Ask This Question

Sometimes the flair you experience isn’t your own.  Sometimes, the flair for the day is the flair you helped make happen for somebody else.

In the words of my wise hairdresser:  Sometimes you are in the spotlight, and sometimes you are the spotlight.  It’s better to be a spotlight.  When I’m a spotlight, I’m shining light on another person, making a flair moment happen for them.

This is harder than it sounds.  First of all, I tend towards narcissism.  I tend to be overly self-involved, self-concerned, self-reflective.  When this happens, when I’m the center of my own universe, I can always tell.  I turn into a completely different person.  Every conversation is about me.  I interrupt to tell you about my experience, and I reflect on your words only insofar as they relate to something I’m thinking about.  I hate this person.

Today, during my haircut, I talked about how to make flair happen for others.  I wondered what it would look like to take my eyes off of myself and my day in order to deliberately create an extraordinary moment for someone else.   I knew the truth of this practice:  we are often most fulfilled when we are serving others.  It’s wired into our DNA to find ourselves when we give ourselves away.

But how?

In any given day, I can be a spotlight by asking this question:

Is there anything I can do to help make this day extraordinary for you?   It’s a long question, I realize.

So the flair for the day is this question I resolved to ask.  I started with my cat.  I leaned down and asked her, “Is there anything I can do to help make this day extraordinary for you?”

She brought me the yellow rope (see “A Rope and a Smile).  Easy.  I ran around the living room with this rope for a few minutes.  That wasn’t so bad.   It even felt good. 

Later, after preschool, I asked my daughter:  “Is there anything I can do to help make this day extraordinary for you?”  I thought she’d mention Disney World.  I thought she’d bring out the list of wishes from every toy store she’s ever visited.  I knew, I just knew that Polly Pocket would be involved.  I scrunched up my face and closed my eyes, ready for the worst.

“Yes!” she shrieked.

She leaned forward to shout in my ear as I drove.  “I want more of those envelopes.  The licking kind.” 

“Why the licking kind?” 

“Well, we can send a letter, I can lick the envelope and send it, and they’ll know I licked it.”

Amazing, this concept.   

I looked at her eager eyes and clasped hands.  She was bouncing in her car seat.  “I can do that,” I said.  Easy.  I just made another creature happy.  It cost me nearly nothing.  

What marriages would thrive, what friendships preserved, what wars averted if more people set out to make somebody else have an extraordinary day?

Living with flair means being a spotlight and making a great show for somebody else.


How to Survive Rejection

There’s a way to handle rejection with flair.  I always come back to the same three truths to survive it.

When it comes–that awful companion, Rejection–and says no, I realize what the no signals.

It signals that I put myself out there.  It means I risked something.  It means I offered myself.  These are good things.   These are really good things.

But it doesn’t make us feel any better in the face of a friend who spurns us, a company that jettisons our resume, a publisher who turns down our novel, or a family member who forsakes us.   It doesn’t soothe the hurt that comes from hoping for something that doesn’t come about because somebody–or just circumstance–delivers that awful no.

But three things do soothe.  Or at least they helped me this morning when I read another email rejection about a book proposal.  I want to live with flair, after all.  What does it look like to endure rejection with flair?

1.  We do what we do because it’s our calling–our unique way to offer a gift to the world.  We do this whether or not it ever receives approval or recognition.  We keep doing it because we serve others, because we want to make a contribution for love, not for money or prestige or even anybody loving it back.  Phew!  Aren’t you so glad your doing is not dependent on our loving it?  I had a student who didn’t get a call-back for an audition for a major network singing competition.  But this guy was born to sing.  Did a rejection stop him?  That week, we asked him to sing for us in class.  He stood up, sang the most amazing renditions of various songs, and we cheered and hollered like crazy.  He’s not going to Vegas, but he delighted us.  For that day, at that time, it was enough.  Somebody, somewhere, wants to receive the gift we offer.

2.  Every “no” is an opportunity for a “yes” somewhere else.  I think this applies to break-ups, schools that reject us, and jobs that fire us.  My dream school turned me down for graduate school.  I wept and wouldn’t leave my dorm room.  I went to Michigan instead, certain I was doomed never to meet my Southern Gentleman.  My Southern Gentleman also got into Michigan.  You know the rest.

3. If I believe in a divine plan (which I do), I know that God does not withhold good things from his children.  If I don’t get the thing I want, it means it wasn’t good for me (at least at this time).  If it’s good, and part of God’s plan for me, then I can chill out and enjoy the wait. 

Rejection is good for me because it brings me back to reality.  It reminds me that I do things (write, teach, plan new projects) because I love to do these things.  That’s the reward–not any prestige or wealth or even anybody loving it back.  And there’s a divine mystery to the order of a life.  The no is also a yes somewhere.  I can rest in the timing and the plan of the yes

Rejection is a beautiful and terrible thing. It’s awful in the truest sense of the word.  Awful:  to inspire awe and deep reverence.  I respect rejection.  I’m thankful for what it reminds me of and how it helps me live with flair.

Living with flair means to respect the rejection.  It reminds me why I do what I do.


The Texture of Flair

We are sensate creatures.  We feel textures everyday: this firm keyboard, the spongy-soft of this office chair, the feel of a hard nail on my finger as I pick at it.  Often, throughout any given day, I can remember what I saw, heard, or smelled.  But rarely can I recall what it felt like to touch something.  I haven’t trained my brain, perhaps, to think about my life in terms of texture. 

But what if I did?  Today I was trying to distract myself from my exercise monotony by watching videos on VH1.  There’s a new Jack Johnson video that showcases him surfing in the ocean for the entire 3 minutes of the song.  Watching him surf and dive through the waves made me recall my own visit to the shore: the feel of hot sun on my back, the wash of icy water over my feet as I neared the ocean, and the prickle of sand and crushed shells under my feet.  I started to love this video for what it made me remember about the texture of the beach.  (check it out below!)

Then I started to hear what he was singing about.   
He sang, “cause you and your heart shouldn’t feel so far apart.” 
I watched him surfing the waves and felt the memory of diving into the ocean.  But I wondered why the lyrics in any way matched the video.

Then I knew.    Jack Johnson (who directed the video), uses his hands and body to interface with this gorgeous ocean scene.  The whole video makes you focus on his hands and skin.  The water overtakes him; he smiles as he surfaces and touches the water with his hands.  He looks straight at me and sings it again: “You and your heart shouldn’t feel so far apart.”

When I’m touching something and enjoying its texture, it helps bring my heart into alignment with me somehow.  I’m happy when I’m enjoying a texture:  holding a kitten, petting the soft velvet nose of the horse in the field down the street from my home, or squishing a red raspberry in my mouth.  Living with flair means I take note of texture.  There’s joy in touch.

As classes ended yesterday, a student gave me a hug (Darius Soler!  You made the blog!), and another one patted my shoulder.  It was a flairful thing to do, to touch me like that.  Why aren’t I hugging people more, patting shoulders, linking arms?  I wonder if Jack Johnson would tell me to put my hands out and touch this world like it’s the beautiful ocean that it is. 



How to Gather in Your Life

I hate that feeling of being scattered. I’m beginning to think that if I’m not careful, I will always tend towards an out-of-control life.

To scatter means to disperse in different directions. When I’m scattered, it means I’m investing energy in multiple, often opposing, directions.

The opposite of scatter is to gather in.

Today, I considered the difference between a scattered life and a life that’s gathered in. Last semester, I was frazzled every single day. I was involved in 4 major campus projects including teaching 3 different courses and directing an unrelated project for another program. Besides this, I was freelance writing, meeting with graduate students, parenting, trying to be a great wife, serving my church, relating to my neighbors, and attempting to keep a clean house while preparing nutritious meals. And exercising. And remembering to do the laundry.

I lost it. I was angry and very, very moody. (Not flair)

So I decided that I needed to gather my life in. I wondered what would happen if I directed all my energy in one direction and not ten. Here’s what I did:

I thought about where my home is. I thought about where my natural pathways are: where I live, where I walk, where I drive. I decided to focus energy there. I narrowed the scope of my life to a radius of a few miles (literally). Instead of spinning out of control, I gathered in. I cared for my neighbors as I walked to school. I helped launch a neighborhood fitness group. I didn’t leave my neighborhood. I even attended a neighborhood church rather than driving to the other side of town. If some offer came along that made me leave these natural pathways, I said “no.” I stayed in.

In my professional life, I gathered in by only teaching one course and directing energy towards making it great and teaching it multiple times. I directed my freelance writing projects to relate to my course work. I declined directing programs that didn’t relate to this one course. I reduced my professional life to one natural pathway, and I developed it with flair.

Gathering in increased my energy and my capacity to be fully present and refreshed each day. Gathering in made me narrow my scope to my neighbors, my one course, and my family. I say “no” to everything else. It’s simplified my life.

It’s helped me live with flair. A scattered life, diffused and diminished of power, isn’t a fun life to live. It’s a tired life, a moody life, a life that feels spent before noon. A gathered life feels simple and energized. There’s time to reflect, learn a dance, cook a gourmet meal, and keep a blog. There’s time to drink coffee with a neighbor, hunt for a turtle in your backyard, or make homemade pizza with a child.

Living with flair means I gather in.


What Does This Spell?

My preschooler has a little etch-a-sketch with a pen that lets her write letters. We were driving down the street, and she wanted to play this unusual game.

She wrote any letter she could think of, in any order, to see if she could create a random word. She can’t read yet, so she’d put the letters together, turn the little screen around and ask, “What does this spell?”

I called back: “Take a minute. Sound it out.”

She spelled things like “AEB” and “AECC” which sounded like no word she recognized. So she tried again until something sounded right. Soon, she announced the new game variation. She asked me what words could she make if only the letters were in the right order.

I tried my best to put together various permutations of whichever letters she wrote.

Finding meaning in the scrambled letters satisfied her so much. Why did she want to do this? What made it so satisfying?

Meaning making, for a preschooler, isn’t so far from what it means to find daily flair. It’s like my day produces a jumble of signs and symbols, and I try my best to rearrange them into something meaningful and something that feels important and right. But why do I do this? What good is it to philosophize about the meaning of small things?

I have to recognize the higher narrative that my life fits into. Searching for whispers of meaning in the rush of a day—in the scramble of conversations, events, and thoughts—helps me realize some divine presence in it all. There’s flair to be found in the fray. There’s something to learn, something to teach, somebody to love in it all. But I have to figure out a way, like my daughter, to recognize the word when it comes.

Writing my daily flair is a way to take a minute and sound it out.


50 Ways to Stay Out of Trouble

It’s a big weekend in my town. It’s a big party weekend. This means I avoid campus and expect a really low attendance in my early classes on Monday. It’s always the same story: students act out this script of what it means to be a college student.

Last year, a man came to my office hours and asked me if I had any ideas for how he could stay out of trouble. He’d been arrested, he’d had several underage drinking citations, and his GPA had plummeted from a 4.0 to a 1.7. Feeling like he’d squandered the last four years of his life, he asked me what I did for fun that didn’t involve getting drunk. He wondered what a life looks like that doesn’t involve partying. As I talked about my own college years, he started to make a list for himself. He was writing a new script.

So, as a shout-out to my students who want a different script for their evening, I’m providing 50 ways to stay out of trouble. I once heard a speaker say that the definition of pleasure is: “having fun with no negative consequences.” Living with flair has something to do with experiencing pleasure in ways that don’t harm you or anybody else. Hence, my tried and true 50 ways to stay out of trouble.

1.Learn the moves to “Beat It” (or Thriller, or Single Ladies, or any dance)
2.Cook a gourmet meal with your friend. (Remember: good things happen with cutting boards)
3.Play improvizational games (Watch “Whose Line is it Anyway” or just play charades)
4.Organize your desk. (This will feel really good)
5.Do a movie marathon of 1980’s John Hughes movies. Or James Bond. Or Spielberg.
6.Visit every coffee shop downtown and evaluate each one. (I did this one Fall semester)
7.Plant something. (I’m doing this now)
8.Call your parents. (I should do this)
9.Call somebody from your childhood.
10.Read a bestselling novel. Then go talk to people about it. Book clubs are cool.
11.Go thrift store shopping.
12.Find neighborhood garage sales and buy unusual things.
13.Go to a local park and swing very high so you can jump out of the swing.
14.Go for a long walk. See if you can walk for an entire hour.
15.Search for new music on iTunes. Fall in love with a new band.
16.Get into a fascinating conversation with a stranger.
17.Go to church.
18.Plan some dreams for the next decade. Write out your personal mission statement.
19.Help somebody do something.
20.Watch people. Tell a story about their lives.
21.Learn a new sport.
22.Start a “flair” blog and tell me about it.
23.Get a great night’s sleep.
24.Go to a fancy grocery store and buy the most expensive chocolate just to try it.
25.Go to a pet store and hold all the new kittens and puppies.
26.Find a creek and sit by it.
27.Build your own kite and then fly it somewhere. You can google instructions.
28.Start a collection of some really obscure thing.
29.Learn to draw something.
30.Make a flip book comic.
31.Go in search of the world’s most comfortable slippers.
32.Learn a different language. (I want to learn Chinese this summer)
33.Go to a toy store and play with the toys.
34.Hang out at a bookstore and read for an hour.
35.Volunteer to help at a shelter or a community center.
36.Join a club.
37.Drive down a country road. (Rt. 550 changed my life)
38.Learn double dutch jump rope.
39.Do something that gets your heart rate up for 40 minutes and see how good you feel.
40.Practice being alone for an entire evening.
41.Donate stuff you don’t need.
42.Read a chapter in a textbook because you want to learn something, not because it’s on the test.
43.Reread a book from your childhood. (I reread To Kill A Mockingbird)
44.Hiking. Camping.
45.Make a scrap book.
46.Invent a game to play.
47.Create an ad campaign to motivate people to do something.
48.Teach somebody how to do something.
49.Watch an entire season of a show on DVD in one day. 24? Lost? The Office?
50.Make water your beverage selection for the whole weekend. Hydration can change your life.

So there. Here’s to living with flair.


The Cutting Board Cure

Whenever I get my cutting board out with friends or family, good things always happen. I remember chopping garlic and fresh ginger with my boyfriend (now my husband) on one of our first dates. We were hungry after playing tennis, and we had to find something in my kitchen for dinner. Afterward, he offered to scrub my stove. I was in love.

And it’s not just a woman thing.

Cutting boards are manly; don’t be tempted to apply the pioneer woman or 1950’s housewife stereotype. Have you seen Cake Boss, Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, or Emeril on the Food Network? This is why I can tell a group of men that good writing is a lot like good cooking. They nod their heads and start thinking about crème brulee and reduction sauces. It’s not a woman’s domain anymore.

So I have this theory about cutting boards and love. You start to love the people you cook with. You just do. Maybe it has something to do with working towards a common goal and enjoying the fruit of your shared labor. It’s hard to be angry with someone when he’s chopping the onion you need for the soup. It’s hard to be bitter and stressed out when you have to stand there rolling out pizza dough on a nicely floured cutting board. It has something to do with choosing to take the time to do it.

I’ve been stressed out today. Who isn’t? And I’ve been impatient with my daughter for demanding so much of my attention all day. And I’ve been mad about having to clean the bathrooms. I don’t have time for all this.

So I got out my cutting board. I didn’t have time to do this. It was lunchtime, and I asked my daughter if she wanted to make homemade pizzas. Of course! Really, Mom? Really? She sat by the counter, right by my side, spreading sauce on the crust and then sprinkling ridiculous amounts of cheese on top. She took her time, slowly spreading, slowing sprinkling. We relaxed as we waited for them to cook. Then we relaxed more as we ate them.

Then I hugged her. Then she hugged me.

The cutting board saves the day once again.

Living with flair means bringing out the cutting board precisely because I don’t have the time for it.


Admiring the Raw

I’ve been practicing a new flair attitude. I want to admire people.

Admiring somebody seems gushy and cheesy; we think about valentines or romantic movies. But the real meaning of admire is to esteem, respect, and have a high opinion of someone. I want to be the kind of woman who thinks highly of all kinds of folks for good reasons. What I admire about people can reveal to me what I value. It tells me what my heart thinks is good, noble, and right.

I used to admire wealth, prestige, and my appearance more than anything. It’s embarrassing to admit how much. For almost 2 decades I pursued every accolade possible. I admired people with advanced degrees, people with political power in Washington, and couples with the kind of wealth that lets them own several vacation homes. I admired beautiful women who dressed fashionably and went to the salon on a weekly basis. I had the time and means to live that way. I hung around people like that, at those sort of houses, and at those kinds of parties.

I wasn’t happy.

Today, I’m a completely different person. I can tell just by what I admired over the last few hours. My days, not surprisingly, are devoid of material wealth, prestige, or a salon appearance. I live in a small town in a rented house; nobody even cares about my academic degrees; my hair is still in a pony-tail from this morning. I can’t remember if I washed it.

But I did something right today:

I admired—with flair—my daughter’s incredible 2nd grade teacher for her creativity, devotion, and genius lesson plans. I admired a man battling cancer while I ate biscotti in his kitchen. I admired a salesperson who treated me kindly. I also admired three girls who rode their bikes up a huge hill without stopping to catch their breath.

I even admired the dogs in my neighborhood for their consistently joyful tail wagging.

I just admired my youngest daughter for enduring strep throat with a good attitude today. And now, I’m off to admire my husband who just left to pick up a new prescription of antibiotics.

Living with flair means learning to admire the authentic thing, the raw parts of really living, that show me what is so good and right about my life.


Crying (with flair) in Front of My Students

Every once in a while, students make me cry. I didn’t make a fool of myself or anything. But I did cry.

It’s all because of these particular students who are so great in spite of traumatic childhoods. I know, I know, it sounds cliché that I would cry about students who suffer and yet find so much beauty and joy in life, but what can I say? I cried.

I imagine writing teachers all over the world cry. I hope they do.

I read these memoir essays—these collections of memories—and I can’t believe the profound complexity of a life. Asking students to make sense of important memories that shape their identity might yield anger and hatred (the classic victim memoir genre). But these students do the harder work of gleaning the beauty from the horror. They showcase the wisdom they’ve accumulated. They interact with others with patience, gentleness, and this curious sense of love that the rest of the class notices. Their suffering enables a particular attention to the needs of others. Instead of narcissistic victimization, they use their stories to care for others. It’s amazing to hear about the future careers they imagine: social work, nursing, counseling. They have a gift to give back! How, at their age, can they see their pain’s wisdom as a gift to give?

I know these students have spiritual backgrounds. They must believe in the goodness of God and the way, at least in the Christian tradition, suffering always leads to beauty. There’s always a way to make sense of it.

So I cried for the truth that suffering can and will bring joy.

Living with flair means acknowledging the stories of others on the journey. It means recognizing the hard task of re-framing our worst memories into pathways to beauty and wisdom. And if the acknowledgment brings tears in front of a class of college students, so be it.


The Double Dutch Challenge

I learned Double Dutch with the neighborhood children.

I did it. Seriously, I did.

It was a community effort. One mom bought the jump ropes at a sporting goods store, one mom offered her vague memories of how to do it, and one mom agreed to turn the ropes with me.

We read an instruction booklet first.

So there we stood, us moms and dads, with all these children around us, rising to our newest neighborhood flair challenge: Learn Double Dutch jump rope.

It’s a terrific game to learn. Think about the fact that two ropes are turning in opposite directions, fast, and some child (or adult) jumps over these ropes in a sequence that resembles running in place or else doing little hops to avoid getting tangled up. We practiced turning the ropes (that’s a sport in itself), we sang traditional jump rope songs (something about candy), and soon, 6 children learned this skill. We cheered each time. We slapped high-fives. We celebrated like we were at the Olympic Games.

And then it was my turn.

I am an older woman, remember. Put it this way: I jiggle in places and need support in more ways than one. But I always wanted to learn Double Dutch, and for whatever reason, I never took the opportunity.

Well, now. If I’m going to live with flair, I can’t let this be.

It took me two tries, and I did it. I maybe jumped 5 times in total, and I didn’t get tangled up in ropes or anything. It’s actually not that hard once you learn to jump really fast. Now I’m moving on to performing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” moves while I Double-Dutch (thanks for the suggestion, friends).

What made it an overwhelming flair moment? Double Dutch represented the best of community organizing. We set a goal, we divided tasks, we gathered to accomplish our goal, and then we celebrated. As I teach my family about community service, I instill the value of building a neighborhood. We are learning how to gather people together around common goals.

Our neighborhood values physical fitness and raising children with the skills they need for life-long health. We can’t do this alone. We need the group.

Something about this shared task of learning Double Dutch felt truly authentic. I’m not sure how to define it other than to tell you that authentic community involves jump ropes. I keep them in my minivan at all times.

Besides, life is hard. Some days I feel like I’m trying to jump over ropes going in opposite directions with out-of-control schedules, sick children, working, and just living. But then I look up, see my community with their hands on the ropes, steadying me, encouraging me, looking me straight in the eyes and saying: You can do this, Heather! Ready, Set, Go! And the ropes turn, and the neighbors cheer, and then I’m doing it! I’m doing this impossible thing that I couldn’t do just yesterday!

Having a neighborhood that comes out to play after dinner is community flair. We value exercise, and now, we value it with flair. Living with flair means keeping jump ropes in the back of your minivan just in case the neighbors come.