Swans Inspire Simplicity and Joy

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

Rest Like the Fallow Fields

cheerful graphicHere in America’s Heartland the fields lie fallow now. Barren squares stretch out like a patchwork quilt gently covering the land while it settles in for a well-deserved nap. The scene makes me want to snuggle under a cozy blanket and enjoy the time of year when nature encourages us to rest.

Fallow periods are traditionally used by farmers to maintain the natural productivity of the land. Leaving a field inactive for a time allows the soil to recover, restore and rebalance itself. You see, the land becomes depleted and unproductive if if isn’t given a chance to rest.

Can you relate? What if we took a cue from nature and thought of this season of the year as a natural time to recover, restore and rebalance ourselves? I know, the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve is often the busiest time of the year.

Maybe you’re in a season of life when relaxing seems impossible. A stressful job, child-rearing, caregiving and other challenges can be exhausting. Keeping up with the daily news can be taxing. Even fun-filled celebrations can leave us feeling worn out. All the more reason to rest. Writer Pico Iyer said, “It is precisely those who are busiest who most need to give themselves a break.”

My husband is the most steady and calm, yet efficient and productive person I know. He manages to get everything done and more, but he’s the first one to suggest we stop and chill. It’s no surprise his favorite Christmas carol is Silent Night. Like my laid-back husband, the hymn hushes and reminds, “All is calm. All is bright.”

Rather than waiting until the hustle of the holidays is over, let’s give ourselves the gift of rest now, when we really need it. Here are ten ways we can follow the fallow fields, even if just for a few minutes each day.

  1. Be still. Being busy isn’t necessarily being productive. Sit in complete stillness a few minutes every day to let your body and mind recharge.
  2. Stay home. Sometimes we stay on the go out of habit or fear of being bored. Be it ever so humble, home should be our happy place.
  3. Renew your spirit. Read, pray, sing, create. Do more of whatever renews your soul.
  4. Turn down the noise. Do what you can to quiet your surroundings. Unplug at least once a day and experience total silence.
  5. Say no. We aren’t obliged to say yes to every invitation or request. Graciously decline an avoidable situation that’s likely to be more draining than fulfilling.
  6. Eat well. When a field lies fallow, the soil regains nutrients. Be sure to consume healthy foods to replenish your own nutrition.
  7. Take a walk outdoors. Not only is walking good exercise, the crisp air is a great way to clear the head.
  8. Practice self-care. Schedule a massage, a haircut, a manicure or try some at home spa treatments. Take time to take care of yourself.
  9. Go to bed early. Sleep research shows human beings have a natural circadian rhythm that mimics the sun’s rising and setting. Shorter, darker days are a good excuse to get more sleep.
  10. Observe nature. Take a closer look at nature. Appreciate its beauty. Be inspired by its simplicity. Learn from its wisdom. §

“It is well to lie fallow for a while.”
~ Martin Farquhar Tupper, English writer and poet 1810-1889

Note to Subscribers ~ I am heeding my own advice and getting a little more rest the next few weeks. I will still post my weekly newspaper column here on Sundays, but there will be no Wednesday posts until the new year. I’m excited about my writing goals for 2023. Thank you for joining me. I wish you a holiday season filled with peace and joy! ❤ Alicia

Morning Poem Assuages Morning News

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Like many of you, I begin my day with the morning news. I want to stay informed, so like any unpleasant task, I prefer to just get it over with. I do find reading the news, rather than turning on the television, less of an auditory and visual assault on my senses. One morning this week, I came across the word war so many times, I unconsciously began reciting a favorite poem…

Hug O’ War
by Shel Silverstein

I will not play at tug o’ war
I’d rather play at hug o’ war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins,
And everyone cuddles
And everyone wins

The poem’s hopeful message made me smile while I processed the woeful news of the day. I laughed out loud at the thought of Republicans and Democrats rolling around on the floor with world leaders in a giant tickle fight. It affected my mood in such a positive way that I now have a new morning routine. First the news, then the Wordle, then a poem. Like Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar, a beautiful poem tempers the distastefulness of the news, and helps me start my day in the most delightful way. §

“Reading poetry is an adventure in renewal, a creative act,
a perpetual beginning, a rebirth of wonder.”
~ Edward Hirsch

Let the Lights Shine this Season

cheerful graphicJust as nights become colder, darker and longer, neighborhoods and towns are beginning to sparkle with the warmth and joy of holiday lights. Main Streets glitter with decorations, Christmas trees warmly glow through living room windows, and barren trees come to life with strands of colorful bulbs. Holiday lights have a magical ability to make us feel happiness and hope.

Most of us like to decorate our homes at least a little for the holidays, and we usually have some pretty strong opinions on the matter. Some of us like to keep it simple. Others like to go all-in like Clark Griswold with his fuse-blowing decor in Christmas Vacation. Chances are we could each weigh-in on a discussion about white or colored lights, big or tiny bulbs, flashing or continuous settings, and, of course, those inflatable yard decorations. I do love driving around seeing people’s holiday decorations, and I always appreciate the effort even if they’re not exactly to my taste.

One year I wasn’t able to micromanage the hanging of the lights in our own yard, because I needed to attend my school’s winter chorus concert. I left detailed directions, including a carefully-drawn graphic, for my husband and teenage son. When I returned home that evening, I chuckled smugly at the tacky lights flashing from someone’s house down our street. As I drove closer, my heart sunk when I saw the brightly colored lights haphazardly strung every which way were in my yard.

I took a deep breath, walked into the house, and said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, “The lights look so…fun.” My husband and son fell on the floor with laughter. They got me. I always feel like I passed some great test of Christmas spirit by not completely freaking out. Of course, those lights came down that very evening, and we all had a great time decorating according to plan.

I’ve had the chance to see some amazing holiday lights around the country, and I’m thrilled that this year there is a huge holiday light display right in my hometown. For the first time, our local museum is celebrating the holidays with more than a million sparkling lights. The only thing better than holiday lights are holiday lights mingled with beautiful architecture, sculptures, and artwork!*

Whether the display is large or small, extravagant or simple, holiday lights inspire all the wonderful feelings of the holiday season. It’s impossible to look at twinkling holiday lights shining against a clear dark sky filled with its own brilliant stars and not feel joy for the beauty of the world and hope for all of humanity. If we’re very lucky, some of that enchanting light will sink deep into our souls so we can go out into the world and shine a bit of our own light this holiday season. §

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”
~ Traditional Hymn 

*For information about The Lights at Cedarhurst Center for the Arts in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, go to cedarhurst.org or call 618-242-1236.

Celebrate World Kindness Day

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Have you noticed a little more kindness in the air this week? I hope so. Sunday was World Kindness Day, a day that has been celebrated on November 13 since 1998. Initiated by an international coalition, the goal was to create a day that would help raise awareness of kindness as a unifying power between people everywhere.

Kindness may seem a vague concept, too simple to hold much sway, but I think it could be the simple solution to most of life’s problems.  According to MentalFlow.com, here are five positive side effects of kindness ~

  1. A Healthier Heart ~ Kindness creates emotional warmth and produces oxytocin in the brain and body. Nitric oxide is released and expands the blood vessels, which helps in lowering blood pressure.
  2. Better Relationships ~ Kindness helps to reduce the emotional barriers between two people and allows people to be more open and bonded with each other.
  3. More Joy ~ Kindness increases happiness by elevating levels of dopamine in our brain, which helps in lifting our spirits.
  4. Anti-Aging Benefits ~ Oxytocin also helps in slowing down the aging process by reducing high levels of free radicals and inflation in the cardiovascular system.
  5. Kindness is Contagious ~ Acts of kindness have a ripple effect that is passed on and inspires more and more people to be kind.

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Of course, like other important holidays such as National Taco Day and National Kitten Day, we don’t want the celebration to last just 24 hours. We can keep the kindness going by setting a personal intention to perform at least three random acts of kindness each and every day.

Here are a few random acts of kindness to get us started ~

  1. Say hello.
  2. Let someone go first.
  3. Help someone in need.
  4. Share what you have.
  5. Stop for a chat.
  6. Offer a sincere compliment.
  7. Listen.
  8. Check on a friend.
  9. Hold the door.
  10. Give a hug.
  11. Clean up a mess you didn’t make.
  12. Use a nice tone of voice.
  13. Be patient.
  14. Pick up trash.
  15. Mail a greeting card to someone.
  16. Say please and thank you.
  17. Make a donation.
  18. Take the high road.
  19. Read to a child.
  20. Do someone a big favor. §

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
~ Dalai Lama

Late-Blooming Roses ~ Accepting Joy as it Appears

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My rose bushes disappointed this year. I waited all summer for them to explode into a riotous celebration of yellow, but they never did. I watered them, fed them, sprayed them, pruned them, and pleaded with them, but throughout the hot dry summer, they only produced a few wimpy flowers.

By summer’s end I’d stopped paying attention to the leggy bushes and never even got around to cutting them back this fall. Halloween came and went, and the calendar turned to November. Imagine my surprise when, without any help or encouragement from me, the bushes suddenly produced a bounty of beautiful yellow roses!

At first, I admit to being slightly annoyed. “Oh, great, now you decide to bloom.” And then it dawned on me those roses might be teaching me a few things. Stop trying so hard. Good things take time. You’re not in control. Beauty is spontaneous. Stay present. Be open to joy whenever it appears.

I rejoiced in the late-blooming roses for a couple of weeks as I watched an abundance of sweet yellow buds slowly unfurl into big silky soft flowers. The prolific rose bushes looked so odd surrounded by bare trees and covered in crispy brown leaves. Alas, it seemed our unusually warm weather had come to an end, and with a forecast of snow flurries, I cut the roses and took them inside.

As any flower-lover knows, the process of arranging them is part of the delight. I set the roses by the kitchen sink, carefully removed excess leaves, and delicately cut each stem to the right height. It was a ritual I performed slowly and mindfully, knowing it would be the last time for many months.  As I placed the roses in vases of water, I couldn’t help but thank them and apologize for my impatience, my pushiness, and my lack of faith.

I ceremoniously set a vase in the living room where a shaft of autumn light came through the window. My curious kitten hopped on the table and pressed his heart-shaped nose into the yellow flowers. “Yes, Mr. Darcy, you’re right. Stop and smell the roses, especially when you least expect them.” §

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“The earth laughs in flowers.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

10 Reasons I Love the Great British Bake Off (and I don’t even bake)

cheerful graphicThe Great British Bake Off is now in its 13th year, and I’ve been a fan from the start. In case you aren’t familiar with the show, you can catch it on Netflix where new episodes drop on Fridays. Each new season begins with twelve amateur bakers from Great Britain. Every weekend, they compete in three challenges. At the end of each show, one contestant is named Star Baker, and another is sadly sent home. At the end of the season, one of the four remaining bakers is declared the winner. So why do I, and millions of others, love the Great British Bake Off? Here are ten reasons, and not one of them has to do with dessert. 

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  1. Happy Colors ~ The show is filmed during the summer in an outdoor tent filled with simple and bright candy colors. Inside the tent there is an abundance of colorful bunting, sky blue refrigerators, and the infamous blue gingham tablecloths. Even the contestants, hosts, and judges wear colorful clothing. 
  2. Friendly Contestants ~ Unlike most reality shows, the contestants on the GBBO are kind and supportive to one another. We watch their friendships grow through the season and see their genuine sadness when one of them is chosen to go home. It’s just so nice to watch people being nice.
  3. Kind Mentors ~ Not only are the contestants friendly, so are the hosts. The current hosts, Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, never demean, yell, or throw things like chefs we’ve seen on other cooking shows. If Paul Hollywood is particularly impressed with a contestant’s bake, he might give a firm handshake and wink one of his twinkling blue eyes.  
  4. Inspiring Creativity ~ Even though I don’t bake, I am always inspired by the contestants’ creativity. The weekly show-stopper competition results in amazing displays of baked goods fit for a grand party or special event. Even if it’s a baking fail, the creative effort is appreciated. 
  5. No Prize Money ~ One of the most delightful aspects of the show is that the grand prize is flowers and a simple cake plate. There is no prize money to bring out greedy, unsportsmanlike conduct. These amateur bakers have found a passion they love that has little to do with money. 
  6. Funny Hosts – The show’s hosts add slapstick humor, silly puns, and double entendres. The current hosts are Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas. They open the show with a corny comedy sketch like the one featuring Luke Piewalker and Princess Layercake a long time ago in a tent far, far away. Their pie crust was a little on the dark side. Ba-dum-dum.
  7. British Accents ~ Let’s be honest, it’s fun to listen to folks from across the pond. In addition to their accents, we learn a bit of slang like crack-on, chuffed, gutted, and innit. We also learn biscuits are cookies, pudding is dessert, and a soggy bottom is not a good thing. 
  8. Lighthearted ~ I usually find myself watching the latest episode of GBBO when I need a little pick-me-up. Unlike most television shows, it is innocent, lighthearted, and literally as sweet as pie.
  9. Nature ~ Since the show takes place in an outdoor tent, the show frequently cuts away to scenes of nature in the English countryside. Butterflies, bunnies, wildflowers, and blue skies add to the show’s playful and happy branding. 
  10. Memories with Mom ~ The number one reason I love the show is because of memories of watching it with my mom. When it came to television, we generally had nothing in common, so I was surprised when she liked the show. Although I’d seen them all before, we binge-watched eleven seasons together during the Covid pandemic. I miss watching new episodes without her now, but I can still hear her comments, which always make me smile. §

“On your marks, get set, bake!”
~ The Great British Bake Off

 

Swedish Death Cleaning Brings Peace and Joy

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The Swedish have an extremely pragmatic term known as döstädning. Translated, the term means death cleaning, as means death and städning means cleaning. It is the common practice of leaving one’s physical possessions and personal effects in good order to make things easier for loved ones upon our death. From my own experience, the process actually brings great peace and joy.

I recently read The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson to help me face a houseful of things that belonged to my late father, mother, and grandmother. Although I generally have little attachment or sentimentality toward material objects, I found it painfully difficult to part with things that belonged to people I love.

When my father died six years ago, it fell to me to deal with his possessions. With the exception of his clothing, my mom wanted us to keep nearly everything else of my dad’s, including a wooden duck lamp he made in high school. Suffice it to say it’s an ugly duckling. That poor thing lived more than sixty years in a box that has moved from my grandmother’s house, to my parents’ house, to my mom’s condo, to my attic. It’s the poster child for Swedish death cleaning, yet no one could let it go.

After my mom passed away I knew I had to deal with her things, my dad’s things, and all of my grandmother’s things Mom had kept for more than twenty-five years. A few treasures found good homes, but a huge stash of furniture, books, knick-knacks, decor, and memorabilia weighed heavy on my mind and on our attic floor.

Not only did Swedish death cleaning help me sort through my family’s belongings, it gave me a reverent opportunity to revisit and honor them. I was finally able to keep the memories and say goodbye to the objects. It also made me more aware of my own limited time and space on this planet. I’ve whittled down my possessions to what I need and what truly sparks joy, as Marie Kondo advises. My affairs are now in order to make things easier for my survivors, giving me enormous peace of mind.

The process left me with an unexpected sense of serenity, happiness, and increased appreciation for what really matters in life. I’m grateful to be in good health, and I plan to live the rest of my days unburdened by excessive material objects. I do have a secret desire that my dad’s lamp is bringing joy to someone who finds it just ducky. §

“I never saw a U-Haul behind a hearse.”
~ Billy Graham, evangelist

An Optimist’s Guide to Voting

cheerful graphicPolitics and optimism seem to mix like oil and water. Yet formidable British statesman Winston Churchill once said, “I am an optimist. It doesn’t seem too much use being anything else.” Those of us with such dispositions can successfully navigate the midterm elections by clinging to some simple values most optimists hold dear to their hearts. 

At the end of the day, optimists really just want everyone to be happy. It’s an idea our founding fathers shared, at least in theory. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When optimists vote, they want nothing more than to keep our country moving towards fulfilling those promising words adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

Most optimists believe good character to be the most important quality in any person, particularly someone who wishes to hold the power of a public office. I can’t say I understand voters who only care about a politician’s policies or party. Abraham Lincoln reminded us, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Think about the personal qualities you admire and likely insist upon in the people you want in your inner circle. Before you vote, consider how well the candidates hold up against that basic measure. 

Optimists have trust in their fellow citizens and in democracy itself. We have faith in the democratic process and take seriously our right and responsibility to vote. After decades of protest and civil disobedience, the 15th amendment to the constitution extended voting rights to men of all races, and the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote. When we go to the polls we must keep in mind that democracy, the cornerstone of an optimistic nation, is always at stake. 

At the risk of sounding like a Miss American contestant, optimists really do want world peace. George Washington said, “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations, cultivate peace and harmony with all.” Here at home, we want to live in a country that’s peaceful and united in the belief that we all deserve to feel safe and respected, despite our differences. I will always support the candidate who wants that, too.

For those of who like to keep things simple and sweet, election cycles can seem awfully messy and rude. Let’s stay true to our ideals of happiness, character, civility, and harmony. Don’t worry when the cynics call us dreamers. Remember what Harry S. Truman said, “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”

“Democracy is not a spectator sport.”
~ Marian Wright Edelman

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 ❤