The Elegance of Winter’s Simplicity

IMG_0469Just outside our upstairs bedroom window, winter trees stand like elegant steel sculptures against a silver sky. As I awaken, my eyes trace the trees’ bold, black branches. The bare winter trees inspire me to simplify.

Based on the popularity of books and television shows on the subject, I know I’m not alone in my urge to simplify, nor am I the first to be motivated by nature. Isaac Newton wrote, “Nature is pleased with simplicity.” He was referring to mathematical principles and philosophical reasoning, not kitchen cabinets and sock drawers, but I think his point remains.

During his time at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau observed, “Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with nature herself.” Wouldn’t we all accept an invitation to more purity and ease?

Inspired by the winter landscape, I am beginning the new year by simplifying. Like beauty, simplicity is in the eye of the beholder, but maybe you can relate to my goal of tackling the following areas.

Physical Possessions ~ I’m reconsidering every item in every drawer, closet, shelf, box, cabinet, glove compartment, and secret nook and cranny. I’m keeping only things I love and that align with my idea of a simple, elegant life. Uncomfortable shoes, be gone!

Health and Finances ~ I don’t know about you, but during the winter months I tend to put such things on the back burner. I have experienced the relief of being on top of my game in these areas, and I’m not going to wait until spring to feel that way again.

Digital Footprint ~ Newton and Thoreau didn’t have to worry about this one, but it’s a struggle for me. Photographs, emails, documents, passwords, downloads and “the cloud” hang over my head. I hope to take control of my technology before it changes, and this old dog has to learn more new tricks.

Activities and Pursuits ~ Just as we have limited space in our cupboards, we have limited space in our days. I’m letting go of vague dreams to travel the world or become a gourmet cook who is fluent in French, but I am fully committed to a small number of true passions.

Thoughts and Emotions ~ Sometimes intangible baggage prevents us from simplifying. Just like physical clutter, we have to let go of the stuff in our head and heart that keeps us from living our best life.

I hope you will join me in answering Thoreau’s call to simplify, simplify! If we get stuck, winter’s elegant inspiration is right outside the window in the clarity of a shaft of sunlight, the peace of dormant fields, the freedom of geese in flight, and the beauty of a snowflake. §

“In winter, the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of more exalted simplicity.”
~ John Burroughs

The Elegance of Feeding the Birds

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My husband taught me the elegance of feeding the birds. Initially it was his interest, and I stood back wondering if it was worth the effort. It wasn’t long before I was convinced the time and money we spent caring for our feathered friends was returned many times over.

Whether you live in the city or the country, maintain an elaborate system of bird feeders, or just sprinkle bread crumbs on your window sill, feeding the birds brings simple elegance to life in these six unexpected ways.

1. Kindness – When we do something nice, no matter how simple, it increases the kindness in the world. A single kind act can have a long-reaching ripple effect, sending good vibes throughout the planet. Watching the birds gleefully flock to their freshly filled feeders and bird bath, makes us want to keep spreading good cheer.

2. Connection – Over the years, I’ve watched the birds from kitchen windows and backyard porches with family and friends of all ages. Watching the birds together creates a sweet and common bond over the wonder of our shared world.

3. Learning –  When we watch the birds, we naturally want to know more about them. Is that a bluebird or an indigo bunting? Do orioles prefer oranges or meal worms? Did you know a woodpecker’s tongue is so long it wraps around the inside of its head? There is so much to learn! 

4. Beauty – In our flashy bigger-is-better world, we can easily miss the subtle, natural beauty of life. When we take time to notice a bird’s intricate coloring, delicate shape, and  sweet song, we begin to appreciate the genuine beauty in the world we sometimes take for granted.

5. Simplicity – A few seeds and a little fresh water is all a bird needs. It makes us stop and think about what we really need to live a healthy, happy life. Watching the birds mindfully eat, chirp, nest, and fly encourages us to strip away the pretenses and live a more simple, authentic life.

6. Charity – Remember the bird lady Mary Poppins sang about? “Come feed the little birds. Show them you care and you’ll be glad if you do. The young ones are hungry; their nests are so bare. All it takes is tuppence from you. Feed the birds. Tuppence a bag.” We all benefit when we share our blessings, not just count them. §

“I wish we had all been born birds instead.”
~ Kurt Vonnegut

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.”§

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The Elegance of Blooming Like an Amaryllis

When my children were very young, they became unexpectedly fascinated by the big red flowers that bloomed in pots at their grandparents’ Wisconsin home at Christmastime. Grandpa Bob, a crusty farmer and Marine, patiently explained how he forced the amaryllis bulbs to bloom as exquisite holiday decorations.

The next year, and for many years after, my children and their grandfather participated in a holiday tradition known as the Great Amaryllis Race. Shortly after Thanksgiving, they each opened a box containing a pre-planted amaryllis bulb, and the race was on!

I watched my children stare at their pots of dirt and whisper magic words, wishes, and prayers to urge the bulbs to sprout. Within a week or so, green pointy stems nudged out of the dirt, thrilling them to no end.

They carefully watered their plants, moved them to the perfect light, turned the pots to encourage the stalk to grow straight, and expertly used the thin stakes to keep them from falling over. Day by day, centimeter by centimeter, they watched their plants grow.

Throughout December, my children regularly called their grandparents from our home in Florida with their amaryllis report. “Grandpa,” my son excitedly said into the telephone, “mine is the tallest!” Holding a ruler, his older sister added, “But only by half an inch!”

Eventually the slender green stems reached more than a foot. By Christmas day, the buds at the top magically unfurled revealing two, three, or even more separate flowers that burst opened into the most elegant five-inch wide, scarlet blooms.

My kids always felt a little sorry for their grandpa who, for some reason, never won the contest. In fact, whose amaryllis grew the fastest, tallest, or with the most flowers became secondary to the miracle of watching a pot of dirt transform into something so beautiful.

There’s no greater joy than seeing children so excited about something so pure and wonderful. At a time of year when kids can become materialistic and self-centered, the Great Amaryllis Race taught my children important values including patience, care, faith, beauty, and simplicity.

The metaphors are too plentiful to do them justice, but aren’t we a little like that amaryllis bulb, so full of amazing potential? We must root ourselves in good soil, provide optimum growing conditions, prop ourselves up when we start to fall, and patiently wait until we fully bloom into the elegant creation we were meant to be.

“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”
~Chinese Proverb

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

The Elegant Inspiration of Swans

Nature offers us all the inspiration we need to move through life with elegance and grace. Our physical world is filled with breathtaking landscapes, plants, and animals. Consider a majestic black stallion, a dainty gossamer butterfly, or a strong and courageous lion. Among these elegant creatures is the swan, an ethereal bird that graces the scenes of art, literature, and ballet.

My earliest encounter with storybook swans was Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Ugly Duckling and its powerful message of transformation, kindness, and love. Who can resist the idea that, no matter how awkward and rejected we feel, deep down we are all beautiful swans?

Another favorite novel of mine is E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan. It tells the sweet story of a trumpeter swan, Louis (cleverly named for Louis Armstrong), who learns several lessons on his journey first to self-love and eventually to true love with a swan named Serena.

My affinity for swans was sealed when I was a little girl taking dance lessons. My mother took my sisters and me to a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and I was mesmerized. Ever since, a picture book of the ballet has had a place on my shelf.

Seeing swans in nature only increases their fictional dreaminess for me, though they still somehow seem mythical. As I watch swans regally float on the water, I’m inspired by their natural beauty and simplicity. They might be paddling like crazy just below the surface, but they always appear to float serenely through life.

I began teaching middle school before my children were born. By the time they reached the same age as the eighth graders I taught, I had a daily routine of stopping by a park on the way home from school. For ten or fifteen minutes, I would sit in my car and watch the swans on the small lake, while I decompressed, meditated, and prayed.

In the midst of hectic days blessed by teenagers at work and home, the swans soothed my soul and reminded me how I wanted to show up in the world as a teacher, parent, and human being ~ peaceful, placid, and poised.

Now, as I near my sixties, swans seem to have the wise and mature sense of joy I’d like to possess. They aren’t as dramatic as peacocks or as cute and flighty as chickadees. Swans represent the simple deep contentment I seek in my own life.

Most of us feel drawn to certain things in nature. Do you have a spirit animal that displays traits you’d like to emulate? Though it may not be a swan, I’m sure you appreciate their beauty and are inspired by their grace and serenity. No matter what life brings, we can at least aim to effortlessly glide through our days with the elegance of a simple swan.§

“Swans always look as though they’d just been reading their own fan mail.”
~Jill Struther

The Elegance of the Universe

A Perseid meteor shower nudged me outside at three in the morning to gaze up at the sky. I gasped each time a saw a shooting star streak across the deep blue sky. The universe was created with such elegance. I believe you and I are given the enormous lifetime responsibility of contributing as much beauty to the world as we can.  

The Elegant Universe is the title of the book that inspired the popular Nova series by the same name. It explores superstrings, hidden dimensions, and parallel worlds beyond my understanding. I am more poetess than physicist, but I do adore the title. 

Elegance can be defined as that which is exceptionally beautiful and simple, modest and at the same time bright. We see elegance in a snowflake, a spider’s web, the big dipper, and a swan. Wikipedia adds, “Elegant things exhibit refined grace and suggest maturity.” 

There’s no need to point out the lack of elegance swirling about our planet. Politics, pop culture, and nightly news make that clear, but these are things over which we have little influence. We are but a single star in the infinite cosmos.

Are we shining “like a diamond in the sky” as the nursery song encouraged? I believe we were created to be brilliant. Imagine if each of us blazed through our days, leaving a trail of light in what can seem like a dark world. 

How do we possibly go about raising our personal standards to match the elegance of the universe? One of my favorite quotes is by Julie Andrews, “Leave everything you do, every place you go, everything you touch, a little better for your having been there.” 

It’s a daunting task for sure. Anne Lamont wrote a book which she titled Bird by Bird. The author recalled her brother had to complete a big school project on birds. Overwhelmed by the task, their father advised him to “take it bird by bird”. In other words, we can do almost anything by taking it step-by-step-by-step.

Our own elegance can be increased in three not-so-easy steps. One, we can elevate our thoughts. Two, we can elevate our words. Three, we can elevate our actions. At the risk of over-simplifying our existence, those are the areas of our lives over which we have control. If we value elegance and wish for that in our homes, our communities, and our world, then that’s a pretty good place to start.

Under the spell of the Perseid meteor shower, I stopped wishing on falling stars, and set an intention to do all I can to add to the elegance of the universe. I will often fall short, but as Norman Vincent Peale said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” §

 
 
 

The Elegance of Summer’s Bounty

 

There is no finer example of true elegance than that of nature. In summer, it generously bestows miraculous gifts of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. How pleased nature must be when we appreciate them. Here are ten ways to graciously accept and celebrate summer’s bounty. 

  1. Be Amazed. Imagine you never laid eyes on a bright yellow sunflower, smelled a bunch of lavender, or bit into a juicy, sweet strawberry. What a happy surprise they would be! Intentionally celebrate the gifts of summer as if for the first time. 
  2. Visit a Farmer’s Market. My husband and I stop by a farmers’ market a couple times each week during the summer. Not only do we go home with a variety of fresh-from-the-farm produce, it’s always a humbling reminder that the good food on our plates depends on experienced, hard-working hands.
  3. Gather Summer Blooms. I bet something pretty is blooming right outside your front door that you could clip, arrange, and slip into a little vase. If not, take a walk or drive and you’re sure to find some wildflowers growing in a road-side ditch. Pick just a few to add a touch of summer to your home. 
  4. Cook with Fresh Herbs. My husband is the chef in our house, and I’m always impressed by how he jazzes up simple meals with fresh herbs from our backyard. Identifying and relishing the distinct flavors of basil, dill, cilantro, mint, and rosemary makes our mealtimes more flavorful and mindful.  
  5. Go to a You-Pick Destination. We recently picked our own lavender from rows and rows of hazy purple flowers. The heavenly scent transported us straight to Provence. Whether you pick your own flowers, fruit, or vegetables, it’s a summertime ritual not to be missed. (If you’re in southern Illinois, be sure to visit Lavender Falls U-Pick Farm in Mt. Vernon.) 
  6. Eat a Rainbow. The practice of eating a rainbow every day simply reminds us to have a diet filled with colorful fruits and veggies. Different colors in produce deliver specific nutrients. For example, red foods like tomatoes and strawberries contain an antioxidant called lycopene. It’s easy to eat a rainbow during the summer months.
  7. Get Creative. Beautiful things in nature inspire creativity. Consider masterpieces like Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers or George Gershwin’s aria from Porgy and Bess called Summertime. Let a big blue hydrangea or a bowl of ripe strawberries inspire you to draw, paint, or write a poem.
  8. Dine Al Fresco. There is no better way to enjoy nature’s bounty than dining outdoors. A warm breeze, the song of birds, and the changing colors of the sky, all add to the ambiance of a memorable summer meal. 
  9. Share the Goodness. A few weeks ago, we found some superb blackberries and knew we needed to get a quart for my father-in-law, too. He later surprised us with some perfect peaches. Whether you have an abundance of cucumbers or prolific rose bushes, sharing the gifts of summer only increases their pleasure. 
  10. Feel Gratitude. This week we bought a small bunch of gorgeous sunflowers at the grocery store for four dollars. I cut their thick fuzzy stems and arranged them in a vase that I keep moving around the house. Each time I scurry by them with a load of laundry, see them from the kitchen sink, or sit near them while I write, they bring a sigh of appreciation.

    As poet Celia Thaxter wrote long ago, “There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.” And gratitude is an elegance we can cultivate all year long.§


    “A life without love is like a year without summer.”
    ~Swedish Proverb