A Great Cloud of Witnesses

This morning, my friends and I huddle by the school entrance, making conversation with other parents and school administrators.  As we notice the line of cars pulling up to drop off children, I’m overcome with the desire to run up to the car doors, open them wide, and greet each child like he or she were a celebrity. 

London Paparazzi

I imagine each car to be a long black limousine. I even include fashion commentary like we’re on the Red Carpet for some premiere.

My friend and I laugh about making this our community job each morning.  We wonder what it might feel like to arrive at school and have folks open your car door, celebrate your arrival, and compliment your outfit.  What if we even brought paparazzi to our morning Red Carpet event?  What if we really did announce a child’s arrival?  You’ve arrived!  Welcome to school you beautiful, wonderful person!  You are very important to us! 

Walking home from the school, I feel like I’ve touched upon something eternal in that moment of opening a car door and celebrating a child’s arrival.  Something about that act seems to echo in eternity. 

All of us parents, surrounding those youngest members of our community–celebrating them like that, protecting their journey from car to school entrance–represents a spiritual reality for me:  I too am surrounded by that love and protection at all times.  I have cheerleaders in the heavens. 

Doesn’t scripture teach in Hebrews 12 that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” who cheer us on, helping us “run with perseverance the race marked out for us?”  We cannot see the saints and angels, but aren’t they surely there in some unseen realm about me? 

Later, I ride in my minivan across town.  As I unfasten my seat belt and turn to touch the door handle, I imagine them all there outside my van.  My Red Carpet event unfolds as I walk into the cold, bright day, surrounded by my cloud of witnesses.   

They cheer about me, celebrating and protecting.

(Photo, “Paparazzi at the ICA in London” by Justinc, courtesy of Creative Commons)


Take a Minute

I’m officially overloaded with work obligations and writing tasks.  As I sit at my computer, I become annoyed by my cat, Louie Von Whiskers, who knows the exact moment when I start to type on my keyboard.

This crazy cat believes that my computer work signals his need to nap across the keyboard.  I push him down onto the carpet, and he jumps right back on top of the computer–audacious, insistent, and. . . adorable.

“OK, you kitty,” I say.  I take him in my arms, and he immediately curls up into a soft ball.  Purring loudly, he stays put, and when I try to lean over to type, he actually puts a paw on my arm to restrain me.  So I’m stuck here, holding this ball of fur. 

I do have one hand free.  Can I type with this one hand?  Not really.  But I can reach for my hot cup of tea that I’d forgotten I’d made. 

Here I sit, cup of tea in one hand, purring cat on my lap.  I think God gave me this cat to make me take a minute–a non-productive minute–to do nothing at all. 

I find myself so refreshed that I have to wonder what other non-productive minutes I might take today.  More tea?  More snuggling with animals?  What if I listened to a new song or gazed out the back window?

It can’t all be work in 2011.  Imagine a cat sleeps on your lap and you can’t move at all.  You have no choice but to lean back, drink your tea, and enjoy yourself for a minute. 


Make Yourself That Somebody

For months, my friend and I travel by this one treacherous patch of sidewalk on our walk to school–the place that dips down towards a jagged ravine of rocks and icy water–and say, “Somebody should really put a fence up.”

We rescue kids as they slide off the sidewalk, shake our heads and say again, “Somebody should really put a fence up.”

As the months go on, we realize how much we say, “Somebody should really…”–whether referring to cleaning the house, fixing something, or generally improving the world.

We laugh about this expression: somebody should really. . .

Who is this Somebody person?  Can I meet her?

It occurs to us that we are the Somebody.  We stop saying, “Somebody should really put a fence up,” and we decide to make ourselves that somebody.

I don’t know where to start, so I ask someone at the school who tells me I should “call the county.”  (I didn’t realize you can call people in your county and get help with things your community needs. You can!)  I look up in my phonebook the name of my township and call the number there.  A man answers the phone, and I explain that children are slipping off the sidewalk and falling into a ditch on the way to school.  Can we put a fence up?

“Yes,” he says.  “Let me check who owns that property, and I’ll send a crew out today.  We’ll take care of it.”

I even ask the man if he could make it a nice fence, charming, and not some metal thing with orange mesh reserved for danger zones.

He sends out his crew and builds our fence.

Now, on the walk to school, my friend and I look at that fence and remember to make ourselves that somebody.  

My Charming Fence

She says, “Somebody should really write a book with that title.”

Up the Big Hill Towards School

Somebody should.  If you make yourself that somebody, you can really change something.

In fact, what initiates my friend’s 100 pound weight loss last year is a t-shirt she sees that says, “Somebody should really do something about how fat I am.”

She decides to make herself that somebody.

I want to make myself that Somebody in 2011.


Have You Gone Gourmet?

My oldest is turning 9, and we want to make special cupcakes–homemade–for her to bring to school on Monday.

I don’t do cupcakes.  The Boo Platter is as fancy as I get.

But it’s her birthday, and I’m learning that little things matter and accumulate on the landscape of a child’s soul.  Lord help me embellish these cupcakes!   I search for cupcake decorating ideas, and I’m astounded by the beauty and intricacy of cupcakes made all over the world.  Cupcakes have gone entirely gourmet.  In someone’s kitchen, right at this moment, some parent has fondant butterflies and flowers neatly trimmed and little bows to tie around cupcake holders.  Another parent has frosting piped out in whimsical designs.

I don’t do cupcakes.  I’m the furthest thing from gourmet I can think of.   Can’t I just phone the Cupcake Boutique and get this delivered? 

But then, we find a picture of the most curious little cupcakes.  Someone has made a stack of cupcakes made to look just like hamburgers.

“That’s so cool, Mom!  Can we make the hamburger cupcakes?”

I buy the ingredients, brace myself, and actually pray for God’s creative genius to somehow flow into me.  God invented gourmet, after all.  Nothing is too hard or too elaborate for him.

I move forward.  I bake chocolate and vanilla cupcakes.  I slice them in half.  I let my youngest sprinkle sesame seeds on the cupcake “buns.”

Then, we color our frosting to resemble ketchup and mustard.  Our chocolate cupcake is the hamburger patty. 

Hamburger Cupcakes

It takes longer than I anticipate, and we destroy the kitchen.   But I did something gourmet this day.

Gourmet:  elaborate, rich, sensuous, and small.    A small prayer, as small as cupcakes, as small as a child turning 9.  I’ll remember this small afternoon as we sprinkled sesame seeds on cupcakes that we transformed into buns.  Living with flair means I learn to be a little gourmet.

PS:  Folks have asked for the recipe, and I actually didn’t find a real recipe–I improvised from a picture I found here.
Here are the ingredients: 
1 box vanilla cake mix
1box chocolate cake mix
Sesame seeds
Frosting colored yellow and red


Why I Put My Flag Out

I’m in the garage, and I see our old American flag standing at attention in the cobwebbed corner.  I decide, for 2011, I want to fly it out in front of the house.  We insert it into our flag holder, and it waves in the wind to greet the neighborhood like a long lost friend.  I explain to our children why I want to do this in the New Year.

As a symbol of citizenship, the flag represents a value I want our family to espouse in 2011.  We are citizens–of our families, our neighborhoods, our schools, churches, state, nation, and world.  We live responsibly, honestly, and interdependently.  We give honor to the ones who protect our freedom, and we thank God for the privileges we enjoy.  The flag reminds us to live in a way that embodies the ideals of our local, national, and global communities. 

My husband tells the family that the flag represents that we live for more than just ourselves.

If I had a bugle, I might play an anthem or “To the Colors.”  We could salute and show respect in the morning and again at night when we take the flag inside.   At Camp Greystone, where I served as a counselor for 6 years, the flag raising and lowering ceremony can bring tears to your eyes as you observe hundreds of children and adults, still and silent, honoring the symbol of our citizenship.

So I put the flag out.  I’m a citizen of a great nation, and in this New Year, I don’t want to take it for granted.  We’ll fly it every morning in a moment of stillness and silence, thankfulness and respect.


My New Year’s Resolution: Be Soap

Before we leave to drive home from our holiday travels, we fear enduring the horrific smell in our minivan.  On the trip down, both girls get carsick all over the seats, the floor–everything in sight.  Have you ever been in a situation that was so unpleasant that it becomes comical?  Picture us pulling off of the highway, both girls vomiting, a snowstorm upon us, and no way to get the car clean.  And we still have 6 hours of driving left. 

Ha ha ha. 

It’s hard to live with flair sometimes. 

Once at our destination, we try everything to remove the smell, including all sorts of sprays and deodorizers.  Nothing helps.  Then, Grandpa tells us his tried and true way of removing any car odor.   You simply take a bar of soap and put it under the seats.

As we pack up the car to drive home, I’m doubtful as I put that little bar of Irish Spring under the seat. I’m plugging my nose and hating everything about holiday traveling. 

An hour later, we pile in, and we cannot smell the carsick odor.  I keep smelling the air, skeptical.
It’s completely gone.  The carsick smell is gone!   All day long, I’m thinking about a little bar of soap with the power to change a whole environment.  I can’t figure it out, but I know it’s working.  The soap somehow absorbs and neutralizes the offending smell.

Meanwhile, I have 10 hours of travel to consider my New Year’s Resolution.  And then it occurs to me that I want to influence my environment like that little bar of soap.  Can I somehow absorb and neutralize every terrible, offensive, negative thing–neutralize it–and in turn refresh whatever situation I’m in?

In 2011, I want to absorb and neutralize.  I want to counterbalance every attack with the good, the true, and the beautiful.  And I can because of God within me.  Might God use us all to change every toxic environment into a sweet smelling paradise?   Even a small intervention–as small as soap tucked under a seat–can change everything.  


Doing Everything Exactly Wrong

I’m reading a book to my daughter that mentions a bunny with a nose that wiggles.  I learn that a bunny wiggles her nose for a very curious reason.  It’s not to help her breathe, smell, or provide any obvious help.  Apparently, a rabbit wiggles her nose only when she’s attentive.  The more interested a rabbit is in something, the faster her nose wiggles.

A thrilled bunny, caught in wonder, wiggles her nose.

My daughter turns to me and says, “Mom, am I doing it?”  She’s right up against my face, her nose touching mine.

I lean back and observe her.  She’s moving everything except her nose.  “Sweetheart, you’re moving your eyebrows up and down, not your nose,” I tell her.  She then puffs her cheeks, puckers her lips, wrinkles her chin, and even blinks her eyes rapidly.

But she can’t get the nose to wiggle.

She focuses, going cross-eyed looking down upon her nose.  I hold her face, offer some advice, and wait. I consider the task before her and realize the difficulty of mastering that particular movement.  She does it exactly wrong as part of learning the skill.  By a process of elimination, she figures it out. Finally, she moves her nose and her little nostrils flare a few times.   

This won’t be the last time we go about getting it right by getting it all wrong first.  How many times in my own life have I done everything exactly wrong on my way to figuring it all out?

Doesn’t God hold my face close, waiting with me–patiently directing– as I get it right?  My little one, that curious bunny hopping about, wiggling her nose, reminds me that living with flair means I sometimes do everything exactly wrong as I explore this great world with wonder.  And that helps me get it right eventually.


What America Cannot Lose

Elliotts Pharmacy since 1914

Yesterday, I encounter flair in a drugstore.

My husband’s family owns the independent pharmacy in the honest town of Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina.  If you’ve lost faith in good people and genuine community living, come visit downtown Fuquay to inspire your heart.  The folks in this place live with the kind of flair that has motivated me since the day I first visited. 

This drugstore, Elliotts Pharmacy, has served the community since 1914, and it still has the fountain to serve customers vanilla cokes, pimento cheese sandwiches, sweet tea, and the best milkshakes in town. 

I had never used the words pimento cheese sandwiches before I married into this town.  I had never seen folks line up for sausage biscuits and orangeade.  If you’ve never had these things, you are not fully alive yet. 

We walk in, and we enter another time and place–the kind of era when folks stop everything, come out from behind their cash register, and shake your hand.  It’s the kind of place where you know everybody, and everybody knows you.

You can spin around on the bar stools, just like your granddaddy did when he came to Elliotts after school with a nickle to buy a cola and a dime for square nabs or a candy bar. 

You can talk to the pharmacist about anything you want, and he’ll remember everything about you if he doesn’t already know.  He will not rush you.  People in the South don’t know how to rush. 

I know for a fact that he once brought a customer a heating pad in the middle of the night, and he answers his phone during Christmas dinner to take care of any customer in town who needs him.  Right now, I asked him to read this blog before I posted it, and he said he’d be right back because he’s delivering medicine to a customer.

Would a big box pharmacy do that?  Have I ever once sat around a chain drug store, eating lunch and shaking hands with my neighbors and asking about their relatives?

Grandpa says his store is “a modern pharmacy with old-fashioned qualities.”  I love that.  I want my whole life to be modern with old-fashioned qualities like Elliotts.

I’m not ready to let a place like Elliotts go.  While so many downtown stores close because customers go to Super Centers, places like Elliotts wait patiently on the corner.  A drugstore like that symbolizes what we cannot lose in America.   


Sledding in My Pearls

Our Saucer Sled

It’s late afternoon, and I’m all fixed up for a night out.  I even have my pearls on. 

My youngest daughter stands by the door and says, “Mom, can we go sledding real quick?  Real quick?”  She’s already pulling on her snow pants, and as I look out the window towards the sledding hill, something comes over me.  I realize I must do this; I must take a minute and live with flair.  So many moments of pure joy have come from spontaneous, ridiculous activity.  I have to go sledding. 

Of course this makes no sense at all. 

I pull on Grandpa’s huge snowsuit (that fits over my outfit without messing it up), grab my husband’s jacket and gloves, yank on some boots, and I’m out the door. 

Sledding in Pearls

We sled down the hill in a bright blue saucer.  I sit down first, and she plops down right on top of me.  We push off, holding on to each other for dear life. 

I’m actually late for our evening plans.  As the woman who is always ten minutes early to everything, I’m amazed with the joy I feel being late for something.  I apologize to the other couples and point to the sledding hill.  As I strip off my snow gear, I tell everyone not to worry.  I’m ready to go.  See?  I even have my pearls on. 


When You Feel Like Burnt Toast

When you burn food, you apparently ruin it by overcooking.  Too much time, too much heat, and the thing burns.  This morning, I nearly incinerate the bread in the toaster oven as I attempt to make toast for my daughter.  I’m not paying attention, and before I know it, the bread loses that delicious browned toasty color and suddenly adopts the despair of burnt black waste.

But I’m standing by a grandmother who, among millions of other wise lessons, teaches me not to waste anything.  I pick up that toast and consider the truth that it’s only surface damage.  I can salvage something good from this disaster.

I scrape the charred landscape to reveal the real thing underneath: perfect toast.

It only looked like disaster.  It only seemed like despair.  

These things about my day, my life, that feel like something burnt beyond repair might be perceived differently.  Underneath the surface, the true good thing remains.  I ask God to run the butter knife over the landscape of my life, clear that surface damage, and let the real me shine through.

Living with flair means that when I feel like burnt toast, I remember what’s unseen beneath the surface.