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. 🙂

Question of the Week: Will you take the December Gratitude Challenge with us? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. Wishing you a week filled with gratitude!

The Simple Swan is on Twitter at 1SimpleSwan.

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

From Nature, With Love

Nature sends the sweetest Valentines in the form of heart-shaped surprises. Most of us have smiled at the sight of a cloud, acorn or seashell in the perfect shape of a heart. 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 on our living room coffee table. 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 my houseplant.

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

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!” §

The Sweet Smell of Christmas

When my sisters and I were young, we loved a book called The Sweet Smell of Christmas. It told the story of a little bear who used his nose to experience the simple pleasures of the holidays.

The book was a scratch-and-sniff ~ a real novelty at the time. We nearly scratched holes in the pages to release the fragrance of Little Bear’s Christmas, including an orange, hot cocoa, a pine branch and other comforting holiday scents.

On my daughter’s first Christmas, my sister gave her a new copy of our beloved book. Over the years, I read it to her and her little brother hundreds of times, watching their tiny fingers scratch the pictures and hold the book to their button noses. Closing their eyes, they’d take a deep breath and say dreamily, “Mmm! It smells just like Christmas!”

As a mother, I admired the wisdom of Little Bear’s parents. Sensing their cub’s excitement, they went about holiday preparations in a calm, rhythmic manner keeping Little Bear focused on the sweet simplicity of Christmas.

With all of the anticipation and build-up, Christmas day can bring a sense of overwhelm, disappointment and anxiety in children and adults. Despite good intentions, we often turn a silent holy night into a month-long frenzy that can end in a holly jolly melt-down.

To keep the big day feeling merry, experts recommend we occasionally stop to take a few deep breaths and become fully aware of our natural senses.

What do you see…a twinkling star, a nativity scene, a candle’s glow?

What do you hear…cheerful music, a child’s laughter, a prayer?

What do you taste…a pinch of salt, a dash of cinnamon, a spoonful of sugar?

What do you feel…a sincere hug, a warm fire, a kiss under the mistletoe?

What do you smell…pine from the tree, paperwhite narcissus blossoms, a juicy orange?

Like childhood itself, the holiday season comes and goes in a blink of an eye. This week, let’s get real about our expectations, stay mindful, and cherish the little things. Let’s use the gift of our senses to fully embrace the simple joys of the holidays, like the sweet smell of Christmas.§

The Nativity Scene

A simple nativity scene is the only Christmas decoration I put out this year. It’s a drastic departure from the years I obsessively decorated every corner of our home. My dad once joked, “Don’t stand still, or she’ll tie a red bow on your butt.”

In the past, our nativity scene fought for space among all the snowmen, Santas, elves and reindeer I pulled from several plastic tubs of decorations. As I thoughtfully arranged the nativity scene on our fireplace mantle this week, my mind wandered back to a memory I had all but forgotten.

It was the day after Thanksgiving, and the Jaycees were putting up Christmas decorations in town as they did every year on this day. I looked out the passenger window of my dad’s car with a flutter of holiday anticipation as we drove down Main Street.

On every light post was a familiar friend I hadn’t seen for a whole year. Against the silver afternoon sky, their colorful lights twinkled, but for a few bulbs that hadn’t worked in years. I greeted each one as we drove past ~ Santa, candy cane, angel, tree, Santa, candy cane, angel, tree. The angel was my favorite. 

I was ten now, old enough to be part of the live outdoor nativity scene held each year at the Central Church of Christ. It was a staple of Christmastime for as long as I could remember. I was scheduled to play an angel for two nights in December. We passed our church where the make-shift barn was being built.

In just a couple of weeks, I would stand on Tenth Street dressed as an angel next to a real donkey and sheep. (Baby Jesus was a doll wrapped in blankets lying in the manger.) I shivered both with excitement and the thought of standing in the cold from five to eight o’clock. I wondered if I could wear long underwear with my costume and if I’d get to pet the barn animals. 

December flew by in a flurry, and it was suddenly the day of my participation in the live nativity scene. My mom took me to the church to pick up my angel costume after school. It was cold and raining as we ran inside. 

“We’re in for some very nasty weather,” the preacher’s wife said. Looking at me sympathetically she said, “We’ve decided to cancel the nativity tonight.” By morning, freezing rain coated every sidewalk, tree limb and phone line. As rarely happened, school was cancelled for two days. I never did get to be part of the nativity scene. 

I emerged from my childhood memory as if from a dream. My hand tightly held the little angel from our nativity scene. In the absence of all the distracting tinsel and trinkets, my heart and mind were free to conjure up the memories, magic and meaning of the season.

For a suspended moment I was, at last, dressed as an angel standing on Tenth Street next to Mary and Joseph, the wise men, a shepherd boy, a donkey and a sheep in celebration of the beauty and wonder of a baby born in a manger on Christmas day. § 

The Gift of Miracles

It’s a wonderful time of the year to believe in miracles! Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is a miracle.”

Consider the ubiquitous trees strapped to car tops, beckoning from store windows or decorating your home. While all the earth lies brown and dormant, an evergreen tree remains fresh and verdant, unfazed by winter’s harsh cold and snow. Underneath all the tinsel, lights and ornaments is a miraculous symbol of eternal love and life.

Our fresh-cut Christmas tree stands outside on the deck off the living room. Through unadorned glass doors, it twinkles with simple white lights. We frequently see birds flutter around the tree and alight on branches like a scene from a greeting card.

In my mind, birds carry garland in their beaks and gracefully drape the tree with gossamer ribbon. Woodland animals gather around the tree and sing carols. They are dressed, of course, in winter coats and scarves. And why not? Birds, deer, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, foxes and raccoons are such magical creatures.

Just imagine seeing one for the first time! Sweet, cute, funny and majestic barely begin to describe them. The sight of one flying, hopping or scurrying through our yard thrills me and ignites my imagination.

The holiday season brings out the child in us. As we get older, it’s easy to become cynical, to take for granted the miracles and magic, and focus on the muck. Perhaps we get a little too big for our britches, too smart and sophisticated for visions of sugarplums and the like. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

With the innocence of a child, take a closer look at nature this season. A brilliant star, a red poinsettia, a silent snow, a newborn baby all offer tangible proof of the marvelous miracles all around us.

Maybe then we will be inspired to do the very grown-up work of seeing and manifesting intangible miracles of grace, forgiveness, courage, hope, faith and love ~ all the beautiful things the holiday season is really about. §

100 Ways to Lighten Up

It’s summertime, and the living is easy. We feel lighter, brighter and a little more relaxed than the rest of the year. Beautiful weather lures us outdoors. Day trips and vacations offer rest and reconnection. Butterflies, flowers, hummingbirds and lightning bugs decorate life with color and joy. While we do our best to squeeze out every drop of summer, here are 100 easy ideas to help us keep a sunny vibe long after the season fades away.

Lighten Up in Nature ~ 1. Spend time outdoors every day.  2. Watch a squirrel’s funny antics. 3. Listen to birds sing.  4. Watch the sunrise or sunset.  5. Dine alfresco.  6. Feel the wind in your hair.  7. Take a hike.  8. Wish upon the first evening star.  9. Pet an animal.  10. Stay in awe of our wonderful world.

Lighten Up Your Home ~ 11. Arrange a vase of fresh flowers.  12. Clean so it sparkles.  13. Let the sun shine in.  14. Give away 10 (or 100) things.  15. Light a candle.  16. Add a pop of color.  17. Play cheerful music. 18. Put everything in its place.  19. Make sure it smells fresh.  20. Fill your home with positive energy and love.

Lighten Up in Mind & Spirit ~ 21. Take several deep, slow breaths. 22. Limit news and social media.  23. Practice yoga.  24. Stop trying to figure it all out.  25. Spend some time alone.  26. Meditate and pray.  27. Read something uplifting.  28. Avoid negativity.  29. Write down the problem and list some solutions.  30. Have faith.

Lighten Up Your Relationships ~ 31. Be fully present.  32. Be responsible for your own happiness.  33. Put down your phone.  34. Give good hugs.  35. Agree to disagree sometimes. 36. Have fun together. 37. Forgive.  38. Accept each others’ quirks.  39. Don’t gossip.  40. Be a fountain, not a drain.

Lighten Up Your Wardrobe ~ 41. Be comfortable.  42. Add a jaunty accessory.  43. Develop a personal style.  44. Have a small wardrobe you love.  45. If it’s shabby or drab, get rid of it.  46. If you don’t wear it, pass it on. 47. Forget about trends.  48. Have a signature color.  49. Choose easy-care clothing.  50. Feel radiant in everything you wear.

Lighten Up with Healthy Habits ~ 51. Eat for energy.  52. Drink plenty of water.  53. Bend and stretch.  54. Go to bed early.  55. Move with a spring in your step. 56. Get a massage.  57. Go for yearly check-ups.  58. Quit unhealthy behavior.  59. Unplug. 60. Be grateful for what your body can do.

Lighten Up Your Beauty Routine ~  61. Wake up with a cool shower. 62. Wind down with a warm bubble bath. 63. Decide to age gracefully. 64. Find an easy hair-do. 65. Follow a simple skin care regimen.  66. Keep makeup and perfume light and fresh.  67. Don’t over-do anything. 68. Be skeptical of advertising. 69. Remember, beauty is an inside job. 70. And hope doesn’t come in a jar.

Lighten Up with Good, Clean Fun ~ 71. Dance.  72. Tell a silly joke.  73. Re-read a favorite children’s novel.  74. Go bowling or rollerskating.  75. Play a board game.  76. Bake cookies for the neighbors.  77. Sing your heart out.  78. Draw, paint or color a picture.  79. Watch a G-rated movie.  80. Put up your feet and do nothing.

Lighten Up in Your Community ~  81. Do your job with a cheerful heart.  82. Smile at everyone.  83. Be nice.  84. Be a courteous driver. 85. Keep a sense of humor.  86. Be a good role model.  87. Don’t take it personally.  88. Lend a hand.  89. Remember your manners, even if everyone else forgets. 90. Quietly adopt one cause you believe in.

Lighten Up with Words of Wisdom ~  91. Life’s too mysterious to take too serious. ~Mary Englebreit 92. Think happy thoughts. ~Peter Pan  93. The Serenity Prayer ~Reinhold Niebuhr  94. Nothing can dim the light that shines from within. ~Maya Angelou 95. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. ~Gospel Hymn 96. Leave everything you do, every place you go, everything you touch a little better for your having been there. ~Julie Andrews 97. Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves. ~J.M. Barrie  98. Let your light shine before others. ~Matthew 5:16  99. Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow. ~Helen Keller 100. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. ~Martin Luther King, Jr. §

 

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Empty Nest – a story for Mothers’ Day

A plump, orange-breasted bird and her mate began building a nest atop a porch light of a house that sits on a gravel road aptly named Robin Drive. The middle-aged couple moving into the home didn’t notice the birds gathering the grass, twigs, and mud necessary for the perfect nest. They were busy feathering their own.

The robin was peacefully resting in her finished nest when the lady walked around the corner of the house carrying an armload of empty boxes. She came nearly eye-to-eye with the bird, startling them both into brief hysterical flapping. The robin gave a sharp alarm call, “Peek! Peek!” and flew to a nearby tree.

The anxious bird was relieved to see the woman and her husband study the nest with a sense of reverence and mystique. She felt sure the nest on Robin Drive was a safe place to lay her eggs, one each day for four consecutive days.

The next three weeks or so, the robin felt like a welcomed guest. The people avoided disturbing her as they worked around their new home. The lady made a habit of tip-toeing a few feet away from the nesting bird and whispering, “Hi, Little Mama, I’m sorry to bother you.”

When the robin flew off in search of food, the man carefully photographed the four sky-blue eggs inside the nest. Once the beautiful eggs hatched, they watched the blind, featherless brood instinctively open their mouths, trusting their parents would feed them almost continuously.

The robin knew time with her sweet babies would be brief. As she whistled them a lullaby in the protection of their nest, she reminded herself of the two lasting gifts she would give them ~ roots and wings.

The lady sympathized with the mother robin when the babies were big enough to hop out of the nest, but not yet strong enough to fly well. It’s a dangerous time for the fledglings. The day the little birds were capable of flying completely on their own was bittersweet.

It was May when the lady saw the robin hopping around the yard near the birdbath. “Hi, Little Mama,” she said. Looking at the empty nest on the porch light, she confided, “I know just how you feel.”

She sat down on a tree stump and was quiet for a minute. “You were a good mother,” she said. “They’re going to be just fine.” Perched on the edge of the birdbath, the robin sang a rich and comforting tune. §