Thursday, September 30, 2010

He's Making Stilts

At 7:30 AM, I'm drinking coffee at the breakfast table and attempting to grade papers.  Our neighbor (the one who stops by occasionally and says, "I should probably stay for dinner") comes in.  He's the type of 9-year-old who carries a little cage with him in case he finds critters.  When we walk in the woods, he's equipped with nets, cages, wading boots, and all his fishing gear.  He's prepared indeed. 

He is, after all, a Scout. 

He has a zeal for living I wish I could bottle.  He approaches the breakfast table and pulls out an order form for popcorn.  He's a Boy Scout (Not yet, he tells me.  He's still at the Webelos level.  He's a Cub Scout eagerly preparing to be a Boy Scout), and he's selling popcorn as a fundraiser.

At 7:30 AM.

I'm not surprised at his early morning sales pitch.  He's an entrepreneur if I've ever seen one.  His lemonade stand grossed a fortune in July. 

As he folds the order form neatly, he says, "I'm going to earn a new badge for building with wood."  He pauses, creating anticipation.

"What are you going to make?"  I ask. 


He confirms that he's already very skilled in stilt walking. 

Stilts:  those wooded structures that we attach to our legs to walk high about the ground. I read later that shepherds in France, mounted on stilts, could do extraordinary things--walk through the rivers, run across dangerous marshes, and forge trails otherwise blocked by thick brush.

The stilts make a way through the wilderness.  And at that height, stilt-walkers see with a new perspective. And this little boy knows the places he can go with them strapped to his legs. 

I want stilts.  I want to be a stilt-walker through this day:  rising above obstacles, forging trails.  There's no path cleared in this territory.  It's a life of faith, and I need my stilts.  I mount up by faith, I see the blocked path, and I walk on.

(Photo:  "The Stilt Walker of Landes," Sylvain Dornon)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I'm Taking You with Me

This morning, I dread that one student who looks me in the eye and says, "I just don't care."  He's required to take this class to graduate, and so far nothing interests him.  Not even short stories.  Not even poems.  Not even semicolons. He actually responds to a question I have about a story with, "I really just don't care." 

You could hear a piece of chalk drop from my hand and roll back towards the chalkboard. 

It happens every semester.  Some students just don't care.  And I can't make them.  I can just showcase the wonder of the subject matter and pray that they connect.

And I can bring donuts.  This is my secret weapon. 

So this morning, I burst into the classroom bearing treats.  It's going to be a great class.  I'm going to inspire!  I'm going to make that student fall in love with poetry!  I'm going to fight apathy! 

And that student doesn't show up to class.  I deflate and wilt at my desk. 

My secret weapon mission fails.

I'll try again on Friday.  I'll have a new strategy that might involve Starbucks.  

Whatever it takes to get students enthused, I have to try.  There's so much to experience; there's so much to learn and do.  I can't handle apathy because I've lived in that land.  It's a partial death. 

Generating enthusiasm means I continue the pursuit of that one person who doesn't care.  With indifference, lack of emotion, and lack of concern ruling the day, nobody moves.  Nothing changes.  We ignore others and lose the passion in our own lives. I can't go back there.  And I'm going to drag students, family members, neighbors, and friends with me back toward the light. 

If I have to tempt you with treats, I will. 

Living with flair means we fight apathy with whatever weapon we can.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I've been known to applaud students right in the middle of class if they say something something great.  I've been known to cry "Bravo!" and actually rise to my feet.

When I grade papers, I write "Bravo!" in the margins when I see flair in any form.

Why that word?  The word bravo derives from the Italian word meaning brave.  Originating from 18th century Italian opera, the word isn't as common as it once was.

But it should be. 

We cry out to celebrate after a strong performance because we recognize something great.  What did we see?  I wondered this morning if that "something great" relates to acts of bravery that we recognize and respond to.

Every great act requires bravery.  What fear, what challenge, what opposition did we rise up against to do this thing we are doing?  For some of us, waking up and making it to the bathroom is a courageous act.

I imagine a chorus of invisible witnesses who cheer us on in our daily toil.  The excellent performances of simple folks who rise up against whatever enemy deserve our applause.  I rise to my feet; I clap my hands for you.  "Bravo!  You are brave!  You are brave today, and we recognize it."


Monday, September 27, 2010

One Nice Thing

On this abysmally wet and dreary day, I find my umbrella only half works.  I'm dripping wet as I lug my books for class, my purse, and cold coffee out across the parking lot.  And I'm late for the bus.  I can already see it start to pull away as dry, warm riders make it to their buildings on time. 

A bus pulling away begins to represent all my longing, all my missed opportunities, all my sorrow over every thing I've ever experienced in my whole life. 

I'm drooping my head, sagging down with each puddled step when, all of a sudden, I hear the hum of a bus where no bus should still be.

I look up.  A bus remains!  The driver waits for me. He waits!  I charge on, coffee mug high, purse swinging wildly, and feet sloshing (who cares?) in puddles. 

A bus waiting where no bus should still be begins to represent all the good things still present in the midst of the rain. It will keep me warm all day. 

A nurturing gesture from a stranger on a cold, rainy day makes me feel seen, honored, loved.   I ride with a smile on my face.  I look around me.  We're all in this together.  I can wait for you. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Is God Like This?

This morning before church, I have a moment to relax with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.

I put a dollop of whipped cream in my coffee mug. (I like to pretend I'm at Starbucks.) 

All of a sudden, the little one flits over, skirt twirling and finger pointing at my mug.

Then she does it.  She actually does it.  She sticks her finger straight into the cream, pulls it out, and licks away.

The audacity!  How dare she?  I'm feeling. . . something.  As she completes another twirl around me, I see her pointed finger approaching my mug.  But instead of punishing her, I tip the coffee mug so she can get the most cream.  I'm encouraging this atrocious behavior.

I'm so overcome with love for that little child. 

The image of the little one dancing about me with inappropriate manners and audacious finger-pointing requests delights me.  I should have been angry.  I should have scolded her, but I cannot.  That little twirl!  That little finger full of cream!

Later in church, the image stirs up within me.  It wasn't an audible voice; it wasn't a boom of thunder from the clouds.  But as I recalled that child and how I couldn't help but tip the mug so she might enjoy more of what I could offer, I felt that Spirit-whisper saying:  I feel this way about you. I'm overcome with love. 

Dance about.  Make audacious and inappropriate requests.  Point the finger and dizzy yourself with twirls.  God tips the mug, delighted. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Irony

I stand in a museum in Gettysburg.  As I enter the room called, "The Gettysburg Address," I feel more solemn than I expect.  A simple room--nothing elaborate or majestic--painted in muted browns displays the words of that historic address.  10 sentences, less than 250 words.  I examine Lincoln's handwriting, noting his style.  How could so few words create a cultural moment so powerful?  How could this conglomeration of verbs, dashes, and words puzzled into a graveyard address change the course of history? 

The document amazes me.  Lincoln uses the address to challenge and inspire us to press on in our own legacy-making, our own freedom-fighting, our own responsible citizenship so those honored dead "shall not have died in vain."  It's a speech so deeply embedded in the past (four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent), but so simultaneously lodged in a future Lincoln could not yet see (that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom).  That double vision is what the study of history so often offers. 

As I turn from the wall displaying the text of the Gettysburg Address, I face an opposing wall of quotations others have made at the time of Lincoln's speech.  It's difficult to see with this cell phone photo, but these quotes refer to the short speech as a bunch of "silly remarks."  One newspaper says that "every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat. . . remarks."  Another comment claims that Lincoln's remarks will "no more be repeated or thought of" in American history.

I take a picture.  I laugh at the irony.  There will always be haters.  There will always be opposition to the good, the noble, and the true.  Perhaps the amount of criticism directly correlates to how good, noble, and true a thing is. 

Living with flair means we move on in our legacy-making and our freedom-fighting despite opposition.  What others claim is "dull and commonplace" just might change a nation's history. 

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thank God for Friction

Yesterday, I hydroplane.

It's terrifying.  One minute you're driving along the slick wet road, and the next minute, you're flying.  The tires lose their grip on the road.  The steering wheel seems disconnected from the car.  The vehicle swerves recklessly.

It's out of control.

But just as quickly, the tire rediscovers the road.  That clash, that beautiful resistance, keeps you centered in your lane and attached to the road.  

I don't want a easy life.  I don't want smooth sailing.  It's the friction that ties me to my path.  It's the clash against me that makes me function best.  This sticky situation, this disappointment, this complaint reminds me  of my need for God, of my absolute dependence, and of the reality of danger apart from that grip.  It's humbling and it's uncomfortable sometimes.  But it's safe. 

Those things I don't want in my life just might be the friction I need to get to where I'm going.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Losing Something You Can't Recover

My student bursts into the classroom. "I've lost my paper!  I didn't save it properly and the whole thing is gone!"  The exasperation in this student's face is one I've seen many times before. 

My student can't get that paper back.  He stands in front of me, small and hopeless.  I've been there.  I remember the first time it happened to me.  I remember the discouragement, the anger, the desperation, and the embarrassment of it all when I forgot to save a term paper.  

It's not fair; it's not right.  But I told myself I had to move beyond what's fair or right.  I had to move beyond the anger and the shame.

I had to start again.  

Students tell me that what they produce after the loss turns out stronger, more authentic, and more concise than the original paper.  They build on the memory of what they once wrote and make something better.  It's not easy, and it never seems fair.   Losing stuff is like that.  I'm learning to take a loss and build on it somehow to create a marvelous new thing. 

Otherwise, I get stuck in the anger.  

This won't be the last time we lose something that can't be recovered.  But beauty does arise from the ashes.  I see it every semester with every lost paper.  I see it in my own life with every thing I've ever lost.  There's a way to start again on the fresh page, remember what you had, and press your fingers down on the keys.  You start letter by letter, word by word.  Soon, you're not just back where you started.  You're beyond in a beautiful far country that you never imagined existed.  And the loss got you there.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

One Sure Way Not to Take Yourself So Seriously

I'm in class, teaching difficult things.  We stress, we furrow our brows, and we cramp our fingers around our pens as we engineer new thesis positions.   We sigh with discouragement as we discuss urgent social and political matters.

I lean back, cross my legs, and expose the socks I'm wearing underneath these business slacks.  Striped pink socks with monkeys on them.  A few people laugh out loud.

I've always worn whimsical socks.  I put them on as the last accessory before I slip on my boring (but extremely comfortable) work shoes.

The socks remind me not to take myself so seriously.  The day stretches before me: difficult, stressful, urgent.  But the subtext of the whole day--the story underneath my professor attire--calls out to me.  There's something fun here.  There's something quirky, delightful, and refreshing.  Even in pain, even in sorrow, I can discover a way to giggle or roll my eyes at something silly and unprofessional.  

Might there be room in my serious day for the trivial thing that delights?  And why wouldn't that thing be a sock?  Socks provide protection, covering, and warmth.  Sometimes I need to buffer the deep and distressful with the delightful and diverting.  

Living with flair means I don whimsical socks.  Seriously fun when I'm taking myself too seriously.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Forgetting the Thing I Need the Most

Today, I attended that Body Combat class that once made me cry. 

I'm front and center with the petite and perky trainer staring right into my eyes.  With every muscle toned and every skin surface glistening, she encourages me to "own the space" around me and to "no longer be a prisoner."  As I punch and kick the air, I imagine some unnamed demon--depression, failure, regret--and I attack fiercely and swiftly.

I'm working hard.

Then, at the point of my exhaustion, the trainer says, "Don't forget to breathe."  It's silly.  How could I forget?  Why do trainers always command us to do something so simple and intuitive?  Breathe.  

I ask her why we have to be reminded.

She says (in between one-handed push ups and military crawls) that when the body is working hardest, it forgets the thing it needs the most.  The focus on the task (utilizing muscles in difficult configurations) means we forget to breathe.  We hold our breath as we focus. 

"So I have to remind you.  There's no quicker way to fatigue the body than to forget to breathe."

Her lesson in breathing at the point of my most focused and hardest work reminds me that what seems automatic and intuitive often freezes up when I'm working.  I fatigue myself because I'm neglecting the thing I need the most. 

When I'm fatigued like this, I need to ask myself what I'm neglecting that I need the most.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Mistake We Make

Our acorn stockpile wasn't such a great idea after all.  A few days ago, I learned that acorns contain bitter tannins that interfere with a squirrel's ability to metabolize protein.  That's why they bury them! 

Burying acorns and letting them sit underground allows moisture to percolate through them to "leach out" the tannins.

Our stockpile circumvented this process.  We'll have to bury them or let them sit in groundwater for days.

How could I not think of ways I seek short-cuts, of ways I stockpile and fret, when all along, I'm preventing a much needed process?   When my plans rest dormant underground, might I see them as percolating in the moisture needed to make them nourishing and not destructive?

God is leaching out the bitter thing--the thing that might harm me. 

Squirrels surrender to the process.  They don't resist the truth of their circumstances.  They gather, bury, and then feast only after that secret underground process completes.  Might living with flair mean we watch the squirrels and understand something about our own journey with God?

I can't circumvent what needs to happen.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Would You Wear These Shoes?!

My shoes look a lot like this:  brown, basic, sensible, sturdy.  No heel.  

Are you surprised?  I'm the same woman who wore flip-flops to a fancy Manhattan party.  No matter how hard I try, I could never wear shoes like this:  Pink, Satin, 10 inch heel.  Strappy.  

Put me in shoes like these, and I'd entangle the heel in my clothing; I'd fall into the street; I'd look like a fool.  But every once in a while, I think that I'm supposed to wear high heels.  And they have to be satin and pink and absolutely adorable. 

Once I asked my friend (she wears 10 inch heels regularly, with jeans even) if her shoes were comfortable. 

"Of course not!  I'm in excruciating pain!" she hollers at me.  She has to walk back to the parking lot from our building. She's barely making it.  I think I see blood. 

My shoes, in comparison, look beyond boring.  What happened to all my sass?

Many years ago, I chose to throw off the conventions that torture rather than free, that bind rather than release.   I've spent too much of my life entangled in fancy externals that masquerade as the good life.   In that life, the things that promise freedom actually oppress.  You know it because of the pain.  You know it because you're following some rule about what's supposed to make you happy.  And you can't remember what you love anymore.  Instead, you're living a cliche as scripted as pink satin 10 inch heels.

They aren't me.  They were never me.  I love comfy shoes that I don't have to think about.  

Release the buckle and strap, slip off the entanglement, and run free.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

When You Feel Unstable

I've been walking a lot lately.  This morning I woke up thinking about a quote from Oliver Wendall Holmes:   

Walking, then, is a perpetual falling with a perpetual self-recovery. It is a most complex, violent, and perilous operation. . . 

When I walk, I deliberately destabilize myself, catch myself with the next foot, and repeat the process.  This is how I get places. 

I stroll all alone down my street and then up the big hill.  As I walk, I crunch the fallen and abandoned acorn tops with my shoes.  That crackle of flattened cupule (the lovely word for the acorn shell) delights me somehow.   My gait looks silly--Chaplinesque without the cane--wobbly and off-kilter as I seek out shells to flatten.

It's a little dangerous and slippery.  The shells cover the walkway and make me aware of my steps.  I'm smiling with the game of it.  Here I am, falling and recovering, leaving a wake.  I'm unstable and then stable.  But I'm still in the game. 

Later, I arrive at the school doors and begin the walk home with two girls by my side.   We three crunch acorn shells, each in our own segment of sidewalk.  That microcosmic movement--walking--as a perpetual falling and recovery showcases the complexity of our whole journey.  We fall; we recover; we get to crunch acorns on the way. 

PS--I'm thankful for days of walking.  For those who cannot walk today, I honor your journey.   And for those in rehabilitation and physical therapy, I've learned from Holmes just how difficult that process is. Keep up the hard work!  May God quicken your recovery!   

Friday, September 17, 2010

True Snapshot

School pictures never go well for us.  Over the years, they always return with faces that more resemble mug shots than happy school pictures.  One year, it actually looked my daughter was growling at the photographer.  Another year, the oldest daughter's eyes were half shut, and she had a haunting smirk on her face.

That year, our photographer friend rescued us.  We met her at the studio in the mall, and for a comparable price, she created the most fabulous photo shoot for my daughters.  They could choose all sorts of fun backgrounds, use props, and relax while the camera clicked away.  Even better, this great photographer stopped and combed hair, adjusted clothing, and worked to capture the most authentic and vibrant smiles.  We left an hour later with a package of prints to send to grandparents and aunts and uncles.  And we could display two "school photos" in our living room that didn't look terrifying.

Telling my daughter she wasn't ordering school pictures this morning nearly sent her into a fit.  That's when my husband said, "You're right.  I want to make you miserable. I don't love you at all."

What she didn't recall (and couldn't know) was that his "no" meant a great "yes" and a trip to the mall later.  And instead of 3 dull backgrounds, she would choose from a wide array of whimsical ones. 

I throw fits in private to the Lord of the Universe about that cosmic "no" (whatever I'm not getting).  But that "no" always, always ends with a better, more authentic and more vibrant "yes."  The things I want might just be bad set-ups--as torturing as school photos compared to glamorous photo shoots.   When I see it that way, and when I hear that voice chuckling, "You're right. I want to make you miserable.  I don't love you at all," I realize how absurd my thinking is.

Do I really believe God withholds something to make me miserable?  Because I'm not loved at all?  Listening to my husband tease our daughter in the kitchen--and her delight in hearing the absurdity of it--made her actually beg for him to say it again.  Even my older daughter wanted a reprise.

I want to make you miserable.  I don't love you at all.  We giggled.  We hugged.  We realized the truth.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to Get This Thing to Work

My friend just emailed a picture of my daughter swinging on a glider swing with her daughter.  On a glider swing, two friends sit back to back.  The rhythm required to get the swing moving involves taking turns pulling up against the bar in front of you.  If you both try to pump at the same time, you don't move.  It's fun to watch children figure this concept out.  You have to let the other person move, and then you move, and then it's back to you, then back to them.

But it doesn't work if you both pull in your own direction at the same time.

The irony of surrendering to your partner, of deferring to the other person, is that you end up swinging higher.  You get the benefit of all her hard work.  But it doesn't seem fair.  You have to resist the urge to be first, to control the whole gig.  Those urges end up sabotaging you in the end.

The picture of my daughter on the glider swing reminds me to cooperate.  It's embarrassing how much I resist cooperation.  I want to lead!  I want to start it all!  But you there at my back, with me the whole time, have a stake in this experience.  What would happen if I saw us as truly interdependent, laced up at our backs, so that when you lead, I go higher?  What if saw my labor as elevating you as well? 

I'm not the surrendering type.  I'm learning, when I look at this picture, to cooperate with what's at my back (God, my husband, my dear neighborhood friend, my colleagues, and even my own daughters).

Let me work with you.  That's the way the swing works. 

(beautiful photo courtesy of S. Velegol)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Totally Out of Context

Today I tell my students we will work together to revise their essays.  

To revise means "to see again." When we see our writing "again," we gain a fresh look, from a new perspective, and recalibrate what's not working.

One method of revision involves taking writing out of context and re-reading it in a completely different form.  Maybe the font has changed; maybe the paragraphs are separated by huge chunks of white space; maybe the text appears on a computer screen and not on a piece of paper.

We gain a new perspective by changing the context.  And we get somebody else to see it with us; new eyes add a new context.  Suddenly errors emerge so clearly we wonder why we could never see them ourselves. 

As I think about learning to revise my day--to find peace, beauty, happiness, and hope--I often need to find a new context.  I joke with my family (when I'm especially frazzled and moody) that there's just got to be flair in this!  When I find a new context for interpreting what's going on around me, I'm not as stuck as I think I am.  My circumstances don't have to determine how I'm seeing this day.  Disappointment doesn't own this day or my mood.

I'm going to take the disappointment, the fuss, the trouble out of context and see it all differently. 

What would my day look like from another person's perspective--a person from another country, another economic situation, or a different political system?  Would they complain about what I complain about? Would they fret over what I fret about?  The error is exposed: I'm acting entitled, ungrateful, and self-centered. 

One person's fuss is another person's flair. 

If I'm dominated by negative emotions today, maybe I need to change the context, see with fresh eyes (with the help of God and others), and revise.  I pray that I can take my life out of its settled context and see clearly and honestly. 

Living with flair means I take my experiences totally out of context.

(photo by Jez's flickr)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Darning a Hole in Your Community

Last night, our neighborhood launched the second year of Monday Night Neighborhood Fitness Group in the parking lot.  We had children and adults jumping rope while others biked, skated, threw football and Frisbee, walked a circuit around the perimeter, flew the big turtle kite, or raced up the steep hill beside the parking lot.

From above, I wondered if we looked like one huge mass of criss-crossing elements filling in the space.  We wove in and out, passing one another.  

I thought of darning. 

Darning is the technique one uses to repair a hole in fabric or knitting.  I learned that a knitter makes a framework around the hole and then uses a crisscrossed pattern to fill the gap.  My friend alerted me to this concept two days ago when I mentioned that the beautiful socks she knit me last year were beyond repair with two gaping holes in the heels.  She says, matter-of-factly, "I'll just darn them for you."  

Darning reminds me of how scabs form on the body.  Platelets, fibrin, and plasma all work together to form a web around the wound--filling it in and sealing the hole. 

There's something beautiful in the webbing and criss-crossing that must take place to repair a hole or a wound.  It happens when we repair fabric or our own bodies, but it also happens in our lives.

I thought about my community and all the ways we hold each other in place, all the ways we intersect, gather in, unite, and fill each others lives. We choose to deliberately criss-cross.  We are wound healers when we come together like this. 

Something was darned in my heart last night--some gaping hole I hadn't remembered was there.  I only played for an hour.  The sun set upon us, shining gold through the trees in the distance, and there I was, jumping double dutch (making a fool of myself) with these folks I'm living life with. We aren't related by blood.  We were strangers a few years ago--some a few days ago.  Now, we are something else.   I'll gather on the asphalt every week with these people:   platelets, fibrin, and plasma that circle, web, and heal.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Draw Out Your Inner Teacher

The Latin root of the verb educate means "to draw out" or "bring forth." 

Teachers illuminate the subject matter, but they also bring something forth from the student.  They draw knowledge out, not dump it in.

It's a different way of understanding the verb and a teacher's role in the classroom. It changes everything: how I teach, what I expect, and what constitutes the goal of our interaction.  Drawing out means there's some glorious and wonderful thing inside a mind that I want to bring to the light.

I'm on a treasure hunt; I'm on a deep sea dive;  I'm on a fishing expedition. 

"To draw out" a person--bring them to the surface--means I cast the line, linger patiently in those deep waters of the mind, and wait until the nibble comes.  It's not a perfect analogy, but it reminds me of the work of drawing any person out.  Marriage, parenting, friendships, work relationships, and even encounters with strangers might be deep sea fishing and diving expeditions. 

Wouldn't our dates, our dinner conversations, our seminars, and our book clubs be richer if we were all deep sea divers into the mind of another person?  What a privilege to learn from you!  What a privilege to draw something out of you!

I suppose that's why I want to be a teacher, not just with students, but with every interaction.  I want to draw out and not dump in.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Message From God in my Vacuum

Yesterday, I vacuumed my entire house. 

We recently had the carpets cleaned, and the kind cleaner suggested we needed a new vacuum.  He said to get a "multi-cyclonic" system with a canister I empty out--not the bag kind. 

I like my old vacuum.  It's been with me all these years.  To me, the carpets look great: clean and soft with little lines from where the vacuum travels.  We don't need a new one. 

But late in the afternoon, my husband suggests we purchase the "multi-cyclonic" vacuum (it was on sale!) to help keep our carpets clean.  With his fall allergies, our three cats, and our Grand Central Station lifestyle of game nights, parties, and meetings in our home, I agree to see what the big deal with multi-cyclonic vacuuming was. 

So I test it.  I re-vacuum the entire house. 

Apparently, multi-cyclonic means "miracle" in Greek.  From the view of this different mechanism, the carpets I think are clean are actually filthy.  The new vacuum removes so much unseen debris from my carpets that I literally sit on the floor and admire it in the canister. 

I even call two friends to tell them about this vacuum. 

Today in church, I think about that different mechanism that could remove what the old one couldn't.  I ask God to come in multi-cyclonic form into the depths of my being to lift the stain and invisible dirt that I can't see.  God removes it thoroughly, and for me, that's the beauty of the gospel. 

The unseen violations--pride, criticism, judgment, favoritism, self-focus--sink deep in my fibers.  Let me not just be clean on the surface.  Let me be multi-cyclonic clean. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What Were You Thinking?

Yesterday, a particularly thoughtful student said she wanted to start a blog.  She's been thinking about this for a long time.  As we walked together, she said, "I wouldn't have anything to say, though.  What would I write about?"

I wonder if what she really means is:  "What would I write about that anybody would care about?" 

The desire to make our internal thoughts external immediately comes under attack.  We often stay supremely private because we feel we have nothing worthwhile to say.  Our observations aren't valuable contributions, so we stay quiet and unheard.

We think that nobody would care anyway.  

If only we would share!  If only we all could talk openly about our thoughts and have others honor them.  Not because they were clever or wise or funny.  Not because they were politically or socially popular or trendy.

Sometimes I ask my daughters to tell me what they are thinking about.  My oldest reveals she's been wondering why in the world garlic wards off vampires.

When I ask students what they are thinking about, the weight of silence in the room unsettles me.  I ask them to write me something instead.  Just a paragraph.  Just a few sentences. 

That evening, I burst into tears at my desk as I read paragraph after paragraph of "what they were thinking."  Such depth!  Such complexity!  Such unique viewpoints!  Why don't they share these out loud?  Why don't they proclaim these things?

Might I change the climate in that classroom (and in my home) to have them speak up?  I want to hear everything you are thinking about.

Even if it's about garlic, I want to hear it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What You Have to Set Free

Pine Cone Maturity /
Walking to my classroom today, I passed a cluster of pines.  Beneath their branches, a perfect circle of pine cones posed like ornaments shaken from a Christmas tree. 

I stopped to consider what it might mean that a tree would drop all of its pine cones.  It seemed like loss; I felt longing in my heart. 

I know that the cone is just the protective cover for hundreds of seeds housed within it.  Once a year, a pine tree drops its pine cones to the forest floor.  If you pick one up, you can gently shake it to release tiny seeds--black dots in thin paper--that might not have yet flown free. 

Normally, the pine cone stays on the branch, opens up when the weather is dry, and lets the wind disseminate all her seeds.  Then, she'll drop to the forest floor.  The whole process takes about a year. 

Something about opening up, releasing those seeds, and then dropping to the ground like that made me wonder about the gifts we disperse, the creative acts we protect and then finally circulate, and the offspring or relationships we let loose.  It's all part of the process--shaking our pine cones free--emancipating things that we need to release and no longer control.  A pine tree forest's survival depends upon the ability to protect a seed and then send it out.  The remnant of that cone on the forest floor is proof that it let something go

If I were a pine tree, I'd want thousands of cones beneath my feet.  I'd gaze upon the cones to remind myself of what I released into the world and didn't keep for myself.  And I know there's something we lose with every release.  There will always be that vessel in our hearts--that tiny cone--to remember what we wanted to hold onto but knew we had to set free. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Flabbergasted! (A Student Laments Being Over-Scheduled)

Yesterday I had lunch with a college student who looks back on her grade school years with a certain regret.  She won awards in three different sports, had a full schedule of activities, made great grades, and got into a wonderful college.  She's a triathlete.  She's a straight A student. 

I look at that life and see how many parents in my community make extraordinary sacrifices for their children to have that kind of resume.  Even in elementary school, children are in multiple sports, multiple classes, multiple shows.

If I'm honest, I want to be that parent.  I feel so badly that we can't afford to have our children in more activities. I feel like I'm depriving my daughters of all the good things in life.  But talking to this college student changed my attitude.   

"I feel regret when I look back,"  the student said.  "I spent all that time developing my skills in all those activities, but I did nothing for my community.  I did nothing for the world."

She challenged me to put my girls in one or maybe two activities and let the rest of our days be spent engaged in community service.

"Did you know that right now children are enslaved in sweat shops?"  The student leans over the table in disbelief.  "Should I join the Peace Corps?  Should I start an awareness campaign?"  She asks the question with tears nearly filling her eyes.  "Nobody is reflecting on anything because they are all so busy doing their activities!" 

She spent hours in clubs and activities that bred a self-focus she laments.  Her perspective left me as flabbergasted as when the mother at church said I should teach my children they are not special.

I went home and looked at the list of possible activities for my children.  And then I looked at my own personal calendar.  I could book gym classes, lunch outings, shopping trips with girlfriends, Bible studies, dance classes--all for me!  What if I put a stop to everything and took a look around my community?  What if I gathered my family together and asked my girls to change the world and not their dance shoes? 

There's nothing wrong with sports and activities.  Children and adults learn vital life skills in extracurricular activities.  There is something wrong with cultivating a self-focus that excludes community, nation, and world.  I want to raise compassionate citizens trained in community organizing.   And as a citizen, I want to forgo my devotion to self-improvement (hours at the gym!) and think about how I can serve someone else.  What a hard paradigm shift! 

Living with flair means we live in a community and serve that community even if it means giving up another sport, another club, or another performance.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Completely Unnecessary

The principal of my daughters' elementary school knows their names.  This elementary school has 495 students, and the principal learns their names by the end of the first week of school.

I know. I've seen her walk in the halls saying "hello" to groups of students by name. 

I also know that learning my daughters' names is not in her job description.  Here's an official job description for a school principal: 

Provides leadership for the professional staff of the school in the development, implementation, and evaluation of a comprehensive educational program, and to administer the program in accordance with school board policies and administrative rules and regulations. 

It doesn't say that she's supposed to know names.  And yet she knows them.

I thought about her today when I remembered how my new kindergartner felt when that principal saw her in the hall and announced her name--not for being bad or for being known for trouble--but for just arriving in the school.  

I belong here.  Even the principal knows my name. 

Completely unnecessary might this task seem to some;  it's not in the job description. 

As I walked around campus today, I thought about what's not written in our job descriptions that we might do for others.  Sure, it's not part of the official policy, but what if we did that extraordinary and unnecessary thing that could forever change somebody else?

Maybe it's as simple as learning all the names of our co-workers or neighbors.  

I don't know how she does it.  I asked that principal how she memorizes every single child's name.  She didn't answer.  She was too busy announcing another name and shaking hands with a boy who passed by us.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Am I a Husky or a Collie?

I recently walked in the woods with my neighbor and her Siberian Husky.  While other owners let their dogs run free in the woods, she keeps hers tight and close on a strong leash.

"I wish I could let him run free," she says sadly.
"Why can't you?"  I ask, watching other dogs bounding off into the distant cluster of pine trees.

"Because Siberian Huskies have a strong urge to run but no homing instinct."

If she let him off the leash, he'd run and run with no regard for traffic or danger.  And he'd never return home. 

Unlike other breeds, the Siberian Husky wants to run away and lacks that inborn, mysterious, and often astounding ability to return home.  Other dogs can find their way back to you even if you drop them off hundreds of miles from home. Tales are told of Collie dogs, for example, who, when adopted into new families, have to be kept inside because their homing instinct is so strong they will return to wherever their previous home is even if it's in a different state.  

Collies have an urge to run, but they always know how to find their way home. 

Let me be more Collie than Husky!  The urge to run--to follow the whims of an adventurous life-- makes me dash off to fulfill that career possibility or that dream.  I'm a Siberian Husky racing off into the wild. 

Praise God for the leash! 

I wonder if when I feel most restrained by my circumstances that it's really the firm hand of God not letting me loose.  He knows I'd run straight into danger with no ability to find my way back.  That tether on my life that I think keeps me down is actually the lifeline that keeps me safe, loved, and home.  

(Photo of Siberian Huskies by Randi Hausken Photos)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Trusting the Process (without Peeking)

I'm a horrible disaster in the kitchen.  But God seems to teach me things in this place of flour and butter.  This morning, I tried my neighbor's delicious "popover" recipe.  Their family loves popovers.  They sprinkle lemon juice and powdered sugar atop the fluffy dish, and voila!  Breakfast joy!

Yesterday, she scribbled the recipe for me on the back of my daughter's "She Had a Wonderful First Day in Kindergarten" card.  You melt 2 tablespoons butter in an oven-safe skillet at 475 degrees.  Meanwhile, you whisk together 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup flour, and 2 eggs.  When the butter melts, you pour your batter in the skillet, close the over door, and wait exactly 12 minutes.  No more, no less.  And you cannot open the oven door.  The popover won't puff up if you do.

I do everything according to the instructions.  But when it comes to the "no peeking" part (and my oven has no glass window for seeing inside), I can hardly bear it.  Was it working?  Was my batter fluffing up?

12 minutes seems like an eternity.  I'm dying.  I have to peek.  I have to make sure the process is working.

I bite my lip and wait.  I actually count down with my timer--aloud--those last few seconds.  Finally, I can open the oven door.

It worked. 

Why was it so hard to trust the process?  Why did I have to bite my lip and restrain myself from needing proof that something good was actually happening inside that hot oven?

Oh me of little faith!  As I enjoyed that delicious treat with my family, I remembered that I can trust the process even if I can't see what's happening.  God works in secret within what often feels like an emotionally dark inferno.  But if I trust the process, I'll turn into what I'm supposed to become. 
Living with flair means I'm OK with not peeking.  What's supposed to happen is happening.  I'll see the product when it's time.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Way to Stop Fighting

We woke up to screaming.  All week, we've been listening to our daughters work out their conflicts.  Lately, they've been fighting over everything:  Whose turn? Whose portion? Whose toy? 

In church this morning, I asked another mother how she handles sibling fighting.  Her answer surprised me.

She said to teach my children that they aren't special.

Is this mother American?  Has she been in a coma?  Aren't I supposed to be training my children to believe in their absolute specialness?  Aren't I supposed to be telling my little girls how wonderful, how amazing, how special, special, special they are?  Of course they deserve that turn, that portion, that toy.  I've trained them to expect nothing less. 

I think I've been raising narcissists.  Something's gotta change. 

That mom told me to ask one sister if her other sister were any less special than she. 

So I did.  Without that sense of "I'm uniquely special," it was hard to justify who deserved that turn, that portion, that toy.

Who is more special?  Me or you?  

As I'm worshiping God in church this morning, I think about what causes so much distress in my own heart.  So many of my own internal and external conflicts arise out of a sense of entitlement.  I'm so special, God, so don't I deserve this thing?  I'm so special, God, aren't you going to do this wonderful thing in my life?  It's my turn, God.  It's time for my portion. 

The problem isn't that I'm not special.  I am.   The problem is that you are too--just as much--and I don't see it.  If I did, I wouldn't fight for my personal story, my turn, my portion, and my toy.  I'd see you as equally deserving of every opportunity and every bit of joy.

It was a sobering thought for someone like me--a recovering narcissist of sorts.  I looked around the sanctuary at hundreds of folks on their own spiritual journey.  Might I give up my turn, my portion, and my toy for them?  Might I reengage with people, recognizing a profound sense of how special they are?

Selfishness might stem from an exaggerated sense of my own specialness.

Are others special enough (as special as I am?) that I might defer to them, sacrifice for them, and lose my place in line?  Living with flair means admitting (though it's painful!) that I am not more special.  That's one way I can love others better, even when they get the biggest portion and the best toy.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Weekly Personal Reboot

Sometimes it helps me to think of my life as an operating system--like on my computer--that needs to reboot or reset every week.

To reboot means to reload an operating system.  You have to turn everything off, restart, and then launch the whole thing over again.   You reset your machine.   To reset means I clear away errors or events that clog my system, and I bring everything back to it's normal operating condition or initial state.   

Saturday cleaning day is my reset day.  I reboot the whole house. 

As I scrub, wash sheets, clean floors, rearrange bookshelves, I think about cleaning as rebooting.  Tomorrow, we wake up, go to church, and start the week afresh.  We'll create disasters in every room, dishevel all the books, track mud upon the clean floors, and leave traces of our projects.

But we'll reset the next Saturday--reboot--to that initial state so we can start a new week.

What if I didn't reboot?  Could the house freeze up like my computer?  Would we prevent important changes from taking place that require a reset?  Just like my computer needs that reboot, I realize how important it is to let my family enter tidy rooms primed for a new week of creativity, relaxation, and connection.  If the clutter and dirt of the previous week remains, I'm not allowing space for the new.

Cleaning my house resets it for the upcoming week.  But personally, what am I doing to reboot my own mind and body?  What does it mean for me to "reset" and enter this new week with a clean, smooth operating system? I want to practice taking the kind of time it requires to slow down, let all my programs rest, let the screen go dark, and then start up again so I'm ready for this new week.

If I don't answer the phone, it's because I'm rebooting. 

Living with flair means I reboot my living space and my life every week.   It's a way to get my operating system ready for new updates and new flair. 

(Photograph of first Argonne Computer in 1953 with scientist Jean Hall.  Courtesy of Argonne National Library) 

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Pure and Simple Happiness We Can Afford

At 7:45 AM, I push my daughter (the one who has the bad day mantra) on her tree swing.  There's a green chair next to me because the girls like to take a flying leap off of it, throw their legs around the swing, and see how high they can get. 

I can't keep her off that swing.  Yesterday, I tried to bribe her (literally) with cake and television.  It was a steaming hot afternoon, and I feared she was dehydrating.

Nothing works.  She races in for dinner and then races out to swing.  At 7:45 PM, she will reluctantly enter the house for her bath and bedtime routine. This girl was made to swing.  I've tried to talk to her about this obsession.  

The joy this simple tree swing brings astounds me.  My daughter has begged for two years for one of those $2,000 swing sets.  She would look longingly into the backyard and imagine all the swinging she would do.  If only she had that deluxe edition!   We could never afford it--at least not now.  What if we saved and saved and worked and worked?  One day, that fabulous swing set could be in our backyard! 

On Saturday, as I sat under this very tree, I looked up into its branches and remembered the old wooded saucer swing my dad made for me when I was a child.  Why couldn't I just get my daughter a tree swing?  Did she even need all the other bells and whistles?

She didn't need deluxe anything.  She just needed to swing.  So that afternoon, I ordered this one.  Under $20, it came in 2 days, was in the tree in 10 minutes, and my daughter thinks she's in swinging heaven. 

She just needed to swing. 

I thought about what it means to distill desire down.  Distill (a great verb!) means to purify, to remove impurities, and increase the concentration of something.  I could have looked my daughter in the eye years ago and said, "What is it you really want?" 

She just needed to swing.  I didn't need to refinance the house to bring her happiness. 

What am I missing out on if I wait for that deluxe thing, when really, there's a great big tree right next to me and a swing that will bring more joy than I can even imagine?  Living with flair means I purify my desires until I find out what I really want.  Forsaking the bells and whistles for that pure and simple thing might just be what makes me the happiest.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Breathing Deeply in the Froglet Phase

When you aren't a tadpole anymore, but you still aren't a frog, you're a froglet.  I'm reading a book about frogs to my children (how could we not after chasing a toad on Saturday?), and I read that, on the way to becoming a frog, the tadpole endures a curious in-between phase. 

The froglet phase. 

She has lungs but must stay in water.  She has feet but can't yet manage the land.  Now a foreigner in the place once her home, she cannot even breathe.  Her gills betray her, and her tail that helps her swim disappears.

She doesn't quite fit in her environment because she's made for a different one.  
I read the text with my daughters and look at pictures of frantic froglets, fanning a worthless stub of tail, bursting through the water's surface to gulp that breath of air.

Something about coming to the surface like that resonates deeply with me.  I saw myself in that froglet.  I saw myself gulping for spiritual truth, for spiritual refreshment, because the physical environment wasn't--and couldn't--be my satisfaction. 

As spiritual beings made for communion with God, how do I manage in the grime and slosh of daily life when I'm made for a different environment--a heavenly one, a spiritual one?    We toggle like froglets on the rim of two environments.  I need to rise, fast and direct, to the surface of the water and take the deepest breath I can from the environment I was made for.  

When a frantic froglet realizes her gills and tail won't work--and shouldn't--she propels herself up and out of that murky underwater world and up into the light.  She breathes in what she was made for.

It helps me live with flair to think of myself as a froglet.  My environment wasn't meant to sustain my life. There's a whole world outside of the dark water.  I need to swim up, breathe deeply through a life of prayer and connection to God, and look around.

There's glorious land ahead. And once I see it, the weight of this world doesn't hold me down. 

(Image "Tailed Froglet" courtesy of W.A. Djatmiko)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Embrace Mediocrity

Sometimes I go around the room and ask students to introduce themselves by telling me what they were known for in high school.  I learn so much about how students perceive themselves through the lens of other people.

Valedictorian.  Lead role in the school plays.  Class President.  Eagle Scout.  These students have been groomed from birth to be the best. 

A few days ago, one incredibly bright student said:

"I was known for being good and not great.  I was known for being mediocre." 

When I asked for more information, he said he played every sport but was never the star.  He did well in all his classes but was never the best.

He didn't mind.   He didn't have to be the best. 

I couldn't help but smile.  He was exceptionally mediocre.  We laughed and affectionately call him "Mediocre Man."  Everybody likes this student.  He makes us all feel relaxed and lighthearted.    

I thought about the philosophy of life already governing this student's attitude.  He wants to excel, but he knows his limits.  He rests in what he can do well, even if it won't win a Nobel Prize or put him as quarterback on the team.  He's thinking of who he can serve in his career, what he can contribute, and what he can change--even if he's not the star of the show.  His identity has nothing to do with rising to the top.  He's already outside of that paradigm. 

He could have quit back then.  Why bother--some would argue--if you can't be the best?

Not him.  He's working at top capacity despite the odds.  Despite the label. 

I like that.  I love that. 

As I look at my life and the lives of my children, I know we'll have days upon days of just being good and not great.  But we can be exceptional in that.  We can be the best at being who we are, within the boundaries of what God allows for our lives, and not despair when we aren't winning the prize.  We can be exceptionally humble, exceptionally loving, exceptionally willing to serve and change our world.  A mediocre life may seem ordinary, average, or even inferior.  But to whom?  Who decides?

Let me be exceptionally mediocre today.  Let me excel in leaving the spotlight and embracing a humble life that wins the sorts of prizes God doles out at another time, in another economy, that values who I am and not what I produce.  In that land, the mediocre folks might just be the ones with the most flair.