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This Doesn’t Happen Every Day

As we walk to school, we find a cell phone and keys tucked away into the hollow of a tree.  These treasures arrive some days and leave by afternoon.   It’s so. . . intriguing.  I imagine the tree in To Kill a Mockingbird and the gifts the children discover as they walk to school. 

Our walk to school, once mundane, now offers a complicated plot twist.  Who owns these things?  Why are they here? 

The crossing guard announces that she hides these items in the tree as she goes about her work.  She retrieves them after her shift. We slump down, the intrigue gone.   For a moment, we had a real riddle on our hands.

And we loved it.  We need intrigue.  I’m in the presence of the intriguing when I can’t help but be curious, when I can’t help but ask questions.  Intrigue, according to my neighbors, drives us to read novels, to absorb ourselves in television and movie plots, and to abandon everything to learn more and unravel the complicated twist.

I’ve got to see the intrigue, even in a town like this, on a day like today.  

As we approach the school, we gaze up to the morning sky and the tall trees surrounding the building.  A deafening crack interrupts our chatter.  One of the tallest trees, bare and majestic, splinters and falls.  As it falls, it takes another enormous tree down with it.  Children, parents, and school administrators stand there, paralyzed by the power of it.   Is this really happening? 

How intriguing this whole scene is!  We’re delighted by it, entranced and curious.  We search and discover the ground crew, blocked by school buses, who orchestrate the event.

These things don’t happen every day.  Intriguing trees have taken over my morning. 

What else can I find about today that truly intrigues?  If I lift my eyes, I might just see something.

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3 Rules of Civility

As I teach about “civility”–showing politeness and regard for others–I realize how foreign of a concept kindness has become.  I ask the class why it’s so hard to be civil.  We practice writing arguments that persuade others, and adopting a civil tone makes all the difference when trying to persuade. 

“It’s more interesting to be angry and mean,” one student insists. 

It’s true, perhaps.  It’s more entertaining to insult another person than to argue with fairness.  And it’s easier. 

It’s hard to be kind.  It’s nearly impossible to be civil when we feel so passionately about our beliefs.  We speak from our anger and our passion.  

But our anger and passion do not always persuade.  

If we want to begin to have conversations that change individual minds (at least in today’s communication climate), we have to begin from a point of fairness.   

What does it mean to be fair?  We mention 3 ways:  recognizing a good intention within the opposition, uncovering the story that generated their viewpoint, and summarizing their opinion without condescension.  Only then have we fostered a suitable communication climate where people feel heard and ready to engage. 

“This is hard,” we all agree.  It’s hard because if we feel condescending–if we feel superior–it inevitably comes out in our speaking and writing.  So we have to admit some difficult things about ourselves.  We have to admit we don’t know everything.  We have to concede points and believe that our opposition’s viewpoint might contain an element of truth.  We have to treat that enemy with dignity even if we disagree with their point of view. 

Only then can we hear people.  Only then can we open the door to a conversation.  Civility in conversation means we are discussing, not fighting.  We are finding common ground, figuring out what we believe, and journeying together towards truth. 

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A Glorious Death

Autumn Leaves

I’m looking up into the autumn leaves, and I realize I’m watching a glorious death.  These colors–this vibrant display of glory–come at the point of death (technically the disintegration of chlorophyll).   This beautiful moment represents the end of life for these leaves.  I don’t name it as tragic.  I revel in this autumn landscape.  I take a picture and marvel.

What forms of death are glorious?  When, like these leaves, is death a moment of glory?

A Glorious Death

I think of when the will bends to God in a moment of surrender.  I think of what it means to become absorbed in divine purposes–letting my right to my own life, my own plans, and my own demands disintegrate like chlorophyll.  Like autumn leaves, I am most beautiful when I’m at the end of myself.  The Christian life might be seen as a glorious dying–a surrender of self–to become a child of the one whose Glorious Death wasn’t tragic but victorious and radiant.

Decaying Tree

Later, I hike through a forest and come upon a massive decaying tree.  I think of this as a glorious death as I imagine the refuge and nourishment such a dying tree provides for the ecosystem.  Might I see my own life as a fallen tree, bowed down, dead to self, so that I might find the life that’s truly life?

A life surrendered might feel tragic and painful.  But not for long.  It’s nourishing, radiant, glorious.  We see and marvel.

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Annoyed or Delighted?

Whenever it’s time to make up a bed with fresh, clean sheets, it’s as if the cats know.

They run to the bedroom.  Soon, I wrestle two kitties out from underneath the sheets.  They return to burrow and tumble, peek out and retreat.   I coax them out, urge them to the side of the bed, and start to make the bed again.

Just as I tuck in the last corner and turn to smooth the blankets on top, I see the perfect round lump right in the middle of the bed and under my sheets.  

These cats!  They infuriate me!  I start from the beginning and remake the bed so the sheets and blankets rest smooth and precise.  Somehow, a cat wriggles his way back up beneath the covers and lounges there.

I hear purring.  I hear satisfied and taunting purring.

I look at that rumpled mess of a made bed.  No order, no smooth lines.  Finally I realize that as long as I have these mischievous felines, I will have a lumpy bed.  You can’t make a bed properly with cats around.

Once I realize this, I just go about the process of making the bed differently.  I loosen the corners, I fluff up the blankets, and I invite a cat into caverns and caves I design. 

Those things I resist, those battles I fight, might be moments of surrender to the annoyance.  Some evenings, I retire to bed to see round lumps hiding under the covers.   Purring.  Loud purring.   It’s funny.  It’s endearing.  It’s a source of delight.

Could the things that annoy me the most become a source of delight somehow?  Those things about my family members that I want to change might become endearing things.  Things I would miss if I didn’t have them around.

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Your 30 Minutes of Free Time

I ask my students what they would do if I gave them 30 minutes of free time.  What if I let class out early?  How would they spend their time if I gave them recess?

With unexpected minutes given them, they’d drink more coffee.  They’d study more for the exam at 10:00 AM. They’d prepare more for a presentation. 

A recess refers to a period of time when a person or group is temporarily dismissed from duties.  In schools, teachers mandate recess.  Children go outside to play, and they do not feel guilty about missing work or losing precious minutes of productivity.

Other cultures regularly foster guilt-free recess moments in the form of a siesta or tea time.

I’m thinking of instituting siesta, high tea, or recess as part of my day because in the absence of a mandated time, I fear American culture resists free time.   

Stop everything.  Go outside.  Relax and just enjoy something.  For 30 minutes–without my phone or computer–I have to go play.  I might rest on my bed.  I might sip a cup of tea.  I could even kick a ball around in my driveway.

Once I asked a woman to share with me her top 5 ways to relax and rejuvenate.  She couldn’t think of one.

Recently, my children forged a trail through a forest so vibrant with autumn colors it seemed the heavens spilled paint down.  I walked with my husband and a neighbor as the sun set through the pine trees with that unmistakable golden light. 

The world moved on around us–the hustle and bustle–but out here in the woods, we had recess.  Maybe tomorrow we’ll have afternoon tea.  Maybe Sunday we’ll take a Sabbath siesta in a homemade fort.  Whatever form it takes, I’m ringing the bell to release us out to the playground.

30 minutes of free time built into our day–like a class we have to attend–sounds like rejuvenation:  restoring vitality, making us fresh again.

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When “Plan A” Fails

Green Tomatoes Before the Frost

We hear that a frost will come this week.  It seems so tragic:  dozens of beautiful tomatoes that never had a chance to ripen. 

But all is not lost.  As novice gardeners, we take advice from a master gardener in our community.  She tells us to harvest our green tomatoes, wrap them in newspaper, and tuck them away in a closet.  In several weeks, we’ll have a bounty of luscious, deep red tomatoes. 

I’ve never ripened tomatoes this way.  It seems unusual and unnatural.  It’s an entirely different means to a harvest. 

Wrapping tomatoes in newspaper

We eagerly wrap tomatoes like little gifts and hide them away to ripen.  We’ll peek in on them every week and watch their progress.  It’s not the way it’s supposed to happen, but it works.  It’s exactly right for this season.

I’m up to my elbows in unripe tomatoes that will ripen in an unexpected way–a way I didn’t imagine existed.  No God-given dream in my life has turned out in the manner I imagined.  The right process, the plan that was supposed to unfold in a particular way, veered off into orbit and produced a harvest in a different way, under different conditions.  I’ve learned to trust this concept.  I’ve learned to accept, trust, and then rejoice when Plan A fails.

I hold my dreams loosely–gently wrapped and tucked away.  God knows when and how they’ll come about.   

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What You Bring to the Fight

A great big dog and his owner arrive at our front door yesterday.  This neighbor has stopped by to visit on the front porch, but while fumbling with his gloves, he lets the leash loose.  The enormous dog squeezes past the screen door and rockets into the house.

Our cat, Louie, sits in the foyer, minding his own business.  He’s licking a paw; he’s yawning. 

And then, in a blur of fur and teeth, the dog nearly devours my cat.

Louie barely escapes.  He then exits the scene in what I think is a cowardly retreat.  But no!  That cat has hidden himself from view momentarily.  While hiding, the cat puffs out his fur in a magnificent display and returns to fight. 

Huge canine beast verses tiny (but now very fluffy) kitty.  There’s no chance, folks.

But Louie knows he can dominate by speed, sharp claws, and clever maneuvering.  Size does not matter when you know what you bring to the fight.

We intervene and stop the brawl.  But all night, I’m laughing about Louie’s bravery.  I’m chuckling about how he hid away, like Clark Kent in a telephone booth, to make his Superman transformation of fluffed-up fur that wasn’t even impressive. Did he not realize how out-sized he was?  Did he not think of the danger?

It’s ridiculous to take on such a monstrous dog.  But in kitty logic, size rarely matters.  Besides, Louie knew that my husband had his back.  And this was his turf.  No dogs allowed. 

That cat has flair.  His confidence, despite his size, amazes me.  Might I enter my mental and spiritual battles with the same fervor?  The enemy looms large, but I know what I bring to the fight.  I know who has my back.  Kitty logic might just save the day.

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A Little Secret

A student announces that she’s no longer drinking.  At the beginning of the semester, she tells us she’s known for partying, but today, she wants to stop it all.  We cheer for her.  Suddenly, the class feels like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  I don’t mind at all.

I tell her that my husband and I aren’t drinkers.  In disbelief, she smiles and asks, “You aren’t?  Really?”  Other students chime in that they, too, have abandoned the drinking scene.  Here we are, at one of the top party schools in the nation, and some students opt out.

They’re seniors.  It’s a lifestyle they can no longer sustain. 

“I need to know more people like you,” she says to them.  She needs to be able to imagine a world where people have nothing to recover from in the morning.

All day, I ponder choices I make that I need to recover from.   It’s not just over-consuming.  Something as simple as staying up too late makes the morning horrible.  Last night, I sit down to work, and I realize how sleep-deprived I am from the night before.  Instead of working, I could get a good night’s sleep.

So I go to bed.  Early.  

My choice to sleep seems profoundly spiritual.   I wake up without needing to recover.

I love that my students are thinking about the kinds of living they can sustain.  They make me think deeply about my own choices–what I can sustain for well-being, and what I can’t sustain and harms me–everyday. 

I want to wake up without needing to recover.  That’s another secret for health and mood:  if I need to recover from the night before, I wasn’t living with flair.

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5 Blisters

I count 5 blisters on my hands.

I touch each one.  A blister is the fluid that collects to protect the skin underneath from damage.  With that bubble of liquid in place, the layer below stays safe and can heal from whatever assaults it.  The blister is the skin’s defense mechanism.

These particular blisters arise out of an afternoon of raking leaves and building leaf houses with my daughters.  We map out rooms to our imaginary homes and pile up leaves for walls.   In our minds, the architecture rises up, brick by brick, and materializes over our heads.  An imaginary fire roars in the fireplace.  An apple pie bakes in the leaf oven.

It isn’t until I come inside to grade papers that I realize the damage to my hands.  These blisters are perfect protection from what I didn’t even perceive was wrong.

I didn’t tell my body to do that.  I didn’t even know it was happening.  What an intricate design the body is that it protects and repairs without our permission, without our even knowing!  So while I’m off imagining a life in leaves, something makes that layer I need to live outside of imagination.  It’s protects me when I don’t perceive harm.

Blisters remind me of God’s loving protection–the kind I don’t invite or often value, placed right in my hands so I can heal.  

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The Not To-Do List

Instead of a to-do list, a friend of mine suggests a not to-do list.  I’m at a conference all day teaching about writing personal mission statements, and I present the idea of a not to-do list, as in “what I am not going to do today in order to do what’s best and more aligned with my life purpose.”  People who aren’t taking notes suddenly start writing. 

It’s revolutionary for me:   I will write a list of all the things I will not do today.  I will make some space somewhere.

Two different people ask me how I handle the guilt I feel about that.  “Won’t I feel so guilty?  Won’t I disappoint so many people?”

Yes, you will.  You will disappoint people your whole life.  And those people need to be disappointed every once in a while because you can’t meet all their needs.  You weren’t designed to.

And the whole world will not fall apart if you say “no.”  

As I leave the conference, I’m so tired that I literally cannot speak.  I need to rest.  So I walk in the door, and I make my mental not to-do list.  I will not do a load of laundry.  I will not grade one single paper.  I will not call this person back. 

I collapse with my daughters in their bed.  I start reading aloud from the Children’s Story Bible by Catherine Vos.  It’s taken us several weeks to get through the book of Genesis, and now, we are nearly finished with Exodus.  As I read the 10 Commandments, my oldest daughter asks me why our family isn’t resting more on the Sabbath.  She lays her head back on the pillow and wonders:  “Does God mean no raking leaves?  No homework?  No dishes?  What does Sabbath mean?”

Right now, it means having a not to-do list so I make space for the best thing.   

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