Magic in Unexpected Places

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I learned last night that sometimes the most mind-blowing talent can show up in the unlikeliest of packages.

My family and I went to hear a bluegrass and folk band play here in our little town, on the recommendation of our older daughter, who had been to a music camp last summer with the lead fiddle player in the group.  Our daughter raved about his music and his personality and his capability to play all genres on his fiddle and was excited to introduce us to the sound.

My first glimpse of said fiddle player caused me to mentally check myself.  Had I seen him out on the street, rather than up on stage, I would have assumed he was homeless.  He wore an unassuming button-up shirt with straight-legged, rather baggy, faded black jeans and sandals that he’d clearly done a lot of walking in. The whole ensemble could have been purchased at Goodwill.  On his head was a fringe of disheveled hair covered by a hat that had seen better days.  He was scruffy with a beard and mustache in no apparent style or maintenance regimen.

And when he picked up the fiddle, it was pure magic.

I had two thoughts:

  1. I never would have expected that.  He is the perfect “surprise weapon,” that stereotypical contestant on the talent show who shows up as a nobody and then proceeds to blow away the judges and audience.
  2. Truly, no one is a “nobody” and we’ve all come in unexpected packaging from time to time.  How many “homeless” people have I encountered and discounted, who are capable of great talent in the right circumstances?

Needless to say, this was a humbling reminder to me.  I have a default setting, as much as I hate it when I am consciously aware of it, of judging a book by its cover.  (If this stopped at books, it would be sad, but since I have been guilty of projecting it onto humans as well, it is tragic.)  Fortunately, I have been proven wrong — as I was last night — often enough to put a hitch in the system and provide incentive to work on this personal flaw.  I hope I am making progress.

A few weekends ago, I was at an art show, hosted by a friend with an overabundance of talent.  Immediately upon walking into the exhibit, I was drawn to the last painting at the far end of the room.  From too far away to make out any details, I fell in love.  Passing by all the other artwork, I bee-lined straight to this one and stood captivated.  When I read the synopsis typed out next to the painting, offering some insight into my friend’s thoughts behind her work, I knew I needed to take this one home.

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The painting is titled “Judgment.”  The synopsis explained how it was inspired by this very idea, of how we look at someone else and make a flash decision, based on appearance or some other such shallow base, and think we know them.  We have judged, labeled, and categorized without looking beyond that initial impression.

But, like the painting, when you look deeper, under the shaded, muted, blended tones, bright hints and bold colors show themselves, making an appearance only when the viewer takes the time to look.  At first glance, what looks like a hurriedly done scribble (or a “homeless” guy) turns out to be a work of art, complete with layers, undertones, and unexpected surprises.

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Just as I was thrilled to sit and listen to the breath-taking music last night, I am thrilled with this idea: that we humans carry magic, that we are surrounded by it, that there is the possibility of stumbling onto it in the mundane doing of our lives.

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This idea has also made me wonder how many times I have appeared as a “scribble,” a rushed, childish effort of God’s handiwork and how many times I’ve been content with that perception of myself.  How many times have I taken on the one-dimensional impression, without having the boldness, the courage to contribute my deeper gifts, settling for average and not letting any interesting or contrasting color show through?

It’s a lazy way out, both the acceptance of shallowness for myself, and the assigning of it in others.  Lazy is easy and, many times, rushed.  It takes effort and desire to pursue ourselves and those around us enough to truly know and see and share and connect and be known.

Things are not always what they seem.  Thank God.

Or else, we would miss out on the thrill of finding magic in unexpected places.

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It has been some time since I’ve written a new blog post.  My silence has not been for lack of thoughts or for lack of time.

I have spent the summer writing and meditating and living.  I have settled into times of silence, listening for the inner voice, quietly waiting for clarity over the next step in the journey.  I have been content to go nowhere and to just be.  I have hustled and run errands and kept up with the housework.  I’ve laughed with friends and cried with family and balanced on the thin line between hope and despair over current events.

I have read some magnificent books.

I have savored some heavenly food.

I have wandered in the dark hours of early morning, sleepless.  I have holed up in my comfy home and I’ve taken weekend jaunts.  I have been creative.  Contemplative.  Happy.

I have been irritable.  Tired of the heat.  Restless.  I have loved and I have danced and I have been challenged to grow physically, emotionally, spiritually.

I have a book club that I treasure.  I have family who supports and encourages and a lover who seeks to understand me, far more intensely than I thought possible.  I have friends who don’t allow me to be shallow or apathetic.  I have projects and passions that consume large portions of my waking hours and even creep into my dreams while I sleep.  I have hopes and inspiration.

In short, I have a life.

It’s not always easy.  Or fun.  Or going well.  Some days are harder than others.  Some days are a struggle.  Other days make up for them, defying explanations because the light has crept in and saturated every corner of my heart and the cracks are shored up with gold and the brokenness seems like a thing of the past and the future is wide open with possibilities.

Either way, this life is good.

That may be a recurring theme in this blog, one I keep coming back to; but if I’m living it, I might as well write it.  Life is hopeful, redemptive, creative.  It’s going somewhere.  It’s building and challenging and growing and starting over again and again.  It’s full of grace and second chances.  It’s about falling and rising and trying again.  It’s about relationships and roads that are begging to be traveled.  It’s a work of art and it’s undertaken in the company of the ones I love the most.  It’s worth every struggle and every tear.  It’s worth writing about and sometimes it’s worth absorbing in silence.

I suppose it looks a lot like your life.  And the lives of millions of other individuals, doing what we do, taking one day at a time, and, God willing, giving it our best.

So let’s live it.

Whether we spend it out loud and in public, with words, or whether we sit in silence in our quiet corners and in reflection, let’s remember each day is a gift.  Each day, even though it passes through painful valleys, can be a redemptive chance to do it all over again.  To act on the side of good.  To notice beauty and courage and kindness.  To be different and open.  To risk, to stretch out a hand to others, to embrace solitude and listen.  To seek wisdom.  To pursue compassion and integrity.  To do and be and grow and inspire and share and love and laugh and dance and cry — and no matter what, keep moving forward, keep looking to hope, keep cherishing the little things that make this life into a big thing worth doing well.

A Moment to Breathe

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I see lots of sunset pictures out there, and from experience, I know none of them measure up to the real thing.  None of them can compare to the actual sunset on the day that inspired us to grab our cameras or our phones and attempt to capture for memory and for sharing this sight before us that we don’t want to forget.  So why do we keeping trying?  Why do I, upon noticing the light, that other-worldly shade that is different somehow, race from the house with my camera and look to the west, knowing that if I snap away madly for the next five minutes while the colors change before my eyes, I still will not succeed in producing an accurate copy of this crazy art?

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I have a theory.  It isn’t scientific, hasn’t been arrived at via polls or data collecting.  This is a theory based on my own life.

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The theory is that a sunset provides a moment to breathe.  It causes me to stop my frantic doing and just be.  It calls out from the depths of my soul a sigh of worship.  It lures me outside my dwelling to the fresh air, with shades of light and color that I cannot stay inside and ignore.  It lifts my head upward, turning my focus in a new direction, forcing me to take in the Big Picture of the whole sweeping landscape of sky and silhouetted mountains and the black, back-lit branches of the trees.  It redirects wherever I had been headed before the moment when I realized the explosion of creativity happening all around and above me.

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The sunset adds beauty in a world so desperately needing it.  It reminds me that in spite of every ugly, difficult thing that happened today, every bit of bad news, every disappointing development… there is still unspeakable beauty, free, for the looking.  That someone big enough to put those colors there is still watching over me, still giving gifts, still involved with us on this planet.  It sneaks into the cracks of my heart and soaks into the dry places and fills it to overflowing with awe and wonder.  It makes my fingers tingle with a reflected desire to do some creating myself, to make my mark and add my colors, and bask in the glory of a master painter’s work.

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So I grab my camera, because anything that summons this feeling inside is something I never want to forget.  No matter that I can’t exactly capture it, the feeling remains.  Looking at the photos later, that same wonder is recalled and I think, Wow, was it really as gorgeous as I remember?  Was the light really that yellow and that warm?  And look at how the clouds are making that interesting contrast.  And yes, in spite of the picture not accurately reproducing the same sunset, the feelings can be the same, the memory of that moment when my day paused, when I stepped outside for an art show beyond words, when I felt the weight lift and my whole being take a moment to breathe.

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And that is my theory of why we take pictures of sunsets.

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By the way, all these were shot last night, and I’m sharing them here, with no editing at all beyond adding my watermark.  This is the glory of my view at sunset.

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The Story of Us

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Another blogger today wrote the challenge: “Tell your story!”

And I sat for a moment, pondering what that would look like.  How does one go about telling their story?  Each one of us is so complex and multi-layered, that to even do justice to one week of our lives would result in a lengthy post more fitting to a book than blog site.

As a believer in God, I have had several opportunities to “share my testimony,” as we would say, and basically that’s a retelling of the events that led up to the point in my life where I met God and my life was changed.  Or, it could perhaps be a later recapping of events that showed that God was actively working on my behalf, and is used for the purpose of uplifting another’s faith in the telling of my own story.

But the day-to-day living isn’t usually so dramatic as all of that.  If I were to tell that story of myself, it would have a lot more mention of coffee breaks and household chores and books read for pleasure.  I would have to insert monthly bills and sticky conversations with those who share my life and lots of time spent behind the wheel of my car, chauffeuring my daughters from one place to another.  This story would include small moments with Permanent Roommate as we figured out how to live our days with intentionality and purpose, how to encourage and motivate each other, how to communicate well and love well and carry on doing the hard things in life.

To adequately tell my story, I would have to talk about the things that make me smile: the sudden rush of appreciation for a beautiful bird or flower or sunset.  The spontaneous giggle of a baby in the store or the sight of two teenagers awkwardly enjoying each other’s presence on the sidewalk in town.  A good line out of a movie, my daughters laughing together over shared humor, my dog’s silly under-bite.  I would include things that make me feel peaceful: great music, breathing in and out through my whole being, feeling the muscles relax after a great work out, a glass of red wine.  I would need to talk about the connections, how life is all interwoven and entwined with friends, family, lover, kids, and the random person that never fails to push my buttons in the most annoying manner.  I would need to find a place to insert gratitude: for summer break, for fantastic role models in my daughters’ lives, for my man who works very hard to ensure we are taken care of, for a place to call my home where the family can laugh and learn.  For the fact that I have a family who loves me, that we have a functioning unit weathering this life together in sync (most of the time).

In order to do my story justice, I would have to tell about the books that challenge me; that cause laughter to bubble up even when I’m in an empty room, or a crowded one; that prompt me to gaze off into nothing, with deep thoughts running through my head, sorting out what I’ve just read, wondering if I feel the same, would react the same, can relate to the author in any way…  Books that make me sigh with contentment, just by knowing they are there and patiently waiting to be picked up and read.

In telling my story, I would need to talk about movie nights out with my girls, dinner dates with Permanent Roommate, and ongoing Facebook comments with friends.  I would need to talk about my martial arts class, where I’m pushing and challenging myself mentally and physically and finding both new friends and mentors.  I would write out my fears and concerns about parenting and about school and about our country and where we are all headed in the Big Picture and whether or not it’s enough to just love God and love my neighbor.  I would need to mention the ache at the thought of so many others who aren’t living in the lap of as many blessings as I am and how I could possibly rectify that imbalance.  Also included would be results of my personality test that explain why I love being home and love my own company and have rare but genuine bursts of desire to connect deeply with people who matter in my life.

This story of myself just keeps getting longer and longer, as I would want to talk about having two of the world’s most incredible human beings who call me “mom” and with whom I get to share space on a daily basis, watching them turn into beautiful young women, knowing I would move heaven and hell to get for them what they need and feeling almost overwhelmed at times with the scary enormity of how much I love them.  I would tell how much their safety and security and fulfillment is so closely tied to my own and of how much it matters to me that they have friends, that they see their own worth, that I communicate to them in verbal and non-verbal methods the greatness I see in them.

This story would have to talk about the challenging aspects of committing to another person for life: in the silly irritations and the hilarious interactions and the knowledge that I have trusted one person to always and forever have my back.  Part of that package is depending on him to love me, flaws and all; to listen when I need to talk, to talk when I need to hear, to bring out the best in each other; to be there, to be present, to engage; and to spend the rest of our days figuring out how to love each other better and marveling at how two so radically different people are so much better together.

This story of me would be one of triumph and defeat; one of learning and maturing and aging; one of intense sorrow and misunderstanding and regret offset by such immensity of awe and appreciation and happiness and gratitude.  This story of me started in a different town, in a different life, and may end up yet in a place entirely different from where I sit in my kitchen and write.  This story of me is unpredictable and wild.  It is impossible to project an ending, and no matter how hard I try or how much I would like to write the script, life keeps changing it up and throwing out those plans and introducing something new and different and scary and beautiful and crazy and unrehearsed.

This story of me would have many parts and each installment would always have to end with “To be continued…”  This story of me seems so commonplace and everyday and yet so bizarre and fiction-like that I wonder who would believe it if I could somehow accurately and adequately write it out?  And I think this story of me is not so different from the story of you. That our stories overlap and converge and tint each other, until as we come closer and merge more efficiently and share with less fear, we begin telling the story of us.

That is a story I’m interested in hearing.  For, while each one of us has a most amazing story to tell, the more I tell my story, the more I realize I am one small piece of a puzzle that gets grander and grander as the camera zooms out and the larger picture is revealed.  We are all interdependent, all connected, all bouncing off one another and, if we’re lucky, finding our fit and plugging in and contributing to the whole.  We nestle in and add our flavor and our colors and our gifts to those around us.

And that story is lovely.  Like music and coffee and red wine and the synchronicity of a martial arts form done in unison.  Like dance and silence and babies’ laughter and summer break.  Like tears and sorrow and empathy and outreach and compassion.  It all comes together, this story of me and this story of you and blends into this story of us.

I want to be more confident in telling my story, in letting down walls.  I want to be better in the authenticity that allows others to see the real me.

Wikipedia introduces vulnerability like this: “Vulnerability refers to the inability to withstand the effects of a hostile environment.”  And I had to smile.  Because while I hesitate to think I know more than Wikipedia, I know better than this.  Vulnerability is exactly the ability to withstand the effects of a hostile environment.  We weren’t meant to go it alone; this hostile environment we are in becomes less and less hostile the more we welcome others into our story, the more we team up, the more we join hands and hearts and heads.

I want to better at vulnerability.  I want to tell my story with gusto and with abandon and with dignity, and then hear your story told in the same way, but in your own voice.  And I want to figure out a way to make your story and my story merge into our story, complimented by another’s story and joined to more stories still.  And one story at a time, we’ll conquer this hostile environment, changing it up into something beautiful.

You Got This, Baby!

Poster2 Day Two of Three for test week.  I drop my daughter off with encouragement and wishes of good luck, reminding her, “You’ll do fine!” and I leave the parking lot.  On my way out, I meet another mom, and we roll windows down to exchange greetings.  Her son is in elementary school, on Day Two of Four for his test week.

We discussed the value of this whole test business and discovered we had each been telling our kids the same thing all week… What this test says about you?  Nothing.

Nothing.  That’s what the results of this test will tell me about my daughter or about her son.  That’s what it will do for their GPA and their futures.  That’s the impact it will have on their grades as they exit this current year of school.  Nothing. So we remind them to keep that perspective.

What happens if you do well?  Nothing.  What happens if you do poorly?  Nothing.  If you happen to rock the results, you can send them on to a college or university and impress them with your test-taking skills.  If you end up with less stellar results than you hoped, if you fail to meet some self-imposed standard, then you walk away with the confidence that comes from doing something hard and giving it your best and finding out your best is enough.  And you earn money for your school, through funding, by taking the test.  That’s it.  That’s the sum value of test week.

It’s a perspective I wish every student could hold.  This test does not define who you are.  It does not decide your worth or your employability or your success in life.  It does not mean you are stupid or that you didn’t learn enough in school.  It has no way of quantifying all the best parts of you: your character, your authenticity, your generosity, your passions and your heart.  It is a computer that spits out questions and logs your answers and that’s it.

As you can tell by now, I have little faith in tests, in spite of being a teacher and a lover of education.  So many of us stutter at test time, buckling under pressures when we normally would sail through with ease.  There will be a constant barrage of stress and pressures attempting to close in on us for the rest of our lives; I fail to see the benefit in starting that process too soon.  I understand schools need to gain funding somehow, and if the system in place says that funding will come per student who takes the test, then my child will take the test to raise money for her school, since she partakes in the benefits and perks that money provides.  Beyond that, testing is, in many respects, a broken system.

Rather than knowing my child hit the top percentiles in English or earned a B in Spanish or aced her Geometry, I would much rather know they carry compassion in their hearts.  I would rather see them choose kindness to others, see them spending their time and their money to help those around them.  I would rather see them happy and excited and invested in life and interacting with their friends and families.  I would rather see maturity in areas of decision-making and self-knowledge than see an A on that test.  I would rather know they gave their everything, that they tried their hardest, that they did their best in the areas of life that really count: like areas of honesty, areas of relationships, areas of connecting with others who are hurting and who are different.  I would rather see my child branch out into the untraveled paths, searching out ways to explore her gifts and share them with the world, than breeze through a standardized test that lumps every single individual into a mass and melts them down and pushes them to become the same clone that slid off the assembly line before them and the same as the one that will come after them.

We are not clones.  We are not all the same.  We are individuals with the most awesome gifts and talents and interests and hearts and emotions — as different and unique as we could possibly be, and yet so much the same in so many ways.  And desperately crying out for each one to contribute their part to the whole.  How can we possibly think a standardized test is going to be anything of value in a mix like that?

It’s like expecting Yo-yo Ma to beat Tiger Woods at golf and Michael Jordan to pick up the cello.  It’s like hoping Michael Phelps will knit as well as he swims or waiting for the entire Chinese Olympic gymnastics team to take up an interest in NASCAR.  Expecting one test to tell us anything important about our kids is like thinking that Henry Ford could just as well have written like Washington Irving; but instead we have the assembly line that made cars affordable for the average American family and we have stories like Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow that have thrilled generations.  We have swimmers and knitters and golfers and musicians and artists and gymnasts and teachers and doctors and welders, and none of them are capable of doing and being all that in one package.

That’s the beauty of test week… That we can have these conversations with our kids, reminding them that no test on the planet will tell me what I already know about them.  That they are kind.  That they are courageous.  That they are smart and beautiful and compassionate and talented and loving and considerate and respectful.  And most importantly, they are mine and they are loved.  Period.  End of story.

Because when it comes to life, it’s the days and the minutes and the hours that determine our character.  It’s the choices we make on a daily basis, when things are tough, when no one’s looking, when we are tired, that really tell me what I need to know about you and what you need to know about yourself.  You do have what it takes.  You are exactly who and what you should be.  No matter what a computer or a piece of paper tells you.

So, baby, you go take that test and you rock those results — no matter what they look like — because this is just a small blip on the radar screen of life that means nothing in the long run.  You take that test, knowing you are contributing your part to your school, and then we’ll go out and get some ice cream or see a movie, and we’ll get on with the rest of our lives, the important parts that really define who we are and who we want to be.

You got this!  

(And you might not want to use that kind of language on the English section of your test.)

What If…?

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What if we focused less on behavior modification and more on heart connection?

What if we looked less for the differences and more for the similarities?

What if we made for everyone the same excuses we make for ourselves?

What if we allowed for the same lack of perfection, granted the same grace, and expected the same standards from everyone else that we allow, grant, and expect from ourselves?

What if we frowned less and smiled more, complained less and thanked more?

What if we criticized less and encouraged more?

What if we looked for every opportunity to be positive?

What if we stopped looking for faults and failures and instead had an eye out for the gifts in others?

What if we saw God in every person we met?

What if we realized everyone is wounded and hurting and just trying to make their best life?

What if we saw the brokenness around us and used that for a reason to get involved instead of avoiding?

What if we fully engaged, fully embraced, fully loved, and fully graced every situation and every soul we encountered?

What if we erased the “To Do” list and jumped into spontaneity at least once this week?

What if we bought a stranger a cup of coffee… and then sat down to enjoy it with them?

What if we talked less and listened more?

What if we really connected with the individuals around us, made eye contact, and smiled at them?

What if that smile was the only one they might see today?

What if we were less intent on furthering our agenda and more determined to be a force of good in this world?

What if we spoke fewer curses and more blessings?

What if our words were agents of change, of support, of inspiration instead of weapons of discouragement and shame?

What if we took more time… to breathe, to see, to appreciate, to wallow in gratitude, to hug ourselves and those we love?

What if we paused, lifted our heads, and made the effort to lift the head of someone else?

What if we changed a life, not with a prophecy of failure but with a pronouncement of greatness?

What if we held the hand of a child just learning to walk and helped them find their footing for the rest of their childhood?

What if we modeled stability and security and respect?

What if we bestowed dignity upon everyone, no matter how lowly or overlooked, merely because they carry a reflection of the Creator upon them?

What if we looked beyond the borders of our comfort zones and offered a hot bowl of soup, a handshake of equality, or even the courtesy of holding a door open for another?

What if we expected others to like us and us to like them?

What if we were courageous and kind?

What if we anticipated getting along, finding friends, and being happy?

What if we absorbed peace enough that it leaked out of every one of our pores onto the people we meet?

What if we widened our view to see not only the here and now, but the then and there, sometimes called “The Big Picture?”

What if we understood that what we do in this life, echoes for eternity and affects those who share our space?

What if we measured the repercussions of our actions and chose to act only in ways that facilitate good?

What if we were brave and beautiful?

What if we saw less with the eyes of suspicion and more with the eyes of goodness?

What if we vowed to live with passion, invest with intention, and forgive both others and ourselves with a grace that knows we are all far short of perfect, but perfectly loved nonetheless?

What could we do with one lifetime lived in this way…

…and what if we chose to live it?

The Story Inside the Story

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A young girl pursued by a prince, who danced with a king and became a queen…

It is the story of Cinderella and, with some excitement and some reserve, I agreed to take my daughters and one of their friends to see the latest edition in theaters this past weekend.  My excitement stemmed from anticipating a fun day with my girls and from the fact that I love the story of Cinderella.  (Not so much the Disney version specifically, but the story itself.) The reservations grew from doubts about how well-done this particular telling of the story would be.  After all, Cinderella has had her run of success, with lots and lots of different versions out there.  With each new one, I celebrate for the story is worth being told and I want my girls to hear it, but I also cringe because I want it told as I feel it should be.  I want the directors to stay true to the story, but come up with new and creative ways of telling it.  I want the actors to fit the roles as I see them in my head.  I want the stepmother to be sufficiently evil without being unbelievable, and I don’t want any of it to be cheesy. Admittedly, that’s a tall order.  As with any other well-known, much-loved classic, it’s almost impossible to get it “right” or to please everyone.

After two trips around the block looking for an available parking space, we found seats inside with plenty of time to spare, allowing me to people watch.  What I saw was a room full of females, in all ages, sizes, shapes, and outfits.  Sitting next to me was a tiny girl so full of excitement that she couldn’t stay in her seat; her level of engagement continued throughout the movie, as she jumped and gasped and clapped and cheered and even cried, depending on how Cinderella was faring onscreen.  In a way, watching her allowed me to see the movie through her eyes, and I gained a new perspective.  An older, grandmotherly aged woman behind me contributed her part during the film with snorts of amusement or disgust and hums of approval.

And I thought again that each one of us, being female, was somehow both drawn and repulsed by this story.  I believe this story echoes The Story, and in each re-telling we are confronted with our own fears, insecurities, and hopes.  Every time we hear, see, or tell the story of Cinderella, we tell the story of ourselves in part.  How far along we are in the story depends on how far along we are in our own journey.

For each one of us is a princess, trapped in attics of our own making, as well as trapped in small spaces by those around us setting limitations of what we can and can’t, should and shouldn’t do.  Each one of us questions our self-worth and whether or not we are loved and each one takes on false identities.  Each one of us, at some time or another, will be bombarded with lies about who we are and where we come from and what our future holds.  Each of us will be faced with a choice about how we will live, whether we act or react.  Each of us gets to decide whether or not we live with courage, whether we will be kind, whether we will forgive  — or not.  Each one of us longs for friendship and will most likely find it in the oddest places.  And each one of us longs to be known, noticed, pursued, called out, and ultimately loved.

Surrounded by females, swimming in sea of estrogen and double-X chromosomes, I suddenly had a thought.  Or rather, I had a host of thoughts, all swirling around this one topic of what it means to be female and have these questions and hopes and dreams and to live in a predominately male-oriented world, and to live gracefully and courageously and to offer our femininity in ways that both off-set and balance the lives of the men we love.  Instead of merely going to see a movie, I was swept up into this Story, this Big Picture, of women the world over, who long to live well and love boldly and forgive generously and come to a true realization of who we are.

How many of us see it or believe it or, more importantly, have experienced this story of pursuit by a prince, a king, who goes to extreme measures to seek us out and win our hearts?  How many are still bowing under the power of a false name: Cinder Ella or the “ugly” one or the “fat” one or the “unwanted” one?  How many have memories only — or not even that — of a real father’s and mother’s love?  How many are trapped, living under a “stepmother” and harassed by the lies and caged by the oppression or the addiction or the loneliness?  How many of us have courage and kindness and are looking for the magic?  How many have met the prince, danced with the king?  How many have felt pursued or loved?  How many are still trapped in the attic, feeling pushed aside, shut up, worthless or insignificant, overlooked, “too much,” and at the same time “not enough”?  How many have friends willing to put down their cheese — or their own insecurities — long enough to open a window of hope?  How many have realized the king loves us enough that he left the castle, disguised his identity and mingled with the foot soldiers and commoners in order to seek us out and find his most beloved?  How many of us identify with being the beloved of the king?  How many of us have the grace to forgive and yet give room for the consequences to occur, acknowledging that forgiveness doesn’t mean it never happened.  How many of us have been “made new”?

I had this bizarre wish that I could have a box of printed cards that read:

“You are a strong and beautiful princess,

loved and sought out by a king.

Be courageous and kind.”

With that box of cards, I would have stood at the door of the theater and given one to every single female who left the movie and went back out into this difficult world.  Because I believe that is why every generation has their version, their own telling and re-telling of the Cinderella story that echoes in the heart chambers of every woman and girl in the world.

Courage and kindness.  The love of a king.  A little magic.  All things being made new.

Saving His Feathers by Sounding the Alarm

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Allow me to introduce Albus, our Light Brahma rooster.   Albus is almost three years old and has exceptionally beautiful feathers that grow clear down the length of his legs, covering his ugly claw feet.  We welcomed him onto our “mini-ranch” when he was just a helpless, fluffy chick and we were still unsure of whether he was a rooster or a hen.  Obviously, at that point, since we were anticipating eggs, we were hoping to get lucky and discover that all eight of the chicks were female.

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It became clear very soon that Albus was not female.  However, with only one rooster in eight chicks, we considered our flock a success and enjoyed their adolescent months.  With horror stories of feisty roosters and some personal experience of our own, we decided to love on Albus from his “chickhood,” thereby breaking the stereotypes and forming him into a gentle rooster.  We would stroke his feathers and cradle him close as he grew.  One of my daughters spent long periods of time sitting in the coop and talking to Albus, as well as the hens.

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Somehow, our restorative therapy went wrong, and today Albus is determined to uphold the bad reputation of roosters everywhere.  No matter how we tried to acclimate him to our presence and make him realize we held no threat or ill-will, it didn’t take.  When Permanent Roommate has to enter the coop, he uses Captain America as a role model, advancing with a metal garbage lid before him (instead of an adamantium-alloy shield), with which he repels Albus’s furious attacks. Somehow, whether by body language or smell, Albus has seen me as less of a threat, but I still grant him a respectful distance and close him in the outer coop as soon as possible, before I’ll turn my back on him or get cornered inside the main coop area with him.  He would like nothing better than to take a running, flying leap and dig his spurs into your arm or leg or whatever body part is most vulnerable.

We’ve talked many times of how tasty Albus would be in a pot of chicken soup or maybe with BBQ sauce slathered on him.  He is a formidable size and would easily feed our family of four.  If all this talk of eating Albus is horrifying to you, let it be as evidence to show you the extent of his murderous intentions, that we would even discuss it.  He truly is the terror of the chicken coop.

Yet, in spite of our talk, there has been no serious action taken against Albus.  Frankly, he is too beautiful.  With his bright white plumage, accented in black, and the soft tufts over his feet, he is majestic.  When the sunlight hits the dark feathers, it is reflected into multiple shades of green and blue.  He is half again bigger in size than any of the hens, and he struts around the coop like he owns it.

Still, if there is one, sole redeeming factor that has kept Albus with his head and feathers intact, it is this above all else: he has twice saved the hen-house from raccoon attacks.

Last night was the most recent of his heroics.  Woken from a deep sleep at 4:00 am, by Albus raising the roof, I bumped Permanent Roommate and whispered, “Something’s bothering the chickens!”  This was a repeat performance of several months ago; we had jumped out of bed then, to find two fully grown coons pacing at the fence of the coop, with only Albus and the chain link standing between them and the hens.

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This morning, Albus was at it again.  This time, only one coon was thinking of having a chicken dinner, and Albus, bless his heart, was not having a bit of it.  In all his white-feathered glory, he was crowing and cackling and flapping his wings and stomping his feet and rushing the fence and holding off that coon as if he knew his life depended on it (which it absolutely did).  But more endearing to me than his courageous defense of his own person, was his defense of the hens. There was not a squawk from inside the house; they were roosting in mortal fear up on the bar, and without Albus to raise the alarm and go to war for them, they most likely would have died right where they perched.  He was out on the front lines, with no regard for his own safety and no thought of cowering in the corner.

Logic tells me the chain link fence was the real barrier, the ultimate hurdle stopping the coon, and that had he been able to breach the fence, it would not have been a long fight.  My heart tells me that with Albus standing between the coon and the hen-house door, it might not have been a long fight, but access would have only been granted over Albus’s dead body.  And for that, Albus has earned my gratitude and respect and a stay of execution for the duration of his natural life.  In spite of his inability to tell friend from foe, he has proven his mettle and won my affection in defending his harem.  I think he would literally die for those hens, and while he may be more motivated by his own selfishness in them being his hens rather than “love” for them, the end result is the same: all my hens are accounted for and the coon was held at bay until backup arrived.

That’s the ultimate you can ask of a Protector, whether it’s a soldier on watch, the policeman on duty, or a leading member of a household.  Laying down one’s life in the service and protection of those who depend upon you is the highest sacrifice one can give.  I was reminded of that this morning, at 4:00 am, when Albus the rooster, refused to go down without a fight, when he raised such hell that not one of his hens was injured.  Four hours later, he was still pissed, herding his “women” back into the coop as soon as I approached and showing his willingness to take me on if I pushed in.

The fierceness in his actions.  His beauty.  His underdog status that he refuses to acknowledge.  His sacrificial, territorial instinct.  Somehow, I am endeared to the crazy old bird and look forward to him living into old age, safe here in our coop.  And if the occasion ever calls for me to do the same, I hope I show the same bravery and determination.

The Yellow Balloon

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The sun was up, bathing a new day in glorious, golden light, turning everything it touched into diamonds, reflecting off dew drops.  Another Thursday morning, another early commute (if you can call two miles a commute) to drop my daughter off at her 8:00 class.  Cloudy bursts of warm breath leading the way, we got in the car and hit the road.

Before this story can hold any meaning, I would need to add a little background information.  First off, my daughter’s favorite color is yellow, bright yellow, like dandelions and minions.  She has a dress in such a bright shade of yellow that it seems to carry its own light with it.  She also loves balloons.  She painted a canvas that hangs in her room with a big balloon on it and the quote from Winnie the Pooh, “Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.”

On this morning, I left her at school and was halfway through the return trip home when a yellow balloon came waltzing across the road ahead of me.  I couldn’t stop a huge grin from breaking over my face.  My first thought: Bri would love this!  I know it will be one of the first things I tell her about when I pick her up this afternoon, and I wish she had been in the car with me to see it.

It floated leisurely above the opposite lane until the wind from an oncoming car gusted it back over my side of the road.  I saw the delight on the face of the other driver as she watched it rise up and over her car, dancing its way through the sky, gaining altitude with a flurry of drafts and then disappearing behind me as we — the balloon and I —  continued on our way.

Such a small thing, a little yellow balloon, probably escaped from a child’s backyard, blown out into the vast, big world, and spreading cheer just by being.  A little touch of magic, a gift sent across my path from a God who specializes in personal touches.

I want to be like that yellow balloon.

I want to be the reason for the smile on the faces of others, the cause for them to take their eyes for one second off their bustle and busyness and remember there is whimsy and childlike wonder all around us, waiting to be seen.  And sometimes it comes in the form of a yellow balloon.

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I Just Don’t Know

With so many doubts swirling in my head — sometimes loud and shouting, sometimes sneaky and whispering, sometimes more of an image of a word following by a question mark than actual thoughts —  I am reduced to acknowledging: I JUST DON’T KNOW.

I don’t know.

I don’t have all the answers.  I don’t know how it all fits.  And I don’t want to have that solid, certain assurance anymore, the assurance that reassures that I’m right, that I know what I’m talking about, that if I just debate a little longer or talk a little louder or use bigger words perhaps I will convince anyone who disagrees with me; because I’m coming to see there are just some things I don’t know.

And I think I’m coming to see that that’s okay.  And that I’m okay with that.  Or maybe not so much okay with that, as coming to an understanding of it and thinking that maybe it’s a better place to be than repeating smug, formulaic, easy, and stale answers.  Maybe not knowing is better than “winning” debates with all the wrong answers to all the wrong questions.  Maybe being in a state of questioning allows me to sit in a position of learning and listening.

There are some things I do know — at least for now:

I love compassion.  And mercy.  And empathy for the suffering of others.  I know kindness is a good thing.  Respect for the dignity of others is so rare, but so much more valuable for its rarity.  I know a listening ear gains much more ground than a shouting mouth.  Humility is so attractive.  I know we could all use a hand up sometimes, and while it’s far more blessed to be the one extending that hand than to be the one needing it, we all have to take our turn on the receiving end.

I know life is precious, beauty is there for those who seek it, and sometimes life and its hidden beauty are enough to see us through one more day.

I know I need my people more than I realize.  I know they need me, maybe more than I realize.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the things we think we hold dear are probably not the things we would first rescue if our house was on fire.  I also know I sometimes need the reminder that we all need rescued.

I know love is so critically important that we die without it.  I know we are all lonely and looking for someone who sees us as we really are.  I know that being seen for who I really am scares the pants off me, that it’s both what I want and what I’m terrified of.

I know each of us is inherently gifted, that we all have something to offer, and the world is a much poorer place without our contribution.  The skills we have are given in order to bless others, and they also represent some of the most difficult areas to share, these places of our vulnerability.

I know labels hurt and pride isolates and words can injure.  I know my position of “being right” removes me from having any real impact.  I know that when I smugly sit in a seat of judgment I alienate those who seem to need help the most, when in reality it is I, myself, who needs the most help.

I know second chances, and grace, change everything.  I know an apology sinks in deeper than an excuse; that a soft word of encouragement echoes more loudly than a yell of correction; that the two extra seconds required to smile at a stranger just may make all the difference in her day.

I know there are those who are hungry and cold and alone and lonely and desperate and sick and oppressed and imprisoned, and I don’t know why I am not.  (I guess that one belongs in the “I don’t know” column).  I know I can live with strength and courage and integrity and gratitude, and I’m afraid all that won’t change the lives of those who are hungry and cold and lonely and desperate and sick and oppressed and imprisoned.  Or maybe it will…

Because it will change my life.  And that might change the lives of those in direct contact with me.  And it might even, in a ripple effect, slowly, one wave at a time, reach them (the hungry and cold and lonely…) eventually.  In living with passion, intentionality, and purpose; in resolving to be compassionate; to be the hand who reaches to help; to be the one who offers food and shelter and comfort; to have a word of encouragement on my lips and an eye out for the good in others; in admitting that “I don’t know”… maybe that can change some things about this place so those who are hungry and cold and alone and in all those sad conditions will be a little fewer in number than they were before.  Maybe if each one of us knew enough to know that, our children and the generations coming on behind us will be able to make even more of a difference.

I don’t know.

But I do hope.  And I know hope can make a world of difference.