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 a Hopeful Spirit

Like a tired child, America is having a melt-down. Overwhelmed by the pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, injustice, unemployment, violence, and division, she sobs breathlessly, too distraught to make any sense at all. She needs an adult, someone like you, to pick her up and soothe her with a lullaby of hope.

Speaking of hope in times like these may seem excessively optimistic and naive, but Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try.” Where can we find hope enough to calm ourselves, let alone ease others?

First, we can find hope in our country’s history. America has pulled through many times of darkness. In his book The Soul of America, author Jon Meacham reminds us that periods of public dispiritedness are not new and offers reassurance that they are survivable. Through slavery, war, inequality, depression, and disaster, our nation has marched steadily forward to a hopeful chorus touched by what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Secondly, we can find hope in our country’s citizens. Mr. Rogers often told the story about being a young boy who was frightened by things he saw in the news. Fred’s mom told him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s as true today as it was then. Each and every day there are good people working for the well-being of others, and good people always bring out the good in people.

Finally, we can find hope in ourselves. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” The famous poem honors the individual’s capacity for hope. Think of all the times you mustered hope to get through a difficult challenge. Facing our personal trials and tribulations with a spirit of sanguinity offers inspiration to those around us.

With everything that’s going on right now, we may want to throw ourselves on the floor in an all-out temper-tantrum fueled by fear, anxiety, or anger. But we are adults, and children are watching. We must choose to face our struggles head-on while humming a song of hope. As Helen Keller said, “Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible, and achieves the impossible.”

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. §

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. §

To Everything There is a Season

As summer turns to fall, I feel an equal sense of sadness and anticipation. I will miss warm sunny days spent outdoors but look forward to cozy chilly evenings curled up by a glowing fire. Similar mixed emotions can appear when we say goodbye to one season of life and step into another.

As we travel through our lives, we are like tourists passing through towns and villages with names like childhood, adolescence, adulthood, parenthood, empty nest, retirement and old age. As much as we may wish to permanently settle in any one of those places, we must move on.

Although seasons of life are often of equal length, do you find the journey through each one speeds up as we get older? Looking back, my first twenty years or so seem to take up the most space on my personal timeline.

The same number of years spent raising my children was a blink of an eye. Thirty years as a teacher was a snap of my fingers. It’s as if I was looking out a car window and watching it pass by in a blur.

I miss it like I miss summertime.

Then I remember a favorite Bible verse ~ To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. King Solomon employs the poetic device of repetition to illustrate the ceaseless, often antithetical, changes in life.

A time to break down, and a time to build up

A time to weep, and a time to laugh

A time to mourn, and a time to dance

Solomon reminds us there are good times and bad, and just like the changing seasons, we are not in control. The verse encourages us to enjoy each season of life, no matter what it brings, and rejoice in all of our days.

Quite honestly, I spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror. Doing so can fill me with a deep sense of longing and regret that keeps me from paying attention to the road I’m on. I suspect I’m not alone in this struggle. Perhaps that’s why Ecclesiastes 3 is a compass for so many of us sojourners. We know it as scripture and as song.

Everything is made beautiful in its time, the poet goes on to say. The carefree, verdant spring and summer of our youth fade to a season when daily responsibilities, chores and chaos scatter endlessly like falling leaves. Then, quite suddenly, our days stretch before us as empty as bare branches.

It’s fine to warm ourselves with yesterday’s memories or look forward to the future, but we are wise to show acceptance, gratitude and enthusiasm for each and every day of the exact season in which we find ourselves. §

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. §