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The Ache You Need

My little one’s molar has been hurting her for months.  She’s already had a root canal (we definitely needed to invoke the Bad Day Mantra on that day), and still, the tooth pain won’t relent.  Yesterday, the dentist prescribed an antibiotic to ward off infection.

“But we can’t pull that tooth,” he explains in his office.  My daughter listens, wide-eyed.  “That tooth is a space-maker, a place-holder.  If you pull it, every other incoming tooth will crowd toward that space, and her mouth will really be in trouble.  Nothing new will come in right.  I’d like to keep that tooth there for as long as we can.”

I nod.  The little one nods.   

“It’s about timing,” he says.  “I can pull it, but then we’d have to design a spacer for her mouth, and it won’t ever be as great as what God made naturally.”

I smile.  He’s talking Dentist Theology now. He tells me it’s often normal for molars to ache while the new teeth underneath emerge.  Just wait.  A good thing is happening. 

The sore molar as a “place holder” to keep everything in line, to make things work as they should, stayed with me the whole day and into the night.  That troubling sore point in my life–whatever it is–might just be the place holder to keep things right until the new thing comes.  Could I begin to see those dark years as space-makers and place-holders that ushered in present joy in the right space, at the right time?  

The ache keeps things aligned.  It makes a space I need.

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He’s Making Stilts

At 7:30 AM, I’m drinking coffee at the breakfast table and attempting to grade papers.  Our neighbor (the one who stops by occasionally and says, “I should probably stay for dinner”) comes in.  He’s the type of 9-year-old who carries a little cage with him in case he finds critters.  When we walk in the woods, he’s equipped with nets, cages, wading boots, and all his fishing gear.  He’s prepared indeed. 

He is, after all, a Scout. 

He has a zeal for living I wish I could bottle.  He approaches the breakfast table and pulls out an order form for popcorn.  He’s a Boy Scout (Not yet, he tells me.  He’s still at the Webelos level.  He’s a Cub Scout eagerly preparing to be a Boy Scout), and he’s selling popcorn as a fundraiser.

At 7:30 AM.

I’m not surprised at his early morning sales pitch.  He’s an entrepreneur if I’ve ever seen one.  His lemonade stand grossed a fortune in July. 

As he folds the order form neatly, he says, “I’m going to earn a new badge for building with wood.”  He pauses, creating anticipation.

“What are you going to make?”  I ask. 

“Stilts!”  

He confirms that he’s already very skilled in stilt walking. 

Stilts:  those wooded structures that we attach to our legs to walk high about the ground. I read later that shepherds in France, mounted on stilts, could do extraordinary things–walk through the rivers, run across dangerous marshes, and forge trails otherwise blocked by thick brush.

The stilts make a way through the wilderness.  And at that height, stilt-walkers see with a new perspective. And this little boy knows the places he can go with them strapped to his legs. 

I want stilts.  I want to be a stilt-walker through this day:  rising above obstacles, forging trails.  There’s no path cleared in this territory.  It’s a life of faith, and I need my stilts.  I mount up by faith, I see the blocked path, and I walk on.

(Photo:  “The Stilt Walker of Landes,” Sylvain Dornon)

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I’m Taking You with Me

This morning, I dread that one student who looks me in the eye and says, “I just don’t care.”  He’s required to take this class to graduate, and so far nothing interests him.  Not even short stories.  Not even poems.  Not even semicolons. He actually responds to a question I have about a story with, “I really just don’t care.” 

You could hear a piece of chalk drop from my hand and roll back towards the chalkboard. 

It happens every semester.  Some students just don’t care.  And I can’t make them.  I can just showcase the wonder of the subject matter and pray that they connect.

And I can bring donuts.  This is my secret weapon. 

So this morning, I burst into the classroom bearing treats.  It’s going to be a great class.  I’m going to inspire!  I’m going to make that student fall in love with poetry!  I’m going to fight apathy! 

And that student doesn’t show up to class.  I deflate and wilt at my desk. 

My secret weapon mission fails.

I’ll try again on Friday.  I’ll have a new strategy that might involve Starbucks.  

Whatever it takes to get students enthused, I have to try.  There’s so much to experience; there’s so much to learn and do.  I can’t handle apathy because I’ve lived in that land.  It’s a partial death. 

Generating enthusiasm means I continue the pursuit of that one person who doesn’t care.  With indifference, lack of emotion, and lack of concern ruling the day, nobody moves.  Nothing changes.  We ignore others and lose the passion in our own lives. I can’t go back there.  And I’m going to drag students, family members, neighbors, and friends with me back toward the light. 

If I have to tempt you with treats, I will. 

Living with flair means we fight apathy with whatever weapon we can.

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Bravo!

I’ve been known to applaud students right in the middle of class if they say something something great.  I’ve been known to cry “Bravo!” and actually rise to my feet.

When I grade papers, I write “Bravo!” in the margins when I see flair in any form.

Why that word?  The word bravo derives from the Italian word meaning brave.  Originating from 18th century Italian opera, the word isn’t as common as it once was.

But it should be. 

We cry out to celebrate after a strong performance because we recognize something great.  What did we see?  I wondered this morning if that “something great” relates to acts of bravery that we recognize and respond to.

Every great act requires bravery.  What fear, what challenge, what opposition did we rise up against to do this thing we are doing?  For some of us, waking up and making it to the bathroom is a courageous act.

I imagine a chorus of invisible witnesses who cheer us on in our daily toil.  The excellent performances of simple folks who rise up against whatever enemy deserve our applause.  I rise to my feet; I clap my hands for you.  “Bravo!  You are brave!  You are brave today, and we recognize it.”

Bravo!

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One Nice Thing

On this abysmally wet and dreary day, I find my umbrella only half works.  I’m dripping wet as I lug my books for class, my purse, and cold coffee out across the parking lot.  And I’m late for the bus.  I can already see it start to pull away as dry, warm riders make it to their buildings on time. 

A bus pulling away begins to represent all my longing, all my missed opportunities, all my sorrow over every thing I’ve ever experienced in my whole life. 

I’m drooping my head, sagging down with each puddled step when, all of a sudden, I hear the hum of a bus where no bus should still be.

I look up.  A bus remains!  The driver waits for me. He waits!  I charge on, coffee mug high, purse swinging wildly, and feet sloshing (who cares?) in puddles. 

A bus waiting where no bus should still be begins to represent all the good things still present in the midst of the rain. It will keep me warm all day. 

A nurturing gesture from a stranger on a cold, rainy day makes me feel seen, honored, loved.   I ride with a smile on my face.  I look around me.  We’re all in this together.  I can wait for you. 

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Is God Like This?

This morning before church, I have a moment to relax with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.

I put a dollop of whipped cream in my coffee mug. (I like to pretend I’m at Starbucks.) 

All of a sudden, the little one flits over, skirt twirling and finger pointing at my mug.

Then she does it.  She actually does it.  She sticks her finger straight into the cream, pulls it out, and licks away.

The audacity!  How dare she?  I’m feeling. . . something.  As she completes another twirl around me, I see her pointed finger approaching my mug.  But instead of punishing her, I tip the coffee mug so she can get the most cream.  I’m encouraging this atrocious behavior.

I’m so overcome with love for that little child. 

The image of the little one dancing about me with inappropriate manners and audacious finger-pointing requests delights me.  I should have been angry.  I should have scolded her, but I cannot.  That little twirl!  That little finger full of cream!

Later in church, the image stirs up within me.  It wasn’t an audible voice; it wasn’t a boom of thunder from the clouds.  But as I recalled that child and how I couldn’t help but tip the mug so she might enjoy more of what I could offer, I felt that Spirit-whisper saying:  I feel this way about you. I’m overcome with love. 

Dance about.  Make audacious and inappropriate requests.  Point the finger and dizzy yourself with twirls.  God tips the mug, delighted. 

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The Irony

I stand in a museum in Gettysburg.  As I enter the room called, “The Gettysburg Address,” I feel more solemn than I expect.  A simple room–nothing elaborate or majestic–painted in muted browns displays the words of that historic address.  10 sentences, less than 250 words.  I examine Lincoln’s handwriting, noting his style.  How could so few words create a cultural moment so powerful?  How could this conglomeration of verbs, dashes, and words puzzled into a graveyard address change the course of history? 

The document amazes me.  Lincoln uses the address to challenge and inspire us to press on in our own legacy-making, our own freedom-fighting, our own responsible citizenship so those honored dead “shall not have died in vain.”  It’s a speech so deeply embedded in the past (four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent), but so simultaneously lodged in a future Lincoln could not yet see (that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom).  That double vision is what the study of history so often offers. 

As I turn from the wall displaying the text of the Gettysburg Address, I face an opposing wall of quotations others have made at the time of Lincoln’s speech.  It’s difficult to see with this cell phone photo, but these quotes refer to the short speech as a bunch of “silly remarks.”  One newspaper says that “every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat. . . remarks.”  Another comment claims that Lincoln’s remarks will “no more be repeated or thought of” in American history.

I take a picture.  I laugh at the irony.  There will always be haters.  There will always be opposition to the good, the noble, and the true.  Perhaps the amount of criticism directly correlates to how good, noble, and true a thing is. 

Living with flair means we move on in our legacy-making and our freedom-fighting despite opposition.  What others claim is “dull and commonplace” just might change a nation’s history. 

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Thank God for Friction

Yesterday, I hydroplane.

It’s terrifying.  One minute you’re driving along the slick wet road, and the next minute, you’re flying.  The tires lose their grip on the road.  The steering wheel seems disconnected from the car.  The vehicle swerves recklessly.

It’s out of control.

But just as quickly, the tire rediscovers the road.  That clash, that beautiful resistance, keeps you centered in your lane and attached to the road.  

I don’t want a easy life.  I don’t want smooth sailing.  It’s the friction that ties me to my path.  It’s the clash against me that makes me function best.  This sticky situation, this disappointment, this complaint reminds me  of my need for God, of my absolute dependence, and of the reality of danger apart from that grip.  It’s humbling and it’s uncomfortable sometimes.  But it’s safe. 

Those things I don’t want in my life just might be the friction I need to get to where I’m going.

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Losing Something You Can’t Recover

My student bursts into the classroom. “I’ve lost my paper!  I didn’t save it properly and the whole thing is gone!”  The exasperation in this student’s face is one I’ve seen many times before. 

My student can’t get that paper back.  He stands in front of me, small and hopeless.  I’ve been there.  I remember the first time it happened to me.  I remember the discouragement, the anger, the desperation, and the embarrassment of it all when I forgot to save a term paper.  

It’s not fair; it’s not right.  But I told myself I had to move beyond what’s fair or right.  I had to move beyond the anger and the shame.

I had to start again.  

Students tell me that what they produce after the loss turns out stronger, more authentic, and more concise than the original paper.  They build on the memory of what they once wrote and make something better.  It’s not easy, and it never seems fair.   Losing stuff is like that.  I’m learning to take a loss and build on it somehow to create a marvelous new thing. 

Otherwise, I get stuck in the anger.  

This won’t be the last time we lose something that can’t be recovered.  But beauty does arise from the ashes.  I see it every semester with every lost paper.  I see it in my own life with every thing I’ve ever lost.  There’s a way to start again on the fresh page, remember what you had, and press your fingers down on the keys.  You start letter by letter, word by word.  Soon, you’re not just back where you started.  You’re beyond in a beautiful far country that you never imagined existed.  And the loss got you there.

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One Sure Way Not to Take Yourself So Seriously

I’m in class, teaching difficult things.  We stress, we furrow our brows, and we cramp our fingers around our pens as we engineer new thesis positions.   We sigh with discouragement as we discuss urgent social and political matters.

I lean back, cross my legs, and expose the socks I’m wearing underneath these business slacks.  Striped pink socks with monkeys on them.  A few people laugh out loud.

I’ve always worn whimsical socks.  I put them on as the last accessory before I slip on my boring (but extremely comfortable) work shoes.

The socks remind me not to take myself so seriously.  The day stretches before me: difficult, stressful, urgent.  But the subtext of the whole day–the story underneath my professor attire–calls out to me.  There’s something fun here.  There’s something quirky, delightful, and refreshing.  Even in pain, even in sorrow, I can discover a way to giggle or roll my eyes at something silly and unprofessional.  

Might there be room in my serious day for the trivial thing that delights?  And why wouldn’t that thing be a sock?  Socks provide protection, covering, and warmth.  Sometimes I need to buffer the deep and distressful with the delightful and diverting.  

Living with flair means I don whimsical socks.  Seriously fun when I’m taking myself too seriously.  

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