Thursday, February 28, 2013

When You Write to Heal Your Heart

Today I receive the sad news that a dear friend's son has died from cancer. I've followed this journey through her eyes as she wrote every day. This morning, I read the big sister's thoughts on losing her little brother. She calls this entry, "A Time to Dance," and it's so hard to read without crying--not just because she's grieving, but because she's also getting married in two days.

I'm a writing teacher. I talk about writing all day long. All morning, I find myself marveling once again over those brave souls who take a pen to paper (or a finger to a keyboard) and dare to write because they must.

Something happens when we write. It helps heal. It incarnates thought, and I'll never get over the mystery of it.

On the same day I read "A Time to Dance," I read a father's account of his daughter turning nine years old. This wonderful piece articulates something so beautiful that I can't believe I've lived without these words.  I wept for an entirely different reason (or maybe it's the same reason).

Death and celebration of life--in words--on the same day. I'm so thankful for brave writers.

Has writing helped heal you?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

All Kinds of Living

It wasn't exactly an easy journey to school. With a two hour delay, I thought by 10:30 AM, the plows would have cleared the snow.

No. Not at all.

With my daughters bundled in their seats, we barely make it down the street. My tires spin, and I'm fishtailing it up the hill. To make things worse, a construction crew handles traffic via two-way radios and hand-held stop signs to randomly tell drivers--who can hardly stop, much less start again--when to stop and go.

My daughter grips her seat for dear life. It's very quiet in the car as we look at the frozen hill ahead and all the cars around us.

I say, "We'll make it. It's just a different kind of driving today."

I'm really comforting myself. It's true. We will make it. Some days just require a different kind of driving. You take what the day gives, and you manage it. Some days require both hands on the wheel. Some days you have the windows down and you're flying. Some days, you barely make it.

We might spin and fishtail the whole way and go when we're supposed to stop and remain frozen when we're supposed to go, but we will make it. It will take longer, and we'll grab our seats in fear, but we'll make it. Nobody said it would be easy. I want to remember that when life doesn't present the smooth kind of road I'm hoping for.

Praise God I've learned all kinds of ways to drive.

Some days require a different way of living, don't you think?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Believing They'd Already Died"

Today, my students discuss suffering and loss in the context of Japanese haiku. Various writers suggest that we suffer so much because we're so attached to certain outcomes. Releasing these expectations provides a coping mechanism that helps us enjoy life more.

A student raises his hand to tell us about his historical research about soldiers in wartime. He reports that "they went into war believing they'd already died. They were grateful for anything that happened to them that day because they weren't expecting to be alive at all."

They'd already surrendered their lives. They'd already assumed they would die, and that made them endure. They moved ahead without fear.

I think about this conversation all day long. I mull it over in my office and think of those soldiers on the walk across campus to my car. What must it feel like to surrender so deeply that anything that happens is a pure gift from heaven? What does it mean to receive what comes each day as a miracle because you expected nothing but death?

Enduring indeed. 

I remember Galatians 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me."  I've already died; anything that happens now is a pure gift and a pure miracle.

Did this make any sense at all? I love teaching students who bring up such great ideas!

Monday, February 25, 2013

I've Lowered My Standards

This morning, we rejoice that it's 30 degrees outside. We can't believe our good fortune! We can't believe we can walk to school without going numb. Since it's been 8 degrees in the morning for the last two weeks, this sudden change seems so wonderful.

We simply cannot take this for granted.

As I walk behind the crowd of dads and moms and eager children, I remember how much we all complained when it went from the 50's to the 30's. The very same temperature nearly devastated us. Then  it was too cold! Then it was terrible and impossible!

Today, however, after a new reality of really cold, we've lowered our standards. We're thankful. We're rejoicing.

I begin to consider the ways in which God makes one truly thankful.  Out of sickness, we rejoice in a single healthy day; out of joint pain, we celebrate a small moment of movement; out of depression, we dance over any sustained sense of happiness. Out of our lack, we receive blessing differently. We simply cannot take the smallest thing for granted.

It's like God has taught me to lower my standards so that the muckiest of days shows forth beauty.

Maybe that's the only way it happens: we're lowered down into some dark, deep, frozen place because it's the only way we'll really recognize the bright warm light.

Have you learned to be thankful for something you once took for granted?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The "I Don't Want to Do This" List

Today I encounter a familiar expression after asking a child to do something.

"I don't want to."

I say, "Of course you don't."

Long silence. Incredulous blinking.

I start explaining that most of the day, if you really think about it, surely involves what we don't want to do. We have homework and packing lunches. We have making the beds, setting the table, and picking up toys. We have taking a bath, combing out hair, and brushing teeth. If we waited until we wanted to, nothing would ever happen. Wanting to is not the signal we're waiting for.

Long silence.

"We don't factor in whether or not we want to do a thing. It's not an important variable."

Long silence.

"If you stop asking yourself whether or not you want to do a thing--and just do it because it's right and good and part of the day--you find a certain freedom"

Deep breath. OK. 

There's something to be said for completing tasks and forgoing your feelings about it. Eventually, the emotions know they're not in charge, and they behave.

Did you complete your "I Don't Want to Do This List"? 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

When a Student Says "This is Pointless"

A professor and I were dialoguing about students who say my least favorite expression:

This is pointless. 

I put this comment in the same category as criticism and complaint. It's easy. It's our default state to ignore beauty, goodness, and complexity.

Anyone can say, "This is pointless." It's all pointless until we choose to dig into the matrix of a thing and uncover mystery and wonder and intricacy.

I say: Take the most pointless thing, the most boring thing, the most inconsequential thing, and find meaning there. Take it in your hands and exclaim, "Wow! Did you notice this? I have an amazing point to make about this thing."

That's what I'm really doing as an instructor and blogger; I'm training myself and others to make a point. There's something to notice here. There's something so deep here that when you press into it, you might just find the Glorious.

Maybe this is my simple defense of the humanities and the English major.

It's not pointless. Nothing is.

What would you say to a student who looks at your assignment and says, "This is pointless"?

Friday, February 22, 2013

It Must Be a Place of Rest

As I clean my home today, I realize that whatever I set on the ground (blankets, coats, pillows, duvets), my cats assume it's a place of rest.

Even when I sit down, they assume my lap is a resting place. It's funny that they actually believe I'm walking around for the express purpose of creating resting places for them. And they don't discriminate; a bumpy backpack suits as well as a fluffy feathered duvet.

Here's another place to rest. And another. Oh, look, there's another!

Psalm 23 resonates in my mind that God does perhaps move about with the express purpose of creating resting places. God says to come to Him and He "gives rest." I'm told our hearts are "at rest in His presence" and that God provides "undisturbed places of rest."

I look down at those cats who quickly, gladly, and indiscriminately receive places of rest. Whatever strange burden is flung across their path, their immediate response is to use that obstacle as a place of rest. If God is in the business of leading me to resting places, then might I see my own blocked path differently?

This obstacle--this strange burden on the path--just might be my resting place if I let it--if I receive it as such.

Did you rest today?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

That Eager, That Receptive

The sun comes out again after so many dreary days. At after-school pick up, the parents gather in front of the school to retrieve their children.

The school doors open, and one little boy races--and I mean races--outside with his head fully tilted up towards that sun. A sea of parents and faculty part as he barrels on through them.

He's galloping now and casting off whatever hinders him: backpack, jacket, and even shoes were it not for the warning of his father to keep his clothing on.

He's off running to nowhere in particular. He's enjoying the ever-so-slight variation in winter temperature and cloud covering; the sunshine means it's a different kind of day.

I love his response to even a little bit of warmth and light.  He feels it fully and takes off anything that blocks that sun's arrival on his wintered skin. Not even people stand in his way.

I want to be that eager, that receptive. I want to gallop out the doors and let the sun shine on me.

Do you remember leaving school on sunny days?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In Case You Were Wondering About the Bay Leaf

It's a slow day around here; I'm fighting a cold, and all I can think about is delicious chicken-n-rice soup. I cut up two chicken breasts and throw them in a pot of chicken broth with a bag of frozen mixed vegetables, lots of salt and pepper, some thyme, some cooked rice, and of course. . .

The bay leaf! 

After an hour or so, I'm eating the most delicious soup, and I start thinking about that little bay leaf. What does it do, anyway? Why did my mom always put them in soups and sauces but remove them before anyone could accidentally eat them?

I find a home economics site that answers all my questions about the poor, misunderstood bay leaf. To summarize, the bay leaf adds a subtle but absolutely necessary flavor. Without it, you definitely notice. The soups and stews fall flat. The roast doesn't pop. The sauce doesn't sing.

Folks remove the bay leaf because it irritates the digestive tract if you eat it.

I also learn this: You can fragrance a home with a lovely woodsy smell if you simmer water with bay leaves. You can also stick one inside a potato, bake it, and then enjoy a flavored baked potato. Check out the home economics site to get all sorts of recipes with bay leaves.

So I think about that essential but subtle bay leaf (that's also dangerous if consumed). It reminds me of essential things--although subtle--that hold a certain power. Prayer, for example, so very subtle and yet, it changes something.

I love that little bay leaf.

Do your recipes include bay leaves?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Exactly What You Should Never Do

Driving into campus today on the icy, snow-covered roads, I find myself skidding.

I remember my Driver's Education teacher's words:

"Do exactly the opposite of what your instincts demand; turn in the direction of the spin and accelerate."

What? Go faster? In the direction of the spin? Surely, you must be kidding.

It's true. The car rights itself this way. I accelerate and turn where the car skids, and I find I'm free of the danger.

What if God wants me to move in the direction of my greatest fear--accelerating towards the very thing that frightens me--in order to right myself?

I turn into the spin and pick up speed. I face it and find myself free.

Have you ever moved into the direction of your fear and found yourself free?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Take Your Seat

Last night, I study Ephesians 2:6 with graduate students who always enlighten me. I can't take my eyes or mind off the simple word, "seated." The verse claims that "God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms."

We talk about being seated. So much of our lives is a clamor and competition to get a seat at the table. We want to be recognized, approved of, and applauded. Much of what we do is for the sole purpose of impressing.

Why? Why impress? Simply to feel like we belong at some great party with the coolest and most clever, the sought after and the important?

I ask God to help me stop trying to impress. I realize the greatest truth that I'm already seated at the table. I'm already included, recognized, approved of, and applauded by God himself.

So I'm not going to impress you anymore; I don't have to.

When did you stop trying to impress everyone? Teach the rest of us!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Two New Verbs I've Never Used

I'm grading a stack of papers, and one student uses the verb dragooned. It means to coerce. It's simply a great verb (and one I've never used).

Then, I read how a student has tangoed with the idea of a certain career. It's not really a verb, but she uses it as one. I see the dance in my head, including all the abrupt starts and stops.

I'm tangoing with the idea of dragooning my husband into making dinner tonight.

Have you found a great new verb lately?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Quick Look Out

The flair moment came today while I read my friend's update about her son's battle with cancer. While waiting in the ICU day after day, she updates his progress on the Facebook page called, "Praying for Ian Peterson."

Today, she reports that a nurse came in to empty the trash and "reminded [her] to look outside" to see the snow falling.

I love nurses. I really, really do. I love hearing Cindy's report of what the nurses do, and I tear up when I hear of the ones that come and check on Ian even on their day off or when it's not their shift.

So Cindy looks outside and sees the beautiful snow falling while her sweet boy fights. And then she writes about it.

In our circumstances that engulf and discourage, there's a window somewhere that reveals a glorious snowfall.

We might need to look outside, and then write about it even though--or maybe especially because--we are in a great long battle. 
Please pray for Ian! He's doing better today after many, many days of battle.

PS: Here's the promised photo of the amazing pasta salad.

Maybe you need to try a new recipe as a quick look out from your circumstances today.

Friday, February 15, 2013

My Favorite and Most Simple Pasta Salad (In Case You Have a Baby Shower to Attend This Weekend, Which I Do)

When bringing a side dish to a party, don't forget the power of capers. My favorite pasta salad recipe involves capers. They pack a real punch;  they offer so much flavor in the tiniest little space. If you're going to move forward into true Italian cooking, you simply cannot forget the capers.

Make a pound of fusilli pasta and toss it in a serving bowl with whatever thinly sliced and diced veggies you love: celery, cucumber, tomato, and peppers.

Add a pack of chopped fresh basil.

Drain a jar of capers, and add all the capers to your beautiful pasta bowl. Then, squeeze a fresh lemon over the pasta and veggies. Add in a few tablespoons of olive oil. Toss well and enjoy.

This is my plan for cooking tomorrow morning. I'll post a picture then (sorry for the great anticipation with no picture!).

Do you have a simple pasta salad recipe you love? 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Another Way to Shine

You know that I love taking photos of trees that brag over vibrant autumn leaves. I love the equally boastful cherry blossoms that make the neighbors stop and stare.

In winter, I don't bother; those trees are stripped bare, humbled, and hiding from any big show. They really have nothing to offer, so let's just ignore them.

Not today. Oh no. The honest fact of their nothingness provides the most extraordinary platform to display Nature's glory.

Weeping Cherry in Winter

I think carefully about this and thank God for all the ways I'm stripped down to make a platform for His glory. I think about all the ways a soul shines in winter's bare dwelling places.

Our beauty shines, but it's not always in the ways--or in the season--we'd think.

Another Way to Shine

Today, I love that empty white better than the full showy reds of Spring and Fall.

It's another way to shine--in emptiness, in any winter place of the heart--and I just love it.

Yeah for beautiful snowy days!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Just Hope for Sausage

I am brushing my daughter's hair, and I ask her what she thinks about as she wakes up in the morning. 
Was she worried about anything? Was she nervous? 
She says she just loves waking up because of the possibility of sausage for breakfast. 
No worries. No concerns. Just hope. I wish that for every child, and I am asking God to give me a child's heart when I start the day. 
What do you think about when you wake up in the morning?  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Hill Hasn't Changed

Some days, the long climb up the hill to school just seems so steep.

I'm lagging behind the rest, hunching over, and methodically placing one boot in front of the other. I can't make it, people! Come carry me!

I do make it to the top.

We all do.

We always do. For five years we've walked this walk. It's the same hill every day. That's how I know I'll make it. The hill hasn't changed; this is just one tired morning.

I remember this: Some days, you put one boot in front of the other and press on. You can't trust your feelings about a circumstance. You will make it. The hill hasn't changed. Tomorrow, you might race up that same little incline and think nothing of it. I know because I've been five years walking it.

Isn't it amazing how different our circumstances look according to the mood we're in?

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Second Look and a Recipe

I love banana bread today. I learn that banana bread recipes first became popular in cookbooks during the Great Depression when nobody wanted to waste anything. Some wise soul took a second look at useless, overripe fruit and realized it was good for something after all.

That's right: Banana Bread represents taking a second look at that very thing you think is no longer any good.  What if it's actually good for something else, something new, and something delicious?

Living with flair is taking the no-good, nearly rotting, ruined thing in your life and mixing it into a new recipe that produces something that nourishes. Maybe it's a talent you've been wasting or a broken-down thing that might be used for a new project. Something in my life might need a second look today.

Oh, yes. It's these bananas I'm about to throw away.

So I make banana bread (and I substitute Greek Yogurt and applesauce for the traditional oil and butter). Tomorrow, I want to make this amazing recipe: Blueberry Greek Yogurt Banana Bread. Enjoy!

Greek Yogurt Banana Bread baking slowly

Vanilla Greek Yogurt Banana Bread
In a big bowl, toss in 3 ripe bananas, 1 cup vanilla Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup applesauce, 1 cup of sugar, 2 cups flour, a tablespoon vanilla extract, 2 eggs, 1 tsp. baking powder, a dash of nutmeg, and a tsp. salt. Mix well and pour into a bread pan. Bake for one hour at 325 degrees. Yum!
Do you have a favorite banana bread recipe?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Like Myself

Today my youngest tells me why she likes a certain friend. She says, "I just feel like myself when I'm with her."

Yes, that's good. That's so very good.

I recall the times I've used the phrase, "I just feel like myself."

I said it after I met my husband.

I said it after I taught a college class for the first time.

I said it after I started blogging and writing novels.

Maybe one of the ways I'm directed into life-giving relationships and activities is that they just feel like me. And if they don't, maybe that's a sign to move on to those things that make me feel like myself.

Are you with people and doing things that make you feel most like yourself?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Foothold

Today I consider what it means to "give the devil a foothold" from Ephesians 4:27. I read that a foothold is a secure position from which further progress can be made. 

I think of common footholds that allow more and more destruction into my life: bitterness, unforgiveness, and jealousy. I think of the footholds of behaviors that simply don't honor God. I don't want to mess around with giving evil any kind of foothold.

I think of very small things that cause avalanche results, like the tiny splinter that gets horribly infected or the one dislodged rock that causes a landslide. I even remember an episode about infestations where just one or two little bugs can quickly multiply and overtake a home.  Maybe it seems harmless, inconsequential, and small, but what if this little thing that doesn't please God is giving the devil a foothold?

I ask God to show me any footholds. I don't want to mess around with evil.

Have you thought lately about ways we give the devil a foothold in our lives?

Friday, February 8, 2013

When I Showed My Daughters My Middle School Year Book (Warning: Photos)

Since I'm visiting my daughter's classroom today to talk about what school was like when I grew up, I pull out my old middle school yearbook just for laughs.

Ha ha.

I haven't changed really.

Yes, I was voted Most Talkative.

Yes, I won a Young Writers award.

Yes, I was dramatic, and here's proof:

Here I am as Juliet. I had to kiss Romeo. In front of everyone.

Here I am, brooding about beauty and meaning and sorrow. I didn't smile because I had braces!

Everyone needs to pull out middle school yearbooks. We've all been there. Back then, The Cosby Show and Friendship Bracelets ruled the day. The most popular song was "Wild Thing." Ha!

Do you have your middle school year book? Have you changed much?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Most Beautiful Sounds in the World

We're talking about what we take for granted when we hear things, and my students compile a list of the "most beautiful sounds" in the world. Suddenly, I find myself thankful and joyous over simple things:

The sound of a lawnmower on a summer day.
The sound of horses galloping.
The sound of coffee percolating.
The sound of ocean waves, rain on the roof, leaves crunching underfoot.
What about church bells ringing, fire crackling, cats purring, and bacon sizzling? 

Others say waterfalls, thunder, singers in harmony, harps, and drums.

Some remind us about children laughing, bubbles popping, and fingers snapping.

It's a great day to listen and rejoice.

What is your favorite sound?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In Unlooked-For Directions

Today, the sun comes out after many dark days. It's so bright that my mood cannot help but flutter up to that sun. I stand and bask in it. It's not warm, really, it's just so bright.

I think of a line in a Walt Whitman poem. He writes, "The sun bursts through in unlooked-for directions."

Something about that bright sun and the phrase "unlooked-for" reminds me of the blessings that come right when we've stopped looking for them. The marks of the supernatural burst through in those places we forget to consider and note.  Maybe blessings seek out the unlooked-for hiding place and make a dwelling there.

I think of all the beautiful friendships, all the wonderful experiences, and all the wonderful joys God brought when I was looking the other way and expecting something else. So much of life comes about unlooked-for. 

Today, I don't strain and stretch. I let the sunlight fall on me, and I follow the light in unlooked-for directions.

Don't you love the bright sun on a snowy day?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Would You Have Left It?

It's only 8:30 AM, and I'm having a great day. Everything runs smoothly. I'm happy! I'm on top of things! Besides that, my own daughter's on the cover of the newspaper for an art project at her school. Can this day get any better?

Then, as I exit my car, a wad of cash sits, blowing about my feet in the parking lot. What a day! Free money! It's twelve dollars--a ten and two ones. I look around. No one in sight. Plus, it's windy; it could have come from anywhere, and it's going to blow off somewhere else.

So I put it in my pocket.

We're studying ethical dilemmas in my writing class, and I tell my students about my good fortune this morning. They stare at me. They have opinions about this:

Didn't you feel guilty? I mean, it wasn't your money.
You basically stole it!
You could have left it for another person to find! 

I feel terrible. I tell the Italian Mama--to whom everyone should go when they feel terrible--and she says, "Heather, it was probably your money. It probably fell out of your car onto your boot."


Looking back, I wish I would have left it for another person to find. I still don't know.

What should someone do when they find cash on the ground? My youngest says, "Mom, you took it for yourself?" She can't believe it. "It wasn't yours. You should have gone to the police." She thinks about it and says, "You didn't even need it. Someone might have needed it."

Well, if anyone lost twelve dollars in a parking lot today, let me know, and I'll mail it to you! 

In small and large ways, I want to do the right thing!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Advice to Your 19 Year Old Self

I'm finishing a book of devotions for young adults, so I ask various folks what advice--if given the chance--they would give to their 19 year old self. So far, I hear this:

"I'd tell myself not to worry. God really is in control and works out everything for good."
"I'd tell myself that no matter what you've done, you can just return to God cause He's waiting."
"I'd tell myself to wait patiently."
"I'd tell myself to draw near to God."
"I'd tell myself to forgive."
"I'd tell myself to stop trying to please everybody."
"I'd tell myself to relax."

I think I'd tell myself how deeply loved and secure I am. I'd tell myself to wait for the best in a man because he's going to find you in just seven years. I'd tell myself that it's not worth it to disobey God. I'd tell myself to be a better daughter and sister. I'd tell myself that having children will just about kill you, and then God will resurrect you into something glorious: a mother. I'd tell myself that I'm not the star of the show. I'd tell myself to go for a long walk every day and to notice things.

I'd hold that girl tightly and tell her to sow deeply into beauty and God and that she will indeed reap a harvest.

What would you tell your 19 year old self?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

For Dear Life

I watch the way the snow piles atop the fence and bushes. It's a clingy sort of snow today. Snowflakes latch on for dear life and form tall mounds.

Come on, Little Snowflake! Fall right here. We've got you.

It does look like community to me. 
It's perfect packing snow today. I think about how many millions of snowflakes comprise just one snowball. Is it snowing where you are? 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Playing It Too Safe

Today my oldest auditions for a school performance and doesn't get the part. She's all smiles when she leaves the school building because her audition, apparently, was great.

"I took a risk," she says. "I didn't get the part, but I tried."

A risk.

All afternoon, I remember how wise folks always tell us to try things that have a likelihood of failure to exercise our risk-taking muscles. Real risk involves real exposure to danger, loss, or harm. It's not risky if you know what's going to happen. It's not a risk if there's no potential for loss or harm. In fact, a risk means it's equally as likely to fail as to succeed.

The etymology of risk paints a great picture for me; risk refers to sailing in uncharted seas or traveling along cliffs. It's terrifying, but you don't get anywhere new unless you move into uncharted waters.

Risk takes faith. We move out into the dangerous unseen and exercise our faith.

Everything great that's happened in my life involved an element of risk. I need to remember that. 

Are you taking any real risks in your life?