Write Your Own Mission Statement

I’ve been adrift. Like a battered old rowboat, I allowed myself to be tossed about on the sea of life. I needed an anchor and something to remind me what floats my boat. With the help of several resources, I wrote a personal mission statement.

I am nothing short of shocked how a simple mission statement is helping me do everything with more confidence, clarity and inner peace. Every decision is easier. Life is easier.

Writing an effective mission statement can take time, but Laurie Beth Jones offers a helpful formula in her book The Path: Creating a Mission Statement for Work and for Life. This is certainly not the only way to write a mission statement, but it is an excellent way to get started. The idea is to fill in the missing blanks to create your personal mission statement.

My mission is to
_______________, ______________, and _________________
(your three verbs)

(your core value or values)
for (to or with)
(the group/cause which most moves/excites you)

Let’s look at an example. A woman Jones worked with initially said her mission was to raise a happy family. Sounds good, right? Wrong. This mission requires her family members to be happy, which isn’t within the woman’s control. The only thing she controls are her own values and actions. While a mission should benefit others, the hard truth is that the people in her family could leave her. If that should happen, she can and must continue with her mission.

Using Jones’ formula, here’s how that dedicated mom re-wrote her mission statement: My mission is to create, nurture, and maintain an environment of growth, challenge, and unlimited potential for all those around me.

Now it’s your turn. First, consider what is most important to you. These are your core values. Next, consider the talents you have that could help you move your core values into action. These are your verbs. Now, think about who will benefit from your mission and why. Finally, put it all together to write your mission statement. Shuffle it around, sleep on it, keep at it until it feels right.

Your personal mission statement should be broad enough to help you create a clear vision for all areas of life. When changing tides, unsettling ripples or tsumani-sized waves rock your boat, your personal mission statement allows you to stay steady, strong and unsinkable.

Making a wish for a boy in Uganda

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made a wish upon the first star I see at night. My childhood wishes were inspired by Jiminy Cricket who sang, “If you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you.”

Once my children went out on their own, I found it comforting to know no matter how far away they were from me, they could look up at the night sky and remember we were all safe under the same blanket of stars. The wishes I’ve made for them are as numerous as the twinkling dots in the sky. This evening, I will make a wishful prayer on one of those stars for a little boy in Uganda who turns ten years old today.

Several years ago my husband and I began sponsoring Lukas through Compassion International, a Christian humanitarian aid organization. Lukas lives in a small village 300 miles away from the nearest city. Through the work of Compassion, Lukas and many of the children in his village are able to attend school a couple of days a week. On the other days he helps his father tend to animals, gather firewood, carry water and care for his brothers and sisters.

Uganda is one of the poorest nations in the world. Most families depend on subsistence farming, and water shortages frequently cause food scarcity. Many Ugandan children are significantly malnourished. I don’t know if Lukas understands he lives in poverty. If so, his smiling school photos and crayon drawings of him playing soccer, climbing trees and laughing with friends outside his little home with the blue roof belie the fact.

When I find myself wishing for material things or for even more ease in my life, I think of Lukas and the three billion people on our planet who live in poverty. There is a quote I turn to when my life seems inadequate, when I let advertisements and social media make me feel small and envious.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself. Tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches. For to the creator, there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.” Rilke’s words both shame and inspire me. I keep the quote close at hand, just in case I need to snap out of it.

Our sponsorship of Lukas includes annual Christmas and birthday gifts. He always writes to thank us and tell what he purchased with the money. Once it was a chicken. Another time he bought mosquito netting. Last year we were happy to know after buying a mattress there was enough money left over for a piece of candy. I am reminded of a quote by Ghandi, “Live simply so others may simple live.”

This week I sent a birthday message to Lukas through the Compassion website which an interpreter will help him read. I asked him to look up at the sky this evening. “Remember that we live on the same planet, under the same sky dotted with the same stars,” I wrote. “I am making a special wish on one of those stars, a prayer just for you, Lukas, for a very happy birthday.”

Spring cleaning gives us a fresh start

The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming and I am happily cleaning every nook and cranny of our home. I know, some of you might be more like my clever mom who said, “If I ever get the urge to clean, I lie down until the feeling passes!” Regardless of where the urge comes from or how long it lasts, spring cleaning can give us a fresh start.

Historically, spring cleaning can be traced back at least 3,000 years to a Persian tradition still practiced in some homes called Khāne Tekānī. The phrase literally means “shaking the house.” In Jewish tradition, not a crumb of leavened food is allowed in the house during Passover, so homes are carefully cleaned. Some consider these traditions to be the origin of spring cleaning, though many cultures have practices that include elements of spring cleaning.

Most experts in the field of human science believe there are biological reasons for spring cleaning. During the short, dark days of winter, our bodies produce more melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy. As days get longer, we receive a boost of energy from longer hours of daylight and produce less melatonin. So it may be a natural instinct to emerge from winter’s hibernation ready to clean and organize our environments.

There are also some very practical reasons that led to spring cleaning. Prior to the invention of the vacuum cleaner, spring was the best time for dusting because it was warm enough to open windows and doors, but not warm enough for bugs to be a big problem. In the days of coal furnaces, everything in the home got covered in a layer of black soot. Once winter was over, it was time to clean up the mess. Even with today’s improved home heating, ventilation and appliances, it makes sense to wait to do deep cleaning until it is nice enough to throw open the windows and doors.

Iconic comedienne Phyllis Diller joked, “Housework can’t kill you, but why take a chance?” The truth is, spring cleaning offers proven health benefits. An uncluttered home is safer than a cluttered one. Fires and falls are common causes of injury and death. Not only can clutter cause people to trip and fall, it can rapidly spread a fire and block doors and windows, reducing ability to escape or be rescued. Even if our clutter isn’t at a dangerous level (yet), addressing it at least once a year keeps us from gaining hoarder status.

A clean home can protect us from sickness. Dust, mildew, mold and pet dander are pollutants that tend to gather during winter months and can trigger our immune systems. We can also get sick from germs. One thing we learned from the Covid-19 pandemic was the importance of keeping surfaces clean, especially in bathrooms and kitchens.

Spring cleaning provides exercise and can reduce stress and help us sleep better. Doing household chores is a low-intensity exercise that burns calories and increases heart rate. The mindless repetitive tasks can turn off our our brains for a while and help us de-stress. Research shows sleeping in a clean, tranquil room can help us sleep more deeply and restfully.

Finally, tackling spring cleaning projects can boost our mood and give us a fresh start. Not only can cleaning leave us with a satisfying sense of accomplishment, it is proven to release endorphins in the brain which can improve our mood and energy level. Several studies show cleaning our home can motivate us to clean up other areas of our lives including diet, finances and relationships.

Dusting baseboards, washing windows and organizing closets might not seem that important but, like spring itself, it can inspire a new beginning. Professional organizer Peter Walsh said this about spring cleaning, “What I know for sure is that when you clean-up anything – whether it’s your home, your head or your heart – it is astounding what will flow into that space that will enrich you, your life and your family.

5 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month

In addition to all the other joys of springtime, April is also National Poetry Month. Initiated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, the international event has become the world’s largest literary celebration with the goal to recognize poetry’s integral role in our culture.

As a middle school literature teacher, I found the beauty of spring could bring out the poet in the most unlikely students. Even if poetry has never been your thing, this might be your chance to see what all the fuss is about. Here are five specific ways you can celebrate National Poetry Month.

1. Start off the month by reading this light-hearted love poem by Mortimer Collins called The First of April. It’s a favorite of mine because my late parents actually tied the knot on April Fool’s Day 62 years ago.

Now if to be an April-fool
Is to delight in the song of the thrush,
To long for the swallow in air’s blue hollow,
And the nightingale’s riotous music-gush,
And to paint a vision of cities Elysian
Out away in the sunset-flush –
Then I grasp my flagon and swear thereby,
We are April-fools, my Love and I.

2. Get a free 2023 National Poetry Month poster, seen above. You can download it or order yours at poets.org. This year’s poster was designed by Marc Brown, creator of Arthur books and television series. The poster features this important line from a poem written by current Poet Laureate Ada Limón, “…we were all meant for something.” 

3. Check out a book of poetry from the library, buy a new book or pull a dusty one from your own bookshelf, and read a poem every day this month. A favorite poetry book on my own shelf is titled Poems That Will Change Your Life by Fall River Press. My copy naturally opens to a dog-eared page with this beauty by Emily Dickinson titled If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Into his nest again,
I shall not live in vain

4. Celebrate Earth Day on Saturday, April 22 by going outside and reading or writing poetry inspired by nature. There’s nothing like being outside and reading a poetic verse like this from Auguries of Innocence by William Blake.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palms of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

5. Participate in Poem-In-Your-Pocket Day on April 27. This event takes place every year during National Poetry Month. The idea is simple. Find a poem you love and carry it in your pocket to read yourself or share with family, friends and even strangers. You can even share it on social media using the hashtag #PocketPoem. Choosing a poem meaningful enough to carry with us is an exercise in itself. For years, I posted on my classroom door this poem by Langston Hughes called The Dream Keeper.

Bring me all of your dreams, you dreamers
Bring me all of your heart melodies
That I may wrap them in a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers of the world.

Each time I entered my classroom, the poem reminded me of my desire to educate and nurture students with tender hearts filled with hopeful dreams. Though I am retired now, the poem still speaks to me, so it remains tucked away in my purse pocket. It is a message I celebrate during National Poetry Month, and always.§

“Poetry, like jazz, is one of those dazzling diamonds of creative industry that help human beings make sense out of the comedies and tragedies that contextualize our lives.”
~ Aberjhani, American historian

Note to Subscribers ~ April 23 will be my last post on The Simple Swan. As I have often written about the changing seasons, I have been slow to realize I’ve entered a new season in my own life. It is a season of being more than doing, listening more than speaking, learning more than teaching, reading more than writing. Thank you for your loyal support. Love, Alicia

March weather imitates unpredictability of life


“It was one of those March days, when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it was summer in the light, and winter in the shade,” wrote Charles Dickens in Great Expectations. Though much has changed since 1860 when that novel was first published, March weather is just as unpredictable, and life itself continues to defy all expectations.

I can still picture a bulletin board in my elementary school that showed the month of March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb. There is debate about that old English proverb.  Some say if March comes in like a lion, it goes out like a lamb. Some say it’s the other way around. The debate only illustrates the point that March weather is uncertain.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Our life is March weather, savage and serene in one hour.” We’ve all experienced what Emerson is talking about. One minute we’re skipping down the sunny side of the street and suddenly the skies darken and we’re caught in an unexpected downpour. This scenario occurs throughout life, both literally and figuratively.

Among his lessons in living, my dad said, “The only predictable thing about life is its unpredictability.” He didn’t say this to make me throw my hands up and quit, but rather to prepare me to react to life’s unpredictability with as much grace as possible. His wisdom came in handy in my career as a middle school teacher when carefully constructed lesson plans were often tweaked, altered or completely scrapped due to an unexpected teachable moment. A co-teacher had this sign on her desk, “Blessed are the flexible for they will not be bent out of shape!”

In an article in Psychology Today, Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D. offers some ways to cope with the unpredictability of life. Her ideas include relying on a support network, avoiding media that generates negative feelings, and understanding what is and isn’t within our control. “We don’t have the power to control our world or other people’s actions and decisions, only our own,” she writes. “Once we accept the limits of our power to control, we can let go of a lot of stress, anxiety and misplaced responsibility.”

Another good way to face life’s unpredictability is to laugh and smile. She writes, “When we smile, our brains kick into ‘happiness gear’ and dopamine, serotonin and endorphins are released – all feel-good neuropeptides.” In a similar manner, laughter protects us against stress and anxiety. “Learning to laugh at yourself,” she writes, “is a crowning achievement that puts you in a good place to control the way you react to life when things don’t go as planned.”

Humorist Mark Twain said, “A great great deal has been said about the weather, but very little has ever been done.” Trying to control life is almost as silly as trying to control the weather. March weather, especially where I live in southern Illinois, reminds me of this childhood tongue twister ~ Whether the weather be fine or whether the weather be not. Whether the weather be cold or whether the weather be hot. We’ll weather the weather whatever the weather whether we like it or not! §

“I don’t make plans, because life is short and unpredictable ~ much like the weather!”
~ Al Roker, veteran weatherman

Springtime Check-ups You Need to Have

Springtime naturally inspires us to beautify our homes and yards. It’s a good time to give our cars a thorough cleaning and tune-up. We might even spruce up our wardrobes and get a fresh haircut. Spring is also a perfect time to take care of our health and wellness check-ups and screenings. It’s always simpler to find out about a problem earlier rather than later. 

This month I’ve gone to almost a dozen medical appointments. I admit it was no fun. Waiting rooms are cold. Being poked and prodded is uncomfortable. Wearing a paper dress is humbling at best. But I am so glad I did it! Knowing the hard truth about my results has given me a sense of peace and the encouragement to continue healthy habits and tweak things I could do better. 

Some aspects of our health are beyond our control, but if we are honest, the person most responsible for our good health is ourselves. The following screenings are recommended for women over 50. Of course, they vary slightly for men. Please consult your own health care professionals to determine what tests you should have and how often. 

  1. Blood Pressure Test – According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women. A blood pressure test is the only way to know if a person has hypertension, the most common risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Blood pressure should be checked by a professional at least annually. Normal blood pressure is 120/80 or less.
  2. Blood Tests – When a doctor orders blood tests as part of a routine check-up, the goal is to learn how your body is functioning overall. Harvard Medical School says four blood tests are particularly important for women over 50: blood sugar, lipid panel, thyroid and Vitamin D. Talk to your doctor about recommended blood tests.
  3. Body Mass Index – The BMI score can raise attention to health problems such as diabetes or heart disease. According to Mayo’s Clinic, a score over 30 indicates obesity, which can lead to serious health issues. Obesity among women in the U.S. is 65% for those between the age of 45 and 65 and 75% among women over 65.
  4. Bone Density Test – The Cleveland Clinic says women are more likely to get osteoporosis than men, partially due to the loss of estrogen after menopause. Screening for osteoporosis typically begins at age 65 with a low-dose X-ray called a DEXA scan. Those with risk factors, such as fractures, smaller frames or family history, may be screened earlier.
  5. Cholesterol – This blood test assesses the risk for developing heart disease or stroke. Mayo’s Clinic says total levels should be less than 200 (milligrams per deciliter). Women’s cholesterol levels can fluctuate and increase after menopause putting them at greater risk of heart disease and stroke.
  6. Colon Cancer Screening – According to the American Cancer Society, about one in 24 U.S. women is at risk for developing colon cancer. Most people should get a colonoscopy at least once every ten years beginning at 50. After 75, your doctor may recommend against the procedure. Talk to your doctor about alternative screenings that are more convenient and less invasive.
  7. Dental Check-Up – Changing hormone levels during menstrual cycle, pregnancy and menopause can raise the risk of oral health problems for women. The American Dental Association recommends everyone have biannual dental check-ups, including teeth cleaning and necessary X-rays.
  8. Immunizations – According to the Center for Disease Control, Covid-19 has made getting annual flu shots more important. It also recommends those over 50 get an annual shingles vaccine and a Tetanus Booster every ten years (along with a one-time pertussis vaccine for whooping cough). People over 65 should also get an annual pneumococcal vaccine for the prevention of pneumonia.
  9. Mammogram – Mammograms are a series of low-energy X-rays that screen for breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends women have annual mammograms beginning at age 45, with the option available at age 40. Women over 55 may have mammograms every two years or choose to continue yearly screenings.
  10. Pap Test – A Pap smear looks for cancerous and pre-cancerous cells in the cervix and usually includes a screening for HPV (human papillomavirus), which can lead to cervical cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends women have a Pap test every three years beginning at 21. At 65, some women may stop having the test, if their doctor determines they’ve had several years of consecutive negative Pap and HPV tests.
  11. Vision Exams – While eye problems and diseases become more prevalent with age, many can be prevented or corrected. The Cleveland Clinic says all adults should see an ophthalmologist at least every two years for a complete eye exam with pupil dilation. At age 65, eye doctor visits should be annual or as recommended.
  12. Skin Exams – Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States according to the American Association of Dermatology. It’s recommended to do a monthly self-check for new moles or changes to existing moles. Talk to your doctor or dermatologist about any changes and about the frequency of in-office exams.§

“Growing into your future with health and grace and beauty requires a dedication to caring for yourself as if you were rare and precious, which you are.”
~ Victoria Moran, writer

Make this Your Season to Bloom

IMG_4604Tomorrow is officially the first day of spring, and there is no better time to make this our season to bloom. Poet Anais Nin offered us her own encouragement when she wrote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Merriam Webster defines the verb bloom as a time or season to mature into achievement of one’s potential; to flourish in beauty, freshness or excellence; to shine or glow. Does the idea of coming into full bloom feel too risky, vulnerable, difficult or even silly? Imagine if the daffodils and daisies had such thoughts!

Here are ten little seeds we can plant in our minds to help us bloom like flowers in springtime.

1. Be aware. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Many eyes go through the meadow, but few see the flowers in it.” Take time to contemplate tiny green leaves budding on trees and flower petals unfurling. If we train our eyes to see beauty blooming all around us, we will likely be inspired to do the same.

2. Be amazed. For months, a small bulb lies dormant deep in the ground. One early spring day, a thin green stem pushes through the cold hard dirt. Soon a bulging spathe forms at the top of the stem containing a host of flower parts that miraculously bloom into an unbelievably perfect yellow daffodil. The Buddha said, “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly our whole life would change.”

3. Be yourself. A daisy doesn’t yearn to be a rose. A rose doesn’t envy a tulip. Blooming requires us to think about who we are and what we were created to be. Author Cheryl Strayed wrote, “Transformation doesn’t ask that you stop being you. It demands that you find a way back to the authenticity and strength that’s already inside of you. You only have to bloom.”

4. Be ready. Don’t wait around for the perfect growing conditions to come into full bloom. “The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all,” said Walt Disney. If a wildflower can grow through a crack in a concrete sidewalk, we can surely bloom wherever we are planted.

5. Be joyful. Just as flowers brighten someone’s day, so can we. French essayist Joseph Joubert said, “Politeness is the flower of humanity.” Simply being cheerful and kind can bring joy to everyone we encounter. Having a joyful demeanor is a habit that just takes a little practice.

6. Be hardy. A delicate yet tenacious flower can survive downpours and droughts. Flowers get trampled on by thoughtless feet and paws. Have you ever watered wilted flowers and watched them magically revive? Like resilient flowers, we can resolve to keep blooming even when everything isn’t coming up roses.

7. Be colorful. Flowers bloom in such beautiful colors! Bringing these colors into our clothing and surroundings can add happiness to our everyday lives. In her book Choosing Happiness Alexandra Stoddard wrote, “What brings me great joy is to surround myself with nature, to select colors that have happy associations with the beauty I experience on a spring day when the sun shines, highlighting the world’s freshness and luminescence.”

8. Be relaxed. Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin…” Each and every flower, like each and every one of us, was wonderfully made. There’s no use in worrying and fretting about life. Rather than being anxious, we can relax into who we are and bloom naturally like the flowers.

9. Be caring. Master gardeners plan, prune, weed, fertilize and lovingly care for their plants and flowers. “People are like flowers. Some need only a little tending to, and who knows what kind of beautiful blooms may burst forth,” said writer Meredith Barron. In order to bloom, we must take time to care for ourselves and others the way a gardener might tend to prized roses.

10. Be grateful. All a flower needs to bloom is some good soil, a little light and water. Most of us are blessed with everything we need to thrive, but we often misuse our resources or take them for granted. This spring, let’s be thankful for the sun and the rain and all the metaphorical dirt that work together to help us grow so we can come into full bloom. §

“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”
~Frances Hodgson Burnett, from The Secret Garden

Something Sublime for March ~ The Joy of Watching a Live Performance

IMG_4532March is Oscar time, and I watched this year’s award show from beginning to end. It made me realize that as much as I love going to the movies, it will never match attending a live performance. So far this month, I’ve happily found myself in the audience of four different shows ~ a jazz concert, a high school musical, a friend’s bar gig and a play at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. Each experience reminded me of the importance of live performances, especially in a world of increased isolation created by digital technology, social media and screens, screens and more screens. The benefits of live music and theater are numerous, but here are five things that make attending a live performance simply sublime.

1. Human Connection ~ When we attend a live performance we become part of a temporary community made up of people who have at least one thing in common – each has chosen to suspend all other activities to attend the same performance. These communities might come together at a fancy theatre in the city, the local high school or a corner pub, but the result is similar. Research shows the heart beats of audience members actually synchronize!  Live performances create the human connection our world is so desperately lacking.

2. Valuing Artistic Talent ~ One could argue that our society values things over people. How refreshing it is to celebrate the talents of both a Juilliard-trained cellist and a friend who sings and plays the guitar. This week I was moved to tears by high schoolers singing and dancing in a school play and by veteran actor Richard Thomas’s portrayal of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. While such talent may be God-given, these ordinary people work unbelievably hard to refine their abilities so they can graciously share it with others in a live situation.

3. Social Discourse ~ Our high school’s anxiously-awaited annual operetta featured a new musical called Ranked. The story of a dystopian world where academic competition reaches a new level as highly publicized grades define high school students’ worth made for a thought-provoking evening. In the same way, the audience watching the stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird contemplated issues of poverty, race, addiction, injustice and innocence. In a departure from the novel, the main character and narrator, Scout, ended the show with this line, “All rise!” Long after the curtain closed, I’m still thinking about the deeper meaning and call-to-action of those two powerful final words.

4. Real Human Experience ~ Movies, albums and Facebook posts can be edited to perfection before shared. More and more often they are computer-generated. Every live performance is unique. No two live performances are ever the same. For this reason, the experience becomes more real, risky, exciting and ever-evolving for both the audience and the performers. With live performances, it takes more effort than just pressing play. There’s something fresh and real about a performance that isn’t canned and digitized.

5. Different Perspectives ~ Live performances help us see life from different points of view other than our own. As an audience member, we watch life happen in a pin-pointed way on a stage in front of us. The music, action, dialogue, props, light and sound reach into our emotions and can make us see life from another perspective. As Atticus Finch said in both the novel and in Aaron Sorkin’s new play, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” §

“Nothing beats a live performance. Nothing.”
~ Jonathan Demme, filmmaker

A Wee Bit about St. Patty’s Day Shenanigans

IMG_4333This St. Patrick’s Day will you wear green, catch leprechauns, search for a pot of gold or chug green beer?  You might be surprised to learn some of our St. Patty’s Day traditions have little to do with the holiday celebrated on March 17 by people all over the world.

St. Patrick’s Day, also known as the Feast of St. Patrick, is actually a religious celebration in honor of the foremost patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick was thought to be born in Roman Britain in the fifth century. It is believed at the age of 16 he was kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave in Ireland. At 22, he broke free from his captors and returned to England to study theology and become a priest. He later returned to Ireland as a missionary and is credited with bringing Christianity to the country.

It is widely believed that St. Patrick used shamrocks as a tool to explain the Holy Trinity to Irish pagans, with the three clovers representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Today in Ireland, many practicing Catholics attend church on St. Patrick’s Day wearing bunches of shamrocks pinned to their holiday finery and then head home for a family meal. Meanwhile, some folks celebrate the occasion a wee bit differently.

Let’s start with that traditional green St. Patty’s Day beer. Research shows it was all-American idea created by a New York City doctor for a party in 1914. He’s said to have used blue laundry power to dye the beer green. Today, there is always a demand for blue food coloring around St. Patrick’s Day. In fact, until the 1960s, the sales of alcohol was prohibited in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day in honor of the holy day. Some pubs in Dublin and other larger cities now serve green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, but mostly to please tourists who are visiting Ireland.

St. Patrick’s Day parades and festivals, didn’t originate in Ireland either. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was actually held in New York City in 1766. It wasn’t until 1995 that Ireland held its own St. Patrick’s Day parade to boost tourism. The five-day festival is now held in Dublin. Chicago is the host of the world’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade where the Chicago River is dyed green for the annual event.

Historically, green has been associated with Irish nationalism, and it remains one of three colors of its flag. Ireland is also known for its lush, green scenery and is nicknamed the Emerald Isle. Wearing green is a way to celebrate one’s Irish heritage or at least avoid getting pinched.

As Irish folklore goes, the color green makes us invisible to leprechauns. Without protection of the color green, the mischevious little creatures will  jump out and pinch us! Leprechaun lore has its roots in the Celtic tradition. These lucky leprechauns are said to hide pots of gold at the end of the rainbow where it is impossible for mere mortals to reach.

The Irish and pots of gold may have at least some factual significance. According to the author of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History, the phrase “luck of the Irish” may refer to the gold and silver rush in the United States during the late 1800s when many successful miners were Irish. Over time, the association of the Irish and mining fortunes might have led to the expression.

On St. Patrick’s Day, at a bar or parade somewhere, someone will be wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish!” The phrase originates from the legend of the Blarney Stone, an iconic stone set in a wall of Blarney Castle constructed in Ireland  in 1446. There are many legends about the stone, but kissing it is said to give a person the gift of eloquence and good luck. Maybe it’s just a bunch of blarney, but about 400,000 people reportedly turn upside down to kiss the stone every year.

It’s said everyone is a little bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Although I am not of Irish descent, some of my favorite people are. Many years ago one of them taught me to sing this beautiful Irish blessing, “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.” §

“As you slide down the bannister of life may the splinters never point the wrong direction.”
~ Irish Blessing

March Presence ~ Truly Listening


Gorgeous weather beckoned Mike and me to sit on the back porch this week. Exhausted from yard work, we sat in silence taking in the sounds of spring. First came the whoosh of dove wings flapping against the air and landing under our bird feeders with a low and gentle, “Coo, Coo.” Next we heard the familiar sound of an unseen cardinal calling, “Birdie, Birdie, Birdie!” A robin seemed to answer with a musical tweet that sounded like, “Cheer up, Cheer up, Cheer up!”  Soon there was an entire symphony of birds serenading a deep orange setting sun. Without trying, we were practicing presence.

Throughout the week, I noticed the many chances I had to be fully present by fully listening. There was the wonderful jazz concert at our local museum featuring two cellists and a pianist with the voice of an angel. There was a bible study on Esther. A touching eulogy for a dear friend’s mother. A sermon on Daniel. A couple of meetings. Several prayers and songs of praise. And many conversations. Each experience was enhanced by being present and truly listening.

Listening can be hard. As a teacher, I often saw thirty faces sitting in front of me in complete silence. I’d like to think they were mesmerized by my every word, but I know from experience they were not. They were thinking about middle school drama, how their hair looked, or what was for lunch. They were looking through me at something across the room, or out the window, or in a daydream.

One time I was in a passionate lecture on some beautiful piece of literature when a student suddenly raised his hand. “Yes?” I said expectedly. He asked matter of factly, “Did you get your hair cut?” Every teacher empathizes with the classroom scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In a dreadfully monotone voice, the teacher repeats, “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” That poor burned-out teacher may as well have been talking to a wall.

Adolescents aren’t the only ones who have trouble listening. Have you ever thought you were listening, only to suddenly realize you’d been off in la-la-land? It can be difficult to stay present. We can be better listeners by setting an intention to clear our minds and stay present. When our thoughts drift off, we can gently bring them back again and again.

Mother Teresa said, “God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer.” Sitting outside on that beautiful evening did feel a little like a prayer, and I thanked God for the happy sounds of spring and for my sweet husband sitting beside me. Listening is a way to show our gratitude for music, for sermons, for conversation, for sounds of nature that make our hearts sing like the birds on a gorgeous spring day. §

“The earth has music for those who listen.”
~ Reginald Holmes, poet of The Magic of Sound