What You Have to Set Free

Pine Cone Maturity / esu.edu

Walking to my classroom today, I passed a cluster of pines.  Beneath their branches, a perfect circle of pine cones posed like ornaments shaken from a Christmas tree. 

I stopped to consider what it might mean that a tree would drop all of its pine cones.  It seemed like loss; I felt longing in my heart. 

I know that the cone is just the protective cover for hundreds of seeds housed within it.  Once a year, a pine tree drops its pine cones to the forest floor.  If you pick one up, you can gently shake it to release tiny seeds–black dots in thin paper–that might not have yet flown free. 

Normally, the pine cone stays on the branch, opens up when the weather is dry, and lets the wind disseminate all her seeds.  Then, she’ll drop to the forest floor.  The whole process takes about a year. 

Something about opening up, releasing those seeds, and then dropping to the ground like that made me wonder about the gifts we disperse, the creative acts we protect and then finally circulate, and the offspring or relationships we let loose.  It’s all part of the process–shaking our pine cones free–emancipating things that we need to release and no longer control.  A pine tree forest’s survival depends upon the ability to protect a seed and then send it out.  The remnant of that cone on the forest floor is proof that it let something go

If I were a pine tree, I’d want thousands of cones beneath my feet.  I’d gaze upon the cones to remind myself of what I released into the world and didn’t keep for myself.  And I know there’s something we lose with every release.  There will always be that vessel in our hearts–that tiny cone–to remember what we wanted to hold onto but knew we had to set free. 


Flabbergasted! (A Student Laments Being Over-Scheduled)

Yesterday I had lunch with a college student who looks back on her grade school years with a certain regret.  She won awards in three different sports, had a full schedule of activities, made great grades, and got into a wonderful college.  She’s a triathlete.  She’s a straight A student. 

I look at that life and see how many parents in my community make extraordinary sacrifices for their children to have that kind of resume.  Even in elementary school, children are in multiple sports, multiple classes, multiple shows.

If I’m honest, I want to be that parent.  I feel so badly that we can’t afford to have our children in more activities. I feel like I’m depriving my daughters of all the good things in life.  But talking to this college student changed my attitude.   

“I feel regret when I look back,”  the student said.  “I spent all that time developing my skills in all those activities, but I did nothing for my community.  I did nothing for the world.”

She challenged me to put my girls in one or maybe two activities and let the rest of our days be spent engaged in community service.

“Did you know that right now children are enslaved in sweat shops?”  The student leans over the table in disbelief.  “Should I join the Peace Corps?  Should I start an awareness campaign?”  She asks the question with tears nearly filling her eyes.  “Nobody is reflecting on anything because they are all so busy doing their activities!” 

She spent hours in clubs and activities that bred a self-focus she laments.  Her perspective left me as flabbergasted as when the mother at church said I should teach my children they are not special.

I went home and looked at the list of possible activities for my children.  And then I looked at my own personal calendar.  I could book gym classes, lunch outings, shopping trips with girlfriends, Bible studies, dance classes–all for me!  What if I put a stop to everything and took a look around my community?  What if I gathered my family together and asked my girls to change the world and not their dance shoes? 

There’s nothing wrong with sports and activities.  Children and adults learn vital life skills in extracurricular activities.  There is something wrong with cultivating a self-focus that excludes community, nation, and world.  I want to raise compassionate citizens trained in community organizing.   And as a citizen, I want to forgo my devotion to self-improvement (hours at the gym!) and think about how I can serve someone else.  What a hard paradigm shift! 

Living with flair means we live in a community and serve that community even if it means giving up another sport, another club, or another performance.


Completely Unnecessary

The principal of my daughters’ elementary school knows their names.  This elementary school has 495 students, and the principal learns their names by the end of the first week of school.

I know. I’ve seen her walk in the halls saying “hello” to groups of students by name. 

I also know that learning my daughters’ names is not in her job description.  Here’s an official job description for a school principal: 

Provides leadership for the professional staff of the school in the development, implementation, and evaluation of a comprehensive educational program, and to administer the program in accordance with school board policies and administrative rules and regulations. 

It doesn’t say that she’s supposed to know names.  And yet she knows them.

I thought about her today when I remembered how my new kindergartner felt when that principal saw her in the hall and announced her name–not for being bad or for being known for trouble–but for just arriving in the school.  

I belong here.  Even the principal knows my name. 

Completely unnecessary might this task seem to some;  it’s not in the job description. 

As I walked around campus today, I thought about what’s not written in our job descriptions that we might do for others.  Sure, it’s not part of the official policy, but what if we did that extraordinary and unnecessary thing that could forever change somebody else?

Maybe it’s as simple as learning all the names of our co-workers or neighbors.  

I don’t know how she does it.  I asked that principal how she memorizes every single child’s name.  She didn’t answer.  She was too busy announcing another name and shaking hands with a boy who passed by us.


Am I a Husky or a Collie?

I recently walked in the woods with my neighbor and her Siberian Husky.  While other owners let their dogs run free in the woods, she keeps hers tight and close on a strong leash.

“I wish I could let him run free,” she says sadly.
“Why can’t you?”  I ask, watching other dogs bounding off into the distant cluster of pine trees.

“Because Siberian Huskies have a strong urge to run but no homing instinct.”

If she let him off the leash, he’d run and run with no regard for traffic or danger.  And he’d never return home. 

Unlike other breeds, the Siberian Husky wants to run away and lacks that inborn, mysterious, and often astounding ability to return home.  Other dogs can find their way back to you even if you drop them off hundreds of miles from home. Tales are told of Collie dogs, for example, who, when adopted into new families, have to be kept inside because their homing instinct is so strong they will return to wherever their previous home is even if it’s in a different state.  

Collies have an urge to run, but they always know how to find their way home. 

Let me be more Collie than Husky!  The urge to run–to follow the whims of an adventurous life– makes me dash off to fulfill that career possibility or that dream.  I’m a Siberian Husky racing off into the wild. 

Praise God for the leash! 

I wonder if when I feel most restrained by my circumstances that it’s really the firm hand of God not letting me loose.  He knows I’d run straight into danger with no ability to find my way back.  That tether on my life that I think keeps me down is actually the lifeline that keeps me safe, loved, and home.  

(Photo of Siberian Huskies by Randi Hausken Photos)


Trusting the Process (without Peeking)

I’m a horrible disaster in the kitchen.  But God seems to teach me things in this place of flour and butter.  This morning, I tried my neighbor’s delicious “popover” recipe.  Their family loves popovers.  They sprinkle lemon juice and powdered sugar atop the fluffy dish, and voila!  Breakfast joy!

Yesterday, she scribbled the recipe for me on the back of my daughter’s “She Had a Wonderful First Day in Kindergarten” card.  You melt 2 tablespoons butter in an oven-safe skillet at 475 degrees.  Meanwhile, you whisk together 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup flour, and 2 eggs.  When the butter melts, you pour your batter in the skillet, close the over door, and wait exactly 12 minutes.  No more, no less.  And you cannot open the oven door.  The popover won’t puff up if you do.

I do everything according to the instructions.  But when it comes to the “no peeking” part (and my oven has no glass window for seeing inside), I can hardly bear it.  Was it working?  Was my batter fluffing up?

12 minutes seems like an eternity.  I’m dying.  I have to peek.  I have to make sure the process is working.

I bite my lip and wait.  I actually count down with my timer–aloud–those last few seconds.  Finally, I can open the oven door.

It worked. 

Why was it so hard to trust the process?  Why did I have to bite my lip and restrain myself from needing proof that something good was actually happening inside that hot oven?

Oh me of little faith!  As I enjoyed that delicious treat with my family, I remembered that I can trust the process even if I can’t see what’s happening.  God works in secret within what often feels like an emotionally dark inferno.  But if I trust the process, I’ll turn into what I’m supposed to become. 

Living with flair means I’m OK with not peeking.  What’s supposed to happen is happening.  I’ll see the product when it’s time.


A Way to Stop Fighting

We woke up to screaming.  All week, we’ve been listening to our daughters work out their conflicts.  Lately, they’ve been fighting over everything:  Whose turn? Whose portion? Whose toy? 

In church this morning, I asked another mother how she handles sibling fighting.  Her answer surprised me.

She said to teach my children that they aren’t special.

Is this mother American?  Has she been in a coma?  Aren’t I supposed to be training my children to believe in their absolute specialness?  Aren’t I supposed to be telling my little girls how wonderful, how amazing, how special, special, special they are?  Of course they deserve that turn, that portion, that toy.  I’ve trained them to expect nothing less. 

I think I’ve been raising narcissists.  Something’s gotta change. 

That mom told me to ask one sister if her other sister were any less special than she. 

So I did.  Without that sense of “I’m uniquely special,” it was hard to justify who deserved that turn, that portion, that toy.

Who is more special?  Me or you?  

As I’m worshiping God in church this morning, I think about what causes so much distress in my own heart.  So many of my own internal and external conflicts arise out of a sense of entitlement.  I’m so special, God, so don’t I deserve this thing?  I’m so special, God, aren’t you going to do this wonderful thing in my life?  It’s my turn, God.  It’s time for my portion. 

The problem isn’t that I’m not special.  I am.   The problem is that you are too–just as much–and I don’t see it.  If I did, I wouldn’t fight for my personal story, my turn, my portion, and my toy.  I’d see you as equally deserving of every opportunity and every bit of joy.

It was a sobering thought for someone like me–a recovering narcissist of sorts.  I looked around the sanctuary at hundreds of folks on their own spiritual journey.  Might I give up my turn, my portion, and my toy for them?  Might I reengage with people, recognizing a profound sense of how special they are?

Selfishness might stem from an exaggerated sense of my own specialness.

Are others special enough (as special as I am?) that I might defer to them, sacrifice for them, and lose my place in line?  Living with flair means admitting (though it’s painful!) that I am not more special.  That’s one way I can love others better, even when they get the biggest portion and the best toy.


A Weekly Personal Reboot

Sometimes it helps me to think of my life as an operating system–like on my computer–that needs to reboot or reset every week.

To reboot means to reload an operating system.  You have to turn everything off, restart, and then launch the whole thing over again.   You reset your machine.   To reset means I clear away errors or events that clog my system, and I bring everything back to it’s normal operating condition or initial state.   

Saturday cleaning day is my reset day.  I reboot the whole house. 

As I scrub, wash sheets, clean floors, rearrange bookshelves, I think about cleaning as rebooting.  Tomorrow, we wake up, go to church, and start the week afresh.  We’ll create disasters in every room, dishevel all the books, track mud upon the clean floors, and leave traces of our projects.

But we’ll reset the next Saturday–reboot–to that initial state so we can start a new week.

What if I didn’t reboot?  Could the house freeze up like my computer?  Would we prevent important changes from taking place that require a reset?  Just like my computer needs that reboot, I realize how important it is to let my family enter tidy rooms primed for a new week of creativity, relaxation, and connection.  If the clutter and dirt of the previous week remains, I’m not allowing space for the new.

Cleaning my house resets it for the upcoming week.  But personally, what am I doing to reboot my own mind and body?  What does it mean for me to “reset” and enter this new week with a clean, smooth operating system? I want to practice taking the kind of time it requires to slow down, let all my programs rest, let the screen go dark, and then start up again so I’m ready for this new week.

If I don’t answer the phone, it’s because I’m rebooting. 

Living with flair means I reboot my living space and my life every week.   It’s a way to get my operating system ready for new updates and new flair. 

(Photograph of first Argonne Computer in 1953 with scientist Jean Hall.  Courtesy of Argonne National Library) 


The Pure and Simple Happiness We Can Afford

At 7:45 AM, I push my daughter (the one who has the bad day mantra) on her tree swing.  There’s a green chair next to me because the girls like to take a flying leap off of it, throw their legs around the swing, and see how high they can get. 

I can’t keep her off that swing.  Yesterday, I tried to bribe her (literally) with cake and television.  It was a steaming hot afternoon, and I feared she was dehydrating.

Nothing works.  She races in for dinner and then races out to swing.  At 7:45 PM, she will reluctantly enter the house for her bath and bedtime routine. This girl was made to swing.  I’ve tried to talk to her about this obsession.  

The joy this simple tree swing brings astounds me.  My daughter has begged for two years for one of those $2,000 swing sets.  She would look longingly into the backyard and imagine all the swinging she would do.  If only she had that deluxe edition!   We could never afford it–at least not now.  What if we saved and saved and worked and worked?  One day, that fabulous swing set could be in our backyard! 

On Saturday, as I sat under this very tree, I looked up into its branches and remembered the old wooded saucer swing my dad made for me when I was a child.  Why couldn’t I just get my daughter a tree swing?  Did she even need all the other bells and whistles?

She didn’t need deluxe anything.  She just needed to swing.  So that afternoon, I ordered this one.  Under $20, it came in 2 days, was in the tree in 10 minutes, and my daughter thinks she’s in swinging heaven. 

She just needed to swing. 

I thought about what it means to distill desire down.  Distill (a great verb!) means to purify, to remove impurities, and increase the concentration of something.  I could have looked my daughter in the eye years ago and said, “What is it you really want?” 

She just needed to swing.  I didn’t need to refinance the house to bring her happiness. 

What am I missing out on if I wait for that deluxe thing, when really, there’s a great big tree right next to me and a swing that will bring more joy than I can even imagine?  Living with flair means I purify my desires until I find out what I really want.  Forsaking the bells and whistles for that pure and simple thing might just be what makes me the happiest.


Breathing Deeply in the Froglet Phase

When you aren’t a tadpole anymore, but you still aren’t a frog, you’re a froglet.  I’m reading a book about frogs to my children (how could we not after chasing a toad on Saturday?), and I read that, on the way to becoming a frog, the tadpole endures a curious in-between phase. 

The froglet phase. 

She has lungs but must stay in water.  She has feet but can’t yet manage the land.  Now a foreigner in the place once her home, she cannot even breathe.  Her gills betray her, and her tail that helps her swim disappears.

She doesn’t quite fit in her environment because she’s made for a different one.  
I read the text with my daughters and look at pictures of frantic froglets, fanning a worthless stub of tail, bursting through the water’s surface to gulp that breath of air.

Something about coming to the surface like that resonates deeply with me.  I saw myself in that froglet.  I saw myself gulping for spiritual truth, for spiritual refreshment, because the physical environment wasn’t–and couldn’t–be my satisfaction. 

As spiritual beings made for communion with God, how do I manage in the grime and slosh of daily life when I’m made for a different environment–a heavenly one, a spiritual one?    We toggle like froglets on the rim of two environments.  I need to rise, fast and direct, to the surface of the water and take the deepest breath I can from the environment I was made for.  

When a frantic froglet realizes her gills and tail won’t work–and shouldn’t–she propels herself up and out of that murky underwater world and up into the light.  She breathes in what she was made for.

It helps me live with flair to think of myself as a froglet.  My environment wasn’t meant to sustain my life. There’s a whole world outside of the dark water.  I need to swim up, breathe deeply through a life of prayer and connection to God, and look around.

There’s glorious land ahead. And once I see it, the weight of this world doesn’t hold me down. 

(Image “Tailed Froglet” courtesy of W.A. Djatmiko)


Embrace Mediocrity

Sometimes I go around the room and ask students to introduce themselves by telling me what they were known for in high school.  I learn so much about how students perceive themselves through the lens of other people.

Valedictorian.  Lead role in the school plays.  Class President.  Eagle Scout.  These students have been groomed from birth to be the best. 

A few days ago, one incredibly bright student said:

“I was known for being good and not great.  I was known for being mediocre.” 

When I asked for more information, he said he played every sport but was never the star.  He did well in all his classes but was never the best.

He didn’t mind.   He didn’t have to be the best. 

I couldn’t help but smile.  He was exceptionally mediocre.  We laughed and affectionately call him “Mediocre Man.”  Everybody likes this student.  He makes us all feel relaxed and lighthearted.    

I thought about the philosophy of life already governing this student’s attitude.  He wants to excel, but he knows his limits.  He rests in what he can do well, even if it won’t win a Nobel Prize or put him as quarterback on the team.  He’s thinking of who he can serve in his career, what he can contribute, and what he can change–even if he’s not the star of the show.  His identity has nothing to do with rising to the top.  He’s already outside of that paradigm. 

He could have quit back then.  Why bother–some would argue–if you can’t be the best?

Not him.  He’s working at top capacity despite the odds.  Despite the label. 

I like that.  I love that. 

As I look at my life and the lives of my children, I know we’ll have days upon days of just being good and not great.  But we can be exceptional in that.  We can be the best at being who we are, within the boundaries of what God allows for our lives, and not despair when we aren’t winning the prize.  We can be exceptionally humble, exceptionally loving, exceptionally willing to serve and change our world.  A mediocre life may seem ordinary, average, or even inferior.  But to whom?  Who decides?

Let me be exceptionally mediocre today.  Let me excel in leaving the spotlight and embracing a humble life that wins the sorts of prizes God doles out at another time, in another economy, that values who I am and not what I produce.  In that land, the mediocre folks might just be the ones with the most flair.