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Finding Some Flair in Pain

I have a bad knee. One of these days I’m going to have to get a new one. My right knee has a personality of its own. Ever since a surgery I had in college, my knee has attitude.

Today it’s in a bad mood. So it hurts. It really hurts. I can’t sleep when it gets that way, and I wake up grumpy. And then I think about the fact that it’s hurting all day. Then I’m mad at my knee. And then I go crazy trying to think about what to do with the pain.

So here’s what I did for my out-of-the-ordinary flair moment:

I thought about all my knee has done for me in my life: the carpet burns it has endured as I crawled as a baby, the bike crashes it has absorbed, the stitches from that summer I fell at the pool, the times it had me kneeling in prayer, the beautiful landscapes it has taken me to, the nervous taps from my fingers it received all those long school days, the skirts it peeked out from when I was finally allowed to wear a miniskirt (hello 80’s), the garter it held up on my wedding day, the babies it bounced, the dirty hands wiped on it from children, the floors it helped scrub, the way it lets me dance (I’m getting better at “Beat It”), the walks it takes to school, the way I slap it in the coffee shop when seated with friends who make me laugh, the frisbee it lets me catch, impossibly, by the jump and the mid-air turn last night(that’s why I’m in pain). . .

Oh, the knee!

I’m not mad about my knee. Living with flair means being thankful for that darn bum knee. So, yes, it’s really painful today, but do you want to hear about how my knee once peddled me along the Potomac River at dusk? That day, I remembered loving my life because of the fish surfacing, because of the golden sun that lit every leaf with some magic radiance, and because of the hope I felt back then that my life could become extraordinary. I was 10 years old.

It’s not a solution to pain. But thanking my knee prevented another, more despairing pain: bitterness. Living with flair means I choose the beautiful and not the bitter.

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Flair in the Face

I’ve never met anyone who loves his or her own face.

This morning, as I put on lipstick (hey, you can take the woman out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of a woman), I had a flashback flair moment.

When I was eighteen years old, a woman I didn’t know stopped me as I was bending down to talk to a group of children at a summer camp where I worked.

She pulled me aside as the children ran on and said, “You have such a loving face.” Loving? Loving? Not beautiful? It was a strange and wonderful compliment. She continued to tell me that she saw how my face was loving the children.

As I put the lipstick down this morning, I thought about how that single statement changed how I think about my face. I started to love my face and what it could do. I still love make-up. I still curl my hair and pluck my eyebrows. I still conceal the dark circles under my eyes. It’s fun to primp sometimes.

But I don’t obsess about whether or not I’m beautiful.

Living with flair means loving my face because of whom it can show love to. And it means accepting (and giving) strange and wonderful compliments that have the power to change a life. That stranger used 5 words to strip away my fixation on beauty. It’s over a decade old, that compliment. But it’s my flair for today.

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Giving an “F” with Flair

You already impress me; you don’t have to earn my approval.

I believe this when I look at my students. It’s my theology of teaching (and life). Just as favor is bestowed on me, I bestow it on my students. This means students amaze me regardless of the paper they turn in. This makes grading hard. When you believe the best about people, when you see their inherent dignity, you find it nearly impossible to even give a B- without suffering internally. The “F’s” nearly hospitalize me.

“This hurts me more than it hurts you,” I told a student once.

“I believe you,” she said.

On my evaluations that year, she wrote that I was more traumatized by her C in the class than she was. And it does traumatize me. I think it has something to do with living with flair.

I like to find what’s right, not just what’s wrong. It’s a different way of looking at a paper (and a life). It’s easy to criticize; it’s easy to complain. Anybody can do it. What’s not so easy is finding the hidden gem of what’s right.

Flair means subtext. I have to look beneath the surface of something and glean the good. When it comes to student writing, I try to see what they would have said if they could have. I want to honor that, even if I have to fail a student.

Living with flair means I see beneath the error: the sloppy sentence construction, the incorrect comma, the feeble verb. It means I practice reversing the culture of criticism and complaint. I find the good, name it, and then evaluate what could improve.

There’s some beauty there, some perfectly crafted essay (or life!) buried beneath the mess.

I love what the poet Carl Sandburg’s wife wrote to him on a postcard at the lowest point in his writing life. She said, “You are great and great! I know the poems are in you, Carl. We just have to get them out of you.”

Living with flair means I draw out what’s often hidden beneath the sloppy, the incorrect, and the feeble. I find what’s right. As I’m grading this stack of papers today, I do it with flair. It means celebrating and not just criticizing.

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What a Pancake Can Do

I just threw a pancake across the kitchen, and my husband caught it on his plate. The sticky syrup helped snag it. He laughed and said, “Now that’s flair.”

We have a Saturday morning pancake ritual. Many families in our neighborhood do. There’s something about all of the neighbors, nestled in their cozy kitchens, eating pancakes in their respective houses that triggers the flair sensor.

The pancake ritual connects me to my family and my neighbors. I’m thankful that I can expand my sense of family to include an entire neighborhood. Rituals are like that: they connect people. We have a great neighborhood, but we didn’t always feel so connected.

This year, we put some rituals in place. We have a walking to school ritual, an evening bike riding and jump rope ritual, and a monthly potluck ritual. These patterns bind us together and create a wonderful community.

My sociologist friend (the same one who learned the “Beat It” moves in my kitchen with me) talks about the importance of ritual in relationships and in larger communities. Rituals are the mark of connectedness; they are sacred spaces that unite people. So when I’m drinking coffee with my husband at the same time every morning (7:00 AM—the kids are running around getting backpacks packed and teeth brushed), I feel close to him, secure, and connected. Our family rituals like dinner time questions, reading before bedtime, church on Sunday morning, or any host of regular, predictable events make us feel settled. In fact, if we try to change a family ritual, the kids will say, “But Mom, it’s tradition.”

So my flair for today is flipping pancakes with my family. I used to think that flair needed to be unique and unpredictable each day. But this morning, I realized the flair in the regular routine. The fact that it’s regular (same time, same ritual) makes it flair.

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What if I were loyal?

I had a sublime experience last night that carried into my morning so powerfully as to eclipse any other possible flair for the day.

I entertained a woman who owned a service dog. This black lab sat all night at our feet, waiting to take action in case my new friend had a seizure. The dog can predict up to two minutes in advance if the woman will have a seizure, and then he alerts her by tapping his nose on her thigh. Then the dog leads her to a safe location, helps her to the ground, secures a perimeter, and then stretches out on the ground beneath her head until the seizure ends. It gets better. The dog can also go get help by opening doors, retrieving cell phones, and even finding a dominant presence (usually an alpha male) in a room who can call 911.

I looked at that dog lying peacefully at our feet. No way.

Guess how he knows. Smell alone. The dog senses slight variations in the way my friend smells. Before a seizure, a chemical emits from glands on her neck that the dog perceives.

What? I looked again at the dog. I had to know more.

Apparently, the dog is just like other dogs: he plays, he runs, he eats, he poops. But at all times, he’s tuned in to my friend. He senses any variation and takes immediate action.

I felt overcome by awe. I also felt something that surprised me.

As the woman talked about the dog sleeping close beside her, waiting with eagerness for her to emerge from a shower, or just noticing the slightest change in her smell, I considered how thankful I’ve been for people who “tune in” to variations in my moods, my health, or my well-being. I remember difficult times in my life when friends sensed a variation in me, led me to a safe place, tried to make me comfortable, and called for help if I needed it. Am I that loyal to my family, my neighbors, my coworkers and students that I can sense a variation, offer help, secure a perimeter, and provide comfort? What does that look like for me to “tune in” to people in my life?

When I’m not myself, I’ve had a friend say, “You don’t seem right. Can I help?” Am I close enough–tuned in enough–to people in my life that I can observe these things? I want to be.

Living with flair means tuning in to others, providing help and comfort, and getting help for them if I need to. Living with flair means I notice subtle changes in others that might indicate something deeper. I want to be the one who secures a safe spot. Maybe one of my friends needs to rest on me until an episode passes. It’s flair to be that loyal. It’s not just for the dogs.

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The Sign of a Happy Adulthood

I heard once that the greatest gift you can give a child is boredom.

Dear friends of mine just left from an overnight visit. This family has five children who have mastered the art of play. You can send them out in a yard, and within a few minutes they’ve devised a game. They also know how to get dirty faster than most children. The mother said to me: “The sign of a happy childhood is dirty children.”

Because this family stayed a part of the morning today, my youngest daughter asked if she could “take the day off” and miss preschool. Well, then, what would we do all day? I wondered what it would look like to not schedule one thing. What if she just got dirty? What would happen if I observed this child, created deliberate boredom, and just sat back and took note? So many other cultures and so many other mothers just let their children be. Could I be one of them?

Left on her own, she jumped rope, rode her bike, picked flowers, sang songs (even ones to God), made a bakery out of sand and grass in pie pans, dipped cookies in milk, and went to her room to check on the status of her window greenhouse. Two days ago, she planted cucumber and green bean seeds. Today, they sprouted. She’s amazed by this. Now she’s back to running around somewhere. Oh, and she’s absolutely filthy. My friend would be proud.

If one of the gifts I give my children is boredom, and the sign of a happy childhood is being dirty, I wonder what great gift I need as an adult. What’s the sign of a happy adulthood?

Taking the day off with my daughter, doing nothing but sitting and watching her, feels like flair. No schedule, no stress, no rush. In fact, if you try to rush a child, guess what happens? Tantrums. Tears. And when you try to rush an adult, the inner landscape is no different.

Living with flair (and perhaps the gift I give myself) has something to do with the space for boredom. Even if I have to schedule a space for absolutely nothing, I’m on my way to a more vibrant adulthood. In that bored space, I can let my mind tell me what it needs. My daughter enacted the very rituals that I find I need to feel balance: exercise, time in nature, artistic expression, worship, snacks, and cultivating something. A doctor once told me that a healthy adult needs to know 5 or 6 ways to refresh and relax. The average adult can’t think of one—unless it involves watching TV which, ironically, stimulates the brain instead of soothing it. My daughter’s bored day—taking the day off—taught me something about living with flair.

I need to enjoy some boredom. There’s flair in just sitting. Like those little seeds in the greenhouse window that don’t do anything but sit and then bloom in the sitting, I wonder if I could really be still and unscheduled for a day.

I’m wondering if I can go dig up some earth somewhere and get really, really dirty.

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What My Starbucks Apron Would Say

I broke up with Starbucks last year (who can afford it?), but every once in awhile, we get back together. The barista taking orders today had on this glorious apron that said, “Coffee Master” underneath the Starbucks logo. I asked him what he had to do to become a coffee master. Apparently, it involves a nomination and a year of training.

The barista making the coffee, a kind older woman, (she offered me extra shots of espresso–why not?) had nothing written beneath her Starbucks logo. She told me that nobody has nominated her yet. I cupped my hands in a whisper and told her I had a sharpie in my bag. We could write “Coffee Master” on her apron and nobody would know the difference. She laughed out loud.

As I watched her concoct my drink, I wondered about Starbucks. Why is Starbucks so unapologetic about what it’s good at? Why can they, without any hesitation, ask employees to boldly display a claim like “coffee master?” The concept resonated with me because I just finished teaching two classes on memoir writing. I asked students to write down ideas about some experience they’ve had that allows them to offer wisdom or insight for another person. So many students said, “I’m so boring. I have nothing to say to anyone.”

Not flair. Not flair at all.

Don’t most of us feel this way? But what if I had to wear an apron to display what I was best at, what I knew I could contribute, what I’m sure could help others? What would it say? And why is self-esteem so troubling for us? Finding what we’re good at seems so hard, and yet, I practically wrote an essay this morning at kindergarten registration when the form asked me to tell them what my daughter’s “special talents” are. Could I have written with the same enthusiasm about myself? We so easily find the good in others.

Starbucks has never had a self-esteem issue. Maybe they could market personalized aprons for the rest of us.

People are coffee masters, grill masters, yoga masters, master craftsman. Couldn’t I think of just one thing I could put on an apron that signified my contribution? Maybe it would be “master of the dishes” or “master of bedtime snacks.” Maybe I’ve mastered suffering or mastered survival. Whatever it is, I want to be unapologetic about it.

Living with flair means I think about what my life experiences qualify me for, and I can celebrate that like the Starbucks barista who knows she can make a great cup of coffee.

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Finding the Flair in Trash

You’d think that my trying on a fancy dress with sparkly shoes (I’m in a wedding) or going to a nice lunch out today would constitute flair. I’m amazed with what doesn’t trip the flair sensor in me. I’m stunned with what does.

I wake up each morning, and I start looking for my flair moment. I can’t wait to discover it. Surprisingly, none of these moments have had anything to do with dresses, shoes, or even food (and I love food: I’m still remembering an amazing carrot cake cupcake I ate).

It’s always the common thing seen in an uncommon way. Flair erupts from the banal, not the sparkly.

While in the Lowe’s parking lot a few hours ago, I saw a man notice a piece of trash in his path. When he bent down to get it, the wind blew it just out of his reach and in front of my car. I braked and watched him scurry after the trash, lean down, nearly reach it, and have the wind swirl it out of reach again.

It felt like I was watching a Charlie Chaplin movie. After two more attempts to hold the piece of trash with his foot, the man finally grasped the paper, held it up in victory, and went to find the trashcan. I rolled down my window and screamed out, “Nice job! You did it!” He held his fist in a cheer, laughing with me. It was a small victory, but so important. Maybe it would be the only battle he’d win today. I had to celebrate it.

Living with flair means I celebrate every small victory. And I mean celebrate (you have to cheer with somebody–hold up a fist and pump it in the air). Cheering with a stranger about picking up trash was flair.

It wasn’t sparkly at all. I didn’t even have to pay for it. In fact, the stuff I want to wear or eat or buy seems like counterfeit flair to me. It’s not the real treasure.

Living with flair means I can find joy in trash because that’s the treasure.

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Student Excuses and Flair

I receive some fantastic excuses about why students miss class. Usually these involve recovering. (Cancun recovery, Birthday party recovery, first day of Spring recovery).

I have an unusual teaching philosophy. I value flair, so if you’re going to miss class, you might as well do it with flair. This means I want the true story, rich with sensory detail. And by all means, use a semicolon somewhere.

Today’s flair moment arrived in the form of an email in which a student describes the scene of his car breaking down: anti-freeze spilling everywhere, profuse smoke, a behemoth truck! (all his wording). I wasn’t mad; I was proud.

I have ten classes left to teach 50 students how to write with flair. Today I reminded them of the romance of the semicolon, the whisper of the parentheses, the shout of the dash. I talked about flavor and tone. Writing with flair means I turn each sentence into a masterpiece.

Living with flair means I turn my life into a masterpiece. It means I find some flair even in my highway breakdowns. Besides, the world needs more true stories of why we aren’t where we’re supposed to be. There’s a story there, ripe with flair, that makes what’s important not what event we missed, but what experience we had while we were trying to get there.

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The Flair Disaster

Today in church, during the most reflective part, a little girl in a soft pink Easter dress spilled her grape communion juice. It trickled down her dress and pooled on the floor beneath her sandals. I was sitting two rows behind her.

Quickly, her grandpa and grandma (who happened to be the pastor and his wife!) found a cloth and began to wipe her dress and the floor. Her father joined in, trying to minimize the damage. And then, her mother–hawk-like and decisive–turned from her seat at the end of the aisle and made her way to where her daughter sat.

I felt myself bristle. Would this mother scold? Would she grab her daughter and drag her out of the church, shaming her for distracting the other worshipers? Was the Easter dress expensive, and would the little girl be punished for staining it?

The mother leaned down to her daughter. I couldn’t see the daughter’s face, but she had her head down, shaking.

The mother took the child’s face in her hands, firmly, tilting the chin up.

Then, looking clearly into that little girl’s eyes, she kissed her cheek and smiled.

It’s Easter.

Something about the way that mother held the girl’s face, something about tilting a chin up, something about that soft kiss overwhelmed me. It was a picture of God’s grace: choosing to love and not shame, lifting a face, covering a stain with a kiss. It was Easter flair.

Maybe I was so struck because I studied the emotion of shame in graduate school. When we feel tormenting inferiority because of a shortcoming, the body’s response is to look down. We hide. We cannot endure the gaze of an audience.

But this mother tilted the child’s face up. By refusing to allow the shame response, this mother locked eyes with her daughter and gazed with love and unconditional acceptance.

Later, I saw that little girl laughing and running around at an Easter egg hunt. The bright stain on her dress made no difference to her. But it could have.

Living with flair means I take a face in my hands (even if it’s my own), tilt up the chin, and choose to love regardless of the deep stain. Who isn’t walking around with grape juice on their clothes? Who isn’t that child? Who doesn’t need a love like that?

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