Your Best Work

Today I evaluate whether or not students attempted “their best work.” It’s part of their participation grade. Did they do their best? Did they work with excellence? How does one evaluate this, anyway?

As I think carefully about each student, I realize that my rubric differs from some teachers. It’s not just that students arrived on time and prepared. It’s not just that they produced papers that fulfilled the assignment. That’s a given. This is average, expected, and baseline.

I’m looking for something else.

I’m looking for curiosity, complexity, a challenge, character, community, and courage.

I ask:

Did you approach each lesson with curiosity and wonder?

Did you push your thinking to higher levels of complexity?

Did you challenge yourself with each assignment to improve and try new techniques?

Did you display good character during this course?

Did you build community or thwart it?

Did you show courage in approaching hard topics and writing with an authentic written voice?

I apply this to my own sense of excellence today–for myself and my own children.

Might I move into this day with curiosity, complexity, a challenge to myself, character, community building, and courage?

I think this could make each day my best work.


The Licking Kind

I love reading what I was doing on this same day several years ago. It’s a benefit of daily blogging (for those of you still wondering why anyone would blog!). On this same day in 2010, I learned something great that I had forgotten.

Here it is, and you can read it below, too.

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.


A Lesson from a Young Fern

My friend calls me over to where we are gardening, and she points out something extraordinary. Through last season’s ground leaves, new ferns grow.

I take a picture of this particular growth strategy. It’s amazing; this unfurling of the fern leaf–the scroll that slowly, slowly, unrolls–happens in order to protect the fronds. The structure itself is called a fiddlehead (I learned something new!).

Fern Fiddlehead

Besides protecting the delicate leaves, the unrolling strategy (as opposed to shooting straight up or expanding from a bud), also gives the young frond the ability to successfully emerge from the soil and leaf covering.

I examine the strength of the leaf stalk (the petiole). It shelters the developing frond in a warm embrace, slowly unrolling the beautiful scroll.

I imagine God’s own growth strategy for what’s developing in us. It’s a slow and protected unrolling. When we think something should burst out, shoot far, or expand quickly, remember the strong hug that keeps the scroll rolled up so we survive the journey.


The Best Way to Make Stained-Glass Cookies (Jolly Rancher Cookies) as Tested by Our Kitchen

Instead of cupcakes this year, my daughter asks for Jolly Rancher Cookies for her birthday class treat.

Stained Glass Cookies 

We tried several different ways to make these delicious and beautiful cookies, and we’d like to report our technique. Every other way we tried resulted in a big mess, but finally, we figured out what to do.

First, cut out your sugar cookie dough into a shape, and then cut out a smaller shape within that shape. On a piece of greased parchment paper, put down your cookie cut outs and fill them with crushed Jolly Rancher candies on a baking stone.  (No grease or parchment = sticky mess. No crushed candies = strange melting patterns.)

We used two crushed candies for each cookie. We used solid colors but also varied patterns.

We baked them for exactly 7 minutes at 400 degrees. We let them cool for 10 minutes. (Without cooling, you’ll have a sticky, dripping mess). Then, peel the parchment paper from the cookies. Enjoy! They are so fun–soft and crunchy and full of flavor.

To my unexpected repertoire of class treats (hamburger cupcakes, green apple cupcakes, ice-cream cone cupcakes, Boo platters, etc), I’m adding stained-glass cookies. I think they are just beautiful!


As You Are

I tend to fictionalization myself into a character who prays as she should, who behaves as she should, and who conforms her desires and thoughts as she should

After all these years of Christian living, I realize I still create a false self at times because I have a picture in my mind of the woman I want to be. So I live there in my mind–with that untruth–instead of with the real, raw me.
Years ago, my counselor told me that one of the reasons folks don’t feel close to God is because God can’t connect with a false self. He wants the real, honest us, not the character we invent. 
My greatest times of prayer and connection with God and others were always when I stepped into the light and showed myself for who I really am. 
God accepts me and loves me unconditionally anyway, so why not be my true self? That’s the recipe for great community, too. 

I Might Even Wear My Jean Jacket

Tonight, I’ll attend my 6th (maybe 7th, I’ve lost count), S.L.A.M Fair at the elementary school down the street. This Science, Literature, Art, and Music (SLAM) event brings us all so much joy.

This is my fancy Friday night: elementary school experiments and performances, pizza, and ice-cream. I’ve actually texted friends to make sure they’ll be there, and they respond with a resounding, “Yes, we wouldn’t miss it!” You would think this was Vegas or an expensive concert. You would think this was a glamorous night out on the town.

It feels that way. I might even wear my jean jacket and lip gloss.

I love seeing families all together, celebrating children. I love the simple pleasures of eating my slice of pizza on a paper plate and roaming the exhibits with all the other neighbors. I love how the principal (the one who calls herself the Lead Learner and knows every single child’s name, all 500 of them) takes photos the whole evening.

I look back at my daughter’s SLAM fair contributions in past years. My favorite ones were the homemade butter experiments or when she distilled fragrance from flowers. The high school chemistry teacher asked her for her notes, and she beamed the whole evening.

I go back to the basics of living in a neighborhood, loving children, and celebrating learning. It’s a beautiful life here in Central Pennsylvania.


“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Today I find novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. He eventually summarizes all of his wisdom in eight little words:

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

You might ask, “Well, what should it sound like, then?”

It should sound like your voice. It should sound like an actual person talking. When this happens, we won’t be able to resist you. We’ll feel such rapport that we’ll gobble up the words.

But how?

It’s about rhythm. It’s about the rise and fall. The voice comes out when you vary sentence lengths and openings. The voice comes out in dashes and semicolons and parentheses and commas. It comes in word choice.

You’re really making music, and somewhere in there, you come out. We can’t wait to meet you.


4 Things to Pray for Your Life

When I read Colossians 1:9-14 today, I remember exactly how to pray for myself and others. I pray what Paul prayed:  

“We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(S)”> through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,10 so that you may live a life worthy<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(U)”> of the Lord and please him<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(V)”> in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God,<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(W)”> 11 being strengthened with all power<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; vertical-align: top;" value="(X)”> according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(Y)”> 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father,<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(Z)”> who has qualified you to share in the inheritance<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(AA)”> of his holy people in the kingdom of light.<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(AB)”> 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(AC)”> and brought us into the kingdom<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(AD)”> of the Son he loves,<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(AE)”> 14 in whom we have redemption,<span class="crossreference" style="font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(AF)”> the forgiveness of sins.

I remember the 4 things that make up this kind of life. It’s one that:

1. Bears fruit in every good work
2. Grows in the knowledge of God
3. Is being strengthened (for endurance and patience!)
4. and Gives joyful thanks

What a wonderful life! 


This Will Not Last (and This is Wonderful)

Two years ago, it was glorious. The Weeping Cherry bloomed in full. That bloom is what I’ve waited for all year.

It’s here now! This moment! Today!

Sadly, the blooms explode on the very day the forecast calls for wind and rain. In fact, the rain falls even now. We’re going to lose these blooms.

But guess what? This is OK. Cherry blossoms grow in beauty in proportion to how fleeting they are. The Japanese concept of the transient and the fleeting make cherry blossoms have special importance and beauty. They remind us to treasure the small moment that will not last. Cherry blossoms insist on this; they make this appreciation happen.

(I did want to picnic under them–like the Japanese do–but this year, the rain will keep us inside.)

And while I am delighting in this single day of blossoms, I also know this after four years of springtime blogging: the loss of blooms brings green foliage that houses the Robin’s nest and the Secret Fort.

Every bit is wonderful, and I treasure these small moments that will not last.


Hovering Over the Mess

I read a great prayer today in which the author talks about inviting the Holy Spirit to hover over the mess and chaos of the day and to begin exerting the creative, organizing, miraculous power of God.

In Genesis 1, I read how the earth was “formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” And then, and then! creative power begins.

If I visualize the Spirit of God hovering over this whole messy day and infusing it with order, beauty, meaning, and purpose, I’m suddenly filled with great consolation. Where the Spirit of God is, formless, empty, and dark things change. New things erupt in otherwise desolate, chaotic places.

Just thinking of it gets me excited today.