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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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One Way to Say “I Love You”

A few days ago, my husband and I seriously start brainstorming ideas for our Halloween costumes. There’s a lot at stake:  we have a party to attend and neighborhood children to impress.  

I have this genius idea–one I actually stole from a student– that my husband could dress as Colonel Mustard and I’d go as Mrs. Peacock from the board game, “Clue.”  We decide that, although a brilliant idea, it is too complicated (and nobody would remember that game). 

My husband begins implementing his plan;  he starts searching the Internet for “bear suits.”

I repeat:  bear suits.  

He actually wants us to go to this party as bears.  I smile politely and then leave for the costume store.  

I find the most glorious red cape for a Little Red Riding Hood outfit.  I picture my little basket and my adorable dress.  Then I consider my husband.  

Lederhosen / Wikipedia Commons / Public Domain

The store features another fairy tale costume that’s equally adorable.

It’s Hansel.

Think lederhosen.

Think actual leather breeches and embroidered suspenders.  And a little hat. 


I rush home and tell him about this costume.  I have it being held for 24 hours with his name on it.  

“You could be Hansel!  From Hansel and Gretel?  You know, Hansel?”  I’m nodding my head and shaking his arm back and forth. 

“I’m not going to be Hansel,” he says firmly.

“But it’s so adorable!  Honey, please be Hansel.”

“I can’t be Hansel,” he says again. 

I’m crushed.  I’m devastated.  He’d be the most wonderful Hansel.

A day goes by.  I’m still crushed.  And just about the time I’m going to search for more impressive costumes (Gandalf, Dumbledore, Batman) or else begin an ebay search for bear suits, I get a text message from him.

3 words.  

“I’ll be Hansel.” 

I call him back, and say, “Really?  Will you really be Hansel?”

He says, “Yes, I’ll be Hansel.  I know how much this means to you.”

It turns out that other husbands (the ones who we arrange playdates for), perhaps in an act of solidarity, are encouraging his decision.  At least one is seriously considering going as Hansel–standing side-by-side with my husband.  Maybe they’ll be a whole neighborhood throng of German men in lederhosen. 

But I would have been a bear for him. 

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The Beauty Always There

Autumn alights on my kitchen table as neighborhood children unload this gift of leaves.  We configure the apparatus:  one leaf, a white sheet of paper, and a broken crayon stripped of its packaging. 

Leaf Rubbings on an Autumn Evening

We smooth the crayon against the clean page.  As if by magic, the unseen leaf appears.

The children hold their breath, amazed.  One of them looks at her paper and then up at me.  She exclaims, “We didn’t even need the Internet to do this!”

My youngest is overcome with the impossibility of it–a crayon pressed to her page reveals a pattern that’s there but could not previously be seen. 

All night I press my mind against this event.  The leaf represented a reality we couldn’t see but that made itself evident when we rubbed against it.  Was I encountering a truly beautiful thing in that moment, the kind of beauty philosophers pause for, the kind of beauty that poets claim can break your heart (and repair it)?  

It’s always there, underneath.

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Can I Tuck You In?

Last night, a dear friend of mine agrees to visit my children around bedtime to read stories and “tuck them in.”  It’s so whimsical and comforting:  a loving friend stops by, has a bedtime snack with you, reads you your favorite book, says bedtime prayers, and leaves you sleeping soundly by 8:30 PM.  That’s a great tuck-in.

The Perfect Tuck-In

I want to hire her to tuck me in.

When do we stop needing that moment at the end of the day when somebody gets us situated in a snug spot and goes through a ritual designed to transition us into dreamland?

As I’m lying on the floor listening to the bedtime stories, I recall great tuck-in moments.  My dad used to throw my sister and me over his shoulder as his “sack of potatoes” to carry us up the stairs to bed.  The sack-of-potatoes tuck-in brought me so much security and joy each night. 

Years later, I was a camp counselor presented with the challenge of tucking in 7th grade girls.  For the ten girls in my cabin at Camp Greystone, I read the Bible with a flashlight in a soft voice as they listened in their bunks.  Then, I walked around the cabin, touched heads, straightened blankets, leaned over, and whispered something simple like:  “I hope you have a great night’s sleep and wonderful dreams.”  I would mention something I noticed about their days–something good that happened–and I’d remind them of the great day they would have tomorrow.

I tucked them in.  

They were 13 years old.  They seemed to hate it at first.  They’d turn their face away and act like they’d already fallen asleep.  But within a week, they’d beg for the tuck-in, reminding me that I should do this and saving tidbits of joy to share with me.

Another great tuck-in memory came as I recalled the year the preschool had an auction to raise money.  One of the auction items was a tuck-in from the teacher!  She’d arrive in her cow printed pajamas and appear in your bedroom for stories.  Families fought to win that prize.  The tuck-in prize was the single highest grossing item at the auction.  

I’m older now, and there’s nobody tucking me in.  And what about all my friends?  Who tucks them in?

I want to tuck my loved ones in.  I know I can’t literally do this (maybe I could), but I can symbolically provide tuck-in moments.  I can make a phone call, send a text, write an email, say a prayer.   I can send out a million reminders that you’re secure and safe, loved and cherished. 

I crawl into my own bed.  I make a snug spot and remind myself of these things.  I read a book to myself and say my prayers.  I’m secure.  I’m tucked in. 

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Things That Can Wait

My sister texts me this morning to tell me to go to the gym.  I tell her I have too much to do. Later, I call and she doesn’t say, “Hello.”  Instead, she says, “I hope you’re calling me from the treadmill.”

My sister knows me.  She knows that going to the gym makes me able to manage all the other stress in my life.  For days, things have felt unmanageable for our family.  My husband commented this morning that he’s had a revelation about what causes things to feel so out of control for him.

“It’s my desk,” he says.  “I can’t handle the clutter.  When my desk is clean, I can manage.” 

I understand this.  I can’t go to bed with dishes in the sink.  If I wake up to a messy kitchen, everything feels like a disaster.  Doing the nightly dishes puts everything else in order.  And going to the gym keeps my mood in check.

“It’s your way to breathe,” my sister says.  She explains that for her friend, keeping an organized freezer helps her breathe. Other folks need to make their beds or keep the interior of their cars clean.  I suppose it’s different for everyone

Those minutes I spend on the things I need to do to breathe buy me entire days of order and elevated mood.  Maybe it’s dishes and exercise.  Maybe it’s an organized freezer and a clean desk.   No matter what it is, I let other things wait so I can do the thing that helps me breathe.

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The Bored Student Speaks!

My I-Really-Just-Don’t-Care student hands me some of his writing to read.  He’s typed eight single-spaced pages.  I didn’t assign him this project.  He wrote something on his own, and he wants to meet today to talk about writing.

He gives me permission to tell you this:

It’s a personal memoir about watching his brother leave for service in the Marine Corps.  It’s about the first letter he receives from him. 

It’s about the first time he sees his face again. 

At one point, the student recounts the moment when he’s about to see his own brother.  Mid sentence, he includes in parentheses: “I’ve stood to type this section because I can still feel the excitement.”

I can’t put it down.  The writing is so good, the story so profound.  I’m overcome with the fact that a student has to stand up to write because the emotion is that great.

The poet Marianne Moore writes in her poem, “The Student,” a line I’ll never forget.  She claims that a student seems “too reclusive for some things to seem to touch him–not because he has no feeling but because he has so much.” 

I have to remember that.  I have to remember that the reclusive soul sitting before me who doesn’t care about anything might actually care too much.  The silence, the frown, or even the bored comment masks something underneath.  Something so thrilling he has to stand up to write it.

I ask him again if I can write about him today.  He says, “I really just don’t care.”   Now I know what he means. 

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Your Adventure

Hot Air Balloon

I glance at the morning sky and spy a hot air balloon drifting across the valley.  This part of the country displays the most vibrant autumn colors, and hot air balloon rides provide a terrific (although terrifying) vantage point.

I’d never do it.  A balloon?  A basket?  Me in there, high above the earth?  Never

Moments later, I stand in front of college students who do remarkable things despite fear.  They visit Egypt on archeology trips; they study Latin American countries so they can travel and negotiate border disputes; they enlist in the Army and await deployment; they go into prisons and practice rehabilitation methods.

Unsafe things.  Terrifying things.

Yesterday, my neighbor tells me her oldest daughter is mastering Arabic so she can spend a year in the Middle East.

“Isn’t that really unsafe?  Aren’t you so scared?” 

“Of course,” she says. 

Of course it’s unsafe.  Of course she’s scared.  But something else matters more than her fear.  

Later, I’m talking with a friend about her husband’s new job offer.  A huge unknown.  A huge gamble.  She’s terrified.  

I tell her to surrender to the adventure of it.  If you know what’s going to happen, that’s not adventure, that’s a script.  That’s a high-action drama with a plot-spoiler.  Don’t give the fear power.  If there’s fear, it just means the adventure is that great. 

No fear, no adventure.

The spirit of adventure I see in younger folks challenges me to move ahead in the face of fear.  Of course it’s scary.  Most adventures are.  That’s what makes them adventures.

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No Ordinary Day

This morning in the shower, I thought of the verb, “exfoliate,” which means to remove a dead layer of skin, to shed the scales.  Exfoliation reveals the smooth new skin underneath.  You shine afterward.

Some days, I move through the hours as if under gauze.  I’m not seeing into the life of things.   There’s a dead layer I need to come out from under. 

It all seems so ordinary, so basic.  No beauty, no wonder.   With eyes glazed over, I move through my life. 

But then I scrub it down, shine what’s in front of me, and seek out the poem in anything from soap scum to a thunderstorm. As my neighbor said to me a few weeks ago, this daily flair project is a daily poem project.  If poems make the ordinary thing extraordinary, then that’s what I’m doing today and everyday.  I want to see deeply and clearly. 

I’m on the hunt for beauty.

I want to train my daughters in the art of finding the beautiful thing, of naming it, and holding it tight.  We need time to think, to sit outside, and experience our lives. 

Seeing the world upside down. 

I tell them we aren’t watching television because we have so much to experience.  I send them outside, and they swing upside down as the sun sets.

The older one takes a rock and crushes acorns to a fine powder. She wants to see inside things. 

Later, I find out acorn powder is a secret ingredient for a recipe she’s making.  I did that as a girl, long before electronics dominated homes.

Crushing acorns

I went outside with nothing to do at all.

I came in, my face shining.

Exfoliated. 

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