Birthday Plans Gone Awry

IMG_1561Today is my 60th birthday! Mike and I have been planning my birthday week for a couple of months. On Monday, I would treat myself to a haircut and a massage. On Tuesday, we’d have dinner with family. On the big day, we would drive to St. Louis where we had hotel and dinner reservations at the Chase Park Plaza and tickets to see Hamilton at The Fox Theatre. The next day would be our annual springtime visit to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, The Butterfly House, and the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. And there would be cake! And champagne!

Instead of enjoying these wonderful plans, I’m spending my birthday in the hospital where I’ve been since Sunday with an acute viral intestinal infection. I’ve been on a clear liquid diet of water and orange jello. (I am finally feeling a bit better and well enough to gather a few thoughts for this post today, although it’s later than usual.)

We know what they say about best laid plans. In his 1785 poem To a Mouse, Robert Burns wrote something like, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry and leave us not but grief and pain for promised joy!” (Burns actually uses fancier Old English words but thou get’st thy drift.) The theme of the poem is the unpredictability of life.

Burns empathizes with a wee mouse and we little humans as well. He knows it’s in our nature to constantly make plans, but he believes we must understand many of our schemes and dreams won’t pan out. Burns’ advice is to face life’s unpredictability with wisdom and compassion.

So as I sit in the hospital feeling sorry for myself, I’m also trying to be aware of the compassion extended to me during my 60th birthday trip to Good Samaritan Hospital. I look around and see evidence of friends and family who love me, nurses and doctors who are caring for me, a sweet bouquet of flowers Mike brought me.

About 200 years after Burns wrote his poem, John Lennon’s song Beautiful Boy included this line, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Long before those wise words were penned, Proverbs 16:9 said, “A man’s heart plans his way: but the Lord directs his steps.”

I may be 60 now, but spending it in a hospital is a reminder (and maybe even a gift) that I still have a lot to learn. And re-learn. Over and over. Right now, I’m doing the most human thing possible ~ making plans to do everything on my birthday list as soon as I feel better. §

The Elegance of Growth

The anticipation of spring has me longing to write about growth, that natural urge to enrich and improve ourselves and our lives. On this bright and sunny morning I decide, for some reason, the public library is the place that will bring inspiration. 

Except for wifi, the C.E. Brehm Memorial Public Library hasn’t changed much since I came here as a child. I walk up the staircase toward the second floor where I sometimes studied in high school and become lost in the memory of a little girl in a plaid dress and ponytails reaching up to tightly grasp the oak banister. My hand slides along the railing, worn silky smooth from use, and I find myself on the third floor where the children’s section used to be, and still is. 

My childlike voice surprises me when I timidly whisper hello to the librarian. I quietly position myself at a small table hoping to be inspired by an ancient budding elm tree just outside the window. Sitting awkwardly in a small wooden chair, I ignore my laptop and let every sight, sound, and smell of the familiar space wash over me like a spell. 

Rising dreamlike, I slowly run my hand along a bookshelf, lightly touching the spines of Sounder, James and the Giant Peach, The Secret Garden, The Chronicles of Narnia. I smile at them like old friends.

For nearly an hour I try to focus on writing, but I’m distracted by a little girl I once knew sitting cross-legged in the corner lost in the big woods with Laura and Pa. I shake her out of my mind and read the quote I had jotted down by Mr. Twain. 

“What’s the most rigorous law of our being? Growth. No small atom of our moral, mental, or physical structure can stand still a year. It grows – it must grow smaller or larger, better or worse – it cannot stand still. In other words, we change, and must change, constantly and keep on changing as long as we live.”

Springtime helps us understand what Twain was talking about. Butterflies and birds, flowers and leaves, offer tangible reminders of the miracle and beauty of growth. The transformation that comes each spring is easier for us to appreciate than the much slower moral, mental, and personal growth to which Twain refers.

“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional,” said John Maxwell. But grow we must, as individuals, as a nation, as a global society. Going backwards, regression, is not growth, even when shrouded as nostalgia, heritage, or tradition. Growth is natural, essential, often painful, but ever so elegant. 

We may find ourselves sitting in the same place, in the same chair, reading the same book as we did a lifetime ago. We should drink in the memories, yet delight in knowing every feeling, every thought, every word is new, because we are new. We are faithfully growing in body, mind, and spirit, like flowers in springtime. §

“Watching something grow is good for morale. It helps us believe in life.”
~ Myron S. Kaufman

The Elegance of Hope

Like a tired child, America is having a meltdown. Already overwhelmed by a pandemic, racial injustice, climate disaster, gun violence, political division, and inflation, an unprovoked attack on a free country by a frightening bully has sent her to the floor sobbing breathlessly. 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 war, inequality, depression, and disaster, our nation has marched steadily forward to a hopeful chorus graced by what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Secondly, we can find hope in our global citizenry. The past several days, we’ve seen ordinary Ukrainian citizens show immeasurable courage, selflessness, and fortitude. We’ve watched thousands of Russians take great risk to protest their authoritarian government. We’ve witnessed people in neighboring countries welcome more than a million desperate Ukrainians. Every day, all over the world, good people work tirelessly for the well-being of others, and good people always bring out the good in people.

Finally, we can summon hope within ourselves. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” Her well-known poem celebrates the human spirit’s capacity for hope. Think of the times you mustered hope to get through a difficult challenge. Facing our personal and shared trials from a place of wisdom and 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 anxiety, anger, and fear. But we are adults, and children are watching. We must choose to face our struggles with strength and elegance, while bravely humming a song of hope. §

“Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible, and achieves the impossible.” ~Helen Keller

The Elegance of the Train’s Song

In the quiet darkness of night, I hear the comforting rumble of the train as I lie awake in the same southern Illinois town where I grew up. My head rests now on a pillow not far from the cozy bed of my childhood, where the train’s song was a lullaby of comfort, a reminder of perseverance, and an elegant symbol of life’s journey.

As a child, the train that ran through Mt. Vernon watched over me like an angel. Day or night, its approaching sound assured me life was chugging along in a steady rhythm, and I was never alone. My train angel’s steel wings sang a soothing hymn as it flew by my house, school, or secret spot in the woods.

Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I’m conditioned to feel peace when I hear the distant sound clattering down the tracks. Even now, the train’s vibration sinks deep into my heart and instantly makes me feel calm and connected. In her poem Song of the Railroad Train Mrs. John Loye wrote, “How grand by night o’er countryside is that wild melodious strain; and music blown at eventide, is the song of the railroad train.”

No child should grow up without reading the American folktale The Little Engine that Could. The 1930s story teaches the value of optimism and hard work. At nearly sixty years old, I confess to finding strength in the little blue engine’s mantra, “I think I can. I think I can.”

Sometimes the rails we ride are long and monotonous. Other times they take us up steep hills, down plunging valleys, and through dark tunnels. Even when we can’t see the light, we find the hope and will to keep going.

Trains are an easy metaphor. We’re all aboard a journey that takes us to different stations in life, some by choice and others by chance. There are love trains, peace trains, freedom trains, runaway trains, midnight trains, and crazy trains. I’ve ridden them all.

Along the way, we’re joined by fellow passengers – family, friends, teachers, loves, children, coworkers, and neighbors – but we all begin and end our trip alone. Sometimes the train takes us right back were we began. We step off the platform carrying a lifetime of lessons, experiences, and memories collected on our sojourn.

On this night, the ambient wail and low blowing horn remind me of a salvation song. I hum a familiar tune by Curtis Mayfield, “People get ready, there’s a train a comin’. You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board. All you need is faith, to hear the diesels hummin’. Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.” §

“There’s something about the sound of a train that’s very
romantic and nostalgic and hopeful.”

~Paul Simon

The Elegance of a Spending Moratorium

I’m a stress shopper. I can go into the grocery store for a carton of eggs and come out with a tube of lipstick, a candle, deep conditioner, a magazine, mittens, and an avocado slicer. Depending on my state of mind, there’s a very good chance I’ll forget the eggs.

Since my word for 2022 is wisdom, being more intentional with money is a good place to start. On the first day of January, I spent a lot of time reflecting and planning for the new year. It was then I created a three-month personal spending moratorium. I read somewhere that when we want to do something differently, we need to know our why.

Here are some reasons why I want to get a grip on my personal spending habits:

  1. boost our savings account
  2. avoid clutter 
  3. practice self-discipline
  4. better manage stress 

So here’s my plan. January, February, and March of 2022 I will not buy:

  • clothing, jewelry, or accessories
  • make-up
  • skin-care or hair-care products
  • magazines
  • home decor

My strategy is an oldie but goodie – use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. I’ve already faced several challenging scenarios. I’ll share a few with you in hopes you can relate, or at least won’t judge too harshly.

  1. I ordered a really cute jumpsuit from Chicos that didn’t arrive until after the new year. That doesn’t count, right? Did I mention it’s really cute? 
  2. Wouldn’t you know, I didn’t have the right shoes for said outfit. But…I had also ordered a dress from Macys. So when that dress arrived, I returned it and bought some shoes. Since the shoes cost less than the dress, I told Mike I was actually money ahead. He said they call that fuzzy math. Math was never my strongest subject.
  3. I thought we needed something for an empty wall in our living room. I convinced myself it would be smart to go ahead and buy the cool mirror I had my eye on while it was half off at Hobby Lobby. Filled with guilt, I nervously made my $48 purchase, sweating and shaking like I was buying crack on the corner. The next morning I returned my purchase and felt well on my way to rehabilitation.
  4. We were almost out of toilet paper. I walked into Wal-Mart without grabbing a shopping cart. I went directly to the back of the store and picked up a giant 24-pack of toilet paper with both hands. I couldn’t have carried anything else if I wanted to. That may have been the first time in my life I walked straight in and out of a big-box store and bought only one thing.

I’m three weeks into my three-month “no-buy” personal spending plan, and it has already proven to be an interesting challenge. I’m definitely more aware of my habits, urges, and triggers to spend money. Through the next three months, I’ll let you know how my spending moratorium is going. I’m not really sure what to expect, but I have a hunch it will add wisdom, simplicity, and elegance to my life. §

The Elegance of Mangos

As I shuffle through the mail, I casually chat with my husband about things on my list of home improvements. Among the bills and catalogs is a familiar envelope that makes me stop and flush with embarrassment. It’s a letter from Lukas, an eight-year-old boy who lives in a village outside of Entebbe, Uganda, one of the poorest nations in the world.

The envelope includes a sweet picture drawn by Lukas and a letter written in English by a translator. Lukas asks how we are doing and tells us more about himself. We know the names of his brothers and sisters. He likes to read and play soccer with his friends, and his favorite color is green.

Reading the letter out loud, my voice cracks, “Lukas also adds that he appreciates so much his birthday gift of 86,350. With that money, he bought a mattress and a piece of candy.”

We forgot his annual birthday gift of $25 had been automatically withdrawn from our bank account. Lukas didn’t replace an old mattress with a new one. He bought the first mattress he’d ever had to go with the mosquito netting he bought with last year’s Christmas gift.

The little boy’s grateful words tangibly hang in the air next to my greedy ones. The ones about all the things I need in order to sit squarely in the lap of happiness – things Lukas has no idea even exist.

The next part of the letter is something neither Mike nor I can get out of our minds – something incredibly humbling and beautiful. It reads, “The thing that makes Lukas happiest is climbing trees for mangos.” My heart feels simultaneously heavier and lighter.

We love mangos. We buy them at the grocery store when they’re available. Mike is good at picking a perfectly ripe one. He slices through the yellow-red skin and makes neat cuts in the bright yellow flesh to release cubes of the tropical treat. Biting into the fruit brings a burst of floral sweetness with a slight hint of pine. If eaten mindfully, it’s heaven.

I imagine our young friend nimbly skittering up a mango tree in his village. His bright brown eyes spy a ripe fruit. His tiny hand picks it off the limb and stuffs it in his pocket. He climbs back down the tree, laughing. He sits on the ground and leans against the base of the tree. Pulling the golden prize from his pocket, he takes a big bite, juice dripping down his smiling face.

When we find ourselves getting caught up in our first world delusions and disillusions, Mike and I need only say one simple, elegant word. Mangos.§

Hello, friend! Thank you for reading my blog. Starting this coming Wednesday, a second weekly post will come to your email inbox. Just Between Friends is especially for subscribers of The Simple Swan. It’s still all about adding simplicity and elegance to our lives, but I think you’ll find it a little more personal, more conversational, and more practical. Look for Wednesday’s post on my three-month personal spending moratorium. I can hardly wait to read your thoughts and ideas. I’m no longer on social media, but you can comment on the blog or email me at Alicia@thesimpleswan.com. Have a beautiful day!

The Elegance of New Year Intentions

I gave up on making new year’s resolutions. For several years, I’ve instead adopted a word of intention for the new year. The idea is to choose a single word that can serve as a guiding light for all areas of life for the next twelve months. This carefully chosen word provides focus and clarity to holistically live more intentionally, and ultimately, more elegantly.  

My past words have included simplicity, joy, nature, seasons, and peace. Each new year, I post the word in several places to be reminded of my intention and do my best to infuse the word into my daily life at every turn. Do I fail at times? Of course, but attention to the word helps me consciously make more choices that lead to living my best life. 

My word for 2022 is wisdom. I’m turning sixty this year and poised to embrace the wisdom I’ve gained from growing older. At this stage of my life, I’m pleased to say goodbye to things that used to seem so important, and I now count wisdom as one of my greatest values. I’ll have no shortage of challenges as I attempt to apply wisdom to everything I think, say, and do. A good place to start is with Socrates’ wise counsel, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Do you have a word for the new year? Maybe I can help. 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. How do I want to feel when I wake up each morning? What do I value most? How do I want other people to feel when they’re around me? What does my soul crave? What are my goals? What would make me happier? What is no longer serving my life? What is (and isn’t) my responsibility right now? What am I uniquely able to offer others?

Here are some powerful words to get you thinking – positivity, adventure, presence, creativity, gratitude, fun, courage, relationships, empower, relax, cheerful, learn, strong, balance, focus, grow, kindness, acceptance, passion, generosity, change, happy, organized, grace, confidence, quiet, home, relationships, calm, faith, motivation, wellness, energy, mindfulness, clarity, love.

Do any of these 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 round. How could a clear focus on your word influence these areas of your life?

  • your attitude 
  • your relationships
  • your home and possessions
  • your personal style
  • your work 
  • your physical, mental, and spiritual health
  • your activities and pursuits
  • your contribution 

With some soul-searching and contemplation, 2022 holds 365 chances to live our happiest, most intentional, and most elegant year. I am always 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!” §

Note to Subscribers: In my search for simplicity and elegance, The Simple Swan will no longer appear on Facebook or YouTube. I want to focus on writing my blog and newspaper column in the weekend edition of the Southern Illinoisan. Thank you so much for subscribing!

To Subscribe: Click on the blue “Follow” button located to the left of your computer screen or at the bottom of your phone. It will prompt you to enter your email address. once you confirm, you will receive an email from WordPress on Sunday mornings containing only my post for the week. Thank you!

Contact Me: Alicia@thesimpleswan.com

The Elegance of the Winter Solstice

Growing weary of the dark days? Take heart. The Winter Solstice arrives this week and, for good measure, will coincide with the glow of a waning full moon. Nature remembers what we sometimes forget. Darkness is always ousted by the elegance of light.

This return to light isn’t just a positive affirmation, wishful thinking, or snappy ad campaign. It’s indisputable, mind-blowing scientific fact. In the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day of 2021 comes on December 21. That’s when the sun will be at its lowest point in the sky.

Solstice, in Latin, means to stand still. At the Winter Solstice, the sun reaches the latitude called the Tropic of Capricorn. The southward movement of the sun seems to stop before it reverses direction and begins its path northward bringing longer, lighter days.

The Winter Solstice also marks the beginning of our astronomical winter. (As opposed to the meteorological winter which began December 1.) Some may bemoan the upcoming season, but we can choose to find elegance in the quiet beauty of winter knowing that spring is on its way.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, this year the Full Cold Moon reached its peak last night on December 18, just before the Winter Solstice. Also known as the Long Night Moon, this will be the last full moon before the end of the year. A full moon is six times brighter than a half moon, making it the brightest object in the night sky, and far brighter than the brightest planet, Venus.

I don’t know about you, but I think we could all use that extra dose of promising light about right now. Are the world’s troubles troubling you? Perhaps a loved one is going through a difficult time. Maybe you are experiencing a dark time in your own life. The Winter Solstice can signify a turning point, a time to release the darkness in favor of the light and positive energy.

Nature is urging us to see the light and be the light. So put another log on the fire, light the candles, and string up those holiday lights. Bask in the promise of the stars shining in the night sky and the one atop your tree. Fill yourself with warm, twinkly light so you can go out and shine in all your elegant glory. In the words of John Lennon, “Yeah, we all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun.”§

The Elegance of Gratitude This Holiday Season

As we head into the most wonderful time of the year, we can’t help but recall this time last year when a pandemic put the kibosh to most of our holiday traditions and celebrations. On Thanksgiving 2020, my husband was in the kitchen preparing a feast for two, while I fretted like a turkey in November.

The Coronavirus was affecting each of our four grown children in different ways, and there was nothing I could do to help. My mother, a widow, was experiencing health problems, and I was worried about her living alone four hours away in southern Illinois. I gazed out the window and smiled at the sight of a mama fox and her baby happily trotting through the frosty woods, blissfully oblivious to the worries of the day. 

I jumped up and darted to the kitchen, licked a finger-full of mashed potatoes, and grabbed an empty jelly jar. I tied a festive red and green ribbon on it and added a tag that read, “Gratitude Jar 2020”. Then I cut dozens of small slips of paper. The plan was for my husband and me to secretly write something we were grateful for and drop it in the jar each day from Thanksgiving until the end of the year. We would read our entries together on New Year’s Eve. 

A couple of days later, my mom had a stroke. Thankfully, she recovered well, but I spent all of December with her, first from the hospital parking lot (as visitors weren’t allowed to go inside) and then in her apartment. I went back home to Indiana on New Year’s Eve to help my husband pack up our house. We had made the quick and necessary decision to sell our cabin and buy a house in our hometown so my mother could safely live with us. 

As I hastily packed box after box, I saw the Gratitude Jar sitting on the kitchen counter. To my surprise, it was filled with tiny slips of paper! I took an envelope out of my purse and added 31 more slips to the jar. Though we’d been apart and hadn’t said a word about it, both my husband and I had continued to write down things for which we were thankful. 

I’d like to say we read the entries from our Gratitude Jar at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, but we were asleep by 9:30. On New Year’s Day, we pulled each piece of paper from the jar and read it out loud.

Many of our entries expressed thanks for my mother’s recovery and for the doctors and nurses during such a difficult time. Several were about simple things in nature such as a beautiful sunrise, a bird at the feeder, or a peaceful snowfall. Some showed gratitude for our children’s resilience in facing their challenges. Others revealed our appreciation for each other. 

For most of us, 2020 is a blur filled with varying degrees of trials and tribulations. Yet through it all, there were always glimmers of hope and happiness. Never was Dr. Suess’s message in his story How the Grinch Stole Christmas so true. 

“It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags! Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.'”

Theodor Seuss Geisel

Before we get too caught up in the renewed holiday frenzy of decorating, shopping, and merry-making, let’s remember what 2020 taught us. Underneath all the tinsel and trimming, lies the season’s faithful and enduring gifts of beauty, peace, and love. I have already assembled our 2021 Gratitude Jar with the intention of being reminded throughout this holiday season of the simple elegance of gratitude. §

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
~ William Arthur Ward

The Elegance of Letting Go

About this time every year, nature gently reminds us of the elegance of letting go. Colorful falling leaves release their hold and dance and twirl in the autumn wind, gracefully showing us the way.

There’s a scientific reason deciduous trees lose their leaves in winter. It’s a process called abscission. Rather than fruitlessly expend energy during the harsh winter months, trees shed their leaves to conserve resources. The process helps trees retain water and keeps them from blowing over. As a bonus, fallen leaves add replenishing nutrients to the soil. In a beautiful act of self-preservation, trees let go in order to stay healthy and alive. 

The trees’ annual decluttering process might initially inspire us to let go of a few material things ourselves. Broken things. Meaningless things. Uncomfortable things. Too many things. Perfectly wonderful things that no longer suit our season of life.

It’s no easy task to rake all our physical clutter into a big pile like so many fallen leaves. Harder still is letting go of intangible things that clutter our hearts and minds. As we watch the autumn leaves cut loose and fly, what can we let go of to help protect, replenish, and nurture the very root of our being? 

Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” We convince ourselves we must tightly cling to old memories, thoughts, and behaviors, and we spend precious energy feeding them and keeping them alive. Letting them go finally frees us to rest, grow stronger, and be happier. 

If I was still teaching, I would assign us to draw a tree with falling leaves. On each leaf, we’d write something we’re ready to let go. Those little leaves would probably hold some very powerful words like worry, resentment, guilt, hurt, and anger. What would you write on your leaves? 

Poet May Sarton wrote, “I think of trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep. Imitate the trees.” Autumn is such a beautiful time of year. Let’s follow its lead and elegantly let go in preparation for a season of thanksgiving, peace, and hope. §

“Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.” ~ Eckhart Tolle