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Latkes, Menorahs, and the French Phrase that Might Change Your Life

I have a student who already has a career in bread and pastries.  She’s a baker who works all through the night baking bread for local bakeries.  She’ll rise at 2:30 AM, work all night, and report to my 10:00 AM class covered in flour.  The smell of freshly baked bread precedes her and lingers when she departs. 

Last night, my baker student stops by to make potato latkes (pancakes) for my family.  She wants to share this special Hanukkah food tradition with us, and she even brings a Menorah to light at sundown.   As a Jewish daughter, she said the blessing as the candles were lit in her family, so she also proclaims the Hebrew blessing as a treat for my Christian family as the flames flicker.

But first, we make latkes!  She’s like a precision sportsman grating white and sweet potatoes with speed.  As my student cooks, I notice how organized and how peaceful she remains.  She carries on 3 different conversations, washes the dishes (and the floor!), and flips the latkes.  At no point is my kitchen disordered or dirty.  No stress, no worry. 

“This is amazing!” I remark. 

She looks over at me (while putting more latkes in the pan), and says, “Mise en place.” 

“Me za what?” I ask, laughing.

“It’s French for, ‘everything in its place’,” she teaches.  Apparently, every great baker knows this rule.  Before you start cooking anything, you enact mise en place.  You set everything up–all your ingredients, all your tools, all your supplies–for the entire project.  There’s no scurrying about and no energy wasted. Everything is exactly as you need it–mise en place

When the latkes finish, she turns them over onto a plate beside her, already lined with a paper towel–mise en place

When sundown falls like a grandmother’s shawl around our home, she has her candles and matches ready to light her Menorah.  Her Hebrew blessing is typed out in translation for us–mise en place

I serve Italian for dinner; my husband prays over our meal; we enjoy Jewish latkes as the candles burn down. 

But all night, mise en place resonates long after I should be sleeping.  Can I do that with my life?  Can I get everything ready–anticipating–so I offer spaces of peace and organization?  Those well-planned days are my best days.  No scurrying, no energy wasted.  I have everything I need right here before me.  Living with flair means mise en place

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Layer Up

On a cold day like today, with temperatures below 20 degrees and a wind chill that takes your breath away, I have no choice but to face my day with layers.  And I’m especially cold since I’ve barely recovered from my illness.

With tights, long johns, knee-high pink socks, black boots, wool skirt, wool sweater, wool jacket, hat, scarf, and mittens on, I walk around campus.  I’m cozy, tucked-in, secured like a newborn swaddled in quilts.

I’m actually a little warm.

Layering is the only way to survive the winter.  In fact, layering will always keep you warmer than a single heavy coat.  Layering acts like insulation on the body and slows the transfer of heat.  Heat trapped between clothing layers works as thermal insulation, and I stay warm all day. 

Layering my clothing to regulate body temperature made me seriously consider the concept of other forms of regulation.  Hasn’t my weight loss journey been about layering up my surroundings with good choices–veggies, then fruits, then whole grains, then lean proteins, then dairy?  Hasn’t my mood regulation been all about layering the day with good sleep, positive relationships, spiritual practices, and exercise?

I start the day, add layers of good things,  and eventually feel the warmth of thermal insulation protecting my mind and body from whatever comes against it.   Living with flair means I layer. 

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How to Be Sick with Flair

All night long, a fever rages, and I can’t keep warm no matter what I do.  I’m coughing so much that I actually lose my voice.  I can’t talk on the phone; I can’t boss my family around; I can’t even go to church and call out my welcomes. 

I try to get out of bed while everyone else is at church, but then I flop back down on the pillow.  I have no energy.  I’m suddenly amazed by how the body takes the energy it needs to get better and forces you to conserve it.  You stay in bed.  You don’t move.

I can’t stand the lack of productivity.  I actually devise a grand plan with my lost voice.  I can make a vow of silence and pray all day.  How godly!  But when I try to get my Bible and journal, I flop back down on the pillow once more.  Forget it.  I’m too weak.  

I’m worried about how in the world my husband got everybody ready for church and who handled all my responsibilities there.  And I’m worried about who’s cooking dinner. 

My family returns from church, and the girls bound into my room like little gazelles leaping about the bed.  Their outfits are adorable, and my husband has actually fixed their hair.  The youngest has the smoothest pony-tail , and their faces are clean and bright.   I can’t stop looking at that pony-tail.  For years my husband has announced, “I don’t do hair.  I’ll do everything else, but I can’t do hair.”

But he did it. I look again at that hair and realize how God provides, even down to the pony-tail.  And then a friend sends the message that she’s bringing hot soup.   I turn over in my blanket and realize my God-given assignment.  Stay in bed.  Don’t move.  

There’s nothing I can do, so, for once, I learn how to let God provide.

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Stencil Me In

Snowman Pancake

This morning, we invite some neighbors to join us for our Saturday Morning Pancakes.  My artistic neighbor sees the pancakes and immediately makes a homemade stencil so we can decorate them. We relax, drink coffee, and decorate snowman pancakes in the chaos of powdered sugar and syrup. 

So there we are, eating our art, and discussing such topics as multiple universes, our thoughts about God, and whether or not technology acts like an autonomous organism.  We have smart neighbors.  I love the kinds of conversations these neighbors inspire.  They can get a whole group talking and thinking. 

Meanwhile, I have a film student (who happens to be in my writing class) stopping by to take footage of our neighborhood fitness group for a promotional video about running.  Normally, the neighbors meet on Monday nights and walk to school every morning, but we have to reproduce a Saturday Morning Fitness Group for his video.  I call neighbors at the absolute last minute and tell them we are running around in my front yard.  Could they come by with their children–real quick–and help out my film student?  I know this is a little, you know, chaotic. 

They come.  Without question, they come.

And they welcome the chaos.  You have to–when you want to build authentic community–welcome some chaos, some last minute plans.  I’ve learned I need to make the space in my life for the possibility of last minute plans.  I need to schedule large blocks of nothing. 

As some of us finish our snowman pancakes and coffee, others gather in the front yard, and still others hang out in the living room. I haven’t even vacuumed yet.  Saturday cleaning day will now be Sunday cleaning day.  I overhear neighborhood plans to have a Giant Gingerbread House Making Party.  We don’t know when this will happen, and yes, it will be chaotic.  

But just send out the call.  We’ll come.  Without question, we’ll come.  

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Will Technology Destroy My Teaching?

This morning my daughter announces that her class is going on a field trip to the University Astronomy Lab.

Her personal favorite planet is Jupiter.

All day, I’ve been thinking about the wonder she’ll feel.  These planetarium shows, according to the website, “feature spectacular astronomical images from the surface of Mars, to dusty nebulae, to dazzling galaxies, rendered in three dimensions with the aid of special eyeglasses and projection screens.”

This kind of technology might just provide a sublime experience for these children.  They might go on to study astrophysics, probing deeper into the mysteries of the universe.

I wish I were there with her.

But I had my own experience with technology and education today.  I received my classroom assignment for next semester, so on my way back to the parking lot, I casually pop into my future classrooms.  One of them hides deep within an ancient campus building.  The tiny room has 25 chairs and desks and a long table up front (for me).  I’m not sure I even have a chalkboard to use in that room.  These are the rooms instructors beg to get switched.  They shed tears over these assignments and bribe administrative assistants to send them to any other classroom. 

But I love rooms like that.  I request the simplest classroom.  

The second classroom resides in a building I haven’t visited yet–the Business School.  I walk in, and I’m immediately transported to another universe.  A ticker on the wall brags out the stock market numbers.  Flat screen TV’s broadcast major network news.  Coffee shops send out an aroma that, in this environment, makes me feel rushed and nervous.  Everybody’s in suits, and the click of high heels on the floor breeds a strange insecurity in me.

I find my classroom.

It’s spectacular, dazzling.  Each wall has a projection screen, and I count no less than 7 white boards that light up for my notes.  My podium up front features more buttons than I could ever figure out what to do with.  It has a microphone. If I touch this one button, the lights dim and a huge screen descends behind me.

Maybe another button ushers in my avatar who teaches for me while I go get a latte.

The students’ seats swivel, and I’m not sure, but I wonder if each desk has its own laptop built in. 

I turn a circle in this future classroom, and then I immediately think:  “This is so . . . distracting!” 

What will I do with so much technology?  What could it inspire in folks trying to learn to use strong verbs and varied sentence structure?  Am I now putting on a show with lights and sounds? At what point does the technology distract rather than enrich?

I’ve posed the question to my technology-inundated students.  Shall I change my course?  One man leaned back (in his old desk) and said, “Don’t do it.  Don’t use the technology.  People want to talk about their ideas together in class.  That’s what they really want.”  

But is there something I’m missing? 

Living with flair means I figure out how to use technology in ways that enrich and offer sublime experiences.  Because it can.  I just don’t know how–as a writing teacher–it will.

Do you know?

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What You’ve Been Given

It’s officially winter here. 

Snow swirls up and settles, finally, on the land.  

But it’s the worst kind of snow because there’s not enough to do anything with it.

But the neighborhood children, despite the lack of significant snow accumulation, still coax sleds down hills all afternoon.  And they still make snowmen no matter how little they are given.  In one child’s front yard, I stop and notice she’s made a mama and a baby snowman, in miniature.

Miniature Snowman

Lord, help me take what I’ve been given today and turn it into a beautiful thing. 

Living with flair means I make something out of whatever I’m given.   

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How College Should Be

Last night, an entire class of students comes by my house with food for a huge potluck.  This isn’t part of the job description of a college instructor, and I know it’s unusual–at least at a big state school–to invite students into your home.

I’m supposed to keep my professional distance.

But my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia ruined me regarding professional distance.  In those days, I dined with professors nearly every evening.  As part of the Jeffersonian ideal of the “academic village,” professors joined students in dining halls or else invited them into their homes for dinner, dessert, or coffee.  Some of my favorite memories from college have to do with meeting my instructors outside of the classroom.  I remember walking into the living room of my English professor and sitting around a table with a group of other students and just talking–like it were an ordinary, everyday thing–about beauty.

Another professor, Rita Dove–the Poet Laureate of the United States at the time and Pulitzer Prize winner –actually hosted class in my dorm room.  She actually sat on my bed and talked to me about my poems.  The other students sat in a circle on my floor.  How could I not feel like I’d entered a portal into adulthood, into intellectual communities that wanted to hear my voice?

Later that semester, Ms. Dove hosted us all for dinner.

I talked about my life.  I talked about things I hoped for and things I cared about.  Those conversations changed me forever.

Those conversations made me feel truly adult, truly independent.   It was college at its best.  

My class piles into my living room, and one student plays her guitar while others sing around the piano.  We decide to talk about creativity, future careers, and the burden of having to decide how to choose a career when you love too many things.  And these students actually want to talk about their writing projects.  They pose questions, make comments, and grapple with their revision process all while petting my cats and eating homemade apple pie.  One student says, “Dr. H., I want to write my memoir about this,” as she gestures to our group gathered about her. 

I have to force them out the door so I can go to bed.  

When most people think of the college scene, they visualize the alcohol and the parties.  But for at least one night, a group of students sat around and talked about ideas–not because anybody was taking attendance–but because they wanted be together and share their ideas and their lives.  That’s what makes college so good.

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The One Word Reminder

Years ago, I read a parenting book about the power of the one word reminder.  Instead of spouting out long, elaborate directions to children, especially in times of transition (leaving for school, going to bed), you simply call out the one word reminder.

Shoes! 

The single reminder houses an entire narrative:  the child remembers now to get her jeans on, put on her socks, and find her shoes.  She doesn’t need my monologue.  One word does it. 

As I thought about the power of one word to invoke a whole series of commands, and how that one word gets a child’s train of thought back on the right track, I wondered about my own one word commands.

What if I used one word reminders to get my mind where it should be and to realign my heart with the truth?  If one word helps children, why can’t one word help adults too?

I used a couple on myself today. 

In the slopping rain, I call out to myself: flair.  Suddenly, I remember to look for it.   Later, I use the single word gentle to remind myself to be gracious and gentle with myself and others. I’ve been known to call out the word “Jesus” to invoke the enormity of the gospel into whatever situation I’m in. 

One word triggers–mantras of focus and truth–can reshape the day, get my head out of a muddle, and refocus my heart. We have an entire arsenal of power here.  We can apply it right now, that one word reminder, that will change everything.  

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Belongingness?

I learned last week about the word “belongingness.”  It’s the human need to feel like we belong to a group and that we are part of something greater than ourselves. Right after the basic need for food, water, and shelter, belongingness ranks next in importance.

I think we skip this need and move right onto the need for esteem and self-actualization.  We abandon belongingness because it doesn’t seem important.  And yet, so many of us suffer from profound loneliness and the kind of isolation that drives us to despair.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes. 

My students often make comments that they felt like they really “belonged” in my classroom.  Feeling like you belong–that you are in the right place, in the right situation, with the right people–might be one of the best feelings in the world. I labor towards this goal for my students; I learn about them, share about myself, and insist on ridiculous name games for the entire semester, long after we know each other. 

Vibrant community–lived out in faith and love–fills the soul so deeply.   I’m learning that it takes effort to build community.  You have to do something:  walk kids to school, launch fitness groups, host potlucks, inspire creative project nights, arrange play dates for dads.

One day, you will all feel like you belong to each other.  You’ll never be the same when you look around you and feel belongingness. 

Folks are suffering from a lack of where to belong.   Living with flair means I gather as many folks as I can and help them find a place to belong.  I don’t wait for somebody else to do this work.  And before I know it, my heart overflows.

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My Daughter’s Perspective on Holiday Shopping

We’re in a glitzy store, admiring all the ornaments and enjoying the holiday smells.  As my children wander down the aisles to observe the dazzling toys, my youngest cries out:

“Mommy!  You have got to come see this!  It’s amazing!  Come here right now!”  She’s calling out to me, weaving in and out of shoppers to pull me to her side.  I think she’s about to show me some toy–the kind with bells and whistles and a price tag we’ll never be able to afford.

Instead, she drags me to. . . nothing.  In silence, she points to the floor.  There, on the store’s carpet, imprinted with the markings of a thousand holiday shoppers’ shoes, a rectangular rainbow appears from the perfect configuration of light coming through the window through some prism I cannot see.

“Look at it.  Just look at it!”  She moves her feet and hands within the rainbow, and I do the same.  The light on our skin makes us blaze with a spectrum of colors.  She’s filled with wonder at this rainbow on the floor.

It cost me nothing.

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