2 Reasons to Look Harder

This morning we find a Tomato Hornworm on our tomato plants.  These bugs are huge and yet so difficult to see.  They almost perfectly resemble the background leaves and stalks.

I’m staring at the plants, and all I see are leaves and tomatoes.  But when my entomologist friend comes by, she spots the camouflaged creature immediately.

I can’t see anything.

I look harder, burying myself in tomato leaves.  Finally, I see another one. I almost have to cross my eyes and squint to distinguish the bug from the plant.  It feels like I’m in some Magic Eye book. 

I had this 3D Magic Eye poster in college.  In 1993, you could go to shopping malls and look at these posters to find the hidden pictures within them.  There were stereograms, or more specifically, autostereograms. 

 A stereogram is an optical illusion of depth created from a flat, two-dimensional image.  The point is that another image exists buried deep within the other.  This poster, for example, hides glasses within it.  I would stare until my eyes ached as I tried to get that image to pop out of the poster.  It drove me nearly crazy to think that something was really there, but I couldn’t perceive it.  It infuriates me like those Tomato Hornworms that are really there–devouring my plants–and escaping my perception.  My eyes fail me over and over again. 

How many things hide within my reality that I don’t perceive?  And how many things do I discount as real simply because they dwell outside of the realm of visual perception?  Tomato Hornworms and autostereograms are two reasons why I’m willing to believe in what I cannot always see.

I’m sure that living with flair has something to do with stereograms and seeing beneath the surface of things.  

(Tomato Hornworn, courtesy of Whitney Cranshaw, CSU, bugwood.org)


“The Lincoln”

There’s a new challenge at the pool.  It’s more like a dare, and for teenage boys, it’s hard to resist.

It’s called “the Lincoln.”

I’m watching teenagers take running leaps off the diving board and land flat on their stomachs or backs.  But every once in a while, a boy will complete the impossible trick dive called the Lincoln.

You run, you dive, and mid-air, you turn to the side and do a side flip.

The Lincoln.

“What makes it so hard,” one teenager explains, “is physics.  You’re going one direction, and you have to tell yourself to turn to your side and do a flip in a perpendicular direction.”

I nod, wondering why it’s called the Lincoln.  Then I remember that gravity experiment when a penny falls straight down after you push the round tube it’s sitting on to the left or right.

All the older boys line up and try to do the trick.  Of the group, only one can do it.  The lifeguards cheer.  This is the stuff of summer legend.  Somebody can do “the Lincoln!” 

Then, a little boy, maybe 6 or 7, gets up on the board.  He runs, he dives, and, smooth as butter, turns to his right and flips in the air.  The Lincoln.  Collective silence all around.  The lifeguard stops twirling her whistle.

“No way,” the guy who knows the physics and how hard this dive is says.

The little boy, the one who hasn’t had physics yet and only knows gravity by experience–and not theory–, surfaces, smiles, and says: “That wasn’t hard.  I didn’t even have to think about it.”

Changing direction and form, mid-flight, is hard for anyone.  I hate change.  I hate everything about it.  But watching that little boy just get some speed and do it, without over-thinking the difficulty, inspired me.

Yeah it’s hard to do whatever it is I’ve got to do.  But today, I want to pick up some speed and do it.


Sucking all the Marrow Out

The day stretches out before us.  I can let it happen to me, or I can seek out the complexity in common moments.  Complexity refers to many parts in an intricate arrangement.  If you can find this particular arrangement, you can suddenly understand something differently and more deeply.  There’s complexity in this piece of toast, this cup of coffee, this orange.

People have said I think too much.  

A fellow faculty member and I commiserated yesterday that students like to say:  “But why does it have to mean anything?  It ruins our enjoyment when we have to analyze stuff.  Can’t we just enjoy the story?”   I think we confuse complexity with unnecessary complication or confusion.  We think complexity means we shroud something in difficulty.  But this isn’t the case.  Finding patterns, connections, and symbols unlocks this whole other world–this whole other subtext–that makes a text (or a life) so rich and beautiful.

Examining life for all its complexity pours a warm syrup over our day that makes it good.  We begin to see spiritual truth in the tiny, mundane thing.  We see God reaching out to us from the confines of a bedroom or a minivan or a rocking chair.  There’s a message inside of everything confronting us.

Why not live a complex life?  Socrates cries out:  “The unexamined life is not worth living,” just as Thoreau fears that “he would come to die and find that [he] had not lived.”  He famously commands himself to “live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.” 

Marrow, after all, is the choicest, inmost, essential part of a thing.  There’s marrow in this day, and for me, it’s whatever trace of God’s beauty and goodness I can find and suck out. 

(Special thanks to Charity G.and Gigi M. for inspiring this post.)


The Everyday Apprentice

I want to enter the various cultures around me with a curious mind and a willing heart.  In the past few days, I’ve been invited to experience various “cultures” whether it’s joining the swim team community, learning about the various spiritual cultures of my neighbors, or entering the college culture by watching movies students love, listening to music they download, and attending the places they go downtown.

As I thought about what it means to love people and be a good friend, this concept of entering different cultures seemed suddenly so important.

Right at that moment, my husband was leaving to go to his workshop.  On his days off, he apprentices with a carpenter to learn the skills of woodworking and carpentry.  (Note:  Apprentice is a fantastic verb.  It means to study under a master to learn the skills of a trade.  Apprenticing represents a whole cultural system by which a new generation trains for a trade.  I wish I could apprentice under certain mothers, teachers, and wives.)

He’s asked the family before if we want to visit his workshop.  We’ve always said, “no.”  We don’t have time!  We aren’t interested!  What would we do in a workshop?  Well, not today.  I want to enter that culture with a curious mind and a willing heart.    

So we go.

It feels like a foreign country.  He shows us big, scary machines with names like planer, jointer, miter saw, and band saw.  I start asking questions.  Soon, I learn that my husband can take material like these split logs:

And turn them into this.   

I start feeling some flair happening.  I start looking around me with new eyes.  I notice some order and beauty in this place.

And I notice my children are captivated by what their father is doing.  He puts safety gear on them and shows them what he can do on the machines.  He takes a scrap of wood and transforms it into something smooth and square. 

Right now, we are back home, and the girls are playing with their block of wood–imagining all sorts of things with it.  We entered the culture of woodworking with a curious mind and a willing heart, and we had more fun than I could have ever thought possible.  Living with flair means I enter the various cultures around me by being curious and willing.  I apprentice and learn.  I want to do it everyday.


Small Flair in Hidden Places

I wake up with a horrible cold or horrible allergies–funny how the body responds the same to real or imagined threats against it–and dread the morning.  I can’t find one box of tissues anywhere.

Then, I realize I’ve lost my cell phone.

Sniffling and pitiful, I wander to the basement just in case my cell phone is lost amid the scatter of assignment sheets and lesson plans.  Still sniffling, I spy it innocently positioned in the most curious of places.

Right next to a box of tissues.

Flair came early and reminded me that what I lose sometimes brings me to what needs to be found.


Reinvent the Course

I’ve been thinking about what it means to instruct, to offer suggestions, and to speak in the imperative mood.  My love of verbs means I know they sometimes take the form of commands–imperative forms–that we use to express suggestions or advice.   This morning, I used the imperative on myself.  Here’s what I said:

Reinvent the Course

It’s like I’m running, and potholes and roadblocks stop me in my tracks.  I think to myself that it’s all over.  My dreams, my goals, my projects all fall apart with the slightest bit of discouragement.  Sewn together in particular ways, my life dreams must take shape exactly as I form them.  But pull one thread, and the whole thing unravels.

At that moment with a heap of disaster uncoiled around my ankles, I’m learning to reinvent the course I was on and recalibrate till I’m aligned with what always turns out to be better and a much purer form of what I really wanted all along.

For example, nothing in my life has ever come about in the right place, at the right time, and in the right form.  But it always ends up being. . . just right.  I met my husband in the wrong place (he was supposed to be in the South), at the wrong time (finishing a Ph.D.–who has time?), and in the wrong form (where was his little poet pony tail and John Lennon spectacles?).  But he was just right.  Exactly right.

And children?  Born in Michigan when my whole family was in Virginia, during my dissertation writing, and a girl instead of boy.  But she’s just right.  Exactly right.

Or moving here in a mad rush to a house I never imagined in any dream.  Or to a teaching career that came in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and in the wrong form.  It was supposed to be a tenure track job at some Ivy League school.  But teaching was the goal and God put it in the right place, at the right time, in the right form.

Finally, my publishing dreams.  No book contract, no bestseller.  And yet, I learned to reinvent the course.  Blogging? And look! 11,000 visitors from 77 different countries or territories.  I didn’t even know how to make a blog 125 days ago.  I wanted to write, and maybe this new course would let me.  It seems just right.  Exactly right.

I think of life as a maze with only one path to my dreams.  But it’s not a maze.  It’s a beautiful landscape with trails we haven’t even imagined.  I’m just so thankful we have a Faithful Guide.

Living with flair means I’m not afraid or discouraged when I have to reinvent the course.  


The Best Hand Gesture

This morning during Sunday School, a mom found me to tell me that her daughter didn’t want to be left alone in the room with the other children.  But when mother and daughter entered the room, another little girl looked at her daughter and patted the empty seat beside her.

Problem solved.

Who wouldn’t want to walk into a room, have someone catch your eye, and see that person’s hand pat the empty seat beside her?  It might be the greatest hand gesture in the world.  It communicates this:

Be with me!  I like you!  You belong here!  There’s a spot just for you! 

I want to live in such a way that I’m patting a million seats for everyone I see.


The Red Spotted Newt and Marriage Truth

Hiking along a trail this morning, I force my own plans:  when to stop to pick blackberries, when to leave the trail and see what’s down the canyon, when to turn back.  I have my own things to do. 

My Eagle Scout husband (who surely knows more) is patient with me when I’m bossy.  He calls out to me and says, “Come look at this!”

Together, we observe a fast little red spotted newt.  It’s tiny and racing across the moss almost too quickly to catch on film.  I’m amazed he could see it.

Later, I want to go home, and he says, “We’ll just walk a little further down this trail.”

All of a sudden, the forest opens to this gorgeous lake–so peaceful, so tucked away in a deeply shaded forest.  Nobody’s here but us, the geese, and the frogs that let out a yelp as they dive like synchronized swimmers off the lily pads. 

It’s so beautiful.  I sit and rest.  It was my husband who brought me here to the still water’s edge.  It was my husband who said, “look at this,” and stopped me in my frantic race towards…what?  We celebrate 10 years of marriage this week.  This anniversary hike without the children reminded me of what’s so precious about marriage:  You have a companion that walks the trail with you and knows how to guide your attention to what you can’t yet see.

Later, we talked about marriage as oneness.  You have to fight the urge to be separate, to do your own thing, to race ahead.  Being–and staying–in love means I cultivate the oneness.  Cultivating oneness has something to do with pulling the other aside and saying, “Look at this!”  And if one of us has to rest by the water alone, the other one will at least capture it on film for later.


Another Message About Poop

I’m at the gym at 5:30 AM, and I think to myself:  “I’m officially insane.  What can come of this?”

Each machine has little TVs, so I start watching this PBS interview about families in New Orleans who, 5 years after Hurricane Katrina, are still trying to rebuild their lives.

A woman starts describing the festival and street parade they have in the neighborhood. She tells the interviewer:  “The little girls carry dolls to signify that they are pregnant with hope and will give birth to greatness.”

And the interviewer says:  “Is this area fertile with hope?”
The mother: “Yes, but we need some fertilizer.”
Interviewer:  “Fertilizer?”
The mother:  “Yes, and they keep giving us manure.  But you know what manure is?  It’s fertilizer for our hope!”

I thought about this family joking and laughing and rebuilding their lives.  They have taken the manure of disaster and made it fertilizer for hope.

Maybe hope requires a little fertilizer to grow.  Maybe all good things do.  When discouragement comes, I want to respond like this amazing woman. 

Can I let the manure of the day–of my life– nourish my hope instead of embittering and depressing me?  The woman on TV was strong and sure.  She wasn’t going to waste the suffering.  She was going to let it fertilize her life.


How to Love Your Job

This morning, I’m buried in cover letter and résumé examples for students.  It occurs to me that I spend most of my lectures helping students prepare to find a great job, but I always leave an important lesson out:

I never talk about how to love a job once you find one.   Is there a way to love. . . work?  If the next 50 years of their lives will be spent working, might I challenge them–and myself–to find the passion in what seems, on the surface, mundane?

I want to be realistic with them:  Chances are, the dream job they hope for might not come about in this particular economy.  But that’s not a problem for someone who can find flair in the ordinary. 

As I thought about my own career and the various jobs I’ve been paid to do (babysitter, ice-cream scooper, cashier, camp counselor, teacher, speaker, writer) I wondered what makes a job great.  Each of these jobs delighted me, and I have great memories of the communities I formed in each work environment.  Even when my feet hurt so badly I had to soak them after a full day as a cashier, I still wanted to go to work the next day.  It became a personal challenge to be positive, kind, and enthusiastic even when customers yelled at me. 

I think I learned to find the meaning in my work, but that significance didn’t correlate to wage or title.  If I find meaning in service, my interaction with people, and my contribution towards advancing something good in the world–whether I’m in a marketing firm, a hospital, or behind a cash register–I start to love the work.

I want to ask myself and others what makes their work meaningful to them.  And if it’s not meaningful, but menial, can I mentally elevate the significance of the task before me so I can see the truth behind my unique contribution?  Can I make even “boring” jobs sacred vocations

I’ll keep you posted on how this lesson plan goes!  Maybe I’ll call it:  How to Work with Flair.  I think we’ll answer the question:  What makes this work significant to you? 

What do you think?  What would you tell a college graduate about how they can love their work?