I’ve been known to applaud students right in the middle of class if they say something something great. I’ve been known to cry “Bravo!” and actually rise to my feet.
When I grade papers, I write “Bravo!” in the margins when I see flair in any form.
Why that word? The word bravo derives from the Italian word meaning brave. Originating from 18th century Italian opera, the word isn’t as common as it once was.
But it should be.
We cry out to celebrate after a strong performance because we recognize something great. What did we see? I wondered this morning if that “something great” relates to acts of bravery that we recognize and respond to.
Every great act requires bravery. What fear, what challenge, what opposition did we rise up against to do this thing we are doing? For some of us, waking up and making it to the bathroom is a courageous act.
I imagine a chorus of invisible witnesses who cheer us on in our daily toil. The excellent performances of simple folks who rise up against whatever enemy deserve our applause. I rise to my feet; I clap my hands for you. “Bravo! You are brave! You are brave today, and we recognize it.”
On this abysmally wet and dreary day, I find my umbrella only half works. I’m dripping wet as I lug my books for class, my purse, and cold coffee out across the parking lot. And I’m late for the bus. I can already see it start to pull away as dry, warm riders make it to their buildings on time.
A bus pulling away begins to represent all my longing, all my missed opportunities, all my sorrow over every thing I’ve ever experienced in my whole life.
I’m drooping my head, sagging down with each puddled step when, all of a sudden, I hear the hum of a bus where no bus should still be.
I look up. A bus remains! The driver waits for me. He waits! I charge on, coffee mug high, purse swinging wildly, and feet sloshing (who cares?) in puddles.
A bus waiting where no bus should still be begins to represent all the good things still present in the midst of the rain. It will keep me warm all day.
A nurturing gesture from a stranger on a cold, rainy day makes me feel seen, honored, loved. I ride with a smile on my face. I look around me. We’re all in this together. I can wait for you.
This morning before church, I have a moment to relax with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.
I put a dollop of whipped cream in my coffee mug. (I like to pretend I’m at Starbucks.)
All of a sudden, the little one flits over, skirt twirling and finger pointing at my mug.
Then she does it. She actually does it. She sticks her finger straight into the cream, pulls it out, and licks away.
The audacity! How dare she? I’m feeling. . . something. As she completes another twirl around me, I see her pointed finger approaching my mug. But instead of punishing her, I tip the coffee mug so she can get the most cream. I’m encouraging this atrocious behavior.
I’m so overcome with love for that little child.
The image of the little one dancing about me with inappropriate manners and audacious finger-pointing requests delights me. I should have been angry. I should have scolded her, but I cannot. That little twirl! That little finger full of cream!
Later in church, the image stirs up within me. It wasn’t an audible voice; it wasn’t a boom of thunder from the clouds. But as I recalled that child and how I couldn’t help but tip the mug so she might enjoy more of what I could offer, I felt that Spirit-whisper saying: I feel this way about you. I’m overcome with love.
Dance about. Make audacious and inappropriate requests. Point the finger and dizzy yourself with twirls. God tips the mug, delighted.
I stand in a museum in Gettysburg. As I enter the room called, “The Gettysburg Address,” I feel more solemn than I expect. A simple room–nothing elaborate or majestic–painted in muted browns displays the words of that historic address. 10 sentences, less than 250 words. I examine Lincoln’s handwriting, noting his style. How could so few words create a cultural moment so powerful? How could this conglomeration of verbs, dashes, and words puzzled into a graveyard address change the course of history?
The document amazes me. Lincoln uses the address to challenge and inspire us to press on in our own legacy-making, our own freedom-fighting, our own responsible citizenship so those honored dead “shall not have died in vain.” It’s a speech so deeply embedded in the past (four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent), but so simultaneously lodged in a future Lincoln could not yet see (that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom). That double vision is what the study of history so often offers.
As I turn from the wall displaying the text of the Gettysburg Address, I face an opposing wall of quotations others have made at the time of Lincoln’s speech. It’s difficult to see with this cell phone photo, but these quotes refer to the short speech as a bunch of “silly remarks.” One newspaper says that “every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat. . . remarks.” Another comment claims that Lincoln’s remarks will “no more be repeated or thought of” in American history.
I take a picture. I laugh at the irony. There will always be haters. There will always be opposition to the good, the noble, and the true. Perhaps the amount of criticism directly correlates to how good, noble, and true a thing is.
Living with flair means we move on in our legacy-making and our freedom-fighting despite opposition. What others claim is “dull and commonplace” just might change a nation’s history.
Yesterday, I hydroplane.
It’s terrifying. One minute you’re driving along the slick wet road, and the next minute, you’re flying. The tires lose their grip on the road. The steering wheel seems disconnected from the car. The vehicle swerves recklessly.
It’s out of control.
But just as quickly, the tire rediscovers the road. That clash, that beautiful resistance, keeps you centered in your lane and attached to the road.
I don’t want a easy life. I don’t want smooth sailing. It’s the friction that ties me to my path. It’s the clash against me that makes me function best. This sticky situation, this disappointment, this complaint reminds me of my need for God, of my absolute dependence, and of the reality of danger apart from that grip. It’s humbling and it’s uncomfortable sometimes. But it’s safe.
Those things I don’t want in my life just might be the friction I need to get to where I’m going.
My student bursts into the classroom. “I’ve lost my paper! I didn’t save it properly and the whole thing is gone!” The exasperation in this student’s face is one I’ve seen many times before.
My student can’t get that paper back. He stands in front of me, small and hopeless. I’ve been there. I remember the first time it happened to me. I remember the discouragement, the anger, the desperation, and the embarrassment of it all when I forgot to save a term paper.
It’s not fair; it’s not right. But I told myself I had to move beyond what’s fair or right. I had to move beyond the anger and the shame.
I had to start again.
Students tell me that what they produce after the loss turns out stronger, more authentic, and more concise than the original paper. They build on the memory of what they once wrote and make something better. It’s not easy, and it never seems fair. Losing stuff is like that. I’m learning to take a loss and build on it somehow to create a marvelous new thing.
Otherwise, I get stuck in the anger.
This won’t be the last time we lose something that can’t be recovered. But beauty does arise from the ashes. I see it every semester with every lost paper. I see it in my own life with every thing I’ve ever lost. There’s a way to start again on the fresh page, remember what you had, and press your fingers down on the keys. You start letter by letter, word by word. Soon, you’re not just back where you started. You’re beyond in a beautiful far country that you never imagined existed. And the loss got you there.
I’m in class, teaching difficult things. We stress, we furrow our brows, and we cramp our fingers around our pens as we engineer new thesis positions. We sigh with discouragement as we discuss urgent social and political matters.
I lean back, cross my legs, and expose the socks I’m wearing underneath these business slacks. Striped pink socks with monkeys on them. A few people laugh out loud.
I’ve always worn whimsical socks. I put them on as the last accessory before I slip on my boring (but extremely comfortable) work shoes.
The socks remind me not to take myself so seriously. The day stretches before me: difficult, stressful, urgent. But the subtext of the whole day–the story underneath my professor attire–calls out to me. There’s something fun here. There’s something quirky, delightful, and refreshing. Even in pain, even in sorrow, I can discover a way to giggle or roll my eyes at something silly and unprofessional.
Might there be room in my serious day for the trivial thing that delights? And why wouldn’t that thing be a sock? Socks provide protection, covering, and warmth. Sometimes I need to buffer the deep and distressful with the delightful and diverting.
Living with flair means I don whimsical socks. Seriously fun when I’m taking myself too seriously.
Today, I attended that Body Combat class that once made me cry.
I’m front and center with the petite and perky trainer staring right into my eyes. With every muscle toned and every skin surface glistening, she encourages me to “own the space” around me and to “no longer be a prisoner.” As I punch and kick the air, I imagine some unnamed demon–depression, failure, regret–and I attack fiercely and swiftly.
I’m working hard.
Then, at the point of my exhaustion, the trainer says, “Don’t forget to breathe.” It’s silly. How could I forget? Why do trainers always command us to do something so simple and intuitive? Breathe.
I ask her why we have to be reminded.
She says (in between one-handed push ups and military crawls) that when the body is working hardest, it forgets the thing it needs the most. The focus on the task (utilizing muscles in difficult configurations) means we forget to breathe. We hold our breath as we focus.
“So I have to remind you. There’s no quicker way to fatigue the body than to forget to breathe.”
Her lesson in breathing at the point of my most focused and hardest work reminds me that what seems automatic and intuitive often freezes up when I’m working. I fatigue myself because I’m neglecting the thing I need the most.
When I’m fatigued like this, I need to ask myself what I’m neglecting that I need the most.
Our acorn stockpile wasn’t such a great idea after all. A few days ago, I learned that acorns contain bitter tannins that interfere with a squirrel’s ability to metabolize protein. That’s why they bury them!
Burying acorns and letting them sit underground allows moisture to percolate through them to “leach out” the tannins.
Our stockpile circumvented this process. We’ll have to bury them or let them sit in groundwater for days.
How could I not think of ways I seek short-cuts, of ways I stockpile and fret, when all along, I’m preventing a much needed process? When my plans rest dormant underground, might I see them as percolating in the moisture needed to make them nourishing and not destructive?
God is leaching out the bitter thing–the thing that might harm me.
Squirrels surrender to the process. They don’t resist the truth of their circumstances. They gather, bury, and then feast only after that secret underground process completes. Might living with flair mean we watch the squirrels and understand something about our own journey with God?
I can’t circumvent what needs to happen.
My shoes look a lot like this: brown, basic, sensible, sturdy. No heel.
Are you surprised? I’m the same woman who wore flip-flops to a fancy Manhattan party. No matter how hard I try, I could never wear shoes like this: Pink, Satin, 10 inch heel. Strappy.
Put me in shoes like these, and I’d entangle the heel in my clothing; I’d fall into the street; I’d look like a fool. But every once in a while, I think that I’m supposed to wear high heels. And they have to be satin and pink and absolutely adorable.
Once I asked my friend (she wears 10 inch heels regularly, with jeans even) if her shoes were comfortable.
“Of course not! I’m in excruciating pain!” she hollers at me. She has to walk back to the parking lot from our building. She’s barely making it. I think I see blood.
My shoes, in comparison, look beyond boring. What happened to all my sass?
Many years ago, I chose to throw off the conventions that torture rather than free, that bind rather than release. I’ve spent too much of my life entangled in fancy externals that masquerade as the good life. In that life, the things that promise freedom actually oppress. You know it because of the pain. You know it because you’re following some rule about what’s supposed to make you happy. And you can’t remember what you love anymore. Instead, you’re living a cliche as scripted as pink satin 10 inch heels.
They aren’t me. They were never me. I love comfy shoes that I don’t have to think about.
Release the buckle and strap, slip off the entanglement, and run free.