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The Simple Power of a Compliment


We've reached the final two weeks of classes for the spring semester, which means two things:

1) It's fair game for a snowfall, which is exactly what happened earlier this week across central Pennsylvania as if one final shipment of snow was being delivered late. (You know, supply chain issues.)

2) Everyone is tired. Students are tired. Professors are tired. All the people are tired.

I make a habit of offering my students end-of-semester pep talks, reminding them that they're covering distance as they keep putting one foot ahead of the next, encouraging them that the finish line will soon be within sight, declaring that they can do this -- that they can do hard things. It's not uncommon for me to notice students nodding along, visibly reinforcing for themselves what I'm speaking over them, and on occasion, like this past week, I even catch a student wipe their eyes as  defenses come down and their exhaustion slips out in the form of a few unbidden tears.

Don't we all need encouragement when we're running and we're weary? Don't we all want to know that someone notices our effort and is cheering us on? Don't we all hope to hear someone tell us "you've got this" when we doubt our strength or capacity to go out and get it?

The funny thing is that I'm used to offering this encouragement, not necessarily receiving it. During the past week, though, I've received unexpected notes of encouragement that have put wind in my own sails. One message came from a student I had ten years ago. He emailed out of the blue, expressing that he had been cleaning out a closet and stumbled upon a folder filled with essays and assignments he had completed for my class. "I admit, my undergrad is all a bit of a blur," he wrote. "I can look at my transcript and remember my classes but the names and faces of those who taught me are for the most part all forgotten. Yet, I’ve never once forgotten you or your class. It may have been 'just an elective' I had to take to 'check off another box' to graduate, but it was a pivotal experience in my academic and personal growth."

I was floored. Humbled, really. What a gift for him to not just think these thoughts, but to take a moment to write them to me. It made me wonder, how often do I think nice things about people, but neglect to take the next necessary step and tell them? It reminds me of the adage: "Unexpressed gratitude is like winking at someone in the dark. You know what you think of them, but they don't.

At this eleventh hour in the semester, I feel fresh motivation. I'm encouraged to pay this forward and tell others when I think well of them. Some of the compliments we hold within our hearts and heads are too good to remain there. There's simple power in a compliment that's actually spoken.

If You Can, Take the Trip


I don't know who I am anymore. For the past five weekends in a row (FIVE IN A ROW!) I've had random travel plans, so this marks the first weekend I've been home in over a month.

Truth is, I like spending weekends at home. I really do. A weekend at home serves both as a mop-up from the prior week and a springboard into the next, a brief moment to get caught up on life, a comma in the chronology. But upon reflection, I'm quite pleased I've made these recent road trips.

Last weekend, for instance, I visited my dear friend in West Virginia. We spent all day Saturday talking, binge watching a show on Netflix, and strolling through her neighborhood between episodes. We made fajitas, ate them while sitting on the couch, and then splurged on ice cream. We discussed everything and nothing: work-life balance, parenting challenges, matters of faith, why it's so difficult to get acclimated to carrying a new bag, whether she'd win if she competed in the Amazing Race, and how I'm rethinking cardigan-wearing.

You know, all the important stuff of life.

Weekends at home are great, but I can't say that I'll remember any of them specifically. But these random travels, these actual experiences, these post-Covid moments that are beginning to feel normal again after such a long absence? These I'll remember.

If you can, take the trip.

Dressing for the Weather You Actually Have

After being teased by warmer temperatures that hinted of spring, this week our central Pennsylvania weather plummeted again. On Monday morning, with temperatures hovering in the low-20's, I pulled my heaviest winter jacket, knit hat, and gloves out of retirement from the closet.

As I walked across campus, occasionally I passed a student who apparently hadn't gotten the memo about the temperature drop at all. They were entirely unfit for the cold. They looked miserable, curled up into themselves and shivering in their sweatshirt and jeans, and understandably so. They had nothing to insulate them from the bitter chill.

I thought of this as I walked. Because I dressed for the weather I actually had -- even if it wasn't necessarily the weather I wanted -- I was fine. I was comfortable enough. I was protected and prepared. Even though I didn't love the temperature, I hadn't caused myself any unnecessary suffering by pretending that it was warmer.

There's life application embedded here. Like these students in the cold, we all pass through seasons where our circumstances definitely aren't what we'd choose. Just wishing that it would be warmer doesn't make it warmer. But putting on a coat makes you warmer.

It made me wonder: How many times have I been in the midst of an unpleasant season in life and forgotten or refused to bundle myself against it?

When we face struggles -- perhaps especially struggles that seem like they've been going on far too long, much like lingering winter when we're longing for spring -- what can we do to be prepared? If our circumstances aren't comfortable, how do we get ourselves comfortable as we're going through them?

I think one secret lies in Ephesians, which advises us to put on the full armor of God when we face our darkest, coldest, worst days. Much like we'd put on a garment, we're instructed to put on the intangible, yet life-changing elements of truth, righteousness, readiness, faith, and salvation. This doesn't stop us from facing challenges; rather, it allows us to stand our ground, and when those dark days have finally passed, to still be standing.

To be certain, I'm ready for warmer weather. Bring on sunshine, temperatures in the 70's, and as an added bonus, low humidity so I can have a decent hair day. But until that warmth comes, I'll dress for the cold. In the same way, I'm ready for some circumstances in life to change, but until those bitter areas warm and thaw, I'll put on the full armor of God. I'll prepare, I'll bundle up, and I'll fight those battles so when all is said and done, I'm still standing.

On (Middle) Aging, Eye Cream, and a Handsome Italian Salesman

Recently we traveled to Naples, Florida for spring break. My parents, who live in Florida year-round, were gracious to let us stay with them, eat all their food, and track sand and toss beach towels throughout their house for five days.

One morning we visited an outlet mall, and I separated from my family to explore a few stores at my own pace. You know how outlet malls strategically place kiosks in the walkways? Typically, I'm skilled at passing by without engaging or making eye contact, and therefore, not getting sucked into sales pitches I'll inevitably need to say "no" to. But somehow, on this particularly sunny Naples day, I got sucked in.

The kiosk was selling eye cream that (to my knowledge) was made of ancient Dead Sea salts, fairy dust, raw kelp, gold powder, peptides, ceramides, and essence of unicorn horn. The man who applied it to my exhausted under-eye area was an especially handsome Italian in his mid-twenties. Given his job selling eye cream to middle-aged women (no subtlety in that business approach), he was slightly flirtatious, and to my horror, I intended to respond to a question in a friendly manner, but instead offered a reply that could have been construed as flirting right back.

Without question, the eye cream was amazing. He handed me a mirror so I could view my reflection, and half of my face belonged to someone who was a decade younger and no longer tired. Somehow, miraculously, the skin beneath my eye was bright, taught, smooth, supple, and a host of other adjectives I don't typically use when describing my under-eye area.

The cream was $399. He whispered conspiratorially that he could offer me a special price of $299, and then broke down the cost into a monthly expense (under $13 per month!) if I used the bottle for two years, which was how long he claimed it would last, although, to me, this seemed impossible for such a small bottle.

Regardless, my eye looked amazing, and my family was nowhere to be found, and the Naples sun was so sunny and the Gulf breeze was so breezy, that I let the handsome young Italian apply the cream to my other eye. I immediately felt younger and confident, but I knew something that he didn't: namely, while I might be many things, I am not a splurger.

To be sure I wanted the the eye cream, but I managed to awkwardly extract myself from his charming, yet exorbitantly priced, sales pitch. A half hour later when I reconnected with my family, Joel instantly commented that my eyes looked good. (By way of context, despite his ample wonderful qualities, he once didn't notice for over a week that I had gotten a haircut that lopped off seven inches.) In the off chance that you were wondering, yes, this compliment did, indeed, make me curious about how "less good" my eyes typically look to have him perceive the difference so quickly.

I told you all of that so I can now say this: Florida does strange things to me.

Perhaps my musings about the eye cream were accentuated because my birthday fell during spring break, and I might have subconsciously been contemplating aging. Perhaps it was because I reread my two favorite romance novels during the trip, and I might have been emotionally amped up on period-piece courtships. Perhaps it was the stark change in my clothing choices, including the sudden reintroduction of beachwear. (Is the tee shirt and athletic shorts I pulled over my swimsuit really the look I'm going for? Could I be a woman who wears a cover up? A flowy sarong? A wide brimmed hat instead of my ball cap? Pennsylvania clothing choices do not coalesce with Naples realities.)

Or perhaps it was because my oldest is nearly 17 years old, and by virtue of being an active nearly 17-year-old, she falls out of bed with the smooth skin and strong body that I didn't even know I had when I was nearing 17 myself. That eye cream merely teased me with the promise of having the skin she currently possesses.

Regardless of the contributing factors, spring break stirred within me a desire to capture remnants of my youthfulness before it utterly fades. I try not to lament the passage of things, the daily movement of these vanishing days. But is it too much to ask for someone to maybe take a few pictures of me, being gentle with my underlying vanities and insecurities, while also exhibiting skill and patience to find the most attractive backgrounds and flattering camera angles? (This, I know, cannot be done by a member of my family who, depending on age, will either point and click once, take a burst shot of a hundred exactly identical crooked photos, or flip the phone's direction and fill my camera roll with dozens of goofy close-up selfies.)

My generation preceded themed weddings inspired by Pintrest and elaborate gender reveal baby showers, and I don't regret that I didn't experience these things. But, if I'm entirely honest with myself,  I do envy the younger generations' penchants for authentic photo shoots. They have senior pictures that aren't posed in front of blue vinyl pull-down drapes, wedding albums that reflect personalities, and happy-sigh-inducing black and white photos of newborns in their arms.

This Florida trip made me realize that I'd like to have a few pictures where — oh, I don't know — I look the absolute best I've ever looked, while simultaneously not looking like I'm trying real hard to achieve it.

It's quite simple, really.

Of course, the minutia of daily life and routine has a way of snuffing these desires out. Since I've returned from Florida, I've resorted to the comfortable, yet mundane, rhythms of working, parenting, meal-planning, dishwasher-emptying, clothes-folding, and couch-crashing at the end of a day. I'm no longer actively contemplating whether I could pull off a sarong. I suspect it's safe to assume that very few of us live glamorous lives.

But that week away from home in Florida? And the themes of romance novels, and the hint of Gulf breeze blowing through my hair, and the handsome Italian who introduced me to that magic potion of an eye cream that restored my youth, even if just for an afternoon? Well, it teases me, flirting with my sensibilities, and makes me believe that life, occasionally, really is a little more exciting with a hint of glamor or an indulgence in beauty.

To be certain, I don't lament aging. Middle-age has brought with it too many wonderfully hard-earned life lessons and valuable skills to bemoan that it's also made its mark on my appearance.

I'm content. I really am. But apparently, I also wouldn't mind owning a $399 eye cream.

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