Do You Know a Mama Like This?

Do you remember the Italian Mama?  She taught me how to have a soundtrack to my life a year ago as I learned about sauce.  Then I studied meatballs and how to clothe both them and my own children.  In November, she instructed me in the fine art of relaxing and throwing those meatballs.  In December (during that awful cold) she brought enough baked ziti, turkey noodle soup, bread, and chocolate to feed a village.

Today, just when I needed it most, she hosted an Italian Mama’s Lunch.  Since I’m partly Italian (and studying how to be an Italian Mama), I skipped down the street like a little girl going to her first party.  I couldn’t wait!  I arrived to this: 

Roasted peppers, tomatoes, basil, four types of cheeses, meats, olives, artichokes, fresh bread, cannoli desserts, and freshly ground espresso comprised this lunch.  As we dined, I learned that Italian Mamas are always authentic, passionate, honest, generous, and so vibrant that they literally have to hug you, use hand gestures for every word, and talk about everything.  

Italian Mamas live with a particular kind of flair.  They can hold the whole neighborhood in their embrace.  Whatever suffering–whatever hunger–they can soothe it.  I know this:  Everyone needs an Italian Mama for a neighbor.  And even though I’m still learning how to be one, I know that I can also be that Italian Mama for someone else.  I want to live that passionately and generously.  I want to hug you and talk about everything.

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Journal:  Do you know a Mama like this?  Are you one of them? 

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Why You Belong Right Here

I’m walking with my neighbor in the woods.

Lady Slippers in the Woods

All of a sudden, she cries out, “The lady slippers have bloomed!”  She’s pointing to the earth, and at first, I do not see anything.

Then, I see them.

Pink Lady Slipper Blooming

I don’t even really know what I’m seeing or why it matters.   

Lady Slipper Reaches Out

My friend tells me something wondrous.  Lady slipper orchids are extraordinary.

Are You Looking at Me? 

It’s illegal to uproot them.  It’s actually against the law to harm these wild orchids.  I learn two amazing facts that explain why.

First, the US Forest Service reports that lady slippers depend upon a very special fungus in the forest that allows the seed to grow.  The fungus cares for the seed–passing on nutrients–until it grows older.  And when the plant matures, it then sends nutrients back to the fungus through its roots.  That symbiosis will be destroyed if we harvest the orchids.

Second, I learn that the intricate system of orchid roots means that if you take even one plant away, you harm the entire network of orchid plants. 

Lady Slipper Family

Every single one matters.  And the location isn’t an accident.

As I think about the impossibly complex design that allows these orchids to thrive, I consider my own community.  Every single person nourishes each other, and we’re here for a reason.  There’s nothing accidental about it. The conditions for our growth exist only here.

Doesn’t God tell us that He “searches out the exact places where we live” (Acts 17) and that we are “all part of one body”? (Romans 12)

You are here for a marvelous reason.  We need you!  And even when these growing conditions seem like, well, fungus, this is what we require to thrive.  

Living with flair means really seeing ourselves as a community and knowing why it matters.  We are part of each other. 

Finally, it took another person to reveal this beauty to me.  I would have never noticed these lady slipper orchids without her.  Living with flair means that when our neighbors don’t see it, we show them. 

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Journal:  Do we really believe we are part of one another?

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Come See This!

At Fitness Group, the children huddle around me and tug on my sleeve because they have things to show me.

One boy has drawn a dragon out of chalk that spans the length of 3 cars.  He drags me over to his drawing, insisting that I observe the scales, the teeth, the wings, the claws.  With precise detail, he explains his work.  “You have to see this!” he cries and points to the “primary set of claws.”    

Others alert the parents to ducks that have landed in the far corner of the parking lot.  “Watch me chase them!” I hear.  Still another displays a kite in the shape of an owl.  “Come see this!” she calls out.

Others jump rope and tell me I have to watch them

I consider how beautiful this insistence to come see this! is.

It won’t always be this way.

At some point, they’ll stop showing themselves–and their discoveries–off.  They’ll become self-conscious and internal, hidden away and private.  The world becomes a critical judge, and they’ll hide. They’ll become embarrassed and worried about the crowd.

They’ll produce things that deserve our attention, but we won’t know about them because they won’t dare tell anyone.

I know because I teach college seniors.  Dragon drawings will stay hidden in notebooks.  Nobody admits to chasing ducks or wanting to fly an owl kite.

I wish we all did. 

Living with flair means we build communities where it’s right and good to cry out, “Come see this!”  We build communities where we invite others to show us what they’ve made, where they tell us what they’re thinking, and where we watch and listen intently.  That’s why I love Saturday Morning Pancakes and Creative Projects Night Out with the Ladies (what we did for my birthday in autumn).

In these spaces, we celebrate one another and rediscover that child within that once drew dragons, chased ducks across a parking lot, and told everyone about it.  Come see this! 

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Journal:  What have you made or been doing that you can tell others about?

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Why (and How) I Wrote a Writing Book

I remember the exact moment when a student called out from the back of the room and said, “Dr. H., I just want to learn how to write!  I’m tired of all these grammar rules and fancy rhetorical terms!”

He wanted to write.  And the expensive grammar books weren’t helping him.  I stood at the chalkboard, and I told him that every writer needs just five lessons.  I talked about the power of strong verbs and the need for sentence variation through punctuation marks like the semicolon and parentheses.  I talked about how to create rhythm by changing up the length of our sentences.  Then I talked about how to be clever using wordplay like repetition and puns.  Finally, I talked about how to build rapport with your readers.

That was it.  Class over.  I walked to my car and thought, “Somebody should really write a book about how to write in 5 easy lessons.”

Remember my problem with saying, “Somebody should really. . . “? (I was that somebody.) 

So I did it.  Over my winter break, I wrote out the lessons.  I took my little writing handbook to a print shop, and I assigned it the next semester.  Students emailed me to tell me that their fraternity brothers or their parents or their cousins wanted copies.  Others would report that my book “changed everything” and now they had confidence in writing.  I found notes in my mailbox from students claiming that my verb lessons have made them amazing writers in all their other classes.

Maybe my life calling has something to do with verbs.  I’m OK with how nerdy that sounds.

With so many positive evaluations, I decided to publish How to Write with Flair and sell it as a real book.  I didn’t know how, but I knew I was supposed to.

Within a few weeks, some strange things started happening.  A neighbor told me about createspace.com, and I learned how to put a manuscript together.  Then, I discovered that the neighbor to my right was an editor the same week I learned my neighbor to my left was a professional typesetter.  They wanted to help me publish my book!  But I needed a cover design and an author photo.  No problem.  I found a photographer mom at gymnastics class (of all places!), and I remembered a dear friend who had a knack for graphic design. My whole community was helping me and encouraging me!

Yesterday, I started to sell my first book.  Who knows what will happen?  All I know is that living with flair means you move forward with crazy ideas because you think they might help someone.

PS:  You can find How to Write with Flair here:  https://www.createspace.com/3471782  

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Journal:  Do you have an idea that you need to move on?

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How to Blog Every Day

When you blog for almost 400 days straight, sometimes you get emails asking how to blog every day.

The average blog lasts 6 weeks (42 days), and when I started Live with Flair, I wondered if blogging would stick for me.  Would it fizzle?  Would anyone read it?  Would this whole thing continue? 

It did.  I love it, and I look forward to it every day.  Sometimes I have 10 minutes to write.  Sometimes an entire hour clears.  Either way, I write.  And along the way, I figured out three secrets to blogging every single day.

Here they are: 

1.  You have to ask yourself a good question. 

My question for each day is simple:  Where’s the flair?  This question means that blogging is my commonplace book–that treasury I keep of answers to a question.

There’s a genuine question to answer today, and, as you’ve read before, I pray for the answer (usually in the shower when I’m tempted to feel grumpy about the day).  I have to believe that the answer to the question inspires someone else as well.  That’s the second secret of daily blogging:   

2.  You have to believe that what you write will be good for someone else. 

I’ve talked to so many bloggers who don’t think their thoughts are worth anything to anybody else.  These last few years, I’ve seen brilliant student writers refuse to share their work in class because they think it’s “worthless” and “nobody cares.”

What if we did?  What if your thoughts today could inspire a whole community?  We do care, and your thoughts can inspire

Living with flair means we ask good questions and build a treasury of wisdom to offer to others.  Sure critics will come against you.  Sure you’ll think nobody cares.  But when you learn something and pass it on to others, you’re engaging in an ancient art of recording wisdom for future generations.  Why wouldn’t we blog every day?  Why wouldn’t we ask ourselves philosophical questions every single day and tell someone what we think?

In this way, we also build a community of readers–fellow pilgrims–who join in and contribute their own wisdom.  It’s a beautiful thing.  Right now, we can say “hello” to readers in Germany, New Zealand,  Nigeria, and Australia.  We can engage with readers from Turkey, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Russia, and Italy.  (Hello friends!) 

Blogging means I’m going international every day.  That’s the final secret:

3.  You blog every day because you have an appointment with your readers.

I hope this post encourages fellow bloggers and reminds you why you started blogging in the first place. 

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Journal:  What question am I trying to answer today?  Do I believe I have wisdom to share?  Do I have a community with whom I might share these thoughts?  We are all waiting to hear what you think!

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Even in the Rain: The Best Part of the Week

I didn’t think anybody would show up to Neighborhood Fitness Group.  It was raining and dreary; who wants to exercise in the rain?

But we can’t help ourselves.  We love it. 

By the time I get the double-dutch jump ropes out, a group of children is already rolling down a hillside.  Then I look and see that my daughter has tied a kite to the back of her bike, and she rides as fast as she can to keep that kite flying.

You can’t slow down.  That kite needs speed. 

Then, the best part of all, one of my college students shows up to teach the children how to play 4-Square.

I find myself right in the mix.  I play 4-Square.  I jump double-dutch.  I dance to the music from the car speakers.  It’s raining, and I don’t even notice. 

I realize that I need this.  I need to be part of my neighborhood.  I need to know folks by name, roll down a hill with them, and gather even in the rain.

On the walk to school this morning (in the pouring rain), two children announce how far they got in 4-Square.  “I was almost King!” they shout and pull on my sleeve.

Is this what they’ll remember in 20 years?  Is this what they’ll put into place in their own neighborhoods in another generation?

I’m starting to think that showing up at Monday Night Fitness Group is the best thing I do in a week.  Even in the rain, I’ll be there next Monday. 

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Journal:  What else can we do to build our neighborhood?

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My Top Ten Name Game Questions

If I were to write a book called, “How to Teach with Flair,” I’d have an entire chapter on the power of name games.  Before I teach any class, I have to know these folks, and they have to know me.  The foundation of teaching–that base of solid rock supporting the whole framework–is community.  We have to know each other, and then, we transfer information in that beautiful and mysterious moment called teaching.

And yes, we all have to know first and last names.  Knowing names changes something. 

When you know each other, barriers drop, the mind opens, and we recognize the dignity and contribution of every person in the room.  I can’t imagine teaching without this foundation in place.  

It’s the same for Sunday school classes, neighborhood groups, business seminars, book clubs, family dinners, or any other gathering.  When we connect with one another, something marvelous stirs and rises within us.

Here are my Top 10 Name Game questions with some of the best or most common answers I’ve received in ten years of teaching.  So, say your name and:  

1.  What were you known for in school?  (embracing mediocrity)
2.  What accomplishment to date are you most proud of? (beating cancer)
3.  What was the last thing you googled? (the snowy owl)
4.  What’s something you consider yourself addicted to? (the Food Network)
5.  What’s a movie you think everyone should see?  What’s a movie you think nobody should see? (Life is Beautiful / Hancock)
6.  In a group of 3 people, find the most bizarre thing you have in common. (All obsessed with the cartoon, “Thundercats” and knowing lots of Thundercats trivia)
7.  What’s a song or youtube video you like to listen to or watch over and over again? (Hit Me Baby One More Time / Crazy Cats)
8.  What was your favorite childhood toy? (a tree)
9.  What is your favorite home-cooked meal? (homemade mac-n-cheese)
10.  What is your favorite way to procrastinate?  (Facebook)

I love name games because they connect us.  Tomorrow, I’m asking students to tell me their favorite quotation.  I’ll learn more about them in that moment than you can imagine.

Living with flair means I play name games when I’m in a group.  It might be silly, but it creates serious connection. 

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Journal:  What’s another great get-to-know-you type of question I can ask a group?

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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)

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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.

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Stencil Me In

Snowman Pancake

This morning, we invite some neighbors to join us for our Saturday Morning Pancakes.  My artistic neighbor sees the pancakes and immediately makes a homemade stencil so we can decorate them. We relax, drink coffee, and decorate snowman pancakes in the chaos of powdered sugar and syrup. 

So there we are, eating our art, and discussing such topics as multiple universes, our thoughts about God, and whether or not technology acts like an autonomous organism.  We have smart neighbors.  I love the kinds of conversations these neighbors inspire.  They can get a whole group talking and thinking. 

Meanwhile, I have a film student (who happens to be in my writing class) stopping by to take footage of our neighborhood fitness group for a promotional video about running.  Normally, the neighbors meet on Monday nights and walk to school every morning, but we have to reproduce a Saturday Morning Fitness Group for his video.  I call neighbors at the absolute last minute and tell them we are running around in my front yard.  Could they come by with their children–real quick–and help out my film student?  I know this is a little, you know, chaotic. 

They come.  Without question, they come.

And they welcome the chaos.  You have to–when you want to build authentic community–welcome some chaos, some last minute plans.  I’ve learned I need to make the space in my life for the possibility of last minute plans.  I need to schedule large blocks of nothing. 

As some of us finish our snowman pancakes and coffee, others gather in the front yard, and still others hang out in the living room. I haven’t even vacuumed yet.  Saturday cleaning day will now be Sunday cleaning day.  I overhear neighborhood plans to have a Giant Gingerbread House Making Party.  We don’t know when this will happen, and yes, it will be chaotic.  

But just send out the call.  We’ll come.  Without question, we’ll come.  

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