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When You’re Disappointed and Bitter

With so many tomatoes, how could I not make homemade sauce? 

It’s violent. 

You take tomatoes and submerge them in boiling water for a few seconds.  Then you drown them in ice water.  Then you skin them.  Then you remove their seeds.  It feels like some torture process.  I chop; I puree; I simmer everything down to a thick sauce.

You have to do it this way.  No other process removes the bitterness; no other process releases the flavor.  

My daughter’s helping me peel and chop garlic.  We’ve been disappointed, bitter, all morning because she didn’t get the teacher she wanted for kindergarten.  None of her friends are in her class.  Head hung low, mouth in a frown, she’s experienced this first violent assault on her expectations, her hopes, her dreams for her life.  

“Sometimes it’s like that,” the older one says.  “But the best thing about kindergarten is making brand new friends. You’ll see.”

She will see.  It is like that.  No other process will teach her how to rise above her disappointment.  No other process will release her from her rigid control of what must surely be the best life.  Released like that, her life can be that sweet aroma–that beautiful flavor–of a person who knows how to find good in any pain. 

No other process will do that for her. 

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What You Can Do with a Macy’s Bag

The big red Macy’s bag (the one somebody gave me) almost disappeared into the closet.  My husband dug it out a few days ago and used it to store our massive harvest of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and squash. 

“What are we going to do with all these vegetables?”

That giant Macy’s bag has been sitting next to the kitchen counter for several days.  We’ve already made vegetable deliveries to neighbors, and still the end of season harvest overflows into our kitchen.  We could freeze them, can them, or give them to the local Food Bank to feed families in need.  

All morning, I’ve been looking at my bright red Macy’s bag filled, not with glamorous clothing, but with vibrant veggies.

Over a decade ago, I traded in my Macy’s style for a completely different life.  Working for a non-profit organization and teaching part time, for minimal pay, means our family shops and lives differently.  We’re more thrift store than Macy’s, more backyard garden than Wegman’s or Whole Foods. 

But we’ve never had so much extra.  We left an extravagant life, and we’ve ironically never had more

When I wonder what I’m missing, I laugh when I look at my Macy’s bag.  I give more away than I take in. It seems miraculous on some days. God promises abundance when we follow him.  He isn’t kidding.  I’m so thankful for that today. I’m so thankful for that upside down truth: the more generous we are, the more comes back to us. 

Living with flair means I fill my Macy’s bag with things to give away because I have so much.  

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After All These Years

Every so often, I have a student who fits the category of “non-traditional.”  These students always inspire me.  Some include single parents returning to school, full time workers who attend school part-time, soldiers returning from military service, or senior citizens who wish to learn a different subject. 

It takes courage to sit in a classroom of typical undergrads when you are in a different stage of life; you sit there and wonder if you can keep up or enter into the same conversations.  It takes courage to get out your notebook and pencil from a backpack that’s been buried in your closet for 20 years.

They have flair.

Could I do it? 

Non-traditional students don’t go home to dorm rooms.  They raise families, recover from battle, manage full-time jobs, and then–then–they can sit down to write their first essay that’s due for my class.  They won’t be at that fraternity party or that pep rally or that ice-cream study break. 

I’m rethinking education:  I want to make every lesson plan an act of service to advance these students efficiently in the direction of their dreams.  I don’t want to waste time, assign texts with exorbitant prices, or set unreasonable expectations.   I’m suddenly aware of the lives students live when they exit the door: their night shifts at Wal-Mart, their babies at home, their aging bodies. 

Not everyone follows the same life narrative.  Especially in this economy. 

I’m also rethinking how I interact with everyone–not just my non-traditional students.  Pursuing education in nontraditional ways represents an act of courage.  For some of us, waking up and putting on our clothes for the day is an act of courage. We make coffee, greet the day, and no matter what backstory has derailed our plans, we press on in our nontraditional paths to our dreams. 

Living with flair means recognizing courage when I see it.

(photo: Rennett Stowe /flickr)

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Delighted In, Rejoiced Over

While trying to get the children back on their school bedtime schedule, I have them tucked in at 8:00 PM.  They are hardly tired.  I tell them I’ll sit in the armchair in the corner of the room while they fall asleep.

I feel like the Mother Bunny in that old favorite, Goodnight Moon (only I don’t have knitting needles, and I’m not one to sit still).   

I have a gazillion things to do.  Besides making lesson plans, I could tidy the kitchen, fold another load of laundry, mop the kitchen floor–the usual. 

Instead, I stay put in that soft corner-of-the-room armchair. 

And then the most unusual thing happens.  I think it would be a good idea to sing.  It almost–don’t think I’m crazy–feels like God wants me to sing. I have never been able to sing.  Couple nerves with probable tone-deafness, and you have a recipe for musical disaster. 

But I start singing every old hymn I know.  I’m singing over my daughters and imagining wonderful things for their lives.  It feels like I’m rejoicing and that I’m taking enormous delight in them with those warbling notes. 

The girls quiet down and fall fast asleep in 15 minutes.  I stay put in that chair and sing for a half hour more.  I feel closer to my family and somehow closer to a picture of how God feels about me. 

Something calls out to my soul as I sing.  I remember this verse from Zephaniah 3:17. 

The LORD your God is with you,
       he is mighty to save.
       He will take great delight in you,
       he will quiet you with his love,
       he will rejoice over you with singing.”

I think of God sitting in the armchair in my own bedroom.  I fall asleep–delighted in, rejoiced over.

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What’s Worth Keeping?

Yesterday, my oldest daughter had to choose one object from home that best represents her to share with her class.  The teacher wrote:  “Find one thing that best describes who you are.”

She said she’d choose one of three things:  her Bible, her journal, or a photo of her cats.  She values God, her writing, and her family members (OK, they are cats, but still). 

I’m cleaning my bedroom and I pass over various things I’ve collected over the years:  jewelry, clothing, books, candles.  Was there anything precious in the whole lot?  Was there anything I could say best represented me–the way my daughter could find the essential core of her identity in 3 objects? 

Cleaning day suddenly becomes so much easier.  I don’t need so many things.  I can pare down to essentials–the things that represent me and what our family values.  If it doesn’t fit into that essential core, I can recycle it or give it away. 

I’m seeing toys and trinkets differently.  I start to visualize what it means to give my children objects that can begin to represent their core identity.  God, creativity, relationships.  Can it be that simple?  Suddenly, cleaning never felt so pure, so right.  Suddenly the toy aisle and clothing section of stores don’t have the same pull.  Sure, I can buy things as diversions to fill up the days (as I often want to do for myself), but when it comes right down to it, what lasts (and what we want to keep) we can’t even hold in our hands. 

Parenting–and living with flair– might be broken down into these three things:  God, creativity, and relationships.  Does every room I’m cleaning help foster these three things?  If not, I’m rearranging the space and purging the objects within it to make room for flair.

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When You Have to Wait for Something

I’ve been watching a chrysalis in my garden for a week now, and today a gorgeous butterfly emerged.  She’s finally here!

She’s a female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

She waits for the right time.  If it’s too cold, too windy, or too wet, she knows.   She’ll proceed another day, another month, when conditions are perfect. 

Today’s her day!  So why in the world is she just sitting there? 

I read that after she comes forth from the chrysalis (a great word: from the Latin chyrsallid and Greek chrysos meaning “gold”) she pumps her wings full of blood, and then she’s required to sit very still and let her wings dry. They have to harden in order to support her in flight.

This could take three hours.

How hard must this be for her to wait, very still, when she was made to fly, when she’s been waiting for this her whole life?  

As she waits, she’s extremely vulnerable to many predators (birds, spiders, ants, wasps, snakes).  She’s delicious and vibrant and without any defense.

I think about her all morning.  My youngest daughter and I creep around the garden barefoot, dew soaking even our legs.  We approach her, and she doesn’t move.  She can’t.  She’s not ready, not even a little bit.
 
How could I not think of those of us waiting for things–letting our wings harden–in that fragile and dangerous time (dangerous because of the lies that assault us) when something’s just about to happen but we aren’t quite ready?    We have to stay still and obey the process.  We can’t rush.  Our whole flight depends upon it.

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How to Handle Another Rejection

This morning, I get another rejection for this one novel that I just loved writing. I thought it was so clever, so unique, so compelling.  I wanted everybody to read it. 

I cry and cry.  My children come around me and the little one says, “Mom, you should just write children’s stories.  You’re so good at making stories for us.”  And then the oldest one says, “You know it takes years to get a book published.”  She’s licking a popsicle and nodding her head.  She actually pats me on the back.

Here, have a lick. 

My wise neighbor (the one who danced in the kitchen with me) tells me:  “Don’t you dare say that you got a rejection letter.  It’s a revision letter.  Rejections are opportunities for revision.” 

And my husband (the one who said, “Just because there’s space doesn’t mean you have to fill it) says:  “Don’t you remember what Jack Nicholson said when he won his Oscar?”

He said, “I’d like to thank my agent who ten years ago said I had no business being an actor.”

I would like to thank my agent.  The more I survive “revision letters” the more I get to the heart of why I write at all.  I just have to, and I’ll revise until I get it right.  Living with flair means I learn the art of revision. 

Re-vision: seeing again, seeing new, seeing differently.

Isn’t that the core of living with flair?  In small ways and large ways I’ll take a fresh look and reshape, not just my novel, but everything that makes up the narrative of my life.  When it feels like rejection, I’ll take another look.

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A Great Quote from Sweetpea

Last night I took my oldest daughter to a Secret Keeper Girl event.  The whole evening aims to inspire young girls to live differently in a culture obsessed with beauty.  A Secret Keeper Girl, I’m told, is kind, modest, and loves God.  Besides seeing a slide show of Disney Stars without make-up and untouched photos of celebrities, my daughter saw a fashion show of exciting clothing for young girls that doesn’t sexualize her.

You’re beautiful!  You’re beautiful!  You’re beautiful!  God made you!  Let’s celebrate you! 

You know I have tears in my eyes as I’m thinking that the Secret Keeper Girl organization is really a search and rescue mission.  I look around at hundreds of little girls who already face pressure to be. . . beautiful.  As moms and older teenagers dance on the stage, I’m watching my daughter pump her fists and clap her hands in that unselfconscious way I can only hope remains for the rest of her life.

It gets better.  At one point during the evening, we see a trailer for a new Veggie Tales movie, “Sweetpea Beauty.”  The girls already know from Psalm 45 that there’s a king who “is enthralled with [their] beauty.”

As described by Nichole Nordeman (who works on the music for the film,) in “Sweetpea Beauty,” a common girl roams the forest finding beauty “in all sorts of unconventional things that might not be considered beautiful to anyone else. Her friend Prince Larry says to her, ‘How is it that you find beauty in everything?’ And Sweetpea says, ‘I don’t. It’s God who sees beauty in everything. I just choose to agree with Him.'”

Nordeman adds on, “And I thought that was a great way to look at ourselves. God’s the one who sees us as beautiful, and we can either choose to agree and say, ‘Thank you. I feel cherished and loved and I choose to believe that,’ or ‘I disagree’ and work like crazy to improve on His work.’”

My daughter leans over and says, “Mom, we have to watch this movie.”  

Sweetpea should write this blog.  It was a great evening for me.  My heart knows that finding flair in unconventional things that others might disregard comes from agreeing with what God has said about this marvelous, marvelous world.

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What’s Wrong with This Picture?

As someone who–for nearly a decade–was an expert in unhappiness, I’m learning what makes living with flair so important.  At our worst, we become deeply cynical and disillusioned with our own lives.  Everything’s wrong.  Nothing’s working.  We want to abandon ship and find new lives somewhere else.   We become desperate for change, desperate to feel alive, desperate for love. 

We need to catch each other in our descent and turn our faces back to the light.

We need to find the flair right here in the muck.  We need to rise above it.  Our happiness is at stake. 

It’s just too easy to find out what’s wrong.  We do it naturally.  My natural inclination is to figure out what’s not working, what’s out of place, what’s off kilter.  The brain seeks proportion and harmony, so we easily identify variation and error.

But we get stuck there in despair.  We can’t move forward.   Or else we take drastic measures to put things right.  We act out of fear and confusion. 

Maybe a better technique means I find out what’s right.

What might happen if I focus on those small nuggets of good in whatever wrongness or sorrow I’m experiencing?   Most days, the temptation to criticize and complain takes over the whole landscape of my soul like clouds moving over the sky.   My heart aches and I sink down into the mire.   God is neither good nor trustworthy in this particular landscape.  I let that lie fester and bleed out. 

But not today.  I commit to finding what’s right in any wrongness or sorrow or anything I’m missing or hating or dreading.  I turn that thing to face the light and find out what’s so right.  That one right thing might be the bright hot air balloon that keeps me alight so I can find perspective, hope, and joy in the midst of the dark cloud. 

I’m still in my life with all its drama.  But instead of sinking down, I’m rising above it in a glorious ascension. 

(Landscape photo courtesy of Ian Britton at freefoto.com and Hot Air Balloon by Beverly and Pack flickr)

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How to Hug Someone Right

Today I hugged Anthony the Cashier.  I’m at the grocery store, and I spy Anthony.  He doesn’t look so happy.  I found out last week that two of his closest friends died in the same weekend–unexpectedly.  Ever since I heard that news, I’ve been making up excuses to go to the grocery store in case Anthony is working.

I wouldn’t know what to say or do, but I just wanted to stand in his line with my groceries and be there.  

So I’m in his line today.  I say something about how sorry I am for his loss.  I tell him how much joy he always brings everybody and how I wish I could help him feel better.  He thanks me, compliments my necklace, and, in true Anthony form, celebrates with my children about the back-to-school cookies we are obviously going to make today. He makes us feel so good, and he’s the one suffering. 

Just as I start to walk out the door, he comes around in front of me and opens his arms wide for a hug.  He’s grieving.  His eyes have been crying for days.

I hug him right there in front of everybody.  It’s a long, real hug.  And as I’m hugging him, I’m sending him all the mother love, all the God love, all the kind of love I can imagine exists in the world, right into his body.

And, I’m not kidding (and yes this confirms my nerd status), but I think of Arwen and Frodo.  The line in the Lord of the Rings movie that always gets me in tears is when Arwen holds Frodo when he’s just about to die and says:  “No, Frodo, no!  Don’t give in.  Not now.”  And then she prays:  “What grace is given me let it pass to him…let him be spared….save him.”

I know I’m not Arwen, and Anthony isn’t Frodo, but the concept that I could pass on to somebody “what grace is given me,” made that hug so important today.  Spare this person.  Save them.  Anthony’s not literally dying, but emotionally he is.  

Why aren’t I hugging everybody with the urgency of Arwen?  There’s more pain in this world than could fill a million blog pages.  I want to reach out my arms and embrace as many people as I can.  Who cares if it’s in the grocery store with somebody I don’t really know?  Living with flair means I hug real and long.  I hug to pray that whatever love I know can pass into that soul before me.  

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