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How to Enter a Room with Flair

I walk into a room and wonder who’s going to talk to me.  Inevitably, I spiral into a self-conscious moment. 

I’m waiting for my daughters to finish a gymnastics class, and I look around the waiting room.   The lively chatter of mothers all around me makes me feel terribly alone.  I don’t belong in this group; I’m an outsider to this world of sequin leotards, glitter hairspray, and the flurry of little girls trying to finish their homework before the coach calls them in.

Nobody is paying attention to me!  

Sulking in pity, I overhear a little girl ask her mother the difference between a homophone and a homonym. 

My specialty!  I can’t resist such questions.  I have to assist.  For the next 5 minutes, I find myself helping a 4th grader think of words that sound the same but are spelled differently (homophone) and words that sound the same and are spelled the same but mean different things (homonym). 

You can’t help somebody else and also think about how neglected you feel.  It’s a strange phenomenon.  It doesn’t matter that I’m supremely out of place here.  I’m serving somebody, and then, everything feels right.  And in a powerful turn of events, the mother who once seemed so cliquish and perfect starts telling me about her life.  Over homophones, I’m learning about a lifetime of heartbreak.

Each of those mothers might have their own story of loss.  The room isn’t what it seems; it’s nothing like it sounds.  Beneath the clique and chatter, there’s somebody who needs attention.

Perhaps when I feel most alone, most forgotten, I need to look up, find a way to help and bless (even if it’s through homophones), and stop focusing on myself.  I want to enter a room, take my eyes off of myself, and find the one who needs help.  Surely, that’s one way to live with flair.

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The Ridiculous Ritual

Last night, the neighborhood children gather in our basement for Monday Night Fitness Group.  It’s cold, dark, and dreary in the evenings now, so our alternative to biking and double-dutch is Dance Party and Jumping Jack Challenge. 

I don’t want to do this.  I want to change into my pajamas and watch television.  Earlier in the day, one child races out of school and asks, “Is tonight the night?”   Children are calling my cell phone, begging.  My own daughters are already in the basement, ready.  We’ve started some fitness revolution, and I can’t stop now.  Soon, I’m texting families to invite everybody to dance in my basement after dinner.

We’re in a circle dancing to whatever comes out of my iPod.  At one point, the “Hamster Dance” song comes on, and 10 of us crawl around like hamsters.  Then we skip in a circle. 

I’m too old for this. 

A hula hoop rests in the middle of our circle, and each child takes a turn standing in the hula hoop and doing whatever dance move he wants.  The rest of us copy him.  As we rotate around each child, dancing and hollering, I start to feel like I’m in a tribe doing a ritual dance.

I think of Native American dances designed to strengthen tribe members spiritually and emotionally before battle.  Perhaps each of us, in our own way, fights something.  Each child needs us here, circled around him, seeing him, celebrating him, strengthening him for the fight. 

This ridiculous dancing suddenly turns to ritual right in front of my eyes. 

This is my tribe.  I need this.  We enact these rituals that, on the surface, represent fitness.  In a deeper sense, we build our tribe when we gather like this.  Deeper still, we prepare each other emotionally and spiritually for tomorrow’s battle.   

We rally and fall, out of breath, only to rise up in a brave dance. 

It doesn’t take much:  a space to move, people, and a song.  It cost me nothing, and I went to bed more satisfied than I’d felt in months.  I have to remember that living with flair means I build my tribe.  We gather up because we need that strength, that ritual, that dance. 

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What I Cannot Change

The Braiding Impression

Over the weekend, I braid little braids all over my daughter’s wet hair.  In the morning, we unravel her hair.  She loves the “rock star” look.  

Notice the pink sparkle headband.

A simple thing–braiding hair–but oh the joy in the morning when those braids leave impressions all throughout her hair! That zig-zag complexity dries that way and temporarily changes the structure of the hair.

But as soon as she soaks in the bathtub before bedtime, the pattern fades and straightens.  She can’t believe how all that work (and an entire night’s worth of sleeping on braids) dissolves with water.  It doesn’t last.  It can’t.  Her root system, determined by her genetic code, trumps my skillful hand.  

Sometimes the patterns I set are fragile and tenuous, delicate and flimsy.  What seems so fixed and certain dissolves when exposed to environments that test resolve.  But I’m still tempted to believe that all will be well if I just find the right structure, the right pattern, the right technique. 

I can’t fundamentally change my life by new patterns or designs.  I suppose my daughter’s braids made me consider the limits of external applications to change internal dilemmas.  I need to get to the root, allow for God’s transforming work, and experience the kind of fundamental change that goes beyond clever techniques for happiness.  That kind of change won’t dissolve in water. 

Living with flair means I don’t limit happiness to external work.  I want the kind of mood change that’s deeply rooted, deeply true. 

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When You Start to Feel Old

After church, I’m chopping vegetables to add to my pasta sauce, and I remember my garden.  I haven’t harvested in weeks because the season’s over.  The peppers are surely past their prime, so why bother?  Those peppers are old, withered, and done.  

It’s cold outside.  The leaves are changing.  The garden is no more. 

But something nags at me to check the garden just in case.  I run out into the crisp fall air, doubtful. 

End-of-Season Garden Peppers


Then, I get the camera.   

Whoever said a season’s over or that something (or someone) is past her prime hasn’t seen my peppers.

These Peppers Still Blossom in Old Age

I’m out there, knee deep in glorious peppers, and I’m laughing about all the hope out here in my garden.  I recall the verse in Psalm 92 about folks “planted in the house of the Lord.”  The psalmist writes: “They will still bear fruit in old age. They will stay fresh and green.”

And these peppers aren’t finished.  They still blossom!  They still send out new leaves!  Defiant!  Prolific!  

Living with flair means I know nobody’s too old or past her prime.  Things can happen and hope can live no matter what season, no matter what age, and no matter how long it’s been.

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Stick with Them

Our One-Eyed Cat

A year ago, we brought home a sick cat with one eye.  Remember how he didn’t purr, and then, after months of loving him, that deep, rich purr flowed out of him?  We tell the story of “How Jack Got His Purr Back,” and we stay inspired to love what seems unlovable.  I mean look at him:  one eye, an injured mouth, and a tail that doesn’t hang right.  He’s a mess.  He’s falling apart. 

But we fell in love with him.

Two days ago, our strange little cat looks at us and makes tiny, almost indiscernible yelping sounds.  Then they seem to get louder.  Then they turn into these little barks.

“What’s Jack doing?”  we all ask.

“I think he’s trying to meow,” my husband says.  And then it happens.  He stands before us in the kitchen, regal and proud, and lets out his first full meow.  

The One-Eyed-Cat that nobody loved and who couldn’t even purr is now meowing.  

Beautiful Cat

Last night, he curled up on the couch, and I thought of where he came from and where he is now.  We didn’t give up on him. 

It took a year of love, and by golly, that cat found his voice.

Living with flair means I don’t give up on people.  I don’t give up on myself.  It may take a year to find your voice.  It might take longer.  But here, come sit beside me.

My one-eyed cat’s meow came at the right time.  I’m impatient with my children, my students, and even myself.  Sometimes people are a mess.  They fall apart.  But stick with them; their voice is in there somewhere.

So Jack found his meow.  And now, he’s tired of me taking pictures of him.  This photo definitely says: OK, stop now.

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The Ache You Need

My little one’s molar has been hurting her for months.  She’s already had a root canal (we definitely needed to invoke the Bad Day Mantra on that day), and still, the tooth pain won’t relent.  Yesterday, the dentist prescribed an antibiotic to ward off infection.

“But we can’t pull that tooth,” he explains in his office.  My daughter listens, wide-eyed.  “That tooth is a space-maker, a place-holder.  If you pull it, every other incoming tooth will crowd toward that space, and her mouth will really be in trouble.  Nothing new will come in right.  I’d like to keep that tooth there for as long as we can.”

I nod.  The little one nods.   

“It’s about timing,” he says.  “I can pull it, but then we’d have to design a spacer for her mouth, and it won’t ever be as great as what God made naturally.”

I smile.  He’s talking Dentist Theology now. He tells me it’s often normal for molars to ache while the new teeth underneath emerge.  Just wait.  A good thing is happening. 

The sore molar as a “place holder” to keep everything in line, to make things work as they should, stayed with me the whole day and into the night.  That troubling sore point in my life–whatever it is–might just be the place holder to keep things right until the new thing comes.  Could I begin to see those dark years as space-makers and place-holders that ushered in present joy in the right space, at the right time?  

The ache keeps things aligned.  It makes a space I need.

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He’s Making Stilts

At 7:30 AM, I’m drinking coffee at the breakfast table and attempting to grade papers.  Our neighbor (the one who stops by occasionally and says, “I should probably stay for dinner”) comes in.  He’s the type of 9-year-old who carries a little cage with him in case he finds critters.  When we walk in the woods, he’s equipped with nets, cages, wading boots, and all his fishing gear.  He’s prepared indeed. 

He is, after all, a Scout. 

He has a zeal for living I wish I could bottle.  He approaches the breakfast table and pulls out an order form for popcorn.  He’s a Boy Scout (Not yet, he tells me.  He’s still at the Webelos level.  He’s a Cub Scout eagerly preparing to be a Boy Scout), and he’s selling popcorn as a fundraiser.

At 7:30 AM.

I’m not surprised at his early morning sales pitch.  He’s an entrepreneur if I’ve ever seen one.  His lemonade stand grossed a fortune in July. 

As he folds the order form neatly, he says, “I’m going to earn a new badge for building with wood.”  He pauses, creating anticipation.

“What are you going to make?”  I ask. 

“Stilts!”  

He confirms that he’s already very skilled in stilt walking. 

Stilts:  those wooded structures that we attach to our legs to walk high about the ground. I read later that shepherds in France, mounted on stilts, could do extraordinary things–walk through the rivers, run across dangerous marshes, and forge trails otherwise blocked by thick brush.

The stilts make a way through the wilderness.  And at that height, stilt-walkers see with a new perspective. And this little boy knows the places he can go with them strapped to his legs. 

I want stilts.  I want to be a stilt-walker through this day:  rising above obstacles, forging trails.  There’s no path cleared in this territory.  It’s a life of faith, and I need my stilts.  I mount up by faith, I see the blocked path, and I walk on.

(Photo:  “The Stilt Walker of Landes,” Sylvain Dornon)

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I’m Taking You with Me

This morning, I dread that one student who looks me in the eye and says, “I just don’t care.”  He’s required to take this class to graduate, and so far nothing interests him.  Not even short stories.  Not even poems.  Not even semicolons. He actually responds to a question I have about a story with, “I really just don’t care.” 

You could hear a piece of chalk drop from my hand and roll back towards the chalkboard. 

It happens every semester.  Some students just don’t care.  And I can’t make them.  I can just showcase the wonder of the subject matter and pray that they connect.

And I can bring donuts.  This is my secret weapon. 

So this morning, I burst into the classroom bearing treats.  It’s going to be a great class.  I’m going to inspire!  I’m going to make that student fall in love with poetry!  I’m going to fight apathy! 

And that student doesn’t show up to class.  I deflate and wilt at my desk. 

My secret weapon mission fails.

I’ll try again on Friday.  I’ll have a new strategy that might involve Starbucks.  

Whatever it takes to get students enthused, I have to try.  There’s so much to experience; there’s so much to learn and do.  I can’t handle apathy because I’ve lived in that land.  It’s a partial death. 

Generating enthusiasm means I continue the pursuit of that one person who doesn’t care.  With indifference, lack of emotion, and lack of concern ruling the day, nobody moves.  Nothing changes.  We ignore others and lose the passion in our own lives. I can’t go back there.  And I’m going to drag students, family members, neighbors, and friends with me back toward the light. 

If I have to tempt you with treats, I will. 

Living with flair means we fight apathy with whatever weapon we can.

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Bravo!

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.”

Bravo!

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One Nice Thing

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. 

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