The Joy of Having & Being a Muse

A muse is a source of creative inspiration. Muses are typically women and originated in Greek mythology when the nine daughters of Zeus presided over particular areas of the arts. A much loftier word for mentor, a muse can help us create our best life. We can all use a muse or two, and we should all aspire to be one.

In her poignant autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes a distinguished neighbor named Mrs. Bertha Flowers. About Mrs. Flowers, Angelou writes, “She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer days it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her.”

Mrs. Flowers became a muse to young Maya (then Marquerite Johnson) and changed her life by exposing her to literature and other “lessons in living.” Angelou writes, “She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained through my life the measure of what a human being can be.”

Just a year before Angelou died at age 86, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture of hers. Wearing an elegant black dress and pearls, she was a queen who sat on her throne bestowing wisdom, wit, and her own lessons in living. From the moment she walked on stage until the moment she regally exited, a lump formed in my throat, my eyes filled with tears, and I had goosebumps that lasted for days. Only a muse can inspire such a reaction.

Another muse of mine is contemporary philosopher and author Alexandra Stoddard. Through her books and lectures, Stoddard has inspired millions to pursue the art of living. In her book Time Alive, she offers this wake-up call, “Our time alive is brief by any standard. Now is the only opportunity we’ll have to give our life meaning and find satisfaction.”

In nearly all of her twenty-eight books, Stoddard mentions her own muse, Eleanor McMillen Brown, who founded the interior design company McMillen, Inc. in 1924. Brown was considered a pioneer in her field and built a reputation on her ability to combine great style with a keen sense of business.

Finding a muse, or mentor, is a personal journey. She may be someone you admire from afar, or someone you are fortunate to know well. She might even be a fictional character who has become flesh and blood in your mind.

While turning to a muse can help us improve our lives, at some point, we should consider paying it forward by serving as a muse, or mentor, to someone else. A mentor provides guidance, motivation, support, and serves as a role model to their protege.

Some people serve as a muse without even realizing it. In my neighborhood, there are three savvy ladies over seventy-five whom I often see waterskiing, hiking, and doing serious yard work. They unwittingly inspire me to live an active, vigorous life.

As sage women, others are watching us. Remembering this keeps us more accountable for our own conduct and behavior. We may never fill the shoes of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, but we can all aim to be a true gentlewoman and measure of what a human being can be.

Thank you for reading The Simple Swan. I hope you will leave a comment. Who is your muse? Do you mentor anyone? I love knowing what you think!

Dogs Don’t Simplify Life – they simply make it better

You know what doesn’t simplify life?

Dogs. They are expensive. They are messy. They are time consuming.

And they bring immeasurable joy.

This week we said goodbye to our beloved family pet, an American Eskimo we got when she was just a puppy. To say she aged well is an understatement. She was a fluffy, pure white beauty with dark brown eyes. Her cotton-candy tail curled up over her trim 18-pound body. Her sweet face could melt your heart. She lived to be 17 and a half years old.

Like all of God’s creatures, she came to us with her own personality. The day my children and I brought her home, she fit in our cupped hands. She posed regally in the grass, one front leg draped over the other. She needed a name fit for royalty and was dubbed Princess Grace.

It took nearly two years to convince our princess she should use the bathroom outdoors. She was aghast, but finally accepted the situation. From then on, she was a well-mannered, elegant addition to our family.

American Eskimos are extremely intelligent, making them typical circus dogs. Grace learned to perform all kinds of tricks including prancing along the garden wall and jumping back and forth through a hula hoop.

By the time she was five, asking her to do tricks seemed as inappropriate as asking the Queen of England to sit, lie down, and roll over. She was a classy lady who had an air about her that demanded respect.

Grace did not suffer fools. She looked at other dogs with a raised eyebrow. She did not drool on people, jump on furniture, tear through the house, or bark unnecessarily. She enjoyed a restrained pat behind the ears and mature conversation. Loud children were to be avoided.

She was a pedigree with high standards, and she made everyone in our home want to be a better human. The bumper sticker that reads, “Be the person your dog thinks you are” couldn’t be more apt when it came to how we felt under Grace’s watchful eye.

Gracie was set in her ways, as any 119-year-old would be. You could set a watch by her meal times. Breakfast was served at 8 am, and dinner was at 5 pm sharp. If the help deviated from this schedule, she let them know.

Her favorite place was in the garden, where she often rested in the sun among the flowers. She looked so pretty with red and pink impatiens blooming all around her. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she rang for tea.

Every snowfall brought out the child in Grace. It was fitting that an American Eskimo would beg to go outside and stare straight up at the sky to catch snowflakes on her tongue. Rolling on the cold ground in delight, she disappeared against the white snow.

Gracie was a one-in-a-million girl, a dog who witnessed our family go through more than seventeen years of challenges, changes, and growing pains. Through it all, she remained a reliable friend and gentle spirit who simply made all of our lives more beautiful.

No, dogs don’t simplify life.

You will spend a small fortune at the veterinarian’s office. You will endlessly clean nose smudges off glass doors. You will constantly pick white hair off black clothes. You will cry your heart out when it’s time to say goodbye.

But every time you see a fluffy, dog-shaped cloud in the sky you’ll be reminded of the unconditional love and pure happiness your furry friend gave you.

A Corona Wedding – 5 simple lessons for this mother-of-the-bride

My daughter was a Corona-bride. In late spring she and her fiancé cancelled their September wedding due to uncertainty about the pandemic. I wasn’t too disappointed, as the initial plan was to postpone the ceremony until next year.

A few weeks later my daughter excitedly told me they were getting married at city hall. In accordance with CDC guidelines, there would be a small outdoor gathering afterwards with just a few people who could easily and safely attend.

The picture I’d held in my mind of my daughter walking down the aisle on her wedding day surrounded by family and friends faded from view. A civil ceremony followed by toasts from a few masked guests wasn’t the vision I had for my little girl’s wedding.

This practical mother-of-the-bride secretly began lamenting a fairy tale wedding complete with an orchestra playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D and white doves released the moment my daughter said, “I do.”

I don’t know what got into me, but I was a tad difficult – a real MOB. I credit the bride’s younger brother for snapping me out of it by offering millennial advice like, “It’s not your wedding, Mom.”

Yesterday my beautiful daughter married the love of her life, a wonderful man whom I adore. Their wedding day is over, and it was simply perfect.

Let me wipe away my tears of joy and share five lessons in simplicity I learned from the experience.

1. Accept What Is – As much as I wished a pandemic didn’t upend my daughter’s wedding plans, it did. The Stoics embrace the idea of Amor Fati, or love of fate. Epictetus said, “Do not seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and all will be well with you.”

2. Relinquish Control – I admit I’m a control freak. In my mind, I’m only trying to help. The problem is it undermines others’ abilities and shows a lack of trust. My daughter’s wedding day was absolutely lovely without me pulling all the strings. Pandemics remind us how foolish it is to believe we are ever really in control.

3. Manage Emotions – There’s a reason people cry at weddings – it’s freaking emotional. Milestones in our lives, and that of our children, bring out all the feels. When emotions are surging, remember to take a deep breath and make sure you’re not over-reacting to a fleeting feeling.

4. Banish Comparisons – Thanks to social media, Pinterest, reality wedding shows, bridal magazines and a slew of Hallmark movies, there’s no shortage of ideas about the perfect wedding. Actually, doesn’t that apply to just about everything in life these days? As Theodore Roosevelt wisely warned, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

5. Remember What’s Important  – There are few people the pandemic hasn’t affected – some much more than others. Yet in many ways, it’s reminded us what’s really important. Health, not wealth. People, not things. The marriage, not the wedding. Sometimes we need to step back, see the big picture, and ask ourselves what truly matters.

From this day forward, do I vow to remember the lessons I learned from my daughter’s wedding? I do. §

Enneagrams Help Us Appreciate Ourselves & Others

I never could resist taking a personality test. It started with those silly ones in Tiger Beat magazine and continued with more sophisticated tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DISC Assessment and Enneagram of Personality.

The Enneagram is a model of nine personality types that can help us better understand the curious nature of ourselves and others. There’s much to learn about this theory, but here’s a broad look at the nine Enneagram personality types. 

Do any of these types shout your name or the name of someone you know? 

Type 1 The Reformer  ~ The rational, idealistic type described as principled, purposeful, self-controlled and perfectionistic. Belief: I must do things right. Motto: A job worth doing is worth doing well. Try not to criticize a Type 1. Famous Quote: Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching. ~ C.S. Lewis

Type 2  The Helper ~ The caring, interpersonal type described as demonstrative, generous, people-pleasing and possessive. Belief: I must help others. Motto: Home is where the heart is. Try not to take a Type 2 for granted. Famous Quote: Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty. ~ Mother Theresa

Type 3 The Achiever  ~ The success-oriented, pragmatic type described as adaptive, excelling, driven and image-conscious. Belief: I must succeed. Motto: Winners never quit and quitters never win. Try not to ignore a Type 3. Famous Quote: The whole secret of a successful life is to find out what is one’s destiny to do, and then do it. ~ Henry Ford

Type 4 The Individualist  ~ The sensitive, withdrawn type described as expressive, dramatic, temperamental and romantic. Belief: I must be unique. Motto: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Try not to tell a Type 4 what to do. Famous Quote: I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know. ~ Billie Holiday

Type 5  The Investigator  ~ The intense, cerebral type described as perceptive, innovative, secretive and isolated. Belief: I must understand. Motto: Good fences make good neighbors. Try not to underestimate a Type 5. Famous Quote: The unexamined life is not worth living. ~ Socrates

Type 6 The Loyalist  ~ The committed, security-oriented type described as engaging, responsible, anxious and suspicious. Belief: I must be prepared. Motto: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Try not to lie to a Type 6. Famous Quote: Do the thing you fear to do and keep on doing it. ~ Dale Carnegie

Type 7 The Enthusiast ~ The busy, fun-loving type described as spontaneous, versatile, distractible and scattered. Belief: I must be happy. Motto: Eat, drink and be merry. Try not to control a Type 7. Famous Quote: My focus is to forget the pain of life. Forget the pain, mock the pain, reduce it. And laugh. ~ Jim Carrey

Type 8 The Challenger  ~ The powerful, dominating type described as self-confident, decisive, willful and confrontational. Belief: I must be strong. Motto: He who is not with me is against me. Try not to betray a Type 8. Famous Quote: Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far. ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Type 9 The Peacemaker ~ The easy-going, self-effacing type described as receptive, reassuring, agreeable and complacent. Belief: I must be at peace. Motto: Live and let live. Try not to talk over a Type 9. Famous Quote: In seeking truth, you have to get both sides of a story. ~ Walter Cronkite

Like most personality tests, the point is to increase our capacity for personal growth and self-awareness. As Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

The Goodness of Snow

Even though the calendar has flipped to March, heavy wet snowflakes transformed our woods again this week taking me back to the very first time I saw snow.

It was a sunny Easter morning, and I woke up as happy and light as a five-year-old could be. Wearing my bunny nightgown, I stepped into our tiny blue bathroom and gasped. Just outside the window was a bright orange robin perched on a branch covered in white. She chirped excitedly, “Snow! Snow! SnowSnowSnow!” 

Standing on my tip-toes and peering over the window ledge, my whole world glittered. The smell of daddy’s shaving cream lingered in the bathroom. The fluffy layer covering every budding tree limb and blade of new grass looked as if it came from a can of Old Spice. I was certain it smelled just as clean and fresh, and I could hardly wait to scoop up a handful and hold it to my nose…

The fifty-year-old memory melted away, and I noticed it was snowing harder. Thick snowflakes floated to the ground in slow motion whispering magical words.

Soft…

In his poem The Dream Keeper, Langston Hughes spoke of the “too-rough fingers of the world.” A dear friend recently confided that the world was making her hard. I understood her concern, but I know better. My friend has the kind of heart that will allow her to stay soft. The more jagged and edgy the world becomes, the more I want to be a softer presence.

Pure…

Purity is synonymous with virtue, goodness, integrity, honesty and decency. We are never going to be perfect, but aiming to live a life of good character isn’t old-fashioned or unsophisticated. We have a choice about what we listen to, watch, read, say, do and even think. Being aware of what we put into our heads and hearts helps us reflect what we value.

Gentle…

St. Francis de Sales wrote, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness and nothing is so gentle as real strength.” My husband is one of the most gentle human beings I know. He inspires me to be more tender in my actions, interactions and reactions. We can learn to be gentle without being a pushover or a doormat.

Quiet…

It’s a noisy world. Restaurants are so loud it’s impossible to converse. Music thumps from the car in the next lane. Shoppers blab into cell phones while roaming store aisles. People interrupt to make their point. It’s useless to shout over the din. It’s said if you want someone’s attention, whisper.

Grace…

The freshly fallen snow makes everything appear perfect and beautiful, not the slushy dirty mess that is real life. Perhaps a beautiful snowfall is nature’s reminder of the grace that falls down on us to cover our imperfections, heal our hurts and return us to the innocence of a child amazed by her first snow. §

A Romantic Walk in the Snow

An unusual November storm covered our world with a three-inch blanket of snow. The next morning, I was eager to bundle up for a walk in the woods where I knew a magical scene awaited. My husband pointed out the record-low temperature more than once, but I wasn’t dissuaded. Sensing my excitement, or perhaps fearful for my safety, he decided to come along.

Under a cloudless azure sky, our woods was a sparkling white tangle of trunks, branches and twigs. We navigated the slippery trail, ducking through crystal curtains that bowed to the ground heavy with snow and icy autumn leaves.

The deeper we walked into the woods, the more enchanted it became. The orange breast of a robin blazed against a snowy thicket, animal tracks lured us to follow, and bright red berries popped against a silvery white backdrop. Glittery snow gently blowing off trees sounded like far-away music. Sharp air filled our lungs, and the smell of pine was intoxicating.

We walked in silence, sometimes raising a gloved finger to point at the beauty around us. Since we’re both retired, we spend nearly all our time together. We know each other so well, we often avoid words and just read each other’s minds.

We could have filled the frosty air with talk about the past or the future, but all that mattered was enjoying the present. I know that’s what my husband was thinking. After all, it was he who taught me that important lesson.

He held my hand, and every sight and feeling seemed magnified. Watching our feet move together through the snow, I remembered our first walk in the woods. It was spring, and we were teenagers.

We’ve traveled down so many paths since then, both together and alone. Had he seen my watery eyes, he would have laughed and teased. He knows sweet, simple moments easily make me cry.

I love my solitary walks in nature, but I’m glad my husband joined me that magical morning. At the end of an hour-long hike in the snowy woods, every corner of my heart was full, and I wasn’t a bit cold. §

Things Unseen from the International Space Station

“There it is!” a woman said pointing to the dusky western sky. “I see it!” chimed another. Half a dozen others looked up to watch the bright light of the International Space Station move steadily from one horizon to the other.

At one point, it shimmered strangely directly above the small group of people who gathered around a glowing fire outside an apartment building on a chilly October evening in an ordinary town in America’s Heartland.

It was an impromptu get-together of residents including three widows, a single retired teacher, and a gentleman and his wife who needs constant care. Two others joined them, adult children each visiting their mothers from out-of-town.

Whether they were companions that evening out of chance or destiny, a feeling of fellowship passed over them as odd and surprising as a space station hovering 250 miles above.

From lawn chairs, they tracked the space station as it came into sight somewhere over Montana and five minutes later faded out of view over West Africa. Comments circled around the fire pondering ever-advancing technology, the future, and their own smallness in the universe.

As they stared into mesmerizing orange-blue flames, there was quiet conversation against a backdrop of nature’s nighttime noises and constellations that grew brighter in the darkening sky.

Inside the space station, roughly the size of a football field, a six-member crew conducts experiments in human research, space medicine, life sciences, physical sciences, astronomy and meteorology. They orbit the Earth every 92.68 minutes gathering data and testing hypotheses.

Despite costly and important research, it’s doubtful the crew could ever quantitatively measure or observe the most important qualities of the human spirit, like those displayed around the small gas fire pit more than a million feet below them.

Strength to carry on after losing a loved one.

Courage to face illness and pain.

Love to care for another person.

Determination to overcome loneliness.

Wisdom to keep learning and growing.

Hope to stay encouraged.

Service to community.

Faith to believe in a better world.

The cameras and crew on the International Space Station have awesome views of our planet, but what they couldn’t see as they orbited the Earth that chilly October evening was the human bond of unlikely friends sitting around a glowing fire outside an apartment building in an ordinary town in America’s heartland. §

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Ways to be a Fountain, not a Drain

A decorative water fountain sits on our front porch. Every time I open the door to go out into the world, the trickling sound of the water urges me to be a fountain, not a drain.

When my father died a few years ago. I was given a gift certificate to purchase something special in his memory. My husband and I decided to get a fountain. We were at the garden store deciding between two designs. “I wonder which one my dad would like best,” I said. After several seconds of silence, Mike confidently stated, “He likes this one.”

“What makes you think so?” I asked. Pointing to the ground, he said, “He put that penny right in front of it.” Mike picked up the coin and put it in his pocket. That same penny has rested in the basin of our fountain ever since. (My husband continues to find coins left by my father the same way my mom knows every hawk is my dad flying by to say hello.)

The fountain is a sweet daily reminder of my father and the lessons he taught me. The elegant shape, soothing sound and inherent symbolism bring me comfort and joy. The continuous flow of the water represents the endless nature of unconditional love and the transcendent mystery of eternity itself.

Leonardo da Vinci said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” Certainly, life can’t exist without water and many of us find peace in its sight and sound. When I see a fountain, I often find myself humming that Sunday school hymn deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide… 

Among all of his words of wisdom, I never heard my dad use the expression, “Be a fountain, not a drain,” but he embodied the philosophy.

Ten Ways to Be a Fountain ~

  1. Be calming. There are more than enough people in the world who like to stir things up. Let your presence be a calming influence.
  2. Be energetic. The water in a lovely fountain is never dull and stagnant. Be full of energy and vitality.
  3. Be hopeful. Where there is water there is life, and life is always full of hope and promise.
  4. Be welcoming. A beautiful fountain beckons all to come closer and rest in its hospitality.
  5. Be cool. Angry, hot-headed behavior seems to be acceptable these days, but try to keep it cool, man.
  6. Be refreshing. The world can make us weary. Do what you can to refresh your soul and pass it on.
  7. Be cheerful.  Bubbling water sounds a little like laughter. Make a joyful sound.
  8. Be gentle. Aim for your words and actions to be soothing, like water flowing from a fountain.
  9. Be clear. A fountain filled with dark, murky water loses its beauty. Be transparent and honest in your interactions.
  10. Be peaceful. There is so much disharmony in the world about which we can do little, but we can all work towards creating peace in our homes, relationships and communities. §

 

 

 

 

The Man in the Moon

The August moon is full and bright on the night of my father’s birthday. I miss him even more than usual, and the gossamer glow both increases and soothes my melancholy.

Gazing at the mysterious moon in the still of the night, I imagine Claude Debussy’s piano classic Claire de Lune quietly playing in the background as a perfect accompaniment to my bittersweet emotions.

Claire de Lune, meaning moonlight, is one of the most well-known and beloved piano pieces of all time. It is the third and most famous movement of Debussy’s 1890 Suite Bergamasque. In a spirit of creative cooperation, Debussy was inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem Claire de Lune which was inspired by the moon itself.

Whether or not you speak French, doesn’t this poem sound lovely? Et leur chanson se mele au clair de lune. Au calme clair de lune triste et beau. These lines from Verlaine’s poem are translated to mean, And their song blends with the moonlight. With the sad and beautiful moonlight. 

Triste et beau. Sad and beautiful. Yes, those two words do strike a chord. I’m in awe and appreciation of nature’s ability to inspire masterpieces that express our seemingly inexpressible emotions. Both nature and art make us feel less alone and connect us through a timeless shared humanity.

My mind travels back to a moonlit evening many years ago. My handsome young father is at the piano plucking out chords and humming a tune. He had an ear for music and could find the notes to any song he heard. My sisters and I gather around him in our nightgowns, squeaky clean from evening baths, and sing together for at least an hour before dreamily floating off to bed.

Looking up at the full moon this evening, I wish my dad a happy birthday. Silhouetted against a heavenly circle of light is the man in the moon. He is sitting at a piano elegantly playing Claire de Lune. §

Lessons from a Memorable Teacher

An injured butterfly gently rested in my cupped hands. Looking closely, I admired the symmetrical patterns painted in sleek black on bright yellow wings. The scalloped hindwings were decorated with a royal blue art-deco design and the slightest touch of orange. She was a work of art.

I could easily identify it as a female eastern tiger swallowtail, or Papilio glaucus, thanks to my tenth grade biology teacher, Mrs. Shaw. In hindsight, she was one of the most talented teachers I ever had. She helped me see the beauty and artistry in science. This was no small task as I typically enjoyed more creative, right-brained pursuits.

Always dressed in a white lab coat, Mrs. Shaw taught bell-to-bell with no idle chit-chat or wasted time. Using colored chalk, she drew intricate diagrams of cells, or whatever we were learning at the time, which we would replicate and study in our own notebooks.

Even in college, it was rare to have a professor with Mrs. Shaw’s combination of knowledge, passion, and teaching skills. When I became a teacher myself, I borrowed many of her techniques for running an effective and efficient classroom. She was smart and kind, poised and mature, making her a role model for all students, especially impressionable young women.

Students in Mrs. Shaw’s biology class completed two main projects ~ an insect display in the fall and a wildflower display in the spring. Picking wildflowers was right up my alley, but the bugs were another story. I wasn’t afraid of them, but I didn’t want to kill them.

Mrs. Shaw gave a compelling explanation why “preserving” the insects was crucial for our education and that was that. Armed with a bug net and glass jars containing cotton-balls soaked with rubbing alcohol, I scoured our yard, nearby woods, and roadsides for a month in search of insects native to Southern Illinois.

I set up my entomology lab on my dad’s workbench in the garage. After collecting an insect, I carefully placed it in the jar. I added my own step of saying a prayer of gratitude to each bug for sacrificing its life for my GPA. Next, I methodically mounted the insects with pins onto the foam board our teacher provided. The most important step was properly identifying each specimen by its common name, scientific name, and category.

Forty years later, I can’t help but remember that experience when I encounter a cute ladybug (Harmonia axyridis), an exquisite praying mantis (Stagmomantis carolina), or a beautiful monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

I placed the swallowtail on a flowering bush, hoping her injured leg didn’t prove to be fatal. I bent down to say some encouraging words, and she began to move a bit. “You can do it,” I cheered.

It was then I decided to name her. “Fly away, Mrs. Shaw,” I said with a grin. Suddenly, she fluttered off the bush in a graceful loop. “Thank you for the biology lessons,” I whispered. “I haven’t forgotten them.” §