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Am I Willing?

Driving through central Pennsylvania, I gaze with wonder at the work of Amish families on their farms.  Through the warmth and convenience of my car, equipped with music and movies, I watch the dance of their laundry on lines between trees; the long pants kick up in the wind, and the crisp white shirts wave as we pass.

A farmer works his field by hand, tilling the soil with pleasure.  Barn cats leap up around a little girl’s feet as she pushes her wheelbarrow through the family’s garden.  A mother collects sticks for her fire.  We have to slow our pace to give a horse and buggy room on the road. 

How inconvenient this all is.  How strange this work. 

As I think about the labor of living in my own very convenient and very comfortable life, I’m suddenly aware of my stubborn heart.  I want ease and comfort.  I want the smoothest way out of work.  But when I look back at my happiest days, the ones full of joy and peace, I realize those were days when I surrendered to the work.

I had a willing spirit.  I submitted to tasks, to people, and to my circumstances with joy.  I got up and worked the way a farmer works a field and wipes a brow.  I worked the kind of work that makes you so hungry you eat with a different pleasure and so tired you relish sleep like it’s a precious gift. 

Will my children know this kind of work in my culture?  

The convenient and the comfortable, the lazy and the entertained life, may seem like pleasure, but it doesn’t satisfy the way work does. 

Lord, give me a willing spirit to do this work.  Let me labor hard and enjoy the tasks before me.  Living with flair means I sweat and wipe my brow.  I meet the tasks assigned with pleasure.  

I want to be willing for my whole life.  As the psalmist writes, “Lord grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.”

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Lesson Three from the Italian Mama (in 100 Words or Less)

I’m frantic about my meatballs. 

Extended family will dine next week on spaghetti and meatballs the day before Thanksgiving.  I can’t remember what to do, and I want to do it right. 

The Italian Mama advises me that I have choices.  I can brown the meatballs in olive oil and then cook them in the sauce all day, or I can throw them directly in the sauce.  The browning gives a little crunch, but it doesn’t ultimately matter.  In her words, we’ll still reach the “goodness inside.”

I can throw them.   I can relax and still reach the goodness inside. 

For more Italian Mama:
Lesson One
Lesson Two

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You Cannot Contain This

My morning begins by watching children race down the street so the speed limit monitor sign records their speed.  I still haven’t had enough coffee to move properly, and these kids are racing.  They know how to walk to school with flair.   I secretly want to record my own speed.  I still might, but I’m too busy trying to contain the activity. 

Turkey Masks

Then, I volunteer in the kindergarten classroom.  The teacher puts me in charge of the Turkey Masks for the feast the class will have next week.  I’m the monitor, and I can’t contain this project; the children smear glue everywhere, and feathers are in their hair, on their shirts, and attached to their jeans.

Eventually, we produce these fine specimens. 

However, nobody can see anything once the mask is on.  I wonder about this, but then I see kids delighting in darkness.

Apparently, this makes the feast more fun and uncontrollable.  

Meanwhile, I monitor the purple glue sticks and question how in the world they go on purple but dry clear.  The chemistry behind this phenomenon has me stumped.

Something dries out, and the purple disappears. Who invented this great item?  Maybe the same person who, as a kid, would have raced towards the speed limit monitor sign.

Lord, let me monitor my own joy today.  Let me race down streets, wear turkey masks even when I can’t see a thing, and stay vibrant purple.  Let me not be contained.  Let me have turkey feathers even on my jeans. 

I’m on my way to run in front of the speed monitor.   

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The Most Impressive Thanksgiving

Right now I’m launching into my official Thanksgiving preparations.  Imagine all the family driving in.  Imagine the rooms to arrange, the week of activities to plan, the house to clean, the meals to prepare.

There’s a way to go about this with flair. 

Lately, I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about how to handle Thanksgiving stress. At the same time, I’m reading article after article about how to “Have a Thanksgiving to Impress!” 

Does Thanksgiving stress come from what I stress?  If I emphasize wanting to impress my guests, my Thanksgiving becomes a performance to evaluate rather than a holiday to enjoy. 

I don’t want family members to remember how impressive I was; I want them to remember how loved they felt.

So I’m cleaning my home to make others feel comfortable, not impressed.  We’re planning a menu to nourish and celebrate, not impress.

Living with flair means I make preparations in order to love–not impress–those around my table.  Suddenly, it doesn’t matter about this old rented house, this tight budget, this simple meal.  We’ll hold hands around a thrift-store table and thank God for all we have.  You will feel loved, not impressed.

And that will impress you.

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When the Competition is You

Last night for Neighborhood Fitness Group, we dance our normal dances and crawl around like wild animals.  But then, the children beg for “The Jump Rope Challenge.”  Turning jump rope in a basement is a challenge in itself, but we figure out a way to make it work.

“The Jump Rope Challenge” isn’t a normal competition.  It’s a battle against your own best record.  Before each child begins jumping, he or she announces a personal goal.  Sometimes, this number is 10 jumps.  Sometimes, it’s 110 jumps .  There’s a scorekeeper, cheerleaders, and rope turners, so everybody has a role to play.

A little girl jumps.  We cheer when she surpasses 10 jumps and reaches 39.  The next one exceeds 100 and achieves 102 jumps.  The next one beats his record of 18 and goes for 21 jumps.  High-fives!  Loud cheering!

The fun of the challenge is that you beat yourself.

I’m amazed because the children don’t compare their record to other records.  The moment jumping rope is about their personal best–unique to them, in their stage of life, set right at their fitness level.  My sister has told me for years about the running world and “personal records.”  It’s not important who finishes ahead of or behind you.  You have your own time to beat. 

I keep turning the jump rope, and my arm feels like it’s going to give out.  I tell myself to keep turning so that a little boy can reach his personal best.  Somewhere deep inside of him, he musters up the strength.  I see his face, and I try to imagine what’s going on inside of his head.  He wants to quit; I see that.  But he doesn’t. 

The scorekeeper records the personal win.  We tape the evidence to the wall.  Maybe I’ll keep these charts in my basement for 20 more years.  Maybe I’ll show them at their high school graduation and remind them of these nights in my basement when they accomplished a personal best and the neighborhood cheered.

They wanted to quit, but they didn’t.

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The Detail that Changes Everything

In class today, we read the description of the town of Maycomb in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  As we imagine that beautiful Southern drawl, we hear how “ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” 

That one detail comparing ladies to teacakes sets a mood for this little town.  It’s a comparison worth making. 

The ladies like soft teacakes seem out of place.  It’s a tiny detail, amid the “red slop” of rainy streets and “bony mules” that flick flies away.  There’s even a dog suffering in the background.   I don’t want to live in a town like this. 

But then, the writer introduces the lovely and delicate and transforms sweat to frosting and talcum.  Already, I know something marvelous will happen in the mind of this narrator. 

She’s going to reconstruct a new reality for me. 

As we work on our own personal memoir settings, we think deeply about tiny details that change how we understand our pasts. We are the characters, looking back over our lifetimes, and weaving threads of meaning into our experiences.  Was there a detail that I couldn’t see until this moment that offers a new reality?   Is there a truth I might apply that I only see now?  Back then, I only felt the heat and slop.  But now? 

Can I notice something different–one detail–that might turn sweat to frosting? 

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A Clog in My Heart

Yesterday, I’m walking alone in the woods behind my house.

Evening in the Pine Forest

It’s not a very big forest, but it’s big enough to get lost in.

I’m looking up through the pine trees, taking photos and moving forward with a grand plan: I want to see the sun set through the pines, and I want to find beautiful pine cones.

A chill settles on the forest, and a strong wind snakes around the trees like it’s coming for me.  I know if I keep walking in one direction, I’ll hit a road, but I’m not sure which road or how far it is from my home.

By this time, I find myself taking a winding path and tumbling out onto a foreign road like I’d been spit out from the forest’s dark mouth.   I’m in some strange neighborhood now.   It’s getting colder, and I’m sapped of strength.

Finally, I clench my teeth and call my husband because I have no idea where I am.   He’s so loving about it, so gentle.  But I’m angry at myself that I have to call him for help, and I refuse to have him drive to pick me up.  Instead, I walk the mile home along a road with no sidewalk. I’m too smart to be lost.  I’m too capable to need rescue. If you saw a hopeless woman without her coat, tripping along and nearly falling back into the forest, you were looking at me. 

Pine Cone on Forest Floor

What is this deep resistance in me?  What ancient sap inside of me keeps me proud and unyielding when I know I need rescue?  I refuse for anyone to come find me and just take me home.

This morning before church, I review my photos:  The pine trees and these cones aren’t oozing sap like they do in the warmer months.  In the colder seasons, the sap thickens and hardly flows.   There’s a clog in the heart of those trees until the summer sun comes and warms it, changes it.

As my husband pours warm syrup over snowman-shaped pancakes this morning, I pray that God would unclog the cold, hardened things in me.  Otherwise, I’ll stay lost and wandering in that dark woods. 

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What Your Underwear Drawer Can Show You

I run down the stairs with my purse swinging wildly behind my back and cry out, “I have to take the girls shopping.  They need new socks and underwear. I can’t find one thing for them to wear! “

“Are you sure they need more?” my dear husband asks in response. 

“Yes,” I nod my head. “Definitely.” 

We return home, and in order to stack all of our new stuff neatly in their drawers, it occurs to me to refold the little one’s underwear drawer because it’s a tangled vine of swirling tights, wads of underwear, and socks without partners. You can’t see a thing in there. 

This is why I went shopping. 

I dump the whole drawer out, isolate items, and begin the slow process of refolding.

Long Lost Pink Mitten

That underwear drawer had 30 panties (that’s thirty!), 10 pairs of socks, 4 leotards, 6 tights, and 1 missing mitten. Did I mention how many underwear?  Didn’t I?  Thirty.

I learned my lesson.

We have stuff to spare.  The mess just created an illusion that I was missing something.  Had I paused and assessed the truth of the circumstances, I once again would have found abundance where I perceived scarcity.  

What theme is this God continues to show me?  Living with flair means seeing God’s abundance. It might mean I sort through my life–isolate the blessings–and see all I have.  Once I’m organized, I find I have more than I need. 

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Where No Pie Belongs

Getting Ready to Teach

I’m in my classroom, trying to muster up some flair. 

And then, I see a student has baked two pies to share with our class.  She made an apple pie with a lattice crust and a key lime pie with a graham cracker crust.  One student sees the pies and says, “I’m having the best day ever.”

Students gather, grab forks and plates, and we feast on pies in the midst of writing lessons.  It’s still morning.  This whole thing seems crazy.  

A View of Campus

We have pie where no pie should be, for no reason at all, other than a student wanted to bring the class a treat.   We can’t stop talking about these pies, their crusts, and the whole experience of eating together in a college classroom when we’re supposed to be writing.

We eat and write, talk and eat.

Key Lime Pie

Meanwhile, I take a picture of this beautiful crust.  In the world of baking, a crust represents the foundation and the substance that holds the filling in.  It keeps everything together. 

We did feel held in–held together–by an unexpected treat.  And the writing seemed stronger, but maybe I’m imagining things.

Living with flair means bringing a pie where no pie belongs.  

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More Than Enough

A long time ago, a friend of mine remarked that you can see things more clearly in the late autumn and winter.  She said that the contrast of empty, colorless landscapes makes anything vibrant stand out that much more.  There’s a focus you gain when you find yourself in stark places.

I like that.  I like that because when it looks desolate, maybe it’s because there’s something I’m supposed to see. 

Yesterday, I leave my house to walk to pick the girls up from school.  It’s 2:15 PM, and here I am, trudging through my own bleak landscape.  I take my camera because I’m learning photography.  It’s nearly winter.  Few leaves hang on the trees like lovers not ready to depart.  There’s a desperation in the air and a sadness as I crunch all these dead leaves under my feet.  Everything mourns.  But then, I remember the feature on this old camera called “Digital Macro.”  I fumble with the camera, punch the button, and look around–differently this time.

Glorious Acorns

I’m exploring with hope on this mile walk to school.   Two acorns survived the fall from their tree, and as the sun shines through the bare trees, I lay down on the path and take a picture. 

I rest a minute in the stillness of it all.  It feels like flair to be a grown woman stretched out on her stomach on the ground like this with her hands propped up to steady an old camera. 

What else can I find out here?  What beautiful thing awaits?

All of a sudden, the view isn’t barren.  It’s absolutely abundant

Autumn Berries of Richest Red

This grim landscape has gifts to offer. 

And even in the starkest landscape, there’s more than enough.

Yellow Berries with Blue Sky
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