The Elegance of the Lenten Rose

img_1010Easter has arrived, and our table is set with a vase of exquisite little flowers that have been miraculously blooming in our backyard since February. This enchanting flower has a rich history that includes mystery, danger, and above all, the promise held in the breast of this beautiful season.

Shortly after we moved into our southern Illinois home last winter, I noticed an odd patch of deep green foliage. I did a double-take when, through a frosty window, I thought I saw a flower blooming. I put on my boots and trudged through several inches of snow to investigate. Sure enough, a dark mauve blossom was peeking out under a thick blanket of white.

I gasped at the sight and was filled with curiosity. I knew the flower wasn’t an early-blooming snowdrop or crocus. A little research revealed the mysterious flower was a Lenten rose, known to gardeners as hellebore from the Latin hellenborus orientalis. Not a rose at all, this hardy perennial with evergreen leaves and a variety of colorful blossoms is part of the buttercup family. What a story this flower tells!

Helleborus means “injure food” in Greek. Yes, this pretty flower is poisonous. The Greeks were known to use it in battle to poison another city’s drinking water. Many scholars believe Alexander the Great died from a poisonous dose of hellebore. It’s also said that King Arthur’s sister, Morgan Le Faye, made an evil concoction of hellebore and gave it to Guinevere to prevent her from being able to conceive.

In ancient times, smaller doses of hellebore were used to treat a range of illness including insanity. In Greek mythology, it’s told King Argo’s daughters were driven so mad by Dionysus they ran naked in the streets mooing like cows. As time passed, the madness increased and spread to other women in the village. The healer Melampus gave the women hellebore in milk to restore their sanity. (Something tells me a ladies’ night out would have had the same effect.)

It seems our tenacious little flower was also a favorite of witches during medieval times. Old world witches were famous for using it to make their magical flying ointment. They rubbed the hellebore salve all over themselves and took off flying. Of course, the poisonous herb has hallucinogenic effects, so it’s possible they only thought they were flying!

Certain there was some dark magic involved in a flower that bloomed in winter, people in the Middle Ages threw hellebore on their floors to drive out evil influences. Many herbalists at the time believed powdered hellebore could be scattered on the ground and walked upon to render invisibility. Though they had to face east on a moonless night and hope not to be spotted by an eagle thus sealing their fate of death.

Thankfully, Victorian gardeners rescued the innocent hellebore from its more sinister and gothic attachments. Because the flower blooms during the season of Lent, the hellebore became known as the Lenten rose and was a favorite among the Victorians. In their language of flowers, known as floriography, the Lenten rose represents serenity, tranquility, and peace.

Once again our patch of Lenten roses is faithfully in full-bloom. The old palm-shaped leaves have fallen away and sizable clumps of new green foliage surround an abundance of flowers in white, yellow, pink, and purple. On sunny days, butterflies and bees dine on the yellow centers of flowers that will last well into May.

How beautiful that during Lent, a forty-day time of contemplation and preparation for Easter, the cold, dead ground can produce such a lovely flower. The bright little blossoms that fill a crystal vase seem too pretty to have such a storied past. Today, in celebration of Easter, they offer an elegant symbol of rejuvenation, renewal, and resurrection. §

“Let us rejoice!” – Psalm 118:24

The Elegance of Coloring Books & Ecclesiastes

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It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting in our sunroom in front of a bouquet of colored pencils and a coloring book for grown-ups. I open to the first page and press the book down flat in preparation to color for the first time in years.

I choose a green pencil and watch the color slowly fill an empty white space, and then another, and another. While my hand moves delicately and rhythmically, I feel my body and my heart release a long-held sigh.

After several minutes of coloring, I take notice of the quote in the center of the page ~ “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11. As I mindfully color flowers, leaves, and vines, I subconsciously reflect upon the verse.

The words dance across the page over and over with changing emphasis. “He has made everything beautiful in its time…He has made everything beautiful in its time…He has made everything beautiful in its time…He has made everything beautiful in its time.”

As my pencil makes flower petals bloom pink, I think about how desperately I want everything to be beautiful now, in my time, in my way. In a broken world, there is suffering. There is war. People disappoint. Loved ones die. We feel shame. Mama foxes are euthanized. We grieve for that which is lost and for that which never was. Life can be so inelegant.

Looking out the window, a dozen yellow finches match the flowers on my page. The hyacinths are the same shade of purple I hold in my hand. My husband waves as he mows the grass that has finally turned spring green. God colored our world with so much beauty, but it isn’t perfect. By design, it isn’t perfect.

I finish the coloring page and look at it with scrutiny. Oops, that should have been blue. Oh, I went out of the lines there. I close my eyes and reopen them with more faith and acceptance. No, it isn’t perfect, but it sure is beautiful. §

“You can’t be sad when you’re coloring.”
~ a six year old

The Elegance of Impressionism ~ 6 Ways To Live Like an Artist This Spring

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Spring is fickle here in the Midwest. It flirts and teases us with lovely days, but we’re never surprised by its capricious nature. On this cold and rainy April morning, I’m curled in front of the fireplace with a favorite book about Impressionist art. Admiring cheerful works with names like Water Lilies, Afternoon Tea, and The White Orchard, I disappear in the verdant beauty of springtime scenes and dream of these six ways to be inspired by the elegance of Impressionism.

1. Let nature inspire. Nature and Impressionism go hand-in-hand. The movement began with a few Parisian painters who went to the countryside to capture the transient effects of sunlight. The idea of painting en plein air, or outdoors, was a dramatic departure from painting in studios. Claude Monet said, “The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.” This spring be sure to enjoy nature with a picnic, a neighborhood stroll, or a good book read under a tree.

2. Appreciate ordinary moments. Impressionists painted candid glimpses of everyday people at work and play ~ a bowl of fruit, friends having lunch, a walk in the garden. Their work is a reminder to appreciate the significance and beauty in everyday rituals and pastimes. How sweet is the ritual of waking to the chirping of birds and taking a few minutes to listen to their springtime song.

3. Color your world. “Color in a picture is like enthusiasm in life,” said Vincent Van Gogh. The Impressionists valued pure, brilliant, and saturated pigments. They developed a method of painting that celebrated light, movement, and vibrant color. Nothing says spring like flowers. I love filling our home with colorful blooms and wearing floral blouses and dresses.

4. Loosen up a little. Impressionism was spontaneous and informal in style and subject. The artists broke away from serious historical and mythological themes. Instead, they freely painted contemporary subjects with visible, colorful brush strokes that weren’t carefully blended or shaded. The result was a joyful impression of real life. This season begs us to lighten up and skip, hop, or twirl like a child.

5. Be open to new ideas. The Impressionists, who preferred to be called Independents, faced harsh opposition and criticism from the established art community. They were considered radicals who broke every rule of the French Academy of Fine Arts. Rejected by the Salon de Paris, the annual state-sponsored art show, the artists held their own show in 1874. As it turned out, they were on to something the art world would eventually embrace. Spring is a good time to soften our hearts and reconsider some of our tired, stuffy thinking.

6. Make it pretty. Perhaps what draws me most to Impressionism is an underlying philosophy about creating a beautiful life in the midst of challenges. Pierre-Auguste Renoir said, “To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.” This spring, let’s fill our lives with as much simple beauty as possible.

I know springtime will eventually come to stay and quickly melt into summer. The trees will regain their splendor, perennials will magically bloom, and life will imitate art. Until then, I need only escape with a few of my favorite Impressionists, either through a book or a trip to the museum, to paint my life with the elegance of an artist.§

“All of a sudden I had the revelation of how enchanting my little pond was.” ~ Claude Monet

Poetry for Ukraine ~ a Haiku

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“Mourning Dove”

cooing mourning dove
iridescent wings of mauve

softly prays for peace

~Alicia Woodward

“Faith is the bird that sings when the dawn is still dark.”
~Rabindranath Tagore

Read Alicia’s previous poems for Ukraine:
“With the Strength of Snowdrops” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/02
“War Can Turn to Peace”  https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/09
“Innocence” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/16
“An Elegant Response to War” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/23
“The Sky” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/30

The Elegance of National Poetry Month

IMG_1039April is the loveliest month for hopeless romantics with a penchant for all things spring. Add National Poetry Month to the calendar, and it’s enough to make this former literature teacher’s heart skip a beat.

A perfect spring day allowed me to take my classes outside to teach a poem among the birds and the bees and eighth grade hormones in full bloom. There’s nothing quite like reading poetry with young hearts inspired by dreamy talk of love and life. My teaching days are behind me now, but I will forever celebrate two of my favorite things in April – springtime and poetry.

Launched by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is a reminder of the integral role poetry plays in our culture. National Poetry Month has grown to become the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of participants of all ages marking poetry’s importance in our lives.

There’s an extensive website at poets.org that offers activities and resources so anyone can join in the celebration. Discover dozens of ways to participate in National Poetry Month and sign-up for a free Poem-a-Day. Follow thousands of events through social media with the official hashtag #NationalPoetryMonth and follow the Academy of American Poets on Twitter and Instagram @POETSorg.

The arrival of spring, along with National Poetry Month, may be just the one-two punch we all need to get through a time of unrelenting shared worries and sorrows. Poetry can help us express our emotions and fills our heads and hearts with loftier thoughts. Our country’s Poet Laureate Joy Harjo said, “Without poetry, we lose our way.”

As birds sing their springtime song and faithful flowers pop up to say hello again, poetry can remind us of the peaceful rhythm of nature and that nothing we experience is unique to the human condition.

Let words like these from William Wordsworth’s 1804 poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud soothe your soul and breathe elegance into your day, “For oft when on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood, they flash upon that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude, and then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils!” §

“If you cannot be the poet, be the poem.” ~ David Carradine

Poetry for Ukraine ~ “The Sky”

IMG_1318“The Sky”

The sky belongs to the hazy moon and to the glowing sun
It wasn’t made for fighter jets, bursting bombs, or guns

That sacred space is for the birds to glide on wings and soar
It’s unnatural to be the scene of destruction, hate, or war

The place where God put rainbows, stars, and butterflies
Does not belong to greedy men and self-important lies

A peaceful sphere for passing clouds and for the gentle wind
Is best reserved for reverie and flying kites with friends

The wild blue yonder holds for us a promise up above
It’s good for prayers and wishes and hopeful thoughts of love

The heavens have watched over us since the dawn of time
When we are at our very worst and moments when we shine

The sky belongs to angels and people who can fly
For those set free from earthly woes and gravity defy §

-Alicia Woodward

Note regarding this poem’s allusion to “people who can fly” ~
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales is the title of a book written by Virginia Hamilton in 1985. It is a collection of 24 folktales including one called The People Could Fly. In this tale, slaves sing ancient African words and magically fly away to freedom. I’d like to believe people bound by chains of oppression, illness, addiction, disease, or poverty can defy all odds and break free. Maybe strength comes in  knowing these are only earthly chains and will not last forever.

Read Alicia’s previous poems for Ukraine:
“With the Strength of Snowdrops” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/02
“War Can Turn to Peace”  https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/09
“Innocence” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/16
“An Elegant Response to War” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/23

“I thank you God for this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.”
~ e. e. cummings

The Elegance of Being a Fountain ~ 10 ways not to be a drain

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My friend Lisa, who lives in Arizona, texted me a picture of her front porch this week. She and her husband placed a small Ukrainian flag on their garden gate and decorated each side with cheerful sunflowers. “They’re Ukraine’s national flower,” she told me. When I clicked on the “live” photo, I briefly heard her porch fountain trickling joyfully. I immediately thought how my friend epitomizes the expression, “Be a fountain, not a drain!”

Lisa and I have known each other since junior high, but we’ve grown closer the past several years. She became a loyal supporter of my blog, and our friendship has blossomed over shared interests and views on life. I must admit, Lisa is more naturally positive and upbeat than I, and she inspires me to emulate her optimistic and elegant demeanor. The personal photo she texted me demonstrated her caring, empathetic nature, and the unmistakable sound of her garden fountain doubled its grace.

I love fountains, and I know Lisa does, too. The sound of running water and inherent symbolism bring us comfort and joy. Leonardo da Vinci said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” Life can’t exist without water, and many of us find peace in its sight and sound. When I see a fountain, I hear myself humming that Sunday school hymn, “deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide…”

As she often does, my friend filled me up at a time when I could really use it. People like Lisa remind us to be a fountain, not a drain. She inspired me to sit by our own fountain and contemplate these ten ways to live more elegantly.

  1. Be calming. There are more than enough people in the world who like to stir things up and play devil’s advocate. Let your presence be a calming and helpful influence.
  2. Be energetic. The water in a beautiful fountain is never dull and stagnant. Be full of energy and vitality.
  3. Be hopeful. Where there is water there is life, and life is always full of hope and promise.
  4. Be welcoming. A decorative fountain beckons all to come closer and rest in its hospitality.
  5. Be cool. Angry, hot-headed behavior seems to be acceptable these days, but try to keep your cool.
  6. Be refreshing. The world can make us weary. Do what you can to refresh your soul and pass it on.
  7. Be cheerful.  Bubbling water sounds a little like laughter. Make a joyful noise!
  8. Be gentle. Aim for your words and actions to be soothing, like water flowing from a fountain.
  9. Be clear. A fountain filled with dark, murky water loses its beauty. Be transparent and honest in your interactions.
  10. Be peaceful. There is so much conflict and disharmony in the world about which we can do little, but we can all work towards creating peace in our homes, relationships, and communities. §

Poetry for Ukraine ~ “An Elegant Response to War”

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“An Elegant Response to War”

how do I respond to war
with elegance and grace
when I know the pain and suffering
of my fellow human race

am I wrong to revel in            
the warmth and hope of spring
to laugh and dance and celebrate
the joy that living brings

do I fill my days quite blissfully
with love and peace and light
do I still thank God for all the things
that bring me such delight

is it enough to stay informed
and weep and sigh and pray
to shake my head and make a wish
for peace to come one day

how do I respond to war
with elegance and grace
would it be okay to greet the day
with a smile upon my face?

-Alicia Woodward

Read Alicia’s previous poems for Ukraine:
“With the Strength of Snowdrops” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/02
“War Can Turn to Peace”  https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/09
“Innocence” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/16

“There never was a good war or a bad peace.” – Benjamin Franklin

The Elegance of Sympatheia

A 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’re 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. 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.” 

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 Arelius 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 think about that photo of Earth and hold that zoomed-out perspective, our connection and our 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 planet. Our humanity. What if our world leaders understood and practiced the concept of sympatheia? A better question might be, what if we all did?  §

“What’s good for the hive is good for the bees.” – Marcus Aurelius

Poetry for Ukraine ~ “Innocence”

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“Innocence”

the pale blue backpack
with a Disney princess
is far too heavy 

to carry a stuffed yellow bunny
a fistful of pebbles from the yard
and a child’s dreams 

it’s an adventure
mommy says
just a game

thank you for the cookies
and scratchy blanket 

let’s go home now

to my pink bedroom
with butterflies
and daddy

is tomorrow a school day
why are you crying
who’s feeding the cat § 

– Alicia Woodward

Read Alicia’s previous poems for Ukraine:
“With the Strength of Snowdrops” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/02
“War Turns to Peace” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/09

“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” – Anne Frank