The Elegance of a Prayer Garden

I walked to the prayer garden near my house this morning, recalling the day I discovered it about a year ago when everything in my predictable little life suddenly turned upside down. The details don’t matter. It was just life. Life, with a big Covid cherry on top. 

One blustery afternoon, when I was in the thick of it, I took a walk to clear my head. I left the concrete sidewalk along the busy road and headed a different direction across the frosty ground along the train tracks. As my feet kicked through thick crisp leaves, I heard myself let out a long breath I’d been holding for weeks. I closed my eyes briefly and opened them to find myself wandering into a small, elegant prayer garden.

The garden is situated on the edge of the grounds of a large church that wasn’t there when I was growing up. It’s a small area that’s simply, but well-designed. I sat on the cold stone bench, knowing what I needed to do.

Pray.

There was so much to pray about, but my thoughts blew and swirled around like the dry brown leaves trapped against the garden wall. I settled myself for some serious invocation, but instead focused on inconsequential details in front of me – moss growing on the large center boulder, the patterned brick below my feet, the low curved wall.

Okay, pray.

In the silence, my attention turned to the sound of the wind shaking copper leaves still clinging to their branches, the distant squawk of geese dotting the gray skies, the rhythmic scratching of a squirrel in a nearby tree.

C’mon, just pray.

I shook my head only to notice the abundance of acorns, hickory nuts, and broken shells scattered at my feet. I scoffed at my spiritual ineptitude as my eyes filled with hot tears that stung in the cold air. A train rumbled down the tracks, just feet away. The clattering of iron on iron came closer and closer, roaring louder and louder in my crowded mind.

Suddenly, I remembered the title of a book by Anne Lamott called Help. Thanks. Wow. In it, the author advocates three simple prayers – one of supplication, one of gratitude, and one of sheer awe.

I walked in a slow circle around the center of the garden, picking up acorns and placing them on stones to help me visualize each individual prayer. Instead of a train wreck of messy thoughts, my prayers were laid out in a neat, comprehensible pattern along the garden wall.

Help. Thanks. Wow. Help. Thanks. Wow. Help. Thanks. Wow.

The title of Lamott’s book reminded me to keep my prayers in specific, grateful, and humble balance. For every prayer asking for help, there’s another for thanks, and yet another for joyful praise of things like serendipitously stumbling upon a private and holy sanctuary just when it’s needed most. 

I walk to the prayer garden nearly every day now. It’s one of my favorite places in the town I call home again. This morning I realized every one of my prayers from last year has been answered.

Thanks.

Wow. §

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses.”
~ 1913 Hymn, In the Garden

The Nutty Way I Start My Day

Every morning, after I come in from my daily walk, I feed the squirrels. I suppose the routine provides a grounding reminder I’m but a single thread in the elegant web of life. But honestly, I just know those silly squirrels are guaranteed to start my day with a giggle and a smile.

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I feed the squirrels outside the small, square sunroom off our kitchen. The room has a wall of three floor-to-ceiling windows. If it gets much past eight, the squirrels stand on their hind legs on the window ledge, peer in the window, and sometimes even tap at the glass. “Um, excuse me…hello in there…we’re ready for our breakfast,” they seem to say.

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The squirrels no longer scurry away when I open the back door carrying my container of peanuts. I walk out onto the deck and make the same kissing sound I’ve been making for a year now. “Time for breakfast,” I say to a usual crowd of four or five familiar squirrels. (The chipmunks are hibernating for winter, but they’ll be back in the spring.)

The squirrels hop up onto the deck or peer around from the side of a tree and reach their little paws towards me as if to wave hello. They don’t yet eat directly out of my hand, but I think it’s just a matter of time. I’m getting very close with a friendly little one I call Baby.

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I’m able to sit, just inches away, and watch the squirrels eat. I can easily spend fifteen minutes or more studying their tiny ears, shiny black eyes, beautiful coats, and fluffy tails. I often think about trying to draw them. I wish I had even a pinch of Beatrix Potter’s talent for creating whimsical illustrations of the critters.IMG_0604 (1)

If I’m very quiet, I can hear the sweet squeaking noises the squirrels make while eating. They pick up a single peanut in their mouths, transfer it to their front paws, and anxiously nibble it down. They stare at me with cautious intensity, and occasionally say with their blinking eyes, “Nom, nom, nom…so delicious…thank you!”

Some mornings, when my furry friends seem especially impatient, I just open the windows and put the peanuts on the ledges while they anxiously wait with their adorable little faces looking up at me. Mike always stands at the ready in case one decides to come in and make himself at home.

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He is a little worried about my relationship with the squirrels. We had to say goodbye to our 17-year-old dog about a year and a half ago, and he’s not keen on getting another pet right now. So he continues to bring home twenty-pound bags of unshelled peanuts for my friends. I know it’s a little nutty, but life is all the better for starting our days with the simple joy of feeding the squirrels. §

How do you connect with nature? Do you have a relationship with wild critters? How about pets? How does it make your life better?  Please share your thoughts and ideas with our community. Just “Leave a Reply” at the bottom of the post. 

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On Sundays – The Simple Swan’s regular post is emailed to subscribers. These posts also run in the weekend edition of the Southern Illinoisan in my column, Everyday Elegance
On WednesdaysJust Between Friends is emailed to subscribers. This mid-week post is still all about adding simplicity and elegance to life, but it’s a bit more personal and conversational than the Sunday post.
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The Elegance of Leaving the Metaverse

I’ve always been skeptical of Facebook. I was the last of my friends to sign-up, and over the years, a persistent, uneasy feeling led me to deactivate my account several times. My reasons always had to do with creating more simplicity and elegance in my life, but after a few months, I was drawn back like a moth to a flame. It was when Facebook recently changed its name to Meta that I decided to leave for good. 

Meta is short for metaverse. The term was originally coined in a 1992 science fiction novel called Snow Crash by Neal Stephensen. The metaverse is now defined as a combination of multiple elements of technology, including virtual reality, augmented reality, and video where users live within a digital universe. Ugh.

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving my real car down a real road listening to a real person on the radio announce this business news headline: “Nike buys virtual sneaker maker to sell digital shoes in the metaverse.” Huh?

Turns out we can buy virtual shoes, clothing, land, and other digital goods for our avatars in the form of a crypto asset called a non-fungible token or NFT. As if the real sneakers I put on my actual feet each morning aren’t expensive enough.

The restless feeling I got from Facebook, I mean Meta, was replaced with something more disturbing. Maybe my age is showing. Maybe I taught George Orwell’s novel 1984 one too many times. Or maybe I just really enjoy living in this beautiful world where I can interact with real people, hike on real trails, look at real art, and stop to smell the real roses.

Virtual reality aside, here are a dozen simple reasons my days are a little more elegant without Meta, formerly known as Facebook.

1. Fewer Advertisements – Social media platforms, like Facebook, exist to make the owners money. As users, we are constantly bombarded, both consciously and subconsciously, with messages encouraging us to spend our money on everything from diet aids to political campaigns.

2. More Positivity – Facebook can be fertile ground for fear, judgment, anger, sadness, insecurity, and narcissism. Those negative vibes can seep right through the internet and zap us. Not only do I want to protect myself from negative energy, I also want to avoid the very real temptation of adding to it.

3. More Time – This is an obvious one, but not being on Facebook frees up time in my day to do things that add more quality to my life. Time is one thing we can never purchase more of either with real money or crypto currency.

4. More Presence – It’s amazing how much more present I am in my experiences when not thinking about taking a photo, posting it with a clever caption, and constantly checking reactions to it.

5. Better Focus – My mind is much clearer without Facebook. All of that input takes up too much valuable real estate in my head. Without it, I’m better able to concentrate on my own priorities.

6. Less Worry – As a lifelong people-pleaser, I was secretly worried about how my posts were interpreted and who loved, liked, and ignored them. Without Facebook, I’ve completely eliminated that concern.

7. Better Relationships – The average Facebook user has an intimate number of 338 friends. Instead of posting something for hundreds of people to see, I now take time to communicate more personally with individual people I know will be interested or amused by what I have to share.

8. Less Guilt – I often felt guilty I wasn’t closer to Facebook friends with whom I’d once crossed paths. I care about them, but I found it difficult to offer my sincere support and empathy to so many people.

9. More Discretion – Facebook can encourage us to over-share and reveal too much about our personal lives (and that of our loved ones). Personally, I’m more attracted to people who maintain a bit of privacy and an air of mystery.

10. More Self-Confidence – Have you ever felt sure about something, but after hearing from others began to doubt your own mind? Getting rid of the noise on Facebook helps me better trust my own voice.

11. Improved Self-Care – It’s up to each of us to take care of ourselves in the ways that are most nurturing and healthy. The same way I know I need lots of time alone and in nature, I also know I’m better without social media.

12. More Real Joy – If we would all look up from the mesmerizing glow of our screens and step out our doors, we’d see there’s a big wonderful world to explore and enjoy with all of our senses right now, in real time. §

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
~ Opening Line from  George Orwell’s 1984

The Elegance of a Spending Moratorium

I’m a stress shopper. I can go into the grocery store for a carton of eggs and come out with a tube of lipstick, a candle, deep conditioner, a magazine, mittens, and an avocado slicer. Depending on my state of mind, there’s a very good chance I’ll forget the eggs.

Since my word for 2022 is wisdom, being more intentional with money is a good place to start. On the first day of January, I spent a lot of time reflecting and planning for the new year. It was then I created a three-month personal spending moratorium. I read somewhere that when we want to do something differently, we need to know our why.

Here are some reasons why I want to get a grip on my personal spending habits:

  1. boost our savings account
  2. avoid clutter 
  3. practice self-discipline
  4. better manage stress 

So here’s my plan. January, February, and March of 2022 I will not buy:

  • clothing, jewelry, or accessories
  • make-up
  • skin-care or hair-care products
  • magazines
  • home decor

My strategy is an oldie but goodie – use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. I’ve already faced several challenging scenarios. I’ll share a few with you in hopes you can relate, or at least won’t judge too harshly.

  1. I ordered a really cute jumpsuit from Chicos that didn’t arrive until after the new year. That doesn’t count, right? Did I mention it’s really cute? 
  2. Wouldn’t you know, I didn’t have the right shoes for said outfit. But…I had also ordered a dress from Macys. So when that dress arrived, I returned it and bought some shoes. Since the shoes cost less than the dress, I told Mike I was actually money ahead. He said they call that fuzzy math. Math was never my strongest subject.
  3. I thought we needed something for an empty wall in our living room. I convinced myself it would be smart to go ahead and buy the cool mirror I had my eye on while it was half off at Hobby Lobby. Filled with guilt, I nervously made my $48 purchase, sweating and shaking like I was buying crack on the corner. The next morning I returned my purchase and felt well on my way to rehabilitation.
  4. We were almost out of toilet paper. I walked into Wal-Mart without grabbing a shopping cart. I went directly to the back of the store and picked up a giant 24-pack of toilet paper with both hands. I couldn’t have carried anything else if I wanted to. That may have been the first time in my life I walked straight in and out of a big-box store and bought only one thing.

I’m three weeks into my three-month “no-buy” personal spending plan, and it has already proven to be an interesting challenge. I’m definitely more aware of my habits, urges, and triggers to spend money. Through the next three months, I’ll let you know how my spending moratorium is going. I’m not really sure what to expect, but I have a hunch it will add wisdom, simplicity, and elegance to my life. §

The Elegance of Mangos

As I shuffle through the mail, I casually chat with my husband about things on my list of home improvements. Among the bills and catalogs is a familiar envelope that makes me stop and flush with embarrassment. It’s a letter from Lukas, an eight-year-old boy who lives in a village outside of Entebbe, Uganda, one of the poorest nations in the world.

The envelope includes a sweet picture drawn by Lukas and a letter written in English by a translator. Lukas asks how we are doing and tells us more about himself. We know the names of his brothers and sisters. He likes to read and play soccer with his friends, and his favorite color is green.

Reading the letter out loud, my voice cracks, “Lukas also adds that he appreciates so much his birthday gift of 86,350. With that money, he bought a mattress and a piece of candy.”

We forgot his annual birthday gift of $25 had been automatically withdrawn from our bank account. Lukas didn’t replace an old mattress with a new one. He bought the first mattress he’d ever had to go with the mosquito netting he bought with last year’s Christmas gift.

The little boy’s grateful words tangibly hang in the air next to my greedy ones. The ones about all the things I need in order to sit squarely in the lap of happiness – things Lukas has no idea even exist.

The next part of the letter is something neither Mike nor I can get out of our minds – something incredibly humbling and beautiful. It reads, “The thing that makes Lukas happiest is climbing trees for mangos.” My heart feels simultaneously heavier and lighter.

We love mangos. We buy them at the grocery store when they’re available. Mike is good at picking a perfectly ripe one. He slices through the yellow-red skin and makes neat cuts in the bright yellow flesh to release cubes of the tropical treat. Biting into the fruit brings a burst of floral sweetness with a slight hint of pine. If eaten mindfully, it’s heaven.

I imagine our young friend nimbly skittering up a mango tree in his village. His bright brown eyes spy a ripe fruit. His tiny hand picks it off the limb and stuffs it in his pocket. He climbs back down the tree, laughing. He sits on the ground and leans against the base of the tree. Pulling the golden prize from his pocket, he takes a big bite, juice dripping down his smiling face.

When we find ourselves getting caught up in our first world delusions and disillusions, Mike and I need only say one simple, elegant word. Mangos.§

Hello, friend! Thank you for reading my blog. Starting this coming Wednesday, a second weekly post will come to your email inbox. Just Between Friends is especially for subscribers of The Simple Swan. It’s still all about adding simplicity and elegance to our lives, but I think you’ll find it a little more personal, more conversational, and more practical. Look for Wednesday’s post on my three-month personal spending moratorium. I can hardly wait to read your thoughts and ideas. I’m no longer on social media, but you can comment on the blog or email me at Alicia@thesimpleswan.com. Have a beautiful day!

The Elegance of Winter’s Simplicity

Just outside our upstairs bedroom window, winter trees stand like elegant steel sculptures against a silver sky. As I awaken, my eyes trace the trees’ bold, black branches. The bare winter trees inspire me to simplify.

Based on the popularity of books and television shows on the subject, I know I’m not alone in my urge to simplify, nor am I the first to be motivated by nature. Isaac Newton wrote, “Nature is pleased with simplicity.” He was referring to mathematical principles and philosophical reasoning, not kitchen cabinets and sock drawers, but I think his point remains.

During his time at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau observed, “Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with nature herself.” Wouldn’t we all accept an invitation to more purity and ease?

Inspired by the winter landscape, I am beginning the new year by simplifying. Like beauty, simplicity is in the eye of the beholder, but maybe you can relate to my goal of tackling the following areas.

Physical Possessions ~ I’m reconsidering every item in every drawer, closet, shelf, box, cabinet, glove compartment, and secret nook and cranny. I’m keeping only things I love and that align with my idea of a simple, elegant life. Uncomfortable shoes, be gone!

Health and Finances ~ I don’t know about you, but during the winter months I tend to put such things on the back burner. I have experienced the relief of being on top of my game in these areas, and I’m not going to wait until spring to feel that way again.

Digital Footprint ~ Newton and Thoreau didn’t have to worry about this one, but it’s a struggle for me. Photographs, emails, documents, passwords, downloads and “the cloud” hang over my head. I hope to take control of my technology before it changes, and this old dog has to learn more new tricks.

Activities and Pursuits ~ Just as we have limited space in our cupboards, we have limited space in our days. I’m letting go of vague dreams to travel the world or become a gourmet cook who is fluent in French, but I am fully committed to a small number of true passions.

Thoughts and Emotions ~ Sometimes intangible baggage prevents us from simplifying. Just like physical clutter, we have to let go of the stuff in our head and heart that keeps us from living our best life.

I hope you will join me in answering Thoreau’s call to simplify, simplify! If we get stuck, winter’s elegant inspiration is right outside the window in the clarity of a shaft of sunlight, the peace of dormant fields, the freedom of geese in flight, and the beauty of a snowflake. §

“In winter, the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of more exalted simplicity.”
~ John Burroughs

The Elegance of Feeding the Birds

My husband taught me the elegance of feeding the birds. Initially it was his interest, and I stood back wondering if it was worth the effort. It wasn’t long before I was convinced the time and money we spent caring for our feathered friends was returned many times over.

Whether you live in the city or the country, maintain an elaborate system of bird feeders, or just sprinkle bread crumbs on your window sill, feeding the birds brings simple elegance to life in these six unexpected ways.

1. Kindness – When we do something nice, no matter how simple, it increases the kindness in the world. A single kind act can have a long-reaching ripple effect, sending good vibes throughout the planet. Watching the birds gleefully flock to their freshly filled feeders and bird bath, makes us want to keep spreading good cheer.

2. Connection – Over the years, I’ve watched the birds from kitchen windows and backyard porches with family and friends of all ages. Watching the birds together creates a sweet and common bond over the wonder of our shared world.

3. Learning –  When we watch the birds, we naturally want to know more about them. Is that a bluebird or an indigo bunting? Do orioles prefer oranges or meal worms? Did you know a woodpecker’s tongue is so long it wraps around the inside of its head? There is so much to learn! 

4. Beauty – In our flashy bigger-is-better world, we can easily miss the subtle, natural beauty of life. When we take time to notice a bird’s intricate coloring, delicate shape, and  sweet song, we begin to appreciate the genuine beauty in the world we sometimes take for granted.

5. Simplicity – A few seeds and a little fresh water is all a bird needs. It makes us stop and think about what we really need to live a healthy, happy life. Watching the birds mindfully eat, chirp, nest, and fly encourages us to strip away the pretenses and live a more simple, authentic life.

6. Charity – Remember the bird lady Mary Poppins sang about? “Come feed the little birds. Show them you care and you’ll be glad if you do. The young ones are hungry; their nests are so bare. All it takes is tuppence from you. Feed the birds. Tuppence a bag.” We all benefit when we share our blessings, not just count them. §

“I wish we had all been born birds instead.”
~ Kurt Vonnegut