Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The One Word Reminder

Years ago, I read a parenting book about the power of the one word reminder.  Instead of spouting out long, elaborate directions to children, especially in times of transition (leaving for school, going to bed), you simply call out the one word reminder.


The single reminder houses an entire narrative:  the child remembers now to get her jeans on, put on her socks, and find her shoes.  She doesn't need my monologue.  One word does it. 

As I thought about the power of one word to invoke a whole series of commands, and how that one word gets a child's train of thought back on the right track, I wondered about my own one word commands.

What if I used one word reminders to get my mind where it should be and to realign my heart with the truth?  If one word helps children, why can't one word help adults too?

I used a couple on myself today. 

In the slopping rain, I call out to myself: flair.  Suddenly, I remember to look for it.   Later, I use the single word gentle to remind myself to be gracious and gentle with myself and others. I've been known to call out the word "Jesus" to invoke the enormity of the gospel into whatever situation I'm in. 

One word triggers--mantras of focus and truth--can reshape the day, get my head out of a muddle, and refocus my heart. We have an entire arsenal of power here.  We can apply it right now, that one word reminder, that will change everything.  

Monday, November 29, 2010


I learned last week about the word "belongingness."  It's the human need to feel like we belong to a group and that we are part of something greater than ourselves. Right after the basic need for food, water, and shelter, belongingness ranks next in importance.

I think we skip this need and move right onto the need for esteem and self-actualization.  We abandon belongingness because it doesn't seem important.  And yet, so many of us suffer from profound loneliness and the kind of isolation that drives us to despair.  I've seen it with my own eyes. 

My students often make comments that they felt like they really "belonged" in my classroom.  Feeling like you belong--that you are in the right place, in the right situation, with the right people--might be one of the best feelings in the world. I labor towards this goal for my students; I learn about them, share about myself, and insist on ridiculous name games for the entire semester, long after we know each other. 

Vibrant community--lived out in faith and love--fills the soul so deeply.   I'm learning that it takes effort to build community.  You have to do something:  walk kids to school, launch fitness groups, host potlucks, inspire creative project nights, arrange play dates for dads.

One day, you will all feel like you belong to each other.  You'll never be the same when you look around you and feel belongingness. 

Folks are suffering from a lack of where to belong.   Living with flair means I gather as many folks as I can and help them find a place to belong.  I don't wait for somebody else to do this work.  And before I know it, my heart overflows.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Daughter's Perspective on Holiday Shopping

We're in a glitzy store, admiring all the ornaments and enjoying the holiday smells.  As my children wander down the aisles to observe the dazzling toys, my youngest cries out:

"Mommy!  You have got to come see this!  It's amazing!  Come here right now!"  She's calling out to me, weaving in and out of shoppers to pull me to her side.  I think she's about to show me some toy--the kind with bells and whistles and a price tag we'll never be able to afford.

Instead, she drags me to. . . nothing.  In silence, she points to the floor.  There, on the store's carpet, imprinted with the markings of a thousand holiday shoppers' shoes, a rectangular rainbow appears from the perfect configuration of light coming through the window through some prism I cannot see.

"Look at it.  Just look at it!"  She moves her feet and hands within the rainbow, and I do the same.  The light on our skin makes us blaze with a spectrum of colors.  She's filled with wonder at this rainbow on the floor.

It cost me nothing.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Snowflake Photography

Early this morning, the children race around the house to announce the news:  Snow!  Just flurries, but still the excitement mounts as the sun rises on our town.

I grab my camera and go outside on this blustery morning.  I'm in thin pajamas--no hat, no gloves, not even my coat--and it's amazing how I don't notice the cold.

First Snow on a Berry
It's because I see something so magnificent it diminishes me for once.  I'm not even aware of my own frozen fingers. 

Snowflake on Concrete
Is it true that each one is different?  And why does this design delight? 

Snowflake on a Stone

Close up, I see something so wonderful, so miniature in its grandeur.  

Snowflake on a Log
The beauty of these tiny designs keeps me outside too long.  But I don't notice what comes against me; I don't notice myself at all.  That's what beauty--real beauty--does to a soul.

You get caught up in the awe of it, and even in the cold gray of a winter morning, you are set free from yourself.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Spiritual and Stylish Too?

Today, my very stylish sister takes me shopping.  I used to be stylish--maybe 20 years ago--when I had the means, the time, and the desire to look my best.  While my internal flair has grown exponentially this year, my external style needs help. 

I'm too tired, too old, to be cute.  

I'm too spiritual to be stylish. I'm too academic, too poetic. 

But there's a part of me that I've left behind somewhere.  My external flair has turned to. . . frump.   

So my sister has me in a dressing room at a very stylish store.  As I pull on layers of beautiful clothing, I'm surprised at what my heart feels.  

It feels wonderful to be in these clothes.

And then it feels awful that it feels so wonderful.  I know that life is not found in clothing; I know that true joy will never come from a shopping trip.  Living with flair means I find my true self in relation to God, not this soft pink sweater or these jeans that somehow make me look like I'm 18 years old again.  Besides, I'm on a tight budget.  Who can afford these things?  

I'm looking at price tags and frowning.  My sister sings out as she shoves more clothing into the dressing room:  "It's all 40% off!  We can buy a whole new outfit!"

I have a whimsical shopping bag tied with a bright bow with new jeans and a pink sweater.  As we leave the store, I mention to my sister that I feel guilty feeling so happy about an outfit.  I don't shop.  I never buy new clothes.  I'm above that pull of materialism and addictive consumerism.  I don't need these things. 

My sister reminds me that I've swung the pendulum too far.  She tells me I can celebrate being a woman in ways that showcase my unique style and elegance.  It's not ungodly to dress well.

I'm still figuring this all out.  I know there are wise and balanced ways to be stylish, and I want to learn them.

Do you have any advice for me on this journey?  How do you balance spending money on clothes while keeping perspective on what matters most in life?  Do you fear shopping addiction and materialism too? 

(It didn't help when I asked the saleswoman for her advice about my guilty feelings.  She said, "Oh, those? Don't worry.  They go away in a couple hours.")

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Even the Olives

Even the olives are stuffed at my house today.

The rooms overflow with family--children underfoot, waiting for a feast. 

Even the animals are well-fed and comfortable. 

What luxury to be stuffed like this. 

Even the olives cannot hold more. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Double Serving of Peace

I'm racing about, scrubbing floors and making beds, and my cell phone rings and rings.  Who has time to chat at a time like this?

Besides, it's storming outside and my beautifully raked lawn is now a tangle of leaves and branches.  Everything was supposed to be perfect as my family arrives for Thanksgiving. 

Nothing is going to be perfect.  I know this. 

I check the voice mail and a neighbor chirps:  "Go outside!  There's a rainbow sitting on top of your house!"

The Rainbow
The phone rings again.  It's my husband.  "Go outside!  There's a rainbow!  Show the girls!"

We stop everything and observe this glorious display.  It doesn't matter how anything else looks right now because there's a rainbow over me.  And it's now a double rainbow, barely visible, but there.  

I marvel at that sign of God's goodness and love, that sign of peace.  It's over me, barely visible, but there.   

There's a rainbow over you right now.

A double serving of Thanksgiving peace.  


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Keep Your Wits About You

When you carefully manage your mental health like I do, a change of routine can get everything out of balance.  An older, wiser mother I know offered her best advice for enjoying the holidays--despite any stress or change of routine.

She said, "Keep your wits about you." 

In other words, do whatever it takes to keep yourself in balance.  Even in the most rushed of days, I want to take time to exercise, sleep enough, eat healthy foods, and spend time in reflection and prayer.  My doctor says that these activities recalibrate the brain to keep me from being "reactive."

Venomous Cobra
Imagine a snake that whips her head around and attacks with speed and ferocious power.  When I'm reactive, I snap at family members and let the venom of a bad mood dominate my speech and actions.

Instead of reactive living, I want responsive living.  I want to be at peace in my heart and gentle in my speech.  I want to respond, not react.  I want to be like a butterfly, carrying sweet nectar--not venom--within me. 

So when I excuse myself from the holiday rush for a brisk walk, an early bedtime, or a moment to reflect and write a blog, I'm investing in my own balance. 

I want to enter a room full of friends and family and be a blessing--alighting as a butterfly upon each dear soul.  Let me offer beauty, let me delight you.  But first, let me take a moment to keep my wits about me.  

(Photos, "Indian Cobra," courtesy of Kamalmv, Wikipedia, and "Monarch in May," courtesy of Creative Commons)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Answer with Joy

Winterberry Holly
This weekend, I could not help my fascination with winterberry holly.  I love how vibrant the berries appear against a drab late-autumn landscape.  Those berries challenge their depressing surroundings with a hallelujah of red. 

Thorny Cages
They rise out of treacherous, thorny cages of leaves. 

They nourish entire populations of birds--over 48 species.  Even small mammals depend on these luscious berries to sustain them through the bitter winter. 

Let me rise out of thorns, answer with joy whatever dark background hovers about, and nourish those around me.  

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Texted: What Should I Do with My Life?

A high school student in my town had a problem.  She didn't know what she wanted to do for a career. 

So she polled everyone.  She texted all her friends and family--the ones who knew her the best--and asked them for their opinion on the matter.  She even inquired of her teachers.  She asked people what they could imagine her doing because she figured that those who know her best might have noticed some of her strengths and talents she couldn't necessarily see. 

A high percentage of texts came back suggesting she pursue a career she had never imagined for herself.  Her friends and family saw a direction that she couldn't see: a teacher.  Text after text explained to her why she would be a perfect teacher.  The texts even came back with a specific grade in mind with clear reasoning why.  This overwhelming response made her deeply consider a new direction and think through what she had forgotten: a childhood passion for teaching others. 

This is career planning with flair.

It takes a brave person to send out the question: "What should I do with my life?"  At that moment of humble confusion and uncertainty, an entire network answers the call to help.  In this student's case, the community arrived at a quick consensus.  All of those loving and insightful texts remind me that career planning (or any future planning) doesn't have to happen alone. We can poll our friends and teachers, gather wise opinions, and move forward with new insight. 

The subtext of those texts?   We love you, we care about your future, and you are not alone.  

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Am I Willing?

Driving through central Pennsylvania, I gaze with wonder at the work of Amish families on their farms.  Through the warmth and convenience of my car, equipped with music and movies, I watch the dance of their laundry on lines between trees; the long pants kick up in the wind, and the crisp white shirts wave as we pass.

A farmer works his field by hand, tilling the soil with pleasure.  Barn cats leap up around a little girl's feet as she pushes her wheelbarrow through the family's garden.  A mother collects sticks for her fire.  We have to slow our pace to give a horse and buggy room on the road. 

How inconvenient this all is.  How strange this work. 

As I think about the labor of living in my own very convenient and very comfortable life, I'm suddenly aware of my stubborn heart.  I want ease and comfort.  I want the smoothest way out of work.  But when I look back at my happiest days, the ones full of joy and peace, I realize those were days when I surrendered to the work.

I had a willing spirit.  I submitted to tasks, to people, and to my circumstances with joy.  I got up and worked the way a farmer works a field and wipes a brow.  I worked the kind of work that makes you so hungry you eat with a different pleasure and so tired you relish sleep like it's a precious gift. 

Will my children know this kind of work in my culture?  

The convenient and the comfortable, the lazy and the entertained life, may seem like pleasure, but it doesn't satisfy the way work does. 

Lord, give me a willing spirit to do this work.  Let me labor hard and enjoy the tasks before me.  Living with flair means I sweat and wipe my brow.  I meet the tasks assigned with pleasure.  

I want to be willing for my whole life.  As the psalmist writes, "Lord grant me a willing spirit to sustain me."

Friday, November 19, 2010

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

I'm frantic about my meatballs. 

Extended family will dine next week on spaghetti and meatballs the day before Thanksgiving.  I can't remember what to do, and I want to do it right. 

The Italian Mama advises me that I have choices.  I can brown the meatballs in olive oil and then cook them in the sauce all day, or I can throw them directly in the sauce.  The browning gives a little crunch, but it doesn't ultimately matter.  In her words, we'll still reach the "goodness inside."

I can throw them.   I can relax and still reach the goodness inside. 

For more Italian Mama:
Lesson One
Lesson Two

Thursday, November 18, 2010

You Cannot Contain This

My morning begins by watching children race down the street so the speed limit monitor sign records their speed.  I still haven't had enough coffee to move properly, and these kids are racing.  They know how to walk to school with flair.   I secretly want to record my own speed.  I still might, but I'm too busy trying to contain the activity. 

Turkey Masks
Then, I volunteer in the kindergarten classroom.  The teacher puts me in charge of the Turkey Masks for the feast the class will have next week.  I'm the monitor, and I can't contain this project; the children smear glue everywhere, and feathers are in their hair, on their shirts, and attached to their jeans.

Eventually, we produce these fine specimens. 

However, nobody can see anything once the mask is on.  I wonder about this, but then I see kids delighting in darkness.

Apparently, this makes the feast more fun and uncontrollable.  

Meanwhile, I monitor the purple glue sticks and question how in the world they go on purple but dry clear.  The chemistry behind this phenomenon has me stumped.

Something dries out, and the purple disappears. Who invented this great item?  Maybe the same person who, as a kid, would have raced towards the speed limit monitor sign.

Lord, let me monitor my own joy today.  Let me race down streets, wear turkey masks even when I can't see a thing, and stay vibrant purple.  Let me not be contained.  Let me have turkey feathers even on my jeans. 

I'm on my way to run in front of the speed monitor.   

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Most Impressive Thanksgiving

Right now I'm launching into my official Thanksgiving preparations.  Imagine all the family driving in.  Imagine the rooms to arrange, the week of activities to plan, the house to clean, the meals to prepare.

There's a way to go about this with flair. 

Lately, I've been reading and hearing a lot about how to handle Thanksgiving stress. At the same time, I'm reading article after article about how to "Have a Thanksgiving to Impress!" 

Does Thanksgiving stress come from what I stress?  If I emphasize wanting to impress my guests, my Thanksgiving becomes a performance to evaluate rather than a holiday to enjoy. 

I don't want family members to remember how impressive I was; I want them to remember how loved they felt.

So I'm cleaning my home to make others feel comfortable, not impressed.  We're planning a menu to nourish and celebrate, not impress.

Living with flair means I make preparations in order to love--not impress--those around my table.  Suddenly, it doesn't matter about this old rented house, this tight budget, this simple meal.  We'll hold hands around a thrift-store table and thank God for all we have.  You will feel loved, not impressed.

And that will impress you.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

When the Competition is You

Last night for Neighborhood Fitness Group, we dance our normal dances and crawl around like wild animals.  But then, the children beg for "The Jump Rope Challenge."  Turning jump rope in a basement is a challenge in itself, but we figure out a way to make it work.

"The Jump Rope Challenge" isn't a normal competition.  It's a battle against your own best record.  Before each child begins jumping, he or she announces a personal goal.  Sometimes, this number is 10 jumps.  Sometimes, it's 110 jumps .  There's a scorekeeper, cheerleaders, and rope turners, so everybody has a role to play.

A little girl jumps.  We cheer when she surpasses 10 jumps and reaches 39.  The next one exceeds 100 and achieves 102 jumps.  The next one beats his record of 18 and goes for 21 jumps.  High-fives!  Loud cheering!

The fun of the challenge is that you beat yourself.

I'm amazed because the children don't compare their record to other records.  The moment jumping rope is about their personal best--unique to them, in their stage of life, set right at their fitness level.  My sister has told me for years about the running world and "personal records."  It's not important who finishes ahead of or behind you.  You have your own time to beat. 

I keep turning the jump rope, and my arm feels like it's going to give out.  I tell myself to keep turning so that a little boy can reach his personal best.  Somewhere deep inside of him, he musters up the strength.  I see his face, and I try to imagine what's going on inside of his head.  He wants to quit; I see that.  But he doesn't. 

The scorekeeper records the personal win.  We tape the evidence to the wall.  Maybe I'll keep these charts in my basement for 20 more years.  Maybe I'll show them at their high school graduation and remind them of these nights in my basement when they accomplished a personal best and the neighborhood cheered.

They wanted to quit, but they didn't.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Detail that Changes Everything

In class today, we read the description of the town of Maycomb in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  As we imagine that beautiful Southern drawl, we hear how "ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum." 

That one detail comparing ladies to teacakes sets a mood for this little town.  It's a comparison worth making. 

The ladies like soft teacakes seem out of place.  It's a tiny detail, amid the "red slop" of rainy streets and "bony mules" that flick flies away.  There's even a dog suffering in the background.   I don't want to live in a town like this. 

But then, the writer introduces the lovely and delicate and transforms sweat to frosting and talcum.  Already, I know something marvelous will happen in the mind of this narrator. 

She's going to reconstruct a new reality for me. 

As we work on our own personal memoir settings, we think deeply about tiny details that change how we understand our pasts. We are the characters, looking back over our lifetimes, and weaving threads of meaning into our experiences.  Was there a detail that I couldn't see until this moment that offers a new reality?   Is there a truth I might apply that I only see now?  Back then, I only felt the heat and slop.  But now? 

Can I notice something different--one detail--that might turn sweat to frosting? 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Clog in My Heart

Yesterday, I'm walking alone in the woods behind my house.
Evening in the Pine Forest

It's not a very big forest, but it's big enough to get lost in.

I'm looking up through the pine trees, taking photos and moving forward with a grand plan: I want to see the sun set through the pines, and I want to find beautiful pine cones.

A chill settles on the forest, and a strong wind snakes around the trees like it's coming for me.  I know if I keep walking in one direction, I'll hit a road, but I'm not sure which road or how far it is from my home.

By this time, I find myself taking a winding path and tumbling out onto a foreign road like I'd been spit out from the forest's dark mouth.   I'm in some strange neighborhood now.   It's getting colder, and I'm sapped of strength.

Finally, I clench my teeth and call my husband because I have no idea where I am.   He's so loving about it, so gentle.  But I'm angry at myself that I have to call him for help, and I refuse to have him drive to pick me up.  Instead, I walk the mile home along a road with no sidewalk. I'm too smart to be lost.  I'm too capable to need rescue. If you saw a hopeless woman without her coat, tripping along and nearly falling back into the forest, you were looking at me. 
Pine Cone on Forest Floor

What is this deep resistance in me?  What ancient sap inside of me keeps me proud and unyielding when I know I need rescue?  I refuse for anyone to come find me and just take me home.

This morning before church, I review my photos:  The pine trees and these cones aren't oozing sap like they do in the warmer months.  In the colder seasons, the sap thickens and hardly flows.   There's a clog in the heart of those trees until the summer sun comes and warms it, changes it.

As my husband pours warm syrup over snowman-shaped pancakes this morning, I pray that God would unclog the cold, hardened things in me.  Otherwise, I'll stay lost and wandering in that dark woods. 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What Your Underwear Drawer Can Show You

I run down the stairs with my purse swinging wildly behind my back and cry out, "I have to take the girls shopping.  They need new socks and underwear. I can't find one thing for them to wear! "

"Are you sure they need more?" my dear husband asks in response. 

"Yes," I nod my head. "Definitely." 

We return home, and in order to stack all of our new stuff neatly in their drawers, it occurs to me to refold the little one's underwear drawer because it's a tangled vine of swirling tights, wads of underwear, and socks without partners. You can't see a thing in there. 

This is why I went shopping. 

I dump the whole drawer out, isolate items, and begin the slow process of refolding.

Long Lost Pink Mitten
That underwear drawer had 30 panties (that's thirty!), 10 pairs of socks, 4 leotards, 6 tights, and 1 missing mitten. Did I mention how many underwear?  Didn't I?  Thirty.

I learned my lesson.

We have stuff to spare.  The mess just created an illusion that I was missing something.  Had I paused and assessed the truth of the circumstances, I once again would have found abundance where I perceived scarcity.  

What theme is this God continues to show me?  Living with flair means seeing God's abundance. It might mean I sort through my life--isolate the blessings--and see all I have.  Once I'm organized, I find I have more than I need. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Where No Pie Belongs

Getting Ready to Teach
I'm in my classroom, trying to muster up some flair. 

And then, I see a student has baked two pies to share with our class.  She made an apple pie with a lattice crust and a key lime pie with a graham cracker crust.  One student sees the pies and says, "I'm having the best day ever."

Students gather, grab forks and plates, and we feast on pies in the midst of writing lessons.  It's still morning.  This whole thing seems crazy.  

A View of Campus
We have pie where no pie should be, for no reason at all, other than a student wanted to bring the class a treat.   We can't stop talking about these pies, their crusts, and the whole experience of eating together in a college classroom when we're supposed to be writing.

We eat and write, talk and eat.

Key Lime Pie
Meanwhile, I take a picture of this beautiful crust.  In the world of baking, a crust represents the foundation and the substance that holds the filling in.  It keeps everything together. 

We did feel held in--held together--by an unexpected treat.  And the writing seemed stronger, but maybe I'm imagining things.

Living with flair means bringing a pie where no pie belongs.  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

More Than Enough

A long time ago, a friend of mine remarked that you can see things more clearly in the late autumn and winter.  She said that the contrast of empty, colorless landscapes makes anything vibrant stand out that much more.  There's a focus you gain when you find yourself in stark places.

I like that.  I like that because when it looks desolate, maybe it's because there's something I'm supposed to see. 

Yesterday, I leave my house to walk to pick the girls up from school.  It's 2:15 PM, and here I am, trudging through my own bleak landscape.  I take my camera because I'm learning photography.  It's nearly winter.  Few leaves hang on the trees like lovers not ready to depart.  There's a desperation in the air and a sadness as I crunch all these dead leaves under my feet.  Everything mourns.  But then, I remember the feature on this old camera called "Digital Macro."  I fumble with the camera, punch the button, and look around--differently this time.

Glorious Acorns
I'm exploring with hope on this mile walk to school.   Two acorns survived the fall from their tree, and as the sun shines through the bare trees, I lay down on the path and take a picture. 

I rest a minute in the stillness of it all.  It feels like flair to be a grown woman stretched out on her stomach on the ground like this with her hands propped up to steady an old camera. 

What else can I find out here?  What beautiful thing awaits?

All of a sudden, the view isn't barren.  It's absolutely abundant
Autumn Berries of Richest Red

This grim landscape has gifts to offer. 

And even in the starkest landscape, there's more than enough.

Yellow Berries with Blue Sky

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Next Step

My one-eyed cat, Jack, has taken another important step.  

Remember how wounded and sick Jack was?  How unattractive and miserable?   We brought him home and gave him all the love we could.   He'd lost his ability to purr.  He couldn't even meow.  His whole kitty identity seemed withered and dying. 

Then one day, he found his purr again, deep and rich and wild.  We were petting him, and we heard the slow chug, like some distant train coming from a far-off country.  He's purring!  Then, nearly a year into his recovery, he stood in the kitchen, proud and tall, and let out his first meow.  That kitty self was back. 

The One-Eyed Cat Serves
It gets even better.  Yesterday, I walk into my bedroom, and I see the once lonely and wounded kitty in a warm embrace.  He's holding another cat.  He's holding her still and bathing her face and the back of her ears!  As I watch this display, I realize that Jack's journey has reached yet another point of healing. 

I snap a picture of him and think of what it means to care for somebody.  The once-wounded cat is now serving others.   

Living with flair means that we don't stay wounded.  We press on, find ourselves again, and discover where we might serve.  Even if you've had a loss that changes how you see everything (and limits you), there's hope towards a journey of healing-turned-ministry.  Maybe that's the best kind.  Maybe Jack is particularly good at caring for other cats because he's come back from the worst. 
The One-Eyed Cat and His Friend

Maybe I'm particularly good at helping folks live with flair because I lived without it for so long.  How could I not offer an embrace, hold you still for a moment, and speak out whatever words might help make today meaningful? 


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I Have an Announcement!

A Basement for Dancing
Last night, for Monday Night Fitness Group, we have 15 children and their parents gather to dance and jump rope in my basement.  The space isn't fancy--it's just big enough to let a group of children dance for one hour.  As we finish up with jumping jacks and a game of "Little Sally Walker," we pause for "Community Announcements." 

So many little hands go up in the air.  I have an announcement!  I have an announcement!  We sit in a circle and share our most important news for the neighborhood to know.  I begin with a challenge to walk to school--even in the snow--so we can celebrate our 100th mile with t-shirts and dancing.  I have more weight to lose and more health to gain, and I need this neighborhood to help me. 

Then the children go around the circle with their most important announcements:

One child has her first loose tooth.  We cheer and clap.  She's growing! 

The next child reports that there's a new student at school.  She says, "We have to talk to him and make him feel very welcome."  Another child pipes up that there's another new student who only speaks Portuguese, so we have to pay attention and help that new person. 

Then one boy announces that he "played outside the whole afternoon, ate dinner quickly, and rushed back outside to play."  We clap because it's a fitness achievement for him, and our neighborhood is on a mission towards fitness.   The next child claims she danced for one hour in her basement with her friend.  Another fitness win. 

Then, we hear of new badges earned in scouts.  We cheer more.  

And then, we are alerted to a neighborhood emergency.  Earlier in the afternoon, some of the children discovered a tree that had a rock embedded in the trunk.  They perform surgery and remove it. When they examine this tree, they find that too many acorns are taking root near it and within the hollow between two limbs.  They proceed to clear away the acorns and water the tree.  And then they observe that it's all solid clay around the trunk; no water seeps in.  So they grab shovels, till the soil, and mix in compost to save the tree.  2 hours they work.  Emergency averted. 

Our announcements show me what our neighborhood values: our growth, our community, our fitness, and our environment.  We celebrate each other and press on toward our goals--together.  We also value announcing our lives, living them out alongside one another.  A loose tooth, a new student, a tree in danger--these things must be noted and marked in our annals.  We chronicle lives lived in this little neighborhood.  We hear you.  We love you. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

What Can Warm You

A Woodpile
This time of year in Pennsylvania, I can see woodpiles in the side yards of homes.  Folks use wood burning stoves or fireplaces to heat their homes in the cold winter. 

Every time I pass by these wood piles, I experience a particular nostalgia for warm, cozy rooms.  I can hear the crackle of the fire; I dream up the glow in the room.  I let the imagined heat embrace my face and hands. 

Mostly, I think about how secure that family must feel; they've stored up fuel for warmth.  They've planned ahead.  They've prepared for the cold winds.  A wood pile symbolizes a security against that inevitable change of season. 

I've passed that wood pile for several weeks now, and even this morning, I can't help but smile at the warmth it will bring to that family.  The winter will come, and they will not just endure, but they will also have delight over these snowy days inside. 

I think about the change of season in my own heart:  winter.  When will it come?  When will I experience the next bitter thing, the next cold front that puts me inside?   I can't know, but I can prepare for it.  I can store up all the truth I can; I can build up a pile of beautiful, good things to warm me through the next season of suffering. 

I gather each log--each moment of wonder and worship--and I stack it up for later.  When I need it, that truth can burn bright and warm and help me delight in what I must endure.  

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, / Kallerna)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Danger of Inviting God In

Last night, my youngest daughter and I read together from a book, and it occurs to me that she's actually reading.  She's actually reading words.

She'll never be the same.  Once you learn to read, you can't undo it.  You see a word, and you must read it.  You can't refuse.  The effects of learning to read are irreversible.

And involuntary.  Try it.  Look at a word and try not to read it.  You just can't help yourself.  You've cracked a code; you've escaped from a labyrinth and nothing will ever look the same.

It reminds me of a life of faith.  The Teacher shows you how to crack the code; you're out of the maze. 

A life of faith irreversibly alters the way a mind sees the world.  It shimmers with the radiance of God's glory, and you interpret everything through the lexicon of God's love, goodness, and power.  At first, like for a young reader, the process is slow and basic.  You recognize God in obvious ways, perhaps recounting answers to prayer, emotions felt in worship, or wisdom gained through Bible reading.  But then, you find you're really reading.  You can't help it.  You read God in the tiniest moment and see into the life of things.

You'll discern the truth about this world.  Your heart will break, and you'll want to hug strangers in grocery stores. You'll start worshiping God when you see an acorn, a seashell, or a cat's missing eye.  You'll see a spiritual narrative behind even the garbage in the parking lot.  You'll write a blog every single day because you can't contain the worship and keep it all to yourself.

You'll want to proclaim things. 

That's the danger of inviting God in.  You will learn to read, and you won't be able to undo it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

It Really Works!

Green Tomatoes Leftover from Summer
I was a doubter about the whole ripening-tomatoes-in-the-basement plan.  Everybody said they would rot.  Everybody said they wouldn't taste the same.

My daughter and I journey to the basement late yesterday and sit cross-legged before a box of tomatoes wrapped in newspaper.  Just a few weeks ago, we gathered all the green tomatoes from our garden before the first frost.  

She unwraps the first one.
Tomatoes Unwrapped! 

It's a juicy deep red.  It's a brilliant and fragrant red. 

We can hardly believe it.  My daughter and I unwrap each red treasure.  The experience is better than picking them off the vine.  Add the element of doubt and surprise, and all of a sudden, we have a celebration on our hands.

Basement-Ripened Tomatoes
We carry our produce to the kitchen.  Outside, the cold wind blows.  There's a chance of snow, and the gray sky announces winter.  But my kitchen says its summer--the kind with fresh tomatoes and a counter top full of vegetables.

Roasting Tomatoes and Garlic
We get to work.  The little one decides we must make homemade. . . something.  We chop each tomato and roast them with cloves of garlic.  Then we remove skins and seeds and blend the whole thing into a delicious soup.  We've got grilled cheese sandwiches crisping and homemade garden tomato soup simmering.

I'm so thrilled that those tomatoes never ripened this summer. I'm so happy for that particular disappointment.

When Plan A fails, Plan B often turns out better--more magical--because of the unexpected, against-all-odds sort of outcome. The truth of it all hits me like the cold wind against this window.  Plan A has to fail sometimes because God's got a surprise in mind that I'll unwrap when the cold wind blows, in the sorrow of a dark basement.  That's when I'll need it most.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Your Beautiful Moments

I introduce Memoir Writing to my students today, and I ask them to write down one or two examples of beautiful moments they've experienced. 

I'm always amazed, year after year, with the types of things we remember from our childhoods.  Without fail, a student's beautiful moment has something to do with nature, friendship, God, travel, or overcoming a trial.  Not once, in all my years of teaching, has a beautiful moment emerged from memories of television or video games.  But the time they spend with technology (hours upon hours) would suggest that at least some tiny memory might emerge--some tangible image--that elevates the soul and provides a moment of self-discovery.  

But they don't have memories like that with technology. 

Yesterday, I went to a parent / teacher conference for my kindergartner.  In her journal, she was supposed to draw her "favorite moments."  She drew the swing in our front yard, the pumpkin patch, and jumping on the bed with her sister.

No favorite movies; no favorite computer games; no favorite technology experiences.  I needed to see that. 

My Sea Glass Bracelet
Just now, I visit my dear friend down the street.  Her son has a collection of sea glass, rocks, and shells from a summer beach trip.

He's teaching himself the art of jewelry making.  He presents me with a handmade bracelet, woven together with wire.

I will treasure this bracelet.  He tells me about the beach, about finding these shells and sea glass.  It's a beautiful moment.  And he's made this memory into a bracelet I can wear.  It's tangible; it's real.  It's the stuff of memoir.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What We Think and Do Not Say

Yesterday, I write an unusual email to a friend who lives in a different part of the country.  We rarely talk on the phone.  We haven't seen each other for years.  But this week, I think about her several times for interesting reasons.  So I write a numbered list of all the times her face came to mind. 

She's the friend who introduced me to the joy of cooking on a baking stone, and whenever I bring it out, I think about her.

I think of her when I order elaborate coffee drinks because we did that together years ago.

I think about her when I see pistachios because she once told me about a delicious recipe involving a pistachio crust.

Random things.  Fleeting things.

But I was thinking about her.  And it occurs to me to tell her this.   How would she know otherwise? 

Later, she emails me back to tell me she printed out my list and put it in her journal.   I think about that little list--baking stones, coffee, pistachios--that seems silly and unimportant. 

It matters so much.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Does Happiness Have a Sound?

Lately, I've been amazed at how loud the autumn leaves are.  They crunch underfoot, and those left in the trees chatter as the wind blows.  And then there's the haunting whisper of a leaf as it descends--barely audible--but still vibrating whether I perceive it or not.

I stop everything and gaze at that leaf.  It arrives on the ground soft and silent.  

What beautiful sounds never reach my ears?  If I stop and think about it, I'm hearing so many things at this exact moment I'm surprised I'm not crashing from auditory overload.

I know I'm growing older.  Movie soundtracks seem too loud and assaulting.  I can barely handle the frenzied circus beat of a video game.  I've been known to scream out, "Can't we just have some quiet?"

I want enough quiet so I can hear beautiful sounds:  the purr of a cat, the clink of ice in a tall glass of water served to guests, the hush of wool socks on the hardwood floor.  I want to hear the gurgle of homemade sauce simmering and the teasing fingers of the first drops of rain on the roof.  

And the measured sigh a page of a book exhales when I turn it. 

I take my hearing for granted.  One day, I might lose it all together.

I want a beautiful soundtrack to accompany this day.  I want to be still enough--aware enough--to hear it.  Living with flair means I manage the auditory track.  Might I be a gatekeeper for my ears and my living space?   Might I create a culture of beautiful sounds in my home--the kind of sounds that delight and don't disturb?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Something Strange at the Voting Booth

In my neighborhood, we all gather at the small Baptist church to vote.  We come and line up, all of us representing different party affiliations.  I love this moment, and sometimes I've even been known to cry right there in the line. 

I'm one very tiny voice in a very large democracy.  My ballot represents my voice in this system, and I come out of dutyHere we are--all of us together--participating in this supreme right of citizenship. 

I'm in line, and I notice that nothing is happening.  We aren't moving along.  I look ahead, and I see an elderly woman so hunched over with age that nobody can see her face.  She's propped up by a helper on her left and a cane in her right hand.  Her movements are painfully slow.  The folks working the polls stop everything to assist her.  A chorus of helpers ask:  Can she make it over to her booth?  Is the booth too high?  Can she hold the pen and cast her vote? 

It's like slow motion.  When we observe her, we all start rooting for her.  Volunteers call her by name to make sure she can reach the booth.  We are all participating in this moment now.  This woman needs to cast her vote.  Nothing will thwart her.  The moment takes on a weight I wasn't prepared to experience. 

It's a beautiful moment.  I feel suddenly aware of my own lack of interest in this particular election.  I'm aware of how inconvenient it felt for me to drive over to the church and stand in line.  I'm saddened by the fact that I had to print out a voter's guide because I didn't recognize half the names of the candidates on the ballot. 

The woman who nobody could stop from voting has a name and a story.  She has an opinion and a voice that shapes our nation.  Her presence makes me realize another way I want to live with flair.  I need to show up and participate as a citizen.  And I need to help others do the same.  You have a name, an opinion, and a story we need to hear to help make our nation great. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Love is a Tornado

This morning, my daughter hands me a little card that says her love for me is like a tornado.  She drew a picture of a tornado and wrote, "It's like this." 

I turn to her and say, "You mean it's powerful and destructive?"

She smiles and pretends she's punching me.  She tries to explain the comparison:  "It gets stronger each day like a tornado gets stronger with each spin." 

Her tornado is a giant mess of scribble that looks terrifying.  

Love is a tornado? 

That can't be right.   

My husband adds at breakfast that a tornado is like love because you "never know where it's coming from." It can take you by surprise (like how I met him when I least expected it).  

I look at this little family.  I think of the kind of love that breaks the heart and repairs it simultaneously.  I think of the terrifying surrender of it, the giant mess of living lives intertwined. I think of the powerful destruction that love's wake leaves on the landscape of a heart.  It's a tornado that rips you apart.

But it's the kind of devastation you endure because there's no other way to have it.  It's the most beautiful storm you'll ever experience. 

I hug my children--these little tornadoes in my heart--and think about the kind of love I want in my life.  Let it be giant and powerful.  Let it get stronger each day. 

Let it destroy what in me needs to be leveled and remake a pure landscape.  

(Photo:  Public Domain. Credit: OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) via [pingnews])