Rocket the Flying Squirrel ~ a ridiculously true story

Rocket the Flying Squirrel makes his landing on our backyard bird feeders

Just before winter’s biggest snowfall, some new people moved into the house on Oxford Avenue. Before they even unpacked their clothes, they set-up several bird feeders. Continuous drama has since ensued from a cast of wild critters and feathered friends. There are many stories to tell about life in any backyard, but this is a tale about Rocket “Rocky” J. Squirrel.

This hunk of a squirrel got his name from the flying ace and sidekick of Bullwinkle. He lives in the same backyard as Squirrel Nutkin, a namesake any Beatrix Potter fan would recognize, and Twinkleberry, a sweet little squirrel who loves to preen herself in front of the window where the people sit to watch nature unfold in its simple, joyful ways.

Within a few days of putting out that tempting cage of peanuts suspended from a sturdy bird-feeding system, Rocket was spotted sitting on top stuffing his cheeks. He looked at the people through the window, nodded his head approvingly, and gave a thumbs-up as if to say, “Nom, nom, nom. Delicious!”

“How did he get up there?” the people asked each other. After all, this was a fairly sophisticated feeder system with a proven squirrel-proof baffle. Any trees were a good nine feet away from the pole.

It wasn’t long before they saw Rocket shimmy up a tree, gingerly tightrope-walk onto a tiny limb, so thin it was nearly imperceptible, bounce three times, and launch himself through the air in a beautiful swan dive onto the top of the feeder. Squirrel Nutkin and Twinkleberry attempted the feat several times in what could only be called epic fails.

As it was a time of sub-zero temperatures, the people began tossing bread and crackers on the deck so the poor things wouldn’t starve to death. The squirrels, as well as an occasional deer and raccoon, appreciated the feast, but it did nothing to deter Rocket from gorging himself on expensive peanuts truly meant for the woodpeckers.

One day Squirrel Nutkin lodged an entire Ritz cracker in his mouth and carried it up a tree fifty feet in the air to enjoy in peace. Rocket followed closely behind, cozied right up next to him, and stuck out his paw to snatch it from Nutkin, who had clearly had enough of Rocket’s antics. They fought in a tangled circle of squirrel tails and squirrel gibberish until the cracker fell all the way to the ground and hid itself deep in the snow. Nutkin was livid. He leapt to another tree still squawking and pouted most of the day while he watched Rocket swing gleefully from the feeder of nuts.

After the snow melted, the lady of the house propped a ladder against the tree, climbed up, and ceremoniously snipped the thin limb from the tree effectively ending Rocket’s fun, or so she thought. A few weeks of this work-out, combined with a high-protein diet, had made Rocket stronger than the average squirrel. Within a day, he was able to launch himself directly from the side of the tree onto the top of the bird feeder.

When the people see Rocket perched on the feeder, they open the backdoor, clap their hands, and shout strange words. Sometimes the man even throws ice cubes. It’s a fun game that signals the squirrel to do an impressive reverse leap right back to the tree. The only way to stop Rocket from getting on the feeder would be to move the entire system to another spot which, for some reason, hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps the people get a thrill watching Rocky fly, or maybe they understand no matter what they do, this squirrel will win.

Early one morning this week, the lady stood at the window watching several gold finches and juncos, a cardinal, a flicker, and two downy woodpeckers at the bird feeders. Suddenly, on the trunk of a tree just a foot from the house, appeared an upside-down Rocket “Rocky” J. Squirrel looking at her eye-to-eye through the window. Not at all surprised, she smiled and said, “Hello there, Rocky.” He held up his right paw and waved it slowly back and forth.

From the table, her husband sat perfectly still and whispered, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing right now.” “Good morning,” the lady said through the window. The squirrel smiled at her and waved again before jumping to the deck, darting up his tree, and flying to the top of the bird feeder for breakfast. §

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Flowers and Folklore ~ the mysterious Lenten Rose

Flowers enchant me, especially when they are accompanied by a rich history of legend and folklore. Right in our backyard there blooms such a flower full of mystery, excitement, danger, and above all, promise.

When we moved into our southern Illinois house in late January, I noticed an odd patch of deep green tropical-looking foliage. I did a double-take a couple of weeks later 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 nature’s thick blanket of white.

I gasped at the sight, but I was also curious. Upon closer inspection, 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 that King Argo’s daughters were driven so mad by Dionysus that they ran naked in the streets mooing like cows. As time passed, their 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 of 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. Now that’s something I might like to try, though I’d have to face east on a moonless night and hope I’m not spotted by an eagle, which would seal my fate of death within a year.

Thankfully, Victorian gardeners rescued the innocent hellebore from its more sinister and gothic attachments. Because the flower blooms during the season of Lenten, the hellebore became better known as the Lenten rose and was a favorite among the Victorians.

What a beautiful symbol that during Lent, a 40-day time of contemplation and preparation for Easter, the cold dead ground would produce a lovely flower promising rejuvenation and rebirth. In the Victorian language of flowers, known as floriography, the Lenten rose represents serenity, tranquility, and peace.

It’s mid-March now, and our patch of Lenten roses is 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, bees dine on the yellow centers of flowers I’ve learned will last well into May.

It’s still chilly and damp outside, but in our warm and cozy home, cut blooms fill a vase with sweet and colorful flowers I now know are Lenten roses. Reflecting on their storied past, the exquisite blooms offer intriguing history and, most of all, the very real hope and beauty of spring. §

10 Ways to Bring More Joy to Your Days

Hard to believe we are already three months into the new year. My personal mantra for this year is Joie de Vivre, or joy of living. Honestly, on more than one occasion I double-checked my poor French didn’t cause me to sign-up for more stress, than joy, in my vivre!

Of course, true advocates of la joie de vivre would say it’s when things get a little crazy, or fou in French, that we must remember to celebrate life’s simple joys. We each have our own ideas about what brings happiness, but here are ten areas where we can all find more everyday joy.

1. Dining ~ No matter what we’re eating, we can make meals a more pleasant ritual. We can take time to put our food on a pretty plate and sit down with a placemat and napkin. We can turn off the television and put away our phones. It will soon be warm enough to dine al fresco. Savoring our meals with gratitude is a simple joy we often take for granted.

2. Nature ~ Research indicates many people, especially children, are increasingly experiencing a nature deficit. With spring right around the corner, most of us are eager to get outside in the fresh air. Take a walk. Listen to the birds. Enjoy the sunshine. Nature is good for the mind, body, and soul, and it is such a simple way to increase our joy.

3. Creativity ~ When we get lost in something creative, we give our brains a break from fret and worry and get into a meditative state some scientists call flow. Whether we enjoy gardening, cooking, painting, quilting, or some other hobby, delving into a creative pursuit is where we can find our happy place.

4. Flowers ~ Flowers bring joy to any space. I’ll never forget how my students reacted when I brought in fresh flowers for our classroom. It won’t be long before the earth will be speaking to us through blossoms of every type and color. Pick a single flower or budding tree limb and arrange it in a vase of water for instant happiness.

5. The Arts ~ The arts have always brought joy to humanity. Thankfully, we all have different tastes in architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music, performance, and film, but we know what makes our heart sing. Until we can safely return to our beloved museums, libraries, and theaters, we can explore the arts at home. I’m already planning my trip to see the Van Gogh Immersive Experience in Chicago.

6. Wardrobe ~ Opening an organized closet filled with a small selection of clothing I want to wear brings me such joy. I personally love the simplicity and femininity of dresses. I’ve already put away my darker, heavier ones and brought out my spring things. Getting dressed is something we do every day, and it can easily become something that brings us joy.

7. Attitude ~ Nothing adds more joy to our days than having a positive attitude. Cultivating a good attitude is a daily habit. Whatever we focus on seems to increase, so it only makes sense to think on the positive. Long ago I heard someone say we can choose to wake up and say, “Good God, morning” or “Good morning, God.” The choice is ours!

8. Color ~ What colors bring you joy? This week I looked at thousands of rugs at a large decorating store. I had to dig deep to find one in a color that made me smile. That peachy-coral rug and a few cans of paint in fresh, happy colors have made our new house feel like home. To a large extent, we have a choice about the colors that surround us. What color do you need more of in your life?

9. Self-Care ~ Sometimes we need to pamper ourselves a little. My sister sent me a gift set of heavenly lavender-scented bath products. She knows how much I value the simple joy of closing the door and luxuriating in an hour or so of at-home beauty treatments. It’s not about primping and preening for vanity’s sake. It’s about taking time to care for ourselves, so we can take care of others.

10. Spirituality ~ Our spiritual growth is a lifelong process that can bring us the ultimate joy. We can seek it throughout our days from books, music, meditation, scripture, yoga, art, nature, prayer, silence, service, and religious practices. Many would agree, the greater our spirituality, the greater our joy. It was Mother Teresa who reminded us, “Joy is strength.” §

(To read more about the French expression, Joie de Vivre, please go to my January article at http://www.thesimpleswan.com/2021/01/03. Merci!)

Closing Doors, Changing Paths, and Making Decisions

(Illustration by Mary Engelbreit)

If you’ve ever bought or sold a house you know the stressful process culminates in what’s called a closing. I never thought much about that name until this week when my husband and I sat around a big table, a circle of pens in hand, and gently closed the door to our old life.

It’s said, “When one door closes, another door opens.” Funny that quote comes from Alexander Graham Bell, because I really did hear a call to move in a different direction. Impossible-to-miss signs, nudges, and whispers were placed on my heart making it the easiest decision I ever made.

That’s saying a lot, because I’m the worst at decision-making. I’m always the last to order at a restaurant as I agonize over the menu. I used to change clothes several times before heading off to work. I recently stared at a display of paint samples for an embarrassing length of time deciding what shade of light blue to paint our bedroom.

Knowing my habit of second-guessing, I once framed a cute Mary Engelbreit poster of someone striding down a path with a knapsack. There is a sign at the fork in the road. One arrow reads, “Your life.” The other reads, “No longer an option.” Its light-hearted message helped me approach my decisions with more confidence.

No poetry-lover could see that poster of two paths and not think of Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both, and be one traveler long I stood, and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth…”

I taught that poem for nearly thirty years. Having recited it hundreds of times, you’d think the poem would lose its impact on me. But no, when I come to the last stanza, my voice always trembles. “I shall be telling this with a sigh. Somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Growing up, my daughter’s favorite Disney princess was Pocohontas. Over and over we watched Pocohontas turn to Grandmother Willow for advice about which path to take in life. The beautiful old willow tree sang her words of wisdom, “Listen with your heart, you will understand. Let it break upon you like a wave upon the sand. Listen with your heart, you will understand.”

We all face decisions every day. When we follow our hearts and listen for divine direction, big decisions become infinitely easier. We can confidently choose which doors to close, which ones to walk through, and which paths to take with no regrets and no looking back. §

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