See Your Shadow this Winter Solstice

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The Winter Solstice occurs this week. On the shortest day of the year, we cast our longest shadow. I recall a memorable walk I took on the Winter Solstice last December. I was alone, except for the comically exaggerated shadow that playfully followed me.

As my shadow mocked my every move, I felt like Peter Pan, whose shadow was a distinct character in the novel by J.M. Barrie. At its insistence, I finally stopped and addressed the figure that boldly stretched more than fifty feet across the ground as the late afternoon sun hung low in the horizon. My shadow seemed to plead, “Look at me!”

Had I been accompanied by a child or a friend with my sense of wonder, I imagine I would have waved, jumped, danced and laughed out loud at my circus-like shadow. Instead, I just moved my arms and legs a little and giggled, hoping no one was watching.

When we look at our shadows, we don’t see facial features or skin color. We don’t see signs of status or wealth. We don’t see talents or insecurities, good luck or misfortune, successes or failures. We only see the shape of a human body, a vessel that carries us through every moment of our lives.

Despite our individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, we are more alike than different. Line us all up shoulder-to-shoulder around this big blue marble and deep in our shadows we all want the same things ~ health and happiness, equality and respect, love and peace.

Psychology has much to say about the shadow self. My limited understanding is that it’s the darker side of our personality containing parts of ourselves we might not even be aware of or want to admit to if we do. Psychiatrist Carl Jung said, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

The dark shadow I cast on that sunny winter day didn’t reveal all the things I try to hide about myself, traits I’m convinced are negative, undesirable and embarrassing. The truth is our shadow self is what makes us unique, and understanding it helps us lead a more authentic life. As Wendy said to Peter Pan, “After all, one can’t leave his shadow lying about and not miss it sooner or later, don’t you agree?”

The Winter Solstice marks the beginning of brighter days. It comes at the end of another year filled with stunning moments that should make us re-evaluate who we really are, what we really stand for, and how we really want to live. When the Winter Solstice arrives on Wednesday, I will take my daily walk along an open field. Without any concern for who is watching, my shadow and I will joyfully turn a very sloppy cartwheel. §

“The shadows are just as important as the light. ” 
~ Charlotte Bronte, English Novelist

It’s a Wonderful Life, Not a Perfect One

Copy of Copy of Copy of cheerful graphicIn the final heartwarming scene of one of the most beloved holiday films, George Bailey, beaming with happiness and surrounded by family and friends, realizes it’s a wonderful life. If you only saw that last scene of the movie, you would miss the part where George, desperate and overwrought, stands on the edge of an icy bridge contemplating ending it all on Christmas Eve. Things aren’t always what they seem, especially during the holidays.

The film itself has a backstory that proves life doesn’t often come wrapped in a big shiny bow. The movie is based on a short story called The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. Stern spent years trying to sell his story with no success. Eventually RKO Pictures bought the rights, but the project languished for a few more years. Producer and director Frank Capra came on board but had trouble finding stars who wanted to be in the movie. Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart ultimately took on the roles of Mary and George Bailey.

The film was released in December of 1946 with mixed reviews. It was considered a box-office flop that failed to recoup its cost of production. The film forced Capra to close his studio and nearly ended his directing career. To make matters worse, the Federal Bureau of Investigations flagged the film as Communist propaganda citing an unflattering portrayal of big-city bankers. 

The film did garner five Academy Award nominations, but it didn’t win any. The movie remained relatively obscure until it began airing on television during the holidays in the 70s. It wasn’t until 1990 that The Library of Congress deemed the 45-year-old film culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.

I look forward to watching It’s a Wonderful Life with a box of tissues every holiday season, but I have to remind myself it’s only a movie. The picture-perfect New England town of Bedford Falls doesn’t exist. The movie was filmed in the summer on a backlot studio in the San Fernando Valley. The glistening snow was made from painted cornflakes that created its own share of filming issues.

The movie always reminds me it really is a wonderful life, but it isn’t perfect, particularly at this time of year. For some, jam-packed calendars are filled with extra demands of cooking, shopping, baking, decorating, cleaning, entertaining and traveling. For others, the season can be a lonely time that renews feelings of grief and sadness. Financial concerns are often magnified, and the era of COVID-19 brings a whole new set of worries.

Holiday movies, music, advertising, social media and our own expectations can set us up for some not so wonderful feelings like sadness, loneliness, stress and anxiety. It’s important to put the holidays in perspective and protect our mental health by being realistic, taking good care of ourselves, and reaching out for help if we need it.

I don’t know if you believe in angels, but George Bailey had one. Clarence Odbody was a goofy AS2 (Angel Second Class) who after 200 years had yet to earn his wings. This most unlikely angel showed George the value and beauty of his life. He gave George his copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with this inscription, “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings!” §

“Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
~ Clarence to George in It’s a Wonderful Life

This video will inspire you to rest this season

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At the end of a recent essay titled Resting Like the Fallow Fields, I wrote that I was going to heed my own advice and rest a little more during the month of December. To that end, I’m lessening my load by only writing my Sunday columns this month; however, something special happened this week that I just had to share with my subscribers.  

I was enjoying one of my favorite Youtube channels, Inspired by Nikki, when I saw my own words come to life. Nikki Moreno is a romantic and creative soul who has become a long-distance friend. We are often so in sync with our ideas that we are able to share each other’s content. Nikki reminds me of myself when I was a young mother, devoted to bringing calm and order to home and life. She does it beautifully. 

In this video, Nikki puts my words to music and her own soothing voice. I know you will enjoy it. You can find Inspired by Nikki on YouTube and Patreon. Please click on the link below to watch Nikki’s video featuring parts of my essay, Resting Like the Fallow Fields

Swans Inspire Simplicity and Joy

Copy of Copy of Copy of cheerful graphicAfter writing for the Southern Illinoisan for more than a year, my editor recently allowed me to change the name of my column to The Simple Swan, the name of this blog I started writing several years ago. I have always had an affinity for swans as featured in some of my favorite literature, and I have grown to be more and more inspired by them.

My earliest encounter with storybook swans was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling and its powerful message of transformation, acceptance, kindness and love. Who can resist the idea that no matter how awkward and rejected we feel, deep down we are all beautiful swans?

Another favorite novel of mine is E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan. It tells the sweet story of Louis, a trumpeter swan cleverly named for Louis Armstrong, who learns several lessons on his journey first to self-love and eventually to true love with a swan named Serena.

My love for swans was sealed when I was a little girl taking dance lessons. My mother took my sisters and me to a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The story, music, dancers, costumes and scenery transported me to another world, and I was mesmerized. Ever since, a picture book of Swan Lake has had a place on my bookshelf. It was my love for reading magical books such as these that led me to become a literature teacher.

Seeing real swans in nature only increases their fictional dreaminess for me. With their gracefully elongated necks, strong bodies and regal composure, I’m struck by their natural poise and positivity. They might be paddling like crazy just below the surface, but they always appear to be peacefully gliding through life.

When my own children reached the same age as the eighth graders I taught, I had a daily routine of stopping by a park on the way home from school. For fifteen minutes or so, I would sit in my car and watch the swans serenely float on the small lake. In the midst of hectic days blessed by teenagers at work and home, the swans put a smile on my face and reminded me how I wanted to show up in the world as a teacher, parent and human being.

Especially now that I am sixty, swans seem to possess a wise and mature sense of joy. They aren’t showy like peacocks or flighty like chickadees. They rarely flap about like chickens with their heads cut off. Though they are beautiful, it is a deeper quality of simplicity and bliss that I find so admirable and want to capture in my writing and in my life. Swans remind me we live in a truly magical and enchanting world. How can we be anything but happy? §

“It is only with the heart that one can see clearly, for the most essential things are invisible to the eye.”
~ Hans Christian Andersen, in The Ugly Duckling

Note ~ Thank you for reading something cheerful today! Sunday blog posts are also published in the Southern Illinoisan. Wednesday blog posts are a bit more personal and will return in January. Wishing you a holly jolly December!
❤ Alicia