One Sure Way Not to Take Yourself So Seriously

I’m in class, teaching difficult things.  We stress, we furrow our brows, and we cramp our fingers around our pens as we engineer new thesis positions.   We sigh with discouragement as we discuss urgent social and political matters.

I lean back, cross my legs, and expose the socks I’m wearing underneath these business slacks.  Striped pink socks with monkeys on them.  A few people laugh out loud.

I’ve always worn whimsical socks.  I put them on as the last accessory before I slip on my boring (but extremely comfortable) work shoes.

The socks remind me not to take myself so seriously.  The day stretches before me: difficult, stressful, urgent.  But the subtext of the whole day–the story underneath my professor attire–calls out to me.  There’s something fun here.  There’s something quirky, delightful, and refreshing.  Even in pain, even in sorrow, I can discover a way to giggle or roll my eyes at something silly and unprofessional.  

Might there be room in my serious day for the trivial thing that delights?  And why wouldn’t that thing be a sock?  Socks provide protection, covering, and warmth.  Sometimes I need to buffer the deep and distressful with the delightful and diverting.  

Living with flair means I don whimsical socks.  Seriously fun when I’m taking myself too seriously.  


Forgetting the Thing I Need the Most

Today, I attended that Body Combat class that once made me cry. 

I’m front and center with the petite and perky trainer staring right into my eyes.  With every muscle toned and every skin surface glistening, she encourages me to “own the space” around me and to “no longer be a prisoner.”  As I punch and kick the air, I imagine some unnamed demon–depression, failure, regret–and I attack fiercely and swiftly.

I’m working hard.

Then, at the point of my exhaustion, the trainer says, “Don’t forget to breathe.”  It’s silly.  How could I forget?  Why do trainers always command us to do something so simple and intuitive?  Breathe.  

I ask her why we have to be reminded.

She says (in between one-handed push ups and military crawls) that when the body is working hardest, it forgets the thing it needs the most.  The focus on the task (utilizing muscles in difficult configurations) means we forget to breathe.  We hold our breath as we focus. 

“So I have to remind you.  There’s no quicker way to fatigue the body than to forget to breathe.”

Her lesson in breathing at the point of my most focused and hardest work reminds me that what seems automatic and intuitive often freezes up when I’m working.  I fatigue myself because I’m neglecting the thing I need the most. 

When I’m fatigued like this, I need to ask myself what I’m neglecting that I need the most.


A Mistake We Make

Our acorn stockpile wasn’t such a great idea after all.  A few days ago, I learned that acorns contain bitter tannins that interfere with a squirrel’s ability to metabolize protein.  That’s why they bury them! 

Burying acorns and letting them sit underground allows moisture to percolate through them to “leach out” the tannins.

Our stockpile circumvented this process.  We’ll have to bury them or let them sit in groundwater for days.

How could I not think of ways I seek short-cuts, of ways I stockpile and fret, when all along, I’m preventing a much needed process?   When my plans rest dormant underground, might I see them as percolating in the moisture needed to make them nourishing and not destructive?

God is leaching out the bitter thing–the thing that might harm me. 

Squirrels surrender to the process.  They don’t resist the truth of their circumstances.  They gather, bury, and then feast only after that secret underground process completes.  Might living with flair mean we watch the squirrels and understand something about our own journey with God?

I can’t circumvent what needs to happen.


Would You Wear These Shoes?!

My shoes look a lot like this:  brown, basic, sensible, sturdy.  No heel.  

Are you surprised?  I’m the same woman who wore flip-flops to a fancy Manhattan party.  No matter how hard I try, I could never wear shoes like this:  Pink, Satin, 10 inch heel.  Strappy.  

Put me in shoes like these, and I’d entangle the heel in my clothing; I’d fall into the street; I’d look like a fool.  But every once in a while, I think that I’m supposed to wear high heels.  And they have to be satin and pink and absolutely adorable. 

Once I asked my friend (she wears 10 inch heels regularly, with jeans even) if her shoes were comfortable. 

“Of course not!  I’m in excruciating pain!” she hollers at me.  She has to walk back to the parking lot from our building. She’s barely making it.  I think I see blood. 

My shoes, in comparison, look beyond boring.  What happened to all my sass?

Many years ago, I chose to throw off the conventions that torture rather than free, that bind rather than release.   I’ve spent too much of my life entangled in fancy externals that masquerade as the good life.   In that life, the things that promise freedom actually oppress.  You know it because of the pain.  You know it because you’re following some rule about what’s supposed to make you happy.  And you can’t remember what you love anymore.  Instead, you’re living a cliche as scripted as pink satin 10 inch heels.

They aren’t me.  They were never me.  I love comfy shoes that I don’t have to think about.  

Release the buckle and strap, slip off the entanglement, and run free.


When You Feel Unstable

I’ve been walking a lot lately.  This morning I woke up thinking about a quote from Oliver Wendall Holmes:   

Walking, then, is a perpetual falling with a perpetual selfrecovery. It is a most complex, violent, and perilous operation. . . 

When I walk, I deliberately destabilize myself, catch myself with the next foot, and repeat the process.  This is how I get places. 

I stroll all alone down my street and then up the big hill.  As I walk, I crunch the fallen and abandoned acorn tops with my shoes.  That crackle of flattened cupule (the lovely word for the acorn shell) delights me somehow.   My gait looks silly–Chaplinesque without the cane–wobbly and off-kilter as I seek out shells to flatten.

It’s a little dangerous and slippery.  The shells cover the walkway and make me aware of my steps.  I’m smiling with the game of it.  Here I am, falling and recovering, leaving a wake.  I’m unstable and then stable.  But I’m still in the game. 

Later, I arrive at the school doors and begin the walk home with two girls by my side.   We three crunch acorn shells, each in our own segment of sidewalk.  That microcosmic movement–walking–as a perpetual falling and recovery showcases the complexity of our whole journey.  We fall; we recover; we get to crunch acorns on the way. 

PS–I’m thankful for days of walking.  For those who cannot walk today, I honor your journey.   And for those in rehabilitation and physical therapy, I’ve learned from Holmes just how difficult that process is. Keep up the hard work!  May God quicken your recovery!   


True Snapshot

School pictures never go well for us.  Over the years, they always return with faces that more resemble mug shots than happy school pictures.  One year, it actually looked my daughter was growling at the photographer.  Another year, the oldest daughter’s eyes were half shut, and she had a haunting smirk on her face.

That year, our photographer friend rescued us.  We met her at the studio in the mall, and for a comparable price, she created the most fabulous photo shoot for my daughters.  They could choose all sorts of fun backgrounds, use props, and relax while the camera clicked away.  Even better, this great photographer stopped and combed hair, adjusted clothing, and worked to capture the most authentic and vibrant smiles.  We left an hour later with a package of prints to send to grandparents and aunts and uncles.  And we could display two “school photos” in our living room that didn’t look terrifying.

Telling my daughter she wasn’t ordering school pictures this morning nearly sent her into a fit.  That’s when my husband said, “You’re right.  I want to make you miserable. I don’t love you at all.”

What she didn’t recall (and couldn’t know) was that his “no” meant a great “yes” and a trip to the mall later.  And instead of 3 dull backgrounds, she would choose from a wide array of whimsical ones. 

I throw fits in private to the Lord of the Universe about that cosmic “no” (whatever I’m not getting).  But that “no” always, always ends with a better, more authentic and more vibrant “yes.”  The things I want might just be bad set-ups–as torturing as school photos compared to glamorous photo shoots.   When I see it that way, and when I hear that voice chuckling, “You’re right. I want to make you miserable.  I don’t love you at all,” I realize how absurd my thinking is.

Do I really believe God withholds something to make me miserable?  Because I’m not loved at all?  Listening to my husband tease our daughter in the kitchen–and her delight in hearing the absurdity of it–made her actually beg for him to say it again.  Even my older daughter wanted a reprise.

I want to make you miserable.  I don’t love you at all.  We giggled.  We hugged.  We realized the truth.


How to Get This Thing to Work

My friend just emailed a picture of my daughter swinging on a glider swing with her daughter.  On a glider swing, two friends sit back to back.  The rhythm required to get the swing moving involves taking turns pulling up against the bar in front of you.  If you both try to pump at the same time, you don’t move.  It’s fun to watch children figure this concept out.  You have to let the other person move, and then you move, and then it’s back to you, then back to them.

But it doesn’t work if you both pull in your own direction at the same time.

The irony of surrendering to your partner, of deferring to the other person, is that you end up swinging higher.  You get the benefit of all her hard work.  But it doesn’t seem fair.  You have to resist the urge to be first, to control the whole gig.  Those urges end up sabotaging you in the end.

The picture of my daughter on the glider swing reminds me to cooperate.  It’s embarrassing how much I resist cooperation.  I want to lead!  I want to start it all!  But you there at my back, with me the whole time, have a stake in this experience.  What would happen if I saw us as truly interdependent, laced up at our backs, so that when you lead, I go higher?  What if saw my labor as elevating you as well? 

I’m not the surrendering type.  I’m learning, when I look at this picture, to cooperate with what’s at my back (God, my husband, my dear neighborhood friend, my colleagues, and even my own daughters).

Let me work with you.  That’s the way the swing works. 

(beautiful photo courtesy of S. Velegol)


Totally Out of Context

Today I tell my students we will work together to revise their essays.  

To revise means “to see again.” When we see our writing “again,” we gain a fresh look, from a new perspective, and recalibrate what’s not working.

One method of revision involves taking writing out of context and re-reading it in a completely different form.  Maybe the font has changed; maybe the paragraphs are separated by huge chunks of white space; maybe the text appears on a computer screen and not on a piece of paper.

We gain a new perspective by changing the context.  And we get somebody else to see it with us; new eyes add a new context.  Suddenly errors emerge so clearly we wonder why we could never see them ourselves. 

As I think about learning to revise my day–to find peace, beauty, happiness, and hope–I often need to find a new context.  I joke with my family (when I’m especially frazzled and moody) that there’s just got to be flair in this!  When I find a new context for interpreting what’s going on around me, I’m not as stuck as I think I am.  My circumstances don’t have to determine how I’m seeing this day.  Disappointment doesn’t own this day or my mood.

I’m going to take the disappointment, the fuss, the trouble out of context and see it all differently. 

What would my day look like from another person’s perspective–a person from another country, another economic situation, or a different political system?  Would they complain about what I complain about? Would they fret over what I fret about?  The error is exposed: I’m acting entitled, ungrateful, and self-centered. 

One person’s fuss is another person’s flair. 

If I’m dominated by negative emotions today, maybe I need to change the context, see with fresh eyes (with the help of God and others), and revise.  I pray that I can take my life out of its settled context and see clearly and honestly. 

Living with flair means I take my experiences totally out of context.

(photo by Jez’s flickr)


Darning a Hole in Your Community

Last night, our neighborhood launched the second year of Monday Night Neighborhood Fitness Group in the parking lot.  We had children and adults jumping rope while others biked, skated, threw football and Frisbee, walked a circuit around the perimeter, flew the big turtle kite, or raced up the steep hill beside the parking lot.

From above, I wondered if we looked like one huge mass of criss-crossing elements filling in the space.  We wove in and out, passing one another.  

I thought of darning. 

Darning is the technique one uses to repair a hole in fabric or knitting.  I learned that a knitter makes a framework around the hole and then uses a crisscrossed pattern to fill the gap.  My friend alerted me to this concept two days ago when I mentioned that the beautiful socks she knit me last year were beyond repair with two gaping holes in the heels.  She says, matter-of-factly, “I’ll just darn them for you.”  

Darning reminds me of how scabs form on the body.  Platelets, fibrin, and plasma all work together to form a web around the wound–filling it in and sealing the hole. 

There’s something beautiful in the webbing and criss-crossing that must take place to repair a hole or a wound.  It happens when we repair fabric or our own bodies, but it also happens in our lives.

I thought about my community and all the ways we hold each other in place, all the ways we intersect, gather in, unite, and fill each others lives. We choose to deliberately criss-cross.  We are wound healers when we come together like this. 

Something was darned in my heart last night–some gaping hole I hadn’t remembered was there.  I only played for an hour.  The sun set upon us, shining gold through the trees in the distance, and there I was, jumping double dutch (making a fool of myself) with these folks I’m living life with. We aren’t related by blood.  We were strangers a few years ago–some a few days ago.  Now, we are something else.   I’ll gather on the asphalt every week with these people:   platelets, fibrin, and plasma that circle, web, and heal.


Draw Out Your Inner Teacher

The Latin root of the verb educate means “to draw out” or “bring forth.” 

Teachers illuminate the subject matter, but they also bring something forth from the student.  They draw knowledge out, not dump it in.

It’s a different way of understanding the verb and a teacher’s role in the classroom. It changes everything: how I teach, what I expect, and what constitutes the goal of our interaction.  Drawing out means there’s some glorious and wonderful thing inside a mind that I want to bring to the light.

I’m on a treasure hunt; I’m on a deep sea dive;  I’m on a fishing expedition. 

“To draw out” a person–bring them to the surface–means I cast the line, linger patiently in those deep waters of the mind, and wait until the nibble comes.  It’s not a perfect analogy, but it reminds me of the work of drawing any person out.  Marriage, parenting, friendships, work relationships, and even encounters with strangers might be deep sea fishing and diving expeditions. 

Wouldn’t our dates, our dinner conversations, our seminars, and our book clubs be richer if we were all deep sea divers into the mind of another person?  What a privilege to learn from you!  What a privilege to draw something out of you!

I suppose that’s why I want to be a teacher, not just with students, but with every interaction.  I want to draw out and not dump in.