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What We’ve Known For a Long Time

I read an article on the bus yesterday that recounts the results of a number of happiness studies.  Researchers want to know if happiness is something we experience or something we think

I love reading articles like this.  Once again, research proves that when we think about our experiences we can put the day in a certain framework to create meaning and joy.   Not surprisingly, this meaning and joy rarely depend on circumstances.  

I’m thinking about that article, and I run into one of the most vibrant and enthusiastic moms in my town.  She’s waving at me as I make my way through the self check-out line in the grocery store.  Within 30 seconds, she’s inviting me to her “Alphabet Summer” where everyday at her home celebrates a different letter of the alphabet.

It’s “J” day, so there’s jam, jello, and jumping in the pool.  I’m imagining jugglers and jellyfish and jackals.  I smell jasmine.

Her two little boys smile, and one of them says to me, “I just loved ‘F’ day.  ‘F’ day was the coolest!”

I’m living in the same town as this woman.  I’m raising my children on the same streets and we are going to the same grocery stores.  I’m making breakfast, doing laundry, cleaning and cooking, and yes, even going to the pool.  We both probably worked-out, had coffee, and will feel tired after lunch. 

But it’s “J” day at her house.

They will jump into the pool instead of easing in.  With this alphabet framework, her whole summer radiates with hidden meaning and wonder.

“Do we have a special letter today, Mom?”

Quickly, I think about the curry chicken I’ve planned for dinner.

“It’s ‘I’ day,” I say.  “For India.”

They are quiet and thinking of exotic lands.  

Same old day.  Same old dinner.  But now, we’ve got ourselves a happiness framework.

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My Extraordinary Night Out

What happens when you don’t need to find the extraordinary moment in the common thing because, well, everything around you is already packaged and delivered as extraordinary?

I’m on 39th street, in a beautiful loft, mingling with writers, artists, literary agents, and ladies arranged in bouquets, with men in suits as stems, in various corners of the room.  Everyone I talk to has extraordinary news:  a new novel coming out in the winter; a non-fiction book about railroads nearly finished; screenplays coming soon; or grand moves to new cities.

And when I pause to catch my breath, girls surround me with neat little trays to offer hors d’oeuvres that need clarification.  Somebody brings me a drink in a deep purple glass.

Meanwhile, my friend signs my copy of her book.  Carey Wallace’s debut novel shimmers in my hands.  I’ve read it twice already, and the language itself makes me happy.   The story chronicles a woman’s journey as she goes blind and presents the fictionalized version of the historical love story surrounding the invention of the typewriter.  In many ways, for me, it’s a story of the relationship between sight and insight.

I’m now sitting in a corner, against a wall, on a stool.  Within an hour, two different people stop by and confess their similar but undoubtedly unique doubts about Christianity.  Both men have abandoned their faith because of serious concerns about the authenticity and authority of scripture.

One of them says:  “If only God had written a better Bible, maybe then I could believe.” 

I’m in a different sort of worship gathering here, and I don’t belong at all.  But then I notice my friend has exchanged her high heels for flats–a welcome symbol that as the party wanes, we are stripping down to our essentials.  It’s the feet I notice all of a sudden.  Flip-flops replace the spikes and glitter, and tightly pinned hairstyles come down. 

I’m just about to leave, and I haven’t accomplished something I should do:  I’m supposed to meet my agent face-to-face and pitch the idea for my nearly finished novel.  She’s over there, in a bright green dress, radiant and sure.  What do I say?

I deliver a few sentences as she shakes my hand.  She’s delighted, eager, and encouraging.   The man who wants a better Bible leans over my shoulder and says:  “Well done!  You were in and out, concise and clear.  You didn’t drool all over her, and you left an impression.  I’ll give that an 8 1/2.  That’s how you talk to an agent.”

There are rules to this game that I don’t know.  But at least my feet didn’t hurt.  I started out in flip-flops and never had to change.

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Writing Atop a Double-Decker Bus with WiFi

I’m doing something I’ve never done before:  I’m riding atop a double-decker bus on the way to Manhattan. 

I’m with complete strangers.  But here’s what I know: 

The woman beside me was homecoming queen, and I know the whole story about the boy she met when she was 14 who visited, only in the summers, his grandparents who were her neighbors.  I know about their long distance relationship, the time they broke up after they already paid for airline tickets to visit Chicago, and how, even though they doubted the other would actually still go, they found each other in that city and fell in love again. 

I also watched a storm brew through the windows above my head with the older man next to me.  He has a hearing aid, and I’m not sure would speak if I engaged him, but when that storm barreled in, he glanced at me, looked back up at the dark clouds, again at me, and then back again.  We both saw it happening, and this was important. 

I had 15 minutes at a truckstop, and I was late because I was listening to a man describe his writing project.  The bus driver came in to find me.  He looked down at me, shook his head, and smiled. 

For the woman who hates to travel, I’m learning to find buried treasure in the people around me.  I’m having the time of my life, and we are just in New Jersey. 

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How to Live in Luxury

Luxurious or lavish things do not need to be expensive.  I’m learning that luxury can be sought in the right mindset.  There’s something biblical about luxury properly applied.  But, by definition, luxurious implies indulgent, excessively expensive, and unnecessary. 

Even the word seems excessive.  The way it sounds seems. . . luxurious

The word connotes an entire world of very fine and very unobtainable things.

But in my house, we use the word to mean anything rich in goodness and superior in quality.  We can make luxurious fruit tarts and paint our toenails with luxurious colors.  We can lay out in the grass, luxuriously, and watch the lightening bugs.  We can swim in the public pool with luxurious backstrokes.

We won’t be on boats or eating fine chocolates today.  We won’t be vacationing on a far off island. 

And that’s fine. 

There’s something so uncertain about wealth and luxury.  Today, as I was painting my daughter’s fingernails with the cheapest bottle of bright pink, I remembered one of my favorite Bible verses from the book of Timothy.  

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

Does God really richly provide everything for our enjoyment?  Not for our needs, but for our enjoyment?  How lavish!  How luxurious! This means I only have to wait and see what luxurious experience God might send my way today.

Maybe it’s the gorgeous deep purple blossoms on the eggplant I’m growing outside.  I’ve never grown eggplant before, and I’m amazed by how beautiful it is.  And the fruit hasn’t even come yet.  Eggplant is excessive and probably unnecessary (although I did learn how to make Eggplant Parmesan), but my goodness, I love those blossoms.

Thank you, God, for the luxury of purple eggplant blossoms.  They have flair indeed. 

(photo courtesy of Dilling / flickr)

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To Get a Great Thing, You Have to Lose a Great Thing

Last night, I explained to my sister how my new 5:30 AM wake up routine meant that I have lost my night life.  I was snuggling up in bed at 8:30 PM before even my children were sleeping.  She quoted someone I can’t remember (can you? Maybe Tom Brokaw?) who said:

“Sometimes to get a great thing, you have to lose a great thing.” 

All morning, I’m reminding myself that every yes is a no somewhere else.  The great thing I want means a loss somewhere else.

And this is perfectly reasonable, good, and right.

Marriage, children, working part-time, waking up early–there are losses associated with these choices.  But nobody talks about them enough.  Nobody tells you what it will feel like to get the great thing you want.  They don’t talk about what you will lose in the getting of it.  Maybe if we did, we could understand more fully the weight of our decisions and the flip side of every “yes.”

What great loss do I need to consider, weigh, and let go of?   I’m reminded of what it costs me to embrace God, marriage, children, my health, my work, my community with radical commitment.  When things cost me nothing, are they really great things

Living with flair means that sometimes to get a great thing, I will lose a great thing.   And that’s what makes it a great thing.  

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4 Questions to Protect Yourself

Our family has been on a mission ever since Monday.  Monday afternoon at precisely 2:20 PM, I look out at my beautiful garden and smile at the huge squash, the cauliflower, the tomatoes, the cucumbers, the eggplant, the herbs.

Then, I see him.  He’s literally looking up at me with a smirk on his face, holding a juicy cucumber between his paws.  I start screaming and waving my arms in front of the window.  I run like a mad woman down the stairs and out into the yard.  The groundhog merely saunters off and finds refuge under our back porch.  He’s huge.  He must look like this groundhog by now.  He’s eaten all my cauliflower, stripped the green beans, destroyed the squash, and decimated the cucumber.

We gather the family together and set up garden surveillance. My children watch from the window and begin making a list of questions like:

1. How does the thief enter?
2. When does he come?
3. What attracts him to the garden?
4. What will keep him out?

My dear, dear husband puts up a beautiful fence that very night.  But the thief knows how to tear through the wooden fence.  He can also dig underneath it.  So my dear, dear husband returns from the store with chicken wire that buries deep into the ground and ascends up high around the garden.

Finally, we can sleep easy.  What’s left of the garden can grown in peace and produce a bountiful crop.

All day, I’ve been considering the vigilance of our family against this intruder.  It was silly.  But what isn’t silly is real threats against the garden of my own heart and the hearts of my family members.  Scripture teaches us that there’s an enemy of our souls, and my daughters’ list of questions sparked a new awareness of ways I protect myself from “anything that contaminates body and spirit.”  That groundhog contaminated our garden, and we found a way to protect it.  We learned to recognize the how, the when, and the why of harmful intruders.  When things intrude and contaminate my own heart, might I ask myself that list of questions and devise a plan to ensure safe growth and a bountiful crop in my life?  What must go deep and ascend high about my life to ward off spiritual, physical, and emotional contaminates?

Living with flair means I protect and defend against contamination when I need to.

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The Secret Community You Might Want to Join

This morning, at 5:30 AM, I discovered the secret community of Those Who Rise Early.

I can’t believe this world exists.  There I am, alarm going off, pulling on work-out clothes and stumbling to the driveway, when all of a sudden, I look around.  At the unnatural hour of 5:30 AM, there are actual people walking about.  Happy people.  People with dogs and friends and strollers and. . . energy.

What coffee do these people drink?

I pass folks out in their yard and folks driving places.  I see three runners, several walkers, and some gardeners. Why in the world are they so happy?  Do they know it’s 5:30 AM?

It’s a secret community.  Those Who Rise Early do things like work out, drink a quiet cup of coffee, stroll in their gardens, take leisurely showers, fix their hair, empty the dishwasher, prepare breakfast, and then, they greet Those Who Rise Late with a smile, ready.   

I’ve been in the later group my whole life.  I’m the one in the bad mood, dragging myself around, begging for coffee, griping at everybody and wanting my soft bed back.  Let me sleep!  I need my sleep!  I’m fighting the DNA of generations upon generations of Those Who Sleep Late.  I need to sleep until that last possible minute.   So stop bothering me and hand me that cup of coffee.  I need to sleep late

Do I?  I decided to interview Those Who Rise Early.  This club chooses to greet the day differently, and it’s supremely amazing to join them.  They usually delight in 2 hours of solitude and productivity before children rise, before traffic surges, before the onslaught of the day.  Of the men and women I’ve talked to, this 5:30 wake up has changed their lives.  They wake that early for a variety of reasons:  personal prayer or meditation times, exercise, solitude, meal preparation and house organization, reading or writing.  Those people seem to live with with flair because their early rising prepares them for the day. 

My early morning wake up is part of living with flair.  I’ve taken a nose-dive off that plateau.  I’m hoping to change this part of my life and join the secret community of 5:30 AM.  Day by day, day by day.

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A Little Garden Magic

Early this morning my daughter picks a cucumber from our garden.  It is shaped exactly like a “C.”   The wonder of this!  A vegetable shaped like its first letter!  She holds it up and shows me, eyes wide.  Would our eggplant come out like an “E” or the pepper in a big, plump “P”?  It is fun to think of it until we realize that it’s entirely normal for cucumbers to turn into long “C” shapes.  The youngest knows this already, and my gardener husband confirms the truth.

There was no magic in the garden.

No zucchini coming in “Z” shapes or squash in long yellow “S’s.”  No enchanted alphabet vegetables. 

The disillusionment lasts only a millisecond.  My daughter, still in pajamas, decides to pick the basil for pesto.  Then she turns around and whispers:  “I’m picking some parsley for us too.  It’s the secret ingredient.”

Her eyes sparkle to think of the secret ingredient from the garden.

The wonder returns.  Tonight we are having enchanted pasta with pesto. 

Living with flair is finding a secret ingredient when you’ve reasoned the wonder away.

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3 Words You Need to Find Flair: Stress, Corner, and Plumb

Today, 3 words reminded me of what it takes to find the flair.

1.  Stress:  A trainer at the gym (the same one that encouraged–er, forced–me to take that Body Combat class) told me that I’m stuck in a rut.  She said that I’ve been doing the same old exercises for a year, and my body was plateauing.  I needed to stress my body differently now.  What?  You want me to stress my body?  But I like the plateau.   Plateau signifies a long, stable period of stability!  It’s a leveling off, a resting place.  Plateaus are beautiful!  They let you rest and look off into the distance when you are climbing that horrible mountain. But I’m learning plateaus aren’t always good–especially if you want to change yourself.  That trainer told me to come back to the class and “take it to the next level” with my fitness.  I needed to get off that plateau.  I needed to deliberately stress my heart and muscles.  So I did.   And this new place of sore muscles and sweat isn’t at all stable.  But it’s good.  When I leave the plateau, and embrace the stress of it, I can get out of what’s really a rut and get to the next level of flair.

2.  Corner:   I have a yellow recliner I moved to the corner of my living room.  I sat it in this morning after Body Combat.  I have never enjoyed that chair because of where it was in the room.  But when I moved it to the corner, all of a sudden, it’s my little nook of joy.  I have my Bible beside it, a novel, a little table with a reading lamp, and a soft quilt.   A corner is a place off to the side, a place where two walls meet in a remote area.  I love that word.  I’m learning to put myself in a corner to let my life come together the way the walls do.  If I don’t find a remote place, even in my own home, I can’t recover from leaving the plateau.

3.  Plumb:  Plumb means “exactly” as in “the tree was plumb center in the yard.”  So after reclining in the yellow chair in the corner, choosing to leave the plateau, I went out with my children to the plumb tree down the street.  Our kind neighbors said we could climb and pick as many plumbs as we want.  So my daughter is up in that tree, feasting on juicy red plums, and I’m picking ripe ones within my reach.  I bite down into the fruit of that big tree that I pass every single day.  I hardly noticed it until this weekend.  And now I’m plumb in the midst of it.  I want to be plumb aware of that tree.  I want to be accurate and precise in my observations of all the good things in my life.

I’m plumb in the center of finding flair:  stressing myself off the plateau, resting in my corner, and letting plumb juice drip off my chin.  It’s a good day here.

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Incomprehensible Flair

We are in the minivan (why is flair always happening in my minivan?) and my daughters are laughing hysterically about babies and their first words.  My youngest said “dog” first, and my oldest said “duck,” so they are trying to psychoanalyze what this must mean about them.  I tell them my friend’s first word was “daffodil” and that’s why she’s a writer.

Then the oldest asks:  “What’s a really long word that would be so weird to have as a first word?”

Out of the blue, I blurt out “incomprehensible.”

They are stunned by this 6 syllable word.  My daughter says, “I do not understand that word.”

“That’s what it means!” I say.  “It means it’s something not understood.”

They are shocked.  The feel that sublime moment where their experience of a word is what the word means. 

My children are fascinated with how people come into language.  They want to know more.  I’m thinking of Helen Keller’s encounter with the water and her ability to grasp “wet” by having water poured over her hands.

I talk more about what “incomprehensible” means.  I say stuff like:

“It’s like when you talk so fast and I can’t understand you.  It’s incomprehensible.”

“Not to me,” she says.

“Or when someone is speaking Chinese.  It’s incomprehensible.”

“Not to them.”   

I think about this.  Incomprehensible isn’t really a great word after all.  Just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s not understandable to somebody else somewhere.   I suppose living with flair means I don’t settle for saying something is incomprehensible.  If I get another perspective, I just might find the meaning. 

“Yeah, Mom.  You have to be careful when you explain words to us.”

I really do. 

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