From Nature, With Love

heart swans

Nature sends the sweetest Valentines. She  gives us heart-shaped gifts in the form of clouds, seashells, and adorable puppy spots. A universal symbol of love, hearts found in nature are positively sigh-inducing.

My son was very young when he proudly gave me a rock shaped like a heart. I imagine his face beaming at its discovery while playing outside, his tiny hand quickly stuffing it in his pocket for safe-keeping. He found supplies to decorate it, outlining the rock’s shape with red poster paint and carefully painting, in blue, the word love.

It’s a gift I’ve never forgotten, and so began my beloved collection of heart rocks. For more than twenty years, nature has freely offered them. Family and friends find them on their travels and present them to me knowing I will cherish them more than any souvenir.

When my husband and I go hiking, we frequently stop to pick up a rock that catches our eye, gleaming at the bottom of a creek bed or hiding in forested nooks and rocky crannies. We carefully examine it and hold it out for the other to approve. Only those with a certain je ne sais quoi make the cut. The others are given a parting squeeze and tossed back with a wish.

My heart rock collection fills a large tray in our bedroom. There are more than a hundred, some the size of my palm, others as small as a dime. Their colors are a soothing palette of nature. They came from beaches and deserts, rivers and mountains, playgrounds and parking lots. I wonder the story of each one. How old is it? Where has it been? How did nature manage to tumble and turn it until it was shaped like love?

Photographers have captured amazing images of hearts in nature from all over the world ~ a heart-shaped beach in Brazil, a heart-shaped boulder in Joshua Tree National Park, a heart-shaped island in Croatia, even a heart-shaped crater on the surface of Mars.

While such phenomenon would be a thrill to see, I’m just as happy to spy a flock of birds flying in a heart pattern or a perfect heart-shaped leaf trailing from a houseplant.

Those who open their eyes in appreciation of nature are freely bestowed her gifts. William Wordsworth wrote this lovely sentiment about her undying affection, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” §

Note: A version of this story was published on my blog and in my local newspaper last February. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Embracing the Season of Now

My mother, daughter, and I stand next to one another in front of a sunny window. The trees outside my mom’s bedroom are bare on this crisp winter day. “The trees will be so pretty in a couple of months,” I say, instantly regretting my words.

I’m learning to accept and appreciate the unmatched beauty of the moment.

It’s easy to spend our time dreaming of the next season or reminiscing about past ones. The ages of the three women in that room span more than fifty years. Each feels a certain amount of discomfort about the season in which she finds herself.

At thirty, my daughter is in full bloom. She faces the daily excitement and anxiety of a demanding profession in a bustling city. She is a newlywed looking forward to becoming a homeowner and wondering if she will also become a mother. If not unaware, she is indifferent to her skin so soft and supple, her body so long and lithe, her mind so sharp and strong.

In the window is a hazy reflection of me between my daughter and my mom. I’m part of the sandwich generation, those of us firmly in the middle of grown children we still worry about and aging parents who need our care. I’m retired now, leaving me no real identity outside of my relationships. I look a little tired and no longer young, but I am still growing.

My mother is the most deeply rooted of us. She is a towhead little girl, a beautiful bride, a young mother, a devoted grandmother, and a grieving widow. She says she never expected to live so long and that she doesn’t want to be a burden. How I wish she understood she’s no more a burden than a stately tree that’s provided solace and shade for generations.

As if my daughter and mother can read my mind, we are silent. The significance of the three of us coming together for just a moment to look out the same window is palpable.

The trees’ myriad of branches are strong, bold, and intentional against the bright blue sky. They hold both the memory and promise of fresh blossoms and green leaves, but on this cold and clear winter day they are living fully in the season of now. §

Joie de Vivre ~ a mantra for the new year

Oleanders, the 1888 painting by Vincent Van Gogh, features a colorful vase of flowers and Emile Zola’s novel, La Joie De Vivre.

Joie de Vivre!

It’s a French phrase literally translated to mean joy of living. Pronounced  ⁄ZHwä de ‘vēvre/, it expresses an exuberant enjoyment of life. Is there another phrase that so happily rolls off the tongue? Just saying it makes me smile, and I’m excited to make it my mantra for 2021.

Rather than making resolutions, each new year I choose a word as my guiding light or touchstone for the next twelve months. The last three years, my words have been simplicity, nature, and seasons. Each word served me well as I aimed to infuse its essence into every nook and cranny of my life.

La Joie De Vivre is the title of a novel written in 1883 by Emile Zola. The main character is ten-year-old Pauline who goes to live with the Chanteaus after her parents die. The author contrasts Pauline’s optimism and open-heartedness with the negativity found in the Chanteau household. The book popularized the phrase joie de vivre as an admirable approach to life. A likeness of the novel is featured in two well-known paintings by Vincent Van Gogh.

Contemporary author Mireille Guiliano wrote, “In France we have a saying, joie de vivre, which actually doesn’t exist in the English language. It means looking at your life as something that is to be taken with great pleasure and enjoy it.” While I don’t claim to be a true Francophile, I do hope to bring this French saying to my life, especially as the new year finds me in an unexpected place and circumstance.

In thinking about how to practically incorporate this phrase into my daily round, I realize a spirit of joie de vivre can be expressed in virtually all areas of life. If I stay mindful, everything I think, say, and do can reflect a joyful appreciation for each and every day of the new year.

I look forward to seeking joy in routine rituals such as eating and dressing as well as on a deeper, more spiritual level. Galations 5:22-23 reminds us that in addition to love, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-control, gentleness, and goodness, the fruit of the spirit includes joy!

I feel sure this is the perfect season of my life to consciously embrace la joie de vivre and to remember what Walt Whitman wrote, “Happiness, not in another place, but in this place, not for another hour, but for this hour.” §

Question of the Week ~ Have you chosen a word for the new year? Please share it with us in the comment section. Wishing you a week filled with joy and a very happy new year!

Me and My Shadow – Winter Solstice inspires living more authentically

My shadow on Winter Solstice 2020

Here in the Heartland of America, the Winter Solstice couldn’t have fallen on a more beautiful December day. I took a walk in the bright sunshine without mittens or a heavy coat. I was alone, except for an exaggerated shadow that followed me playfully. Turns out we cast our longest shadow on the shortest day of the year.

As my shadow loomed next to me and mocked my every move, I felt like Peter Pan, whose shadow was a distinct character in the novel by J. M. Barrie. At its insistence, I finally stopped and addressed the figure that boldly stretched more than fifty feet across the ground as the late afternoon sun hung low in the horizon. My shadow seemed to plead, “Look at me!”

Had I been accompanied by a child or a friend with my sense of wonder, I imagine we would have jumped, posed, danced, and laughed out loud at our circus-like shadows. Instead, I just moved my arms and legs a little and giggled, hoping no one was watching.

When we look at our shadows, we don’t see facial features or skin color. We don’t see signs of age or wealth. We don’t see talents or insecurities, good luck or misfortune, successes or failures. We only see the shape of a human body, a vessel that carries us through every moment of our lives.

Psychology has much to say about the shadow self. My limited understanding is that it’s the darker side of our personality containing parts of ourselves we might not even be aware of, or want to admit to if we do.

Observing my shadow, one would never know I struggle with perfectionism. No one could tell how I crave solitude, or that conflict fills me with anxiety. I hide these things about myself, convinced they’re negative traits I should be embarrassed by and try to change.

I am learning to honor those shadow parts of myself and accept they’re part of what makes me uniquely me. By the same token, I must try to view others without judgment, knowing the traits hiding in their shadow make them uniquely them.

Despite our individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, we are more alike than different. This year has revealed that more clearly than most. Line us all up shoulder-to-shoulder around this big blue marble and deep in our shadows we all want the same things ~ health and happiness, equality and respect, love and peace.

The Winter Solstice marks the beginning of brighter days ahead. It comes at the end of a year filled with stunning moments that made us re-evaluate who we really are, what we stand for, and how we want to live.

As for me and my shadow, we’re going to end the year with the intention of living more authentically. On the next Winter Solstice, my shadow and I are going to joyfully do a cartwheel, no matter who is watching. §

The Perfect Holiday Gift – 11 ways to give our presence (even from a distance)

The past three years, my husband and I have lived deep in the woods where cell phone service is spotty at best. There’s only one place in our home where I can reliably get a good signal. No more chatting while I unload the dishwasher, cook dinner, or put away laundry. To avoid the frustration of a dropped call, I must sit down and simply converse. The situation has forced me to experience the joy of being present.

This holiday season, most people need our presence more than our presents. Though it will probably be from a distance, being present offers the gift of our most precious time, energy, and attention.

11 ways to give our presence this holiday season ~

1. Let Go of Expectations. Even without a pandemic, the holiday season can struggle to live up to our commercially-driven expectations and standards. This year, instead of thinking how we wish things were, let’s focus on enjoying life exactly as it is.

2. Reach Out. Because of the virus, many people will spend the holidays alone. While we might be tempted to pull the covers over our head until next year, we need to reach out to people. A cheerful conversation remembering old times and looking ahead can do wonders for everyone’s spirit.

3. Really Listen. Often when someone is talking, we’re waiting to get in our two cents. Conversations require some back and forth, but don’t be afraid of a little silence. Instead of thinking of our response, we can take that time to process what was said and respond by asking questions and clarifying the other person’s words.

4. Pay Close Attention. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own world we don’t really see the people we care about. Taking time to notice subtle, non-verbal communication helps us understand other people’s feelings and gives us a chance to offer genuine compassion and empathy.

5. Cut Out Distractions. We all know the feeling of talking to someone who is clearly focused on something more important than your conversation. To really connect with someone, we must eliminate distractions so we can give them the gift of our full attention.

6. Dive Deep. This year we won’t be attending any big holiday parties where small talk is most appropriate. Take advantage of smaller gatherings and phone calls to enjoy some conversation that goes beyond the weather and typical surface exchanges.

7. Make Eye-Contact. At least those annoying masks don’t cover our eyes. Looking at others warmly shows we are engaged and interested. Whether meeting in-person, on Facetime, or a Zoom call, eye contact is a powerful way to demonstrate our care and respect.

8. Choose Mindful Activities. There’s nothing wrong with having a family movie night, but it might not be the best way to spend quality time. Try taking a walk together, playing a game, making a craft, or just talking over some hot chocolate.

9. Tune-In to the Senses. One of the best ways to immediately be more present is to become aware of our senses. Focusing on what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel can get us out of our heads and into the moment. Twinkling lights, holiday music, a glowing fire, and delicious treats are all sure ways to enjoy being present.

10. Lend a Hand. If we listen and pay attention, we often find there is something we can do to help others. When at our home, both of our sons-in-law are wonderful at noticing what needs to be done and quietly doing it. Our presence is always appreciated when we lighten the load for someone else.

11. Give Love. It’s been a long year, and we’re all worn out by such unprecedented events. The gift of our presence is a sincere and thoughtful way to put more love into the world this holiday season, and that’s a gift everybody can use. §

Question of the Week: What tip do you have for being more present with yourself or others? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. Wishing you a week filled with holiday presence. Merry Christmas!

Please subscribe to The Simple Swan by clicking the Follow button. The Simple Swan is on Twitter at 1SimpleSwan.

Simply Remember Your Favorite Things ~ this Christmas and always

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

These sweet words, written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, first appeared in the Broadway production of The Sound of Music in 1959. Julie Andrews performed the song on a holiday television special in 1961, making My Favorite Things an instant Christmas classic.

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Door bells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Long ago my mother sang this song when she tucked my sisters and me into bed, and I sang it to my own children as part of my nightly lullaby medley.

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things

I still turn to this song when sleep and I can’t find each other. I silently sing the words in my head accompanied by a full orchestra that soothes my worried heart and reminds me everything will be okay.

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

Here are a few of my favorite things. How wonderful that they are simple and not too difficult to find if I put my mind to it. Even when they aren’t physically present, I can imagine them.

Flower Gardens
The Sky
Gentle Smiles
Wild Birds & Critters
Impressionist Paintings
The Changing Seasons
Heart-Shaped Rocks
Sunlight-Filled Rooms
Chocolate-Covered Strawberries
Pretty Words & Music

What are a few of your favorite things? I’d love to know! I sincerely hope you find them this Christmas season and always. §

December Gratitude Challenge – a positive way to bid farewell to 2020

The year 2020 will probably go down in the history books as one of the worst ever! How can we possibly be grateful for a year like this? It reminds me of a story I heard when I was very young.

There once were twin boys. One was exceedingly pessimistic and the other exceedingly optimistic. Their parents, quite concerned, took them to a psychiatrist. The doctor put the pessimist in a room full of everything a child could ever desire. From a one-way mirror, they observed the boy sitting in the corner crying and wailing, “The candy is sticky! The toys are broken! The ice cream is melting! Everything is just terrible!”

Meanwhile, the optimist was placed in a room filled to the brim with horse manure. The boy was observed laughing and cheerfully digging through the manure. Astonished, the doctor went in the room and asked what he was doing. The young optimist replied, “With all this poop, there has to be a pony in here somewhere!”

I don’t know about you, but against a backdrop of serious global and national challenges, I had my share of personal struggles this year. More than once, I felt like that little boy in a room full of horse manure. What the story taught me long ago was to always look for the pony.

It’s when things seem bad that it’s most important to look for the good. It might sound overly simple and trite, but appreciating the little things really is what makes life worth living ~ an amazing sunrise, a funny joke, a bluebird at the feeder, a delicious meal, a beautiful song, a hot bath, a friendly wink.

Gratitude and optimism go hand-in-hand. Businessman Price Pritchett said, “There’s a lot more to be gained from being grateful than you might think. Managing your outlook towards appreciation and thankfulness feeds the soul. It brings calm and contentment. It lifts your levels of happiness and hope. Gratitude will amplify your positive recollections about times past, and in turn sets the stage for optimism about the future.”

To help say goodbye to 2020 with an attitude of gratitude, I’m suggesting a December Gratitude Challenge. The idea is to focus on all the joy that still surrounds us at the end of what was not the greatest year ever.

There are many ways you can join in the December Gratitude Challenge. Keep a journal, make a paper chain, stick Post-Its on the mirror, or just add it to your nightly prayers. I decided to make a Gratitude Jar.

Every evening in December, my husband and I will each write something specific for which we were grateful that day and drop the slip of paper into the jar. On New Year’s Eve, we will read them together. (That Mike is going along with this will likely be the first thing I add to the jar!)

Even, no, especially in a year like this, December is a month when miracles happen. Tiny miracles. Big miracles. Good things are all around us. Sometimes we just have to dig a little to find them. §

2020 Vision – a look at our resolutions halfway through a wacky year

Way back in late December, most of us looked ahead to the new year with enthusiastic focus and clarity. Six long months later, it might seem our 2020 vision was blindsided.

We never saw it coming!

The coronavirus pandemic. A presidential impeachment. Record-breaking unemployment. Wildfires. A drone assassination. Murder hornets. A global shut-down. Social unrest. Plane and helicopter crashes. Saharan dust clouds. Masks. An imploding economy. It’s enough to forget the UK exited the EU and Harry and Meghan packed up the baby and exited Buckingham Palace.

In times like these, we’re tempted to throw all that vision stuff right out the window, but having a clear focus for our lives is even more crucial during uncertain times. Truth be told, people have always lived in chaotic times. That’s the human condition.

A crazy year is no time to abandon our intentions for living a better life. “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision,” wrote Helen Keller.

Since we’re halfway in, now is a good time to think about how we’re doing. My own vision for 2020 is encapsulated in the word seasons. Come along with me to see how I’m doing so far, particularly in light of the pandemic.

  • This year I intend to enjoy the natural beauty and seasonal gifts offered by nature. Honestly, the quarantine has made this even easier. Since we’ve been staying home, I’ve spent lots of time watching our world slowly morph from winter to spring to summer. In my stillness, visits by woodland critters haven’t escaped my notice. Against the steady beat of the daily news, I’ve appreciated more than ever the peace and beauty nature faithfully provides.
  • This year I intend to embrace my current season of life. At 58 years old, I’m as comfortable in my own skin as I’ve ever been. In the scheme of things, wrinkles, age spots and wild strands of white hair seem like silly things to worry about. I’m grateful for a body that will never be tall and thin, but is fabulously strong and healthy. When I hear the increasing number of people who have died from Covid-19, I’m reminded of my own mortality and the gift of each and every day.
  • This year I intend to show compassion to those in more challenging seasons of life. Since my husband and I are retired, we haven’t had to navigate working from home. We haven’t faced unemployment or financial insecurity. We haven’t felt loneliness or isolation. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to extend empathy and help to those who don’t have it as easy as we do right now.

A mid-year evaluation of our vision brings it back into focus and reminds us to make it a daily priority. So what was your vision for 2020, and how’s it going? There are still six months left in this wacky wonderful year. What do you intend to do with those months, weeks, days and hours?

Nelson Mandela offers this wisdom, “Action without vision is only passing time, vision without action is merely day dreaming, but vision with action can change the world.” §

Note: This post was published in Minimalism Life’s Journal earlier this week. You can read it and subscribe here: https://minimalism.life/journal/2020-vision

Winter’s Sound of Silence

The lake is frozen in suspended stillness. Birds and snowflakes flutter to the ground without a sound. A red fox tip-toes down the frosty hill. Fir trees sway to the silent tune of a gentle wind.

I wish I could encase the hushed winter scene in the round glass of a snow globe to gaze upon when the lake transforms into a carnival of summer activity.

American author Florence Page Jaques must have understood when she wrote, “I love the deep silence of the midwinter woods. It is a stillness you can rest your whole weight against. This stillness is so profound you are sure it will hold and last.”

I’ve always craved the sound of silence.

Growing up, I was blessed with two spirited younger sisters. On inescapable car rides, I longed to stare out the window and daydream while they laughed uproariously, sang off-key and told grueling jokes. I’d wail, “Mom, make them stop!” (Happily, the situation is no different now, though my tolerance has improved.)

In exchange for reading stories and poetry all day, I spent most of my adult life in a small square room with a daily charge of more than 100 boisterous adolescents. Months after I retired from teaching, I still caught myself habitually “shushing” absolutely no one.

My own children were not particularly loud or rambunctious, but my daughter was born belting show tunes. Our home sounded like a never-ending rehearsal for the Tony Awards. Her more reserved younger brother often echoed a familiar refrain, “Mom, make her stop!”

I cherish those seasons past, but they do help me appreciate and enjoy the deep silence of the midwinter woods. Each season has something to teach us; winter’s lesson is in the beauty of its stillness.

Here are ten ways we can follow winter’s lead to bring more peace and quiet to our days ~

  1. Speak with a softer volume and tone of voice.
  2. Avoid complaining, gossiping, criticizing, babbling, arguing and opining.
  3. Turn off the television and other noise in your home.
  4. Ride in the car without music or news.
  5. Take a break from social media.
  6. Pray or meditate in silence.
  7. Engage in a quiet activity like a puzzle or game.
  8. Stop being so busy.
  9. Encourage children to enjoy quiet time.
  10. Observe and learn from winter’s sound of silence. §

The Joy of New Year Resolutions – 2020 Vision

If ever a new year called for crystal clear vision, 2020 is it! Like many people, I adopt a special word for the new year in lieu of making resolutions. The idea is to choose a word that provides focus and clarity to help us live more intentionally. Allow me to share my word, and then I’ll help you come up with yours.

My word for 2020 is seasons. This word works well for me for a few reasons. First, I feel fortunate to live in a part of the country that experiences four distinct seasons. This year, I will more consciously delight in the natural beauty and seasonal gifts offered by winter, spring, summer and fall.

Additionally, I will embrace my current season of life. As empty-nesters who are newly retired, my husband and I are finding a simple rhythm here in our cabin in the woods. Our days unfold sweetly from sunrise to sunset. Rather than living in the past or worrying about the future, I want to appreciate and enjoy this wonderful season of our lives.

Finally, I will be considerate of those who are in more challenging seasons. Our children and younger friends are in the throes of establishing careers, raising families and finding their place in the world. Our parents and older friends are facing the uncertain mysteries of growing old. Keeping this in mind, I hope to extend more understanding, empathy and compassion.

So what is your word for 2020? There aren’t any rules, but here are some questions you could ask yourself to help you find your perfect word for the new year.

  1. How do I want to feel when I wake up in the morning?
  2. What do I care most about right now?
  3. How do I want to make other people feel when they’re around me?
  4. What does my heart crave?
  5. What is no longer serving my life?
  6. What is (and isn’t) my responsibility right now?
  7. How do I want to feel when I go to sleep at night?

Here are some juicy words to get you thinking ~ explore, presence, simplicity, create, gratitude, fun, courage, family, empower, relax, cheerful, learn, strong, joy, balance, focus, grow, kindness, acceptance, romance, brave, refine, passion, generosity, peace, change, elegance, happy, organized, grace, confidence, quiet, home, relationships, calm, faith, motivation, wellness, energy, mindful, wisdom, love. Do any of those words resonate with you and your hopes for the new year?

Once you’ve chosen a word, think about specific ways it might positively affect your daily life. How could a clear focus on your word influence these areas?

❤ Your disposition and attitude

❤ Your relationships

❤ Your home and possessions

❤ Your personal style

❤ Your work

❤ Your physical, mental and spiritual health

❤ Your activities and interests

❤ Your time and money

❤ Your thoughts and words

❤ Your actions and deeds

❤ Your contribution to the world

With some soul-searching and foresight, 2020 holds 365 chances to live out our vision. I am inspired by Anne Frank, who wrote in her diary, “What a wonderful thought it is that some of the best days of our lives haven’t even happened yet!” §