Witnessing the Miracle of Change

IMG_4039There is a small pond in our neighborhood which changes drastically this time of year. On some winter days the sparkling water is marked with the wake of ducks swimming, other days it is frozen over with a sheet of white ice, and sometimes a ghostly caldron of steam hovers over it. Wintertime allows us to witness the miracle of change in real time.

It’s fascinating to see the water in the pond change from liquid to solid to gas and back again. The fact is, everything with mass and weight is made of matter and all matter can change. Stars and planets, butterflies and birds, rocks and rivers, you and I are all made of matter. Which means we all have to ability to change – a little or a lot.

Winston Churchill said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Literature is filled with dynamic characters who undergo a positive transformation. Ebenezer Scrooge, Beauty’s Beast, Daddy Warbucks and everyone off to see the Wizard are just a few well-known characters who by the end of the story make a change for the better.

One of my favorite childhood novels is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A sour little girl named Mary is sent to live in a sad and lonely place. As she tends a neglected garden, joy blossoms in her own heart changing the little girl and everyone around her.

History is marked by people whose change of heart changed the world. Rosa Parks bravely changed her mind about sitting in the back of the bus. The Apostle Paul saw the light on the road to Damascus. Abraham Lincoln’s view on the evils of slavery evolved. Call it flip-flopping, but George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

Ordinary people can change, too. Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. Every year it helps thousands of former gang members become valuable citizens. Founder Father Gregory Joseph Boyle expressed the ability to help people change their lives by quoting poet Galway Kinnell. “Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.”

It’s said a leopard doesn’t change its spots. Certainly, we must be wise in our interactions, but we can always leave the door open for change. We can start by looking for the loveliness in ourselves in in others. We can break our own self-defeating and hurtful habits. We can have hope that the people we care about can and will do the same. Just think of a few people wreaking havoc in the world right now and imagine how things might change if only they did.

Perceived injustices, old hurts, political division, discouraging headlines, personal challenges, fear and pure stubbornness can make us as cold as ice. Maybe the dramatic transformation we see in our winter landscapes is nature’s reminder to let our hearts melt a little, show grace and have faith that in this new year we can learn, grow and change into the very best version of ourselves. §

“Change is only another word for growth, another synonym for learning.” 
~ Charles Handy, Irish author and philosopher

Creating Beauty in January ~ Candlelight

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The cold, dark days of January beg for candlelight. What a simple way to add beauty to our surroundings. Candles can offer warm flickering light, enjoyable fragrance, and even inspiring symbolism.

I light a candle on our fireplace mantle nearly every morning before the sun rises. I love the sound of the matchstick striking in the quiet of the morning. The yellow-white flame flares and fades as it gently kisses the candlewick. I blow out the match and watch the gray smoke disappear as the candle shines with the promise of a new day. Candles can create beauty while we bathe, work, dine or clean the kitchen. No matter the time of day, candlelight instantly creates a peaceful ambiance, and couldn’t we all use a little more of that in our lives?

Most of us have stood in front of a display of candles bringing each one to our nose until we find the perfect one. In wintertime, favorite fragrances often include pine, vanilla, spice and berry. Fragrance experts recommend matching the scent to our activity as some fragrances are energizing and others are more relaxing. I love them all, but even in winter, I prefer a pretty floral scent that transports me to a spring garden. What is your favorite scent?

When I was a teacher, I loved having a candle burning on my classroom desk. I almost believe it had magical powers over my students, causing them to be quieter, calmer and more reflective ~ perfect for a middle school literature classroom. Candles hold symbolic significance and can represent romance, security, hope and spirituality. Saint Francis of Assisi wrote, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

There are many ways to create more beauty in our lives, but lighting a candle in the deep midwinter takes little effort for big results. So let’s light a candle, soak up the glow, inhale the fragrance, and let it remind us to shine our own light into a dark world. §

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
~ Edith Wharton, American Novelist

A Note to You ~ Thank you for being here! Just so you know, on Sundays I share the weekly column I write for The Southern Illinoisan. My Wednesday posts are a little more personal and written specifically for readers of The Simple Swan. In 2023, Wednesday posts will be on a specific topic ~
1st Wednesday ~ Poetry
2nd Wednesday ~ Being Present
3rd Wednesday ~ Something Sublime
4th Wednesday ~ Creating Beauty

Thank you! 

Snowfall Quiets a Restless World

IMG_3997When a pretty winter snow tucks everyone in under a cozy blanket of white, I feel as I did long ago when my fussy babies finally drifted off to sleep. In that magical time when snowflakes fall like fairy dust from the sky, the world becomes as still as a child in dreamy slumber. If you listen closely, the snow sings a soothing lullaby that hushes our restless world, and as the flakes float through the frosty air, they whisper comforting words we may have lost along our busy way.

Softly… In his poem The Dream Keeper, Langston Hughes wrote about “the too rough fingers of the world.” To some extent, we’ve all experienced the harshness of this world. A friend told me she was afraid the world was making her hard. I understand her concern, but I know better. She has the kind of heart that will allow her to stay soft. The more jagged and edgy the world becomes, the more important it is for some of us to hold on to a presence as soft as snow.

Gently… Gentleness isn’t celebrated much these days. We make heroes of the rough and tough, the fast and furious, the brash and the bold. Author Garrison Keillor wrote, “Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.” My husband is proof it’s possible to possess a kind of gentle strength. Like snowflakes, we can learn to move through life more gently.

Quietly…  In his famous poem about a snowy evening, Robert Frost took us into the woods where the only sound was “the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.” He makes us want to enter those woods so lovely, dark and deep to escape our noisy world. Music thumps from the car in the next lane. Shoppers blab into cell phones while roaming store aisles. Restaurants are so loud it’s hard to converse. Even the thinnest layer of velvety white snow muffles the noise with a welcome quietude.

Peacefully… There is a precious stretch of time when freshly fallen snow turns the world into a scene encased in a snow globe. As if in suspended animation, everything snow touches becomes perfect and peaceful. Looking out an icy window or taking a winter walk, the snow brings a sense of pure tranquility. “It powders all the wood,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “It fills with alabaster wool the wrinkles in the road.”

Long before the snow has to be shoveled, before it is spoiled by boots and sleds and tire tracks, before it turns into the slushy mess that is real life, a lovely snowfall freezes our world for a spell. It forces us to settle in for a little respite, and allows us to contemplate nature, our nature, so soft, gentle, quiet and peaceful. §

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt and perhaps it says, ‘go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’ ” 
~ Lewis Caroll

Something Sublime for January ~ a beautiful old hymn

IMG_3937In an effort to live a more poetic life this year, I am actively seeking the sublime ~ things of excellence, grandeur and beauty. I’m convinced these things exist in our ordinary lives, and I plan to write about something sublime on the third Wednesday of each month.

I was only a few hours into the first day of the new year when something sublime unexpectedly found me. It was the hymn It is Well with My Soul penned by Horatio Gates Spafford in 1873. It is a hymn I’ve known since I was a child, a hymn I can still hear my grandmother playing on the piano and my father singing in the pew next to me. And it is a hymn I like to hum to myself when life gets dicey, as it is apt to do.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul. 

If those words don’t instantly make you feel a calming wave of peace, please read them again and again until they do.

A couple of years ago my best friend, not knowing how much I love that hymn, gave me a pretty linen tea towel with those very words printed in blue. It hangs in my kitchen perfectly pressed and arranged as if to say, “Don’t even think about actually wiping your grubby hands on this towel!” Each time I see it, old Horatio sings me his faithful words and I swim in a river of peace.

As I stood in church that first day of January, I was overcome with the simple sublimity of the moment. A fresh new year stretched out before me, with a difficult one well behind. A community of friendly folks lifted their voices in joyful praise. And a message of blessed assurance, from auld lang syne, wrapped its arms around me as I loudly sang off-key…

It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul! §

“To bring the sublime into the mundane is the greatest challenge there is.”
~Hazrat Inayat Khan

Martin Luther King empowers our dreams

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One Monday in January when my children were quite young and impressionable, their father and I took them to a parade followed by a large event in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Our children took home many lessons that day about King’s message of peace and equality, but what stuck with them most was his idea of having a dream.

It’s difficult enough for children to understand dreams as something that happens in the mind while asleep, but it is even more difficult to to explain the kind of dreams Martin Luther King spoke of in the speech he gave on August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Dreams as cherished aspirations, ambitions and ideals was the stuff of King’s speech to the 200,000 people who peacefully journeyed there that day and reverberates in our hearts and minds sixty years later.

Martin Luther King taught my children, as he teaches us all, the power of keeping dreams alive. He sparked in them an understanding about the importance of having faith in big dreams – not just their own, but those of their fellow man, and those of a nation.

In 1922, Langston Hughes wrote in a poem called Dreams, “Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” Thirty years later, the same poet asked in another poem, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”

Martin Luther King refused to sit back and watch his dream be deferred. Nor did he want it to explode in violence or shatter and disappear. The Baptist minister gave his life to the dream of advancing civil rights in the United States through faith, nonviolent activism, and hope in the brotherhood of man.

In his song Shed a Little Light James Taylor sings these words, “Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King and recognize that there are ties between us, all men and women living on the Earth. Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood, that we are bound together in our desire to see the world become a place in which our children can grow free and strong. We are bound together by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead. We are bound and we are bound.”

On Monday, when you are off from work, when the kids are home from school, when you find yourself grumbling that the bank and post office are closed, turn your thoughts to Martin Luther King. Contemplate his dream, your dream, your child’s dream and every child’s dream.  Vow to hold tight to those dreams, to work to help make them come to fruition and never be a dream deferred. §

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”
~ Martin Luther King Jr. 

January Presence ~ waking up your house

IMG_3928One way I’m living more poetically this year is by being more present. On the second Wednesday of each month this year, I plan to write about a simple way to be more mindful. We all have certain rituals we perform every day whether we pay attention to them or not. We can elevate these little acts into meaningful rituals that help us be more present. My first ritual of the day is what I refer to as waking up the house.

January is a perfect month to be more aware of the blessing of having a place to call home, no matter how humble. If we are lucky enough to have a roof over our heads, we can be grateful to have somewhere safe to live that protects us from winter’s cold, snow, wind and rain.

Every morning, before the sun rises, I get out of my warm, cozy bed and slide open the curtains that cover our bedroom picture window. I do this gently so I don’t startle myself or any critters that might be visiting the large birdbath just outside the window. More than once there has been a deer staring at me eye-to-eye. I take a deep breath and look out the window with a nod to the new day and take note of what the weather is up to at that moment. (In January, I always wish for snow!)

The next happy part of my morning ritual is opening the bedroom door to see my nine-month-old kitty who comes flying through the house to greet me when he hears the curtains open. I reach down to the floor, sweep up Mr. Darcy and nuzzle my cheek into his soft golden fur. Holding him like a baby in one arm, I move through the house turning off the porch light, turning on the living room lamps, and opening the shutters. That’s usually when he hops out of my arms with a satisfying purr.

Especially in wintertime, I like to light a fragrant candle on the mantle. The flame flickers like a promise in the dawn light. Standing on the brick hearth, cold against my bare feet, I take a sweeping look around my home. While I don’t always say it out loud, I at least think, “Good morning, little house, thank you for keeping us safe last night.” By the time I head into the kitchen and find my husband sitting in the sunroom doing the crossword puzzle, I have had dozens of wonderful thoughts, any of which could be turned into a poem.

No matter where you live or what stage of life you are in, I encourage you to be aware of your own morning rituals, including all you do to wake up your house. Move through each ordinary action with awareness and gratitude. Like a poem, our rituals add structure, flow, rhythm and beauty to our life. There is poetry in being present. §

“Be where you are. Otherwise you will miss your life.”
~ Buddha

This full moon calendar will add poetry to your year

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I have to agree with Oscar Wilde who wrote, “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” At the beginning of each new year,  as I fill in my blank calendar with birthdays, anniversaries and appointments, I also add the dates and names of every full moon. My interest in the moon is not as much scientific as it is poetic.

A full moon occurs when the Earth is directly between the sun and the moon so that the moon appears completely illuminated. This happens about once a month. I admit I have difficulty comprehending that whether the moon is waxing or waning it is not actually changing shape. That in itself is enough science to sufficiently blow my mind.

There is some debate about the scientific correlation between moon cycles and human behavior. As a teacher, I definitely saw an increase in wacky behavior during a full moon. Ask anyone who works directly with the public, and they will likely concur. It’s no coincidence the words lunacy and lunatic come from the Latin word for moon, but I’ll leave it to the experts to separate the myths from the reality. I only know having it noted on my calendar helps explain a lot.

Natural and social science aside, I prefer to think of the moon in the poetic way that has inspired art, music and literature through the ages. I can’t help but personify the moon as Emily Dickinson did when she wrote, “The Moon was but a Chin of Gold a night or two ago and now she turns her perfect face upon the world below.” Poet Carl Sandburg said, “The moon is a friend for the lonesome to talk to.

The moon is featured in many songs, too. Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade, Andy William’s Moon River, and Van Morrison’s Moondance are just a few sweet tunes inspired by the mysterious moonlight. For years the nightly lullaby medley I sang as I tucked my children into bed always included, “Mr. Moon, moon, bright and shiny moon, won’t you please shine down on me.”

The moon has been a part of art throughout the history of civilization. From the ancient Greeks we have many depictions of Selene, the goddess of the moon. In fact, today a Selenophile is a person who is fond of or interested in the moon. Perhaps the most recognizable painting of the moon in modern Western art is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. The vivid yellow moon against a swirling blue sky is said to be a symbolic representation of the artist’s view from his room in a mental asylum.

We all howl at the moon for different reasons. Whatever is your interest in the moon, here is a list of the dates and names of the full moons in 2023. Note there is one each month, plus two in August, which only happens in a blue moon! And if you’re wondering if that slivered bright orb is waxing or waning, recite Christina Rossetti’s poem, “O Lady Moon, your horns point toward the east: Shine be increased; O Lady Moon, your horns point toward the west: Wane, be at rest.”

January 6 – Full Wolf Moon
February 5 – Full Snow Moon
March 7 – Full Worm Moon
April 6 – Full Pink Moon
May 5 – Full Flower Moon
June 3 – Full Strawberry Moon
July 3 – Full Buck Moon
August 1 – Full Surgeon Moon
August 30 – Full Blue Moon
September 29 – Full Harvest Moon
October 28 – Full Hunter’s Moon
November 27 – Full Beaver Moon
December 26 – Full Cold Moon §

“I always look up at the moon and see it as the single most romantic place within the cosmos.”
~ Tom Hanks, actor

January Poetry ~ by Tennyson and Me

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I realize it is slightly ridiculous and quite irreverent to place poems written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and yours truly in the same title, but it is my year for living more poetically. So on the first Wednesday of each month this year, I plan to share a classic poem along with a poem I’ve written. The first I hope fills you with the beauty and wisdom of classic poetry. The second I humbly hope expresses my own dreamy thoughts and maybe even encourages you to write a poem yourself.

The following poem was written in 1850 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, one of the most well-loved Victorian poets. I always looked forward to teaching this poem to my literature students the day we returned after winter break. Tennyson wrote it in memory of his sister’s fiancé who died at the age of 22. It is surprising how relevant this poem remains today. If you lost someone close to you in the past year, as I did, this poem helps express the grief and desire to step into the new year with positivity and hope. Consider reading it aloud to feel its rhythm and meaning more deeply.

In Memoriam (Ring Out, Wild Bells) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring our false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.Cl

And now for a poem I wrote based on an experience I recently had early one bright and cold morning…

Birds of a Feather by Alicia Woodward

Through a frosty bedroom window
Shone the rising sun
Waking up my hands and toes
My dreaming nearly done

Sleepily I caught a glance
Of a yellow bird
Sitting on an icy branch
She spoke without a word

I looked into her shining eyes
Black with flecks of gold
Sending songs up to the sky
And secrets never told

In the morning perched together
Little bird and I
Pretty bird with yellow feathers
Teach me how to fly §

How to Live Like a Poet This Year

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A new year is upon us, and it is time again to choose a word that will serve as a guide for living more intentionally throughout the next twelve months. I’ve long given up resolutions and instead dedicate each new year to a particular word or phrase to be sprinkled liberally through all facets of life. My past words have included simplicity, joy and wisdom. For me, 2023 is the year of living poetically. 

In his 1929 book, Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.” The quote always grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me into remembering that every day, every moment, is a gift filled with beauty that is mine for the taking. 

Living a poetic life requires a shift in how we move through the world, in what and how we choose to see, speak, act and think. Sitting on the cusp of a new year, we have no idea what adventures and challenges await us. Like years past, there are likely to be moments of monotony, heartache, rage and splendor. Some of us will sleepwalk through it all barely allowing it to register in our souls and reaching the end of our year, and eventually our life, wondering how we missed it. Here are ten ways to poetically call forth the riches of daily life, as Rilke so eloquently urged. 

  1. Notice the sublime. That which is sublime possesses awe-inspiring excellence, grandeur and beauty. In literature, sublimity refers to elevated language that is said to strike the listener with the mighty and irresistible power of a thunderbolt. The sublime exists in everyday moments, the quiet of the morning, the notes of a song, a juicy grape, and the hand of a friend.
  2. Stay present. In his poem, What We Need is Here, Wendall Berry wrote, “And we pray, not for a new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. What we need is here.” We just need to pay attention, stay mindful and be present. 
  3. Observe nature. Poetry is often filled with images of nature’s magnificence. It seems impossible to watch a ruby-throated hummingbird or see an orange-pink sunrise and not be somehow moved. Lord Byron wrote, “by the deep Sea, and music in its roar: I love not Man the less but Nature more.”
  4. Seek solitude. Emily Dickinson was a poet who understood the benefits of being alone. In her poem There is a solitude of space, she explores the idea of being alone even amongst a sea of humanity. It is only in occasional solitude that we can sort out our thoughts and disappear into them without the influence of a noisy world.
  5. Read poetry. One of the surest ways to live more poetically is to read more poetry. Keep a book of poetry on your nightstand and read a poem every morning or evening. If you prefer to read poetry online, sign up for a poem-a-day at https://poets.org or read the Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day at https://www.poetryfoundation.org. 
  6. Write poetry. Thirty years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the late poet Robert Bly who told me he instituted the routine of writing a poem every single morning before getting out of bed, drastically changing his life for the better. In 1997, he published the book Morning Poems. I can think of nothing that would help us live more poetically than actually writing poetry.
  7. Follow your dreams. Living poetically means living deeply and fully. We are reminded of this in Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day. In it she poses a burning question we might constantly ask ourselves, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 
  8. Explore your senses. We experience life through our senses ~ sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Poets lean into these senses to create strong images. Walt Whitman joyfully wrote, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.” Maya Angelou wryly appealed to our sense of taste in The Health-Food Diner and William Carlos Williams wrote how the nose knows in Smell! Tuning into our senses will help us live more poetically.
  9. Show gratitude. In the busyness of life, we can take things for granted. In Our Prayer of Thanks, Carl Sandburg thanks God “For the gladness here where the sun is shining at evening on the weeds at the river, our prayer of thanks.” A poetic view of life increases our awe and appreciation for the simplest things in life. 
  10. Create beauty. The Cambridge Dictionary defines poetic as anything that is very beautiful or expresses emotion. Living poetically means elevating our daily life. John Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” In how we dress, keep our home, talk to our children, and treat our neighbors, we can add beauty to all we do.

    Even if we never publish, or even write, a single poem, we can live like a poet in every little thing we do from morning to night through each new day of the next twelve months. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote the poetic life  “makes your toenails twinkle.” That seems like a pretty good way to step into the new year. §