Saturday, July 31, 2010

2 Reasons to Look Harder

This morning we find a Tomato Hornworm on our tomato plants.  These bugs are huge and yet so difficult to see.  They almost perfectly resemble the background leaves and stalks.

I'm staring at the plants, and all I see are leaves and tomatoes.  But when my entomologist friend comes by, she spots the camouflaged creature immediately.

I can't see anything.

I look harder, burying myself in tomato leaves.  Finally, I see another one. I almost have to cross my eyes and squint to distinguish the bug from the plant.  It feels like I'm in some Magic Eye book. 

I had this 3D Magic Eye poster in college.  In 1993, you could go to shopping malls and look at these posters to find the hidden pictures within them.  There were stereograms, or more specifically, autostereograms. 

 A stereogram is an optical illusion of depth created from a flat, two-dimensional image.  The point is that another image exists buried deep within the other.  This poster, for example, hides glasses within it.  I would stare until my eyes ached as I tried to get that image to pop out of the poster.  It drove me nearly crazy to think that something was really there, but I couldn't perceive it.  It infuriates me like those Tomato Hornworms that are really there--devouring my plants--and escaping my perception.  My eyes fail me over and over again. 

How many things hide within my reality that I don't perceive?  And how many things do I discount as real simply because they dwell outside of the realm of visual perception?  Tomato Hornworms and autostereograms are two reasons why I'm willing to believe in what I cannot always see.

I'm sure that living with flair has something to do with stereograms and seeing beneath the surface of things.  

(Tomato Hornworn, courtesy of Whitney Cranshaw, CSU,

Friday, July 30, 2010

"The Lincoln"

There's a new challenge at the pool.  It's more like a dare, and for teenage boys, it's hard to resist.

It's called "the Lincoln."

I'm watching teenagers take running leaps off the diving board and land flat on their stomachs or backs.  But every once in a while, a boy will complete the impossible trick dive called the Lincoln.

You run, you dive, and mid-air, you turn to the side and do a side flip.

The Lincoln.

"What makes it so hard," one teenager explains, "is physics.  You're going one direction, and you have to tell yourself to turn to your side and do a flip in a perpendicular direction."

I nod, wondering why it's called the Lincoln.  Then I remember that gravity experiment when a penny falls straight down after you push the round tube it's sitting on to the left or right.

All the older boys line up and try to do the trick.  Of the group, only one can do it.  The lifeguards cheer.  This is the stuff of summer legend.  Somebody can do "the Lincoln!" 

Then, a little boy, maybe 6 or 7, gets up on the board.  He runs, he dives, and, smooth as butter, turns to his right and flips in the air.  The Lincoln.  Collective silence all around.  The lifeguard stops twirling her whistle.

"No way," the guy who knows the physics and how hard this dive is says.

The little boy, the one who hasn't had physics yet and only knows gravity by experience--and not theory--, surfaces, smiles, and says: "That wasn't hard.  I didn't even have to think about it."

Changing direction and form, mid-flight, is hard for anyone.  I hate change.  I hate everything about it.  But watching that little boy just get some speed and do it, without over-thinking the difficulty, inspired me.

Yeah it's hard to do whatever it is I've got to do.  But today, I want to pick up some speed and do it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sucking all the Marrow Out

The day stretches out before us.  I can let it happen to me, or I can seek out the complexity in common moments.  Complexity refers to many parts in an intricate arrangement.  If you can find this particular arrangement, you can suddenly understand something differently and more deeply.  There's complexity in this piece of toast, this cup of coffee, this orange.

People have said I think too much.  

A fellow faculty member and I commiserated yesterday that students like to say:  "But why does it have to mean anything?  It ruins our enjoyment when we have to analyze stuff.  Can't we just enjoy the story?"   I think we confuse complexity with unnecessary complication or confusion.  We think complexity means we shroud something in difficulty.  But this isn't the case.  Finding patterns, connections, and symbols unlocks this whole other world--this whole other subtext--that makes a text (or a life) so rich and beautiful.

Examining life for all its complexity pours a warm syrup over our day that makes it good.  We begin to see spiritual truth in the tiny, mundane thing.  We see God reaching out to us from the confines of a bedroom or a minivan or a rocking chair.  There's a message inside of everything confronting us.

Why not live a complex life?  Socrates cries out:  "The unexamined life is not worth living," just as Thoreau fears that "he would come to die and find that [he] had not lived."  He famously commands himself to "live deep and suck all the marrow out of life." 

Marrow, after all, is the choicest, inmost, essential part of a thing.  There's marrow in this day, and for me, it's whatever trace of God's beauty and goodness I can find and suck out. 

(Special thanks to Charity G.and Gigi M. for inspiring this post.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Everyday Apprentice

I want to enter the various cultures around me with a curious mind and a willing heart.  In the past few days, I've been invited to experience various "cultures" whether it's joining the swim team community, learning about the various spiritual cultures of my neighbors, or entering the college culture by watching movies students love, listening to music they download, and attending the places they go downtown.

As I thought about what it means to love people and be a good friend, this concept of entering different cultures seemed suddenly so important.

Right at that moment, my husband was leaving to go to his workshop.  On his days off, he apprentices with a carpenter to learn the skills of woodworking and carpentry.  (Note:  Apprentice is a fantastic verb.  It means to study under a master to learn the skills of a trade.  Apprenticing represents a whole cultural system by which a new generation trains for a trade.  I wish I could apprentice under certain mothers, teachers, and wives.)

He's asked the family before if we want to visit his workshop.  We've always said, "no."  We don't have time!  We aren't interested!  What would we do in a workshop?  Well, not today.  I want to enter that culture with a curious mind and a willing heart.    

So we go.

It feels like a foreign country.  He shows us big, scary machines with names like planer, jointer, miter saw, and band saw.  I start asking questions.  Soon, I learn that my husband can take material like these split logs:

And turn them into this.   

I start feeling some flair happening.  I start looking around me with new eyes.  I notice some order and beauty in this place.
And I notice my children are captivated by what their father is doing.  He puts safety gear on them and shows them what he can do on the machines.  He takes a scrap of wood and transforms it into something smooth and square. 

Right now, we are back home, and the girls are playing with their block of wood--imagining all sorts of things with it.  We entered the culture of woodworking with a curious mind and a willing heart, and we had more fun than I could have ever thought possible.  Living with flair means I enter the various cultures around me by being curious and willing.  I apprentice and learn.  I want to do it everyday.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Small Flair in Hidden Places

I wake up with a horrible cold or horrible allergies--funny how the body responds the same to real or imagined threats against it--and dread the morning.  I can't find one box of tissues anywhere.

Then, I realize I've lost my cell phone.

Sniffling and pitiful, I wander to the basement just in case my cell phone is lost amid the scatter of assignment sheets and lesson plans.  Still sniffling, I spy it innocently positioned in the most curious of places.

Right next to a box of tissues.

Flair came early and reminded me that what I lose sometimes brings me to what needs to be found.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Reinvent the Course

I've been thinking about what it means to instruct, to offer suggestions, and to speak in the imperative mood.  My love of verbs means I know they sometimes take the form of commands--imperative forms--that we use to express suggestions or advice.   This morning, I used the imperative on myself.  Here's what I said:

Reinvent the Course

It's like I'm running, and potholes and roadblocks stop me in my tracks.  I think to myself that it's all over.  My dreams, my goals, my projects all fall apart with the slightest bit of discouragement.  Sewn together in particular ways, my life dreams must take shape exactly as I form them.  But pull one thread, and the whole thing unravels.

At that moment with a heap of disaster uncoiled around my ankles, I'm learning to reinvent the course I was on and recalibrate till I'm aligned with what always turns out to be better and a much purer form of what I really wanted all along.

For example, nothing in my life has ever come about in the right place, at the right time, and in the right form.  But it always ends up being. . . just right.  I met my husband in the wrong place (he was supposed to be in the South), at the wrong time (finishing a Ph.D.--who has time?), and in the wrong form (where was his little poet pony tail and John Lennon spectacles?).  But he was just right.  Exactly right.

And children?  Born in Michigan when my whole family was in Virginia, during my dissertation writing, and a girl instead of boy.  But she's just right.  Exactly right.

Or moving here in a mad rush to a house I never imagined in any dream.  Or to a teaching career that came in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and in the wrong form.  It was supposed to be a tenure track job at some Ivy League school.  But teaching was the goal and God put it in the right place, at the right time, in the right form.

Finally, my publishing dreams.  No book contract, no bestseller.  And yet, I learned to reinvent the course.  Blogging? And look! 11,000 visitors from 77 different countries or territories.  I didn't even know how to make a blog 125 days ago.  I wanted to write, and maybe this new course would let me.  It seems just right.  Exactly right.

I think of life as a maze with only one path to my dreams.  But it's not a maze.  It's a beautiful landscape with trails we haven't even imagined.  I'm just so thankful we have a Faithful Guide.

Living with flair means I'm not afraid or discouraged when I have to reinvent the course.  

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Best Hand Gesture

This morning during Sunday School, a mom found me to tell me that her daughter didn't want to be left alone in the room with the other children.  But when mother and daughter entered the room, another little girl looked at her daughter and patted the empty seat beside her.

Problem solved.

Who wouldn't want to walk into a room, have someone catch your eye, and see that person's hand pat the empty seat beside her?  It might be the greatest hand gesture in the world.  It communicates this:

Be with me!  I like you!  You belong here!  There's a spot just for you! 

I want to live in such a way that I'm patting a million seats for everyone I see.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Red Spotted Newt and Marriage Truth

Hiking along a trail this morning, I force my own plans:  when to stop to pick blackberries, when to leave the trail and see what's down the canyon, when to turn back.  I have my own things to do. 

My Eagle Scout husband (who surely knows more) is patient with me when I'm bossy.  He calls out to me and says, "Come look at this!"

Together, we observe a fast little red spotted newt.  It's tiny and racing across the moss almost too quickly to catch on film.  I'm amazed he could see it.

Later, I want to go home, and he says, "We'll just walk a little further down this trail."

All of a sudden, the forest opens to this gorgeous lake--so peaceful, so tucked away in a deeply shaded forest.  Nobody's here but us, the geese, and the frogs that let out a yelp as they dive like synchronized swimmers off the lily pads. 

It's so beautiful.  I sit and rest.  It was my husband who brought me here to the still water's edge.  It was my husband who said, "look at this," and stopped me in my frantic race towards...what?  We celebrate 10 years of marriage this week.  This anniversary hike without the children reminded me of what's so precious about marriage:  You have a companion that walks the trail with you and knows how to guide your attention to what you can't yet see.

Later, we talked about marriage as oneness.  You have to fight the urge to be separate, to do your own thing, to race ahead.  Being--and staying--in love means I cultivate the oneness.  Cultivating oneness has something to do with pulling the other aside and saying, "Look at this!"  And if one of us has to rest by the water alone, the other one will at least capture it on film for later.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Another Message About Poop

I'm at the gym at 5:30 AM, and I think to myself:  "I'm officially insane.  What can come of this?"

Each machine has little TVs, so I start watching this PBS interview about families in New Orleans who, 5 years after Hurricane Katrina, are still trying to rebuild their lives.

A woman starts describing the festival and street parade they have in the neighborhood. She tells the interviewer:  "The little girls carry dolls to signify that they are pregnant with hope and will give birth to greatness."

And the interviewer says:  "Is this area fertile with hope?"
The mother: "Yes, but we need some fertilizer."
Interviewer:  "Fertilizer?"
The mother:  "Yes, and they keep giving us manure.  But you know what manure is?  It's fertilizer for our hope!"

I thought about this family joking and laughing and rebuilding their lives.  They have taken the manure of disaster and made it fertilizer for hope.

Maybe hope requires a little fertilizer to grow.  Maybe all good things do.  When discouragement comes, I want to respond like this amazing woman. 

Can I let the manure of the day--of my life-- nourish my hope instead of embittering and depressing me?  The woman on TV was strong and sure.  She wasn't going to waste the suffering.  She was going to let it fertilize her life.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How to Love Your Job

This morning, I'm buried in cover letter and résumé examples for students.  It occurs to me that I spend most of my lectures helping students prepare to find a great job, but I always leave an important lesson out:

I never talk about how to love a job once you find one.   Is there a way to love. . . work?  If the next 50 years of their lives will be spent working, might I challenge them--and myself--to find the passion in what seems, on the surface, mundane?

I want to be realistic with them:  Chances are, the dream job they hope for might not come about in this particular economy.  But that's not a problem for someone who can find flair in the ordinary. 

As I thought about my own career and the various jobs I've been paid to do (babysitter, ice-cream scooper, cashier, camp counselor, teacher, speaker, writer) I wondered what makes a job great.  Each of these jobs delighted me, and I have great memories of the communities I formed in each work environment.  Even when my feet hurt so badly I had to soak them after a full day as a cashier, I still wanted to go to work the next day.  It became a personal challenge to be positive, kind, and enthusiastic even when customers yelled at me. 

I think I learned to find the meaning in my work, but that significance didn't correlate to wage or title.  If I find meaning in service, my interaction with people, and my contribution towards advancing something good in the world--whether I'm in a marketing firm, a hospital, or behind a cash register--I start to love the work.

I want to ask myself and others what makes their work meaningful to them.  And if it's not meaningful, but menial, can I mentally elevate the significance of the task before me so I can see the truth behind my unique contribution?  Can I make even "boring" jobs sacred vocations

I'll keep you posted on how this lesson plan goes!  Maybe I'll call it:  How to Work with Flair.  I think we'll answer the question:  What makes this work significant to you? 

What do you think?  What would you tell a college graduate about how they can love their work?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Verb to Add to the List: Shuffle

Learning to shuffle a deck of cards marks an important rite of passage for certain children.  Me, being fascinated by certain words, start thinking about the verb "shuffle" as I'm playing cards with the neighborhood children.

I had completely forgotten about this verb; it's not even on my list of 500 favorite verbs. (This is the list I tell students to put above their desks or by their beds so they can find options to replace state of being verbs like: is, are, was, were, seems, appears, exists.  Boring, bland.  I tell them a great verb can change their sentence and their lives.  I'm not kidding about this.  I want vivid! I want power!)

Shuffle has flair.  It's a verb that, to some, denotes dragging the feet.  But in its best form, shuffle means to randomize in a way that creates the type of variation needed for fair play in a game.  In dance, a shuffle represents the backbone of tap and folk dancing.  My favorite meaning of shuffle comes from jazz music:  a shuffle note means I alternate the duration of notes to create amazing music.

As a woman of routine, I like order, stability, and predictability.  As I age, I realize that spontaneous variation disturbs me more than it delights me.  I used to love spontaneity--the more random and unpredictable, the better.

The flair blog began with a random and spontaneous act.  I danced in my kitchen with my neighbor.  That led to a local NPR radio spot, and well, the rest is history. 

Today, I want to shuffle.  I want to allow space for random and spontaneous.  When I shuffle my day, like a deck of cards, I can make music.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Solution to Insecurity

Today, I remembered something unique about God's economy.  In Christianity, the move you give, the more you receive.  The times when you feel last, you are actually first.  The times you act as a servant, you become the leader.  I wonder about this upside down approach to living.  Some mornings, I feel the weight of various insecurities--mostly relational or financial.  I worry about all sorts of relationships: family, friends, co-workers.  And then I worry about financial things:  what I need, what my children will need, what our future might require of our resources.

What a debilitating way to conduct myself during the day!  Insecurity becomes a prison.  Insecurity keeps my focus on myself--what I need, what I'm getting, and what I'm not getting.  I feel insecure because of what I think I'm missing. 

What's the solution to insecurity?  

Insecurity arises out of a heart that's concerned with what it's not getting.  When I turn the kaleidoscope and focus on what I can give, who I can love, and what I can provide for others, I see the day in a whole new way. I stop worrying so much about myself because I'm living abundantly according to spiritual and not material principles. 

I'm trying to teach my children that as long as they worry about who likes them and what they can accumulate, they will continue to live under the illusion of security.  Their souls won't rest.  But when they choose to love and give generously to others, miraculously, they find the kind of relational and financial security they seek.  It's the model that Jesus teaches, however confusing and however counter-intuitive.   I pray we can have the wisdom to live like that.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

This Isn't Normal

I'm standing in my clothes, waist high in water.  I'm baptizing, with my husband, a great friend.  I'm invited to join in this ancient ritual, this sacred symbol of the old person buried and rising to new life.  I suddenly realize how average I am, how mortal, as I participate in this divine act.  This isn't normal. 

All morning, my concept of normal gets pushed aside, flicked far away.  First of all, I'm at a worship service in somebody's front yard, overlooking the mountains.  I'm slapping my thighs to the beat of the Bluegrass band.  I'm drinking root beer.  There's a banjo, even.  Can this be worship?  If not, then why am I overcome with the sense of God's presence? How is this normal?

Then, the woman sharing a picnic blanket with me starts talking about her children.  A teenage girl lounges against her, and little girls play with her purse and makeup.    She tells me that she always wanted a big family. But these aren't her biological children.  These girls have other mothers.  But ask her about the sleepover parties she hosts, the children she loves, and her dreams of running an orphanage and providing foster care.

"Right now, I have so many children, it's ridiculous.  And I'll have so many more," she tells me. 

She's a mother in the fullest sense of the word.  She has a divine calling to mother.  I look around the worship gathering.  I can't even find my children.  Then, I see they are with another mother doing a craft.  And then, another mother's daughter lies back into my lap and touches my face.  She gazes up at me, and I stroke her hair. 

My definitions are so narrow in scope.  When I broaden them, let out the hem, loosen the strings, and release the word, I find that what I think is divine, what I think constitutes worship, and what I believe motherhood means changes considerably.

What other words need broader definitions?  Living with flair means I don't limit the meaning of the words that define my life.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why We Need Impossible Goals

 I remembered lines from Lewis Carroll's characters this morning about "impossible things."

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said, “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!”

A few hours ago, someone tried to encourage me by telling me I should set a goal I think I can't achieve.  What?!  That doesn't make any sense!  A goal I think I can't achieve?  Isn't that a recipe for failure, hopelessness, and shame?

I thought about it more.  Something about setting an impossible goal, one I think I can't accomplish, sets me up for an extraordinary challenge.  It's not a great goal if I know I can reach it.  But if there's doubt in my mind--if there's potential for devastating failure--then that's an honest goal.   That kind of goal-setting beckons a life of adventure, faith, and flair.  It lets God in. 

I remembered today that God specializes in impossible things.

I called one of my best writing friends during my late morning rest between dusting and vacuuming.  She said that she was going "to pray for three impossible things today."  We talked about the impossible dreams we have for our children and for our own lives.

Why not dream big?  Why not set impossible goals and just see what we're capable of and what God does in that moment of extraordinary belief?  I want to believe six impossible things before breakfast.  That seems a lot like living with flair.

What seems impossible might just not be.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Science Experiment About My Mood

Last night we picked wild Queen Anne's Lace for a science experiment.  I wanted to show the girls how capillary action works.  The stem of the Queen Anne's Lace in a cup of dyed water, will, within a few hours, suck the water up into the flower and turn it the same color as the dyed water.

We put our Queen Anne's Lace in water dyed dark purple, neon blue, and pink. This morning, sure enough, the flowers were the same color as the water.
Amazing!  The color was striking, and it occurred to me how trusting the Queen Anne's Lace is, how indiscriminate.  Whatever liquid environment you place the stems in, they draw it in deep within themselves and assume that color.

I imagine my living room as one big vase of water and my family as Queen Anne's Lace.  I'm thinking about what they draw in from me, from my attitude, my hope, my flair. 

It's just too easy for the stem to draw in whatever it's near--no matter what shade.  Hopefully, that color is bright and joyful. 

(Photo courtesy of Lexington Gardener Examiner)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What $5.00 Bought Me This Morning

My 10 year old neighbor has started a garden and pet care business.  His flyer says he's "responsible, caring, and dependable. . . since 1999."  This morning, I hired him.  He said he could groom my cats, empty litter boxes, and play with the cats for exercise.  He said he would charge me $2.50 for his work.

I've used this service before.  At the beginning of the summer, he came to my house as a garden consultant and advised me about the placement of my beds and compost. 

This morning, I paid him $5.00 because not only did he care for all the pets, but he decided he needed to vacuum the basement.  And then, he wanted to help me make cranberry bread.  He needed to wash his hands first, he told me, because every proper chef washes hands before he handles food.

He's still here, occasionally checking his bread in the oven.

I told him he should run for President.

He said he probably will.

I told him I was going to blog about him today, and he wasn't interested.  He's not into fame or recognition.  Right now, he's into dragging the yellow rope around the house to exercise my cats.   He wants to make sure he fully earns his pay.

I hope he never loses whatever it is he has right now.  It's the kind of flair I want all the neighborhood kids to have.  When I asked him why he's starting a business, he said he has stuff he can do, and he can earn money and not be bored.  He's not watching TV or lounging around this summer, and he's not exhausting his parents' resources by begging for trips to Disney World or expensive summer camps.  No, he's going to run a business to help neighbors with their gardens and pets.   I just love that.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Spiritual Principle from My Hair

Our hair is dry and completely damaged by all the chlorine we swim in.  I've tried special shampoos and various conditioners, but nothing seems to repair that absolutely stiff-as-straw, greenish hair adorning my daughters' heads. 

I decided to do some research.  I found out that if you wet your hair in the shower first, you help prevent some of the chlorine damage.  According to one website:  "the water will saturate your hair and swell each strand, preventing it from thirstily soaking up the chlorine-laden water."  

I like this writer (Sarah Tennant).  First of all, she uses some alliterative verbs like saturate, swell, and soak.  But she also makes thirst into an adverb:  thirstily.  As I was reading her, I kept thinking of the devotional literature I read in the morning.  I've been trying to saturate my mind with good things every morning.  I think about my heart swelling up with true, right, noble, and lovely things.

Soaked like this, I'm not thirsty in a way that will damage me.  I'm not thirsty in the way that lets whatever is nearest, most available, and most naturally compelling in.  Chlorine, for example, strips the hair of protective oils and dries everything out.  The hair thirstily takes in what actually dries it up.  That kind of quenching creates more thirst and damages.  

My hair is teaching me a spiritual principle that I want to remember:  Saturate and swell with the Good.  Then I'm not thirstily soaking up what damages. 

Living with flair means I saturate and swell and soak up the good. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Eraser with Flair

We've moved past silly bands in my house.  Now, it's Sugar Shack Erasers.  These little erasers come in the form of cheesecakes, donuts, ice-cream cones, and various pastries.

They break apart into their various components:  frosting, scoops of ice-cream, and toppings.  You can break your eraser apart into as many as 8 pieces, and then you put it together again.  But each piece remains fully functional as an eraser.

My children love this.   

There's been a mad rush for Sugar Shack Erasers.  We are at Wal-Mart, and my daughters scan the aisles for these erasers.  My oldest approaches an employee, who stands in a cluster of other Wal-Mart employees.  She explains the importance of the Sugar Shack Eraser.  Eyebrows raise.  Apparently, this group of employees are managers and important members of some marketing team.

"We have to order those," one man says.  The other women nod.  They recognize the urgency in my child's face. 

Ask a child if you want to know what sells.   The Sugar Shack erasers are erasers for goodness sake.  They are school supplies.  But my children can't resist an object that presents as one thing but actually transforms into something else.  An eraser cheesecake is actually 6 little erasers, so tiny you can't imagine them.  It's a puzzle and an eraser.  Who knew? 

"Mom, this is just awesome.  We need to get all of the Sugar Shacks."  She's thinking about a mistake she makes on her writing that she can erase with the little cherry from the top of her ice-cream cone eraser.

The Sugar Shack Erasers had me thinking as I wondered about what fascinates children.

Whatever is--the taking apart, the building back up, the secret you hold in your hand--it tells me something about living with flair.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What We've Known For a Long Time

I read an article on the bus yesterday that recounts the results of a number of happiness studies.  Researchers want to know if happiness is something we experience or something we think

I love reading articles like this.  Once again, research proves that when we think about our experiences we can put the day in a certain framework to create meaning and joy.   Not surprisingly, this meaning and joy rarely depend on circumstances.  

I'm thinking about that article, and I run into one of the most vibrant and enthusiastic moms in my town.  She's waving at me as I make my way through the self check-out line in the grocery store.  Within 30 seconds, she's inviting me to her "Alphabet Summer" where everyday at her home celebrates a different letter of the alphabet.

It's "J" day, so there's jam, jello, and jumping in the pool.  I'm imagining jugglers and jellyfish and jackals.  I smell jasmine.

Her two little boys smile, and one of them says to me, "I just loved 'F' day.  'F' day was the coolest!"

I'm living in the same town as this woman.  I'm raising my children on the same streets and we are going to the same grocery stores.  I'm making breakfast, doing laundry, cleaning and cooking, and yes, even going to the pool.  We both probably worked-out, had coffee, and will feel tired after lunch. 

But it's "J" day at her house.

They will jump into the pool instead of easing in.  With this alphabet framework, her whole summer radiates with hidden meaning and wonder.

"Do we have a special letter today, Mom?"

Quickly, I think about the curry chicken I've planned for dinner.

"It's 'I' day," I say.  "For India."

They are quiet and thinking of exotic lands.  

Same old day.  Same old dinner.  But now, we've got ourselves a happiness framework.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

My Extraordinary Night Out

What happens when you don't need to find the extraordinary moment in the common thing because, well, everything around you is already packaged and delivered as extraordinary?

I'm on 39th street, in a beautiful loft, mingling with writers, artists, literary agents, and ladies arranged in bouquets, with men in suits as stems, in various corners of the room.  Everyone I talk to has extraordinary news:  a new novel coming out in the winter; a non-fiction book about railroads nearly finished; screenplays coming soon; or grand moves to new cities.

And when I pause to catch my breath, girls surround me with neat little trays to offer hors d'oeuvres that need clarification.  Somebody brings me a drink in a deep purple glass.

Meanwhile, my friend signs my copy of her book.  Carey Wallace's debut novel shimmers in my hands.  I've read it twice already, and the language itself makes me happy.   The story chronicles a woman's journey as she goes blind and presents the fictionalized version of the historical love story surrounding the invention of the typewriter.  In many ways, for me, it's a story of the relationship between sight and insight.

I'm now sitting in a corner, against a wall, on a stool.  Within an hour, two different people stop by and confess their similar but undoubtedly unique doubts about Christianity.  Both men have abandoned their faith because of serious concerns about the authenticity and authority of scripture.

One of them says:  "If only God had written a better Bible, maybe then I could believe." 

I'm in a different sort of worship gathering here, and I don't belong at all.  But then I notice my friend has exchanged her high heels for flats--a welcome symbol that as the party wanes, we are stripping down to our essentials.  It's the feet I notice all of a sudden.  Flip-flops replace the spikes and glitter, and tightly pinned hairstyles come down. 

I'm just about to leave, and I haven't accomplished something I should do:  I'm supposed to meet my agent face-to-face and pitch the idea for my nearly finished novel.  She's over there, in a bright green dress, radiant and sure.  What do I say?

I deliver a few sentences as she shakes my hand.  She's delighted, eager, and encouraging.   The man who wants a better Bible leans over my shoulder and says:  "Well done!  You were in and out, concise and clear.  You didn't drool all over her, and you left an impression.  I'll give that an 8 1/2.  That's how you talk to an agent."

There are rules to this game that I don't know.  But at least my feet didn't hurt.  I started out in flip-flops and never had to change.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Writing Atop a Double-Decker Bus with WiFi

I'm doing something I've never done before:  I'm riding atop a double-decker bus on the way to Manhattan. 

I'm with complete strangers.  But here's what I know: 

The woman beside me was homecoming queen, and I know the whole story about the boy she met when she was 14 who visited, only in the summers, his grandparents who were her neighbors.  I know about their long distance relationship, the time they broke up after they already paid for airline tickets to visit Chicago, and how, even though they doubted the other would actually still go, they found each other in that city and fell in love again. 

I also watched a storm brew through the windows above my head with the older man next to me.  He has a hearing aid, and I'm not sure would speak if I engaged him, but when that storm barreled in, he glanced at me, looked back up at the dark clouds, again at me, and then back again.  We both saw it happening, and this was important. 

I had 15 minutes at a truckstop, and I was late because I was listening to a man describe his writing project.  The bus driver came in to find me.  He looked down at me, shook his head, and smiled. 

For the woman who hates to travel, I'm learning to find buried treasure in the people around me.  I'm having the time of my life, and we are just in New Jersey. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

How to Live in Luxury

Luxurious or lavish things do not need to be expensive.  I'm learning that luxury can be sought in the right mindset.  There's something biblical about luxury properly applied.  But, by definition, luxurious implies indulgent, excessively expensive, and unnecessary. 

Even the word seems excessive.  The way it sounds seems. . . luxurious

The word connotes an entire world of very fine and very unobtainable things.

But in my house, we use the word to mean anything rich in goodness and superior in quality.  We can make luxurious fruit tarts and paint our toenails with luxurious colors.  We can lay out in the grass, luxuriously, and watch the lightening bugs.  We can swim in the public pool with luxurious backstrokes.

We won't be on boats or eating fine chocolates today.  We won't be vacationing on a far off island. 

And that's fine. 

There's something so uncertain about wealth and luxury.  Today, as I was painting my daughter's fingernails with the cheapest bottle of bright pink, I remembered one of my favorite Bible verses from the book of Timothy.  

"Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment."

Does God really richly provide everything for our enjoyment?  Not for our needs, but for our enjoyment?  How lavish!  How luxurious! This means I only have to wait and see what luxurious experience God might send my way today.

Maybe it's the gorgeous deep purple blossoms on the eggplant I'm growing outside.  I've never grown eggplant before, and I'm amazed by how beautiful it is.  And the fruit hasn't even come yet.  Eggplant is excessive and probably unnecessary (although I did learn how to make Eggplant Parmesan), but my goodness, I love those blossoms.

Thank you, God, for the luxury of purple eggplant blossoms.  They have flair indeed. 

(photo courtesy of Dilling / flickr)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

To Get a Great Thing, You Have to Lose a Great Thing

Last night, I explained to my sister how my new 5:30 AM wake up routine meant that I have lost my night life.  I was snuggling up in bed at 8:30 PM before even my children were sleeping.  She quoted someone I can't remember (can you? Maybe Tom Brokaw?) who said:

"Sometimes to get a great thing, you have to lose a great thing." 

All morning, I'm reminding myself that every yes is a no somewhere else.  The great thing I want means a loss somewhere else.

And this is perfectly reasonable, good, and right.

Marriage, children, working part-time, waking up early--there are losses associated with these choices.  But nobody talks about them enough.  Nobody tells you what it will feel like to get the great thing you want.  They don't talk about what you will lose in the getting of it.  Maybe if we did, we could understand more fully the weight of our decisions and the flip side of every "yes."

What great loss do I need to consider, weigh, and let go of?   I'm reminded of what it costs me to embrace God, marriage, children, my health, my work, my community with radical commitment.  When things cost me nothing, are they really great things

Living with flair means that sometimes to get a great thing, I will lose a great thing.   And that's what makes it a great thing.  

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

4 Questions to Protect Yourself

Our family has been on a mission ever since Monday.  Monday afternoon at precisely 2:20 PM, I look out at my beautiful garden and smile at the huge squash, the cauliflower, the tomatoes, the cucumbers, the eggplant, the herbs.

Then, I see him.  He's literally looking up at me with a smirk on his face, holding a juicy cucumber between his paws.  I start screaming and waving my arms in front of the window.  I run like a mad woman down the stairs and out into the yard.  The groundhog merely saunters off and finds refuge under our back porch.  He's huge.  He must look like this groundhog by now.  He's eaten all my cauliflower, stripped the green beans, destroyed the squash, and decimated the cucumber.

We gather the family together and set up garden surveillance. My children watch from the window and begin making a list of questions like:

1. How does the thief enter?
2. When does he come?
3. What attracts him to the garden?
4. What will keep him out?

My dear, dear husband puts up a beautiful fence that very night.  But the thief knows how to tear through the wooden fence.  He can also dig underneath it.  So my dear, dear husband returns from the store with chicken wire that buries deep into the ground and ascends up high around the garden.

Finally, we can sleep easy.  What's left of the garden can grown in peace and produce a bountiful crop.

All day, I've been considering the vigilance of our family against this intruder.  It was silly.  But what isn't silly is real threats against the garden of my own heart and the hearts of my family members.  Scripture teaches us that there's an enemy of our souls, and my daughters' list of questions sparked a new awareness of ways I protect myself from "anything that contaminates body and spirit."  That groundhog contaminated our garden, and we found a way to protect it.  We learned to recognize the how, the when, and the why of harmful intruders.  When things intrude and contaminate my own heart, might I ask myself that list of questions and devise a plan to ensure safe growth and a bountiful crop in my life?  What must go deep and ascend high about my life to ward off spiritual, physical, and emotional contaminates?

Living with flair means I protect and defend against contamination when I need to.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Secret Community You Might Want to Join

This morning, at 5:30 AM, I discovered the secret community of Those Who Rise Early.

I can't believe this world exists.  There I am, alarm going off, pulling on work-out clothes and stumbling to the driveway, when all of a sudden, I look around.  At the unnatural hour of 5:30 AM, there are actual people walking about.  Happy people.  People with dogs and friends and strollers and. . . energy.

What coffee do these people drink?

I pass folks out in their yard and folks driving places.  I see three runners, several walkers, and some gardeners. Why in the world are they so happy?  Do they know it's 5:30 AM?

It's a secret community.  Those Who Rise Early do things like work out, drink a quiet cup of coffee, stroll in their gardens, take leisurely showers, fix their hair, empty the dishwasher, prepare breakfast, and then, they greet Those Who Rise Late with a smile, ready.   

I've been in the later group my whole life.  I'm the one in the bad mood, dragging myself around, begging for coffee, griping at everybody and wanting my soft bed back.  Let me sleep!  I need my sleep!  I'm fighting the DNA of generations upon generations of Those Who Sleep Late.  I need to sleep until that last possible minute.   So stop bothering me and hand me that cup of coffee.  I need to sleep late

Do I?  I decided to interview Those Who Rise Early.  This club chooses to greet the day differently, and it's supremely amazing to join them.  They usually delight in 2 hours of solitude and productivity before children rise, before traffic surges, before the onslaught of the day.  Of the men and women I've talked to, this 5:30 wake up has changed their lives.  They wake that early for a variety of reasons:  personal prayer or meditation times, exercise, solitude, meal preparation and house organization, reading or writing.  Those people seem to live with with flair because their early rising prepares them for the day. 

My early morning wake up is part of living with flair.  I've taken a nose-dive off that plateau.  I'm hoping to change this part of my life and join the secret community of 5:30 AM.  Day by day, day by day.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Little Garden Magic

Early this morning my daughter picks a cucumber from our garden.  It is shaped exactly like a "C."   The wonder of this!  A vegetable shaped like its first letter!  She holds it up and shows me, eyes wide.  Would our eggplant come out like an "E" or the pepper in a big, plump "P"?  It is fun to think of it until we realize that it's entirely normal for cucumbers to turn into long "C" shapes.  The youngest knows this already, and my gardener husband confirms the truth.

There was no magic in the garden.

No zucchini coming in "Z" shapes or squash in long yellow "S's."  No enchanted alphabet vegetables. 

The disillusionment lasts only a millisecond.  My daughter, still in pajamas, decides to pick the basil for pesto.  Then she turns around and whispers:  "I'm picking some parsley for us too.  It's the secret ingredient."

Her eyes sparkle to think of the secret ingredient from the garden.

The wonder returns.  Tonight we are having enchanted pasta with pesto. 

Living with flair is finding a secret ingredient when you've reasoned the wonder away.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

3 Words You Need to Find Flair: Stress, Corner, and Plumb

Today, 3 words reminded me of what it takes to find the flair.

1.  Stress:  A trainer at the gym (the same one that encouraged--er, forced--me to take that Body Combat class) told me that I'm stuck in a rut.  She said that I've been doing the same old exercises for a year, and my body was plateauing.  I needed to stress my body differently now.  What?  You want me to stress my body?  But I like the plateau.   Plateau signifies a long, stable period of stability!  It's a leveling off, a resting place.  Plateaus are beautiful!  They let you rest and look off into the distance when you are climbing that horrible mountain. But I'm learning plateaus aren't always good--especially if you want to change yourself.  That trainer told me to come back to the class and "take it to the next level" with my fitness.  I needed to get off that plateau.  I needed to deliberately stress my heart and muscles.  So I did.   And this new place of sore muscles and sweat isn't at all stable.  But it's good.  When I leave the plateau, and embrace the stress of it, I can get out of what's really a rut and get to the next level of flair.

2.  Corner:   I have a yellow recliner I moved to the corner of my living room.  I sat it in this morning after Body Combat.  I have never enjoyed that chair because of where it was in the room.  But when I moved it to the corner, all of a sudden, it's my little nook of joy.  I have my Bible beside it, a novel, a little table with a reading lamp, and a soft quilt.   A corner is a place off to the side, a place where two walls meet in a remote area.  I love that word.  I'm learning to put myself in a corner to let my life come together the way the walls do.  If I don't find a remote place, even in my own home, I can't recover from leaving the plateau.

3.  Plumb:  Plumb means "exactly" as in "the tree was plumb center in the yard."  So after reclining in the yellow chair in the corner, choosing to leave the plateau, I went out with my children to the plumb tree down the street.  Our kind neighbors said we could climb and pick as many plumbs as we want.  So my daughter is up in that tree, feasting on juicy red plums, and I'm picking ripe ones within my reach.  I bite down into the fruit of that big tree that I pass every single day.  I hardly noticed it until this weekend.  And now I'm plumb in the midst of it.  I want to be plumb aware of that tree.  I want to be accurate and precise in my observations of all the good things in my life.

I'm plumb in the center of finding flair:  stressing myself off the plateau, resting in my corner, and letting plumb juice drip off my chin.  It's a good day here.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Incomprehensible Flair

We are in the minivan (why is flair always happening in my minivan?) and my daughters are laughing hysterically about babies and their first words.  My youngest said "dog" first, and my oldest said "duck," so they are trying to psychoanalyze what this must mean about them.  I tell them my friend's first word was "daffodil" and that's why she's a writer.

Then the oldest asks:  "What's a really long word that would be so weird to have as a first word?"

Out of the blue, I blurt out "incomprehensible."

They are stunned by this 6 syllable word.  My daughter says, "I do not understand that word."

"That's what it means!" I say.  "It means it's something not understood."

They are shocked.  The feel that sublime moment where their experience of a word is what the word means. 

My children are fascinated with how people come into language.  They want to know more.  I'm thinking of Helen Keller's encounter with the water and her ability to grasp "wet" by having water poured over her hands.

I talk more about what "incomprehensible" means.  I say stuff like:

"It's like when you talk so fast and I can't understand you.  It's incomprehensible."

"Not to me," she says.

"Or when someone is speaking Chinese.  It's incomprehensible."

"Not to them."   

I think about this.  Incomprehensible isn't really a great word after all.  Just because I don't understand it, doesn't mean it's not understandable to somebody else somewhere.   I suppose living with flair means I don't settle for saying something is incomprehensible.  If I get another perspective, I just might find the meaning. 

"Yeah, Mom.  You have to be careful when you explain words to us."

I really do. 

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Beauty in Sorrow

To know sorrow is to know loss.  Sorrow represents one of the most complex human emotions because it's a sadness tinged with beauty and joy.  We are sorrowful because we miss what was once, or could have been wonderful.  We remember the joy but are simultaneously aware of its absence. 

I think of Eve, leaving the Garden, unable to ever return.

I'm driving in my car, remembering lost things, people, lost experiences, places.  I'm trying desperately to get out of the sorrow.  Maybe I could exercise or distract myself somehow.  Besides, the day was nearly over, and I hadn't had one moment of flair. 

This sorrow was overtaking any chance of flair. 

And then I wondered:  What if the sorrow is the flair? 

Just because it's a negative emotion doesn't mean it's not extraordinary and full of the presence of God.  There's a theology behind sorrow that tells me something about myself.  I inherit sorrow as part of the Fall.  I'm that figure looking back at the East Gate of Eden.  And isn't that curse accompanied by hope?  Doesn't God promise a way to rejoice in sorrow?  Isn't he called the Comforter in Sorrow?  Aren't Christians described as "sorrowful yet always rejoicing?"  How can this be? 

Is our coming joy dependent upon our present sorrow? 

When I'm sorrowful, I let my heart break apart so God can enter and heal.  Sorrow accompanies me--a true companion--that reminds me what I have lost but also what will one day be restored--in God's way and in God's time.  It's a beautiful reminder of an usual form of flair.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Boat Ride in the Rain

It's a dreary, rainy day on the last day of our lake visit.  My daughters climb into the boat. My youngest giggles:   "It's raining, Mom!  It's water above us and below us!  The water is everywhere!"  The boat speeds up. 
"Mom, stick your hand out of the boat.  The waves will give you a high-five."  I stick my hand out into the wave the boat makes, and sure enough, I'm slapped right back with a wet high-five.  She thinks of the water as having hands.  And with those hands it celebrates with high-fives.

Who cares if it’s raining?