Hold My Hand

Children hold hands.  They just do.  As I walk the children to school this morning, I notice how many of us hold hands naturally.  I wish we were all doing it.

When do we stop?  When did we become so self-conscious? 

Normally, we might hold hands to pray, to pull someone to safety, to keep our balance, to lead someone along, or to keep together in a crowd.

Whatever the case, when my hand rests in yours, it says, “I’m here with you.”  It’s a mark of belonging, of protection, and of love.

Maybe in other cultures, in other communities, hand-holding remains common and abundant, natural and obvious.  But here, I wonder if we aren’t making physical gestures of belonging, protection, and love enough.

I watch my daughter enter her new kindergarten class.  Complete strangers!  She finds a little girl (a pony tail and sparkly sandals) who also likes turtles and Polly Pocket, and as I watch them interact, I see that smile and movement together that signifies I found you; I see you; I like you

When it’s time to circle up on the carpet with the teacher, those two hold hands.  How natural, how obvious.

Living with flair means I hold a hand.  Could I do it?  Could I walk hand in hand with neighbors, colleagues, friends and not just my children?  Here, take my hand.

I found you; I see you; I like you.

(Photo “Hold My Hand” courtesy of Elizabeth Ann Colette)

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That Hilarious Staples Commercial

There’s a hilarious Staples commercial that never fails to make me laugh.  You know, the one with the father dancing in the aisle saying, “You’re going back!”  Meanwhile, the children sulk.  The commercial captures that end-of-summer mood so pervasive among parents right about now.  However, this particular commercial misinterprets the attitude of most children in my community.

Yesterday, for example, a little boy rushed over to me to describe his backpack and school supplies (down to the color of the pencil grips and the size of the erasers).

These children are ready.  

I keep asking my daughters if they want to go to the pool, and my oldest says, “Mom, I’m done with summer.  I have to sharpen all these pencils and arrange my erasers.”

At this very moment, I’m observing a beautiful mound of pencil shavings on the carpet.  I pull out her eraser pack and smell the soft pink rubber.  Could someone bottle the smell of new eraser and pencil shavings?  Could we market room spray?  Potpourri?  Yankee Candles called “Back to School”?

I’d buy it all.

My youngest (the one I just brought home from the hospital in that little hat the size of my palm, the one who just started walking, who just slept through the night) has her pencil case ready.  Her purple backpack is by the door.  She’ll hardly sleep tonight because tomorrow marks the day it all begins.  She will learn marvelous and life-changing things in kindergarten. 

I want to keep this momentum going all our lives; returning to school–that community of curiosity, wonder, complexity, and beauty–should always be this exciting.  The anticipation of learning, amplified a thousand times in the heart of a 5 year old, might challenge us all to greet the day with that same enthusiasm.

We’ll have not one pencil but a dozen in multiple colors.  We’ll have our backpacks by the door.  We’ll hardly sleep tonight because of how great tomorrow will be.

Living with flair means I’m too excited to sleep because of what I’ll learn and friends I’ll meet tomorrow.

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How I Detangle My Life

Before church this morning, I participate in a daily morning ritual with my daughters:  I detangle their hair.

This is not fun ever.  We employ various products, special brushes, and gentle mother-strokes to get their hair orderly and smooth.  They used to cry and shout about this.  Now, they resign themselves to it, clenching their jaws, staring stoic into the mirror to endure the process. 

As I’m brushing and comforting, I wonder about this process. Tangle, as a verb, means to mix together in a confused mass.  The verb actually approximates “confuse” more than any other verb.  Confusion refers to “the state of being mixed or blended so as to produce indistinctness or error; indistinct combination; disorder; tumult.”

As I think more about tangles and confusion, I think about my own mind.  If confusion results from blending what shouldn’t be blended–of mixing up what doesn’t go together–then something about peace, order, and enlightenment involves separating out parts.

In the past, confusion always resulted when my emotions disagreed with the truth of what should be or should happen.  My feelings clouded a topic, tangled up the truth of a situation, and made a mess in my head.  I had to part my feelings from what was actually true. 

Working to separate tangles reminds me to do the work of parting my emotions from the truth regarding a situation.  Just because it’s appealing to my emotions doesn’t mean this or that action is right.  And just because I don’t want to do something or it’s painful doesn’t mean it’s wrong

As we leave for church, I’m thankful for a truth outside of my own perceptions and my own feelings.  I read the Bible and learn the commands of God because they tell me what is true and right about my life and my interactions with others.  I can make decisions, plan a course, leave a situation, or enter a new one based on ancient (but so current) wisdom. 

It’s the ultimate detangler.

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A Taste of My Own Medicine

For all my talk of releasing children into nature, with nothing but pure imagination and the grass beneath their feet, I’m not one to take any time–as an adult–away from technology to just relax outside with no plan, no agenda. Is nature only good for the young?  What would happen if I joined them? 

How would I do it?  Would I be barefoot?  Would I look for frogs or collect random sticks? 

Leaving the cell phone and the netbook behind, I placed myself under a tree in my front yard.  The children played by instinct with the sort of freedom and abandon of fish finally released into water after nearly suffocating on land.

But for me, this environment of dirt, grass, pebble, and twig threatened to destroy my pedicure more than relax me.

But I stayed on, noticing the shade and breeze against my body.  I settled into the earth, introducing myself by removing my shoes.  I curled my toes around the grass and took a deep breath.  A moment later, a single white garden spider crawled over my big toe, and two ants found my left arm:  my welcoming committee. 

I’d been incorporated.

I was in.   

At one point, I opened a book and leaned back to read in the grass.  Afternoon shadows grew long, and the wind was cool.  The girls laughed and chased an enormous toad.

Their voices faded into the background of songbirds, the rustle of leaves above my head, and the hush of my own slow breath.   What peace was this in my heart?  What soothing balm? 

Tomorrow, I’m telling my children to send their mom outside.  She can’t come in until dinner.

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The Love Stockpile

All afternoon, my daughter’s been riding around on her bike.

She’s collecting acorns.

She loads her pink basket and rides back to a rugged old tree–the one that’s really three trees converging into one trunk–and fills it with her acorn treasures. 

As autumn approaches, she’s thinking about the squirrels.  What if she stockpiled, for days and days, every acorn she could find?  What if she put them all in the tree?

One morning, a discouraged and unsuspecting squirrel would come upon that stash of treasure and go wild with pleasure. 

In terms of squirrel joy, could there be anything better?

The enthusiasm with which she goes about this task of storing acorns simply to bless another creature who can neither reward nor thank her makes me wonder if she’s tapping into some spiritual truth (the kind that children always know but adults forget) about generosity.  

I find myself gathering acorns with my daughter.  Other neighborhood children join in.  We talk about the squirrel who will rest, on one glorious day, from all his labor, and bask in the light of the sun.  He’ll have so many acorns!  We giggle and smile and go back to find more.
 

Every time I pass by that old tree,  I think of ways I might create reserves of treasures for, not just squirrels, but family members and neighbors.   I pray I can give extravagantly, unexpectedly, and secretly.  Living with flair means I delight in that kind of giving. 

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A face without freckles is like a sky without stars.

This morning, I have a great conversation with a rising 5th grader. This is the daughter of the mother who says the sign of a happy childhood is dirty children. This family doesn’t own a television set, and they don’t play computer games.

So what do they do?

Well, for one thing, this 5th grader has launched a dog care business and reads everything she can about dogs.

She has a subscription to Dog Fancy magazine. 

I tell her that there’s a German Shepherd puppy down the street, and she says, “Give me two days with that dog, and I can train him to do anything.”

This girl plays piano and improves upon Pachelbel’s Canon in D with her own embellishments.  She can sing harmony with her parents.  She wants to start a blog to give advice to pet owners. 

She has freckles.  Watch out.  Somebody needs to make a movie about this girl (and all of her siblings).  

I’m convinced that 5th graders, in the absence of television, can change the world.

We talk on my sidewalk (after she’s shown me her double-dutch jump rope skills), and she mentions something a woman told her at the ice-cream shop.   She said, “A face without freckles is like a sky without stars.”  My 5th grade friend knows it’s true.

This girl already has a slogan about her own beauty. 

We need more girls who launch businesses, develop their abilities, and move on confidently with their lives, assured that their freckles are absolutely astonishing in their beauty.  

I ask her why she’s so smart, so wonderful. In fact, all the children of her family exhibit the same zeal, the same flair.  She says, “Well, all the kids like me don’t have televisions. I think there might be a connection.” 

And then we’re on to a new topic of how she might be able to train my cats to shake hands.  “It’s hard and will take a long time,” she says, “but it’s not impossible.”

Of course not.  Not for her.

Meanwhile, I usher my children outside.  The oldest one finds another caterpillar egg, and the youngest one prepares the butterfly pavilion to take care of it.  They are filled with wonder.

After that, another mom comes over and, together, we teach both girls how to jump into the double-dutch ropes.  We’ve just had lunch, and they are back outside, running with the wind in their hair.

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When You’re Disappointed and Bitter

With so many tomatoes, how could I not make homemade sauce? 

It’s violent. 

You take tomatoes and submerge them in boiling water for a few seconds.  Then you drown them in ice water.  Then you skin them.  Then you remove their seeds.  It feels like some torture process.  I chop; I puree; I simmer everything down to a thick sauce.

You have to do it this way.  No other process removes the bitterness; no other process releases the flavor.  

My daughter’s helping me peel and chop garlic.  We’ve been disappointed, bitter, all morning because she didn’t get the teacher she wanted for kindergarten.  None of her friends are in her class.  Head hung low, mouth in a frown, she’s experienced this first violent assault on her expectations, her hopes, her dreams for her life.  

“Sometimes it’s like that,” the older one says.  “But the best thing about kindergarten is making brand new friends. You’ll see.”

She will see.  It is like that.  No other process will teach her how to rise above her disappointment.  No other process will release her from her rigid control of what must surely be the best life.  Released like that, her life can be that sweet aroma–that beautiful flavor–of a person who knows how to find good in any pain. 

No other process will do that for her. 

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What You Can Do with a Macy’s Bag

The big red Macy’s bag (the one somebody gave me) almost disappeared into the closet.  My husband dug it out a few days ago and used it to store our massive harvest of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and squash. 

“What are we going to do with all these vegetables?”

That giant Macy’s bag has been sitting next to the kitchen counter for several days.  We’ve already made vegetable deliveries to neighbors, and still the end of season harvest overflows into our kitchen.  We could freeze them, can them, or give them to the local Food Bank to feed families in need.  

All morning, I’ve been looking at my bright red Macy’s bag filled, not with glamorous clothing, but with vibrant veggies.

Over a decade ago, I traded in my Macy’s style for a completely different life.  Working for a non-profit organization and teaching part time, for minimal pay, means our family shops and lives differently.  We’re more thrift store than Macy’s, more backyard garden than Wegman’s or Whole Foods. 

But we’ve never had so much extra.  We left an extravagant life, and we’ve ironically never had more

When I wonder what I’m missing, I laugh when I look at my Macy’s bag.  I give more away than I take in. It seems miraculous on some days. God promises abundance when we follow him.  He isn’t kidding.  I’m so thankful for that today. I’m so thankful for that upside down truth: the more generous we are, the more comes back to us. 

Living with flair means I fill my Macy’s bag with things to give away because I have so much.  

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After All These Years

Every so often, I have a student who fits the category of “non-traditional.”  These students always inspire me.  Some include single parents returning to school, full time workers who attend school part-time, soldiers returning from military service, or senior citizens who wish to learn a different subject. 

It takes courage to sit in a classroom of typical undergrads when you are in a different stage of life; you sit there and wonder if you can keep up or enter into the same conversations.  It takes courage to get out your notebook and pencil from a backpack that’s been buried in your closet for 20 years.

They have flair.

Could I do it? 

Non-traditional students don’t go home to dorm rooms.  They raise families, recover from battle, manage full-time jobs, and then–then–they can sit down to write their first essay that’s due for my class.  They won’t be at that fraternity party or that pep rally or that ice-cream study break. 

I’m rethinking education:  I want to make every lesson plan an act of service to advance these students efficiently in the direction of their dreams.  I don’t want to waste time, assign texts with exorbitant prices, or set unreasonable expectations.   I’m suddenly aware of the lives students live when they exit the door: their night shifts at Wal-Mart, their babies at home, their aging bodies. 

Not everyone follows the same life narrative.  Especially in this economy. 

I’m also rethinking how I interact with everyone–not just my non-traditional students.  Pursuing education in nontraditional ways represents an act of courage.  For some of us, waking up and putting on our clothes for the day is an act of courage. We make coffee, greet the day, and no matter what backstory has derailed our plans, we press on in our nontraditional paths to our dreams. 

Living with flair means recognizing courage when I see it.

(photo: Rennett Stowe /flickr)

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Delighted In, Rejoiced Over

While trying to get the children back on their school bedtime schedule, I have them tucked in at 8:00 PM.  They are hardly tired.  I tell them I’ll sit in the armchair in the corner of the room while they fall asleep.

I feel like the Mother Bunny in that old favorite, Goodnight Moon (only I don’t have knitting needles, and I’m not one to sit still).   

I have a gazillion things to do.  Besides making lesson plans, I could tidy the kitchen, fold another load of laundry, mop the kitchen floor–the usual. 

Instead, I stay put in that soft corner-of-the-room armchair. 

And then the most unusual thing happens.  I think it would be a good idea to sing.  It almost–don’t think I’m crazy–feels like God wants me to sing. I have never been able to sing.  Couple nerves with probable tone-deafness, and you have a recipe for musical disaster. 

But I start singing every old hymn I know.  I’m singing over my daughters and imagining wonderful things for their lives.  It feels like I’m rejoicing and that I’m taking enormous delight in them with those warbling notes. 

The girls quiet down and fall fast asleep in 15 minutes.  I stay put in that chair and sing for a half hour more.  I feel closer to my family and somehow closer to a picture of how God feels about me. 

Something calls out to my soul as I sing.  I remember this verse from Zephaniah 3:17. 

The LORD your God is with you,
       he is mighty to save.
       He will take great delight in you,
       he will quiet you with his love,
       he will rejoice over you with singing.”

I think of God sitting in the armchair in my own bedroom.  I fall asleep–delighted in, rejoiced over.

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