You Never Know When a Limousine Will Show Up

You’ll never guess where I am.  Just a minute ago, I arrived here by limousine to a full day makeover. But it’s not for me; I’m just accompanying the winner of an extreme makeover contest in our town.

A few months ago, I wrote a little essay about a local mom who inspires me.  The winner of this contest would receive a full makeover (wardrobe, jewelry, massage, nails, hair, gym membership, new smile, makeup, housecleaning, a Wii Fit, photo shoot, and tons of other prizes).  When I heard about the contest, I had to nominate this mom.   She’s lost 100 pounds this year, but that’s not even the most important thing.  She’s totally transformed her whole life.  She’s been on a journey to find emotional and spiritual health.  I just love this girl!  I love sitting next to her in church, worshiping God and seeing her write down every word the pastor says.  I love seeing her choose hope and optimism even in hard circumstances.  She fights for happiness, and I just admire her so much. 

So all day, she gets to enjoy an incredible makeover.  Not only that, but at 6:00 PM she arrives (by limo) to her huge reveal party–just like you see on TV!  The press will be there: local news and ABC, magazines, photographers.  It’s the coolest thing to be a part of.

The real story here is that change is possible.  This friend has had an impossibly hard childhood.  She’s taught me that the past does not determine your future, and you can change your life.  Right before we got in the limo, I shared two  Bible verses with my friend.  I said, that “those who look to God will be radiant” (she is totally radiant right now), and that “anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.  The old has gone, the new has come ” (The new woman is here!).  In fact, I have to sign off; she’s nearly finished with her massage, and we are moving on to the hair salon.  More later (with pics I hope).

Living with flair is getting into a limo with someone who deserves a makeover.   It means going on the journey with friends who want to change their lives and being ready to celebrate.

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The Best Definition of Courage

My daughter and I were talking about taking her training wheels off and learning to ride a bike.  She became very quiet and said, “You know, Mom, little hills mean little boo-boos.  And big hills mean big boo-boos.”

I said, “So I guess you want to avoid the big hills on your bike.” 

She paused and said, “Oh, no.  It just means we need a bigger first aid kit.”

There you have it:  Courage means I ride full speed ahead, anticipate the wounds, and prepare with a great first aid kit.  For my daughter it means Hello Kitty band aids.  For the rest of us, it might mean we fill our kits with authentic friendships, strong ties to a community, a vibrant relationship to God, and the kind of space to heal.  It’s not the height of the hill that matters.  It’s not the danger, the risk, or the potential for failure.  Wounds are likely.   So I build the best first aid kit I can.  That’s some 5 year old flair.

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2 Lessons from an Italian Mama in 100 Words or Less

1.  The mistake people make with their sauce is not letting it simmer long enough.  No rush here with my sauce or my life.  

2.  As I listed ingredients learned from my first Italian cooking lesson, my Italian Mama neighbor leaned over my shoulder and said:  “Don’t forget the most important ingredient.” She paused, closed her eyes, put her hand over her heart, and said:
“You must put on your Bruce Springsteen music.”
Italian Mamas have soundtracks–undercurrents– of passion, good hearts, and kitchen talent.  What soundtrack, what undercurrent, flows beneath my life? 
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Bring on the Whimsy

This morning, I saw my neighbor’s dog, Murphy, walking in a bright yellow doggie raincoat. He stood up on his back paws and greeted me, looking more human than canine. Then, I saw a little girl carrying an umbrella shaped like a dragon over her head . Huge pointing scales, triangular and menacing, slithered down her back. I felt like I had temporarily entered some whimsical world where dogs act civilized in bright yellow rain gear and little girls enjoy the protection of dragons atop their heads. I looked up just in case an owl should swoop down to deliver my mail.
Why do whimsical things delight us so much? Why do we recite The Jabberwocky or go see Alice in Wonderland and Avatar? Why are we so entranced by the world of Hogwarts or Narnia or Neverland?
The little dog turned human or the girl with her dragon ripped open the rational world for me this morning. All at once, I thought of a fantasy world, an alternate reality existing parallel to my own. In this world, the rules are all different. It’s the Mad Hatter’s tea party on this side of things, and I barely know how to get my footing. It’s dangerous, weird, and most of all, wonderful.
Whimsy refers to something playfully odd, something unpredictable, childish, and given more to imagination than reason or experience. Whimsy indicates a suspension of the rational and predictable. It opens a doorway into another realm, another way of thinking.
In this way, whismy helps my spiritual growth.  It’s a whisper of the supernatural.
Whimsy and fantasy—the odd, the seemingly impossible–give spiritual truth a plausibility structure. I want to encourage the type of living where we can believe in what we cannot fully fathom. Whimsy, which makes me stop and reconsider, tears apart the structure of my otherwise orderly and rational day. And in that sliver of space—that wrinkle in time—a life of faith blooms.
So bring on the dogs in raincoats, the dragon umbrellas, the fantastical, and the absurd. We are made for more than we can imagine, and to stop and consider it—the flair of it—ushers in the spiritual.
Whismy lets in the crack of light that pushes me onward to truth. Living with flair means I consider the crack of light. It opens my eyes to another reality–the kind of reality where God tries to get my attention through the out-of-the ordinary thing.  Living with flair means to be attentive enough to see and respond.  
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A Tool to Measure Success

Somebody asked me recently what my professional goals are.

I used to be incredibly ambitious.  Now, not so much.  Part of the reason is that, as I age, I realize the things I was ambitious for–money, prestige, fame–don’t retain the same shimmer after too long.   The problem with ambition is that it keeps my focus on some future manifestation. 

I will know I am successful when. . . 

I ask myself, and my students, to find a career that they love so much they’d do it for free.   Today I will add:  love it so much you’d do it for free and for absolutely no recognition. You love it so much you could do it. . . anonymously.  You’ll measure success, in this case, by a completely different standard. 

Imagine! 

It’s hard to talk about these things when we need to earn a good living.  We need to pay the bills, provide for our children, and stock the refrigerator.   We often don’t have the luxury of thinking about the larger questions about our work when we have to pay the electric bill today.  But sometimes it’s good to ask ourselves what motivates us to try so hard all the time.  Beyond the paycheck, what are we really doing? 

With money and prestige out of the picture, what would motivate someone to succeed in a particular line of work?  And how in the world would they define success?    As I think about living with flair, and in particular, working with flair, I wonder what to be ambitious for.  Is it to serve others well, to advance knowledge in my particular field, to love every coworker, to build community in that workplace, to think about a mission to create beauty, order, or healing somewhere?  Is it to fight for injustice or to awaken spirituality?  Is it to provide for my family?  It is to work with excellence, to the best of my ability?  Or is it because I must do it because of a calling–because I’m made to do it–regardless of how my gifts are received or if they do anything?

These things are good and right. 

Another friend asked me what the goal of my blogging adventures are.  A book?  For the first time in a long time, I was able to say that the goal was just to write, everyday, and record special moments that made the day great.  The project is its own reward.   I’m ambitious for living intentionally enough to find joy in the common thing.

When I measure success by a different tool, I’m suddenly free to do what I’m supposed to do–what I’m made to do–and not imprisoned by any other standard.

Living with flair means being ambitious for the right things– for the sorts of things that can’t be measured by dollar signs or followers.

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When it Looks Like Chaos and Abandonment

My sassiest daughter was playing school with her big sister this morning before church.  Apparently, they’d set up a whole imaginary classroom with imaginary students. All of sudden, the little one starts stomping around with her hands on her hips.
“I can’t do imaginary anymore!” she yelled. 
I laughed out loud. Watching her with her hands on her hips, saying in exasperation, “I can’t do imaginary anymore,” gave me the same feeling as when I hear her singing that Sugarland song about not settling. There I am, driving down the road, minding my own thoughts, and this little girl will belt out:
I ain’t settlin’
for just getting’ by
I’ve had enough so-so
for the rest of my life. . .
It’s the kind of sass I like in a girl. She doesn’t want so-so or imaginary, and neither do I.  We want to fully inhabit the lives God gives us.  We are learning that ordinary is extraordinary when you figure out what you can learn from it.  We aren’t settlin’ if we can help it.  We aren’t letting one moment go by without finding out what it means. 
We are getting better at it.  This morning, in the cool breeze of 9:00 AM, something caught my eye as we pulled out of the driveway.
Blue and wispy like the tip of some fairy’s wing, leaves danced across the base of the oak tree by my house. I stared harder, confused about the blue leaves tumbling around on the lawn.  My husband stopped the van, and I got out. There, like tiny crumbled scraps of blue construction paper, balls of feathers unfolded to show little beaks. Obviously abandoned, obviously fallen from a high nest, these bluebirds strained their heads and wings hopelessly. They seemed cold, sure to die, and starving. I looked up through the branches of the oak tree. High up, higher than the rooftop, the tangle of sticks and leaves sat.
The whole family gathered solemnly around the oak tree. Believing we were seeing dying birds, the girls shouted: “We need to call the pet store! We need to call animal rescue! Help!” We all ran inside, frantic as we tried to find the phone book. My husband, calm and sure, went to the internet to find out what to do.
And we prayed.
A moment later, my husband spread the good news: These weren’t dying birds. They were fledgling birds. There’s a big difference.
Fledgling is a great word. It describes a young bird (or person) who is new to the scene. This person has just left the nest and is almost ready to fly. They still need help, but as they flop around, looking hopeless, they are actually building strength to fly. To the inexperienced observer, a fledgling looks like a dying bird. The feathers look all rumpled and broken, and the body is limp. What I saw, when I looked at those bluebirds, was chaos and disaster and, worse, abandonment.  
But it was actually a highly controlled, intentional situation.
Later, I sat in church, so thankful for the truth about my fledgling times. What I see as chaos, disaster, and abandonment (by God or others) is actually a highly controlled, intentional situation. God knows I need some time to strengthen my character and my resolve. He knows I need to flop around a bit first.
And I was thankful that my daughter who can’t do imaginary didn’t have to this morning.  She could sit and look right out at the real world in her front yard.   And this girl who won’t settle for so-so learned that rescuing birds isn’t about removing them from their situation or creating better circumstances.  Sometimes it means keeping them right there in it because it’s where they are supposed to be.  
Living with flair means that I might reinterpret chaos, confusion, or even disaster as part of a highly controlled, intentional situation.  God, like the mother bird, knows exactly what’s going on.  Later today, I saw that mother bird seeking out each fledgling with a worm in her beak.  She found all six of them, no matter where they had tumbled, and nourished them fully.  They’ll fly by evening. 
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Seeing a Newborn Foal

Last night, I heard a rumor that newborn foals were in the campus barn. Campus barn? Where was that?
“Honey! Baby horses at some barn! Let’s go.” He got in the minivan without even thinking this might be a strange activity so close to bedtime. But if we are going to live with flair, we want to embrace some adventure. 
We drove to campus and found the right road. “This doesn’t look right,” I kept saying (I’d never been before, but it just didn’t feel like it could be a magical place with newborn horses. It was too urban, too busy). My husband encouraged me to “just keep going” and that we’d find something eventually. I took a sharp right and then a left down an unmarked dirt road.
“Just keep going,” he said.
I did.  In silence, we drove.  We should have turned around and gone straight home.  It was bedtime, and besides, the sky was threatening some thunderstorm.   We’d never find the place anyway.  
Then, like we’d entered Narnia through the wardrobe, an enormous expanse of rich green meadow opened before us. To the left, a single white barn.  The surrounding campus evaporated; there were no other buildings in sight.
We had entered a hidden pocket of paradise right in the middle of a town.
The setting sun made the meadow golden and deeply green with light and long shadows. The brewing storm made the air heavy and electric.  The barn was quiet. Was this the right barn? We left the minivan, not even bothering to close the doors.
In the cool of the barn, we walked by each stall, one by one. All empty, except for two stalls near the end. We peered in, straining our necks. We held the girls up so they could see. There were real live horses in there. 
Two chocolaty brown mares and caramel one-month old foals snuggled into one another in separate stalls.
I’m a city girl. I grew up outside of DC, and I’ve never seen a real foal before (except on TV or in picture books). Amazed at the tiny legs, so unsteady, I held my breath. He was. . . tiny.  I couldn’t believe that just a moment before, I was driving through suburbia, and now this.  What could be more beautiful on this evening? 
A few minutes later, we left the barn from the opposite entrance. As I turned the corner, I froze. Six enormous mares, their coats shining with light, hovered over six separate foals—right in front of me. Each foal mirrored the mother’s movements exactly as she roamed the meadow. That fragile creature was not only guarded by the mother, but by all the mothers.
Here, in this place, all is well as a mare protects a newborn foal.
We discovered a young woman who rents a room by the barn to care for these horses night and day. Her face shines and her heart seems at peace. Nations battle, people suffer, but here, in this barn, a girl cares for horses and instructs visitors when they can come back to see a new foal due in just a week. The pregnant mare, Skipped Emotion, stood proud and tall in her stall.
We’ll be back in a week to see the newcomer. We’ll be back to congratulate the mother, whose presence brings forth everything but skipped emotion. In fact, for once, we are fully in our emotions—awe, wonder, joy. We are coming back for more.
Living with flair means marveling at foals. It means leaving your home, even though it’s bedtime, to find a secret barn cloaked by campus all around. It means you “just keep going” until you find the right road. You’ll find it if you just travel in far enough.
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A Strange Way to Refresh Yourself

I’m used to thinking of personal refreshment in terms of spa days and vacations.  Today, I remembered a bit of wisdom that reoriented my thinking.  The flair moment came in the form of sweaty boys and mulch. 

On my drive downtown this morning, I saw a group of young men spreading mulch in the flowerbeds that lined the sidewalk. They were laughing, embarrassed maybe, as the cars at the stoplight stopped and observed them. The wheelbarrow of mulch wobbled between one boy’s arms, and the pitchfork in another boy’s hands took aim and missed the pile altogether.

I was thankful for their work to renovate those beds.  They were giving that space some flair.  And I knew, too, that the work would bring some flair to them as well. 

Community service is like that.  

It’s service that intends to renovate us as we renovate our community. There’s something about taking care of a community—those that need help, those that are suffering, or those places that need cleaning—that renews and refreshes the spirit, too.

As I drove past those boys, I remembered a verse from the book of Isaiah, chapter 58:

“If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.”

When I spend myself on the needs of my community, I ironically find a form of refreshment. My night becomes the noonday; my darkness turns to light. The promise of God guiding, satisfying, and strengthening me in that process represents the paradox of Christianity: you find yourself as you lose yourself; you become fully alive as you die to your own self-obsession.

You would think, in sacrificial service, that a frame would weaken, that a body would exhaust itself.  But instead, the strongest frame, the most nourished individual, is the one who serves others.

Watching those boys spread mulch on that sun-scorched sidewalk reminded me that serving a community, even in small ways, contributes to our well-being.  When we find a need outside of ourselves that we can meet, we can renovate, not just another person, but ourselves.

Living with flair means I meet the needs of others and delight in how it refreshes me.  Spas and vacations are great, but greater still might be taking care of a neighbor (or spreading mulch in her flowerbed).

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The Best Verb to Keep in Your Notebook

Great living is a lot like great cooking. You want to take the ingredients of the day and create 5 star masterpieces. You want to arrange what’s given to you (like on Iron Chef), and make something so fantastic that you close your eyes and sigh (like the judges) when you think about it.
I’m not a great cook.  Fortunately, I have a chef friend.
Today she explained what “braising” meant. Braising something means you apply low heat, lots of time, and moisture in order to soften something hard and unsavory into something delicious. She was braising cabbage, I think.
I stood there and wrote in my little notebook the definition of braise (you have to keep a notebook if you are searching for flair). I like this new verb. I’m going to tell students they need to braise their ideas, break them apart with some intellectual heat, some time, and some emotional juice in order to present that concept the best way.
I use cooking verbs like percolate, stew, and saute, but I haven’t used braise ever in my whole life. It’s a great verb for cooking, writing, and now, living
Everything that happens to me in any given day passes through some intellectual heat, some time, and some emotional juice in order to arrive at flair. I braise the day to get to the good stuff. It keeps the hard parts in me soft.
It’s the art of reflection, and it teaches me how to have insight. It’s not as if we wake up and find flair arriving on our pillows in a package we recognize. It takes some work: some heat, time, and moisture. It takes energy and emotion to actively find the larger importance.
Insight means to look within the thing, to go deeper.  It’s mining for a new understanding about my day using the common, daily ingredients I’m given.  People with insight train themselves to see, not just with the senses, but with the mind. In other words, as I live, I think about what something symbolizes or represents. I put a flair lens over my eyes and pray I see it when it comes.
Braising my experiences creates steady hope and steady joy for me. It feels so good to have this lens, especially after knowing the dark days of depression and hopelessness for nearly a decade of my life. I want to braise the day and make it all soft and delicious. It makes me live well and intentionally. 

Living with flair means writing down the word “braise” in a little notebook and thinking about living (not just cooking).

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What to Offer a Mean Person

Something spiritual happened in the drive-thru as I was paying the cashier today.  Everybody inside the place was scowling and sulking around.  They seemed so angry and so inconvenienced by my presence at the little sliding window.   These people need some flair, I thought. 

I decided to ask God for help.  Those people needed a blessing.

To bless is a way of inviting the power and presence of God in.  It’s a means of imagining the best for someone and infusing some situation with hope and joy.

“God, could you bless these people?” I muttered. But then I rolled my eyes at myself.  Was that the best I could do?  That blessing had no pizazz.  If I’m going to pray for good things for people, I want to do with with flair. 

I tried again:  “God, could you give these workers unimaginable strength and joy today? Could you somehow remind them how wonderful and beautiful they are?  Would you bring good things into their lives?  Would you fill them with the kind of hope and security that will sustain them forever?”

Then, as I was leaving the drive-thru, a frowning older man nearly drove into my car.  It looked like he hadn’t laughed in decades.  I took a deep breath, still wondering how I could be more creative in blessing people.  I wanted to get specific.

“God, I hope this old man can laugh so hard that tears come out of his eyes today.  I want him to slap his thigh and hang onto his friends for balance because he’s laughing so hard.”  

I pulled out of the parking lot, and a frantic and stressed-out UPS man darted in front of me.  So I prayed he would enjoy a profoundly delicious lunch. It was all I could think of at the time!  Then I drove past some stern looking utility workers who seemed annoyed that I was driving past their work zone. I prayed that they would have wonderful evenings with their families–the kind where everyone feels cozy and loved.   

Offering blessings today saved me from a bad mood and road rage.  It reminded me that, in some mysterious way, I can invite the good and the beautiful into a stranger’s life. God commands that we bless and not curse, so I want to do it with flair.   What if I did this more often?  What if everybody did? Living with flair means I’m not just enjoying this power and presence, but I’m also giving it.   Next time I get in my car, I’m going to eagerly anticipate meeting grumpy people who need a stranger to bless them.  And I hope that, when I’m a grouch, somebody is blessing me.

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