Mangoes ~ life-changing words from a child in Africa

The first piece of mail I opened in 2021 was a letter from a 7-year-old boy who lives in a village outside of Entebbe, Uganda. Nothing sets you straight faster than the cheerful words of a child who lives in one of the poorest nations in the world.

I was attending my own pity party when I saw the letter on the kitchen counter. It was from Lukas, a child we sponsor through Compassion International. Just seeing the familiar envelope was enough to make me flush with embarrassment. I stopped whining and opened the letter. On one side was a colorful picture drawn by Lukas, and on the other, a letter written in English by a translator.

Lukas was responding to a letter I’d written to him during the summer. Normally our letter cycle takes about three months, but the pandemic made the process twice as long. Lukas asked how we were doing and told us more about himself. We already knew the names of his brothers and sisters, that he likes to play soccer with his friends, and his favorite color is green.

Reading the letter out loud to my husband, my voice cracked when I read, “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We’d forgotten his annual birthday gift of $25 had been automatically withdrawn from our bank account.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 hung tangibly in the air next to my greedy ones.

I’d just been listing the next bushel of things I needed to happen, needed to do, needed to get in order to sit squarely in the lap of happiness – things Lukas has no idea even exist or would ever believe he was entitled.

Then Lukas told us something neither Mike nor I can get out of our minds – something incredibly simple and utterly life-changing.

The thing that makes him happiest is climbing trees for mangoes.

We love mangoes. 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 then 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 skitter 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 word to remind us of the good life.

Mangoes. §

About Compassion International ~ When you sponsor a child through Compassion International, you become the single sponsor of a specific child. You get updated pictures and profiles of your child, and you can exchange letters. Your donation help your child’s local church provide medical care, education, nutritious meals, and other needs. To find out more about sponsoring a child through Compassion International, go to http://www.compassion.com/Child/Sponsorship.  

From the Prayer Garden ~ Help. Thanks. Wow.

My best days always include a long walk alone with my thoughts. For the past few weeks, my daily treks have taken me on a path leading to a better understanding of the power of prayer.

Since the first of December, I’ve been living in my hometown with my mom after she had a mild stroke. Although I miss my hikes in the secluded woods of our home in Indiana, I’ve still been able to get in a daily walk. My route takes me through the neighborhood, down the sidewalk of a busy street, across the train tracks, to the intersection of a main road, and back again.

One blustery afternoon, a patch of woods along the train tracks called to me. I left the concrete sidewalk and headed a different direction across the frosty ground close to the tree line. 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 in a small 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 one of the cold stone benches, knowing what I needed to do. There was much to pray about, but my thoughts blew and swirled around like the dry brown leaves trapped against the garden wall.

I settled in for some serious invocation, but my mind 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 sky, and the busy scratching of a squirrel in a nearby tree. C’mon, focus.

Frustrated with myself, I shook my head only to notice another distraction – an abundance of acorns, hickory nuts, and broken shells scattered at my feet. I scoffed at my spiritual ineptitude.

A train was rumbling down the tracks. Its low blowing horn and 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 nuts and placing them on stones to help me visualize each individual prayer. Instead of a train wreck of messy thoughts in my head, my prayers were laid out in a neat, comprehensible pattern along the garden wall.

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

I walk to the prayer garden nearly every day now. In my own way, I suppose I always pray as I walk, but time in this sacred spot makes my prayers more clear, more intentional, more hopeful, and more faithful.

The title of Lamott’s book reminds 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. §

Joie de Vivre ~ a mantra for the new year

Oleanders, the 1888 painting by Vincent Van Gogh, features a colorful vase of flowers and Emile Zola’s novel, La Joie De Vivre.

Joie de Vivre!

It’s a French phrase literally translated to mean joy of living. Pronounced  ⁄ZHwä de ‘vēvre/, it expresses an exuberant enjoyment of life. Is there another phrase that so happily rolls off the tongue? Just saying it makes me smile, and I’m excited to make it my mantra for 2021.

Rather than making resolutions, each new year I choose a word as my guiding light or touchstone for the next twelve months. The last three years, my words have been simplicity, nature, and seasons. Each word served me well as I aimed to infuse its essence into every nook and cranny of my life.

La Joie De Vivre is the title of a novel written in 1883 by Emile Zola. The main character is ten-year-old Pauline who goes to live with the Chanteaus after her parents die. The author contrasts Pauline’s optimism and open-heartedness with the negativity found in the Chanteau household. The book popularized the phrase joie de vivre as an admirable approach to life. A likeness of the novel is featured in two well-known paintings by Vincent Van Gogh.

Contemporary author Mireille Guiliano wrote, “In France we have a saying, joie de vivre, which actually doesn’t exist in the English language. It means looking at your life as something that is to be taken with great pleasure and enjoy it.” While I don’t claim to be a true Francophile, I do hope to bring this French saying to my life, especially as the new year finds me in an unexpected place and circumstance.

In thinking about how to practically incorporate this phrase into my daily round, I realize a spirit of joie de vivre can be expressed in virtually all areas of life. If I stay mindful, everything I think, say, and do can reflect a joyful appreciation for each and every day of the new year.

I look forward to seeking joy in routine rituals such as eating and dressing as well as on a deeper, more spiritual level. Galations 5:22-23 reminds us that in addition to love, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-control, gentleness, and goodness, the fruit of the spirit includes joy!

I feel sure this is the perfect season of my life to consciously embrace la joie de vivre and to remember what Walt Whitman wrote, “Happiness, not in another place, but in this place, not for another hour, but for this hour.” §

Question of the Week ~ Have you chosen a word for the new year? Please share it with us in the comment section. Wishing you a week filled with joy and a very happy new year!

Me and My Shadow – Winter Solstice inspires living more authentically

My shadow on Winter Solstice 2020

Here in the Heartland of America, the Winter Solstice couldn’t have fallen on a more beautiful December day. I took a walk in the bright sunshine without mittens or a heavy coat. I was alone, except for an exaggerated shadow that followed me playfully. Turns out we cast our longest shadow on the shortest day of the year.

As my shadow loomed next to me and 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 we would have jumped, posed, danced, and laughed out loud at our circus-like shadows. 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 age 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.

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.

Observing my shadow, one would never know I struggle with perfectionism. No one could tell how I crave solitude, or that conflict fills me with anxiety. I hide these things about myself, convinced they’re negative traits I should be embarrassed by and try to change.

I am learning to honor those shadow parts of myself and accept they’re part of what makes me uniquely me. By the same token, I must try to view others without judgment, knowing the traits hiding in their shadow make them uniquely them.

Despite our individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, we are more alike than different. This year has revealed that more clearly than most. 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.

The Winter Solstice marks the beginning of brighter days ahead. It comes at the end of a year filled with stunning moments that made us re-evaluate who we really are, what we stand for, and how we want to live.

As for me and my shadow, we’re going to end the year with the intention of living more authentically. On the next Winter Solstice, my shadow and I are going to joyfully do a cartwheel, no matter who is watching. §

The Perfect Holiday Gift – 11 ways to give our presence (even from a distance)

The past three years, my husband and I have lived deep in the woods where cell phone service is spotty at best. There’s only one place in our home where I can reliably get a good signal. No more chatting while I unload the dishwasher, cook dinner, or put away laundry. To avoid the frustration of a dropped call, I must sit down and simply converse. The situation has forced me to experience the joy of being present.

This holiday season, most people need our presence more than our presents. Though it will probably be from a distance, being present offers the gift of our most precious time, energy, and attention.

11 ways to give our presence this holiday season ~

1. Let Go of Expectations. Even without a pandemic, the holiday season can struggle to live up to our commercially-driven expectations and standards. This year, instead of thinking how we wish things were, let’s focus on enjoying life exactly as it is.

2. Reach Out. Because of the virus, many people will spend the holidays alone. While we might be tempted to pull the covers over our head until next year, we need to reach out to people. A cheerful conversation remembering old times and looking ahead can do wonders for everyone’s spirit.

3. Really Listen. Often when someone is talking, we’re waiting to get in our two cents. Conversations require some back and forth, but don’t be afraid of a little silence. Instead of thinking of our response, we can take that time to process what was said and respond by asking questions and clarifying the other person’s words.

4. Pay Close Attention. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own world we don’t really see the people we care about. Taking time to notice subtle, non-verbal communication helps us understand other people’s feelings and gives us a chance to offer genuine compassion and empathy.

5. Cut Out Distractions. We all know the feeling of talking to someone who is clearly focused on something more important than your conversation. To really connect with someone, we must eliminate distractions so we can give them the gift of our full attention.

6. Dive Deep. This year we won’t be attending any big holiday parties where small talk is most appropriate. Take advantage of smaller gatherings and phone calls to enjoy some conversation that goes beyond the weather and typical surface exchanges.

7. Make Eye-Contact. At least those annoying masks don’t cover our eyes. Looking at others warmly shows we are engaged and interested. Whether meeting in-person, on Facetime, or a Zoom call, eye contact is a powerful way to demonstrate our care and respect.

8. Choose Mindful Activities. There’s nothing wrong with having a family movie night, but it might not be the best way to spend quality time. Try taking a walk together, playing a game, making a craft, or just talking over some hot chocolate.

9. Tune-In to the Senses. One of the best ways to immediately be more present is to become aware of our senses. Focusing on what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel can get us out of our heads and into the moment. Twinkling lights, holiday music, a glowing fire, and delicious treats are all sure ways to enjoy being present.

10. Lend a Hand. If we listen and pay attention, we often find there is something we can do to help others. When at our home, both of our sons-in-law are wonderful at noticing what needs to be done and quietly doing it. Our presence is always appreciated when we lighten the load for someone else.

11. Give Love. It’s been a long year, and we’re all worn out by such unprecedented events. The gift of our presence is a sincere and thoughtful way to put more love into the world this holiday season, and that’s a gift everybody can use. §

Question of the Week: What tip do you have for being more present with yourself or others? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. Wishing you a week filled with holiday presence. Merry Christmas!

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Simply Remember Your Favorite Things ~ this Christmas and always

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

These sweet words, written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, first appeared in the Broadway production of The Sound of Music in 1959. Julie Andrews performed the song on a holiday television special in 1961, making My Favorite Things an instant Christmas classic.

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Door bells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Long ago my mother sang this song when she tucked my sisters and me into bed, and I sang it to my own children as part of my nightly lullaby medley.

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things

I still turn to this song when sleep and I can’t find each other. I silently sing the words in my head accompanied by a full orchestra that soothes my worried heart and reminds me everything will be okay.

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

Here are a few of my favorite things. How wonderful that they are simple and not too difficult to find if I put my mind to it. Even when they aren’t physically present, I can imagine them.

Flower Gardens
The Sky
Gentle Smiles
Wild Birds & Critters
Impressionist Paintings
The Changing Seasons
Heart-Shaped Rocks
Sunlight-Filled Rooms
Chocolate-Covered Strawberries
Pretty Words & Music

What are a few of your favorite things? I’d love to know! I sincerely hope you find them this Christmas season and always. §

Like a Swan ~ inspiration for living with grace, simplicity, and joy

The Swans, 1900 by Joseph Marius Avy

Many times I’ve been asked why I named this blog The Simple Swan. I suppose I’ve always had an affinity for this elegant bird that graces the scenes of art, literature, and ballets.

My earliest encounter with storybook swans was Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Ugly Duckling and its powerful message of transformation, 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 a trumpeter swan, Louis (cleverly named for Louis Armstrong), who learns several lessons in his journey first to self-love and eventually to true love with a beautiful 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, and I was mesmerized. Ever since, a lovely picture book of the ballet has had a place on my shelf.

Seeing swans in nature only increases their fictional dreaminess for me. As I watch swans regally float on the water, I’m inspired by their natural poise, beauty, and simplicity. They might be paddling like crazy just below the surface, but they always appear to serenely glide 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 on the small peaceful lake.

In the midst of hectic days blessed by teenagers at work and home, the swans soothed my soul and reminded me how I wanted to show up in the world as a teacher, parent, and human being.

Especially now, as I near my sixties, swans seem to possess a wise and mature sense of joy. They aren’t showy like peacocks or cute and flighty like chickadees. Swans represent the simple, refined, and deep contentment I seek in my own life.

No matter what life brings, we can at least aim to effortlessly glide through both the seasons of the year and the seasons of life inspired by the serenity, grace, and joy of a simple swan. §

December Gratitude Challenge – a positive way to bid farewell to 2020

The year 2020 will probably go down in the history books as one of the worst ever! How can we possibly be grateful for a year like this? It reminds me of a story I heard when I was very young.

There once were twin boys. One was exceedingly pessimistic and the other exceedingly optimistic. Their parents, quite concerned, took them to a psychiatrist. The doctor put the pessimist in a room full of everything a child could ever desire. From a one-way mirror, they observed the boy sitting in the corner crying and wailing, “The candy is sticky! The toys are broken! The ice cream is melting! Everything is just terrible!”

Meanwhile, the optimist was placed in a room filled to the brim with horse manure. The boy was observed laughing and cheerfully digging through the manure. Astonished, the doctor went in the room and asked what he was doing. The young optimist replied, “With all this poop, there has to be a pony in here somewhere!”

I don’t know about you, but against a backdrop of serious global and national challenges, I had my share of personal struggles this year. More than once, I felt like that little boy in a room full of horse manure. What the story taught me long ago was to always look for the pony.

It’s when things seem bad that it’s most important to look for the good. It might sound overly simple and trite, but appreciating the little things really is what makes life worth living ~ an amazing sunrise, a funny joke, a bluebird at the feeder, a delicious meal, a beautiful song, a hot bath, a friendly wink.

Gratitude and optimism go hand-in-hand. Businessman Price Pritchett said, “There’s a lot more to be gained from being grateful than you might think. Managing your outlook towards appreciation and thankfulness feeds the soul. It brings calm and contentment. It lifts your levels of happiness and hope. Gratitude will amplify your positive recollections about times past, and in turn sets the stage for optimism about the future.”

To help say goodbye to 2020 with an attitude of gratitude, I’m suggesting a December Gratitude Challenge. The idea is to focus on all the joy that still surrounds us at the end of what was not the greatest year ever.

There are many ways you can join in the December Gratitude Challenge. Keep a journal, make a paper chain, stick Post-Its on the mirror, or just add it to your nightly prayers. I decided to make a Gratitude Jar.

Every evening in December, my husband and I will each write something specific for which we were grateful that day and drop the slip of paper into the jar. On New Year’s Eve, we will read them together. (That Mike is going along with this will likely be the first thing I add to the jar!)

Even, no, especially in a year like this, December is a month when miracles happen. Tiny miracles. Big miracles. Good things are all around us. Sometimes we just have to dig a little to find them. §

3 Things the Pandemic Can Teach About Facing Our Troubles

“It’s still pitch black out,” my husband said. He knows I don’t like to drive in the dark, but I needed to get to southern Illinois by late morning. I climbed in the frosty car before sunrise and replied, “The good news is it’s only going to get lighter.”

My words hung in the air like a promise as I cautiously drove through the dark woods on the hilly, winding roads of Indiana. I heard a voice on the radio say this about the pandemic, “Things look dark right now, but there’s hope on the horizon.” Looking east, streaks of orange and pink glowed just below the bare tree line.

It occurred to me that our best reaction to the Coronavirus could provide a lesson in how to face any dark time in our lives by taking this three-step approach.

Face Facts. After a few months at my first job out of college, I reluctantly went to my dad in tears. I had racked up almost $300 on my American Express card and had no way to pay it. He looked at my budget and immediately saw it was unrealistic. He helped me make a more honest one and gave the same good advice I’d heard dozens of times growing up, “You always have to face the facts, kid.”

Similarly with the Coronavirus, we have to face the facts. As of this week, more than a quarter of a million people in the United States have now died from Covid-19, and the number of new infections is setting records every day. We also know there are scientifically proven things we can do to keep the virus from spreading so vigorously.

Do What You Can. When life gets dicey, I always turn to The Serenity Prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This prayer, learned from my mother-in-law when I was a young mom, immediately centers me and helps me focus on what I can and can’t change when facing a problem.

As we continue to make tough decisions during this pandemic, we must separate wisdom from nonsense and have the courage to do what we can. The Center for Disease Control is still making these recommendations: Stay home when possible. Wear a mask in public settings. Wash hands often. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces. If you must go somewhere, stay at least six feet away from others. We can’t control the virus, but we can do things to help protect ourselves and others.

Look on the Bright Side. A relative’s home in Georgia was recently destroyed by a 16,000 pound tree in the aftermath of a hurricane. She and her husband have since been living in a small hotel room with their dog and cat while dealing with insurance companies and all the stress of having their life suddenly turned upside down in the middle of a pandemic. This is not the first time the young couple has been dealt a crummy hand, but I’m struck by their gratitude no one was hurt and their faith things will eventually fall back into place.

No matter the situation, once we have faced the facts and done all we can, the only thing left to do is be hopeful. As I reached the interstate, the radio reported promising news of a Coronavirus vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci’s words sounded like fatherly advice, “Just hold on a little longer.”

In 1650, Thomas Fuller wrote what has become a well-known and encouraging proverb, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” Merging onto the highway, the sky was impossibly blue and the sun shone so brightly above the horizon, I reached for my sunglasses. 🙂

Question of the Week: How do you keep looking on the bright side during the pandemic or when facing personal troubles? Please leave your response in the comments. Wishing you a bright and healthy week!

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A television icon we will miss – Who is Alex Trebek?

Alex Trebek will be missed at our house. Since 1984, no matter what was going on in the news or our personal lives, we could count on him to lead us in a half hour of cerebral fun. For millions of people like us, who knew him only as a nightly game show host, Trebek was a reassuring and constant role-model of grace, wit, and wisdom.

Jeopardy was on the hospital room television when I was in labor with my first child. It was an easy delivery, and I had just enough pain meds to play along between pushes. I wish I could remember the final Jeopardy question on that July evening in 1990, but I do know my little girl arrived at 7:33 pm. The doctor, who was also a Jeopardy fan, remarked how considerate it was for her to wait until after the final question.

My daughter must have been blessed by Alex Trebek and sprinkled with some Jeopardy fairy dust as she was born, because she grew up with a real love of learning. Recently she and her husband, who are both attorneys, worked from our house for a couple of weeks during the pandemic. As we tuned-in to Jeopardy each evening, they consistently beat the pants off my husband and me.

Mike and I usually have great fun competing against each other for nightly Jeopardy bragging rights. I’d say we’re pretty evenly matched except when a sports or literary category gives one of us a clear advantage. My daughter and son-in-law left us silent, as they gave answer after answer before we could even process the question. For that reason alone, we were glad when they went back home.

Like most people, we knew of Trebek’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. We were glad to see him looking so well on the current taped shows and hoped he would get a miracle. In an interview last year, Trebek said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I’ve lived a good life, a full life, and I’m nearing the end of that life.” His comment is reminiscent of my father’s positive attitude while facing cancer.

When people we admire die, we are reminded our time on earth is finite, and every era must come to an end. We will all leave behind a legacy, and we will all be remembered for what we did, how we behaved, and how we made people feel. Trebek had a long career as a celebrity who managed to avoid scandal and embarrassing public fall from grace. I will truly miss seeing his genial face and elegant demeanor on our television each night.

We can all learn a few things from Alex Trebek. “My life has been a quest for knowledge and understanding, and I am nowhere near having achieved that,” he said. “And that doesn’t bother me in the least. I will die without having come up with the answers to many things in life.” 🙂

Question of the Week: Are you a Jeopardy fan? Do you have any personal memories of the show or of the host, Alex Trebek? Please respond in the comment section. I wish you a week filled with all the right answers!