A Great Quote from Sweetpea

Last night I took my oldest daughter to a Secret Keeper Girl event.  The whole evening aims to inspire young girls to live differently in a culture obsessed with beauty.  A Secret Keeper Girl, I’m told, is kind, modest, and loves God.  Besides seeing a slide show of Disney Stars without make-up and untouched photos of celebrities, my daughter saw a fashion show of exciting clothing for young girls that doesn’t sexualize her.

You’re beautiful!  You’re beautiful!  You’re beautiful!  God made you!  Let’s celebrate you! 

You know I have tears in my eyes as I’m thinking that the Secret Keeper Girl organization is really a search and rescue mission.  I look around at hundreds of little girls who already face pressure to be. . . beautiful.  As moms and older teenagers dance on the stage, I’m watching my daughter pump her fists and clap her hands in that unselfconscious way I can only hope remains for the rest of her life.

It gets better.  At one point during the evening, we see a trailer for a new Veggie Tales movie, “Sweetpea Beauty.”  The girls already know from Psalm 45 that there’s a king who “is enthralled with [their] beauty.”

As described by Nichole Nordeman (who works on the music for the film,) in “Sweetpea Beauty,” a common girl roams the forest finding beauty “in all sorts of unconventional things that might not be considered beautiful to anyone else. Her friend Prince Larry says to her, ‘How is it that you find beauty in everything?’ And Sweetpea says, ‘I don’t. It’s God who sees beauty in everything. I just choose to agree with Him.'”

Nordeman adds on, “And I thought that was a great way to look at ourselves. God’s the one who sees us as beautiful, and we can either choose to agree and say, ‘Thank you. I feel cherished and loved and I choose to believe that,’ or ‘I disagree’ and work like crazy to improve on His work.’”

My daughter leans over and says, “Mom, we have to watch this movie.”  

Sweetpea should write this blog.  It was a great evening for me.  My heart knows that finding flair in unconventional things that others might disregard comes from agreeing with what God has said about this marvelous, marvelous world.

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What’s Wrong with This Picture?

As someone who–for nearly a decade–was an expert in unhappiness, I’m learning what makes living with flair so important.  At our worst, we become deeply cynical and disillusioned with our own lives.  Everything’s wrong.  Nothing’s working.  We want to abandon ship and find new lives somewhere else.   We become desperate for change, desperate to feel alive, desperate for love. 

We need to catch each other in our descent and turn our faces back to the light.

We need to find the flair right here in the muck.  We need to rise above it.  Our happiness is at stake. 

It’s just too easy to find out what’s wrong.  We do it naturally.  My natural inclination is to figure out what’s not working, what’s out of place, what’s off kilter.  The brain seeks proportion and harmony, so we easily identify variation and error.

But we get stuck there in despair.  We can’t move forward.   Or else we take drastic measures to put things right.  We act out of fear and confusion. 

Maybe a better technique means I find out what’s right.

What might happen if I focus on those small nuggets of good in whatever wrongness or sorrow I’m experiencing?   Most days, the temptation to criticize and complain takes over the whole landscape of my soul like clouds moving over the sky.   My heart aches and I sink down into the mire.   God is neither good nor trustworthy in this particular landscape.  I let that lie fester and bleed out. 

But not today.  I commit to finding what’s right in any wrongness or sorrow or anything I’m missing or hating or dreading.  I turn that thing to face the light and find out what’s so right.  That one right thing might be the bright hot air balloon that keeps me alight so I can find perspective, hope, and joy in the midst of the dark cloud. 

I’m still in my life with all its drama.  But instead of sinking down, I’m rising above it in a glorious ascension. 

(Landscape photo courtesy of Ian Britton at freefoto.com and Hot Air Balloon by Beverly and Pack flickr)

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How to Hug Someone Right

Today I hugged Anthony the Cashier.  I’m at the grocery store, and I spy Anthony.  He doesn’t look so happy.  I found out last week that two of his closest friends died in the same weekend–unexpectedly.  Ever since I heard that news, I’ve been making up excuses to go to the grocery store in case Anthony is working.

I wouldn’t know what to say or do, but I just wanted to stand in his line with my groceries and be there.  

So I’m in his line today.  I say something about how sorry I am for his loss.  I tell him how much joy he always brings everybody and how I wish I could help him feel better.  He thanks me, compliments my necklace, and, in true Anthony form, celebrates with my children about the back-to-school cookies we are obviously going to make today. He makes us feel so good, and he’s the one suffering. 

Just as I start to walk out the door, he comes around in front of me and opens his arms wide for a hug.  He’s grieving.  His eyes have been crying for days.

I hug him right there in front of everybody.  It’s a long, real hug.  And as I’m hugging him, I’m sending him all the mother love, all the God love, all the kind of love I can imagine exists in the world, right into his body.

And, I’m not kidding (and yes this confirms my nerd status), but I think of Arwen and Frodo.  The line in the Lord of the Rings movie that always gets me in tears is when Arwen holds Frodo when he’s just about to die and says:  “No, Frodo, no!  Don’t give in.  Not now.”  And then she prays:  “What grace is given me let it pass to him…let him be spared….save him.”

I know I’m not Arwen, and Anthony isn’t Frodo, but the concept that I could pass on to somebody “what grace is given me,” made that hug so important today.  Spare this person.  Save them.  Anthony’s not literally dying, but emotionally he is.  

Why aren’t I hugging everybody with the urgency of Arwen?  There’s more pain in this world than could fill a million blog pages.  I want to reach out my arms and embrace as many people as I can.  Who cares if it’s in the grocery store with somebody I don’t really know?  Living with flair means I hug real and long.  I hug to pray that whatever love I know can pass into that soul before me.  

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A Real Message in a Bottle

Yesterday, a message in a bottle arrived in my mailbox (complete with postage, sand and shells from the beach, and a scroll).  Apparently, you can send anything in the mail.  

I have the world’s greatest sister.  Every year, her family sends us a “message in a bottle” (in a recycled plastic bottle!) from their beach vacation spot.  Her boys fill the bottle with tiny shells, warm sand, and a handwritten note from the sea.  When my girls pull it from the mailbox, you would think they’d just struck gold. 

This morning, my daughters fought over toys, begged to play a computer game, and cried at least twice each over some wrong done to them.  In desperation, I ushered everybody into the kitchen and dumped the message in a bottle out onto the counter.  I didn’t speak.  They didn’t speak.  They slowly picked up the tiny shells, began to inspect each one, and suddenly, peace like the ocean at dawn settled over the home.

Then, the questions come:  

“How do they get this way, all different and perfect?”
“Where has this shell been?”
“What lived inside of it?”
“What causes the different sizes and colors?”
“Why didn’t it break when the waves crashed?” 

I suppose I learned (again) that toys and computer games that don’t allow for this kind of questioning, this kind of wonder, aren’t helping my children much.  It’s the same story I’ve read all summer:  I have to get us all to places and objects that generate mystery, beauty, and awe.  That’s the way to live with flair for our whole lives.  No greed, no conflict, no suffering in the presence of something small and beautiful that we can observe with wonder.

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So Uncool

Last night I brought my favorite game (Scrabble) to a swank wine and cheese party. All the women looked like they just came from the Sex and the City set, and I walked in with not wine under my arm but SCRABBLE.  Nobody wanted to play.  Nobody.   I’m still not over this.

Anybody want to come play speed-scrabble and then psychoanalyze the board with me? 

The thing about being uncool and very, very interested in words is that I really don’t fit in lots of places.  Maybe you feel the same way.  Today, I’m curious about something you love that makes you not fit in many places.  I’m dying to hear from you. (It will make me feel better about last night). 

Living with flair means embracing what isn’t cool about me.  Scrabble is the best game ever.  I’m standing by that.

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The Easiest Way to Persevere

There’s just too much to do.  That’s the problem today.  Most people have a threshold.  They can balance just so many plates in the air, and add just one more, and the whole operation comes crashing down.  Some of us respond with a paralysis and a moodiness that we can’t beat.  We are overwhelmed and stressed out.

I’m lying in my bed, and I think of what needs to be done today.  It’s huge.  It’s mammoth.  It’s impossible.  But then I remember one of the best coping mechanisms for that overwhelmed, stressed out, paralyzing, moody feeling of “I can’t do this.”

I think about tiny chores.  It’s a simple truth your own mother probably told you when you had to clean your room.  When the chores seem too much, you just break them apart into teeny, tiny chores. 

And they have to be tiny chores.  Remember, we are overwhelmed and stressed out.  We can’t tackle cleaning the basement, but we can clean this one inch of desk.  I need that small accomplishment as activation energy, as catalyst, as fuel.  Then, a reaction starts.  A glorious, vibrant one. 

So I start in the smallest division of my mammoth task as possible.  I do one inch, then the next inch, then the next and next and next.  You fold this one shirt.  You clean this one dish.  You study this one page.  You write this one sentence.

And soon you’ve written a dissertation.

I’m persevering through the day, and all of a sudden, the stress drains.  The finished tiny chore gives me a power that moves out in concentric circles like a stone I’ve thrown on the surface of the water.  I can do this next thing and then this one and that one. I’m inspired!  I’m energized! 

Perseverance is “steady persistence in spite of difficulty.” I don’t have to do everything right now. There’s difficulty here, opposition there. But I can do one inch and see what happens.  I can keep doing my inches, steadily.  It’s like starting to exercise.  You just put on your shoes and say you’ll go these few steps.  Maybe you’ll walk or run to the mailbox out front.  That’s good.  That’s the inch.  Later, you could run to the stop sign.  Next week, I won’t even be able to catch you. 

Do the inch.  Living with flair means I think of this task in terms of the inch

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My Fight with a Ballerina

Early this morning, as the rain drizzles down, I drive across town to a ballet studio.  I’ve never in my life been anywhere near a ballet studio–at least not one like this. I walk in, moody as the sky.

Classical music, nearly muted, emits from a hallway.  I follow it until I’m facing a wall of windows peering in on a room lined with mirrors and ballet bars.  A sign on the door says a famous visiting Russian ballet instructor is giving lessons.  I lean against the glass and can’t believe what I see:  Rows and rows of young men and women–maybe sixteen years old–dancing in leaps and turns and impossible acrobatics.  The women have tight buns in their hair, and their pink tights and black leotards move in strict unison. 

Why aren’t they still sleeping like normal American teenagers in summertime?  How long have they been here?

It feels like a foreign country.  I’m only here because my daughter is five and obsessed with ballet shoes and twirls.  I’m only here because we’ve saved money for one activity, and as I tuck her in at night, she looks up at me with her hands clasped under her chin and asks, wide-eyed, “Mommy, when, when can I be a ballerina?”

For such an elite dance conservatory, the lessons are cheap enough for us to afford one day of dancing a week.  I approach the receptionist, fill out some forms, and then have to wait while she answers a phone call.  I find myself pulled back, like a planet in some larger planet’s gravitational pull, towards those dancers.

I’m back at the glass, looking in on this new universe.  Now the dancers are lifting one leg high up behind their bodies and extending one arm out in a perfect line as if beckoning me.  Their bodies are suddenly so beautiful, so exact in movement.

I steel my face.  Why are tears coming to my eyes?  I’ve resisted ballet lessons for months.  There’s no useful market value type of skill here.  I’ll pay a fortune, and what will come of it?

Then, it happens.  One teenage girl extends her hand towards me and balances while her leg lifts behind her.  She looks down and then up to meet my face.  Hers is one of determination and sweat.  Hers is a face steeled in a different kind of focus.  She looks me in the eye and, for a single moment, smiles at me.

Oh no you didn’t.

I’m her audience; she’s dancing for me now.

As that girl dances, I’m so overcome by the beauty of it that I can’t remember where I am or what I have to do today.  I’m lost in wonder.  How dare she do this to me.

They are doing all of this for me, for us, for anybody who takes the time to watch. 

I want to rush into the studio, stop everything, and extend my arms wide. I want to gather everybody to me and thank them for this supreme act of service.  I imagine dancers in other studios all over the world.  They are artists perfecting a piece.  Bound to the audience, they perform for us.  I imagine writers, film makers, painters, musicians, scultpors, photographers, actors.  I think of ways they sacrifice, burdens they bear, lifestyles they endure because they must develop their particular art for us to experience. It’s a service industry.  It’s a profession of joy-giving and beauty-making. 

C.S. Lewis said that “art has no survival value, but it gives value to survival.”  My daughter might never do anything at all with her ballet passion.  It might come to nothing.  It doesn’t matter.

It’s beautiful. 

Living with flair means that I acknowledge that beauty has no market value.  It’s too good for that. 

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How to Write a Love Note

You have to write it in your own handwriting.

And you have to hide it for the person to find later (when they least expect it).  

A few days ago, a friend of mine led me back to her bedroom to show me something very precious, very secret.  Stored within a tin container by her bed, hundreds of tiny notes, carefully folded and faded with time, made this beautiful monument of paper love.

My friend explained that whenever she left home for any reason–camp, a trip away, college, marriage–her mother wrote a little note and hid it somewhere.  Days later, my friend might find a love note tucked in a pajama leg, a Biology textbook, a towel.  The notes were simple and often silly.

“But it showed us all how much she loved us,” my friend recounted, describing a mother’s love in hidden notes for all of her children.  On this very day, that mother turns 60 years old.  To celebrate, friends and family were invited to send that mother handwritten love notes in the same style and form (rhyming couplets, whimsical messages) that she had composed all those years for her own children.  I imagine her bedroom might be covered with them today.

My friend shared this beautiful tradition with me in hopes I might pass it on to my own children.

That night, I wrote two handwritten love notes to my daughters.  One I hid under a pillow, and the other I hid within the pages of a book my daughter was reading.  When they found them, I watched them giggle and smile.  They came and hugged me.  My oldest daughter carefully folded her love note and went to her room.

I watched her put my note in a little basket by her bed.  When I went to look where she had put it, I found every handwritten thing I’d ever written to her carefully folded, stacked and stored.

Hidden love notes, handwritten and often silly, might be the scaffolding to aid how a secure life is built.  She pulls on a jacket, digs deep into the pockets one impossibly cold and dreary winter day when life weighs her down (as it will), and there she finds a love note.  It might just change everything.

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What’s on Your Kitchen Floor?

Late last night, I get out the bucket and the mop.

I mop my kitchen floor.

It’s nearly 10:00 PM.   I fume that no matter how clean I try to keep that floor, it gets filthy. Cleaning day is Saturday.  It’s only Monday night, and here I am, mopping the filth. I can’t bear to wake up to it. 

The children sleep soundly.

I mop, and then I start seeing the whole thing differently.  I’m not mopping.  I’m reading.  I read a narrative on that floor.  I have filth because we run through mud and sand.  We drag wet towels in from the pool.  We spill cinnamon and sugar and butter that missed the toast.  There’s spaghetti sauce here, honey there.  I mop ground up glitter from the fairy doors we made that morning.  Bits of twigs and parsley from the butterfly pavilion we constructed for the monarch caterpillar just now building a cocoon, scattered into the corners, come clean with my mop.

Peanut butter, eggs from the omelet my daughter made herself, pencil shavings from her new pencil for her journal, coffee drips from my own cup, a cat treat crammed into the tile. You can read a kitchen floor like some book of days.  We have lived for the past 48 hours.

One day, my kitchen floor won’t need a mop at all.  It will shine clean. This won’t be a good day.

I leave the bucket and mop out when I finish.  I will need it again tonight and every single night for the next 18 years.  By the time the floor shines clean, I have tears in my eyes.  Thank you God for this filth.  My kitchen floor has the kind of flair I love. It’s a book I could read every night before bed.  Let it be a good one. 

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A Middle of the Night Question

In the middle of the night, my daughter finds me and asks:

“Mom, is it true that moose are going extinct?”  The question has her up, alert, and worried.

“I don’t think so,” I say quietly.  “I will find out for you.”

The truth is, I haven’t thought about a moose in 15 years.  The last time I even remember reading the word “moose” was when I read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem by the same title.  In that poem, a moose approaches a bus of travelers.  The moose, Bishop writes, “looks the bus over, grand, otherworldly,” and later, the poet wonders:  “Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy?”

This morning I read that moose aren’t going extinct (although in some regions, their habitats are threatened).  Their conservation status falls under the category “least concerned.”

My daughter is relieved, and I’m left wondering why I’m not waking up in the middle of the night concerned.  Children tend to be concerned with everything, and for some, concern about the environment and endangered species keep them up at night.  My kids remind me about the recycling and the lights I leave on in rooms I’m not using.  They turn the faucet off when I’m brushing my teeth.  They remain concerned while I worry about what’s convenient or only within my immediate experience.

Being woken up to consider the moose–the one I’m supposed to be “least concerned” about–taught me that living with flair means I concern myself with the world outside of this bedroom.  There’s a moose somewhere out there, grand, otherworldly.

(Photo from USDA Forest Service, Superior National Forest Wikimedia Commons)

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