The Elegance of Birth Month Flowers

IMG_1619I was a little girl in my grandmother’s backyard on a sunny May afternoon when I spotted a thick patch of tiny, white bell-shaped flowers. As if it was a secret, Grandma whispered, “They are called lily of the valley, and they are your own special flower because your birthday is in May!” I’m sure I smiled ear-to-ear believing this flower bloomed for me and me alone. I immediately felt a connection to the delicate little flower that smelled so sweet and seemed the perfect size for a fairy’s house.

Since that day, I’ve been in love with my birth month flower. I was thrilled last May when a sizable patch of lily of the valley bloomed along the side of the house we had moved into a few months before. This spring was no different, although the patch has gotten noticeably bigger. Recognizing how much I adore this little flower, my husband made me a pretty stained glass lily of the valley for my birthday that now hangs in our kitchen window.

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According to the book The Language of Flowers by Odessa Begay, lily of the valley was a favorite of French fashion designer Christian Dior. He designed his personal stationery with the flower and even stitched lily of the valley on the inside of linings and hems. For good luck, he always made sure at least one model in every fashion show was wearing a little bunch of the flower. In 1956, Dior released his fragrance Diorissimo featuring the notes of lily of the valley. That same year Grace Kelly carried a small bouquet of lily of the valley when she wed Prince Rainier of Monaco.

One of my favorite writers, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, wrote a beautiful poem titled The Lily of the Valley in 1913. The first stanza reads ~

Sweetest of the flowers a-blooming
In the fragrant vernal days
Is the Lily of the Valley
With its soft, retiring ways

Some may find sentimentality about flowers old-fashioned and frivolous, but I would disagree. In contrast to the coarseness of the world, flowers bring joy, and their history offers hope that despite whatever comes our way, they will keep enchanting us.

What do you know about your birth month flower? Here’s a simple guide to get you started, including what each flower can symbolize. I encourage you to explore the meaning and history of your birthday flower and feel just a little bit special believing it exists just for you.

Birth Month Flowers Through the Year:

January ~ Carnation  admiration, love, luck
February ~ Violet  modesty, faithfulness, wisdom
March ~ Daffodil  new beginnings, happiness, prosperity
April ~ Daisy purity, transformation, innocence
May ~ Lily of the Valley honor, purity, bliss
June ~ Rose happiness, romance, love
July ~ Delphinium grace, positivity, joy
August ~ Gladiolus passion, strength, integrity
September ~ Aster love, patience, magic
October ~ Marigold creativity, peace, warmth
November ~ Chrysanthemum compassion, friendship, joy
December ~ Narcissus hope, wealth, protection §

“Like the lily of the valley in her honesty and worth
Ah, she blooms in truth and virtue
in the quiet nooks of earth.”
~ Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Poetry for Ukraine ~ The Mirror

Mirror-Free-Download-PNGThe Mirror

The mirror has two faces
Look closely, you will see
One is vain and greedy
The other just wants peace

One is the aggressor
The bully and the cheat
One stands up for righteousness
And won’t accept defeat

Don’t question his resistance
Or the loyalty of his friends
There is strength in numbers
There’ll be justice in the end

History keeps showing us
Reflections of these faces
Nothing ever seems to change
Just the names and places

Far away there are two men
Who represent us all
Everyday’s a battle
The evil one will fall

By Alicia Woodward §

“Behavior is the mirror in which everyone shows their image.”
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Read Alicia’s previous poems for Ukraine:
“With the Strength of Snowdrops” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/02
“War Can Turn to Peace”  https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/09
“Innocence” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/16
“An Elegant Response to War” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/23
“The Sky” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/30
“Mourning Dove” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/04/06

The Elegance of Steel Magnolias

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On this first Mother’s Day since our mom’s passing, my sisters and I will spend the day recalling happy memories, many of which were firmly planted on a little street named for the magnolia tree that graced our childhood neighborhood. It was on Magnolia Avenue that we first learned valuable lessons from our mother and other beautiful women who were part of our lives.

That magnolia tree holds a nearly mythical place in our hearts. Every year, we waited for it to announce spring’s arrival by bursting into a profusion of big pink and white blossoms and spritzing the whole neighborhood with its sweet perfume. Six decades later, the tree is still there in all its glory. Rooted at its base are the lessons of our youth.

Our tree is a saucer magnolia, commonly known as a tulip tree. In fact, there are more than 200 species of magnolias. They gracefully adapt to change and can live up to 300 years. The magnolia’s carpels are extremely strong and durable. A carpel, by the way, is the female part of the flower. Not only are these trees the essence of delicate beauty, they are also tough, hence the term steel magnolias. Lessons from our own steel magnolias include grace, dignity, wisdom, and strength.

A beautiful magnolia tree exemplifies grace. In people, grace can be defined as simple elegance, refined movement, and courteous goodwill. The women of our childhood spoke, dressed, moved, and acted with a natural, simple grace. More importantly, they treated others politely and kindly.

Growing up, we loved to climb trees, but it occurs to me now that we never climbed the magnolia. In hindsight, I suppose we respected it the way we respected the women in our lives. They garnered deference by presenting themselves in an honorable manner. These days, virtue can seem under-valued, but the steel magnolias taught us dignity.

They also instructed us in wisdom. A magnolia tree innately knows when and how to grow, bloom, and rest. Our mother and other women we knew not only ran households, but also managed companies, classrooms, and committees. Perhaps its woman’s intuition or sage wisdom, but they were smart chicks who never played dumb.

Finally, a steel magnolia is an admirable combination of femininity and fortitude.  Call her brave, plucky, resilient, intrepid, or one tough cookie, she has the strength of mind and spirit to endure adversity with courage. As hairdresser Annelle Dupuy Desoto resolutely says in the play Steel Magnolias, “I promise that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair!”

Although our mother is no longer with us, my sisters and I celebrate her today. We remember the important lessons she taught us, and we are grateful to all of the women who impacted our young lives. As the years go by, we hope to keep blooming and growing and to pass on to the next generations the strength and elegance of steel magnolias. §

Birthday Plans Gone Awry

IMG_1561Today is my 60th birthday! Mike and I have been planning my birthday week for a couple of months. On Monday, I would treat myself to a haircut and a massage. On Tuesday, we’d have dinner with family. On the big day, we would drive to St. Louis where we had hotel and dinner reservations at the Chase Park Plaza and tickets to see Hamilton at The Fox Theatre. The next day would be our annual springtime visit to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, The Butterfly House, and the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. And there would be cake! And champagne!

Instead of enjoying these wonderful plans, I’m spending my birthday in the hospital where I’ve been since Sunday with an acute viral intestinal infection. I’ve been on a clear liquid diet of water and orange jello. (I am finally feeling a bit better and well enough to gather a few thoughts for this post today, although it’s later than usual.)

We know what they say about best laid plans. In his 1785 poem To a Mouse, Robert Burns wrote something like, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry and leave us not but grief and pain for promised joy!” (Burns actually uses fancier Old English words but thou get’st thy drift.) The theme of the poem is the unpredictability of life.

Burns empathizes with a wee mouse and we little humans as well. He knows it’s in our nature to constantly make plans, but he believes we must understand many of our schemes and dreams won’t pan out. Burns’ advice is to face life’s unpredictability with wisdom and compassion.

So as I sit in the hospital feeling sorry for myself, I’m also trying to be aware of the compassion extended to me during my 60th birthday trip to Good Samaritan Hospital. I look around and see evidence of friends and family who love me, nurses and doctors who are caring for me, a sweet bouquet of flowers Mike brought me.

About 200 years after Burns wrote his poem, John Lennon’s song Beautiful Boy included this line, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Long before those wise words were penned, Proverbs 16:9 said, “A man’s heart plans his way: but the Lord directs his steps.”

I may be 60 now, but spending it in a hospital is a reminder (and maybe even a gift) that I still have a lot to learn. And re-learn. Over and over. Right now, I’m doing the most human thing possible ~ making plans to do everything on my birthday list as soon as I feel better. §

The Elegance of a Memorable Teacher

IMG_1327An injured butterfly gently rested in my cupped hands. Looking closely, I admired the symmetrical patterns painted in sleek black on bright yellow wings. The scalloped hindwings were decorated with a royal blue art-deco design and the slightest touch of orange. She was a work of art.

I could easily identify it as a female eastern tiger swallowtail, or Papilio glaucus, thanks to my tenth grade biology teacher, Mrs. Shaw. In hindsight, she was one of the most talented and truly elegant teachers I ever had. She helped me see the beauty and artistry in science. This was no small task as I typically enjoyed more creative, right-brained pursuits.

Always dressed in a white lab coat, Mrs. Shaw taught bell-to-bell with no idle chit-chat or wasted time. Using colored chalk, she drew intricate diagrams of cells, or whatever we were learning at the time, which we would replicate and study in our own notebooks.

Even in college, it was rare to have a professor with Mrs. Shaw’s combination of knowledge, passion, and teaching skills. When I became a teacher myself, I borrowed many of her techniques for running an effective and efficient classroom. She was smart and kind, poised and mature, making her a role model for all students, especially impressionable young women.

Students in Mrs. Shaw’s biology class completed two main projects ~ an insect display in the fall and a wildflower display in the spring. Picking wildflowers was right up my alley, but the bugs were another story. I wasn’t afraid of them, but I didn’t want to kill them.

Mrs. Shaw gave a compelling explanation why the project was crucial for our education and that was that. Armed with a bug net and glass jars containing cotton-balls soaked with rubbing alcohol, I scoured our yard, nearby woods, and roadsides for a month in search of insects native to southern Illinois.

I set up my entomology lab on my dad’s workbench in the garage. After collecting an insect, I carefully placed it in the jar. I added my own step of saying a prayer of gratitude to each bug for sacrificing its life for my GPA. Next, I methodically mounted the insects with pins onto the foam board our teacher provided. The most important step was properly identifying each specimen by its common name, scientific name, and category.

More than four decades later, I can’t help but remember that experience when I encounter a cute ladybug (Harmonia axyridis), an exquisite praying mantis (Stagmomantis carolina), or a beautiful monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

I placed the swallowtail on a flowering bush, hoping her injured leg didn’t prove to be fatal. I bent down to say some encouraging words, and she began to move a bit. “You can do it,” I whispered as she fluttered off the bush in a graceful loop.

National Teachers’ Day is May 3. The past two years, especially, have shown us how crucial schools and educators are to our society. The lessons from our best teachers stay with us for a lifetime. As Aristotle said, “Those who know, do. Those who understand, teach.” §

Making it a Lovely Day

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In 2017 my friend, Natalie Schultz, and I self-published a book based on posts from the blog we wrote together. Our treasured little book, Lessons in Loveliness ~ Learning to Live a Lovely Life, sits on my shelf and now and then begs to be opened.

A section titled Making It A Lovely Day recently reminded me of the optimistic woman I was when I wrote it several years ago. Since then I’ve gone through many changes and challenges (as we all have) that I admit have dulled my shine a bit. Although I know my words are nothing particularly profound, but I would like to recapture their spirit of simplicity, hope, and joy.

Last week, I had the chapter made into a poster which I framed and hung in my closet as a reminder. Life can be unpredictable, but it really doesn’t have to be quite so complicated as we sometimes make it. I hope this excerpt from our book encourages us all to make every day a lovely day. §

Making It A Lovely Day

When you get right down to it, whether man or woman, young or old, prince or pauper, our days consist of the same basic pursuits throughout our lifetime. I am glad we have all of our days to master these essential human tasks. Like the grumpy and arrogant weatherman Phil Conners learns in the movie Groundhog Day, each morning brings another chance to have a lovely day!

How To Have a Lovely Day ~

Waking ~ Rise and shine! When your first foot touches the ground, say, “Thank…” When your other foot touches the ground, say, “You.” Now, turn around and make your bed.

Loving ~ No matter what the day brings, meet it with loving kindness. Love God, love yourself, love others.

Bathing ~ Grooming and caring for ourselves is a basic necessity. Turn self-care into luxurious and pampering rituals.

Dressing ~ Put on something special. Greet the day looking your best.

Working ~ We all have work to do. Whatever your job, give it your all. Do it with cheerfulness, enthusiasm, and diligence.

Eating ~ Sit down and mindfully fuel your body with delicious and nutritious food. Practice good manners, even if eating alone.

Interacting ~ When you are in the presence of another human being, smile and make eye contact. Take the time to sincerely communicate, “hello, please, and thank you.” When someone behaves ungraciously, forgive them, and carry on.

Playing ~ When work is done, reward yourself with something positive and uplifting. Listen to music, chat with a friend, take a walk, browse the bookstore, go bowling, watch a funny show, or get lost in a hobby.

Learning ~ Do something that expands your mind spiritually, culturally, or intellectually. Read a book, visit a museum, finish the crossword, watch a documentary. Be a life-long learner.

Giving ~ We each have gifts that are uniquely ours to give. Someone is in need of your listening ear, helping hand, time, talent, or wisdom. Share your gifts generously.

Persevering ~ Everyone faces challenges. Big and small, they are a part of this thing called life. Whatever the circumstance, we must do our best to press-on with a tenacious and hopeful spirit.

Sleeping ~ End the day as you began it, with gratitude. Drift into peaceful slumber counting your blessings. Rest in comfort knowing that come tomorrow, you can try again.

“Give every day the chance to become the most beautiful of your life.”
~ Mark Twain

The Elegance of Haiku

IMG_1045April is National Poetry Month. What a perfect chance it has been to learn more about poetry and maybe even become poets ourselves. Although it’s harder than it looks, a highly recognizable form of poetry is haiku. Originating in Japan, haiku is one of the oldest and most elegant forms of poetry.

Haikus were always a favorite of my literature students for an obvious reason – they’re short. Known for the rule of 5-7-5, a haiku consists of just three unrhymed lines. The first and third lines have five syllables, and the second line has seven syllables. You may remember tapping your pencil on your desk to count syllables. For example, the word frog has one syllable. The word silent has two.

Nature often inspires poetry, but haiku, by definition, is about nature. It can be traced back to 9th century Japan where it evolved as poetry that specifically celebrated the elegance of the natural world. Matsuo Bashō wrote one of the most famous haikus in the 1600s.

The Old Pond

An old silent pond
A frog jumps into the pond
Splash! Silence again. 

I wonder if Bashō would be surprised we’re still reading his poems 4,000 years after he penned them. Inspired to write your own haiku in celebration of National Poetry Month? Pay attention to something you find intriguing in nature, and form your thoughts about it in a simple three-line poem that follows the 5-7-5 rule.

For extra credit, consider illustrating your poem, as haikus often are. My students loved it when I brought out the cardboard box of watercolors. Their creations always made the most beautiful bulletin boards!

Poetic inspiration recently struck me early one morning when I looked outside and saw a rare flash of bright blue fly past the window. My husband and I had nearly given up attracting bluebirds to our southern Illinois backyard. After jumping for joy, I wrote this haiku.

The Birdhouse

Vacant for so long
Today a pair of bluebirds
Found their home sweet home

§

“When composing a verse let there not be a hair’s breath separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy.”
– Matsuo Bashō

Five Simple Steps to an Inspiring Spring Closet

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The only place in the world we might be able to create complete peace and harmony is our own clothes closet. Overwrought by the chaos in the world, I decided this week to tweak my closet so opening its door would bring me a fresh boost of organization, color, and inspiration.

I spent most of a day and just a few bucks creating my happy place. I’m not offering extravagant ways to design a celebrity dream closet, but I do have a few specific ideas that can help you turn an ordinary closet into one that inspires your own brand of elegance.

Five Simple Steps to Creating an Inspirational Spring Closet ~

  1. Take everything out and clean every nook and cranny.
  2. Take stock of your clothing and accessories and pull out those items you know you will absolutely love wearing this spring.
  3. Store everything you won’t be wearing this season. I stored all off-season and less-than-loved items in bins on the top shelf or in a bedroom dresser.
  4. Display your spring wardrobe in your closet as if it is your own little boutique.
  5. Now, here’s the most important part. Carve out a little space for inspiration. Depending on your closet, this could be a shelf, a wall, or door. I used the back shelf and wall area. Here’s specifically what I did to add some personal inspiration.

First, I cut thick foam poster board to fit the wire shelf and create a sturdy flat surface. (This is also a great way to prevent folded clothes from getting indentations.)Then I decorated the shelf with things that inspire me.

From left to right, you can see a weekly calendar, a daily devotional, a cheery vase of flowers, a necklace holder, and a floral reed diffuser. There’s also a cute tray to hold earrings. On the top shelf, I arranged decorative boxes to add a dash of spring color and charm. Just for fun, I tied pink grosgrain ribbons on my plastic storage bins.

In what is probably the nerdiest feature of my closet, I printed out and framed my personal style guidelines. After getting dressed for sixty years, I should know what colors and styles work best for me, but I still get woefully confused. So I compiled a checklist to use before I hang something in my closet more suitable for someone else. I’m certain this guide is going to save me loads of time, money, and frustration, and help me step out of my closet each day feeling my most authentic self.

Finally, I hung a framed poster titled Making It a Lovely Day. It happens to be from the book Lessons in Loveliness which my friend, Natalie, and I wrote and published a few years ago. The section outlines simple ways to make the most of each day from morning until night. (Please come back next Wednesday when I share more about this.)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opened my closet door the past few days just to get a peek inside. Hopefully, there are some ideas you can use, too. Creating an inspiring closet isn’t going to change the world, but it just might bring a little joy to your corner of it. §

“Opening up your closet should be like arriving at a really good party where everyone you see is someone you like.” ~ Amy Fine Collins

The Elegance of the Lenten Rose

img_1010Easter has arrived, and our table is set with a vase of exquisite little flowers that have been miraculously blooming in our backyard since February. This enchanting flower has a rich history that includes mystery, danger, and above all, the promise held in the breast of this beautiful season.

Shortly after we moved into our southern Illinois home last winter, I noticed an odd patch of deep green foliage. I did a double-take when, through a frosty window, I thought I saw a flower blooming. I put on my boots and trudged through several inches of snow to investigate. Sure enough, a dark mauve blossom was peeking out under a thick blanket of white.

I gasped at the sight and was filled with curiosity. I knew the flower wasn’t an early-blooming snowdrop or crocus. A little research revealed the mysterious flower was a Lenten rose, known to gardeners as hellebore from the Latin hellenborus orientalis. Not a rose at all, this hardy perennial with evergreen leaves and a variety of colorful blossoms is part of the buttercup family. What a story this flower tells!

Helleborus means “injure food” in Greek. Yes, this pretty flower is poisonous. The Greeks were known to use it in battle to poison another city’s drinking water. Many scholars believe Alexander the Great died from a poisonous dose of hellebore. It’s also said that King Arthur’s sister, Morgan Le Faye, made an evil concoction of hellebore and gave it to Guinevere to prevent her from being able to conceive.

In ancient times, smaller doses of hellebore were used to treat a range of illness including insanity. In Greek mythology, it’s told King Argo’s daughters were driven so mad by Dionysus they ran naked in the streets mooing like cows. As time passed, the madness increased and spread to other women in the village. The healer Melampus gave the women hellebore in milk to restore their sanity. (Something tells me a ladies’ night out would have had the same effect.)

It seems our tenacious little flower was also a favorite of witches during medieval times. Old world witches were famous for using it to make their magical flying ointment. They rubbed the hellebore salve all over themselves and took off flying. Of course, the poisonous herb has hallucinogenic effects, so it’s possible they only thought they were flying!

Certain there was some dark magic involved in a flower that bloomed in winter, people in the Middle Ages threw hellebore on their floors to drive out evil influences. Many herbalists at the time believed powdered hellebore could be scattered on the ground and walked upon to render invisibility. Though they had to face east on a moonless night and hope not to be spotted by an eagle thus sealing their fate of death.

Thankfully, Victorian gardeners rescued the innocent hellebore from its more sinister and gothic attachments. Because the flower blooms during the season of Lent, the hellebore became known as the Lenten rose and was a favorite among the Victorians. In their language of flowers, known as floriography, the Lenten rose represents serenity, tranquility, and peace.

Once again our patch of Lenten roses is faithfully in full-bloom. The old palm-shaped leaves have fallen away and sizable clumps of new green foliage surround an abundance of flowers in white, yellow, pink, and purple. On sunny days, butterflies and bees dine on the yellow centers of flowers that will last well into May.

How beautiful that during Lent, a forty-day time of contemplation and preparation for Easter, the cold, dead ground can produce such a lovely flower. The bright little blossoms that fill a crystal vase seem too pretty to have such a storied past. Today, in celebration of Easter, they offer an elegant symbol of rejuvenation, renewal, and resurrection. §

“Let us rejoice!” – Psalm 118:24

The Elegance of Coloring Books & Ecclesiastes

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It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting in our sunroom in front of a bouquet of colored pencils and a coloring book for grown-ups. I open to the first page and press the book down flat in preparation to color for the first time in years.

I choose a green pencil and watch the color slowly fill an empty white space, and then another, and another. While my hand moves delicately and rhythmically, I feel my body and my heart release a long-held sigh.

After several minutes of coloring, I take notice of the quote in the center of the page ~ “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11. As I mindfully color flowers, leaves, and vines, I subconsciously reflect upon the verse.

The words dance across the page over and over with changing emphasis. “He has made everything beautiful in its time…He has made everything beautiful in its time…He has made everything beautiful in its time…He has made everything beautiful in its time.”

As my pencil makes flower petals bloom pink, I think about how desperately I want everything to be beautiful now, in my time, in my way. In a broken world, there is suffering. There is war. People disappoint. Loved ones die. We feel shame. Mama foxes are euthanized. We grieve for that which is lost and for that which never was. Life can be so inelegant.

Looking out the window, a dozen yellow finches match the flowers on my page. The hyacinths are the same shade of purple I hold in my hand. My husband waves as he mows the grass that has finally turned spring green. God colored our world with so much beauty, but it isn’t perfect. By design, it isn’t perfect.

I finish the coloring page and look at it with scrutiny. Oops, that should have been blue. Oh, I went out of the lines there. I close my eyes and reopen them with more faith and acceptance. No, it isn’t perfect, but it sure is beautiful. §

“You can’t be sad when you’re coloring.”
~ a six year old