn't resting more on the Sabbath.  She lays her head back on the pillow and wonders:  "Does God mean no raking leaves?  No homework?  No dishes?  What does Sabbath mean?"

Right now, it means having a not to-do list so I make space for the best thing.   

Saturday, October 16, 2010

One Way to Say "I Love You"

A few days ago, my husband and I seriously start brainstorming ideas for our Halloween costumes. There's a lot at stake:  we have a party to attend and neighborhood children to impress.  

I have this genius idea--one I actually stole from a student-- that my husband could dress as Colonel Mustard and I'd go as Mrs. Peacock from the board game, "Clue."  We decide that, although a brilliant idea, it is too complicated (and nobody would remember that game). 

My husband begins implementing his plan;  he starts searching the Internet for "bear suits."

I repeat:  bear suits.  

He actually wants us to go to this party as bears.  I smile politely and then leave for the costume store.  

I find the most glorious red cape for a Little Red Riding Hood outfit.  I picture my little basket and my adorable dress.  Then I consider my husband.  

Lederhosen / Wikipedia Commons / Public Domain
The store features another fairy tale costume that's equally adorable.

It's Hansel.

Think lederhosen.

Think actual leather breeches and embroidered suspenders.  And a little hat. 

I rush home and tell him about this costume.  I have it being held for 24 hours with his name on it.  

"You could be Hansel!  From Hansel and Gretel?  You know, Hansel?"  I'm nodding my head and shaking his arm back and forth. 

"I'm not going to be Hansel," he says firmly.

"But it's so adorable!  Honey, please be Hansel."

"I can't be Hansel," he says again. 

I'm crushed.  I'm devastated.  He'd be the most wonderful Hansel.

A day goes by.  I'm still crushed.  And just about the time I'm going to search for more impressive costumes (Gandalf, Dumbledore, Batman) or else begin an ebay search for bear suits, I get a text message from him.

3 words.  

"I'll be Hansel." 

I call him back, and say, "Really?  Will you really be Hansel?"

He says, "Yes, I'll be Hansel.  I know how much this means to you."

It turns out that other husbands (the ones who we arrange playdates for), perhaps in an act of solidarity, are encouraging his decision.  At least one is seriously considering going as Hansel--standing side-by-side with my husband.  Maybe they'll be a whole neighborhood throng of German men in lederhosen. 

But I would have been a bear for him. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Beauty Always There

Autumn alights on my kitchen table as neighborhood children unload this gift of leaves.  We configure the apparatus:  one leaf, a white sheet of paper, and a broken crayon stripped of its packaging. 

Leaf Rubbings on an Autumn Evening
We smooth the crayon against the clean page.  As if by magic, the unseen leaf appears.

The children hold their breath, amazed.  One of them looks at her paper and then up at me.  She exclaims, "We didn't even need the Internet to do this!"

My youngest is overcome with the impossibility of it--a crayon pressed to her page reveals a pattern that's there but could not previously be seen. 

All night I press my mind against this event.  The leaf represented a reality we couldn't see but that made itself evident when we rubbed against it.  Was I encountering a truly beautiful thing in that moment, the kind of beauty philosophers pause for, the kind of beauty that poets claim can break your heart (and repair it)?  

It's always there, underneath.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Can I Tuck You In?

Last night, a dear friend of mine agrees to visit my children around bedtime to read stories and "tuck them in."  It's so whimsical and comforting:  a loving friend stops by, has a bedtime snack with you, reads you your favorite book, says bedtime prayers, and leaves you sleeping soundly by 8:30 PM.  That's a great tuck-in.

The Perfect Tuck-In

I want to hire her to tuck me in.

When do we stop needing that moment at the end of the day when somebody gets us situated in a snug spot and goes through a ritual designed to transition us into dreamland?

As I'm lying on the floor listening to the bedtime stories, I recall great tuck-in moments.  My dad used to throw my sister and me over his shoulder as his "sack of potatoes" to carry us up the stairs to bed.  The sack-of-potatoes tuck-in brought me so much security and joy each night. 

Years later, I was a camp counselor presented with the challenge of tucking in 7th grade girls.  For the ten girls in my cabin at Camp Greystone, I read the Bible with a flashlight in a soft voice as they listened in their bunks.  Then, I walked around the cabin, touched heads, straightened blankets, leaned over, and whispered something simple like:  "I hope you have a great night's sleep and wonderful dreams."  I would mention something I noticed about their days--something good that happened--and I'd remind them of the great day they would have tomorrow.

I tucked them in.  

They were 13 years old.  They seemed to hate it at first.  They'd turn their face away and act like they'd already fallen asleep.  But within a week, they'd beg for the tuck-in, reminding me that I should do this and saving tidbits of joy to share with me.

Another great tuck-in memory came as I recalled the year the preschool had an auction to raise money.  One of the auction items was a tuck-in from the teacher!  She'd arrive in her cow printed pajamas and appear in your bedroom for stories.  Families fought to win that prize.  The tuck-in prize was the single highest grossing item at the auction.  

I'm older now, and there's nobody tucking me in.  And what about all my friends?  Who tucks them in?

I want to tuck my loved ones in.  I know I can't literally do this (maybe I could), but I can symbolically provide tuck-in moments.  I can make a phone call, send a text, write an email, say a prayer.   I can send out a million reminders that you're secure and safe, loved and cherished. 

I crawl into my own bed.  I make a snug spot and remind myself of these things.  I read a book to myself and say my prayers.  I'm secure.  I'm tucked in. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Things That Can Wait

My sister texts me this morning to tell me to go to the gym.  I tell her I have too much to do. Later, I call and she doesn't say, "Hello."  Instead, she says, "I hope you're calling me from the treadmill."

My sister knows me.  She knows that going to the gym makes me able to manage all the other stress in my life.  For days, things have felt unmanageable for our family.  My husband commented this morning that he's had a revelation about what causes things to feel so out of control for him.

"It's my desk," he says.  "I can't handle the clutter.  When my desk is clean, I can manage." 

I understand this.  I can't go to bed with dishes in the sink.  If I wake up to a messy kitchen, everything feels like a disaster.  Doing the nightly dishes puts everything else in order.  And going to the gym keeps my mood in check.

"It's your way to breathe," my sister says.  She explains that for her friend, keeping an organized freezer helps her breathe. Other folks need to make their beds or keep the interior of their cars clean.  I suppose it's different for everyone

Those minutes I spend on the things I need to do to breathe buy me entire days of order and elevated mood.  Maybe it's dishes and exercise.  Maybe it's an organized freezer and a clean desk.   No matter what it is, I let other things wait so I can do the thing that helps me breathe.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Bored Student Speaks!

My I-Really-Just-Don't-Care student hands me some of his writing to read.  He's typed eight single-spaced pages.  I didn't assign him this project.  He wrote something on his own, and he wants to meet today to talk about writing.

He gives me permission to tell you this:

It's a personal memoir about watching his brother leave for service in the Marine Corps.  It's about the first letter he receives from him. 

It's about the first time he sees his face again. 

At one point, the student recounts the moment when he's about to see his own brother.  Mid sentence, he includes in parentheses: "I've stood to type this section because I can still feel the excitement."

I can't put it down.  The writing is so good, the story so profound.  I'm overcome with the fact that a student has to stand up to write because the emotion is that great.

The poet Marianne Moore writes in her poem, "The Student," a line I'll never forget.  She claims that a student seems "too reclusive for some things to seem to touch him--not because he has no feeling but because he has so much." 

I have to remember that.  I have to remember that the reclusive soul sitting before me who doesn't care about anything might actually care too much.  The silence, the frown, or even the bored comment masks something underneath.  Something so thrilling he has to stand up to write it.

I ask him again if I can write about him today.  He says, "I really just don't care."   Now I know what he means. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Your Adventure

Hot Air Balloon
I glance at the morning sky and spy a hot air balloon drifting across the valley.  This part of the country displays the most vibrant autumn colors, and hot air balloon rides provide a terrific (although terrifying) vantage point.

I'd never do it.  A balloon?  A basket?  Me in there, high above the earth?  Never

Moments later, I stand in front of college students who do remarkable things despite fear.  They visit Egypt on archeology trips; they study Latin American countries so they can travel and negotiate border disputes; they enlist in the Army and await deployment; they go into prisons and practice rehabilitation methods.

Unsafe things.  Terrifying things.

Yesterday, my neighbor tells me her oldest daughter is mastering Arabic so she can spend a year in the Middle East.

"Isn't that really unsafe?  Aren't you so scared?" 

"Of course," she says. 

Of course it's unsafe.  Of course she's scared.  But something else matters more than her fear.  

Later, I'm talking with a friend about her husband's new job offer.  A huge unknown.  A huge gamble.  She's terrified.  

I tell her to surrender to the adventure of it.  If you know what's going to happen, that's not adventure, that's a script.  That's a high-action drama with a plot-spoiler.  Don't give the fear power.  If there's fear, it just means the adventure is that great. 

No fear, no adventure.

The spirit of adventure I see in younger folks challenges me to move ahead in the face of fear.  Of course it's scary.  Most adventures are.  That's what makes them adventures.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

No Ordinary Day

This morning in the shower, I thought of the verb, "exfoliate," which means to remove a dead layer of skin, to shed the scales.  Exfoliation reveals the smooth new skin underneath.  You shine afterward.

Some days, I move through the hours as if under gauze.  I'm not seeing into the life of things.   There's a dead layer I need to come out from under. 

It all seems so ordinary, so basic.  No beauty, no wonder.   With eyes glazed over, I move through my life. 

But then I scrub it down, shine what's in front of me, and seek out the poem in anything from soap scum to a thunderstorm. As my neighbor said to me a few weeks ago, this daily flair project is a daily poem project.  If poems make the ordinary thing extraordinary, then that's what I'm doing today and everyday.  I want to see deeply and clearly. 

I'm on the hunt for beauty.

I want to train my daughters in the art of finding the beautiful thing, of naming it, and holding it tight.  We need time to think, to sit outside, and experience our lives. 
Seeing the world upside down. 

I tell them we aren't watching television because we have so much to experience.  I send them outside, and they swing upside down as the sun sets.

The older one takes a rock and crushes acorns to a fine powder. She wants to see inside things. 

Later, I find out acorn powder is a secret ingredient for a recipe she's making.  I did that as a girl, long before electronics dominated homes.

Crushing acorns
I went outside with nothing to do at all.

I came in, my face shining.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Fence Around Your Life

I'm driving with a friend who flew all the way from the West Coast to see me for the weekend.  This friend knows how to get to the point, say the right thing, and change your reality.  5 years ago, she looked me in the eye during one of my darkest days and said, "God is not against you.  God is for you." 

That conversation was a turning point for me. 

So I'm showing her around my little town.  I'm thinking of the glamorous lives people live in California, and I start apologizing that there's not more to do.  I point to the tiny excuse for a mall and say, "There's no retail here."

She says, "Less choice means it's easier.  You don't have to make so many decisions all day." 

Her commentary reminds me of the story I once heard about the school children who were let out into a school yard with a fence that surrounded the large play area.  With the fence in place, children enjoyed the freedom to explore, play in safety, and run free.  One day, a researcher took the fence down.  Without the fence in place, the children huddled together near the school building.  

What looked like freedom actually paralyzed them. They didn't play.  They didn't run free. They needed the boundary--that fence--to experience freedom and safety.

When I look at the narrow parameters of my life (small town wife, mother, part-time this and that), I feel tempted to rage against that fence.  I think there's more out there.  As my friend and I drove all over town (it didn't take long), celebrating the good things that God had accomplished in our lives, I found myself saying, "the more is right here."  The smaller my life becomes, the more abundant it seems. 

That's why it says in Psalm 16 that "the boundary lines for me have fallen in pleasant places."  The boundaries I want to fight are the very ones that keep me in the right place to experience God and all that's in store here. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Effect of Small Choices (and Celebrating 200 Days of Living with Flair)

On the 200th day of living with flair, I notice my one little finger joint has been hurting me for over a week.  In fact, the arthritic finger joint has changed the way I hold my hand when I type, grade papers, and perform everyday tasks.

This morning, not just the finger hurts.  The elbow too.  And now the neck.   Now the back.  Now I think I'm walking differently. 

I call the doctor. 

It amazes me that a small pain in one finger joint could upset the balance of the whole body. It changed how I moved.  The interconnectedness of my body challenges me to not ignore the cascading effect of one negative thing.  I ignored the one ailment, and look at the reverberation through my whole body!

Not a fun way to celebrate living with flair.  But then, I spin the story.  I'm looking in the bathroom mirror this morning and deeply considering the verb, "reverberate."  A small thing--a stone thrown in a lake--circles out until the whole lake feels it and knows it.  I visualize a cascading waterfall.  If an ailment can upset the balance, then maybe a positive thing, full of flair, can reverberate as powerfully.

What small thing might I do that could reverberate with a positive effect throughout this whole day? 

Drinking a glass of water?  Taking a deep breath?  Giving a hug to a family member?  Maybe my days fall off kilter, not because of a monumental problem, but because of a small thing (as small as a finger joint) that sets the day in motion.  As I think about regulating mood, connecting with God, and living with flair, I can't ignore the power of one simple act that reverberates and cascades down through the day.  

I start small.  I drink a glass of water.  I hydrate.  Who knows what I set in motion by that one choice? I can't know for sure, but for some reason, my joints start to feel better. 

Living with flair means I see the cascading effect of small choices. 

(Photo "A Cascading Waterfall, Flanked by Flowers," courtesy of Edo / Picassa Web / Creative Commons)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Try This at Home

I'm standing in the freezing cold, tapping my foot and sighing.

Backpacks by the door.
Finally, both daughters emerge from school. As I herd them away from the building, I list out all the things I want them to do when we get home.  Hurry!  Let's move, girls! 

We get inside, and I'm scurrying around to empty backpacks and neatly replace them on their hooks. 

My oldest (the one whose fame lasted till lunch) pulls me aside and whispers, "Mom, what happened to the warm welcome?"

The warm welcome?  Please, child.  It's been a long day. 

But she's right.  I love these children.  Why can't I just give a warm welcome?  As we talk about what we could do to welcome each other into the home, she makes this list:  

The Warm Welcome
1.  Smile and say, "I'm so glad to see you."
2.  Offer a snack and a refreshing beverage. 
3.  Play soft music or light a candle for a peaceful mood.
4.  Please don't ask questions or give orders.

That's the Warm Welcome.  It turns out that even asking how somebody's day was can feel like pressure.  My daughter tells me to wait until she's settled in before asking her questions. 

I seem to recall marriage advice along the same lines.  

How many family and neighbor entrances have I clouded with my impatience, my demands, and my agenda?  When a family member returns home, what if I didn't ask questions, give orders, or rush? 

I stop my scurrying, put on some music, light our pumpkin candle, and pour a glass of orange juice as my daughters transition from out there to in here. 

Living with flair means I learn the Warm Welcome. You've been out there.  Come inside.  We are so glad you're here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How to Enter a Room with Flair

I walk into a room and wonder who's going to talk to me.  Inevitably, I spiral into a self-conscious moment. 

I'm waiting for my daughters to finish a gymnastics class, and I look around the waiting room.   The lively chatter of mothers all around me makes me feel terribly alone.  I don't belong in this group; I'm an outsider to this world of sequin leotards, glitter hairspray, and the flurry of little girls trying to finish their homework before the coach calls them in.

Nobody is paying attention to me!  

Sulking in pity, I overhear a little girl ask her mother the difference between a homophone and a homonym. 

My specialty!  I can't resist such questions.  I have to assist.  For the next 5 minutes, I find myself helping a 4th grader think of words that sound the same but are spelled differently (homophone) and words that sound the same and are spelled the same but mean different things (homonym). 

You can't help somebody else and also think about how neglected you feel.  It's a strange phenomenon.  It doesn't matter that I'm supremely out of place here.  I'm serving somebody, and then, everything feels right.  And in a powerful turn of events, the mother who once seemed so cliquish and perfect starts telling me about her life.  Over homophones, I'm learning about a lifetime of heartbreak.

Each of those mothers might have their own story of loss.  The room isn't what it seems; it's nothing like it sounds.  Beneath the clique and chatter, there's somebody who needs attention.

Perhaps when I feel most alone, most forgotten, I need to look up, find a way to help and bless (even if it's through homophones), and stop focusing on myself.  I want to enter a room, take my eyes off of myself, and find the one who needs help.  Surely, that's one way to live with flair.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Ridiculous Ritual

Last night, the neighborhood children gather in our basement for Monday Night Fitness Group.  It's cold, dark, and dreary in the evenings now, so our alternative to biking and double-dutch is Dance Party and Jumping Jack Challenge. 

I don't want to do this.  I want to change into my pajamas and watch television.  Earlier in the day, one child races out of school and asks, "Is tonight the night?"   Children are calling my cell phone, begging.  My own daughters are already in the basement, ready.  We've started some fitness revolution, and I can't stop now.  Soon, I'm texting families to invite everybody to dance in my basement after dinner.

We're in a circle dancing to whatever comes out of my iPod.  At one point, the "Hamster Dance" song comes on, and 10 of us crawl around like hamsters.  Then we skip in a circle. 

I'm too old for this. 

A hula hoop rests in the middle of our circle, and each child takes a turn standing in the hula hoop and doing whatever dance move he wants.  The rest of us copy him.  As we rotate around each child, dancing and hollering, I start to feel like I'm in a tribe doing a ritual dance.

I think of Native American dances designed to strengthen tribe members spiritually and emotionally before battle.  Perhaps each of us, in our own way, fights something.  Each child needs us here, circled around him, seeing him, celebrating him, strengthening him for the fight. 

This ridiculous dancing suddenly turns to ritual right in front of my eyes. 

This is my tribe.  I need this.  We enact these rituals that, on the surface, represent fitness.  In a deeper sense, we build our tribe when we gather like this.  Deeper still, we prepare each other emotionally and spiritually for tomorrow's battle.   

We rally and fall, out of breath, only to rise up in a brave dance. 

It doesn't take much:  a space to move, people, and a song.  It cost me nothing, and I went to bed more satisfied than I'd felt in months.  I have to remember that living with flair means I build my tribe.  We gather up because we need that strength, that ritual, that dance. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

What I Cannot Change

The Braiding Impression
Over the weekend, I braid little braids all over my daughter's wet hair.  In the morning, we unravel her hair.  She loves the "rock star" look.  

Notice the pink sparkle headband.

A simple thing--braiding hair--but oh the joy in the morning when those braids leave impressions all throughout her hair! That zig-zag complexity dries that way and temporarily changes the structure of the hair.

But as soon as she soaks in the bathtub before bedtime, the pattern fades and straightens.  She can't believe how all that work (and an entire night's worth of sleeping on braids) dissolves with water.  It doesn't last.  It can't.  Her root system, determined by her genetic code, trumps my skillful hand.  

Sometimes the patterns I set are fragile and tenuous, delicate and flimsy.  What seems so fixed and certain dissolves when exposed to environments that test resolve.  But I'm still tempted to believe that all will be well if I just find the right structure, the right pattern, the right technique. 

I can't fundamentally change my life by new patterns or designs.  I suppose my daughter's braids made me consider the limits of external applications to change internal dilemmas.  I need to get to the root, allow for God's transforming work, and experience the kind of fundamental change that goes beyond clever techniques for happiness.  That kind of change won't dissolve in water. 

Living with flair means I don't limit happiness to external work.  I want the kind of mood change that's deeply rooted, deeply true. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

When You Start to Feel Old

After church, I'm chopping vegetables to add to my pasta sauce, and I remember my garden.  I haven't harvested in weeks because the season's over.  The peppers are surely past their prime, so why bother?  Those peppers are old, withered, and done.  

It's cold outside.  The leaves are changing.  The garden is no more. 

But something nags at me to check the garden just in case.  I run out into the crisp fall air, doubtful. 
End-of-Season Garden Peppers

Then, I get the camera.   

Whoever said a season's over or that something (or someone) is past her prime hasn't seen my peppers.

These Peppers Still Blossom in Old Age
I'm out there, knee deep in glorious peppers, and I'm laughing about all the hope out here in my garden.  I recall the verse in Psalm 92 about folks "planted in the house of the Lord."  The psalmist writes: "They will still bear fruit in old age. They will stay fresh and green."

And these peppers aren't finished.  They still blossom!  They still send out new leaves!  Defiant!  Prolific!  

Living with flair means I know nobody's too old or past her prime.  Things can happen and hope can live no matter what season, no matter what age, and no matter how long it's been.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stick with Them

Our One-Eyed Cat
A year ago, we brought home a sick cat with one eye.  Remember how he didn't purr, and then, after months of loving him, that deep, rich purr flowed out of him?  We tell the story of "How Jack Got His Purr Back," and we stay inspired to love what seems unlovable.  I mean look at him:  one eye, an injured mouth, and a tail that doesn't hang right.  He's a mess.  He's falling apart. 

But we fell in love with him.

Two days ago, our strange little cat looks at us and makes tiny, almost indiscernible yelping sounds.  Then they seem to get louder.  Then they turn into these little barks.

"What's Jack doing?"  we all ask.

"I think he's trying to meow," my husband says.  And then it happens.  He stands before us in the kitchen, regal and proud, and lets out his first full meow.  

The One-Eyed-Cat that nobody loved and who couldn't even purr is now meowing.  

Beautiful Cat
Last night, he curled up on the couch, and I thought of where he came from and where he is now.  We didn't give up on him. 

It took a year of love, and by golly, that cat found his voice.

Living with flair means I don't give up on people.  I don't give up on myself.  It may take a year to find your voice.  It might take longer.  But here, come sit beside me.

My one-eyed cat's meow came at the right time.  I'm impatient with my children, my students, and even myself.  Sometimes people are a mess.  They fall apart.  But stick with them; their voice is in there somewhere.

So Jack found his meow.  And now, he's tired of me taking pictures of him.  This photo definitely says: OK, stop now.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Ache You Need

My little one's molar has been hurting her for months.  She's already had a root canal (we definitely needed to invoke the Bad Day Mantra on that day), and still, the tooth pain won't relent.  Yesterday, the dentist prescribed an antibiotic to ward off infection.

"But we can't pull that tooth," he explains in his office.  My daughter listens, wide-eyed.  "That tooth is a space-maker, a place-holder.  If you pull it, every other incoming tooth will crowd toward that space, and her mouth will really be in trouble.  Nothing new will come in right.  I'd like to keep that tooth there for as long as we can."

I nod.  The little one nods.   

"It's about timing," he says.  "I can pull it, but then we'd have to design a spacer for her mouth, and it won't ever be as great as what God made naturally."

I smile.  He's talking Dentist Theology now. He tells me it's often normal for molars to ache while the new teeth underneath emerge.  Just wait.  A good thing is happening. 

The sore molar as a "place holder" to keep everything in line, to make things work as they should, stayed with me the whole day and into the night.  That troubling sore point in my life--whatever it is--might just be the place holder to keep things right until the new thing comes.  Could I begin to see those dark years as space-makers and place-holders that ushered in present joy in the right space, at the right time?  

The ache keeps things aligned.  It makes a space I need.