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 

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 Going to the Theater

I haven’t been to the theater since the pandemic closed the curtains nearly two years ago, and I miss it like a dear friend. I fondly recall the many times I took my language arts students to see a live production of a play or musical. I’m retired now, but I remember how those field trips to the theater filled an ordinary school day with excitement and elegance. 

Learning a little about a performance before going almost always enhances the experience. I enjoyed preparing my students for a production by familiarizing them with the story, the setting, and the writer. Several years ago, my daughter memorized every note of the soundtrack to Wicked before we saw it, and I was glad I studied up on the life of Alexander Hamilton before seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius musical, Hamilton

Another important part of the educational experience is understanding that appropriate conduct and dress show respect for the performers and the venue. A curious thing happens when teenagers dress up; they behave better. I would say that’s true for most of us. When we’re feeling polished, our best manners tend to shine. Going to the theater is a wonderful chance to learn and practice proper etiquette. The more we frequent the arts, the more comfortable we become. 

Every sight and sound at the theater is punctuated with beauty and anticipation. Theaters are often housed in exquisite buildings that stir a feeling of reverence and awe. I loved watching the faces of my students as they looked around the unfamiliar space, some giddy with excitement, others strangely quiet. Before a show begins, we bask in the ornate architecture, dim lights, heavy velvet curtain, and sounds of an orchestra tuning up. 

Finally, there is the elegance of the production itself. Each element, including lighting, costumes, music, dialogue, and movement, is carefully chosen to transport the audience to another time and place. Together, we experience shared emotions we didn’t even know we had, let alone had in common. We applaud the cast and crew as we learn to understand and appreciate theater as a magnificent form of art.   

I realize many of my students liked going to the theater because they got to ride the bus, sit next to their friends, and get out of a few classes. Still, I hold on to the hope that those trips enriched their education and their lives and that as adults they continue to explore and treasure the elegance of going to the theater. Even if I must don a mask and show my vaccination card, I can hardly wait to go back to the theater. §

“I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
~ Oscar Wilde

The Elegance of Decorating Like an Artist

There are many famous paintings of home interiors, demonstrating the importance houses have had to people throughout history and throughout the world. These beautiful paintings of bedrooms, parlors, dining rooms, powder rooms, and kitchens are as different in style as our own homes. Inspired by paintings such as Henri Matisse’s Interior with Phonograph (below), here are ten ways to add beauty to any room. 

  1. Color ~ The most striking aspect of Matisse’s painting is his use of bold bright color. Every memorable room has a distinct color palette. You may prefer pastels, earth tones, rich shades, or even a monochromatic look. Study paintings, magazines, and friends’ homes to find a distinct color palette that speaks to you.
  2. Music ~ Matisse named this painting Interior with Phonograph, even though the record player is only partially seen to the right of the painting. I wonder what album was turning on that phonograph the day Matisse created this masterpiece. Music fills a house with beauty and emotion. 
  3. Flowers ~ Notice the flowers on the table. Are they pink roses, carnations, or maybe azaleas? I wish I could lean in and smell them! The tablescape wouldn’t be as attractive without that little vase. Flowers always make a house feel like a home.
  4. Food ~ Fruit, bread, wine, and cheese are often included in paintings. The big pineapple and peaches on the table make Matisse’s room come to life. Food represents comfort and joy. The sight, smell, and taste of delicious food should be a central feature of our homes.
  5. Decorations ~ In this scene, we see a gold tray, a basket, a decanter, and the flower vase. Each object adds to the beauty and function of the room. Think about the decorations, accessories, and art in your home. Does everything serve a purpose and make you smile? 
  6. Textiles ~ Imagine this room without the yellow swag curtain, the red and white striped tablecloth, the rug in the far room, and the patterned wallpapers. Textiles make any room more comfortable, warm, colorful, soft, and welcoming. 
  7. Light ~ Whether a room is lit by a candle, a lamp, or the bright sun streaming through a window, lighting makes all the difference in the atmosphere of a space. In this painting, Matisse captures the cheerfulness of a sunny day. Adjust the lighting in your home for the purpose and mood you’re trying to create. 
  8. Composition ~ Just as every painter must make decisions about where to place objects in a painting, we must decide where to place things in our home. Don’t be afraid to move around furniture, art, and necessities until you have everything arranged in the way that’s most practical and pleasing to you.
  9. Cleanliness ~ Let’s face it, no matter what style it is, a dirty home isn’t elegant. Pay someone, bribe someone, or just do it yourself, but the cleaning must be done if we want our home to sparkle like this Matisse painting.
  10. People ~ Not all paintings of interiors include people. Often it seems as if the homeowner has just stepped out while we get a glimpse of their private dwellings. However, if you look closely at the center of this  painting, you’ll see the small face of a bearded man, perhaps approaching an open door to the home. Matisse reminds us that homes are nothing without people. Those who live in and visit our homes are what truly fill a room with style, beauty, and love. §

“Some people look for a beautiful place. Others make a place beautiful.”
~
Hazrat Inayat Khan

The Elegance of Not Cussing

“Language is the dress of thought; every time you talk, your mind is on parade,” wrote Samuel Johnson in the 1700s. It’s certainly still true today. We can be dressed to the nines, but the words we speak must be equally beautiful for us to have any hope of being elegant. As a former language arts teacher, I’m aware of many things we can do to improve our communication, but we can start by not swearing.

The ubiquitous use of expletives has made it easy for them to slip into our conversation. Words that dropped jaws a generation ago, barely get a reaction today. Network television still has a list of taboo words, but even cable news is peppered with four-letter expressions. Throw in movies, reality shows, social media, and routine conversation, and we are exposed to a slew of curse words every day. In a 2018 report, Business Insider said the average American utters 80 to 90 curse words a day!

Swearing is most often done to express anger. And aren’t we an increasingly angry lot? Life can be stressful, and venting with the perfect four-letter word might initially feel like a good way to let off steam. However, in my experience, it does nothing to help me feel better and makes me question my self-control. If we aim to be elegant, profanity-laced rants undo any attempt to be calm, cool, and collected.

Swearing is frequently used in an attempt at humor. I once spent an evening at a comedy club and left feeling like I needed a long shower with lots of soap. We’ve all seen colorful sayings on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers. These quips might make us giggle, but surely we can think of more clever things to say. In the words of Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawley, “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.”

Cussing can make us seem less refined and even boring. CEO and author Michael Hyatt said, “If you can’t be interesting without profanity, then let’s face it, you’re not that interesting.” Ouch. Conversing can be difficult and can even produce anxiety in some. Relaxed conversation takes practice, and we can learn to edit out bad words. Cursing downgrades any conversation.

I was recently at a social event, and while I wasn’t particularly offended by the conversation laden with profanity, I knew others within earshot would be. I excused myself and went to the restroom feeling like an old fuddy-duddy. Then I reassured myself that the whole point of good manners is to make others feel at ease. Swearing can be disrespectful and make others feel uncomfortable, so it’s simply not polite.

Finally, it is never okay to swear at or in front of children. Research shows cursing at a child causes increased aggression and insecurity. Children are going to imitate what adults say, even when they don’t know the meaning of the words. I’m not one who finds it cute when children repeat curse words. Every adult is a role-model to every child and should take that responsibility to heart.

Some may counter that swearing doesn’t really hurt anybody, and maybe I should lighten up. Perhaps. But as someone who spent decades teaching poetry and literature, I long for beautiful words and phrases. Why put an ugly word out into the world when we can choose a lovely one? I agree with contemporary author Rajesh Walecha who wrote, “Speak beautiful words to create a beautiful world.” §

“The wise one fashions speech with their thought, sifting it as grain is sifted through a sieve.”
~ Buddha

The Elegance of Putting On Your Pearls, Girls

Put On Your Pearls, Girls! is a fun, cheeky pop-up book for grown-ups written by Lulu Guinness, a British fashion designer famous for her unique handbags. It was published by Rizzoli in 2005. The beginning of the book offers an inspiring acrostic definition for the word pearls ~ Poised. Elegant. Attractive. Radiant. Ladylike. Sophisticated.

You’ll be enamored by Lulu, the main character of the book who the author says, “is a fictional character, based on myself, except that she is timeless, ageless, and has long legs I can only dream of possessing.” 

Illustrations by Martin Welch make the book an absolute delight as Lulu goes through her day from the time she gets up (Lulu is not a morning person) to the time she goes to sleep, counting her blessings. In the pages between, we see her meditate, bathe, dress, work, shop, entertain, garden, daydream, and party like the elegant, glamour girl she is. 

In one of my favorite parts of the book, Lulu offers these twelve suggestions  ~ 

  1. Create a style that is uniquely yours – don’t be a slave to fashion.
  2. Money does not equal style.
  3. Mix vintage with modern – couture with chainstore.
  4. If you’re feeling fat – why not shop for accessories?
  5. Carry bags of personality.
  6. Never take fashion or yourself too seriously.
  7. Mutton dressed as lamb is never a good idea. (This is an especially good point for those of us well over fifty.)
  8. Less can be more – but sometimes more is more.
  9. Beauty comes from the heart – not from a jar.
  10. You can be too rich or too thin.
  11. Be who you were meant to be – not who others think you ought to be.
  12. Put on your pearls, girls!

When I’m feeling less than Lulu-like, I flip through Put On Your Pearls, Girls! for instant motivation. I’ve given this book as a gift to several of my favorite girly girlfriends. It’s not a book for everyone, although I’m not sure who wouldn’t enjoy the interactive aspects of the book, including opening a little red handbag to see a compact and lipstick inside! 

The forward is written by English actor Helena Bonham Carter. (You may know her from her more recent portrayal of Princess Margaret in seasons three and four of The Crown.) She writes that Guinness invites us back to a time “when women were fabulously feminine and decorative and flirty and pretty. But unlike our forbears we do it because we choose to, not because we don’t have any other option.” §

“Use your imagination, trust your instinct, and follow your dreams.”
~ Lulu Guinness

The Elegance of These 10 Gracious Acts

After more than a year of unprecedented time spent in the confines of our homes, most of us have begun to venture out in public again. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found some of my manners to be a little rusty. Every time I go somewhere, I’m grateful to see someone displaying these gracious acts, reminding me of simple things we can do to make life a little more elegant for everyone. 

  1. Countenance Counts ~ Countenance refers to our facial expressions. We’ve all been duly warned about RBF (resting biddy face). I’ve certainly caught myself deep in thought and realized my mug was less than pleasing. How nice it is to go out and see friendly faces again. 
  2. Right On ~ I wish I had a nickel for every time I reminded my students to walk on the right side of the hallway when changing classes. Foot traffic flows more smoothly when we stay to the right side of the sidewalk, stairs, and escalator. 
  3. Hold the Door ~ It still seems chivalrous for a man to open a door for a woman; however, everyone who is able should hold the door for anyone who is approaching. I always feel I’ve passed a kindred spirit when another woman holds the door for me. 
  4. Wipe the Sink ~ I was recently at a highway rest stop. After washing her hands, a woman took a clean paper towel and quickly wiped down the counter before I stepped up to use the sink. I offered a her a “thank you”, but I really wanted to applaud and cheer this rare gracious act! 
  5. Please and Thank You ~ This week, I was surprised by how cordial a man in front of me was to the employee in a drive-through window. (I also noticed how quickly her attitude reflected his.) He reminded me how important it is to be friendly and respectful to the hard-working people who serve us throughout our communities. 
  6. Trash Talk ~ My husband and I were on a road trip this month and noticed the cleanliness of many of the towns we traveled through. Unless you’re Oscar the Grouch, we all want to live in communities where streets and sidewalks are lined with flowers, not garbage. We can do our part by vowing to never toss even the smallest piece of trash out the car window or onto the ground.  
  7. Dressing Rooms ~ Have you ever walked into a store dressing room and seen piles of clothing scattered on the floor? When trying on clothes, we should always put garments we aren’t purchasing back on the hangers and on the rack provided. No store employee should have to feel like they’re picking up a teenager’s messy bedroom. 
  8. Elevator Etiquette ~ While traveling, I was exiting a hotel elevator as a young boy and girl were waiting to get on. Obviously well-taught, the boy gently scooted his sister to the side and waited for me to step out before entering the elevator. It was such a sweet and memorable display of good manners from a child. 
  9. Table Manners ~ This summer, my husband and I took our grandson to a nice outdoor restaurant and sat near a couple with their grandchildren. During the meal, we overheard subtle reminders to put napkins on laps, use a quiet voice, and put phones away. It warmed my heart to see these grandparents taking time to patiently teach valuable lifelong lessons.
  10. The Golden Rule ~ Whenever my husband and I spend time with our grown children, we are always proud of their tolerance and acceptance of everyone we encounter, no matter how different they may be from us. We live in a diverse and changing world. Some may call their behavior being politically-correct, but it’s really just being kind and following the Golden Rule.

    Though most of us are thankfully past lockdowns and quarantines, it seems Covid may be with us for a while longer, forcing us to be aware of the contagious nature of the virus. As we cautiously move through our days, let’s remember being courteous is contagious, too. Just imagine if we made gracious acts like these go equally viral.§

    “Manners are the sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.
    If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
    ~ Emily Post

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