Monday, January 31, 2011

A Little Love Story

This morning, the little one plows into our bed and announces that she is about to lose her first loose tooth.

The world stops for a minute.  A first lost tooth!

In our family, we let Dad do the tooth pulling.  There's even a title assigned to this role.  He pinches his thumb and forefinger together and calls his hand the "Extractor."  The girls giggle and squeal as the Extractor approaches the loose tooth. 

Meanwhile, my daughter's mouth contains exceptionally tiny teeth, and the Extractor can hardly get a hold of that one small front tooth.

I'm watching this dad--so large by comparison--bending low and peering inside that small mouth.  He examines with great care that little tooth and suggests we try to pull it this evening since it's not quite ready.   It seems so strange, so wonderful, as I observe this interaction.

Is there anything too small for this dad to care about--to know so well?  Is there anything about his daughter that he wouldn't stop everything for, bend low, and examine and tend to?

God whispers in my heart:  "See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!"  I imagine myself as that daughter. Do I realize God knows everything about me?  Can it be true, as the Psalmist says, that our tears are on a scroll--part of God's record?  Can it be true that, as Jesus himself proclaims  "even the very hairs of [our] head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid. . . "?  

A father knows--and cares deeply about--even a loose tooth.  What can happen to me today that falls outside the knowledge and loving attention of the Father?  

Living with flair means I realize that even tiny details about me are known, cared about, and tended to by God.  

Journal:  What small event (that I'm tempted to think nobody cares about) might I entrust to God today?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Overwhelming Cravings for Fattening Things

I'm currently obsessed with all things coconut.  I love the smell, the texture, and the flavor.  I realize it's strange to love coconut so much.  This week, I indulge in coconut cake and then, as if that weren't enough to ruin my weight-loss plan, I must have coconut ice-cream.

Last night, I actually dream of eating coconut cream pie.  

This morning at church, I ask the ladies for their help in managing my coconut addiction.  It's a horrible thing to love:  even in just one small cup of the stuff, I'm eating so many calories and fat that it's hard to justify.

I actually pray about this.

Later, I'm out running errands with my daughter, and we're about to stop for a fun treat.  Immediately, I imagine us eating coconut cake, and I know just where to get some.  Instead, my daughter asks for a treat in the form of crafts: new markers that you can twist and blend together. 

I'm stuck longing for that fluffy white coconut confection that I won't be getting.  

I have to find some coconut, or I just might die. 

In the craft store, my daughter points to a rack of candy.  Small and unassuming, a package of tiny coconut candies from Belgium sits.  Because of portion size, this coconut treat represents a reasonable, low calorie, and remarkably low-fat little treat.

Back in the car, I have just one, and I'm satisfied.

Living with flair means I have to remember that I don't need to gobble the whole cake or scoop out mounds of ice cream.  I can find healthy alternatives in small portions.  When the craving hits, I know what to do.  

That leaves me time to get to the good stuff:  drawing pictures with my daughter's new blending markers.

Journal:  I've learned in my Weight Watcher's meetings about "substitutions" for my favorite unhealthy snacks.  Instead of potato chips, I can grab a healthy substitution like air-popped popcorn or pretzels.  What "substitutions" can I make for other unhealthy food, thoughts, or behaviors?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

2 Secrets of the Wandering Albatross

Last night, my daughter wins a book about winged creatures at the school's Bingo Night.  We read all about butterflies, bats, hummingbirds, flying squirrels, bees, and ladybugs.  Then, I turn the page and learn about the magnificent Wandering Albatross.

I learn that the Wandering Albatross stays in flight for months without landing.  I stare, stunned at the page, as I consider the lonely, distant travels of this bird who never finds a secure place to land.  And even when she does, the awkward bird tumbles over her own feet, crash-landing into the others, and somersaulting several times before finally standing.

She prefers the flight to the landing.  

I have to check my facts this morning.  Is it true that this bird stays aloft for months?   How is this even possible?

I discover that the Wandering Albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird.  I also uncover the bird's secret:  she knows how to sharply swing into air currents to let the wind blow her to great heights. She lets the wind do the work for her. 

As I consider the Wandering Albatross today, I realize how often it feels as if we wander--for months--unsure of where to land.  As lonely travelers, we struggle to stay aloft.  And we must.  Our survival depends upon our ability to soar in the midst of our wandering.  Sometimes, there's no land in sight.

You spread wide your arms, turn sharply into the wind, and you let it carry you to great heights.  I think about a life lived with God's power.  I think, too, about adversity being a stronger air current.  I throw myself against it, leaning hard against the Lord.  What a magnificent flight!

Journal:  When I feel like a Wandering Albatross, how can I widen my embrace and learn to use adversity to carry me to higher places emotionally and spiritually? How can I remember to see God as the air current that "does the work for me" today? 

(photo, "Wandering Albatross" from, by Lieutenant Elizabeth Crapo, NOAA Corps.  Photo taken in the Southern Ocean, Drake's Passage)

Friday, January 28, 2011

If You Were an Explorer. . .

This morning I learn about the exploration goals of the 3rd and 4th graders.  If they could be explorers--anywhere--where would they go and why?

My daughter says, "I would explore the ocean depths to find sea glass, coral, and dolphins."  Her friend agrees, but he suggests that they explore the Bermuda Triangle for these things because you can always discover the lost city of Atlantis along the way.  

I follow along, hands in my pockets, listening as the children describe, in specific detail, this exploratory trip.  They will need underwater cameras and a submarine obviously.  I hear the children talk about sea glass and how you never know what kind of object that glass came from.  "It could have been on the Titanic, you know!"

Anything is possible.  

Everyone walks much faster when we have these conversations.  Nobody notices the freezing cold, and nobody complains about the slippery trek uphill.  When we access the explorer in us, something changes. 

The world, vast and unexplored, lies before me.  I transform myself into an explorer:  one who travels into unknown or less understood regions--physical, emotional, or spiritual regions.

I learn to inquire, take notes, preserve artifacts.  Like a child dreaming of the depths of the sea, I experience the thrill of discovery.   Anything is possible today. 

Journal:  Children are natural explorers.  When I was a 3rd grader, I went on a field trip to Puget Sound in Washington. That day, I discovered a baby octopus.  The teacher brought the entire class over to where I stood by the water, and I had the thrill of sharing my discovery.  I love that explorer memory; it's one of a dozen of special experiences of discovery.  If I approach my day as child-like explorer, will that change my attitude regarding my tasks?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Not Even for a Second

I'm driving home from a depressing budget meeting where I learn that the English Department can no longer afford to keep many of its most wonderful instructors.  Courses might be cut, faculty might lose work, and entire departments could be reconfigured.  Times are tough, and my teaching future seems uncertain.

I'm moving along the road at exactly 2 mph because a blizzard swells about us.  With little visibility and no traction, I follow the line of cars for a 30 minute commute that should take 4 minutes.  Finally, the traffic breaks as I turn right onto a main road.  More traveled, this road seems clear and open.  I accelerate ahead, my mind replaying the budget meeting.

Suddenly I'm swerving and sliding in my lane.  You just can't lose focus and drive in a blizzard, no matter how clear the roads appear.  My mind snaps back to the present moment like I've changed channels on a television.  And the picture in view astounds me:  a winter wonderland stretches out for miles, pure white, with fluffy flakes like miniature coconut cupcakes falling all around.

I continue on, and I force my mind's full attention on the road before me.  I can't let it wander--not even for a second--in these driving conditions.

Besides, it's beautiful out here.

A danger threatens when I'm dwelling on that past meeting or fretting about a future that's not even here.  I keep my hands on the wheel, look straight ahead, and marvel at the freshly fallen snow.

It's the only way I'll get home safely. 

Journal:  How do I let my worries about the future rob me of joy?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How You Know You're Happy

A friend tells me that Oprah will feature a quiz today to determine if we are happy.  The radio also announces a seminar I can pay for that will help me realize whether I'm happy.  I also learn from a blog reader that certain countries actually try to measure the happiness of citizens.

How would we know?   What tool can measure it? 

All morning, I wonder how we know if we're happy.  I ask my husband, and he answers that he knows he's happy when he feels connected to God.  I nod, realizing the truth of that one word: connected. 

What if we measured happiness by how connected we felt to ourselves, to God, and to others? 

As somehow who felt deeply unhappy for so many years, I evaluated what contributed most to that state.  Indeed--and not to simplify mood disorders--my unhappiness related directly to disconnection.  I lost connection to my true self.  I wasn't relating to God, and I wasn't in vibrant community.  Unhappy people often describe their profound loneliness.  They experience isolation and a fractured sense of self.  

My journey to discover lasting happiness began with discovering myself and who God made me to be.  I learned to put boundaries between myself and oppressive, toxic environments or people who couldn't celebrate or encourage the true me.  I learned to connect with God authentically--not with a false self that performed some religious ritual--but by radical honesty, frailty, and need.  I embraced my weaknesses, delighting in failure because it opened the door to grace.  

In the midst of this journey, I devoted myself to building community wherever and however I could.  Maybe it was a walk-to-school campaign to connect with neighbors or a Fitness Group to love the children.  Maybe it was a potluck dinner or a pancake breakfast with the family down the street.  

Why does that freezing walk to school increase my happiness every day? 

My well-being depends upon connection.   I have to invite folks in, enter into their story as well, and realize we belong to each other.

I also learned the forms of counterfeit connection.  Fame, prestige, and wealth create illusions of happiness, but they fail to ever fulfill the heart's true cry for belonging.   I'd rather walk the children to school than be on Oprah today (unless, of course, we were all there together).  Or, better, Oprah could come to us.  

I guess I've learned that even though fleeting moments of attention seem like fun (Oprah would be fun!), they really don't contribute to our lasting well-being. And even when I have lots of cash in my pocket, it doesn't connect me with anyone.  It just gives me something to buy that can't love me back. 

I've been happy for many years now.  It's connection.  And I didn't realize it until this morning.

Journal:  Is happiness directly related to my connection to myself, God, and others?  If one of these relationships suffer, does it contribution to unhappiness?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Count Your Whorls

I learn this morning that you can tell the age of a pine tree by its number of "whorls." One child stops in the woods on the walk to school, and she counts the circles of branches that shoot out from a tiny pine tree.  The top layer of branches is one whorl and represents one year of growth.  The next layer represents another.  This baby pine tree boasts seven whorls, so it's been growing for seven years.  It stands as tall as my daughter. 

"Next year, they'll be eight whorls!"  The children, wide-eyed, pause and look down upon the tree. 

I'm struck by the slow growth of this little pine that's witnessed our journey to school all these years.  Now, we witness the pine tree, mark its age, and incorporate that growth into the whole system of things that grow and change about us.

These things matter so much to children.  Just last night, at Neighborhood Fitness Group, the children always gather to record their growth on my kitchen wall.  They inevitably check, every single week, if they've grown even a little bit. 

They record each each others' heights, and they claim they've really grown each week.  The wall, smeared and nearly illegible, tempts me every Saturday morning as I stand beside it with my cleaning bucket.  I just can't clean the wall.

We have to count our whorls.  And, even though I'm no longer getting taller, I want to count my own growth somehow--visibly, publicly.  Am I growing kinder?  More patient?  More wise?

Let me retain that child-like quality of marking my own growth.  There's something to celebrate; there's something to note here.  

Living with flair means I count whorls.  We're growing--changing--and we must witness it.

Journal:  How do I measure my own growth?  What tool might I use to track spiritual and emotional growth?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Throwing Boiling Water into the Air Gives Us an Ice and Snow Display

I'd seen those Youtube videos where folks in Alaska or Canada throw pots of boiling water into the air only to have the water freeze immediately and rain down a puff of snow and ice.

I figure (since it's -8 degrees F), I would try it myself.

We boil water, pour it into cups, and stand on our back porch.  Ready?  We toss the boiling water into the air.  Instead of water, an amazing cloud of snow falls beautifully to the ground.  The children have no idea why this is happening, but it's fantastic

Even when I explain the science, it doesn't diminish the awe.

I learn that the boiling water is already so close to being steam that, when I toss it into the air, the water breaks into tiny droplets with large surface areas.  They lose heat so quickly, and the drops are so small, that they literally freeze before they hit the ground.

That conflict in the air astounds me.  Boiling water meets freezing air, and--voila!--the water transforms into a beautiful and completely unexpected state.  A state so fantastic we experience awe

I remember this today as I press on against my own internal and external conflicts.  What transforms in me when I release these struggles amounts to something beautiful and gloriously unexpected.

Journal:  Today, I experience a funny conflict:  Every other family member has a hot shower this morning, and when it's my turn, I enter a freezing waterfall.  Talk about boiling rage meeting freezing!  I laugh about God's sense of humor since I had just chosen the blog entry for today.  I learn that even my cold shower can transform something about my character.  Every conflict, disappointment, and struggle surely can.  How are my struggles transforming me today?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What You Stir Up

Today, for some odd reason, I think about how many times I stir throughout the day.  I stir my coffee or tea, I stir the oatmeal, I stir the batter, I stir the juice, I stir the sauce as it simmers.  Stir, stir, stir.  Maybe it's the Italian Mama rubbing off on me, but I have a spoon in my hand most of the day.

I stir because the good stuff settles at the depths, and my quick spoon riles it up and mixes it back in.  

I'm in church, praying that God would stir up good things in me.  I want passion stirred, hope stirred, and the kind of faith that moves mountains stirred.  It's in there, settled at my depths.  Stir me!

Later, I go home to look up that beautiful verb.  Unfortunately, it's often associated with negative ideas.  We stir up dissent, controversy, and drama.  We stir up anger, bitterness, and jealousy.  In the book of Proverbs, I find that every single use of the verb stir warns against rousing up these negative traits.

I don't want to be a person who stirs up the wrong sorts of things.  

I want to stir up goodness.  I want to leave a wake of peace, joy, hope, and faith.  Once you spend time with me, I want to have stirred up love and happiness in you--not conflict or anger.

Living with flair means I trust God to stir up good things, and I, too, stir my environment to mix in every wonderful element I might.

Journal:  Am I a person who stirs up controversy or leaves a wake of peace?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Our Uncommon Uses

While cleaning my home today, I notice two of my favorite objects: a flowerpot and a serving dish.   We received them as wedding gifts over ten years ago, and they were both too beautiful not to use.  
But I don't grow flowers inside in pots, and I rarely transfer our dinner onto serving platters (and this one seemed too small for my family).  I couldn't keep these things hidden away!  Instead, I found uncommon uses for both the pot and the platter.

The pot became my cooking utensil holder.

The platter became our key tray. 

I realized that the pot can hold more than soil; the platter can carry more than a meal.

As I think about all my specific plans and dreams--the things I know I was made for--I have to pause and ask about the uncommon uses for my skills.   

Over the years, I have been so busy telling the Potter what I am really made for, and He's already using me for broader, more interesting and more useful things. Things I hadn't imagined.  Immeasurably more! 

Sometimes we emerge into the world on usual paths, using our gifts and talents in uncommon but wonderful ways.  Living with flair means I allow it.  We are too beautiful--too loved--to be kept hidden away. 

Journal:  Our wedding theme verse was from Ephesians 3:20:  "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. . . "  As I look at my wedding objects today, I think about the unsual paths our lives take.  How have I seen God do "immeasurably more" with the plans and dreams of my heart?

Friday, January 21, 2011

How to Increase Your Capacity

Today, I read this quote:  "An organism expends as much as it receives and no more; therefore, receptivity is the first law of life."

Receptivity:  the willingness and readiness to receive.  

I wonder how we might receive from God, draw life and energy, and then expend.   Otherwise, we find ourselves in unnatural and impossible deficits, exhausted by our lives. 

All day long, I think about how much we expend as we go about our days.   I've mastered the art of expending, but I want to learn the art of receptivity.   I receive from God through prayer and the scriptures, and I receive from others as I let them care for me when I'm in need.  What makes this so hard every day? 

My husband reminds me that, in terms of biochemistry, certain drugs block the receptor sites of a cell so they cannot receive.  In our lives, what would block our receptor sites so we cannot truly receive from God?

We both know the answer as soon as we ask the question.  It's pride--our own self-sufficiency and our belief that we can control and direct our own lives.  My supreme busyness reflects that deeply embedded pride.  I must go and go and not ever sit and receive.

Not today.  I need to receive. 

As I position my heart to receive, I find that God sends strange offers my way:  a ride home, a friend delivering a meal, a moment alone to read my Bible, an unexpected treatment offered by a doctor.  I relax into this day and open every receptor site I have.  I find peace soothing my soul.  I let God fill me, and then, I have the capacity to expend. 

Journal:  How do I receive from God?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Only Way to Make It

The driveway and sidewalks--every path we try--stretches out black and shiny, smooth as glass, and treacherous.  Ten of us set out for school, and by the time we reach the corner, we've fallen down six times (some of us twice). 

The danger is real, and I'm nervous.  

"Hold on to me!" I cry to the little ones.  We find another mitten to grab or another arm to link through, and we suddenly stabilize.  When one starts to slide and fall, the others catch him, find a new balance, and press on.

Instead of falling on our backs, our sliding on ice resembles smooth acrobatics:  our legs shoot out from under us, but then someone has our back and we bend forward and backward.  Arms flail and clutch, yet we do not fall

Every child laughs.  Even I can't help but enjoy this treachery.  It's now an adventure, a pleasure.  

I think about the strength in numbers.  I think about finding others to balance us as we flail and clutch the air.  Holding hands and shoulders, we approach the crossing guard who warns us of an upcoming stretch of ice to avoid.  We walk a wide circle around it, arm in arm. 

Safe at school, I recall what it takes to get here.  The danger was real, but we overcame together.   Nobody can make it alone. 

Journal:  With whom do I lock arms on my journey?  What dangers am I facing that friends can help me battle? 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What You Alone Can See

Walking to school, we notice how everything drips.  It's nearly 35 degrees (a warm day!), and we're jubilant as we slosh along the sidewalk. 

I observe the water droplets on the branches and winter berries, and it suddenly occurs to me that not one other living creature sees what I see at this exact moment.

The droplets fall to the earth, and I know that never again--not even once in a million years--will that exact configuration of molecules exist on this limb.

I observe them, behold their passing, and consider the sublime fact that I took note of what nobody else could see.   In this enormous earth, filled with billions of people, no one--not even one!--saw that droplet reflecting the neighbor's pine tree in its orb. 

My day bursts with wonder.  I'm seeing what no one else sees.  I'm documenting a beauty that would be otherwise lost.  

You see things in your world that I do not see and will never see.  You notice what a billion people will not ever behold.

Living with flair means we erupt with wonder--with worship--at these things around us.  No other creature looks at what we are seeing, in the way we are seeing it.  We experience beauty that God places before us, and living with flair means we proclaim it. 

Journal:  What moment of beauty did I observe today that no other creature saw?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Have You Made Oobleck?

We squish our arms elbow-deep into oobleck.  Amazed, we play all morning in this mixture of cornstarch and water. 
Mixing Oobleck

The children invite me to make oobleck, but I've never even heard the word.

"You know--it's oobleck!  1 cup cornstarch and 1/2 cup water!"  These little girls know their science: mixing cornstarch with water creates a bowl of joy with unusual physical properties.  Oobleck functions both as a solid and as a liquid.  When you apply pressure to the mixture (mixing it with your hands, slapping it around), you get a nice ball of dough.  When you let it rest in your hands, that otherwise solid shape melts and oozes like a milkshake.
Little Girls and Science

It's bizarre.  It's addictive.  I find myself manipulating the oobleck with these friends for an hour.  Nevermind that white goop covers the counters and the floors (just let it dry and it sweeps right up).  Nevermind that I have work to do.

It's just so fascinating, this stuff. 

I'm fascinated by objects or places that possess in-between sorts of qualities.  I like transitional states, borderland locations, and things that are both one thing and another at the same time.  I think of my froglet or that estuary.   I think of caterpillars turning into butterflies, autumn leaves changing and falling, and snowflakes forming above me.  Those things that are almost but not yet resonate so deeply with me.
Solid and Liquid Oobleck

It's because I too am almost but not yet.  Half human, half spirit, we all dwell in that mystery of in-between living.  We are almost to heaven, almost to our true home.  In the meantime, I hold this day in my hand, sometimes feeling the hard pressure against it, sometimes feeling the smooth flow of peace in my heart.  Either way, I'm fascinated.

Journal:  When life feels "almost but not yet," how do I find peace right where I am? 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Simple Moisture to Solve Winter Woes

I learn today the damaging results of winter.  This season, combined with the effects of drying heat in my home, makes us feel brittle and cracked.   There's barely any moisture:  we shock each other every time our bodies meet, our hair stands on end, and we suffer from congestion and raw skin. 

I wake up with sinus pain and achy joints.   As I tell my pharmacist all my winter woes this morning, I'm simultaneously piling up medications for congestion and sinus headache.  He leans over the counter and tells me my problems will more likely be solved by simple moisture.   "Save your money," he tells me.

That's a pharmacist with flair. 

Humidify whatever space I'm in.  Boil water on the stove.  Pour the boiling water over a tray of vapor rub.  Drink liquids all day long.  All day long.  In a season like this, we don't have the luxury of relaxing into our environment.  We assume a vigilance to make our indoor spaces suitable.

With these things in place--the liquids, the humidifier, the steam vapor--I then relax and breathe.  I drink deeply and breathe deeply to survive such a season as this.

The solution of simple moisture for what's physically brittle and cracked reminds me of my journey towards spiritual health.  I drink deeply of truth and breathe deeply of spirit--setting things in place in my environment to do so--so I might experience the kind of health that goes deeper than this cracked skin and congestion.

Journal:  How am I adjusting my physical and spiritual environment towards health? 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Leaving a People Trail: A Guest Blog Post by Crystal Summers

A dear friend of mine, Crystal, has a high school football coach for a father.  On the afternoon of November 28th, her father was in a car accident that left him with multiple internal injuries, a fractured pelvis, and fractured ribs.  As I followed Crystal's updates from the Intensive Care Unit and prayed for her family, I discovered her on-line journal entry that defined for me another way to live with flair.  With Crystal's permission, I reprinted her "Lesson from ICU."

Legacies with Legs

Wherever a football coach goes, he leaves a paper trail: wins and losses, 0-fers or championships--the numbers tell the story of a season.  Sometimes the paper trail makes him a hero, and sometimes it runs him out of town.  When others measure the quality of a football coach, his wins and losses lead the way. 

Over the past 6 weeks, we have had the privilege of seeing not the paper trail, but the people trail that my dad has left behind in 30 years of coaching.  Men and women that he has known and cared for at every stage of his career have called, visited, and left messages for my dad.  This is not the legacy that will be printed in the paper.  This is not the legacy that prompts a promotion.  But this is the only legacy that reaches beyond his lifetime.  This is the legacy that lasts.

Now don't get me wrong, when the final buzzer sounds, my dad wants to win the game.  But the way he plays, he already has.

His legacies have legs.

Journal:  When I think of my own legacy, do I think of leaving a people trail?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Beyond Math and Music: Encouraging Excellence in Friendship

Last night, a friend arrives for a sleepover.  She has a green envelope that she presents to my daughter.  It's a homemade "friendship award."   She awards it to my daughter for "always understanding her."  

I nearly burst into tears.  I run and get the tape and slap that thing to the wall where we will all look at it for as long as the tape holds.  Just last week, several girls at school received a friendship award as a trait of good citizenship.  My daughter wasn't called up to receive that award, and she cried outside of the school.

The sleepover friend wanted to set the record straight. 

As I watch the two little girls celebrate their true friendship, I realize what I so strongly react to in all the articles circulating about parenting and the need to force math drills, excellence in piano, and various other versions of academic success.  The philosophy of parenting that prizes academic success above all else misses the one component of life that makes all that success worth it:  friendship

So I'll continue to host slumber parties, play dates, dance parties, and spontaneous trips to the movie theater.  I'll continue to put the homework aside for an afternoon so my daughter and her friends can go sledding, play dolls, and paint their fingernails.  I'll display cupcakes instead of math flashcards.  I'll let her blast music in the bedroom instead of shaming her into another piano drill.

If I raise a daughter who wins every prize in school, it won't mean a thing without friends. 

I'm so thankful for my friends.  Happiness comes from sharing our lives with one another.   The day I defended my dissertation to earn my Ph.D., I felt profoundly empty.  I'll never forget leaving that exam room, after 5 years of work, and wondering what it was all for. What mattered so much more were the friends waiting with flowers down the hall.

I had a friend who received the highest promotion in her job track at an Ivy League school.  She called me in tears because at the moment she received the news, she realized she had no one to tell. 

I don't want my children to excel and have no one to tell.  It won't be worth it.  They might become math geniuses, but if they don't know the value of friendship and living in community, their intelligence might be directed towards selfish or even harmful ends.  Without friends, we lose our way.  Living with flair means I fill my wall with as many friendship awards as math scores.

Journal:   How will I know I'm excelling in the art of friendship?  What are the marks of friendship excellence?

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Great Verb for a Mission Statement

Today, I ask students to tell me what they will devote themselves to in their future careers.  In two sentences, they tell me 1) what they want to contribute to their field and 2) a few professional goals.

As we read aloud our statements, I'm suddenly aware of how self-focused and self-promoting such an assignment might become.  We listen to independent dreams and glorious self-actualization.  We build private kingdoms with our names on the highest building.

But one woman announces that her primary professional goal is collaboration.

Collaborate means to work together towards a common goal.  It's a great verb to think about for a career and a life.  While many of us forge ahead with solitary tasks and private ambitions, we forget the power and importance of collaboration.   My student recognizes her dependence on other people and other organizations to reach mutually beneficial goals.

I start to wonder with whom I might collaborate in my life.   Is my personal goal really a communal one?  Is my self-focused personal dream really a much larger project involving a system so much bigger than myself?   How much more efficient might we become if we collaborate?

That verb challenges me to think about myself as a collaborator and not a solitary agent pushing my own agenda.  I know I'd often rather work alone, but surely there is strength, vision, and synergy when I collaborate.

Journal:  Sometimes I think I'm too busy trying to make a name for myself to consider the value of collaboration towards shared goals.  What people or groups might I collaborate with in my parenting, teaching, writing, and ministry goals?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Worst Gift-Giver

I'm a horrible gift-giver.  It takes me forever to think about what would delight another person, and so I abandon the task altogether.   Other folks present beautiful, timely, unexpected gifts to their friends just because they saw something and thought to themselves, "My friend would love this." 

I wish I were a better gift-giver!  I think of the kinds of "good gifts" God rains down--often beautiful, timely, and unexpected blessings.  I want to learn how to reflect that goodness to others. 

Yesterday, a former student of mine asks if I'll meet her on campus because she has a little gift for me.  Nothing special, she tells me.

When she arrives with some other students, she pushes across the table a jar of Coconut Satin and Silk Lotion from a little company called Soaps and Such out in Auburn, New York.  Over her holiday break, she figured out how to find some for me. 

"It's the smell you always commented on--the lotion smell you said you loved," she says, smiling. "You can't buy it anywhere but from this one place.  It's homemade."  

I open the jar and smell the coconut lotion that transports me to a tropical paradise. We all pass it around and lather our hands with it.

Last year, as I walked by this student's desk to return her papers, I would linger and say, "What is that smell?  It smells just like coconut!  I wish I smelled like that all day."

I'd be writing on the chalkboard, and I'd start craving coconut cake.   

It was her Coconut Satin and Silk Lotion.

That was six months ago.  

The student observes the tiniest detail and remembers.   It wasn't a particularly expensive gift.  It wasn't large or even wrapped.  But it changed my whole day. 

These sorts of gifts challenge me to observe and remember so I can bless others.  I don't know what I loved more:  the gift or the fact that she remembered I like the smell of coconut.

Living with flair means I observe, remember, and bless others with tiny gifts. 

Journal Question:   Sometimes I experience little blessings all day that show me God is watching and knows all the things I love.  As I learn to reflect God's love, am I watching closely what tiny, simple things others love so I might give a gift to bless them?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Beauty that Astounds

Snowflake Melts on a Branch
I learn something astounding about snowflakes today:  the more hostile the environment, the more intricate the snowflake's shape.  The bitter cold and wind encourage sharp tips and branching designs while warmer temperatures produce slow-growing, smooth, and simple patterns.

I'd rather have complex, sophisticated, and beautiful.  I'd rather have unexpected and perplexing than smooth and simple.  

I stand in my backyard as the storm swirls about me.  I think of what it takes to make such beauty.

Snowflake on a Thorn
It's not easy; it's not warm and smooth.  What's harsh in our environment right now shapes beautiful things in us.  That kind of beauty--born from trial and thorn--truly astounds.

I included a new feature at Live with Flair!  You can journal along with me on your own (and share your wisdom in the comments if you wish) every day.  I'll include a reflection question that I'm thinking about along with each post.  

Journal Question:  Is it really true that sorrow or hardship "shapes beautiful things in us?" 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Did You Know You Can Over-Insulate?

Last night, I start to worry that our home is too drafty.  No matter how insulated the house is, it still seems that freezing air seeps into the house by doorways and windows. 

But then I learn that too much insulation destroys air quality. A draft allows outside air to circulate in the house, freshen things up, and keep air quality healthy.  Often in the winter, folks seal up their homes too much.  Residents get sick, and they experience a build up of toxic air.  Who knew that one could over-insulate?  You can!  When you block air flow, you also create moisture traps that lead to mold and rot.  Healthy houses have regular fresh air flow, even during the winter. 

I fling wide the back door and let the night air flow in.  It's uncomfortable.  

But it's healthy.  

I realize that some amount of drafty living guarantees a healthy mind.  I don't want to over-insulate my heart and mind from whatever remains outside my routines, my particular philosophy of living, or even my community.  I want to remain open to new practices, new ideas, and new friendships even when they make me uncomfortable.  I learn and grow in the presence of difference; I find that my mind, faith, and neighborhood grow stronger when I don't over-insulate. 

Living with flair means I open wide the door and make a new friend, read a new book, or try a new routine.  I let fresh things circulate to keep me healthy.    

Monday, January 10, 2011

I Just Couldn't Do It

You lay your clothes out, you pack your backpack, and you hardly sleep because you just can't wait for it all to begin again.  

It's a new semester here at college. 

I've been packing a backpack for 30 years, but for the last decade, I'm the teacher and not the student.  My backpack has syllabi, course rosters, grammar books, and a tattered anthology of literary works.   I still have a red pencil case (some things never change), lunch, and notebook paper.  But I'm the teacher now. 

I study them: I learn their names and remember their hometowns and majors.  I'm suddenly fascinated.  I can't help it. I'm a student of the students, and maybe that's my secret. 

One just returned from Africa and will introduce us to his passion for African modern art.  Another just switched majors from nuclear engineering to classics (there's a great story hiding there!).  Four of them have parts in a musical theater production in April (which we all must attend).  A dozen kinesiology majors, seven history majors, five communication disorders majors, and three education majors captivate me with their career paths.  I forgot to mention the philosopher, the criminal lawyer, the animal physical therapist, and the international stateswomen. 

Here we all are together in one place for a college semester to learn advanced writing and professional development. 

That's why I couldn't do it;  I couldn't turn on all the technology and hide behind elaborate presentations.  I sat with them in the circle, looking into the white of their eyes.  Once the big screen comes down and the hum of electricity rises like a swarm of wasps around me, I know I won't see them the same way.  And they won't see me.  I'm not ready for that.  There's too much to learn. 

Living with flair means I'm a student of the student.  I earn the right to teach by learning first, and sometimes (most times) technology impedes rather than promotes authentic connection.  We'll see what I do with this high-tech classroom.  I'm still learning.  

Sunday, January 9, 2011

From Cowardly to Courageous

My little cat, Jack, advances even further in the direction of being fully alive.  Once wounded, this now strong kitty first relearns how to purr.  Then he figures out how to meow again.   Then, he moves past his wounds and chooses to love and serve others.  Finally, he begins to master basic feline behaviors like kneading. 

My daughter asks me, "Mom, what else will Jack do as he becomes more and more like a healthy cat?"  I have no idea.  But we wait and we watch.

Recently, a friend delivers a gift to our three cats.  It's a huge, fluffy cat bed to sit by my rocking chair.  But we have three cats.  Who will get this soft bed?   Jack has no chance, especially with that one cat (Louie,  alpha male) who dominates every household scene.  Normally, Jack cowers around the others.  The three cats stand there, observing this amazing bed. 

Then it happens.  Jack moves forward and claims the bed for his own.  He transforms from cowardly to courageous right before our eyes.  He kneads the bed, turns a few circles, and has slept there ever since. 

I watch that little cat, and I remember God's work as Healer.  

On our way to recovering from whatever wounds us, we suddenly realize the plans in store for us.  One day, we find we have the courage to move forward, claim our dreams, and stand up to those that threaten us.  We discover our place.   We find we are so healthy that nobody even remembers where we came from or how we were wounded. 

We find we are fully alive, doing all the things we were meant to do.  Nothing holds us back. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Surrendering to the Storm

This morning after breakfast, we take the girls sledding.  We travel behind the house, past the forest, and into a wide clearing.  All I see is space--so much of it that I actually want to breathe a little more deeply and stretch my arms out.  I understand why folks from the city want to visit for a while and send their children to experience a rural life for a month. 

Sledding Hill
I never thought I could survive in a town like this. I had to surrender to God and believe I belonged here.  But what would we do all day long? 

Right now, we are learning the rhythms of winter.  We aren't diminished at all by whatever storm assaults us. 

The storm just means we grab our sleds and ride.   There's a good thing to experience here, and so we launch ourselves out, gain momentum, and surrender. 

It's so great that we do it again and again.  Sure I'm sore.  But it's worth it.  Surrender always is.  

Friday, January 7, 2011

These Aren't Interruptions

I'm in the university library to find the article I want on neuroscience and writing.  I'm suddenly interrupted by the pull of the juvenile fiction section on the 5th floor where I remember they have all the P. D. Eastman books that my youngest daughter still loves (Go, Dog. Go!,  Sam and the Firefly, The Best Nest).

I spend all my time there, and for once, it doesn't feel like I'm just getting through some kid's library event on my way to what I really want to be doing. 

Many times over the years of being a mother, I've felt like I'm just trying to get through something.  I'd think to myself:  I just have to get through this night waking, this potty training, this noise at the dinner table, this driving everywhere, this laundry, this cleaning, this bedtime routine.  I need to get through these interruptions in order to arrive at what I really want to be doing. 

I believed some clever lie that kept me from embracing motherhood fully.  Motherhood was something to endure, and this made me so deeply troubled and ashamed that the dark days of depression stole half a decade of my life.  

My doctor told me one afternoon that "my children are not interruptions" to the life I want to have.  They are my life.  Exactly how God designed it. 

That's what I remembered last night:  It's 3:15 AM, and my youngest wakes me up needing a drink and a snuggle.  We've been training her for months to stay in her bed, but still she comes, a wandering little soul wanting me in the night.  I gather her to me, and when I tiptoe into the cold kitchen to get her a cup of water, I notice the fresh snow in the moonlight.

This isn't an interruption.  This is worship and wonder at 3:15 AM.   I don't sleep after that; I listen to my daughter breathing and can hear the icy whisper of snow falling outside.  I don't have to get through this. This isn't pain to endure on the way to what I'd rather be doing.

There's wonder and worship here--every day--no matter how sticky, loud, or sleep deprived this day seems.  Our days are not something to get through as we endure interruptions to our real life.  This is our life: wonderful, beautiful, and just right for us.   And as I hear snow falling, I remember that sometimes we have to listen harder to comprehend that truth.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Can a Small Adaptation Make You Happy?

As you know, we walk a mile to school every day.  I walk a mile to school and back every day.  As the weather dips below freezing into the single digits, I used to get grumpy about this.  I'd dread leaving my house to fight the bitter cold.
A Winter Coat! 

Not anymore. 

The Italian Mama alerts me last week to a sale on winter coats.  With my Christmas money in hand, I find a coat that promises to keep me warm.  I find one that will "keep me warm down to -15 degrees."  It's water resistant, has a "storm shield," and features deep pockets for my cell phone and camera (for all my outdoor photography sessions). 

Suddenly, my circumstances are no longer a problem.  In fact, I love this coat so much that I race outside each morning and tell all the neighbors how warm I am.  "I'm just wearing a t-shirt underneath this!" I cry out.  I think I actually skip part of the way down the hill. 

Living with flair means I embrace adaptations when my external circumstances cannot change.  I think about the supplies I need to endure and thrive. 

Bundling Up
It might be as simple as a warm coat. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

This morning, my friends and I huddle by the school entrance, making conversation with other parents and school administrators.  As we notice the line of cars pulling up to drop off children, I'm overcome with the desire to run up to the car doors, open them wide, and greet each child like he or she were a celebrity. 

London Paparazzi
I imagine each car to be a long black limousine. I even include fashion commentary like we're on the Red Carpet for some premiere.

My friend and I laugh about making this our community job each morning.  We wonder what it might feel like to arrive at school and have folks open your car door, celebrate your arrival, and compliment your outfit.  What if we even brought paparazzi to our morning Red Carpet event?  What if we really did announce a child's arrival?  You've arrived!  Welcome to school you beautiful, wonderful person!  You are very important to us! 

Walking home from the school, I feel like I've touched upon something eternal in that moment of opening a car door and celebrating a child's arrival.  Something about that act seems to echo in eternity. 

All of us parents, surrounding those youngest members of our community--celebrating them like that, protecting their journey from car to school entrance--represents a spiritual reality for me:  I too am surrounded by that love and protection at all times.  I have cheerleaders in the heavens. 

Doesn't scripture teach in Hebrews 12 that we are "surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses" who cheer us on, helping us "run with perseverance the race marked out for us?"  We cannot see the saints and angels, but aren't they surely there in some unseen realm about me? 

Later, I ride in my minivan across town.  As I unfasten my seat belt and turn to touch the door handle, I imagine them all there outside my van.  My Red Carpet event unfolds as I walk into the cold, bright day, surrounded by my cloud of witnesses.   

They cheer about me, celebrating and protecting.

(Photo, "Paparazzi at the ICA in London" by Justinc, courtesy of Creative Commons)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Take a Minute

I'm officially overloaded with work obligations and writing tasks.  As I sit at my computer, I become annoyed by my cat, Louie Von Whiskers, who knows the exact moment when I start to type on my keyboard.

This crazy cat believes that my computer work signals his need to nap across the keyboard.  I push him down onto the carpet, and he jumps right back on top of the computer--audacious, insistent, and. . . adorable.

"OK, you kitty," I say.  I take him in my arms, and he immediately curls up into a soft ball.  Purring loudly, he stays put, and when I try to lean over to type, he actually puts a paw on my arm to restrain me.  So I'm stuck here, holding this ball of fur. 

I do have one hand free.  Can I type with this one hand?  Not really.  But I can reach for my hot cup of tea that I'd forgotten I'd made. 

Here I sit, cup of tea in one hand, purring cat on my lap.  I think God gave me this cat to make me take a minute--a non-productive minute--to do nothing at all. 

I find myself so refreshed that I have to wonder what other non-productive minutes I might take today.  More tea?  More snuggling with animals?  What if I listened to a new song or gazed out the back window?

It can't all be work in 2011.  Imagine a cat sleeps on your lap and you can't move at all.  You have no choice but to lean back, drink your tea, and enjoy yourself for a minute. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Make Yourself That Somebody

For months, my friend and I travel by this one treacherous patch of sidewalk on our walk to school--the place that dips down towards a jagged ravine of rocks and icy water--and say, "Somebody should really put a fence up."

We rescue kids as they slide off the sidewalk, shake our heads and say again, "Somebody should really put a fence up."

As the months go on, we realize how much we say, "Somebody should really..."--whether referring to cleaning the house, fixing something, or generally improving the world.

We laugh about this expression: somebody should really. . .

Who is this Somebody person?  Can I meet her?

It occurs to us that we are the Somebody.  We stop saying, "Somebody should really put a fence up," and we decide to make ourselves that somebody. 

I don't know where to start, so I ask someone at the school who tells me I should "call the county."  (I didn't realize you can call people in your county and get help with things your community needs. You can!)  I look up in my phonebook the name of my township and call the number there.  A man answers the phone, and I explain that children are slipping off the sidewalk and falling into a ditch on the way to school.  Can we put a fence up?

"Yes," he says.  "Let me check who owns that property, and I'll send a crew out today.  We'll take care of it."

I even ask the man if he could make it a nice fence, charming, and not some metal thing with orange mesh reserved for danger zones.

He sends out his crew and builds our fence.

Now, on the walk to school, my friend and I look at that fence and remember to make ourselves that somebody.  

My Charming Fence
She says, "Somebody should really write a book with that title." 

Up the Big Hill Towards School
Somebody should.  If you make yourself that somebody, you can really change something. 

In fact, what initiates my friend's 100 pound weight loss last year is a t-shirt she sees that says, "Somebody should really do something about how fat I am."

She decides to make herself that somebody.

I want to make myself that Somebody in 2011.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Have You Gone Gourmet?

My oldest is turning 9, and we want to make special cupcakes--homemade--for her to bring to school on Monday.

I don't do cupcakes.  The Boo Platter is as fancy as I get.

But it's her birthday, and I'm learning that little things matter and accumulate on the landscape of a child's soul.  Lord help me embellish these cupcakes!   I search for cupcake decorating ideas, and I'm astounded by the beauty and intricacy of cupcakes made all over the world.  Cupcakes have gone entirely gourmet.  In someone's kitchen, right at this moment, some parent has fondant butterflies and flowers neatly trimmed and little bows to tie around cupcake holders.  Another parent has frosting piped out in whimsical designs.

I don't do cupcakes.  I'm the furthest thing from gourmet I can think of.   Can't I just phone the Cupcake Boutique and get this delivered? 

But then, we find a picture of the most curious little cupcakes.  Someone has made a stack of cupcakes made to look just like hamburgers.

"That's so cool, Mom!  Can we make the hamburger cupcakes?"

I buy the ingredients, brace myself, and actually pray for God's creative genius to somehow flow into me.  God invented gourmet, after all.  Nothing is too hard or too elaborate for him.

I move forward.  I bake chocolate and vanilla cupcakes.  I slice them in half.  I let my youngest sprinkle sesame seeds on the cupcake "buns."

Then, we color our frosting to resemble ketchup and mustard.  Our chocolate cupcake is the hamburger patty. 

Hamburger Cupcakes

It takes longer than I anticipate, and we destroy the kitchen.   But I did something gourmet this day.

Gourmet:  elaborate, rich, sensuous, and small.    A small prayer, as small as cupcakes, as small as a child turning 9.  I'll remember this small afternoon as we sprinkled sesame seeds on cupcakes that we transformed into buns.  Living with flair means I learn to be a little gourmet.

PS:  Folks have asked for the recipe, and I actually didn't find a real recipe--I improvised from a picture I found here.
Here are the ingredients: 
1 box vanilla cake mix
1box chocolate cake mix
Sesame seeds
Frosting colored yellow and red

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Why I Put My Flag Out

I'm in the garage, and I see our old American flag standing at attention in the cobwebbed corner.  I decide, for 2011, I want to fly it out in front of the house.  We insert it into our flag holder, and it waves in the wind to greet the neighborhood like a long lost friend.  I explain to our children why I want to do this in the New Year.

As a symbol of citizenship, the flag represents a value I want our family to espouse in 2011.  We are citizens--of our families, our neighborhoods, our schools, churches, state, nation, and world.  We live responsibly, honestly, and interdependently.  We give honor to the ones who protect our freedom, and we thank God for the privileges we enjoy.  The flag reminds us to live in a way that embodies the ideals of our local, national, and global communities. 

My husband tells the family that the flag represents that we live for more than just ourselves.

If I had a bugle, I might play an anthem or "To the Colors."  We could salute and show respect in the morning and again at night when we take the flag inside.   At Camp Greystone, where I served as a counselor for 6 years, the flag raising and lowering ceremony can bring tears to your eyes as you observe hundreds of children and adults, still and silent, honoring the symbol of our citizenship.

So I put the flag out.  I'm a citizen of a great nation, and in this New Year, I don't want to take it for granted.  We'll fly it every morning in a moment of stillness and silence, thankfulness and respect.