Fall Leaves Show How to Let Go

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This time every year, nature gently teaches us the beauty of letting go. Colorful falling leaves release their hold and dance and twirl in the autumn wind, gracefully showing us the way.

There’s a scientific reason deciduous trees let go of their leaves in winter. It’s a process called abscission. Rather than fruitlessly expend energy during the harsh winter months, trees shed their leaves to conserve resources. The process helps trees retain water and keeps them from blowing over. As a bonus, fallen leaves add replenishing nutrients to the soil. In a beautiful act of self-preservation, trees let go in order to stay healthy and alive.

The trees’ annual decluttering process might initially inspire us to let go of a few  material things ourselves. Broken things. Meaningless things. Uncomfortable things. Too many things. Perfectly wonderful things that no longer suit our current season of life.

It’s no easy task to rake all our physical clutter into a big pile like so many fallen leaves. Harder still is letting go of intangible things that clutter our hearts and minds. As we watch the autumn leaves cut loose and fly, what can we let go of to help protect, replenish and nurture the very root of our being?

Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” We convince ourselves we must tightly cling to old memories, thoughts, and behaviors, and we spend precious energy feeding and keeping them alive. Letting them go frees us to rest, grow stronger and be happier.

If we were sitting in my classroom, I might assign us to draw a tree with falling leaves. On each leaf, we’d write something we’re ready to let go. Those little leaves would probably hold some very big words like worry, resentment, guilt, hurt and anger. What would you write on a leaf you are finally ready to let drift away?

Poet May Sarton wrote, “I think of trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep. Imitate the trees.” Autumn is such a special time of year. Let’s follow its lead and graciously let go in preparation for a golden season of gratitude and abundance. §

“Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”
~ Eckhart Tolle

Note to Readers ~ Thank you for subscribing to The Simple Swan! I’ve been tinkering with my logo, website, and mission a bit, so please have a look around. (Go to http://www.thesimpleswan.com to get to my website.) There are pages titled “About Alicia”, “About The Simple Swan“, and “My Love for Swans” that tell a little more about me and my goals for my writing. You’ll find them at the right of your computer or near the bottom of your phone. Spoiler alert ~ I just hope my writing brightens your day!  Alicia ❤

The Book that Changed My Life

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The year was 1994. My daughter was four and my son two. I had stepped away from my teaching job for a couple of years since my paycheck didn’t cover the cost of daycare. My husband took our only car to work every day, while the kids and I stayed home and had the time of our lives (without cable, video games, or the Internet).

It was not the plan for a college-educated woman who became an adult in the 80’s, a decade that brought us the movie Working Girl, yuppies, rampant consumerism, a bigger-is-better mentality, and over-the-top glitter and glam. Madonna’s hit song was a constant reminder we were living in a material world.

One Saturday I took the kids to the library, and a new book by Elaine St. James caught my eye – Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter. I checked out the book and re-checked it out as many times as the library allowed until I knew it by heart.

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St. James gave 100 practical tips for simplifying in eight categories of life and was a pioneer in doing so. This was long before words like decluttering, minimalism, professional organizers, and Marie Kondo were a common part of our vocabulary. The author helped me adopt a simplicity mindset at a time when it wasn’t that popular. It set me on a path that has influenced my personal and professional life to this day.

Not long ago I downloaded the book for $1.99, and it was like visiting with a wise old friend. It got me back in touch with the roots of simplicity the author planted in me so long ago. Here are my favorite tips from each section of the book. These days, I don’t believe they need an explanation. There are 90 more great tips in the book, but committing (or recommitting) to just these ten would simplify anyone’s life and spark a whole lot of joy.

  1. Your Household – #1 Reduce the clutter.
  2. Your Life-Style – #22 Build a simple wardrobe.
  3. Your Finances – #38 Get out of debt.
  4. Your Job – #52 Do what you really want to do.
  5. Your Health – #69 Learn yoga.
  6. Your Personal Life – #77 Spend one day a month in solitude.
  7. Special Issues for Women – #92 Take off your fake nails and throw out the nail polish.
  8. Hard-Core Simplicity – #99 Get rid of all the extras.

The last paragraph of the introduction to St. James’ book is interesting to read almost 30 years after she wrote it. “Wise men and women in every major culture throughout history have found that the secret to happiness is not in getting more but in wanting less. The nineties appear to be presenting one of those golden moments of change, the opportunity to freely give up the things that don’t make us happy and to incorporate the lessons of the eighties into a simple but elegant life-style for the nineties – and into the next century.”

I wonder how she thinks we’re doing. §

“The only thing we’d ever gotten from a power lunch was indigestion.”
~ Elaine St. James

The Elegance of Airplane Etiquette

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently confirmed 2021 set a record for unruly passengers with nearly 6,000 reports of, shall we say, inelegant behavior. The good news is so far this year, the number of reports is on track to drop by 50 percent. This improvement may be partly due to the agency’s new Zero Tolerance Policy which includes an initiative to educate passengers on safe and responsible airplane behavior.

Maybe knowing passengers can be prosecuted and fined by the FAA up to $37,000 per violation is improving behavior, but it’s possible the educational press releases, videos, and digital graphics are making a difference. It’s hard to believe adults really don’t know how to behave on an airplane, but maybe they were simply never taught.

When my children were young, I required them to read a book on good manners for young ladies and gentlemen. The book contained a detailed chapter on appropriate behavior when traveling on an airplane. Tips included following the instructions of security personnel and flight attendants, being considerate of other passengers, and not joking about bombs or plane crashes.

Understanding proper etiquette in any situation can make us more comfortable and put us in a better position. Charles Blow, one of my favorite newspaper columnists, tells the story of leaving home and flying on an airplane for the first time to attend an international science fair. “I went to the local library, and checked out every single etiquette book, and I read those books like I was uncovering some sort of treasure.”

While appropriate conduct may seem obvious, sometimes even adults have to be reminded what good behavior looks like, especially if a culture of bad behavior has taken root. Sara Nelson, international president for the Association of Flight Attendants, said the most remarkable change she has seen since the Zero Tolerance Policy began is widespread awareness of the problem.

She said, “The vast majority of people who come on the planes want to just have a safe, uneventful flight, and that continues to be true.” She added that extra kindness and appreciation from some passengers has been a welcome by-product of the new policy.

As a teacher and mother, I know behavior expectations have to be modeled, taught, and consistently enforced. “Straighten up and fly right,” my parents used to say to me and I, in turn, said to my own children. Who knew some airline passengers would literally need to be taught this old idiom to bring a little more everyday elegance to the friendly skies?

“Come fly with me. Let’s fly. Let’s fly away!”
~Frank Sinatra

The Elegance of Showing Up

One gorgeous morning this fall, I found myself gathered with a handful of like-minded souls to write and illustrate poetry at Cedarhurst Center for the Arts. I couldn’t help but think how many other things we could have done that Saturday morning, but we each decided to show up. Brené Brown said, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

Showing up at all can feel vulnerable, but showing up creatively takes guts. Our creativity can be expressed in many forms including art, music, writing, dance, performance, and innovation. On this morning, I taught a lesson on haiku poetry and Shrode Art Center director Carrie Gibbs taught sumi ink drawing, but we were all there to create.

Golden sunlight flooded through the windows magnifying the creative energy in the studio classroom. After three hours, I felt more alive than I have in a long time. I shared another quote by Brown with my fellow workshop participants, “The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.”

Here’s a sample of participants’ fall haikus, each contributing beauty, peace, and elegance to our world. §

mushrooms grow from the floor
their hats like umbrellas
covering them from the downpour
by Avery

black, white, red crouched low
hop, extend, push down, lift up
whooping crane takes flight
by Cindy

crows caw a greeting
among yellow crimson leaves
autumn morning song
by Debbie

a tree lit by the sun
a gush of wind blows by
whoosh! the tree is peaceful again
by Allie

in my reflection
my thoughts return to my roots
leaving soul to bare
by Brian

“Show up in every single moment like you’re meant to be there.”
~Marie Forleo

The Elegance of Practice

For most of my childhood, a plastic kitchen timer sat on top of our living room piano. Every day after school, my sisters and I took turns carefully setting the timer for exactly thirty minutes. While two of us hung out in the basement watching The Brady Bunch and devouring handfuls of Honeycomb cereal right out of the box, the third would practice the pieces our piano teacher, Mrs. Hicks, assigned us that week.

None of us became great pianists, but we did learn the value of practice. In our case, practice didn’t make perfect, but rather practice made progress. Whether it was sports, hobbies or schoolwork, we understood any endeavor required a commitment of time and effort. I’m grateful our parents instilled in us the elegance of practice.

We like to believe extraordinary athletes, musicians and artists possess a natural talent that makes it easy for them. Musician Kenny G said, “I practice my saxophone three hours a day. I’m not saying I’m particularly special, but if you do something three hours a day for forty years, you get pretty good at it.”

Recently, nearly five million people watched Serena Williams play what was billed as the last match of her amazing 27-year tennis career. At the height of her success, the winner of 23 Grand Slam titles said, “Luck has nothing to do with it, I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time not knowing when it would come.”

In American English, the word practice is used as a verb and a noun. As a noun, we might establish a practice of exercise, yoga or meditation. Interestingly, in Australian and British English, practise is the verb and practice is the noun. For example, one would practise free-throws but go to basketball practice.

As a retired couple, my husband and I find ourselves spending hours a day at opposite ends of the house practicing our individual hobbies. We chuckle at the thought of being artists, but while I sit at my laptop hammering thoughts into words and sentences, Mike is at his workbench cutting, grinding and soldering stained glass. We both know the only way to get better at our craft is practice.

My dad was a dentist for almost fifty years. When people asked him if he was still practicing, he’d always say, “Yep, and some day I’m gonna get the hang of it!” It was a dad joke that drove home the connection between practice and success. He would have liked this quote by Stephen King, “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” §

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good.
It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”
~ Malcolm Gladwell

The Elegance of Cats ~ a poem about simplicity

Simple As Cat
by Alicia Woodward

keep it simple
purred my cat
life is easy
when you live like that

plenty of water
and some food
a yummy treat
that tastes so good

a cozy place
to take a nap
a cushion, a basket
or a lap

a little piece
of bright red string
we don’t need
too many things

a sunny spot
here in the hall
chasing shadows
on the wall

a gentle rub
behind the ears
kisses and snuggles
make everything clear

keep it simple
purred my cat
life is easy
when you live like that §

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10 Ways to Add Fall Elegance to Your Home

Anne Shirley, the heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, said it best, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers!” With autumn days glimmering in golden hues, the sun sinking low by dinnertime, and the evening air turning frosty, it’s a natural time to appreciate the cozy warmth of home. Here are ten inviting ways to add the elegance of fall to our homes. 

1. Tidy Up – Our homes often bear the brunt of a busy, hectic summer. Now that things are falling into a routine, take time to organize and declutter your spaces. Make sure there’s a home for everything. Donate what you’re no longer using. Our time spent at home during the cozier months is far more relaxing and peaceful when our homes are neat and tidy.

2. Candles – One of the easiest ways to add an elegant ambiance to our home is to light some candles. The glow of candles makes any space feel more special. You might even want to dine by candlelight and enjoy a warm meal by the soft flicker of the flames.  

3. Fragrance – Fall is famous for its delicious scents. Pumpkin spice, cinnamon, baked apple, vanilla, and caramel are just a few of the fragrances associated with autumn. We can add delicious fragrance to our homes with candles, room sprays, essential oils, or just some simple spices simmering on the stove. 

4. Fall Treats – Fall’s yummiest aromas come straight from the oven. October is a perfect time to bake traditional fall desserts like apple cobbler, pumpkin bread, and pecan pie. If you prefer savory dishes, it’s a good time to whip up some acorn squash, collard greens, or butternut soup. 

5. Clean Windows – We usually think of spring cleaning, but autumn’s tapestry of colors will be better viewed through sparkling clean windows. After a hot and dusty summer, you might be surprised how much brighter your home looks after giving your windows a good washing. Best to do it now before winter arrives.

6. Pillows & Blankets – Autumn is the time for layer upon layer of warm and cozy textures. Add extra blankets and throw pillows to your chairs, sofa, beds, and even the floor. Sink into some extravagant fabrics like sherpa, velvet, or faux fur. Comforts like these make it good to be home. 

7. Fireplace – If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace, now is the time to use it. Make sure you’ve had it properly serviced. Rearrange furniture to make the most of your fireplace. Nothing is more mesmerizing and relaxing than sitting around a crackling fire. You might even decide to sing a few campfire songs.

8. Natural Decor – Even if you’re not one to go nuts with fall decorations, you can still bring in the beauty and simplicity of the season. Dried summer flowers from the yard can make pretty arrangements. Fill a bowl with acorns or pinecones. Scatter a few colorful fall leaves on the kitchen table. Cut a small branch with leaves or berries and place in a vase. Of course, pumpkins, squash and gourds make beautiful natural decor. 

9. Board Games – Accessorize your home with a stack of family-friendly board games. A fun round of Scrabble, Monopoly, or Dominoes is more likely to get going if the game is out and ready to go. Games are a great way to take a break from electronic screens and interact in-person with friends and family. 

10. Reading Nook – More time spent indoors means more time for reading. Carve out a cozy place with good lighting and a stack of books to encourage more reading time. A few fall classics include Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and, of course, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. §

“Autumn is the season to find contentment at home
by paying attention to what we already have.”
~Unknown

 

The Elegance of (Finally!) Organizing Our Family Photos

Did you hear that deep sigh of relief? It was just me, basking in the satisfaction of finally organizing heaps and heaps of family photographs into labeled storage boxes that fit perfectly in a single living room cabinet. I’m feeling as light as a feather and breathing deeper than I have in a long time.

I like to keep a home that is fairly minimal and well-organized, but our messy stash of family photos became my dirty little secret, much like Monica Geller’s closet on Friends. I think what pushed me to finally deal with them was a book on Swedish death cleansing. Don’t worry, it’s not as morose as it sounds. The idea left me totally inspired to get all of my personal things in order. (Look for an upcoming post on the topic.)

I did make cute scrapbooks for my children as they went from birth through their high school graduation, but that barely made a dent in our photo collection, and another decade has now come and gone. I’ve tried to tackle the ever-growing heap, but I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the photos and the emotions that inevitably come along with a trip down memory lane.

After our last move, all the photos ended up hidden away in six deep drawers of a large bedroom dresser. We’ve since randomly tossed in more and more photos, greeting cards, notes, and special memories.

But wait, it gets worse.  When my mother moved in with us, she brought along a big cedar chest filled to the brim with thousands of loose photographs spanning more than 100 years. Stick your hand in the chest and it might come out with a picture of my grandfather as a baby, my parents’ wedding, my first loose tooth, my sister’s prom date, a pet from 1972, my daughter’s college graduation, or someone nobody knows.

If you can relate and could use some inspiration, let me share my process. It’s certainly not the only way, but it got the job done.

Sort Photos:
This took me a full week. I dumped manageable-sized heaps of photos on the floor where I sat sorting into piles around me. Me…my daughter…my stepson…my husband…my mom… my sister…my grandmother…my niece…my son… my step-daughter…my dad…with a cadaver! (Seriously, he was in dental school.) Everybody’s family is different, so just start making piles and see how they start to shape up. Take a break when your head or back starts to hurt or you feel emotionally drained. It can be an exhausting process even without pictures of cadavers.

Purge Photos:
While you go through each and every picture, have a criteria for what to keep. I decided to immediately toss photos that are:
*duplicates of the same event/people
* blurry, dark, or unclear
* unflattering of the person in the photo
* shots of nature or tourist sights
* of people you barely know
*of cadavers

Give Photos Away:
I don’t think we are obliged to run around giving people photographs we come across during our sorting. However, since I was doing this project on behalf of my family, I was more than happy to box up and ship hundreds of photos to my two sisters who live in other states. I told them the photos were coming and to feel free to do with them whatever they wished.

Organize Photos: 
There are lots of ways to organize photos. After careful consideration, I think I did the simplest thing. I went to Hobby Lobby and bought all of the large-size photo storage boxes they had. It turned out fourteen boxes worked perfectly for us. In case it might help, here’s how they’re labeled:
*Alicia – childhood photos & personal pursuits
*Mike – childhood photos & personal pursuits
*Woodward – family photos
*Fry – family photos
*Alicia & Mike – our photos together
*One box for each of our children and grandchild
*One box for each of our daughter’s weddings
*Alicia’s Keep – special cards, notes, and letters
*Mike’s Keep – special cards, notes, and letters

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My Thoughts On Digitizing Old Photos:
I know a lot of people recommend scanning and digitizing old photos to get rid of the physical clutter. In fact, that’s what I was going to do, but I decided against it for several reasons.
*Services like Legacy Box are expensive.
*We have photos from 1900 that still look fine, so I’m not particularly worried about our photos aging.
*I love the idea of pulling out a box and looking through the photos.
*I suspect any digital format available will eventually become obsolete.
*I like the ease of having the physical photos and not having to log on to a computer to find the photo I’m looking for.
*We can easily add to the boxes or add more boxes, if needed.
*Finally, I like knowing that upon my passing from this realm, our children can easily take the boxes they are interested in.

If your family photos are in order, I applaud you. I know it’s a huge job. If it’s something you’ve yet to do, I hope this encourages you. It really does feel great to have it done, and I was surprised by something unexpected. I truly feel I’ve honored the people in those photographs, especially the ones who are no longer with us, by making it easy to open a box and see their smiling faces again. §

“Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you”

~Jim Croce

The Elegance of Live Music

It’s a fall afternoon and pianist Brian Woods fills the small performance hall with soul-stirring classical music that beckons autumn leaves to dance and transports the audience to another time and place. For a brief magical time, we are lifted above our everyday lives and united in the joy and elegance of music. 

The pianist from St. Louis ushered in the first of four concerts at our local cultural arts center, each of which I look forward to attending. I am no music expert; I just know how it makes me feel. Experiencing live music is different than listening to it at home or in the car. There’s something special about joining an audience of diverse people who come together specifically to experience the emotion and awe of a live performance. 

In a world fraught with conflict and division, music can bring us together in a delightful way. This summer, my daughter and her husband took us to a popular piano bar after a baseball game at Wrigley Field in Chicago. People of all ages, sporting Cardinals and Cubs gear, belted out Elton John’s Benny and the Jets at the top of their lungs. If those die-hard rivals can put aside their differences to sing together, there is hope for harmony. 

“Music has a great power for bringing people together,” said media mogul Ted Turner. “With so many forces in the world acting to drive wedges between people, it’s important to preserve those things that help us experience our common humanity.” Music genres can be diverse as people, but with an open mind, lovers of jazz or rock may discover they also enjoy Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. 

Opportunities to experience live musical performances can be found at regional schools, churches, universities, libraries, bars and restaurants, and cultural centers like Cedarhurst Center for the Arts in my hometown.*

According to Americans for the Arts, there are many good reasons to support the arts, including boosting local economies, strengthening communities, and improving academic performance among students. The organization points to research that shows participation in the arts reduces depression and anxiety and increases life satisfaction. In the 1700s, Jean Paul Friedrich Richter said, “Music is the moonlight in the gloomy night of life.” 

On the sunny afternoon the pianist swept his audience away with stunning musicianship and stage presence, I took a moment to notice the expressions on the faces around me and knew we were  experiencing something significant. As composer Aaron Copeland said, “So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet, music in some living form will accompany and sustain it and give it expressive meaning.” §

“In the presence of great music we have no alternative but to live nobly.”
~ Sean O. Faolain

*If you are in southern Illinois, tickets for the 2022-2023 music series at Cedarhurst Center for the Arts are available online at cedarhurst.org/music-series/. This year’s line up includes a Brazilian father-daughter duo Oct. 15, a standards-singing trio in March, and a dynamic flutist, pianist and educator in April. You won’t be disappointed!