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The Real Oscar Moment

I’m walking down the street, balancing two fruit tarts in either hand.  The neighbor at the end of my street (the Italian Mama!) has invited us for dinner.

They weigh a lot for fruit tarts.  As I walk, I start thinking about the task of carrying things in my arms for long distances.  It doesn’t happen very often.  Something about living in America, something about prosperity, something about modern conveniences means I don’t carry things anymore.

I know women in other nations who carry laundry to a river to wash it against the rocks.  Those same women carry rainwater into their homes to bathe their children.  Women in Kenya, at this very minute, are carrying their sick family members to villages miles away to find medical help.

I’m carrying fruit tarts.  

What are other women carrying in their sturdy arms today?  What physical burdens do they bear?  I thought of the woman in Proverbs 31 whose “arms are strong for her tasks.”  People who carry heavy loads often have a strength, a resolve, and a hidden joy.  Theirs is a particularly robust form of flair.  But nobody celebrates them with recognition or reward. And they don’t seek those things.  

We ate the fruit tart, and all evening I’m thinking of people carrying heavy loads.  Who honors them?  I wake up, still thinking of them.

As the morning progresses, 3 events transpire in rapid succession.  First, I read a paragraph about the temptation to build a reputation, to seek fame, to chase reward.  The author quotes Philippians in the Bible and shares how Jesus was “of no reputation,” and did not seek to exalt himself in any way.  He “made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant.”

Then, I help a friend pack up her apartment for the moving truck.  She’s a professor who has served me on many occasions, and her whole vocation involves serving students.  At one point, she brings over a golden statue.  It’s an Oscar!

I take it in my hands.  It’s heavy.  Somebody gave her a fake Oscar for a present, and for a few minutes, we give each other imaginary acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards.

I carry it in my arms–this symbol of fame and wealth.

I’m not thinking of movie stars.  I’m thinking of women carrying heavy loads.

And lastly, my daughters return from Vacation Bible School with a craft that displays the exact same verse in Philippians about the servant of no reputation.

Might I live as a servant with no reputation?   They carry the heaviest of loads and shine brighter than any star.

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You, the Expert

I know many experts.  I have friends with cooking expertise, exercise expertise, teaching expertise, spiritual expertise, and parenting expertise.

They read, they study, they take classes, they interview others. These folks are wise

I call them all the time.  Just this morning, my sister, an education expert, talked me through my stress about my daughter’s kindergarten assessment.  Yesterday, I called my friend, a cooking expert, to ask the proper technique for storing or freezing my scads of garden basil.   Then I talked to another friend who knows how to counsel me through spiritual questions. 

I even have bug experts in my life.  I place emergency calls when weird looking insects attack my tomatoes.
  
A vibrant mind continues to learn.  Interesting folks, I read, have at least 5 topics they study.  As they age, they continue to grow in these areas, accumulating wisdom.  And then they teach others.  Normally, I think of expertise more narrowly.  But why not journey towards more topics? 

If I had to choose five, I’d pick subject areas like prayer, writing, teaching, parenting, and marriage.  Maybe I could make these more specific and pare down each category into 5 subcategories.  At that rate, I will have things to learn and do even in my 90’s.  Maybe I could assign a decade to each topic so, for the next 50 years, I’d have ways to grow.

My husband does this with his passion for history.  The 30’s? Revolutionary War.  The 40’s?  Civil War.  He spends 10 years reading everything he can on a certain historical topic.

This is why we have so much to talk about on date night. He doesn’t experience that strange land called Boredom. 

Living with flair means I study to become an expert.  Maybe for this year of flair, I could expand my topics beyond semicolons and dashes.  Maybe I could become an expert in Italian cooking or dressmaking.  I’m on my way.

I want to have passion and growth until the day I die.


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3 Skills to Pass On

The flair moment came as I thought more about an article I read yesterday called, “Redefining Education:  Cultivating the Soul”, written by Thomas Moore (who happens to have been a monk, a professor, psychotherapist, and musician).  He writes this: 

“There are many items we assume can’t be taught that will simply fade away if we don’t teach them: manners, civility, good language, mature love, good art, self-awareness and reflection, intelligent reading, responsible travel, care of one’s home and belongings, a sense of the beautiful, intelligent spirituality and empathy for our fellow citizens on the planet. This is a small part of a much longer list.”

All morning, I’ve been thinking about Moore’s words.  How am I cultivating these traits in others (and myself) as a parent and as a teacher?  As I help students prepare professional materials (resume, cover letter, mission statement), I always remember what they report was most useful of all.  It’s not the PowerPoint slides about effective resume design or how to format a cover letter.  It’s the week I take to teach them these three things:

1.  The art of Conversation
2.  The art of Conflict Resolution
3.  The art of Community Organizing

When we discuss and practice these things, we know we tap into a lost art form of living well in community.  Students who know how to engage others in conversation, how to manage disagreements, and how to gather folks together to solve problems succeed more in work and in life.  They know this, and time proves it.

The lost art of living vibrantly in community needs revival.  This week, I’m reminding my family how to ask good questions in conversation (What was that like for you?  Would you tell me more?), resolve conflict well (listen, summarize, find common ground), and organize community events to examine and confront problems in our community (fitness, education, environment).  Perhaps these three skills will capture the essence of Moore’s hopes for education. College students find them life-enhancing and often life-changing.  I know my family will too.

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The Interrupting Chicken

I’m told I need to pick my children up in the sanctuary after their first day of Vacation Bible School.  It’s a ranch theme, and I’m already smiling at the teenage helpers dressed in overalls, bandanas, and cowboy boots.  I’m a little early, so I sneak in to see the skit that one group performs on the stage.

I can hardly hear them speaking because of the chickens. 

Yes, chickens.

On the corner of the stage–as decoration in a nice cage–three chickens squawk as loud as they can.  Somebody thought that chickens would be a nice touch, I’m sure.  Somebody had to pull some serious strings to get live chickens in the sanctuary.

The chickens sit on that stage and squawk so loudly at the exact moment anybody tries to speak.

I start laughing.  The other parents coming in behind me start laughing.  Then, all the children are laughing.  They call the chickens the “interrupting chickens,” and it’s obvious who steals the spotlight.  

It’s never a good idea to use creatures as decoration, and apparently, you can cage their bodies but not their voices.  Those chickens took down a room full of humans.  I imagine some disgruntled volunteer went and released them.

Meanwhile, I’m asking my children about God, what they learned about the Bible, and what sort of ways they might have developed good character this morning.  They stare at me, wide-eyed, and announce that they actually witnessed interrupting chickens.

Chicken in a cage flair.   If only I could be so confident in the power of my own voice.

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Google Street View and Happiness

Sometimes when I’m missing certain places, I’ll visit them using Google Street View.  I can walk down childhood roads, visit old neighborhoods, observe favorite restaurants or city streets, or spy on my own house–all thanks to Google’s Street View.

And sometimes, when I’m imagining what life must be like in a different city, I’ll visit University of Melbourne in Australia, cruise a street in Beijing, or explore Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood or 5th Avenue in New York.  Yesterday, I even drove down US 25 towards my favorite summer spot in the mountains of North Carolina–all clicking my mouse on Google’s arrows that lead in whatever direction I choose.    

It’s always tempting to believe that a better life exists in another location.

I want to believe that my location is what makes life good.  If only I were in this place or that place or here or there.  But the deeper into the life of faith I travel, the more I realize the truth behind the writer’s statement in Psalm 90 that “the Lord himself is our dwelling place.”  And this morning before church, I read in the book of John where God says that “he makes his home” within us. 

How curious:  I dwell in God, and God dwells in me. Sometimes I think God lets me leave certain places and arrive at others just to learn this truth.  If God is my dwelling place, it doesn’t matter where I am; I’m home.  It’s the Spirit of God that makes any location marvelous.  Can this be true?  I want it so badly to be. 

Visiting locations from my desk reminds me that my happiness isn’t found in a place.  It’s within me– where God dwells.

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2 Reasons to Look Harder

This morning we find a Tomato Hornworm on our tomato plants.  These bugs are huge and yet so difficult to see.  They almost perfectly resemble the background leaves and stalks.

I’m staring at the plants, and all I see are leaves and tomatoes.  But when my entomologist friend comes by, she spots the camouflaged creature immediately.

I can’t see anything.

I look harder, burying myself in tomato leaves.  Finally, I see another one. I almost have to cross my eyes and squint to distinguish the bug from the plant.  It feels like I’m in some Magic Eye book. 

I had this 3D Magic Eye poster in college.  In 1993, you could go to shopping malls and look at these posters to find the hidden pictures within them.  There were stereograms, or more specifically, autostereograms. 

 A stereogram is an optical illusion of depth created from a flat, two-dimensional image.  The point is that another image exists buried deep within the other.  This poster, for example, hides glasses within it.  I would stare until my eyes ached as I tried to get that image to pop out of the poster.  It drove me nearly crazy to think that something was really there, but I couldn’t perceive it.  It infuriates me like those Tomato Hornworms that are really there–devouring my plants–and escaping my perception.  My eyes fail me over and over again. 

How many things hide within my reality that I don’t perceive?  And how many things do I discount as real simply because they dwell outside of the realm of visual perception?  Tomato Hornworms and autostereograms are two reasons why I’m willing to believe in what I cannot always see.

I’m sure that living with flair has something to do with stereograms and seeing beneath the surface of things.  

(Tomato Hornworn, courtesy of Whitney Cranshaw, CSU, bugwood.org)

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“The Lincoln”

There’s a new challenge at the pool.  It’s more like a dare, and for teenage boys, it’s hard to resist.

It’s called “the Lincoln.”

I’m watching teenagers take running leaps off the diving board and land flat on their stomachs or backs.  But every once in a while, a boy will complete the impossible trick dive called the Lincoln.

You run, you dive, and mid-air, you turn to the side and do a side flip.

The Lincoln.

“What makes it so hard,” one teenager explains, “is physics.  You’re going one direction, and you have to tell yourself to turn to your side and do a flip in a perpendicular direction.”

I nod, wondering why it’s called the Lincoln.  Then I remember that gravity experiment when a penny falls straight down after you push the round tube it’s sitting on to the left or right.

All the older boys line up and try to do the trick.  Of the group, only one can do it.  The lifeguards cheer.  This is the stuff of summer legend.  Somebody can do “the Lincoln!” 

Then, a little boy, maybe 6 or 7, gets up on the board.  He runs, he dives, and, smooth as butter, turns to his right and flips in the air.  The Lincoln.  Collective silence all around.  The lifeguard stops twirling her whistle.

“No way,” the guy who knows the physics and how hard this dive is says.

The little boy, the one who hasn’t had physics yet and only knows gravity by experience–and not theory–, surfaces, smiles, and says: “That wasn’t hard.  I didn’t even have to think about it.”

Changing direction and form, mid-flight, is hard for anyone.  I hate change.  I hate everything about it.  But watching that little boy just get some speed and do it, without over-thinking the difficulty, inspired me.

Yeah it’s hard to do whatever it is I’ve got to do.  But today, I want to pick up some speed and do it.

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Sucking all the Marrow Out

The day stretches out before us.  I can let it happen to me, or I can seek out the complexity in common moments.  Complexity refers to many parts in an intricate arrangement.  If you can find this particular arrangement, you can suddenly understand something differently and more deeply.  There’s complexity in this piece of toast, this cup of coffee, this orange.

People have said I think too much.  

A fellow faculty member and I commiserated yesterday that students like to say:  “But why does it have to mean anything?  It ruins our enjoyment when we have to analyze stuff.  Can’t we just enjoy the story?”   I think we confuse complexity with unnecessary complication or confusion.  We think complexity means we shroud something in difficulty.  But this isn’t the case.  Finding patterns, connections, and symbols unlocks this whole other world–this whole other subtext–that makes a text (or a life) so rich and beautiful.

Examining life for all its complexity pours a warm syrup over our day that makes it good.  We begin to see spiritual truth in the tiny, mundane thing.  We see God reaching out to us from the confines of a bedroom or a minivan or a rocking chair.  There’s a message inside of everything confronting us.

Why not live a complex life?  Socrates cries out:  “The unexamined life is not worth living,” just as Thoreau fears that “he would come to die and find that [he] had not lived.”  He famously commands himself to “live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.” 

Marrow, after all, is the choicest, inmost, essential part of a thing.  There’s marrow in this day, and for me, it’s whatever trace of God’s beauty and goodness I can find and suck out. 

(Special thanks to Charity G.and Gigi M. for inspiring this post.)

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The Everyday Apprentice

I want to enter the various cultures around me with a curious mind and a willing heart.  In the past few days, I’ve been invited to experience various “cultures” whether it’s joining the swim team community, learning about the various spiritual cultures of my neighbors, or entering the college culture by watching movies students love, listening to music they download, and attending the places they go downtown.

As I thought about what it means to love people and be a good friend, this concept of entering different cultures seemed suddenly so important.

Right at that moment, my husband was leaving to go to his workshop.  On his days off, he apprentices with a carpenter to learn the skills of woodworking and carpentry.  (Note:  Apprentice is a fantastic verb.  It means to study under a master to learn the skills of a trade.  Apprenticing represents a whole cultural system by which a new generation trains for a trade.  I wish I could apprentice under certain mothers, teachers, and wives.)

He’s asked the family before if we want to visit his workshop.  We’ve always said, “no.”  We don’t have time!  We aren’t interested!  What would we do in a workshop?  Well, not today.  I want to enter that culture with a curious mind and a willing heart.    

So we go.

It feels like a foreign country.  He shows us big, scary machines with names like planer, jointer, miter saw, and band saw.  I start asking questions.  Soon, I learn that my husband can take material like these split logs:

And turn them into this.   

I start feeling some flair happening.  I start looking around me with new eyes.  I notice some order and beauty in this place.

And I notice my children are captivated by what their father is doing.  He puts safety gear on them and shows them what he can do on the machines.  He takes a scrap of wood and transforms it into something smooth and square. 

Right now, we are back home, and the girls are playing with their block of wood–imagining all sorts of things with it.  We entered the culture of woodworking with a curious mind and a willing heart, and we had more fun than I could have ever thought possible.  Living with flair means I enter the various cultures around me by being curious and willing.  I apprentice and learn.  I want to do it everyday.

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Small Flair in Hidden Places

I wake up with a horrible cold or horrible allergies–funny how the body responds the same to real or imagined threats against it–and dread the morning.  I can’t find one box of tissues anywhere.

Then, I realize I’ve lost my cell phone.

Sniffling and pitiful, I wander to the basement just in case my cell phone is lost amid the scatter of assignment sheets and lesson plans.  Still sniffling, I spy it innocently positioned in the most curious of places.

Right next to a box of tissues.

Flair came early and reminded me that what I lose sometimes brings me to what needs to be found.

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