Beauty that Astounds

Snowflake Melts on a Branch

I learn something astounding about snowflakes today:  the more hostile the environment, the more intricate the snowflake’s shape.  The bitter cold and wind encourage sharp tips and branching designs while warmer temperatures produce slow-growing, smooth, and simple patterns.

I’d rather have complex, sophisticated, and beautiful.  I’d rather have unexpected and perplexing than smooth and simple.  

I stand in my backyard as the storm swirls about me.  I think of what it takes to make such beauty.

Snowflake on a Thorn

It’s not easy; it’s not warm and smooth.  What’s harsh in our environment right now shapes beautiful things in us.  That kind of beauty–born from trial and thorn–truly astounds.

I included a new feature at Live with Flair!  You can journal along with me on your own (and share your wisdom in the comments if you wish) every day.  I’ll include a reflection question that I’m thinking about along with each post.  

Journal Question:  Is it really true that sorrow or hardship “shapes beautiful things in us?” 


Did You Know You Can Over-Insulate?

Last night, I start to worry that our home is too drafty.  No matter how insulated the house is, it still seems that freezing air seeps into the house by doorways and windows. 

But then I learn that too much insulation destroys air quality. A draft allows outside air to circulate in the house, freshen things up, and keep air quality healthy.  Often in the winter, folks seal up their homes too much.  Residents get sick, and they experience a build up of toxic air.  Who knew that one could over-insulate?  You can!  When you block air flow, you also create moisture traps that lead to mold and rot.  Healthy houses have regular fresh air flow, even during the winter. 

I fling wide the back door and let the night air flow in.  It’s uncomfortable.  

But it’s healthy.  

I realize that some amount of drafty living guarantees a healthy mind.  I don’t want to over-insulate my heart and mind from whatever remains outside my routines, my particular philosophy of living, or even my community.  I want to remain open to new practices, new ideas, and new friendships even when they make me uncomfortable.  I learn and grow in the presence of difference; I find that my mind, faith, and neighborhood grow stronger when I don’t over-insulate. 

Living with flair means I open wide the door and make a new friend, read a new book, or try a new routine.  I let fresh things circulate to keep me healthy.    


I Just Couldn’t Do It

You lay your clothes out, you pack your backpack, and you hardly sleep because you just can’t wait for it all to begin again.  

It’s a new semester here at college. 

I’ve been packing a backpack for 30 years, but for the last decade, I’m the teacher and not the student.  My backpack has syllabi, course rosters, grammar books, and a tattered anthology of literary works.   I still have a red pencil case (some things never change), lunch, and notebook paper.  But I’m the teacher now. 

I study them: I learn their names and remember their hometowns and majors.  I’m suddenly fascinated.  I can’t help it. I’m a student of the students, and maybe that’s my secret. 

One just returned from Africa and will introduce us to his passion for African modern art.  Another just switched majors from nuclear engineering to classics (there’s a great story hiding there!).  Four of them have parts in a musical theater production in April (which we all must attend).  A dozen kinesiology majors, seven history majors, five communication disorders majors, and three education majors captivate me with their career paths.  I forgot to mention the philosopher, the criminal lawyer, the animal physical therapist, and the international stateswomen. 

Here we all are together in one place for a college semester to learn advanced writing and professional development. 

That’s why I couldn’t do it;  I couldn’t turn on all the technology and hide behind elaborate presentations.  I sat with them in the circle, looking into the white of their eyes.  Once the big screen comes down and the hum of electricity rises like a swarm of wasps around me, I know I won’t see them the same way.  And they won’t see me.  I’m not ready for that.  There’s too much to learn. 

Living with flair means I’m a student of the student.  I earn the right to teach by learning first, and sometimes (most times) technology impedes rather than promotes authentic connection.  We’ll see what I do with this high-tech classroom.  I’m still learning.  


From Cowardly to Courageous

My little cat, Jack, advances even further in the direction of being fully alive.  Once wounded, this now strong kitty first relearns how to purr.  Then he figures out how to meow again.   Then, he moves past his wounds and chooses to love and serve others.  Finally, he begins to master basic feline behaviors like kneading. 

My daughter asks me, “Mom, what else will Jack do as he becomes more and more like a healthy cat?”  I have no idea.  But we wait and we watch.

Recently, a friend delivers a gift to our three cats.  It’s a huge, fluffy cat bed to sit by my rocking chair.  But we have three cats.  Who will get this soft bed?   Jack has no chance, especially with that one cat (Louie,  alpha male) who dominates every household scene.  Normally, Jack cowers around the others.  The three cats stand there, observing this amazing bed. 

Then it happens.  Jack moves forward and claims the bed for his own.  He transforms from cowardly to courageous right before our eyes.  He kneads the bed, turns a few circles, and has slept there ever since. 

I watch that little cat, and I remember God’s work as Healer.  

On our way to recovering from whatever wounds us, we suddenly realize the plans in store for us.  One day, we find we have the courage to move forward, claim our dreams, and stand up to those that threaten us.  We discover our place.   We find we are so healthy that nobody even remembers where we came from or how we were wounded. 

We find we are fully alive, doing all the things we were meant to do.  Nothing holds us back. 


Surrendering to the Storm

This morning after breakfast, we take the girls sledding.  We travel behind the house, past the forest, and into a wide clearing.  All I see is space–so much of it that I actually want to breathe a little more deeply and stretch my arms out.  I understand why folks from the city want to visit for a while and send their children to experience a rural life for a month. 

Sledding Hill

I never thought I could survive in a town like this. I had to surrender to God and believe I belonged here.  But what would we do all day long? 

Right now, we are learning the rhythms of winter.  We aren’t diminished at all by whatever storm assaults us. 

The storm just means we grab our sleds and ride.   There’s a good thing to experience here, and so we launch ourselves out, gain momentum, and surrender. 

It’s so great that we do it again and again.  Sure I’m sore.  But it’s worth it.  Surrender always is.  


These Aren’t Interruptions

I’m in the university library to find the article I want on neuroscience and writing.  I’m suddenly interrupted by the pull of the juvenile fiction section on the 5th floor where I remember they have all the P. D. Eastman books that my youngest daughter still loves (Go, Dog. Go!,  Sam and the Firefly, The Best Nest).

I spend all my time there, and for once, it doesn’t feel like I’m just getting through some kid’s library event on my way to what I really want to be doing. 

Many times over the years of being a mother, I’ve felt like I’m just trying to get through something.  I’d think to myself:  I just have to get through this night waking, this potty training, this noise at the dinner table, this driving everywhere, this laundry, this cleaning, this bedtime routine.  I need to get through these interruptions in order to arrive at what I really want to be doing. 

I believed some clever lie that kept me from embracing motherhood fully.  Motherhood was something to endure, and this made me so deeply troubled and ashamed that the dark days of depression stole half a decade of my life.  

My doctor told me one afternoon that “my children are not interruptions” to the life I want to have.  They are my life.  Exactly how God designed it. 

That’s what I remembered last night:  It’s 3:15 AM, and my youngest wakes me up needing a drink and a snuggle.  We’ve been training her for months to stay in her bed, but still she comes, a wandering little soul wanting me in the night.  I gather her to me, and when I tiptoe into the cold kitchen to get her a cup of water, I notice the fresh snow in the moonlight.

This isn’t an interruption.  This is worship and wonder at 3:15 AM.   I don’t sleep after that; I listen to my daughter breathing and can hear the icy whisper of snow falling outside.  I don’t have to get through this. This isn’t pain to endure on the way to what I’d rather be doing.

There’s wonder and worship here–every day–no matter how sticky, loud, or sleep deprived this day seems.  Our days are not something to get through as we endure interruptions to our real life.  This is our life: wonderful, beautiful, and just right for us.   And as I hear snow falling, I remember that sometimes we have to listen harder to comprehend that truth.


Can a Small Adaptation Make You Happy?

As you know, we walk a mile to school every day.  I walk a mile to school and back every day.  As the weather dips below freezing into the single digits, I used to get grumpy about this.  I’d dread leaving my house to fight the bitter cold.

A Winter Coat! 

Not anymore. 

The Italian Mama alerts me last week to a sale on winter coats.  With my Christmas money in hand, I find a coat that promises to keep me warm.  I find one that will “keep me warm down to -15 degrees.”  It’s water resistant, has a “storm shield,” and features deep pockets for my cell phone and camera (for all my outdoor photography sessions). 

Suddenly, my circumstances are no longer a problem.  In fact, I love this coat so much that I race outside each morning and tell all the neighbors how warm I am.  “I’m just wearing a t-shirt underneath this!” I cry out.  I think I actually skip part of the way down the hill. 

Living with flair means I embrace adaptations when my external circumstances cannot change.  I think about the supplies I need to endure and thrive. 

Bundling Up

It might be as simple as a warm coat. 


A Great Cloud of Witnesses

This morning, my friends and I huddle by the school entrance, making conversation with other parents and school administrators.  As we notice the line of cars pulling up to drop off children, I’m overcome with the desire to run up to the car doors, open them wide, and greet each child like he or she were a celebrity. 

London Paparazzi

I imagine each car to be a long black limousine. I even include fashion commentary like we’re on the Red Carpet for some premiere.

My friend and I laugh about making this our community job each morning.  We wonder what it might feel like to arrive at school and have folks open your car door, celebrate your arrival, and compliment your outfit.  What if we even brought paparazzi to our morning Red Carpet event?  What if we really did announce a child’s arrival?  You’ve arrived!  Welcome to school you beautiful, wonderful person!  You are very important to us! 

Walking home from the school, I feel like I’ve touched upon something eternal in that moment of opening a car door and celebrating a child’s arrival.  Something about that act seems to echo in eternity. 

All of us parents, surrounding those youngest members of our community–celebrating them like that, protecting their journey from car to school entrance–represents a spiritual reality for me:  I too am surrounded by that love and protection at all times.  I have cheerleaders in the heavens. 

Doesn’t scripture teach in Hebrews 12 that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” who cheer us on, helping us “run with perseverance the race marked out for us?”  We cannot see the saints and angels, but aren’t they surely there in some unseen realm about me? 

Later, I ride in my minivan across town.  As I unfasten my seat belt and turn to touch the door handle, I imagine them all there outside my van.  My Red Carpet event unfolds as I walk into the cold, bright day, surrounded by my cloud of witnesses.   

They cheer about me, celebrating and protecting.

(Photo, “Paparazzi at the ICA in London” by Justinc, courtesy of Creative Commons)


Take a Minute

I’m officially overloaded with work obligations and writing tasks.  As I sit at my computer, I become annoyed by my cat, Louie Von Whiskers, who knows the exact moment when I start to type on my keyboard.

This crazy cat believes that my computer work signals his need to nap across the keyboard.  I push him down onto the carpet, and he jumps right back on top of the computer–audacious, insistent, and. . . adorable.

“OK, you kitty,” I say.  I take him in my arms, and he immediately curls up into a soft ball.  Purring loudly, he stays put, and when I try to lean over to type, he actually puts a paw on my arm to restrain me.  So I’m stuck here, holding this ball of fur. 

I do have one hand free.  Can I type with this one hand?  Not really.  But I can reach for my hot cup of tea that I’d forgotten I’d made. 

Here I sit, cup of tea in one hand, purring cat on my lap.  I think God gave me this cat to make me take a minute–a non-productive minute–to do nothing at all. 

I find myself so refreshed that I have to wonder what other non-productive minutes I might take today.  More tea?  More snuggling with animals?  What if I listened to a new song or gazed out the back window?

It can’t all be work in 2011.  Imagine a cat sleeps on your lap and you can’t move at all.  You have no choice but to lean back, drink your tea, and enjoy yourself for a minute. 


Make Yourself That Somebody

For months, my friend and I travel by this one treacherous patch of sidewalk on our walk to school–the place that dips down towards a jagged ravine of rocks and icy water–and say, “Somebody should really put a fence up.”

We rescue kids as they slide off the sidewalk, shake our heads and say again, “Somebody should really put a fence up.”

As the months go on, we realize how much we say, “Somebody should really…”–whether referring to cleaning the house, fixing something, or generally improving the world.

We laugh about this expression: somebody should really. . .

Who is this Somebody person?  Can I meet her?

It occurs to us that we are the Somebody.  We stop saying, “Somebody should really put a fence up,” and we decide to make ourselves that somebody.

I don’t know where to start, so I ask someone at the school who tells me I should “call the county.”  (I didn’t realize you can call people in your county and get help with things your community needs. You can!)  I look up in my phonebook the name of my township and call the number there.  A man answers the phone, and I explain that children are slipping off the sidewalk and falling into a ditch on the way to school.  Can we put a fence up?

“Yes,” he says.  “Let me check who owns that property, and I’ll send a crew out today.  We’ll take care of it.”

I even ask the man if he could make it a nice fence, charming, and not some metal thing with orange mesh reserved for danger zones.

He sends out his crew and builds our fence.

Now, on the walk to school, my friend and I look at that fence and remember to make ourselves that somebody.  

My Charming Fence

She says, “Somebody should really write a book with that title.”

Up the Big Hill Towards School

Somebody should.  If you make yourself that somebody, you can really change something.

In fact, what initiates my friend’s 100 pound weight loss last year is a t-shirt she sees that says, “Somebody should really do something about how fat I am.”

She decides to make herself that somebody.

I want to make myself that Somebody in 2011.