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A Middle of the Night Question

In the middle of the night, my daughter finds me and asks:

“Mom, is it true that moose are going extinct?”  The question has her up, alert, and worried.

“I don’t think so,” I say quietly.  “I will find out for you.”

The truth is, I haven’t thought about a moose in 15 years.  The last time I even remember reading the word “moose” was when I read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem by the same title.  In that poem, a moose approaches a bus of travelers.  The moose, Bishop writes, “looks the bus over, grand, otherworldly,” and later, the poet wonders:  “Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy?”

This morning I read that moose aren’t going extinct (although in some regions, their habitats are threatened).  Their conservation status falls under the category “least concerned.”

My daughter is relieved, and I’m left wondering why I’m not waking up in the middle of the night concerned.  Children tend to be concerned with everything, and for some, concern about the environment and endangered species keep them up at night.  My kids remind me about the recycling and the lights I leave on in rooms I’m not using.  They turn the faucet off when I’m brushing my teeth.  They remain concerned while I worry about what’s convenient or only within my immediate experience.

Being woken up to consider the moose–the one I’m supposed to be “least concerned” about–taught me that living with flair means I concern myself with the world outside of this bedroom.  There’s a moose somewhere out there, grand, otherworldly.

(Photo from USDA Forest Service, Superior National Forest Wikimedia Commons)

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Just Because There’s Space Doesn’t Mean You Have to Fill It

For the first time in 9 years, I’m going to have space.  Space and time.  Both my daughters will attend elementary school from 8:30-3:00 PM. 

Already, I’m filling up those future days.  I work part time and help coordinate ministry events with my husband.  I write novels and design college writing courses on the side.  Saturday morning I clean the house.  If you read this blog, you know that I keep busy.  I’m driven by some unseen force to produce, to achieve, to be recognized.   That’s my dark side.

And it’s showing up again as this new school year approaches.  I’m already thinking about new projects and new campaigns. I’m wondering what group I can organize, what new courses to teach, and what new novel I’ll conceive.

My husband, the wise Eagle Scout that led me to the still water on our anniversary hike, said this:

“Just because there’s space doesn’t mean you have to fill it.”

I stare at him, mouth agape.  Whatever can that mean?  I don’t even know what that would look like.

This morning in church, I talk to God about my drive to fill space with as many things as I can.  What am I doing?  Whose affection am I trying to win? What prize am I racing toward?  I ask God to show me how to be led and not driven.  I ask God to show me what it would look like to have so much space in a day that I could rest, listen, and respond to my life rather than reacting in a rush of furious energy.

So I’m not filling space this fall.  I’ve turned down 3 offers for more work this week. I even said “no” to a teaching offer and a writing project.  Cheers!  High-fives!  I’m going to feed my soul and practice not filling space.  

I need space to be led by God and not driven.  I’m still not sure what it looks like to slow down and sit in empty space.  But whatever it is, it’s a new thing.  It will be my less frantic form of flair.

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A Little One, Unplugged

Like so many other moms, I’m trying to limit all TV and electronics this summer. I’ve read too much research about what “screen time” does to a child’s brain.  It’s hard, but I have to unplug.  Will my daughters’ creativity and imagination indeed flourish in the absence of television?  Is this summer insanity of bike riding, mud pies, swimming, long walks, and crafts, crafts, crafts worth it? 

Last night, we decide to snuggle on the couch and watch a show.  My youngest daughter says she likes to watch TV with her eyes closed.

“I like to just hear the words,” she says. “My brain makes better pictures than the TV can.”

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A Disgusting Flair Moment I Couldn’t Help

I’m emptying a litter box this morning, and I think to myself that it’s impossible to find flair in a moment like this.

I didn’t even want cats.  My animal loving, tender-hearted husband rescued two and added them to our already happy, one-cat family.  You know that story (with pictures) from an earlier blog post. 

With three cats, you have to empty the litter box.  If you don’t, they won’t use it and will find other places to go.   

There I am, combing the litter for those little deposits, finding them, clearing them out, and smoothing the litter for a fresh new day, and I realize how satisfying it is to prepare the litter box like that.  It is so. . . cleansing. 

Combing for the refuse, removing it, and smoothing out the area makes me visualize my own mind.

I realize this is disgusting and a little bizarre.  But if I’m going to be true to the flair moment, I record these things out of duty (no pun intended).

If you’ve never emptied a litter box, you might not know you need one indispensable tool:  The Pooper Scooper. 

I want one of these for my mind and heart.  I’d run the Pooper Scooper along the surface of my mind, gather up any trash, and get it out of there before it stinks everything up.   And I realize I’d have to do it daily to keep things fresh.   Remove the complaining, the negativity, the gossip, the worry.  Remove the fear, the stress, the jealousy.  Just lift everything up with the Pooper Scooper and get it out of of there.

So that’s the flair for today.  Sorry about that.

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The Real Oscar Moment

I’m walking down the street, balancing two fruit tarts in either hand.  The neighbor at the end of my street (the Italian Mama!) has invited us for dinner.

They weigh a lot for fruit tarts.  As I walk, I start thinking about the task of carrying things in my arms for long distances.  It doesn’t happen very often.  Something about living in America, something about prosperity, something about modern conveniences means I don’t carry things anymore.

I know women in other nations who carry laundry to a river to wash it against the rocks.  Those same women carry rainwater into their homes to bathe their children.  Women in Kenya, at this very minute, are carrying their sick family members to villages miles away to find medical help.

I’m carrying fruit tarts.  

What are other women carrying in their sturdy arms today?  What physical burdens do they bear?  I thought of the woman in Proverbs 31 whose “arms are strong for her tasks.”  People who carry heavy loads often have a strength, a resolve, and a hidden joy.  Theirs is a particularly robust form of flair.  But nobody celebrates them with recognition or reward. And they don’t seek those things.  

We ate the fruit tart, and all evening I’m thinking of people carrying heavy loads.  Who honors them?  I wake up, still thinking of them.

As the morning progresses, 3 events transpire in rapid succession.  First, I read a paragraph about the temptation to build a reputation, to seek fame, to chase reward.  The author quotes Philippians in the Bible and shares how Jesus was “of no reputation,” and did not seek to exalt himself in any way.  He “made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant.”

Then, I help a friend pack up her apartment for the moving truck.  She’s a professor who has served me on many occasions, and her whole vocation involves serving students.  At one point, she brings over a golden statue.  It’s an Oscar!

I take it in my hands.  It’s heavy.  Somebody gave her a fake Oscar for a present, and for a few minutes, we give each other imaginary acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards.

I carry it in my arms–this symbol of fame and wealth.

I’m not thinking of movie stars.  I’m thinking of women carrying heavy loads.

And lastly, my daughters return from Vacation Bible School with a craft that displays the exact same verse in Philippians about the servant of no reputation.

Might I live as a servant with no reputation?   They carry the heaviest of loads and shine brighter than any star.

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You, the Expert

I know many experts.  I have friends with cooking expertise, exercise expertise, teaching expertise, spiritual expertise, and parenting expertise.

They read, they study, they take classes, they interview others. These folks are wise

I call them all the time.  Just this morning, my sister, an education expert, talked me through my stress about my daughter’s kindergarten assessment.  Yesterday, I called my friend, a cooking expert, to ask the proper technique for storing or freezing my scads of garden basil.   Then I talked to another friend who knows how to counsel me through spiritual questions. 

I even have bug experts in my life.  I place emergency calls when weird looking insects attack my tomatoes.
  
A vibrant mind continues to learn.  Interesting folks, I read, have at least 5 topics they study.  As they age, they continue to grow in these areas, accumulating wisdom.  And then they teach others.  Normally, I think of expertise more narrowly.  But why not journey towards more topics? 

If I had to choose five, I’d pick subject areas like prayer, writing, teaching, parenting, and marriage.  Maybe I could make these more specific and pare down each category into 5 subcategories.  At that rate, I will have things to learn and do even in my 90’s.  Maybe I could assign a decade to each topic so, for the next 50 years, I’d have ways to grow.

My husband does this with his passion for history.  The 30’s? Revolutionary War.  The 40’s?  Civil War.  He spends 10 years reading everything he can on a certain historical topic.

This is why we have so much to talk about on date night. He doesn’t experience that strange land called Boredom. 

Living with flair means I study to become an expert.  Maybe for this year of flair, I could expand my topics beyond semicolons and dashes.  Maybe I could become an expert in Italian cooking or dressmaking.  I’m on my way.

I want to have passion and growth until the day I die.


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3 Skills to Pass On

The flair moment came as I thought more about an article I read yesterday called, “Redefining Education:  Cultivating the Soul”, written by Thomas Moore (who happens to have been a monk, a professor, psychotherapist, and musician).  He writes this: 

“There are many items we assume can’t be taught that will simply fade away if we don’t teach them: manners, civility, good language, mature love, good art, self-awareness and reflection, intelligent reading, responsible travel, care of one’s home and belongings, a sense of the beautiful, intelligent spirituality and empathy for our fellow citizens on the planet. This is a small part of a much longer list.”

All morning, I’ve been thinking about Moore’s words.  How am I cultivating these traits in others (and myself) as a parent and as a teacher?  As I help students prepare professional materials (resume, cover letter, mission statement), I always remember what they report was most useful of all.  It’s not the PowerPoint slides about effective resume design or how to format a cover letter.  It’s the week I take to teach them these three things:

1.  The art of Conversation
2.  The art of Conflict Resolution
3.  The art of Community Organizing

When we discuss and practice these things, we know we tap into a lost art form of living well in community.  Students who know how to engage others in conversation, how to manage disagreements, and how to gather folks together to solve problems succeed more in work and in life.  They know this, and time proves it.

The lost art of living vibrantly in community needs revival.  This week, I’m reminding my family how to ask good questions in conversation (What was that like for you?  Would you tell me more?), resolve conflict well (listen, summarize, find common ground), and organize community events to examine and confront problems in our community (fitness, education, environment).  Perhaps these three skills will capture the essence of Moore’s hopes for education. College students find them life-enhancing and often life-changing.  I know my family will too.

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The Interrupting Chicken

I’m told I need to pick my children up in the sanctuary after their first day of Vacation Bible School.  It’s a ranch theme, and I’m already smiling at the teenage helpers dressed in overalls, bandanas, and cowboy boots.  I’m a little early, so I sneak in to see the skit that one group performs on the stage.

I can hardly hear them speaking because of the chickens. 

Yes, chickens.

On the corner of the stage–as decoration in a nice cage–three chickens squawk as loud as they can.  Somebody thought that chickens would be a nice touch, I’m sure.  Somebody had to pull some serious strings to get live chickens in the sanctuary.

The chickens sit on that stage and squawk so loudly at the exact moment anybody tries to speak.

I start laughing.  The other parents coming in behind me start laughing.  Then, all the children are laughing.  They call the chickens the “interrupting chickens,” and it’s obvious who steals the spotlight.  

It’s never a good idea to use creatures as decoration, and apparently, you can cage their bodies but not their voices.  Those chickens took down a room full of humans.  I imagine some disgruntled volunteer went and released them.

Meanwhile, I’m asking my children about God, what they learned about the Bible, and what sort of ways they might have developed good character this morning.  They stare at me, wide-eyed, and announce that they actually witnessed interrupting chickens.

Chicken in a cage flair.   If only I could be so confident in the power of my own voice.

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Google Street View and Happiness

Sometimes when I’m missing certain places, I’ll visit them using Google Street View.  I can walk down childhood roads, visit old neighborhoods, observe favorite restaurants or city streets, or spy on my own house–all thanks to Google’s Street View.

And sometimes, when I’m imagining what life must be like in a different city, I’ll visit University of Melbourne in Australia, cruise a street in Beijing, or explore Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood or 5th Avenue in New York.  Yesterday, I even drove down US 25 towards my favorite summer spot in the mountains of North Carolina–all clicking my mouse on Google’s arrows that lead in whatever direction I choose.    

It’s always tempting to believe that a better life exists in another location.

I want to believe that my location is what makes life good.  If only I were in this place or that place or here or there.  But the deeper into the life of faith I travel, the more I realize the truth behind the writer’s statement in Psalm 90 that “the Lord himself is our dwelling place.”  And this morning before church, I read in the book of John where God says that “he makes his home” within us. 

How curious:  I dwell in God, and God dwells in me. Sometimes I think God lets me leave certain places and arrive at others just to learn this truth.  If God is my dwelling place, it doesn’t matter where I am; I’m home.  It’s the Spirit of God that makes any location marvelous.  Can this be true?  I want it so badly to be. 

Visiting locations from my desk reminds me that my happiness isn’t found in a place.  It’s within me– where God dwells.

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2 Reasons to Look Harder

This morning we find a Tomato Hornworm on our tomato plants.  These bugs are huge and yet so difficult to see.  They almost perfectly resemble the background leaves and stalks.

I’m staring at the plants, and all I see are leaves and tomatoes.  But when my entomologist friend comes by, she spots the camouflaged creature immediately.

I can’t see anything.

I look harder, burying myself in tomato leaves.  Finally, I see another one. I almost have to cross my eyes and squint to distinguish the bug from the plant.  It feels like I’m in some Magic Eye book. 

I had this 3D Magic Eye poster in college.  In 1993, you could go to shopping malls and look at these posters to find the hidden pictures within them.  There were stereograms, or more specifically, autostereograms. 

 A stereogram is an optical illusion of depth created from a flat, two-dimensional image.  The point is that another image exists buried deep within the other.  This poster, for example, hides glasses within it.  I would stare until my eyes ached as I tried to get that image to pop out of the poster.  It drove me nearly crazy to think that something was really there, but I couldn’t perceive it.  It infuriates me like those Tomato Hornworms that are really there–devouring my plants–and escaping my perception.  My eyes fail me over and over again. 

How many things hide within my reality that I don’t perceive?  And how many things do I discount as real simply because they dwell outside of the realm of visual perception?  Tomato Hornworms and autostereograms are two reasons why I’m willing to believe in what I cannot always see.

I’m sure that living with flair has something to do with stereograms and seeing beneath the surface of things.  

(Tomato Hornworn, courtesy of Whitney Cranshaw, CSU, bugwood.org)

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