Closing Doors, Changing Paths, and Making Decisions

(Illustration by Mary Engelbreit)

If you’ve ever bought or sold a house you know the stressful process culminates in what’s called a closing. I never thought much about that name until this week when my husband and I sat around a big table, a circle of pens in hand, and gently closed the door to our old life.

It’s said, “When one door closes, another door opens.” Funny that quote comes from Alexander Graham Bell, because I really did hear a call to move in a different direction. Impossible-to-miss signs, nudges, and whispers were placed on my heart making it the easiest decision I ever made.

That’s saying a lot, because I’m the worst at decision-making. I’m always the last to order at a restaurant as I agonize over the menu. I used to change clothes several times before heading off to work. I recently stared at a display of paint samples for an embarrassing length of time deciding what shade of light blue to paint our bedroom.

Knowing my habit of second-guessing, I once framed a cute Mary Engelbreit poster of someone striding down a path with a knapsack. There is a sign at the fork in the road. One arrow reads, “Your life.” The other reads, “No longer an option.” Its light-hearted message helped me approach my decisions with more confidence.

No poetry-lover could see that poster of two paths and not think of Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both, and be one traveler long I stood, and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth…”

I taught that poem for nearly thirty years. Having recited it hundreds of times, you’d think the poem would lose its impact on me. But no, when I come to the last stanza, my voice always trembles. “I shall be telling this with a sigh. Somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Growing up, my daughter’s favorite Disney princess was Pocohontas. Over and over we watched Pocohontas turn to Grandmother Willow for advice about which path to take in life. The beautiful old willow tree sang her words of wisdom, “Listen with your heart, you will understand. Let it break upon you like a wave upon the sand. Listen with your heart, you will understand.”

We all face decisions every day. When we follow our hearts and listen for divine direction, big decisions become infinitely easier. We can confidently choose which doors to close, which ones to walk through, and which paths to take with no regrets and no looking back. §

.

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. §

The Joy of Overcoming Obstacles

After a stormy night, the trail I walk each morning was scattered with sticks and debris. As I hiked along the wooded path, I picked up a dozen large limbs and heaved them to the side in a gesture of goodwill towards the next traveler.

The warming sun sent smoky shafts of light through the cool forest mist. The soaking rain intensified the heady smell of pine straw carpeting the trail. My eyes remained on my feet to avoid slipping on the muddy slopes.

I came to a stop when I looked up to see a huge oak tree had fallen across my path. The trunk, three feet in diameter, hung precariously over the trail and stretched about forty feet each direction into the thick woods.

Ducking under the tree seemed unwise. Crawling over it wouldn’t be easy. I briefly considered turning around. Then stepping forward, I heard myself say, “The obstacle is the way.”

It was the title of a book I’d just read. Author Ryan Holiday draws on the ancient philosophy of Stoicism to encourage readers to face life’s challenges with resilience. Holiday writes, “Whatever we face, we have a choice: Will we be blocked by obstacles, or will we advance through and over them?”

Deciding a fallen tree wouldn’t stop my daily hike,  I stretched one leg on top of the trunk, grabbed hold of the thick bark to pull myself up and over and dropped ungracefully to the the other side. My arms and legs were dirty and scraped, but I felt surprisingly good.

When I reached the blocked path the next day, I crawled on the tree trunk and stood up to take in a higher view of the woods before jumping to the other side. This morning, I walked up and down the full length of the trunk like a balance beam. The fallen tree had become the best part of my morning.

Holiday believes overcoming obstacles in life requires the discipline of three critical steps:

1. Perception – How we view what happens around us can be a source of strength or weakness.

2. Action – We can always choose to act with deliberation, boldness and persistence.

3. Will – We have an internal power we shouldn’t allow the outside world to undermine.

Take notice of obstacles in your life. They may come in the form of disappointment, difficulty, rejection, injury, injustice, illness or heartbreak. When an obstacle appears – large or small – notice how you react to it. Do you accept it? Do you face it with grace and resilience? The good news is if we don’t handle it well, we will certainly get another chance to try again, because obstacles are a part of life.

More than 2,000 years ago, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

I know the folks who maintain the hiking trail will eventually remove the fallen tree, but until then, it remains a fun daily reminder that the obstacle is the way. §

Less Garbage More Love – a short story written by my son

This story was written by my son, Mac Griffin, who kindly let me share it here.

Again, I forget to take the trash to the curb, so I begin the recurring process of taking it to the dump. I pull the trash cans from the backyard to the driveway and heave them into the back of my truck. By this time, self-defeating thoughts pile up in my mind like the trash spilling from the cans.

Driving to the dump, the negative voices continue. You idiot. How hard is it to remember to take out the trash? My dog, Maverick, sits in the passenger seat. I bring him along for emotional support. His head hangs out the window, drool flying out of his mouth.

I realize Maverick is having a great time. So why is it so terrible for me? The trip to the dump takes only thirty minutes and brings me out for a ride in the sunshine with my best friend. As we pull around the corner a couple of blocks from the dump, I begin to toss the rubbish from my head and allow it to be filled with the sounds of Led Zeppelin blaring through my speakers.

On the corner an old man sits in a lawn chair and waves to the cars passing through the intersection. As I approach the stop sign, I raise my hand in a subtle hello. The man gives me an exaggerated wave, like a person waving to loved ones from the deck of a boat in a cheesy romantic comedy. As I pass he yells, “God bless you!”

On most days I would have responded differently to this man. I’m not religious. Your words have no meaning to me. On this day, however, I feel gratitude. Why disregard love just because it comes from an unfamiliar place? Here’s a man taking time from his day to spread kindness through his community. His belief about the source of love doesn’t really matter. Love is real, and he is sharing it.

This positive mindset is unusual for my brain, which usually hovers between cynicism and criticism, as a hummingbird hovers between two gloomy flowers. I like this feeling. I enjoy stripping the man’s words down to their essence and accepting them graciously.

The man doesn’t seem to care if anyone reciprocates what he has to offer. He cares about giving his neighbors something we need – solidarity, support and love. No, his words don’t erase the pain of losing your job or the fear of not knowing how you’ll pay the rent, but they remind you you’re not alone.

Especially during this uncertain time, I realize we really are all in this together. Perhaps we’re not in the same boat, some having yachts and others barely staying afloat on a piece of driftwood, but if we recognize we are navigating the same waters, we can begin to conquer the waves together.

After I dump the trash, I climb back in the truck, give Maverick a pat and turn up Zeppelin, grateful to be carrying less garbage and more love. §

Thank Goodness Some Things Never Change

While we hold our collective, anxious breath and nervously adjust to the challenges of a pandemic, nature seems blissfully above it all. The sun still rises in the east and sets in the west. The moon still lights the darkness, and the Earth still steadily spins. Thankfully, some things never change.

Everything from school to restaurants to sporting events is cancelled or closed, but nothing is stopping nature from putting on its annual spring show. “That is one good thing about this world,” wrote author Lucy Maud Montgomery, “there are always sure to be more springs.”

Robins have returned with their round orange bellies. They poke their beaks into ever-warming ground with delight. Forsythia bushes bloom in wild sprays of yellow. Willow trees glow with a promising haze of green. Daffodils, crocus and purple snowdrops decorate tired brown corners with cheerful bouquets.

At a time when nothing seems certain, it’s as if nature understands the importance of offering something beautiful on which we can depend. The familiar signs of spring urge us to take notice of other comforts and joys we tend to take for granted.

We still have running water and electricity. There is plenty of food and, despite our concern, enough toilet paper. A free press keeps us well-informed. We stay in touch with loved ones through phones and computers. We borrow a tool from one neighbor and lend an egg to another.

We still sleep, work, play, talk, worry, love and laugh. Some things never change.

We know life may get worse before it gets better. If history tells us anything, we can trust the better angels of humanity will prevail. We will help each other and count on each other just as we can count on the sun to come up each morning.

No one could argue the joys of a pandemic, but it could bring us a positive shift in perspective and gratitude. Poet May Sarton wrote, “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.”

Tonight, billions of stars will shine in our universe and billions of prayerful faces will look up to make a surprisingly similar wish. Some things never change. §

The Goodness of Snow

Freshly falling snow always takes me back to my first memory of its beauty and inspires me to embrace its goodness.

It was a sunny Easter morning, and I woke up as happy and light as a five-year-old could be. Wearing my bunny nightgown, I stepped into our tiny blue bathroom and gasped. Just outside the window was a bright orange robin perched on a branch covered in white. She chirped excitedly, “Snow! Snow! SnowSnowSnow!” 

Standing on my tip-toes and peering over the window ledge, my whole world glittered. The smell of dad’s shaving cream lingered in the bathroom. The fluffy layer covering every budding tree limb and blade of new grass looked as if it came from a can of Old Spice. I was certain it smelled just as clean and fresh, and I could hardly wait to scoop up a handful and hold it to my nose…

The old memory melted away as I noticed it was snowing harder. Thick snowflakes floated to the ground in slow-motion whispering these magical words.

Soft…

In his poem The Dream Keeper, Langston Hughes spoke of the “too-rough fingers of the world.” A dear friend recently confided that the world was making her hard. I understood her concern, but I know better. My friend has the kind of heart that will allow her to stay soft. The more jagged and edgy the world becomes, the more I want to be a softer presence.

Pure…

Purity is synonymous with virtue, goodness, integrity, honesty and decency. We are never going to be perfect, but aiming to live a life of good character isn’t old-fashioned or unsophisticated. We have a choice about what we listen to, watch, read, say, do and even think. Being aware of what we put into our heads and hearts helps us reflect what we value.

Gentle…

St. Francis de Sales wrote, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness and nothing is so gentle as real strength.” My husband is one of the most gentle human beings I know. He inspires me to be more tender in my actions, interactions and reactions. We can learn to be gentle without being a pushover or a doormat.

Quiet…

It’s a noisy world. Restaurants are so loud it’s impossible to converse. Music thumps from the car in the next lane. Shoppers blab into cell phones while roaming store aisles. People interrupt to make their point. It’s useless to shout over the din. It’s said if you want someone’s attention, whisper.

Grace…

The freshly fallen snow makes everything appear perfect and beautiful, not the slushy dirty mess that is real life. Perhaps a beautiful snowfall is nature’s reminder of the grace that falls down on us to cover our imperfections, heal our hurts and return us to the innocence of a child amazed by her first snow. §

Holding On

Winter uses a stark palette to paint our landscape of bare trees densely covering rolling hills. A few strokes of green capture ever-faithful pines, but a surprising touch is the rich copper of beech tree leaves still holding on in late February.

Step into the scene and listen. You’ll hear the brittle leaves shake like maracas, growing loud and lively in the blowing wind. Winter is no match for the tenacity of these leaves. They keep dancing and singing despite the cold, rain, sleet and snow.

There’s a scientific explanation why some deciduous trees retain their leaves through the winter. It’s called marcescence, but maybe it’s just much-needed encouragement from nature to keep holding on.

Sometimes we hold on in anticipation of something wonderful.

A woman awaits the birth of her baby. A bride awaits her wedding day. A child awaits a birthday. A prayer is finally answered. Life is marked by joyous celebrations. The wait can be excruciating, but we have to be patient. We must hold on.

Sometimes we hold on to make it through a difficult time.

A busy mother comes to the end of another long day. A student faces an all-nighter during finals week. A patient counts down the number of chemo treatments. A broken heart takes time to heal. Life has its challenges, trials and grief, but we can’t give up. We must hold on.

Sometimes we simply hold on for the arrival of spring.

Like marcescent leaves, we bravely turn our faces to another cold, gray day and cling a little tighter. The icy wind grabs and shakes us, but we don’t let go. We let it become the music to which we dance and sing, knowing that spring will come eventually, just as it always does. We must hold on.

Even if you live in a climate that doesn’t have you longing for spring, you understand it metaphorically. There are seasons in each of our lives which we just have to wait out with courage and hope. These are the times we must hold on.

The penny-colored leaves of the beech tree show us the way. §

A Change of Heart

Winter allows us to witness the miracle of change in real time. Last week our cove was covered with a sheet of ice. Yesterday a caldron of steam brewed and hovered over thick gray slush. Today ducks swim and splash in crystal clear water. It’s fascinating to watch the lake transform from liquid to gas to solid and back again.

The fact is, everything with mass and weight is made of matter and all matter can change. Stars and planets, butterflies and birds, rocks and rivers, you and I are all made of matter. Which means we all have the ability to change ~ a little or a lot.

Winston Churchill said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

Literature is filled with dynamic characters who undergo a positive transformation. Ebenezer Scrooge, the Beast, Daddy Warbucks and everyone off to see the Wizard are just a few well-known characters who by the end of the story change for the better.

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

History is marked by people whose change of heart changed the world. Rosa Parks bravely changed her mind about sitting in the back of the bus. The Apostle Paul saw the light on the road to Damascus. Abraham Lincoln’s views on the evils of slavery evolved.

Call it flip-flopping, but George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

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

Some say a leopard doesn’t change its spots. Certainly we must be wise in our interactions, but we can always leave the door open for change. We can start by looking for the loveliness in ourselves and in others. We can break our own self-defeating and hurtful habits. We can have hope that the people we care about can and will do the same.

Past injustices, political division, discouraging headlines, personal challenges, fear and pure stubbornness can make us as cold as ice. Maybe the lake’s dramatic transformation is nature’s way of reminding us to let our hearts melt a little, show grace, and have faith that we can continuously learn, grow and change into the best version of ourselves. §

Tuning-In to Abundance

Armed with one reusable shopping bag and a list of eight necessities, I pushed the big red cart into the store determined to stay focused. I could have been in and out in less than fifteen minutes, but before I knew it my eyes glazed over, and I found myself wandering down aisle after aisle in a trance.

I tried on fuzzy mittens, held coffee mugs, imagined new wall art, smelled candles, touched furry blankets, marveled at high-tech gadgets, and admired twinkling holiday decorations. Lipgloss, pot holders and a scarf were final contenders to fill my cart and my vague longing for something more.

I snapped out of it when I heard a child stomp her feet and wail, “I want it!” I made it to the check-out line with only the items on my list and an unpleasant feeling I couldn’t really name. Dissatisfaction? Anxiety? Emptiness? As much as I wanted to shake the feeling, I wanted to understand it.

As I drove the country roads back home, the word scarcity came to mind. In economics, scarcity describes the result of having limited resources but unlimited wants. It occurred to me the word sounds like scare.

Was it fear I was feeling? Was I afraid I left all the good stuff back at the store? Was I afraid of not having enough? Was I afraid of not being enough?

The opposite of scarcity is abundance. The late Wayne Dyer wrote, “Abundance is not something we acquire. It is something we tune-in to.” Something we tune-in to. 

Looking out the car windows, I focused on nature to soothe my restless heart. A flock of a thousand blackbirds flew in a dizzying black dotted pattern across the sky. A forest of  trees covered rolling hills as far as my eye could see. Bales and bales of hay lined a freshly-harvested field. A herd of more than a dozen deer grazed along the roadside. Abundance. 

I opened the door to our house. Its sturdy roof, walls and windows provide us shelter. It is warm, safe and comfortable. Abundance. 

Clear, potable water flows from the sink, shower and washing machine. Heat and air regulate the temperature. Lights come on with a flick of a switch. Abundance. 

Bowls of fresh produce sit on the kitchen counter. The refrigerator is full. Pantry shelves are lined with cans and jars. Abundance. 

In the closet are multiple pairs of pants, shirts, dresses, coats and shoes. Abundance.

The mirror reflects a healthy, happy person who is free, loved and loving. Abundance. 

The uneasy, inadequate feeling marketers expertly targeted in me disappeared. I was filled with thanksgiving and blessed assurance that all I have is all I need. §

Parking Lot Rainbows

Most of us have had the chance to visit a place of magnificent beauty. Maybe you stood in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon, watched dolphins frolic in ocean waves, hiked to a waterfall on a snowcapped mountain, or gazed at the northern lights. Those experiences become etched in our memory and remind us of the grandeur of our world, but natural beauty can be found almost anywhere. The wise and wonderful Maya Angelou wrote, “Open your eyes to the beauty around you. Open your mind to the wonders of life.”

I recently ran into the grocery store in a cold, driving rain. I struggled to control my umbrella as the wind blew it inside out. Sloshing and shivering through the aisles, the shoppers’ expressions looked as worn and tired as their winter coats. When I left the store, I was stunned to see the sky awash in a surreal post-storm glow and a full rainbow stretch over rows and rows of dirty cars. The parking lot was filled with people who stopped their carts and smiled heavenward.

Just this week, a surprise gift from nature brought comfort and joy to my mom and me. After 24-hours in the emergency room, she was taken by ambulance to a hospital an hour away. I followed in my car, accompanied by an immense orange sun that transformed the sky into an entertaining show of vibrant color until dramatically sinking into a cornfield. When I met my mom in her hospital room she quietly said, “Did you see the sunset? I watched it all the way here through the ambulance window.” In a time of distress, my mother chose to open her eyes to the beauty around her. I feel sure such a positive attitude will help her heal after unexpected surgeries.

There are natural wonders of the world that you and I may never see. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Africa’s Victoria Falls, and the Himalaya’s Mount Everest probably won’t become entries in my travel journal, but there are still amazing everyday sights to be seen.

In her book Open Your Eyes, Alexandra Stoddard wrote, “I’ve found most people go through life half blind. Few really know how to see and as a result are unaware of the majesty and beauty around them. But seeing can be learned, and to those who learn to see well, the world becomes an entirely different place. ”

As we make our way through our days, we can look for natural wonders wherever we may find ourselves. Daisies pushing through sidewalk cracks, chickadees singing on porch railings, clouds in the shape of a heart, and parking lot rainbows seem to show up when most needed to bring happiness, encouragement, and hope to those who open their eyes. §