Friday, December 31, 2010

My New Year's Resolution: Be Soap

Before we leave to drive home from our holiday travels, we fear enduring the horrific smell in our minivan.  On the trip down, both girls get carsick all over the seats, the floor--everything in sight.  Have you ever been in a situation that was so unpleasant that it becomes comical?  Picture us pulling off of the highway, both girls vomiting, a snowstorm upon us, and no way to get the car clean.  And we still have 6 hours of driving left. 

Ha ha ha. 

It's hard to live with flair sometimes. 

Once at our destination, we try everything to remove the smell, including all sorts of sprays and deodorizers.  Nothing helps.  Then, Grandpa tells us his tried and true way of removing any car odor.   You simply take a bar of soap and put it under the seats.

As we pack up the car to drive home, I'm doubtful as I put that little bar of Irish Spring under the seat. I'm plugging my nose and hating everything about holiday traveling. 

An hour later, we pile in, and we cannot smell the carsick odor.  I keep smelling the air, skeptical.
It's completely gone.  The carsick smell is gone!   All day long, I'm thinking about a little bar of soap with the power to change a whole environment.  I can't figure it out, but I know it's working.  The soap somehow absorbs and neutralizes the offending smell.

Meanwhile, I have 10 hours of travel to consider my New Year's Resolution.  And then it occurs to me that I want to influence my environment like that little bar of soap.  Can I somehow absorb and neutralize every terrible, offensive, negative thing--neutralize it--and in turn refresh whatever situation I'm in?

In 2011, I want to absorb and neutralize.  I want to counterbalance every attack with the good, the true, and the beautiful.  And I can because of God within me.  Might God use us all to change every toxic environment into a sweet smelling paradise?   Even a small intervention--as small as soap tucked under a seat--can change everything.  

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Doing Everything Exactly Wrong

I'm reading a book to my daughter that mentions a bunny with a nose that wiggles.  I learn that a bunny wiggles her nose for a very curious reason.  It's not to help her breathe, smell, or provide any obvious help.  Apparently, a rabbit wiggles her nose only when she's attentive.  The more interested a rabbit is in something, the faster her nose wiggles.

A thrilled bunny, caught in wonder, wiggles her nose.

My daughter turns to me and says, "Mom, am I doing it?"  She's right up against my face, her nose touching mine.

I lean back and observe her.  She's moving everything except her nose.  "Sweetheart, you're moving your eyebrows up and down, not your nose," I tell her.  She then puffs her cheeks, puckers her lips, wrinkles her chin, and even blinks her eyes rapidly.

But she can't get the nose to wiggle.

She focuses, going cross-eyed looking down upon her nose.  I hold her face, offer some advice, and wait. I consider the task before her and realize the difficulty of mastering that particular movement.  She does it exactly wrong as part of learning the skill.  By a process of elimination, she figures it out. Finally, she moves her nose and her little nostrils flare a few times.   

This won't be the last time we go about getting it right by getting it all wrong first.  How many times in my own life have I done everything exactly wrong on my way to figuring it all out?

Doesn't God hold my face close, waiting with me--patiently directing-- as I get it right?  My little one, that curious bunny hopping about, wiggling her nose, reminds me that living with flair means I sometimes do everything exactly wrong as I explore this great world with wonder.  And that helps me get it right eventually.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What America Cannot Lose

Elliotts Pharmacy since 1914
Yesterday, I encounter flair in a drugstore.

My husband's family owns the independent pharmacy in the honest town of Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina.  If you've lost faith in good people and genuine community living, come visit downtown Fuquay to inspire your heart.  The folks in this place live with the kind of flair that has motivated me since the day I first visited. 

This drugstore, Elliotts Pharmacy, has served the community since 1914, and it still has the fountain to serve customers vanilla cokes, pimento cheese sandwiches, sweet tea, and the best milkshakes in town. 

I had never used the words pimento cheese sandwiches before I married into this town.  I had never seen folks line up for sausage biscuits and orangeade.  If you've never had these things, you are not fully alive yet. 

We walk in, and we enter another time and place--the kind of era when folks stop everything, come out from behind their cash register, and shake your hand.  It's the kind of place where you know everybody, and everybody knows you.

You can spin around on the bar stools, just like your granddaddy did when he came to Elliotts after school with a nickle to buy a cola and a dime for square nabs or a candy bar. 

You can talk to the pharmacist about anything you want, and he'll remember everything about you if he doesn't already know.  He will not rush you.  People in the South don't know how to rush. 

I know for a fact that he once brought a customer a heating pad in the middle of the night, and he answers his phone during Christmas dinner to take care of any customer in town who needs him.  Right now, I asked him to read this blog before I posted it, and he said he'd be right back because he's delivering medicine to a customer.

Would a big box pharmacy do that?  Have I ever once sat around a chain drug store, eating lunch and shaking hands with my neighbors and asking about their relatives?

Grandpa says his store is "a modern pharmacy with old-fashioned qualities."  I love that.  I want my whole life to be modern with old-fashioned qualities like Elliotts.

I'm not ready to let a place like Elliotts go.  While so many downtown stores close because customers go to Super Centers, places like Elliotts wait patiently on the corner.  A drugstore like that symbolizes what we cannot lose in America.   

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sledding in My Pearls

Our Saucer Sled
It's late afternoon, and I'm all fixed up for a night out.  I even have my pearls on. 

My youngest daughter stands by the door and says, "Mom, can we go sledding real quick?  Real quick?"  She's already pulling on her snow pants, and as I look out the window towards the sledding hill, something comes over me.  I realize I must do this; I must take a minute and live with flair.  So many moments of pure joy have come from spontaneous, ridiculous activity.  I have to go sledding. 

Of course this makes no sense at all. 

I pull on Grandpa's huge snowsuit (that fits over my outfit without messing it up), grab my husband's jacket and gloves, yank on some boots, and I'm out the door. 

Sledding in Pearls
We sled down the hill in a bright blue saucer.  I sit down first, and she plops down right on top of me.  We push off, holding on to each other for dear life. 

I'm actually late for our evening plans.  As the woman who is always ten minutes early to everything, I'm amazed with the joy I feel being late for something.  I apologize to the other couples and point to the sledding hill.  As I strip off my snow gear, I tell everyone not to worry.  I'm ready to go.  See?  I even have my pearls on. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

When You Feel Like Burnt Toast

When you burn food, you apparently ruin it by overcooking.  Too much time, too much heat, and the thing burns.  This morning, I nearly incinerate the bread in the toaster oven as I attempt to make toast for my daughter.  I'm not paying attention, and before I know it, the bread loses that delicious browned toasty color and suddenly adopts the despair of burnt black waste.

But I'm standing by a grandmother who, among millions of other wise lessons, teaches me not to waste anything.  I pick up that toast and consider the truth that it's only surface damage.  I can salvage something good from this disaster.

I scrape the charred landscape to reveal the real thing underneath: perfect toast.

It only looked like disaster.  It only seemed like despair.  

These things about my day, my life, that feel like something burnt beyond repair might be perceived differently.  Underneath the surface, the true good thing remains.  I ask God to run the butter knife over the landscape of my life, clear that surface damage, and let the real me shine through.

Living with flair means that when I feel like burnt toast, I remember what's unseen beneath the surface. 

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Will Eating Snow Kill Me?

Holiday Snowfall
Traveling south, we emerge into a winter wonderland.  Every direction you turn, you see white fluffy frosting, pure enough to eat.

So we actually eat it.

I stand by a tree, lean in, and lick like I'm eating from a kind hand.  My children shovel snow into their mouths like it's vanilla ice cream.

I imagine coconut or maybe white chocolate flakes. 

For a moment, I think about pollution, toxic things, and all the germs I'm taking in with every lick.  I've read the websites that tell me I'm eating more bacteria with every taste of snow than if I were actually eating dirt in the yard.  This was last year, when the girls wanted to flavor their snow with syrup to pretend they were pioneer girls like Mary and Laura Ingalls.  I let them, even though I read that you should limit your snow consumption to one cup every 5 years. These websites also claim that I am eating spores from outer space every time I eat a snowflake.

Just now, I think I ate 2 cups of snow.  I'm doomed! 

I couldn't help it.  The sky made a beautiful gesture--an appetizer offered from the trees' arms, like servers' platters at a fancy party--and I bent down and received what nature made.  I am trusting my stomach acid to neutralize what I've just done to myself. 

Living with flair means I eat a little snow. Maybe just one lick.  I just had to.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

What We Most Want

Finally, at 6:00 AM, we agree to open presents.  This is only after the 2:00 AM squeal alert that presents had arrived under the tree.

My living room sparkles with shreds of wrapping paper, bows, and tissue paper.  By now, the little girls play happily with their new dolls, and I drink coffee--lots and lots of coffee.  

Amid the laughter, I hear my husband calling out, "Can you think of any other person's birthday party where you get the presents?"

He turns to me and says, "Isn't that the real meaning of gospel?  We celebrate Jesus, but we end up getting the gifts." 

Bring on the gifts, the shimmering joy, the peace, and the love.   May we unwrap His gifts upon gifts, in obvious and hidden forms, today and all year.  May we have the hope and the faith to see them, despite every circumstance.

May we lift our eyes and be led to what we've been waiting for all our lives.  Can it be that what we most want, we find in that manger?

Merry Christmas from Live with Flair!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Light in the Darkness

In the hustle and bustle of this Christmas Eve day, I pause to think about my electric candles set in every window of our home.  Within the core of these candles, the builder placed a photo sensor that automatically responds when the light grows dim outside.  As soon as it's dark enough, the candles light up.  We never have to turn them on--the darkness does it for us.

The darkness makes the light shine.  As I think about this day, I know that many suffer in unimaginable ways.  Friends and family members have passed on, and this Christmas, we often think about who is missing from our gathering.  Instead of experiencing a joyful holiday, some of us feel the darkness of sorrow.

I love that Psalm 18 says "God turns my darkness to light," and the promise of Christmas, recorded in Isaiah 9, is that "the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned."

The deep darkness (no matter what kind) doesn't win this Christmas. Sometimes the Builder makes it so that we pass through a bit of darkness in order to discover that light.  My strange little candles remind me that living with flair means that when I sense the darkness coming, I know the light will shine.  I don't have to manufacture it or flip some magic switch.  God dwells within, and in the core of my being, the light shines even in--and especially because of--darkness.  By faith, I embrace the truth of it.  I rest here, let the darkness fall, and let God shine

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Christmas Gift to Yourself

I'm sitting around a table with other couples, all in their 30's and 40's.  As we talk about the different activities we're encouraging our children to try--voice lessons, dance, musical instruments, acting--one mother suddenly announces how much she wishes she could take ballet lessons. 

"Why don't you!?" we all exclaim just as another mother confesses her desire to learn ballet.  And then, the whole table erupts in a discussion of the classes we wish we were taking.  We go around the room and answer the question: "What class do you secretly wish you could take?" 

Painting, photography, guitar, voice, history, Spanish, piano. . . the list goes on as we share the things we still--even at our age--want to learn and do.  But is it too late?  I had just finished reading a chapter about neuroscience and the importance of novelty for brain health.  Novelty--fresh ideas, fresh experiences, fresh activities--strengthens the brain as it ages.

It's not too late.  It's never too late. 

We commit to it as a group, encouraging one another in our desires.  The gift we might give ourselves this Christmas for 2011 is novelty.  Then, by Christmas of next year, we'll have another interest to pursue.

Living with flair means I give myself the gift of novelty.  Who cares if you're the oldest ballerina in the room or if your arthritic fingers hesitate over the piano keys?   You'll inspire the rest of us with your courage, your enthusiasm, and your flair.  Is there something you secretly wish you could learn?  I'd love to hear it! 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Disorder (This Place is a Disaster!)

Gingerbread Disaster
I'm decorating gingerbread cookies with my 5 year old and her little friend.  A blanket of frosting and sprinkles covers the counter tops, and as I observe the smear upon the floors, the walls, and probably the ceiling, I exclaim: "This place is a disaster!" 

The small child before me, the one shaking bright red sprinkles upon everything but her gingerbread man, responds: "When it's this messy, it just means we are working really hard."

I consider the truth of her words.  The Christmas disaster all over my kitchen and living room--tissue paper in shreds, manger scenes all discombobulated, and crafts partially completed--I realize the beautiful work of Christmas and the mess we leave in our wake.  Our schedules are in chaos; our diets reconfigure to include ridiculous amounts of gooey treats; our family issues bubble up to the surface; our cats have scattered ornaments all over the house.  Messy, messy, messy. 

But something is happening in the mess.  Something beautiful and right.  When it's this messy, something is working really hard. 

A lot of things about Christmas are messy--even Jesus arrives in the filth of a manger in the chaotic way that disorders a whole world back to order.

I'll clean up in 2011.  Right now, I'm disordering the place into the kind of Christmas order we need.  When it's this messy, something's right.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

So I Will

Today, I had the privilege of writing a guest blog post for The Seed Company, an organization founded by Wycliffe Bible Translators to accelerate Bible translation all over the world.  The Seed Company blog asked me the question, "How does reading the Bible help you live with flair?"   Here's my answer below, and check out The Seed Company to learn more about this great mission.

When I read God’s word, I learn how to see the world differently.

Suddenly, what’s boring becomes beautiful; what’s mundane becomes marvelous.  When I read the world through the lens of my Bible, I’m filled with wonder.  I’m on a treasure hunt to find the mysteries of God in acorns, injured cats, pancakes, or snowflakes. 

For the past 10 months, I’ve been blogging at “Live with Flair.”  It began with a challenge to find beauty, wonder, and spiritual truth every day.  Even in the most common thing, I could find God’s truth and reflect upon it. 

God’s word says I can, so I will. 

I have to take seriously the argument in Psalm 19 that the heavens “declare the glory of God,” and that the skies “proclaim the work of his hands.”  The psalmist claims that creation “pours forth speech” and can “reveal knowledge.” 

What speech?  What knowledge? 

Just this morning, I read a quote from E. Stanley Jones that “all things have the stamp of Christ upon them,” and that His will is “wrought into their very structure.”  As I turn to consider the book of Romans, I learn that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. . .” 

Might I consider this pencil and think about the divine nature of the Creator?  Might I make a cheese sandwich and understand the invisible qualities of an Almighty God? 

Colossians tells me that “Christ is before all things and in Him all things hold together.”  All things: pencils, cheese sandwiches, injured cats, snowflakes.  I challenge myself to let God’s word interpret my environment.  I’m on a mission to see into the structure of common objects and find the glory of God. 

This process comes about through mystery.  I find an object and ask a question about it.  Why is it this way?  How did it become this way?  Soon, I’m in the presence of mystery, one step away from worship.  As I uncover the wonder, I then turn and praise the Living God—Jesus—who created all things, even cheese sandwiches. 

And that’s how I live with flair. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

How You Know You're Getting Better

Do you remember the story of my one-eyed cat, Jack?  We rescued this wounded kitty and brought him into our home.  He couldn't even purr, he was that broken.  But we knew his purr was in there somewhere. 

We brushed him, fed him, bathed him, pet him, and loved and loved and loved him.  And one day, he found his purr. 

But he still had no voice; this kitty could not meow.  We stuck with this messed up cat--despite the one eye, the injured mouth, and the tail that wouldn't hang right.  We kept loving him. 

And a year later, he stood tall and proud in the kitchen and let out his first squeaky meow. That cat found his voice.  It took a year, but he learned to meow again.

A few months later, I discover that my wounded cat is serving another cat, holding her down and bathing her.  Jack couldn't purr a year ago, and now he is taking care of others.  I couldn't believe it. 

Well, it gets better. 

Last night, I'm reading books with my daughter in her bed, and Jack hops up on top of us and starts doing this strange dance.  He'd press his front paws in and then arch his back and press his back paws into the blanket.  He could hardly keep his balance, and he was tangling himself up in the sheets. 

"What is Jack trying to do?"  we laugh and ask each other.  We stay very still and observe him.  Then, we realize what is happening. 

Jack is attempting a behavior that all domestic cats do (but Jack never did).  He is kneading. 

All cats, when they feel content and safe, press their front paws in and out like they're kneading bread.   Some say that when cats do this, they remember their kitten days of pressing against their mother to get milk.  Others claim that cats only enact this ritual when they feel at home.  They knead a space to mark it as their bed, usually right next to their mother. 

Jack never did this. It's like he had no memory of even being a happy kitten or being at home.  Maybe because he wasn't.   But last night, Jack tries to knead.  Kneading, however, represents a complex instinctual action.  Cats alternatively flex each paw, press in, and then retract their claws as they lift each paw.  Only the front paws knead. 

Jack has no idea how to do it, but some kitty instinct kicks in.  We watch Jack attempt to knead the bed.  He starts, falls over, and then tries again with his back paws (all wrong!).  Eventually, as he purrs loudly and rolls all over us, he gets it right.  He presses his front paws in, alternating between left and right, before he curls up and falls asleep beside my daughter.

He found his purr.  Then he found his voice.  Then he found a way to serve despite his wounds.  Then, then, he began to remember his true self--becoming fully alive and doing what he was meant to do.  Finally safe, finally at home, Jack starts to act like a real cat in every way. 

There's hope for us all, no matter how wounded.  

Sunday, December 19, 2010

But We Didn't

Last night, our doorbell rings at 10:00 PM.  On our front porch, a woman in a gray sweater, sweat pants, and flip flops stands shivering.  We open the door, and she immediately apologizes.

"I'm so sorry to bother you," she says.  "I'm house sitting for my parents while they travel.  I went into the garage to get something and the door to the house closed and locked behind me!  I'm locked out of my house!"

We invite this stranger into the warm living room.  Sitting by our Christmas tree, we call the locksmith.  But the locksmith can't verify her identity, so we have to call the police to meet this woman at her own parent's house to unlock the doors.  She waits on the couch until all the right folks arrive in her driveway to help her.

Meanwhile, I have no choice but to offer a beverage and make conversation.  I'm in my pajamas, and I sit cross-legged on the couch. 

We sit there, staring at one another.  I start to ask questions.

I discover wonderful things.  I hear about a screenplay she's writing, a novel she's selling, and her life in New York.  I learn about her theories of dating.  I learn about her degree in linguistics.  I learn about her sister on the West Coast. 

This stranger in flip flops is funny, vibrant, and kind.  I start to really like her.  I start to want to be her life long friend.

When it's all over, I give her a huge hug like we've been friends forever.

She's coming back today to leave her card. 

Friendship can enter your life at any time.  A stranger locked out of her house, shivering on your doorstep, might just become a dear friend.  You never know. 

We could have turned her away.  We could have hidden in the bedroom and not even answered the door.

But we didn't.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Estuary

Estuary Mouth
Yesterday, I read a book that mentions the word estuary.  An estuary is the part of a river that nears the sea.  In an estuary, salt water and fresh water mix.  As one of the most curious habitats, estuaries house creatures that learn how to live in impossible contradiction; they must survive in overlapping environments--fresh and saline.

Salmon, for example.  Salmon start their lives in freshwater, but they were made for the ocean.  Something enables them to get there.  I read about how when salmon transition between freshwater and the sea, the cellular structure of their gills changes.  The gills learn to secrete salts (not absorb them) just like a normal salt water fish.  The process has a name:  osmoregulate.

A new verb!  Osmoregulate means to maintain that perfect balance--that harmony--necessary to live in environments that threaten to either dilute or saturate the body.  And in estuaries, salmon learn how.  They slowly adapt themselves for what's ahead.  Then, they journey on towards their lives in the great ocean.

How confusing that place must seem.  

As I consider that journey, I can't help but think about times of estuary--impossible contradictions--places where life does not feel right.  We've left but haven't arrived.  We see the future but aren't ready to embrace it.  It's as if we are left alone to adapt for what's ahead.  We are becoming something. 

Estuaries, because of their in-between status as both freshwater and saltwater, contain the best nutrients.  Scientists tell me that estuaries are among the most productive habitats in the world.  The swirl of confusion, as wild as the tide, ironically provides refuge and rest for marine life.  They strengthen their ability to adapt and regulate in that estuary.

Life feels like an estuary when I consider the miraculous Christmas claim that I'm meant for another world.  And, by design, I find myself here, becoming something for there

Living with flair means I don't despair when I'm not at my destination.  I'm osmoregulating in my perfect estuary for what's ahead.  

(Photo, "Estuary Mouth," Public Domain, US government.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Somebody Needs This

Last week--during my horrible cold-- my neighbors express their concern for me in. . . soup

First came the hearty meatball soup with spinach and tomatoes.

Then, on day two, a bright orange butternut squash soup paraded in with crostini appetizers so delicious I gobbled six between the front door and my kitchen.

Day three?  A classic turkey noodle elbowed in.  The Italian Mama brought more the next day, escorted by bread and chocolate and a baked ziti that stole the show.    

On day four, a minestrone humbly entered, warm and muted.  

And the next day, when I had given up all hope that my body would heal, a creamy potato soup arrived.

Bowls and bowls of steaming broth, eaten right in the bed, nourished me in more ways than one. My body was healing, aided by neighbors whose soup loudly proclaimed: "We are taking care of you!" 

This morning, word spreads that a family down the street is sick.  My crock pot muscles her way between the toaster and the coffee pot, and I chop all the ingredients for a vegetable beef stew.  I'll deliver it late afternoon and find my place in the parade of neighborhood love in the form of steaming soup. 

So loved did I feel by soup that I wonder why I don't make it every day this winter and find a neighbor who needs it.  Somebody needs soup today, and living with flair means I deliver it. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why Are They Doing This?

Just as I tuck my daughters in bed last night, the doorbell rings.  My husband opens the door, and a gust of icy air enters.  We can feel it all the way up into the bedrooms.  Who would come by so late on such a cold evening?

Then, the singing starts.  I peek down the stairs, and a half moon of carolers stands on my front porch singing, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and then, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

I hurry to nudge the children out of their warm beds.  We gather on the stairs and crane our necks to see the carolers.  Even the cats come to witness this event.

My youngest asks, "Mommy why are they doing this?"

"They are carolers caroling!" I tell her.

To carol means to sing a joyous religious song, and last night, we had a dozen carolers caroling.  It felt like we'd been visited for a special reason--like an unexpected celebration arrived at our home.  Each carol told a story, a narrative, about Christ's birth or some celebration surrounding the Christmas season.

I suddenly want to teach my children all the old carols.  I want to transport them back in time to when folks honored the birth of Jesus with the kind of singing that went out through the towns and villages on Christmas Eve. They rejoiced with carols.  

I want to rejoice like that.  I want to broadcast that ecstatic joy--the kind that knocks on a stranger's door in the cold night and sings out.

I love that Christmas carols remind me of something I'd forgotten:  I rejoice in Christmas.  I open wide the door of my home and heart and let the celebration in.

Photo: Bolas Navidenas -- Kris de Curtis (Creative Commons)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Are You the Fudge Fairy?

Perched atop a snow drift by my front door today, a package of homemade fudge boasts a bright green ribbon.  It's the same wrapping every time.  And every time, a Bible verse of encouragement, neatly typed and tucked under the ribbon, speaks about God's faithfulness. 

I never know when the fudge delivery will come.  Sometime in the cloak of night or wee hours of the morning, someone delivers fudge all over town.  It comes several times a year.  Mostly graduate students receive the gift--just as exams approach--and soon, the phone rings.

"Are you the fudge fairy?" 

"No, are you?" 

Nobody knows.  

Gifts delivered in secret to the front door delight this community.  Part of the joy is not knowing who performs this anonymous ministry of fudge--and guessing and guessing and loving that someone was thinking of you.  

Are you the fudge fairy? 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Simple Remedy

This morning, the icy wind blows against the house and whips down the street, determined.  The power goes out, and suddenly, the warm yellow glow of the kitchen turns into the blue-black of a morning not quite awake. 

We have breakfast by lantern and candlelight.  It's quiet

We have so much time on our hands.  It's as if a lack of electricity remedies our morning frenzy. 

We have to pull the garage door open by hand.

I can't charge my cell phone; I can't check email.  My day turns basic, simple.

But I can drive across town to the doctor's office.  Finally, after 14 days of coughing, the doctor wants to treat with antibiotics.  As I sit there, still chilled from my morning without heat, the doctor says, "You'll need to buy buckwheat honey today.  It's the only thing that works for the cough." 

Buckwheat honey?  Last week, I paid a fortune in medications (that did not work) to treat this cough, prescribed with robotic speed.  But this new doctor claims that all the clinical trials in cough research show that a teaspoon of buckwheat honey (and it has to be buckwheat--no other type works) coats the throat in such a way that coughing ceases.

A simple remedy, as simple as a quiet breakfast by lantern, trumps the big expense of manufactured cough suppressants.   My jar of honey costs a couple dollars, and I cradle it in my arms as I make my way through the fluorescent lights of the grocery store.  I imagine the little bees making this honey--that simple, natural act--that I'll benefit from today. 

Honey and lanterns:  I have to remember that living with flair can be natural and basic and cheap.  That kind of living may remedy what frenzies my day.

Monday, December 13, 2010

How Ridiculously Inconvenient!

I receive a desperate email from one of my best students.  He's applying to this great new program, but the deadline's been changed to tomorrow.  He has no choice but to beg his professors to write last minute recommendations. 

It's a ridiculous inconvenience.  It's exam week here.  I'm grading papers, posting grades, and barely keeping my head above the water.  Not only is the recommendation due now, but I have to stop everything, drive across town to my office to pick up the appropriate letterhead, write the narrative, and then arrange to meet the student to drop off the forms. 

What makes this one student's life so precious, so important, that I would bother to do what I do not have time for?

I bundle up in my coat and scarf, pull on my gloves and boots, and brave the ice.  As I drive, it's as if God has a message for me about the beauty of the ridiculously inconvenient.  God, after all, takes on the inconvenience of flesh, and if I think about it, Christmas is actually a celebration of radical inconvenience. 

A student needing a recommendation seems a small thing, really. 

I know, I know.  I've also memorized the quote:  Your lack of planning doesn't constitute an emergency on my part. 

But what if it did?  What if I embraced being ridiculously inconvenienced for once in my life and made your particular need my current emergency? 

I'm smiling as a race into the English department.  It's because the student is precious--profoundly so--and why wouldn't I go to extraordinary lengths to help him move forward in the direction of his dreams? What makes my time more valuable than his? 

Years ago, I was that flustered student trying to meet deadlines, knocking sheepishly on my professors' doors.  How many folks did I inconvenience on my journey?  How many emergencies did I bring into the laps of folks I needed to help me? 

Living with flair means I learn to embrace inconvenience.  The inconvenient things often usher in the magnificent, the life-changing, and the divine.  I felt myself transforming into the type of woman I want to be as I drove back home.  I did a ridiculously inconvenient thing for someone, and I knew it was full of flair. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas and the Ancient Path

I stay home from church today and cough my way through the morning.  But I want to create my own Sabbath worship--to start the week fresh in peace--especially with so much to do to prepare for Christmas. 

I light candles and gather my Bible and a curious old journal that my students presented me on the last day of class. 

It's an ancient journal, fresh out of Camelot or Narnia or Hogwarts.  The grainy pages connect with wisps of leather; the secrets within stay secure with a clasp.

I will record wise things here.  I will document revelations and promises--the whispers of God into my heart.  I will take His Hand and follow ancient paths that lead me to truth. 

As I unclasp my journal, I'm reminded of the words of that moody and artsy prophet Jeremiah.  He tells me:

This is what the LORD says:
   “Stand at the crossroads and look;
   ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
   and you will find rest for your souls." 

I open my journal and ask for the ancient paths.  And then I know.  I recall his name:  The Ancient of Days, God, the one who comes from the ancient into the modern, the one who descends down into a manger. 

That's Christmas--the ancient path that leads from Bethlehem into my heart. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Becoming an Adult

Getting small children ready to play in the snow requires patience.  Change your agenda for the moment because this is going to take some time. 

My child wriggles into her snowsuit, and then reports that her jeans are bunched up by her knees.  I pull each pant leg down, digging up underneath her snowsuit and repositioning her clothing.

We're almost there.  Boots on, coat zipped up, hat secured, she stands by the door with her hands up and fingers splayed  like she's just been arrested.  She only needs her gloves.  She can hardly move within that bundle of snow gear, but still she manages to hand me two pink gloves.

Carefully, I hold the glove's mouth open wide while she shoves each eager hand in. 

We try again and again.  Every finger has a slot--a place it belongs--and her task is to find it.  I can direct her and inch her fingers just so far, but she needs to navigate the dark cave alone, journeying up until everything's in its place.  She'll know when it feels right.  Nobody can know it but her. 

We try again, and this time, she's figured it out.  I push open the door and stand to the side.  I send her into the bright, white snow, where all the other children play, and she doesn't look back.

At some point (and it's a different point for everybody), I became the glove holder and the door opener.  This is a good thing.  Living with flair means adopting--with flair--my adulthood.   It's not just parenting.  It's embracing adulthood for all its work for those who come after us.

I'm a glove holder and a door opener.  And then I sit back with my cup of coffee and watch with delight as children tumble down the hills--only a boot clinging to the sled.

Adulthood means I am more concerned with facilitating the joyous moment for others than I am living it for myself.  I give myself away to a new agenda, serving with the strength God provides, and mysteriously--miraculously--find the deepest joy.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Write Like A Jellyfish

Today, one of my favorite on-line communities, The High Calling, features my flair for the day.  Enjoy the beginning of the post here, and please read more over at a great website that helps us deeply consider life, work, and faith. 

It's the last day of the semester.

I smooth out a new page, unzip my red pencil case, and attempt--along with these college students--the art of writing with flair.   The rain outside transforms to ice.  We hear its tiny fingers pelt the window begging for entrance into this warm space. 

With my own pencil poised, I ask the question again:  "How do we get our own voices--the authentic ones deep within our hearts shared by no other living soul--onto the page?"  Lately, I've made my writing lessons all about voice. Early in my writing teacher career, I learned that high school and college writing instruction attempts to remove voice from writing.  Make it academic.  Make it sophisticated.  My students always, always ask me (in a timid, near whisper) if it's OK for them to use the word, "I." 

It's like they're trespassing, violating some rule.  If they put the voice back into their writing, somebody will cross out the sentence and send them back to their desk to imitate some other scholar's prose.  The subtext: Don't sound like you.  Sound like us.

But there's something that only they can say, in only their way, in their own voice. 

What's a voice in writing?  How do I get to it?   Read on. . .

Thursday, December 9, 2010

When Your Cat Looks Like a Skunk

My Skunk Kitty
When you're sick in bed, you have a lot of time to think about your life.  You can have bizarre thoughts, brought on by fever and narcotics and the reality television shows you've been watching to pass the time. 

You start asking yourself if you're dying, and you wonder what the whole point of life is anyway.  Then you start thinking you'll never have another moment of flair again in your whole life.  You think that God has abandoned you and everything you thought was true is now untrue. 

You can't remember any of God's promises.  

And then your kitty comes up to snuggle with you, and she rolls over to show you the single white stripe on her belly.  She looks exactly like a skunk. 

But she's not a skunk.  She's a kitty.  She only looks like a skunk. 

What I see from this bed is not reality. 

There's another system, another actuality, that God knows and God sees.  Good, beautiful, right, and true.  As warm and comforting as this cat beside me. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What You Have to Know

Typing Out My Flair
Yesterday, I receive a sweet email from a wonderful 5th grader in another part of the country.  She's the amazing girl who owns her own business and announced, regarding her appearance, that "a face without freckles is like the sky without stars."  Her story appeared in an August blog post

This email contains two questions for me to answer.  She has to know how long it takes me to blog and where I get my ideas.  Even though I want to get back to bed to recover from my cold, I can't resist answering her.  Such curiosity!  Such interest in somebody else!  I feel honored to be that somebody else.  I respond and tell her I normally work on my blog for 30 minutes to 1 hour a day (I don't have any more time than that!).  Then I tell her the great secret of living with flair:  I ask God in the shower every morning to show me the flair that day.  Then I start looking for the beautiful thing that reminds me of a spiritual truth that can help me live my life better.  It might be common; it might be small, but I can find it every day. 

Then, she asks me all about my Neighborhood Fitness Group because she wants to start her own.  I'm so impressed that I have to tell her everything--our dance music play list, our jumping jack challenge, our tendency to get rowdy and need adult supervision.  I even tell her about our Community Announcement time at the end when we talk about healthy eating and how to stay active in the winter.  

I imagine she will start her own group.  She's a 5th grader who wants to help her community.

I finish typing and get back to bed.  I'm thinking about my own children and how I might raise them to have curious hearts, to take an interest in other people's ideas and projects, and to launch their own neighborhood initiatives.  Being interviewed by a 5th grader reminds me that even children, especially children, live with flair that inspires me. 

I'm sure my freckled friend is on to other interviews today.  There are so many things she just has to know. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Latkes, Menorahs, and the French Phrase that Might Change Your Life

I have a student who already has a career in bread and pastries.  She's a baker who works all through the night baking bread for local bakeries.  She'll rise at 2:30 AM, work all night, and report to my 10:00 AM class covered in flour.  The smell of freshly baked bread precedes her and lingers when she departs. 

Last night, my baker student stops by to make potato latkes (pancakes) for my family.  She wants to share this special Hanukkah food tradition with us, and she even brings a Menorah to light at sundown.   As a Jewish daughter, she said the blessing as the candles were lit in her family, so she also proclaims the Hebrew blessing as a treat for my Christian family as the flames flicker.

But first, we make latkes!  She's like a precision sportsman grating white and sweet potatoes with speed.  As my student cooks, I notice how organized and how peaceful she remains.  She carries on 3 different conversations, washes the dishes (and the floor!), and flips the latkes.  At no point is my kitchen disordered or dirty.  No stress, no worry. 

"This is amazing!" I remark. 

She looks over at me (while putting more latkes in the pan), and says, "Mise en place." 

"Me za what?" I ask, laughing.

"It's French for, 'everything in its place'," she teaches.  Apparently, every great baker knows this rule.  Before you start cooking anything, you enact mise en place.  You set everything up--all your ingredients, all your tools, all your supplies--for the entire project.  There's no scurrying about and no energy wasted. Everything is exactly as you need it--mise en place

When the latkes finish, she turns them over onto a plate beside her, already lined with a paper towel--mise en place

When sundown falls like a grandmother's shawl around our home, she has her candles and matches ready to light her Menorah.  Her Hebrew blessing is typed out in translation for us--mise en place

I serve Italian for dinner; my husband prays over our meal; we enjoy Jewish latkes as the candles burn down. 

But all night, mise en place resonates long after I should be sleeping.  Can I do that with my life?  Can I get everything ready--anticipating--so I offer spaces of peace and organization?  Those well-planned days are my best days.  No scurrying, no energy wasted.  I have everything I need right here before me.  Living with flair means mise en place

Monday, December 6, 2010

Layer Up

On a cold day like today, with temperatures below 20 degrees and a wind chill that takes your breath away, I have no choice but to face my day with layers.  And I'm especially cold since I've barely recovered from my illness.

With tights, long johns, knee-high pink socks, black boots, wool skirt, wool sweater, wool jacket, hat, scarf, and mittens on, I walk around campus.  I'm cozy, tucked-in, secured like a newborn swaddled in quilts.

I'm actually a little warm.

Layering is the only way to survive the winter.  In fact, layering will always keep you warmer than a single heavy coat.  Layering acts like insulation on the body and slows the transfer of heat.  Heat trapped between clothing layers works as thermal insulation, and I stay warm all day. 

Layering my clothing to regulate body temperature made me seriously consider the concept of other forms of regulation.  Hasn't my weight loss journey been about layering up my surroundings with good choices--veggies, then fruits, then whole grains, then lean proteins, then dairy?  Hasn't my mood regulation been all about layering the day with good sleep, positive relationships, spiritual practices, and exercise?

I start the day, add layers of good things,  and eventually feel the warmth of thermal insulation protecting my mind and body from whatever comes against it.   Living with flair means I layer. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How to Be Sick with Flair

All night long, a fever rages, and I can't keep warm no matter what I do.  I'm coughing so much that I actually lose my voice.  I can't talk on the phone; I can't boss my family around; I can't even go to church and call out my welcomes. 

I try to get out of bed while everyone else is at church, but then I flop back down on the pillow.  I have no energy.  I'm suddenly amazed by how the body takes the energy it needs to get better and forces you to conserve it.  You stay in bed.  You don't move.

I can't stand the lack of productivity.  I actually devise a grand plan with my lost voice.  I can make a vow of silence and pray all day.  How godly!  But when I try to get my Bible and journal, I flop back down on the pillow once more.  Forget it.  I'm too weak.  

I'm worried about how in the world my husband got everybody ready for church and who handled all my responsibilities there.  And I'm worried about who's cooking dinner. 

My family returns from church, and the girls bound into my room like little gazelles leaping about the bed.  Their outfits are adorable, and my husband has actually fixed their hair.  The youngest has the smoothest pony-tail , and their faces are clean and bright.   I can't stop looking at that pony-tail.  For years my husband has announced, "I don't do hair.  I'll do everything else, but I can't do hair."

But he did it. I look again at that hair and realize how God provides, even down to the pony-tail.  And then a friend sends the message that she's bringing hot soup.   I turn over in my blanket and realize my God-given assignment.  Stay in bed.  Don't move.  

There's nothing I can do, so, for once, I learn how to let God provide.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Stencil Me In

Snowman Pancake
This morning, we invite some neighbors to join us for our Saturday Morning Pancakes.  My artistic neighbor sees the pancakes and immediately makes a homemade stencil so we can decorate them. We relax, drink coffee, and decorate snowman pancakes in the chaos of powdered sugar and syrup. 

So there we are, eating our art, and discussing such topics as multiple universes, our thoughts about God, and whether or not technology acts like an autonomous organism.  We have smart neighbors.  I love the kinds of conversations these neighbors inspire.  They can get a whole group talking and thinking. 

Meanwhile, I have a film student (who happens to be in my writing class) stopping by to take footage of our neighborhood fitness group for a promotional video about running.  Normally, the neighbors meet on Monday nights and walk to school every morning, but we have to reproduce a Saturday Morning Fitness Group for his video.  I call neighbors at the absolute last minute and tell them we are running around in my front yard.  Could they come by with their children--real quick--and help out my film student?  I know this is a little, you know, chaotic. 

They come.  Without question, they come.

And they welcome the chaos.  You have to--when you want to build authentic community--welcome some chaos, some last minute plans.  I've learned I need to make the space in my life for the possibility of last minute plans.  I need to schedule large blocks of nothing. 

As some of us finish our snowman pancakes and coffee, others gather in the front yard, and still others hang out in the living room. I haven't even vacuumed yet.  Saturday cleaning day will now be Sunday cleaning day.  I overhear neighborhood plans to have a Giant Gingerbread House Making Party.  We don't know when this will happen, and yes, it will be chaotic.  

But just send out the call.  We'll come.  Without question, we'll come.  

Friday, December 3, 2010

Will Technology Destroy My Teaching?

This morning my daughter announces that her class is going on a field trip to the University Astronomy Lab.

Her personal favorite planet is Jupiter.

All day, I've been thinking about the wonder she'll feel.  These planetarium shows, according to the website, "feature spectacular astronomical images from the surface of Mars, to dusty nebulae, to dazzling galaxies, rendered in three dimensions with the aid of special eyeglasses and projection screens."

This kind of technology might just provide a sublime experience for these children.  They might go on to study astrophysics, probing deeper into the mysteries of the universe.

I wish I were there with her.

But I had my own experience with technology and education today.  I received my classroom assignment for next semester, so on my way back to the parking lot, I casually pop into my future classrooms.  One of them hides deep within an ancient campus building.  The tiny room has 25 chairs and desks and a long table up front (for me).  I'm not sure I even have a chalkboard to use in that room.  These are the rooms instructors beg to get switched.  They shed tears over these assignments and bribe administrative assistants to send them to any other classroom. 

But I love rooms like that.  I request the simplest classroom.  

The second classroom resides in a building I haven't visited yet--the Business School.  I walk in, and I'm immediately transported to another universe.  A ticker on the wall brags out the stock market numbers.  Flat screen TV's broadcast major network news.  Coffee shops send out an aroma that, in this environment, makes me feel rushed and nervous.  Everybody's in suits, and the click of high heels on the floor breeds a strange insecurity in me.

I find my classroom.

It's spectacular, dazzling.  Each wall has a projection screen, and I count no less than 7 white boards that light up for my notes.  My podium up front features more buttons than I could ever figure out what to do with.  It has a microphone. If I touch this one button, the lights dim and a huge screen descends behind me.

Maybe another button ushers in my avatar who teaches for me while I go get a latte.

The students' seats swivel, and I'm not sure, but I wonder if each desk has its own laptop built in. 

I turn a circle in this future classroom, and then I immediately think:  "This is so . . . distracting!" 

What will I do with so much technology?  What could it inspire in folks trying to learn to use strong verbs and varied sentence structure?  Am I now putting on a show with lights and sounds? At what point does the technology distract rather than enrich?

I've posed the question to my technology-inundated students.  Shall I change my course?  One man leaned back (in his old desk) and said, "Don't do it.  Don't use the technology.  People want to talk about their ideas together in class.  That's what they really want."  

But is there something I'm missing? 

Living with flair means I figure out how to use technology in ways that enrich and offer sublime experiences.  Because it can.  I just don't know how--as a writing teacher--it will.

Do you know?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What You've Been Given

It's officially winter here. 

Snow swirls up and settles, finally, on the land.  

But it's the worst kind of snow because there's not enough to do anything with it.

But the neighborhood children, despite the lack of significant snow accumulation, still coax sleds down hills all afternoon.  And they still make snowmen no matter how little they are given.  In one child's front yard, I stop and notice she's made a mama and a baby snowman, in miniature.

Miniature Snowman

Lord, help me take what I've been given today and turn it into a beautiful thing. 

Living with flair means I make something out of whatever I'm given.   

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How College Should Be

Last night, an entire class of students comes by my house with food for a huge potluck.  This isn't part of the job description of a college instructor, and I know it's unusual--at least at a big state school--to invite students into your home.

I'm supposed to keep my professional distance.

But my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia ruined me regarding professional distance.  In those days, I dined with professors nearly every evening.  As part of the Jeffersonian ideal of the "academic village," professors joined students in dining halls or else invited them into their homes for dinner, dessert, or coffee.  Some of my favorite memories from college have to do with meeting my instructors outside of the classroom.  I remember walking into the living room of my English professor and sitting around a table with a group of other students and just talking--like it were an ordinary, everyday thing--about beauty.

Another professor, Rita Dove--the Poet Laureate of the United States at the time and Pulitzer Prize winner --actually hosted class in my dorm room.  She actually sat on my bed and talked to me about my poems.  The other students sat in a circle on my floor.  How could I not feel like I'd entered a portal into adulthood, into intellectual communities that wanted to hear my voice?

Later that semester, Ms. Dove hosted us all for dinner.

I talked about my life.  I talked about things I hoped for and things I cared about.  Those conversations changed me forever.

Those conversations made me feel truly adult, truly independent.   It was college at its best.  

My class piles into my living room, and one student plays her guitar while others sing around the piano.  We decide to talk about creativity, future careers, and the burden of having to decide how to choose a career when you love too many things.  And these students actually want to talk about their writing projects.  They pose questions, make comments, and grapple with their revision process all while petting my cats and eating homemade apple pie.  One student says, "Dr. H., I want to write my memoir about this," as she gestures to our group gathered about her. 

I have to force them out the door so I can go to bed.  

When most people think of the college scene, they visualize the alcohol and the parties.  But for at least one night, a group of students sat around and talked about ideas--not because anybody was taking attendance--but because they wanted be together and share their ideas and their lives.  That's what makes college so good.