8 Questions to an Elegant Fall Wardrobe

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I’m excited about my very simple (hopefully elegant) fall wardrobe. Want to know what’s in it?

Ten dresses.

Yep, that’s it. No jeans, pants, skirts, blouses, T-shirts, tank tops, tunics, blazers, vests, cardigans, dusters, sweatshirts or any of the must-haves in most capsule wardrobes. Just ten casual dresses.

What a relief it is to open my closet and not be overwhelmed by clothes that are superfluous, irrelevant, and confusing to me. After a lot of trial and error and wasted time and money, I came up with eight questions that helped me pinpoint precisely what to wear every day to make me feel and look my best.

Once I defined exactly what I want to wear, I realized anything in my closet that didn’t meet those qualifications was just a distraction. Putting together my fall wardrobe didn’t require a lot of shopping. In fact, it mostly required subtracting, not adding. I donated many items. Others are stored away for another season of the year or season of life. The few things I purchased this fall had to meet a very specific criteria unique to me and my life.

Here are the eight questions that helped me discover my perfect fall wardrobe. I’ve included my own answers to better understand the process. Although we will each have different answers, I think these questions can lead anyone to their own personal version of an elegant wardrobe.

  1. What’s Your Look?
    My mother once said, “You’ve gotta have a look!” Keeping that in mind, I’d like to look simple, polished, and modern. I believe elegance can be achieved with many different styles, from classic to romantic to avant garde. What’s your look?
  2. What Will Give You That Look?
    For me, nothing beats the simplicity of a dress. Dresses make me feel polished and pulled-together. For a more modern look, I stick to dresses with clean lines. They need to be casual enough not to feel too dressy for my everyday life, but I have to remember I’m okay with being slightly over-dressed.
  3. What’s Your Best Silhouette?
    The dresses that work best for me are tailored, knee-length or slightly longer, with some waist definition.
  4. What Fabric Do You Prefer?
    I like smooth modern fabrics that can be machine-washed, hung dry, and only need a little steaming, if that. For fluctuating fall temperatures, my dresses are medium-weight and can easily be topped with tights, a sweater, or a coat.
  5. What Are Your Colors?
    For simplicity’s sake, all of my dresses coordinate with black shoes and accessories.
  6. What Patterns Will You Choose?
    I prefer solids and simple, contemporary prints.
  7. How Many Outfits Do You Need?
    I like the idea of wearing a uniform of sorts and keeping a fairly minimal wardrobe. I think ten everyday dresses will give me more than enough variety for the fall season.
  8. What Specialty Clothing Do You Need?
    In addition to my everyday wardrobe, I have clothing for exercise, messy chores, and yard work. I also have a cocktail dress, a conservative dress, and a couple options for more formal events. Beyond that I’ll remember what Henry David Thoreau said, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

I hope these questions help you formulate your own simple and elegant fall wardrobe. We can’t control everything in life, but we can all be the boss of our closets so we can get on with more important matters. §

“To thine own self be true.”
~Polonius to his son in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet

The Elegance of Knowing Your Learning Style

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngEven though I’m retired from teaching, I still get excited about the back-to-school season. Whether or not we are headed to a traditional classroom this fall, we should all think of ourselves as lifelong learners. Discovering our individual learning style can help us elegantly continue our education throughout our lives.

In one of my earliest teacher education classes, I was fascinated to find out we don’t all learn the same way, and that’s okay! Learning style refers to the way a person processes information. Some of us find it easier to learn something new by hearing about it, others need to see it, and some need to physically interact with it. Understanding our unique learning style can help us enjoy learning and be more successful.

It should be noted that education, like most fields, is prone to an abundance of research that is sometimes contradictory and confusing. While there are many different theories about learning styles, most research confirms we all have preferred ways of learning based on our individual interests and talents.

Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” Let’s take a look at the most common learning styles.

  • Verbal (linguistic) – You learn best by using words in both speech and writing. You want to read and write about it.
  • Visual (spatial) – You prefer to use pictures, diagrams, images, and spatial understanding to help you learn. You want to see it.
  • Musical/Auditory (aural) – You like using music, rhymes, and rhythms to help you learn.  You benefit from listening to new information repeatedly. You want to hear about it.
  • Physical (kinesthetic) – You like to use your hands, body, and sense of touch to help you learn. You might like to act things out and enjoy a hands-on experience. You want to touch it.
  • Logical (mathematical) – Learning is easier for you if you use logic, reasoning, systems, patterns, and sequences. You want to prove it.
  • Social (interpersonal) – You like to learn new things as part of a group. Talking things out with a group helps you learn. You want to work with others.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal) – You like to work alone. You use self-study and prefer your own company when learning. You want to do it by yourself.

Do you see yourself, or your children, leaning towards one of these learning styles? Many people find a combination of approaches works for them, and some research indicates that being presented new information in a variety of ways increases longterm retention. Knowing our learning style can steer us toward our best learning environment.

Let’s say you want to learn a new hobby, such as knitting. You might want to read a book on the subject, watch YouTube videos, go to a group class, take a private lesson, or just dive-in and learn by doing. By honoring your own learning style, you will likely be wrapped in a cozy handmade scarf just in time for winter.

Even when our school days are behind us, we can still join in the back-to-school fun. Armed with a little self-knowledge and a couple of freshly sharpened pencils, we’ll be on our way to learning with style.§

“Once you stop learning, you start dying.”
~ Albert Einstein

The Elegance of Queen Elizabeth II

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngAs I reflect on Queen Elizabeth’s death this week, I recall a story my mother loved to tell about a time when I was about ten. Apparently I was displaying less than desirable table manners at dinner one evening. My mom asked, “Is that how you are going to eat when you dine with the queen?” To which I replied with all the audacity and seriousness only a ten-year-old girl can possess, “What makes you think I won’t be the queen?”

While I do admire the spunk of that little girl, she clearly had much to learn about ascension to the throne as well as dining etiquette. It’s hard to imagine fifty years later I would have become a bit of a royal watcher and big fan of Queen Elizabeth.

There’s little I can add to the conversation about the queen’s life and how beloved she was by those close to her as well as those who watched her from afar. To say she was elegant is an understatement. While she did not coin the phrase Keep Calm and Carry On, it does seem to embody Queen Elizabeth’s fortitude, composure, and self-discipline.

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The now famous British phrase was one of three posters the Ministry of Information created in 1939 in the event of war. On September 3, 1939, in response to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Only a small number of original posters survived as most of them were recycled in 1940 to help the British government face a desperate paper shortage.

In 2000, a copy of the poster was discovered in a bookshop in Northumberland, England and reproductions began to sell a year later. The poster and its message has since become ubiquitous with many imitations and parodies.

As a student of Stoic philosophy, I find the British stiff-upper-lip attitude admirable. Not everyone appreciates the sentiment of the poster as I do, but it has helped me get through many life challenges with a bit of the queen’s strong spirit.

Were my mother still living, I know she would be glued to the television this week and mourning along with the rest of the world. She would retell stories about growing up and living during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. I also know she would still be laughing about when I was ten and actually thought I had a shot at wearing the Crown. §

“When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat;
instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.”

~ Queen Elizabeth II

The Elegance of Being Woke

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngI am a sixty-year-old white woman who lives in a small midwest town. I don’t have any social media accounts. My idea of pop music is the Macarena. I don’t know who is on Hollywood’s A-list, and I couldn’t care less about the latest fashion trends. I don’t try to be cool, but I do try to be woke.

I can hear the collective groans of people who think I shouldn’t be, or can’t be, woke. I am nervous about broaching a subject that is clearly out of my lane, and I am sensitive to the cultural appropriation of a term that is firmly rooted in African-American Vernacular English. However, unless you’ve been asleep, you’ve been hearing this word used and misused more and more in political, cultural, and social conversations.  

As a concerned and active citizen, I feel a responsibility to understand the origins of the word and its implicit and explicit meanings. To this retired English teacher, the word woke is the past-tense of wake, as in to wake-up or be awake. It’s easy to see how it could evolve to mean something more metaphorical and important.

According to several sources, the term woke emerged in the United States by at least the 1940s as slang within the black culture. A 1943 article in the Atlantic quoted a black mining official using woke related to social justice. By the 1960s, woke meant to be well-informed and politically aware, especially in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, the term was used in a New York Times article titled If You’re Woke You Dig It. In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a commencement address at Oberlin College called Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.

While the term continued to be used, it hit mainstream vocabulary in 2012 after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a young unarmed black man. The social media hashtag #staywoke appeared in 2014 and became associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

In 2017, an additional meaning of woke was officially added to the dictionary. The Oxford Dictionary defines woke as, “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.” Merriam-Webster similarly defines the concept as, “Aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.” I don’t know about you, but I find ideas of equality and justice the ultimate in elegance. 

There are those who may be right in thinking I’m a wide-eyed Pollyanna who is oversimplifying a complicated issue. I will never know what it’s like to be a black person. I’m not in the minority by race, religion, or sexual orientation. However, I know these people as my relatives, my friends, my neighbors, and my brothers and sisters in humanity. How can I possibly close my eyes to injustices they face? Should I stop caring in fear of doing it wrong? 

I admit it’s my nature to strip down words and ideas to their simplest, most elegant, terms. By understanding woke’s history and meaning, I am more aware of those who conflate, politicize, and weaponize the word and more attentive to issues of racial and social justice. Unless someone convinces me otherwise, this retired, middle-class white lady will continue to do her best to stay woke. §

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
~ John 15:12, New International Version

The Elegance of Spirit Animals

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I wake in a bit of a funk and linger in bed longer than usual. For some reason, I click on a YouTube video about spirit animals, a subject I don’t know much about. The thirty minute video is fascinating and encourages viewers to pay attention to animals that show up in our lives and consider what messages of guidance they may be offering.

My husband strolls into the room surprised to see me still in bed. “What’s your spirit animal?” I ask, fully knowing how he will answer. “Elephant,” Mike says without hesitation. He embodies an elephant’s methodical, steady, and gentle strength.

I sigh deeply, lean back on the pillow, and stare at the ceiling knowing my melancholy is due to worry over some creative projects I’ve recently taken on. As I continue talking to Mike, I absent-mindedly watch a small black spider slide up and down an invisible thread directly over the bed. It stops to dangle two feet above my head.

It takes a few seconds before the spider’s appearance sinks in. Mike peers around the bathroom corner wondering why I stopped speaking mid-sentence. I point to the spider over my head, my eyes wide, not in fear, but amazement.

I’d just learned from the video that spiders symbolize a strong feminine energy associated with creativity, balance, and connection. Charlotte, the obvious name I give the spider, synchronistically dropped in to offer me reassurance and confidence. Just as a spider has the ability to weave beautiful intricate webs, she reminds me of my own innate creativity. On a metaphorical level, the spider guides me to integrate the individual threads of my life into a coherent and meaningful work of art.

I allow Mike to place the spider outside the bedroom window. I tell Charlotte goodbye and vow to be more aware of animals that come into my life and grateful for the elegant wisdom they can bring. §

“Animals share with us the privilege of having a soul.”
~Pythagoras

(Click here to watch Christina Lopes’ video on spirit animals: https://youtu.be/5e00XKNcdCY)

The Elegance of Courteous Driving

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngIt’s a beautiful morning, and I’m sitting at a red light waiting to turn left. My car window is down and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy quietly plays on the radio. When the light turns green, the driver behind me continuously blares her horn while I wait for a string of oncoming cars to pass. Once I’m able to safely turn, the car speeds around me and the driver gives me the infamous one-finger salute and angrily tosses her cigarette towards me.

Aggressive driving is extremely common and has increased in recent years. In a survey by the American Automobile Association, 80 percent of drivers reported committing at least one act of aggressive driving in the last year, including tailgating, yelling, or honking to show annoyance with another driver. The most common reasons given for driving aggressively include being upset, stress, running late, and anger.  

When taken to the extreme, aggressive driving is known as road rage, and the statistics are sobering. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, in 2021, aggressive driving was the cause of 66 percent of traffic fatalities. It was the deadliest year for road rage with an average of 44 people per month shot and killed or wounded during a road rage incident. Road rage deaths due to gun violence have doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels.  

There are some specific things we can do to prevent becoming a victim of road rage. According to WebMD, never return rude gestures or show anger toward an aggressive driver. Don’t make eye contact, as this can further stimulate the perpetrator’s rage. Stay behind a driver displaying aggressive or dangerous behavior. These responses might go against our gut reaction, but they could defuse a deadly situation. 

So what can we do to bring more elegance to our own driving? Inspired by Town and Country magazine’s long-running etiquette column, Car and Driver magazine compiled a list of forty gracious driving rules. Here are ten ways to be a more courteous driver and return civility to our roads and highways.

  1. Don’t drive under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or emotional distress.
  2. Give driving your full attention.
  3. Use your car horn judiciously.  
  4. Use your turn signals.
  5. Pull over for emergency vehicles.
  6. Obey speed limits and other traffic signs. 
  7. Yield to pedestrians.
  8. Don’t throw trash, including cigarette butts, out car windows. 
  9. Give helpful drivers a wave of thanks. 
  10. If another driver is inconsiderate, take the high road.  

National Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, recently said our country is experiencing “a national crisis of fatalities and injuries on our roadways.” Elegant, courteous behavior isn’t just a nice idea. It’s a habit that can save lives, and there’s no better place to practice elegance than while driving. §

“Show respect even to people that don’t deserve it;
not as a reflection of their character, but as a reflection of yours.” 

~ Dave Willis

 

“13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do” ~ a Book Review

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I picked up Amy Morin’s book because of the title, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. I bought it because of the dedication on the first page, “To all who strive to become better today than they were yesterday.” I do believe living an elegant life includes a desire to be our best, and it all starts in our minds.

Morin, a licensed clinical social worker, college psychology instructor, and psychotherapist, published 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do in 2014. It’s a book I take from my shelf time and again. Sometimes I just need a quick reminder of the thirteen don’ts. Other times, I settle in for a deep-dive into one of the lessons. (I’ve practically memorized Chapter 5; the struggle is real!)  

The 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do ~

  1. They don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves.
  2. They don’t give away their power.
  3. They don’t shy away from change.
  4. They don’t focus on things they can’t control.
  5. They don’t worry about pleasing everyone.
  6. They don’t fear taking calculated risks.
  7. They don’t dwell on the past.
  8. They don’t make the same mistakes over and over.
  9. They don’t resent other people’s success.
  10. They don’t give up after the first failure
  11. They don’t fear alone time.
  12. They don’t feel the world owes them anything.
  13. They don’t expect immediate results. 

Each chapter fully examines the idea and gives strategies for developing more positive thoughts and behavior in everyday situations. In the conclusion, Morin writes that mental strength isn’t about being the best at everything, earning the most money, or achieving the biggest accomplishments.

“Instead, developing mental strength means knowing that you’ll be okay no matter what happens,” she writes. “When you become mentally strong, you will be your best self, have the courage to do what’s right, and develop a true comfort with who you are and what you are capable of achieving.” §

“Developing mental strength is about improving your ability to regulate your emotions, manage your thoughts, and behave in a positive manner, despite your circumstances.”
~Amy Morin

 

The Elegance of Soft Skills

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Employees who possess soft skills are highly valued in the workplace. Soft skills can be defined as personal attributes that enable us to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. In a 2021 report from Linkedin, 92 percent of hiring professionals said soft skills matter as much or more than hard skills, such as degrees and specific proficiencies. As much as soft skills are beneficial in the business world, they are equally essential for a happy life outside of work. 

There is no single definitive list of soft skills, but it usually includes things like kindness, teamwork, and honesty. Apparently soft skills are so lacking in the workplace, that companies are willing to spend a lot of money each year teaching them. The global soft skills training market is expected to reach around 43 billion dollars a year by 2026.

One can hardly discuss soft skills without wondering why these traits are so hard to come by. Perhaps they used to be more widely taught in homes and churches. Maybe community leaders are failing to lead by example. It could be a result of increased technology and social media. Some might find fault with the schools. 

Interestingly, I started teaching in 1985 when junior highs across the country were transitioning to middle schools. This wasn’t just a new name. The middle school philosophy placed enormous emphasis on the emotional and social development of students in grades six through eight. An integral part of the middle school concept was a daily thirty-minute period focusing on affective education, in other words, soft skills. When I retired thirty years later, most middle schools had abandoned that part of the curriculum in what I saw as a response to heightened concern about yearly test scores. After all, there’s only so much time within a school day. 

There are probably multiple reasons our society is failing to foster the proper development of soft skills, and we might all share a little of the blame. Like anything, if we’d like to see a change, we can start with the man in the mirror. Being more aware of our own soft skills could start a spark that spreads to others. 

It is notable that many business people don’t like the term soft skills. Some prefer to call them interpersonal skills. Seth Godin calls them real skills. Simon Sinek likes the term human skills. I tend to think we are simply talking about good manners. In a review of more than a dozen articles, these ten ideas were repeatedly suggested to improve our soft skills.

  1. Be a good listener.
  2. Be positive.
  3. Be friendly and avoid gossip.
  4. Pay attention to body language.
  5. Be a problem-solver.
  6. Speak clearly.
  7. Be punctual.
  8. Show integrity by having strong moral principles.
  9. Manage conflict in healthy ways. 
  10. Show empathy. 

Whether we practice these skills at work, home, or wherever life take us, soft skills can go a long way in increasing everyday elegance. §

“There is no accomplishment so easy to acquire as politeness, and none more profitable.”
~ George Bernard Shaw

Back-to-School Poem ~ “Sharp”

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngThis poem is dedicated to our grandson, Hudson, who is excited about second grade and just a little worried about learning multiplication. 

Sharp
by Alicia Woodward

new yellow no. 2
meets metal sharpener
a tiny hand turns the crank 

simple wood and graphite   
hold lessons of the past 
and dreams of the future

an elegant invention
for a lifetime of
silvery etchings 

letters and words
facts and figures
thoughts and ideas

the other end a reminder
mistakes are expected
that’s how we learn §

“Everybody makes mistakes, that’s why they put erasers on pencils.”
~Tommy Lasorda

The Elegance of Sympatheia

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngA television news anchor broke down in tears while interviewing a Ukrainian father whose wife and two children were killed while trying to escape their city under siege. I know I’m not the only viewer who wept with them. In that moment, we were experiencing what the ancient Greeks called sympatheia, an elegant concept that all things are mutually woven together and have an affinity for each other.

Sympatheia reminds us we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. You’ve probably seen a photo called The Blue Marble. It is an image of Earth taken fifty years ago by the Apollo 17 crew on their way to the Moon. It was shot 18,000 miles from our planet and is one of the most reproduced images in history. About the photo, astronomer Carl Sagan said, “There is perhaps no better a demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” 

This summer the James Webb Space Telescope, a 10 billion dollar satellite located a million miles away, is sending us celestial images I can barely fathom. According to NASA, the very faintest blips of light in the photos are of galaxies as they existed more than 13 billion years ago. The images confirm for me that we are part of an incomprehensibly elegant universe. 

Maybe you’ve had a similar feeling standing on the ocean shore, on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or under a million stars in the vast night sky. This oceanic feeling happens when we allow ourselves to have a zoomed-out perspective. It’s then we experience a feeling of awe and realization that we are very small, but part of something incomprehensibly big.  

Stoic philosophy is rooted in the concept of sympatheia. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.” The Stoics understood we are essentially all the same. We all suffer and cry, love and laugh, live and die. Sympatheia allows us to understand that our actions affect one another. 

Ryan Holiday, author and host of the podcast The Daily Stoic said, “We are all unified and share the same substance. We breathe the same air. We share the same hopes and dreams. We are all descended from the same. And this is true no matter what race you are, no matter where you come from, or what you believe.” 

My guess is sympatheia doesn’t come naturally to our selfish egos. Of course, we look out for number one. We probably care about family and those immediately around us. We might even feel a duty to those who look like us, live like us, and think like us. Sympatheia takes some work. 

If we contemplate the photos coming to us from the James Webb Telescope and hold that zoomed-out perspective, our connection and responsibility grow. We can see we are part of an interconnected world, where everything and everyone is united in a delicate relationship. It is this connection to each other that can push us to be and do what’s good, not just for a part, but for the whole.

Aurelius wrote, “The universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other, with an eye toward mutual benefit and never for harm.” In the big picture, our differences are insignificant. What unites us is our sameness. Our universe, our planet, and our humanity depend on the elegance of sympatheia. §

“That which is not good for the bee-hive, cannot be good for the bees.”
~Marcus Aurelius