The Elegance of Changing Seasons

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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.

Do you find the journey through each season of life 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’m looking at life through a car window and watching it pass by in a blur.

When I’m not quite ready for the next season, I think of a favorite Bible verse, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Its author, King Solomon, was known as an elegant seeker on a quest for the meaning and purpose of life.

He  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.”

King Solomon reminds us there are good times and bad, and just like the meteorological 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.

On my personal journey, I know 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.

The seasons of life pass so quickly. The carefree, verdant spring and summer of our youth fade to a season when daily responsibilities, chores, and chaos scatter endlessly like falling leaves. Suddenly, we are older and days can stretch before us as empty as winter’s bare branches.

It’s fine to warm ourselves with yesterday’s memories and look forward to the future, but we are wise to show acceptance, gratitude and enthusiasm for each and every day of the season in which we find ourselves. George Santayana so elegantly said, “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” §

“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be
are full of trees and changing leaves.”

~Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

The Elegance of Queen Elizabeth II

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngAs I reflect on Queen Elizabeth’s death this week, I recall a story my mother loved to tell about a time when I was about ten. Apparently I was displaying less than desirable table manners at dinner one evening. My mom asked, “Is that how you are going to eat when you dine with the queen?” To which I replied with all the audacity and seriousness only a ten-year-old girl can possess, “What makes you think I won’t be the queen?”

While I do admire the spunk of that little girl, she clearly had much to learn about ascension to the throne as well as dining etiquette. It’s hard to imagine fifty years later I would have become a bit of a royal watcher and big fan of Queen Elizabeth.

There’s little I can add to the conversation about the queen’s life and how beloved she was by those close to her as well as those who watched her from afar. To say she was elegant is an understatement. While she did not coin the phrase Keep Calm and Carry On, it does seem to embody Queen Elizabeth’s fortitude, composure, and self-discipline.

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The now famous British phrase was one of three posters the Ministry of Information created in 1939 in the event of war. On September 3, 1939, in response to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Only a small number of original posters survived as most of them were recycled in 1940 to help the British government face a desperate paper shortage.

In 2000, a copy of the poster was discovered in a bookshop in Northumberland, England and reproductions began to sell a year later. The poster and its message has since become ubiquitous with many imitations and parodies.

As a student of Stoic philosophy, I find the British stiff-upper-lip attitude admirable. Not everyone appreciates the sentiment of the poster as I do, but it has helped me get through many life challenges with a bit of the queen’s strong spirit.

Were my mother still living, I know she would be glued to the television this week and mourning along with the rest of the world. She would retell stories about growing up and living during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. I also know she would still be laughing about when I was ten and actually thought I had a shot at wearing the Crown. §

“When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat;
instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.”

~ Queen Elizabeth II

“13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do” ~ a Book Review

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I picked up Amy Morin’s book because of the title, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. I bought it because of the dedication on the first page, “To all who strive to become better today than they were yesterday.” I do believe living an elegant life includes a desire to be our best, and it all starts in our minds.

Morin, a licensed clinical social worker, college psychology instructor, and psychotherapist, published 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do in 2014. It’s a book I take from my shelf time and again. Sometimes I just need a quick reminder of the thirteen don’ts. Other times, I settle in for a deep-dive into one of the lessons. (I’ve practically memorized Chapter 5; the struggle is real!)  

The 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do ~

  1. They don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves.
  2. They don’t give away their power.
  3. They don’t shy away from change.
  4. They don’t focus on things they can’t control.
  5. They don’t worry about pleasing everyone.
  6. They don’t fear taking calculated risks.
  7. They don’t dwell on the past.
  8. They don’t make the same mistakes over and over.
  9. They don’t resent other people’s success.
  10. They don’t give up after the first failure
  11. They don’t fear alone time.
  12. They don’t feel the world owes them anything.
  13. They don’t expect immediate results. 

Each chapter fully examines the idea and gives strategies for developing more positive thoughts and behavior in everyday situations. In the conclusion, Morin writes that mental strength isn’t about being the best at everything, earning the most money, or achieving the biggest accomplishments.

“Instead, developing mental strength means knowing that you’ll be okay no matter what happens,” she writes. “When you become mentally strong, you will be your best self, have the courage to do what’s right, and develop a true comfort with who you are and what you are capable of achieving.” §

“Developing mental strength is about improving your ability to regulate your emotions, manage your thoughts, and behave in a positive manner, despite your circumstances.”
~Amy Morin

 

The Elegance of Quality Over Quantity

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The famous oil painting known as Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer, features a young woman wearing an exquisite earring. Her bare face and turban-wrapped hair bring focus to the pearl earring and the simple beauty and elegance of the girl. 

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I think of my own jewelry box and note the painting is not named Girl with a Bunch of Cheap Earrings. My jewelry is just one area that I could apply the concept of quality over quantity.

Quality can be defined as the standard of something as measured against other things of its kind. For example, one could indulge in a single luscious Godiva chocolate or a whole bag of check-out counter candy. Quality over quantity means choosing better over more. 

We don’t live in a time that supports this lifestyle. Fast food means we can eat a big greasy meal for less than the tip at a sit-down restaurant. Fast fashion means we can own ten trendy shirts for the cost of one well-made one. We can get the kids a cartful of plastic toys from the dollar aisle, or one classic board game. 

There are many good reasons to adopt the idea of quality over quantity. It reduces clutter. It’s more sustainable for the planet. It saves money in the long run. It honors fine craftsmanship and design. It helps us gain more clarity about our personal preferences. 

I’ve long understood the wisdom of quality over quantity, but glancing around my bathroom, I see evidence to the contrary. There’s a shelf of half-empty bottles of hair and skin products that didn’t live up to their promise. There’s a drawerful of makeup that might look good on someone else. There’s a basket of gloppy nail polish I’ll never wear.

I’m committed to eliminating the clutter, forgiving myself for the waste, and finding the best version of the products I truly want and need. Here are just a few areas where we can more consciously apply the concept of quality over quantity: 

  • clothing and accessories
  • food and pantry items
  • furnishings and home decor
  • cleaning products
  • books and magazines
  • toys and games

Quality over quantity doesn’t just apply to material things. We can think about quality when choosing our activities, our entertainment, our relationships, our leaders, our conversations, and even our thoughts.

I recently read an anonymous quote that made me sad. It said, “People who aren’t used to quality always chase quantity.” Quality has become a unicorn. It does not seem to rank high on our collective list of values, but we can reclaim it. We can return to the elegance of expecting and choosing quality over quantity. §

“It is quality rather than quantity that matters.”
~Seneca

Note to Subscribers: If this essay seems familiar, thank you for noticing! It is a revision of an earlier blog post that I finally got around to running in my newspaper column this weekend. It can be a juggle to get them coordinated. In case you’re curious, my Sunday posts usually appear in my column, Everyday Elegance, in the weekend edition of the Southern Illinoisan. My Wednesday posts are a bit more personal and written for subscribers of The Simple Swan. Thank you very much for reading! ~ Alicia

Elegance in the Classroom & Beyond

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It’s that time of year when I dearly miss the excitement of going back to school. I loved school so much that I became a teacher myself. For nearly thirty years, I taught literature, language arts, and social studies to middle school students. I went into teaching understanding the power of knowledge, but it was in my classroom I discovered the power of elegance.

Over the years, I learned how simple elegant touches, such as a vase of fresh flowers, well-organized spaces, and a warm smile, could dramatically improve the academic performance, behavior, and well-being of everyone who entered my classroom.

My simple theory is this – if attention to elegance can so positively affect a middle school classroom, it can have a similar impact on our personal lives, our communities, and our world.

There were four words that helped me create an elegant classroom – simple, wise, attractive, and nice. These words just happen to form an acronym for the word swan. Let’s look at these words and consider how they can be applied to any community, not just a classroom.

SimpleChaos can reign in a classroom, but there are ways to bring more calm and serenity. In the same way, simplicity can be achieved in any home, small business, or large corporation. Organization and tranquility can lead to better outcomes. Bruce Lee said, “Simplicity is the key to brilliance.”

Wise – No matter our age, every day is a chance to learn something new. We can gain wisdom by reading quality literature, attending lectures, seeking out the arts, trying new things, and listening to others. The more we are individually informed and empowered to make wise decisions, the more elegant our communities will become. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The real safeguard of democracy is education.”

Attractive – Attention to beauty is not frivolous or unimportant. Beauty can be inspiring, and an effort to make things more attractive for others can make people feel valued, respected, and motivated. Thomas Jefferson said, “Communities should be planned with an eye to effect on the human spirit of being continually surrounded by a maximum of beauty.”

Nice – Being nice might seem incredibly simple, but it is also incredibly powerful. Just imagine how our communities could benefit from more respectful, tolerant, and polite behavior. Coretta Scott King said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”

If an ordinary middle school classroom, filled with raging pubescent hormones and a diverse population, can benefit from attention to elegance, I believe it can help create more harmony and success in our personal lives and in all of the communities in which we live and work.

My heart is with the teachers as they head back to school this year. The work they do all day, every day is nothing short of miraculous. Classrooms are microcosms of the world at large, and the ability to create a culture of excellence and elegance within those walls can be an inspiration for us all. §

“I realized if you can change a classroom, you can change a community, and if you change enough communities you can change the world.”
Erin Gruwell, teacher who inspired the 2007 movie
Freedom Writers

Wisdom ~ a good intention and a good book

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At the end of 2021, I published a column about choosing a personal word as an intention for the new year.  My word for 2022 is wisdom. I was still 59 when I wrote, “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.”

Now that the year is more than half over, it’s time to assess how I’m doing with a lofty goal “to apply wisdom to everything I think, say, and do.” My best guess is that I’ve succeeded and failed in equal measure. I feel better after reading a quote by Lord Chesterfield, “In seeking wisdom thou art wise; in imagining that thou hast attained it, thou art a fool.”

I do recommend a book that has helped me move forward in my quest for wisdom. It’s called The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. It has lived on my nightstand all year and has a great subtitle, Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class.

This book offers 365 scholarly lessons from seven different fields of knowledge: history, literature, visual arts, science, music, philosophy, and religion. Here’s what I learned about last week:

Monday – The French Revolution
Tuesday – Moby-Dick
Wednesday – Joseph Mallord William Turner
Thursday – Stem Cells
Friday – Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 Choral
Saturday – Social Contract
Sunday – Protestant Reformation

It’s amazing how often topics I read about in The Intellectual Devotional are referenced or related to things I encounter in my daily life. The book has definitely added to my knowledge base, piqued my curiosity, made me think, and encouraged me to be a lifelong learner.

We’re only half way in, but I’m glad I chose wisdom as my word for 2022. The year has so far brought unexpected sadness, disappointment, and confusion as well as plenty of happiness, hope, and clarity. A focus on wisdom has helped me accept it all with a little more perspective and elegance, though I know I still have a long way to go. §

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
~ Socrates

Featured Art ~ Lake Lucerne at Light with the Rigi, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1841

Thank you for reading, my friend! Do you have a personal word for the year? How is it going? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts. Wishing you a day filled with simple elegance. I’ll be back on Sunday. Love, Alicia 

Be a Swan ~ this simple acronym can help

IMG_1996One day this week I had an ordinary opportunity to practice everyday elegance and remind myself to gracefully glide through life like a swan, not flap about like a chicken with its head cut off.

I was in the middle of cleaning our house when I realized I needed a couple of things from the store before getting on with a long to-do list for the day. I was tired, and the temperature outside was pushing 100 degrees. As I drove into the parking lot, a driver ran a stop sign forcing me to slam on my brakes. My purse flew off the seat, and its contents spilled on the floor.

As I began to pull into a parking spot, I had to swerve to avoid another driver going the wrong direction. My cell phone slid deep under the passenger’s seat. In the blistering heat of the concrete parking lot, I practically stood on my head while moving the seat forward and backwards trying to grab the phone that was just out of reach. By the time I retrieved it (ironically using an ice scraper from the glove compartment) I was hot and bothered.

Muttering to myself and ready to flap into the store feeling anything but graceful, I paused and remembered to be a swan. I walked around my car and got back in the driver’s seat. I started the ignition, turned the radio to classical music, and adjusted the air vents. For a couple of minutes, I sat still and let myself cool down.

Then I briefly closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, and thought about the acronym I have used as a personal mantra for years. These four little words are a quick and easy way for me to quickly adjust my attitude and face the world with a modicum of elegance.

SWAN ~ Simple Wise Attractive Nice  

I’ve never written about this acronym for fear of revealing a silly little secret, but I’ve been thinking about how our personal lives, our relationships, and our communities could be improved if we all paid attention to those four simple words.

On this steamy ordinary day, I reminded myself that life is really pretty simple and my problems are relatively few. I was glad I’d wisely taken a few minutes to cool down and recenter myself. Wearing a casual denim dress, I felt reasonably attractive and thought about having good posture and a pleasant countenance. As my irritation melted away, I was more aware of simply being nice to fellow customers and store employees.

Simple. Wise. Attractive. Nice. Such an easy way to remember to be like a swan, gliding through an ordinary day with a little everyday elegance. §

“Grace will take you places hustling can’t.”
~ Elizabeth Gilbert

Featured Art ~ White Swan on White Lake by Melissa Pinner

The Elegance of Children and Wildflowers

IMG_1852Just a couple of blocks from our house is the community swimming pool where I spent some of my happiest days. The Mount Vernon Recreation Club is where I learned to swim as a child and where I taught swimming lessons as a teenager. As I drive by the pool, I see children in colorful swimsuits splashing, bobbing, and climbing in and out of the water with wild abandon. I smile as I watch them do cannonballs off the diving board shouting, “Woo hoo!”

They remind me of summer’s wildflowers, so natural, sweet, and free. Yellow black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, blue bachelor buttons, and purple coneflowers dance in the warm breeze like happy children.

It was Thoreau who told us, “All good things are wild and free.” While I appreciate formal gardens with highly-cultivated flowers, neat hedges, and perfect symmetry, they are more like rigid adults. Adults who tug at their swimsuits, hold in their tummies, and smooth down windblown hair. Adults who are so serious they miss all the fun.

I want to be more like children and wildflowers. They remind me to be more carefree and to accept myself just the way nature intended. They encourage me to stop metaphorically pruning, weeding, and digging in quite so hard. A wildflower grows simply and beautifully, like a child in summertime.

This summer I want to swing high into the air with my feet kicked out and my head tilted back. I want to make a chain of clover and wear it in my hair. I want to lie in the grass and watch my thoughts roll by like fluffy clouds.

Wherever this season leads you, take time to notice children playing at the park, on neighborhood streets, on beaches, and at amusement parks. Be inspired by their curiosity, imagination, and lightheartedness. Let their unguarded laughter and movement take you back to your own childlike nature.

Like flowers, children deserve to freely grow in safe and nurturing environments where they can preserve their bright beauty and fresh innocence for as long as possible. I think adults would more elegantly serve each other and our world if we could regain some of our guileless naivety and childlike wonder.

Pick a wildflower from the woods or roadside ditch and put it in a little vase to be reminded. If the opportunity arises, slip on your swimsuit without any self-criticism. Then run and jump into the cool water with an enthusiastic, “Woo hoo!” §

“Wildflowers are the stuff of my heart!”
~ Lady Bird Johnson

Featured Art ~ Girl in a Field, Ludwig Knaus, 1857

The Elegance of Time ~ 6 Ways to Make the Most of It

IMG_1675It’s that time of year when graduations, weddings, and class reunions fill nearly everyone’s calendar. We give a high school graduation gift to someone who it seems was just a toddler. How can the bride possibly be all grown-up and getting married? The people at our class reunion are old! These events ceremoniously mark the passage of time, and we can’t help but wonder if we’re making the most of it.

In her book Time Alive, contemporary author Alexandra Stoddard writes, “Our time is brief by any standard. Now is the only opportunity we’ll have to give life meaning and find satisfaction. Our entire life depends on the wise use of our moments.”

I gained my first real understanding of the passage of time when I was in the third grade. A reel-to-reel film featured the seasonal progression of an ordinary tree. Classical music played softly in the background as a woman’s soothing voice narrated. Through the magic of time-lapsed photography, tiny spring buds transformed into lush green leaves, morphed into autumn-colored foliage, and fell away leaving stark bare branches.

I was captivated by the beauty, rhythm, and order of time marching forward. Sitting cross-legged on the cold linoleum floor of Lincoln Elementary School, I remember fighting back tears of wonder and joy. In an unforgettable moment of clarity, I became stunningly aware of time and its inevitable and precious passage.

The eight-year-old who holds that memory now qualifies for senior citizen discounts. I hope I’ve made good use of my time so far. When I find myself drifting or dragging from one day to the next, milestones in life remind me time is passing whether or not I am truly living.

Certainly, our individual responsibilities and stage of life determine how we spend our time, but here are six suggestions to help us make the most of our time alive.

  1. Evaluate how you’re spending it. You might be surprised how much time you rack up watching meaningless television, scrolling through social media, or frittering away at things that don’t bring you real meaning or happiness. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard.
  2. Identify your priorities. Decide what’s most important to you at this time in your life and dedicate your time to those things. Ask yourself writer Mary Oliver’s burning question, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Making the best use of your time often means deciding what we choose not to do.
  3. Picture your ideal day. Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not enough to be busy. The question is what are we busy about?” Considering the realities of your life, what does a well-spent day look like? Map out your morning, afternoon, and evening to create a general schedule that leads to living your best life.
  4. Do it before it’s too late. James 4:14 says, “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring…for you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Maybe you really want to see the Grand Canyon, write a book, plant a rose garden, or say “I love you.” What are you waiting for?
  5. Simplify your possessions. There’s no point in wasting time acquiring, cleaning, organizing, and storing things you don’t need or want. Imagine the time (and space) you could create in your life. Nineteenth century essayist Charles Dudley Warner wrote, “Simplicity is making the journey of this life with just baggage enough.”
  6. Take care of yourself. You can’t make the best use of your time if you don’t feel well physically, mentally, and spiritually. In that memorable film from my early school days, the tree that bloomed and grew beautifully through all the seasons was a healthy one, rooted in purpose, simplicity, and elegance. §

“Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.”
~ Miles Davis

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. §