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The Bored Student Speaks!

My I-Really-Just-Don’t-Care student hands me some of his writing to read.  He’s typed eight single-spaced pages.  I didn’t assign him this project.  He wrote something on his own, and he wants to meet today to talk about writing.

He gives me permission to tell you this:

It’s a personal memoir about watching his brother leave for service in the Marine Corps.  It’s about the first letter he receives from him. 

It’s about the first time he sees his face again. 

At one point, the student recounts the moment when he’s about to see his own brother.  Mid sentence, he includes in parentheses: “I’ve stood to type this section because I can still feel the excitement.”

I can’t put it down.  The writing is so good, the story so profound.  I’m overcome with the fact that a student has to stand up to write because the emotion is that great.

The poet Marianne Moore writes in her poem, “The Student,” a line I’ll never forget.  She claims that a student seems “too reclusive for some things to seem to touch him–not because he has no feeling but because he has so much.” 

I have to remember that.  I have to remember that the reclusive soul sitting before me who doesn’t care about anything might actually care too much.  The silence, the frown, or even the bored comment masks something underneath.  Something so thrilling he has to stand up to write it.

I ask him again if I can write about him today.  He says, “I really just don’t care.”   Now I know what he means. 

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Your Adventure

Hot Air Balloon

I glance at the morning sky and spy a hot air balloon drifting across the valley.  This part of the country displays the most vibrant autumn colors, and hot air balloon rides provide a terrific (although terrifying) vantage point.

I’d never do it.  A balloon?  A basket?  Me in there, high above the earth?  Never

Moments later, I stand in front of college students who do remarkable things despite fear.  They visit Egypt on archeology trips; they study Latin American countries so they can travel and negotiate border disputes; they enlist in the Army and await deployment; they go into prisons and practice rehabilitation methods.

Unsafe things.  Terrifying things.

Yesterday, my neighbor tells me her oldest daughter is mastering Arabic so she can spend a year in the Middle East.

“Isn’t that really unsafe?  Aren’t you so scared?” 

“Of course,” she says. 

Of course it’s unsafe.  Of course she’s scared.  But something else matters more than her fear.  

Later, I’m talking with a friend about her husband’s new job offer.  A huge unknown.  A huge gamble.  She’s terrified.  

I tell her to surrender to the adventure of it.  If you know what’s going to happen, that’s not adventure, that’s a script.  That’s a high-action drama with a plot-spoiler.  Don’t give the fear power.  If there’s fear, it just means the adventure is that great. 

No fear, no adventure.

The spirit of adventure I see in younger folks challenges me to move ahead in the face of fear.  Of course it’s scary.  Most adventures are.  That’s what makes them adventures.

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No Ordinary Day

This morning in the shower, I thought of the verb, “exfoliate,” which means to remove a dead layer of skin, to shed the scales.  Exfoliation reveals the smooth new skin underneath.  You shine afterward.

Some days, I move through the hours as if under gauze.  I’m not seeing into the life of things.   There’s a dead layer I need to come out from under. 

It all seems so ordinary, so basic.  No beauty, no wonder.   With eyes glazed over, I move through my life. 

But then I scrub it down, shine what’s in front of me, and seek out the poem in anything from soap scum to a thunderstorm. As my neighbor said to me a few weeks ago, this daily flair project is a daily poem project.  If poems make the ordinary thing extraordinary, then that’s what I’m doing today and everyday.  I want to see deeply and clearly. 

I’m on the hunt for beauty.

I want to train my daughters in the art of finding the beautiful thing, of naming it, and holding it tight.  We need time to think, to sit outside, and experience our lives. 

Seeing the world upside down. 

I tell them we aren’t watching television because we have so much to experience.  I send them outside, and they swing upside down as the sun sets.

The older one takes a rock and crushes acorns to a fine powder. She wants to see inside things. 

Later, I find out acorn powder is a secret ingredient for a recipe she’s making.  I did that as a girl, long before electronics dominated homes.

Crushing acorns

I went outside with nothing to do at all.

I came in, my face shining.

Exfoliated. 

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The Fence Around Your Life

I’m driving with a friend who flew all the way from the West Coast to see me for the weekend.  This friend knows how to get to the point, say the right thing, and change your reality.  5 years ago, she looked me in the eye during one of my darkest days and said, “God is not against you.  God is for you.” 

That conversation was a turning point for me. 

So I’m showing her around my little town.  I’m thinking of the glamorous lives people live in California, and I start apologizing that there’s not more to do.  I point to the tiny excuse for a mall and say, “There’s no retail here.”

She says, “Less choice means it’s easier.  You don’t have to make so many decisions all day.” 

Her commentary reminds me of the story I once heard about the school children who were let out into a school yard with a fence that surrounded the large play area.  With the fence in place, children enjoyed the freedom to explore, play in safety, and run free.  One day, a researcher took the fence down.  Without the fence in place, the children huddled together near the school building.  

What looked like freedom actually paralyzed them. They didn’t play.  They didn’t run free. They needed the boundary–that fence–to experience freedom and safety.

When I look at the narrow parameters of my life (small town wife, mother, part-time this and that), I feel tempted to rage against that fence.  I think there’s more out there.  As my friend and I drove all over town (it didn’t take long), celebrating the good things that God had accomplished in our lives, I found myself saying, “the more is right here.”  The smaller my life becomes, the more abundant it seems. 

That’s why it says in Psalm 16 that “the boundary lines for me have fallen in pleasant places.”  The boundaries I want to fight are the very ones that keep me in the right place to experience God and all that’s in store here. 

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The Effect of Small Choices (and Celebrating 200 Days of Living with Flair)

On the 200th day of living with flair, I notice my one little finger joint has been hurting me for over a week.  In fact, the arthritic finger joint has changed the way I hold my hand when I type, grade papers, and perform everyday tasks.

This morning, not just the finger hurts.  The elbow too.  And now the neck.   Now the back.  Now I think I’m walking differently. 

I call the doctor. 

It amazes me that a small pain in one finger joint could upset the balance of the whole body. It changed how I moved.  The interconnectedness of my body challenges me to not ignore the cascading effect of one negative thing.  I ignored the one ailment, and look at the reverberation through my whole body!

Not a fun way to celebrate living with flair.  But then, I spin the story.  I’m looking in the bathroom mirror this morning and deeply considering the verb, “reverberate.”  A small thing–a stone thrown in a lake–circles out until the whole lake feels it and knows it.  I visualize a cascading waterfall.  If an ailment can upset the balance, then maybe a positive thing, full of flair, can reverberate as powerfully.

What small thing might I do that could reverberate with a positive effect throughout this whole day? 

Drinking a glass of water?  Taking a deep breath?  Giving a hug to a family member?  Maybe my days fall off kilter, not because of a monumental problem, but because of a small thing (as small as a finger joint) that sets the day in motion.  As I think about regulating mood, connecting with God, and living with flair, I can’t ignore the power of one simple act that reverberates and cascades down through the day.  

I start small.  I drink a glass of water.  I hydrate.  Who knows what I set in motion by that one choice? I can’t know for sure, but for some reason, my joints start to feel better. 

Living with flair means I see the cascading effect of small choices. 

(Photo “A Cascading Waterfall, Flanked by Flowers,” courtesy of Edo / Picassa Web / Creative Commons)

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Try This at Home

I’m standing in the freezing cold, tapping my foot and sighing.

Backpacks by the door.

Finally, both daughters emerge from school. As I herd them away from the building, I list out all the things I want them to do when we get home.  Hurry!  Let’s move, girls! 

We get inside, and I’m scurrying around to empty backpacks and neatly replace them on their hooks. 

My oldest (the one whose fame lasted till lunch) pulls me aside and whispers, “Mom, what happened to the warm welcome?”

The warm welcome?  Please, child.  It’s been a long day. 

But she’s right.  I love these children.  Why can’t I just give a warm welcome?  As we talk about what we could do to welcome each other into the home, she makes this list:  

The Warm Welcome
1.  Smile and say, “I’m so glad to see you.”
2.  Offer a snack and a refreshing beverage. 
3.  Play soft music or light a candle for a peaceful mood.
4.  Please don’t ask questions or give orders.

That’s the Warm Welcome.  It turns out that even asking how somebody’s day was can feel like pressure.  My daughter tells me to wait until she’s settled in before asking her questions. 

I seem to recall marriage advice along the same lines.  

How many family and neighbor entrances have I clouded with my impatience, my demands, and my agenda?  When a family member returns home, what if I didn’t ask questions, give orders, or rush? 

I stop my scurrying, put on some music, light our pumpkin candle, and pour a glass of orange juice as my daughters transition from out there to in here. 

Living with flair means I learn the Warm Welcome. You’ve been out there.  Come inside.  We are so glad you’re here.

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How to Enter a Room with Flair

I walk into a room and wonder who’s going to talk to me.  Inevitably, I spiral into a self-conscious moment. 

I’m waiting for my daughters to finish a gymnastics class, and I look around the waiting room.   The lively chatter of mothers all around me makes me feel terribly alone.  I don’t belong in this group; I’m an outsider to this world of sequin leotards, glitter hairspray, and the flurry of little girls trying to finish their homework before the coach calls them in.

Nobody is paying attention to me!  

Sulking in pity, I overhear a little girl ask her mother the difference between a homophone and a homonym. 

My specialty!  I can’t resist such questions.  I have to assist.  For the next 5 minutes, I find myself helping a 4th grader think of words that sound the same but are spelled differently (homophone) and words that sound the same and are spelled the same but mean different things (homonym). 

You can’t help somebody else and also think about how neglected you feel.  It’s a strange phenomenon.  It doesn’t matter that I’m supremely out of place here.  I’m serving somebody, and then, everything feels right.  And in a powerful turn of events, the mother who once seemed so cliquish and perfect starts telling me about her life.  Over homophones, I’m learning about a lifetime of heartbreak.

Each of those mothers might have their own story of loss.  The room isn’t what it seems; it’s nothing like it sounds.  Beneath the clique and chatter, there’s somebody who needs attention.

Perhaps when I feel most alone, most forgotten, I need to look up, find a way to help and bless (even if it’s through homophones), and stop focusing on myself.  I want to enter a room, take my eyes off of myself, and find the one who needs help.  Surely, that’s one way to live with flair.

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The Ridiculous Ritual

Last night, the neighborhood children gather in our basement for Monday Night Fitness Group.  It’s cold, dark, and dreary in the evenings now, so our alternative to biking and double-dutch is Dance Party and Jumping Jack Challenge. 

I don’t want to do this.  I want to change into my pajamas and watch television.  Earlier in the day, one child races out of school and asks, “Is tonight the night?”   Children are calling my cell phone, begging.  My own daughters are already in the basement, ready.  We’ve started some fitness revolution, and I can’t stop now.  Soon, I’m texting families to invite everybody to dance in my basement after dinner.

We’re in a circle dancing to whatever comes out of my iPod.  At one point, the “Hamster Dance” song comes on, and 10 of us crawl around like hamsters.  Then we skip in a circle. 

I’m too old for this. 

A hula hoop rests in the middle of our circle, and each child takes a turn standing in the hula hoop and doing whatever dance move he wants.  The rest of us copy him.  As we rotate around each child, dancing and hollering, I start to feel like I’m in a tribe doing a ritual dance.

I think of Native American dances designed to strengthen tribe members spiritually and emotionally before battle.  Perhaps each of us, in our own way, fights something.  Each child needs us here, circled around him, seeing him, celebrating him, strengthening him for the fight. 

This ridiculous dancing suddenly turns to ritual right in front of my eyes. 

This is my tribe.  I need this.  We enact these rituals that, on the surface, represent fitness.  In a deeper sense, we build our tribe when we gather like this.  Deeper still, we prepare each other emotionally and spiritually for tomorrow’s battle.   

We rally and fall, out of breath, only to rise up in a brave dance. 

It doesn’t take much:  a space to move, people, and a song.  It cost me nothing, and I went to bed more satisfied than I’d felt in months.  I have to remember that living with flair means I build my tribe.  We gather up because we need that strength, that ritual, that dance. 

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What I Cannot Change

The Braiding Impression

Over the weekend, I braid little braids all over my daughter’s wet hair.  In the morning, we unravel her hair.  She loves the “rock star” look.  

Notice the pink sparkle headband.

A simple thing–braiding hair–but oh the joy in the morning when those braids leave impressions all throughout her hair! That zig-zag complexity dries that way and temporarily changes the structure of the hair.

But as soon as she soaks in the bathtub before bedtime, the pattern fades and straightens.  She can’t believe how all that work (and an entire night’s worth of sleeping on braids) dissolves with water.  It doesn’t last.  It can’t.  Her root system, determined by her genetic code, trumps my skillful hand.  

Sometimes the patterns I set are fragile and tenuous, delicate and flimsy.  What seems so fixed and certain dissolves when exposed to environments that test resolve.  But I’m still tempted to believe that all will be well if I just find the right structure, the right pattern, the right technique. 

I can’t fundamentally change my life by new patterns or designs.  I suppose my daughter’s braids made me consider the limits of external applications to change internal dilemmas.  I need to get to the root, allow for God’s transforming work, and experience the kind of fundamental change that goes beyond clever techniques for happiness.  That kind of change won’t dissolve in water. 

Living with flair means I don’t limit happiness to external work.  I want the kind of mood change that’s deeply rooted, deeply true. 

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When You Start to Feel Old

After church, I’m chopping vegetables to add to my pasta sauce, and I remember my garden.  I haven’t harvested in weeks because the season’s over.  The peppers are surely past their prime, so why bother?  Those peppers are old, withered, and done.  

It’s cold outside.  The leaves are changing.  The garden is no more. 

But something nags at me to check the garden just in case.  I run out into the crisp fall air, doubtful. 

End-of-Season Garden Peppers


Then, I get the camera.   

Whoever said a season’s over or that something (or someone) is past her prime hasn’t seen my peppers.

These Peppers Still Blossom in Old Age

I’m out there, knee deep in glorious peppers, and I’m laughing about all the hope out here in my garden.  I recall the verse in Psalm 92 about folks “planted in the house of the Lord.”  The psalmist writes: “They will still bear fruit in old age. They will stay fresh and green.”

And these peppers aren’t finished.  They still blossom!  They still send out new leaves!  Defiant!  Prolific!  

Living with flair means I know nobody’s too old or past her prime.  Things can happen and hope can live no matter what season, no matter what age, and no matter how long it’s been.

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