The Detail that Changes Everything

In class today, we read the description of the town of Maycomb in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  As we imagine that beautiful Southern drawl, we hear how “ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” 

That one detail comparing ladies to teacakes sets a mood for this little town.  It’s a comparison worth making. 

The ladies like soft teacakes seem out of place.  It’s a tiny detail, amid the “red slop” of rainy streets and “bony mules” that flick flies away.  There’s even a dog suffering in the background.   I don’t want to live in a town like this. 

But then, the writer introduces the lovely and delicate and transforms sweat to frosting and talcum.  Already, I know something marvelous will happen in the mind of this narrator. 

She’s going to reconstruct a new reality for me. 

As we work on our own personal memoir settings, we think deeply about tiny details that change how we understand our pasts. We are the characters, looking back over our lifetimes, and weaving threads of meaning into our experiences.  Was there a detail that I couldn’t see until this moment that offers a new reality?   Is there a truth I might apply that I only see now?  Back then, I only felt the heat and slop.  But now? 

Can I notice something different–one detail–that might turn sweat to frosting? 


Your Beautiful Moments

I introduce Memoir Writing to my students today, and I ask them to write down one or two examples of beautiful moments they’ve experienced. 

I’m always amazed, year after year, with the types of things we remember from our childhoods.  Without fail, a student’s beautiful moment has something to do with nature, friendship, God, travel, or overcoming a trial.  Not once, in all my years of teaching, has a beautiful moment emerged from memories of television or video games.  But the time they spend with technology (hours upon hours) would suggest that at least some tiny memory might emerge–some tangible image–that elevates the soul and provides a moment of self-discovery.  

But they don’t have memories like that with technology. 

Yesterday, I went to a parent / teacher conference for my kindergartner.  In her journal, she was supposed to draw her “favorite moments.”  She drew the swing in our front yard, the pumpkin patch, and jumping on the bed with her sister.

No favorite movies; no favorite computer games; no favorite technology experiences.  I needed to see that. 

My Sea Glass Bracelet

Just now, I visit my dear friend down the street.  Her son has a collection of sea glass, rocks, and shells from a summer beach trip.

He’s teaching himself the art of jewelry making.  He presents me with a handmade bracelet, woven together with wire.

I will treasure this bracelet.  He tells me about the beach, about finding these shells and sea glass.  It’s a beautiful moment.  And he’s made this memory into a bracelet I can wear.  It’s tangible; it’s real.  It’s the stuff of memoir.


Swimming Beneath the Geese

I’m swimming in a lake with my daughters, and another family nearby starts feeding the geese.  Within seconds, a gaggle surrounds us.  They come from every direction, leaving the shore and their organized formations across the lake.  Our heads bob along in the water right against their soft, wild feathers.  I’m so close that I can look into those deep black eyes and touch the fuzzy heads of the goslings.

It doesn’t seem right how close we are. It seems other-worldly. We aren’t separate from the wild; we’re swimming along with it. 

The family with the goose food offers me a handful.  If I’m still enough, someone tells me, the geese will eat from my hand.

And so I am.  And so they do.

I’m told we can swim under the geese and even touch their webbed feet.  Because the geese are used to floating logs and debris, they don’t mind when you hold their feet.  My daughter tightens her goggles and dives under the surface to swim beneath the geese.

My five year old has pink goggles that sit on the pier.  My husband tosses them out to me, and I dive deep under the gaggle, turn myself over, and look up towards the heavens.  It’s all feathers, little webbed feet, and the jeweled water swirling above my head as the sun shines down.

I stored that experience away, like I hope my daughters did, in that place in my imagination reserved for the magical, the heavenly, and the purely happy.  Maybe one day, when life bears down on my children with that weight of sadness that comes to us all eventually, in its own way, they would recall this morning swim beneath the geese.  They could live again in that moment when something rare and beautiful happened.  And they’d catch it–all feathered, webbed, and jeweled–in their hands.

It could be their flair for that day.


Remember This and Mark the Day!

Yesterday my 8 year old announced she needed a diary to keep all her deep thoughts and secrets.  “I’m a 3rd grader now.  I have to write what happens to me in a diary,” she said. 

I love her instincts to mark the transition to a new phase of her life with a special gift–one that involves recording her life’s moments.

Children naturally celebrate rites of passage.  They are so aware when they change status somehow.  They know what it means to write their own name, lose a tooth, ride without training wheels, swim across the pool, read a chapter book,  or make toast by themselves.  

My children insist on celebrating their growth.  They dance, they make announcements, they write it down, they throw parties.  In fact, we have a “celebrate plate”  that we use whenever somebody accomplishes something.  We end up using it a lot. (Special thanks to my friend who gave this as a wedding gift 10 years ago!)

But all day, I wondered about this childhood awareness of personal growth.  I want to be as keen to my own process of growing because it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) stop into adulthood.  I want to be more deliberate about adult rites of passage ceremonies.  In what ways am I celebrating my own transitions from one status to another?  And how I am celebrating other adults in my neighborhood? 

I want to celebrate new:  new roles I assume, new friendships I enter, new goals I set (and achieve), any breakthroughs I experience–emotionally, physically, spiritually, or socially.  I want to acknowledge new changes and new experiences.

There’s a reason why this matters so much.  

I’ll never forget the day I started feeling hopeful for the first time in years.  My doctor said, “Mark this day. Buy a piece of jewelry or a special candle or a piece of art.  Do something to remember it.  Every time you see that thing, you will remember what has happened today.”   

There’s an ancient Biblical tradition of “marking the day.”  Whenever the Israelites experienced a special deliverance from God, they “marked the day” by building an altar (even just a pile of rocks) so that whenever anybody saw it, they would remember the wonders of God.  It was for their children and the children after them.  It was so important to remember the work of God (because they kept forgetting!)

They knew and proclaimed, according to Isaiah 26:12, that all they had came from the Lord.  The writer insists: “Lord, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us.”

My daughter’s desire to mark her graduation from 2nd grade, to remember it, under lock and key, in her diary, challenges me to remember, with various celebrations, what God has accomplished in my own life. We aren’t building altars of rocks in our home (maybe we should!), but we are learning to “mark the day” when one of us experiences growth in any form.  I want to keep growing and marking many days of God’s wonders in my life.  I want to be the neighbor that throws ceremonies for both childhood and adult growth. 

Living with flair, for me, means marking each day with a blog entry.  Thank you for celebrating with me each time you read one.  It’s changed my life.


When You’re All Out of Flair

“I’m all out of flair,” I said somberly to my sister this morning.  I woke up tired, cranky, and very, very uninspired.  Not even more coffee helped.  But I clung to one little hope, flickering like some nearly expired candle.

My sister said, “There’s hope of flair.  Just remember that.”

And I did have hope that the day could be great.  After all, I would do the one thing that always makes me feel good in the summer.

I would put on my bathing suit and go swimming.

The summers between ages 10 and 15, I lived at the pool.  I’d walk the mile and a half (in my jelly shoes), with my towel around my neck, show up when it opened, and then close the place down.  Once you passed a swim test, the lifeguards let you come without your parents.  So that’s what I did, every day, for the three months of summer.  That little public pool was my whole world those summers. 

I still remember claiming my lounge chair, spreading my towel, and running–with that lifeguard blowing his whistle and booming out the WALK command–and jumping in that pool.  I’d stay until dinner, surviving on snack food from a vending machine, race home to eat a meal, and then return until the sun went down.  Sometimes I had friends with me, sometimes not.  It didn’t matter.  I belonged to everybody, and there were goals to accomplish:  a front flip on the diving board, a full pool length of holding my breath, a championship in random Marco-Polo or Sharks and Minnows games, or a successful backstroke.  

No homework, no chores, no mean girls.  Actually, there was a mean girl, and she quickly left me alone when she saw my front flip and my mad skills in the deep end.  I was happy, free, and completely myself, floating on my back with the water holding me up and the sun shining down.

Now, I’m older.  I have kids of my own who race down to the pool.  Our pool has been opened since Saturday, and we’ve been everyday but yesterday because a storm threatened.

I read that afternoon that Rue McClanahan died.  Summer nights, I watched “The Golden Girls.”  In 1985, Ms. McClanahan told The New York Times that the writers of that show knew how to showcase the many layers of an older woman.  She said, “They don’t turn into other creatures. The truth is, we all still have our child, our adolescent and our young woman living in us.”

I thought about that quote this morning as I got our pool towels and bathing suits ready.  I’m happy at the pool, even as a woman, because that little girl on the diving board is still alive in me.  She’s in there, sometimes buried deep, and sometimes so quiet I can’t remember her.  But when I’m in the pool, she’s back.  Living with flair means accessing the child in us (and even the teenager) who loved to be alive–coloring, biking, dancing, jump roping, reading or swimming.  Happiness has something to do with remembering what we loved and doing those things no matter how old we are.

So even though my bathing suit is the kind with the skirt to hide my stretch marks and cellulite, I’m going to try the diving board today.  Who’s with me?