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3 Ways to Love Life (According to a Young Photographer)

My five year old steals my camera whenever she can.  She’s the most determined little girl when she’s setting up a shot.  She’ll take pictures of anything–cats, babies, rear ends, her own feet.  And it’s all equally intriguing and equally beautiful.  As I found these photos other friends took of her yesterday, I couldn’t help but think about what she’s teaching me.

1.  Concentrate.
If my little girl can do it, surely I can take a minute and look around.  All of a sudden, I find extraordinary things to love.  I appreciate my surroundings instead of moving through them like they are mere inconveniences on my way to where I’m going.

2.  Look closely at your subject and be patient.   (You may have to hunch down and look completely ridiculous)  She’s not self-conscious about this act of observing her world.  Who cares what friends think?  She’s living with flair whether anybody thinks it’s weird.   She passed up pie and shopping to stay there and get this shot.  She knew where the real joy was. 

3.  Everything’s fair game, even your flip flops.

Do you know how many feet pictures my daughter takes?  She loves her feet, she loves shoes, and she loves that one toe of pink nail polish left over from last month’s kitchen beauty parlor afternoon. 
 

Living with flair means I need to focus on my world, observe it closely, and know that everything is fair game for flair. 

Photos courtesy of Lauren Kooistra and Rachel Schrock. 

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Commemorating with Milk

We couldn’t make the Memorial Day blueberry pancakes this morning because we ran out of milk.  I was the one dressed already, so I volunteered to drive to the store.

It was a little after 8:00 AM.

It was just a trip for milk.

I left my children in their pajamas and my husband hovering over his ingredients.  I’d have to be quick.

I’m turning the corner out of our neighborhood, and all of a sudden, like something bounding out of a dark woods into my car, I’m aware that I’m really, really happy.  The realization struck with such force that it astonished me.  For someone who battled the black haze of depression for nearly a decade, I am still amazed and celebrate the sheer joy that accompanies feeling good.

I was so thankful this morning to be alive.  I was so thankful for what the holiday weekend represented–commemorating soldiers who died to secure freedom.  We’d commemorate them in ways they would want us to: we’d eat pies, swim in the public pool, gather for a potluck dinner.  What a gift this life is–this simple life that bursts with beauty in all these hidden places if I just look . . .

Living with flair means I commemorate, with ceremony and observation, how thankful I am for battles won, large or small. And I remember the fallen by being fully alive–fetching milk early Monday for blueberry pancakes eaten in peace, with a family, around a simple kitchen table.

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Why Do I Like Watching Things Burn?

I shouldn’t like to watch things burn so much. Think about it:  I’m taking pleasure in the disintegration of something, the dissolution of some object into nothing but gray ash that floats up into the atmosphere or settles hopelessly beneath my feet.  Last night I sat by a beautiful campfire in my neighbor’s backyard.  The children, otherwise distracted, came around the fire just to watch things burn. 

I could have sat there for hours.  Transfixed, I had to wonder:  why do I love to watch things burn?  Why do most people?

Living with flair means asking the sort of question to get beneath my experience.  So I stared at the fire.  My children stared, hypnotized.   I even recalled my entire history with campfires and what things I used to throw in.  Magazines burned with prettier colors. Marshmallows exploded and elongated into these snake-like black creatures.

My children, too, enjoyed watching marshmallows burn more than eating them.  

Why? 

I finally thought of this:  We really don’t expect things to fall apart.  We’re used to permanence.  I see things around me as intact, stable, and predictable.  A stick is a stick.  Newspaper is newspaper.  Marshmallows are marshmallows.

But put them in fire, and all of a sudden, the true constitution appears.  These stable objects transform into mere ash, residue, that looks all alike no matter what unique appearance it had to begin with.  It’s just a chemical reaction, completely understandable, and yet it produces such wonder, such peace even, as I watch the burn.

Outside of the boundaries of the campfire, though, that fire has such destructive power that it could take down my whole city. 

It terrifies me, that power.  And yet, sitting around a campfire, I get to observe that power from a position of safety.  18th century philosophers would say this is a sublime experience; it’s a simultaneous fear and attraction.  And when I encounter a power stronger than myself, even in a little backyard campfire, I’m humbled and put in my place.  I see into the reality of my world–the black ash underneath it all.  

Fire makes me think of the fragility of things (my own fragile self).  Living with flair means appreciating a campfire for more than just the s’mores it makes.  It means understanding the fear and power that accompanies all truly beautiful things. 

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A Short Rant (I Never Thought I’d Be Ranty)

A popular blog I read this morning suggested that one pathway to happiness is to “imitate” a spiritual master–someone like Jesus.  I cringed.  The not-flair bells rang.  I frowned and felt the same way I do when somebody tells me to just “try harder” and I’ll find holiness.  It’s just not true.  Telling a person to imitate a spiritual master to find real life and joy is like telling a cardboard box to act more like a computer in order to come alive.

Imitation doesn’t change the inherent problem I have.  I need an infusion of grace, not an imitation of one.    

Imitating a master is also like telling two people to stare at each other and imitate a relationship.  I don’t want to imitate love.  I want to be in love.  Imitation isn’t the trick.

A relationship with God is a romance.  It’s an infusion of power, of love, of joy, of deeply knowing.  It’s not imitating a master or doing what Jesus would do.  That kind of life doesn’t work.  It never has.

That’s why the gospel is good news.  I want to know Jesus and have him give me the power to live the life I’m supposed to.

Christianity isn’t a religion of imitation–of acting more like Jesus.  It’s exchanging our weaknesses for his strength, for inviting his presence into our lives, and for depending on his love and peace on a daily basis.

It’s not imitation.  It’s infusion.

I’m off to the pool.  My children have been in their bathing suits since 8:30 AM.  The towels and sunscreen are all in a row.  The snacks are ready.  The goggles are tightened.  We could sit on the couch and imitate swimming, or we could dive into that delicious water.  I think I know what we’ll choose.   Living with flair means I’m experiencing a life of joy, not imitating one.

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My New Approach to Catastrophe

Driving home from preschool today, two bubbles floated across the street like they had somewhere to get to.  I couldn’t see any sign of someone blowing bubbles, or even any other bubbles, anywhere.   They must be mighty resilient, I thought.  One was bigger than the other, and it looked like a mama bubble and a baby bubble.  I imagined the wind, the buildings, the people, or even the animals they might have encountered before crossing my path.  And yet they remained intact, beautifully sparkling in the sun while floating just above my car.  Resilient. 

I said the word aloud, and my daughter repeated it.

“It’s a great word,” I told her.  I had actually looked the word up that very morning. My friend and I were talking about parenting, and she mentioned wanting to raise resilient children.  She advised me not to constantly rescue my children, to not be afraid to let them suffer, and to realize that adversity creates strong children. 

All week, I’ve been trying to rescue my older daughter from the bossy, mean girls who roll their eyes on the playground and insult her.  I’m the mom who calls the teacher and wants to be there, mediating, controlling the situation, and ensuring total peace and happiness for my child. 

Last night, I gave up the fight.  I’m lying on the bed with my daughter.  I’m listening to her talk and talk and talk about the mean girls, about the bullies, about the gossip and jealousy.  For once, I don’t try to solve it; I don’t go email the teacher again.  I’ve been doing that all year.  For the rest of my daughter’s life, there will be mean girls.  I can’t save her, no matter how hard I try.

“Look,” I said.  “You are just great.  I love everything about you.  You will figure out a way to handle those girls.  I believe in you.  God is with you.  You can figure this out.”

“I know,” she said, smiling with that one loose tooth hanging by a thread.  “I totally will.”  
 
The dictionary tells me that a resilient person possesses the ability to recover readily from adversity.  In science, resilience refers to the energy a thing can store up as it deforms or is put under stress that it releases as it reforms.  In organizations, resiliency is the ability to positively adapt to the consequences of a catastrophic failure.

I’m praying that she’s storing up energy from this, that she’ll learn that ready recovery skill, and that whatever catastrophic failures come, she can positively adapt. Tonight, I’m telling her I’m so proud of the resiliency she’s already shown in these enormous eight years.  

Resilient girls can handle anything.  Put that on her resume!  Put that in the cover letter!  I survived recess today.  What did you do?  

This way of living with flair is the only way I’ll survive parenting.  Living with flair means I value raising resilient children.  It means I embrace adversity myself for what it’s storing up in me. 

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My Huge Gardening Mistake

Last night I bragged all about my blueberries, my strawberries, and even my blackberries.  My dear friends, older, wiser, and experts in gardening asked if this was their first year in the ground. When I said, “yes,” they cried:

“You need to remove that fruit!  Pinch off the blossoms, too.  Do not let those plants produce!  Not this summer, and not next summer either.”

All week, we’d been so happy about those blueberries and those ripening strawberries.  I had imagined my blueberry pies, my strawberry smoothies, my blackberry jam.  There was no way I was going to destroy that young fruit and those beautiful blossoms.  Who were these people to suggest I would have to be patient for two more summers?  (I realize that most of my friends know this about berry plants.  I somehow missed the information.)

“You have to.  You just have to do it.  Make your husband do it,” my understanding friend said. “But it has to happen.”

This counter-intuitive and destructive move would make my plants thrive.  If I take away the fruit, the plant directs the energy and nutrients to the most important part of the plant: the root system.  A new berry plant needs a few years to make an indestructible foundation of roots.  Then, we can enjoy the fruit.  It would take three summers. 

“I know it’s hard.  It killed me to do it to my own fruit plants,” another said.

So this morning, with my daughters (and me!) safely away from the garden, my husband prepared our plants for abundance by deliberately diminishing them.  All night I’d been thinking of what my friend said as I sat there with my mouth hanging open, refusing to believe the truth about my plants.  I had to figure out what spiritual process this represents, what truth about the universe this destructive act mirrors. The flair project depended upon my ability to find the right in the wrongness. 

She said, with such love and wisdom:  “You’ve lived here three years, right?  Weren’t the first two hard?  And now, in your third year, everything’s going so well.”  I thought about the principle of three years.  Maybe it was true.  Maybe God knows that I need seasons of total emptiness, no fruit, not even blossoms, in order to get my roots deep and strong.  I thought about marriage, of raising those babies to toddlers, of moving to new places and starting new jobs.  I thought about years waiting for manuscripts to be published, friendships to form, community to thrive.  It never all came together that first year, and maybe not even the second.  But the third year?  Fruit did come.

Maybe God feels like I do–the sadness, the loss–pruning away the obvious signs of productivity.  In those years when nothing seems to happen, where nothing seems to bloom in my life, I’m putting down these awesome roots.

Just wait.  It might not be this year, or even next year. In her book Anonymous , Alicia Britt Chole describes the spiritual process of our hidden years.  She writes,  “Abundance may make us feel more productive, but perhaps emptiness has greater power to strengthen our souls.”

Living with flair means I’m strengthening my soul when there’s no fruit in sight.

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One Good Prayer

This morning, I had a few minutes before the walk to school, so I took out my prayer journal. What did I need?  What did the neighbors need?   Many things came to mind, but one thought kept recurring.  I knew I might pray for prosperity, for health, for safety, for success, or for any host of material things. God says we can ask for anything.  But I knew to pray this:

“Jesus, help us see you today.” 

Jonathan Swift wrote that “vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”  When I look at this day, right now, I know that God is at work.  And he sees what I don’t see.  Through suffering, through disappointment, through fear, through loneliness, God sees what I don’t see.  I want vision to see, with God’s help, what is otherwise invisible.  That’s flair. 

I want to see what God sees.  I want to pierce through that layer of my circumstances to perceive that invisible script that God writes.  These marks of God’s intentions, of God’s goodness, of God’s love, are here.  I pray that God sharpens my vision so I can see them. 

My sleuthing for daily flair is really a prayer to see the invisible thing–that underlying beauty and goodness in any situation, no matter how bleak.  It’s a prayer to identify, in every circumstance, the marks of a spiritual process.  When I see that process, I’m suddenly released from fear.  I can find hope and love here, even in pain or confusion. 

Living with flair means seeing the invisible thing. It means offering up a prayer to find God in whatever situation I’m in because, surely, he is here.

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

Today I studied meatballs.  You need to clothe the meatballs with breadcrumbs (from the ancient bread in the back of the fridge), brown them a little, and then let them cook all day in the sauce. 

This way, they won’t fall apart. 

Meanwhile, the little girls in our neighborhood worry about their clothes, their friendships, their popularity.  I think about clothing them generously with that ancient kitchen love–the kind passed down from generations upon generations of mothers who build families as they build recipes.

Keep these children strong, clothed in the ancient love, so they don’t fall apart.      

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The Bad Day Mantra

As far as bad days go for a five year old, this one ranks high.  While at her yearly check-up, she discovered she might need glasses, was told her spine might be slightly crooked, and, to make matters worse, endured two shots in both thighs.  My job was to “restrain” her arms and legs as the nurses jabbed the needles in.

Not flair.  No, this was not flair at all today.

We left the doctor’s office right at lunch time.  Dairy Queen was on the way home, so we pulled in.  The whole time, I’m trying to comfort her, but nothing’s working.

As we order food inside, I begin telling our server all about my daughter’s horrible day.  Hopefully, some ice cream will help matters.  A few minutes later, this same server came to our table.  Seeing my daughter still tear-stained and sniffling, I said, “We are just having a really bad day.” 

“Well,” she said as she handed us our food, “there’s a lot of day still left.”

My daughter looked at her and smiled.  The thought of “a lot of day still left,” worked.  The radical concept that the day wasn’t doomed just because of a bad morning transformed this little girl’s world.  There was still time–seconds, minutes, hours even–to redeem the day.  There was still time for flair. 

I wanted to kiss the server.  I told her that her comment would change the course of our whole day.  Once again, language well-timed and well-spoken can create a new reality.  The comment created anticipation.  Something good would come.  And by the time we’d finished lunch, ice-cream, and some laughs in our booth, it already had.

Living with flair means remembering “there’s a lot of day still left.”   Even if we’re down to seconds, there’s still time for flair.

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The Blessing We Need

A girl with a stuffed unicorn stood by the restrooms at church this morning. I’ve been seeing unicorns everywhere, and each time, I have a little flair moment. Here’s why.
I learned recently that a gathering of unicorns is called a blessing. I just love that. Animal groups have some strange names. Alligators are a congregation; barracudas are batteries (did you know that?); sea birds are called wrecks; bullfinches are a bellowing; zebras are a crossing; rhinos are a crash, and owls are a parliament.
But a group of unicorns is a blessing.
The gathering of beautiful creatures, more divine than earthly, isn’t just the stuff of lore and legend. As I left the bathroom, I walked into the worship gathering of our church. It suddenly occurred to me that I was in the presence of the divine, the holy–in the people.  
It suddenly stuck me how much I loved the people.  I knew all those people, and all those people knew me.  I could probably raise my hand and ask anybody for anything and the answer would be, “no problem.”   
One man had broken his ankle and, on crutches, rose to the applause of the rest of us as we cheered in hope of his full recovery.
 And those people–those creatures more divine than earthly–were my blessing.  They were my group and my joy both.  
People go crazy in isolation. People die in isolation; they can lose their vitality and their strength. But in groups, they thrive, they enhance one another, and they accomplish more together than they could alone.   They bring forth the glory of God.  
In the Scriptures, Satan drives people to solitary places. In fact, his best work is accomplished when we are alone.  For example, Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man who “drives the man into solitary places” (Luke 8: 29). And we learn in the book of Peter that the enemy of our souls “prowls around like a roaring lion waiting to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).   He must search for the loner.  When I watch nature shows, I’m always struck by the skill of the lion. He preys on the lone gazelle, the one that gets away from his group.  The isolated, the ones separate from their group, are the ones in the most danger. 
If only we could see that left-out person as part of ourselves.   If only we could boldly move forward, extend a hand, and invite a stranger into our blessing.  Our story has many more characters to include.   
If only we could see the divine calling to participate in each others’ lives. 
We are interdependent at our best, much like tiny streams that, when we link up, become mighty rivers that nourish entire landscapes.
I need to join my blessing. Whatever it takes, I need to. Living with flair means seeing my community as more divine than earthly and part of my own self. Within my blessing, I gather in the stray gazelles when I’m strong. And when I’m weak, I look to the others to circle around me and bring me to safety. 
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