The Elegance of Steel Magnolias

IMG_1529 (1)

On this first Mother’s Day since our mom’s passing, my sisters and I will spend the day recalling happy memories, many of which were firmly planted on a little street named for the magnolia tree that graced our childhood neighborhood. It was on Magnolia Avenue that we first learned valuable lessons from our mother and other beautiful women who were part of our lives.

That magnolia tree holds a nearly mythical place in our hearts. Every year, we waited for it to announce spring’s arrival by bursting into a profusion of big pink and white blossoms and spritzing the whole neighborhood with its sweet perfume. Six decades later, the tree is still there in all its glory. Rooted at its base are the lessons of our youth.

Our tree is a saucer magnolia, commonly known as a tulip tree. In fact, there are more than 200 species of magnolias. They gracefully adapt to change and can live up to 300 years. The magnolia’s carpels are extremely strong and durable. A carpel, by the way, is the female part of the flower. Not only are these trees the essence of delicate beauty, they are also tough, hence the term steel magnolias. Lessons from our own steel magnolias include grace, dignity, wisdom, and strength.

A beautiful magnolia tree exemplifies grace. In people, grace can be defined as simple elegance, refined movement, and courteous goodwill. The women of our childhood spoke, dressed, moved, and acted with a natural, simple grace. More importantly, they treated others politely and kindly.

Growing up, we loved to climb trees, but it occurs to me now that we never climbed the magnolia. In hindsight, I suppose we respected it the way we respected the women in our lives. They garnered deference by presenting themselves in an honorable manner. These days, virtue can seem under-valued, but the steel magnolias taught us dignity.

They also instructed us in wisdom. A magnolia tree innately knows when and how to grow, bloom, and rest. Our mother and other women we knew not only ran households, but also managed companies, classrooms, and committees. Perhaps its woman’s intuition or sage wisdom, but they were smart chicks who never played dumb.

Finally, a steel magnolia is an admirable combination of femininity and fortitude.  Call her brave, plucky, resilient, intrepid, or one tough cookie, she has the strength of mind and spirit to endure adversity with courage. As hairdresser Annelle Dupuy Desoto resolutely says in the play Steel Magnolias, “I promise that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair!”

Although our mother is no longer with us, my sisters and I celebrate her today. We remember the important lessons she taught us, and we are grateful to all of the women who impacted our young lives. As the years go by, we hope to keep blooming and growing and to pass on to the next generations the strength and elegance of steel magnolias. §

The Elegance of a Memorable Teacher

IMG_1327An 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 and truly elegant 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 the project 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.

More than four decades 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 whispered as she fluttered off the bush in a graceful loop.

National Teachers’ Day is May 3. The past two years, especially, have shown us how crucial schools and educators are to our society. The lessons from our best teachers stay with us for a lifetime. As Aristotle said, “Those who know, do. Those who understand, teach.” §

Making it a Lovely Day

IMG_1508

In 2017 my friend, Natalie Schultz, and I self-published a book based on posts from the blog we wrote together. Our treasured little book, Lessons in Loveliness ~ Learning to Live a Lovely Life, sits on my shelf and now and then begs to be opened.

A section titled Making It A Lovely Day recently reminded me of the optimistic woman I was when I wrote it several years ago. Since then I’ve gone through many changes and challenges (as we all have) that I admit have dulled my shine a bit. Although I know my words are nothing particularly profound, but I would like to recapture their spirit of simplicity, hope, and joy.

Last week, I had the chapter made into a poster which I framed and hung in my closet as a reminder. Life can be unpredictable, but it really doesn’t have to be quite so complicated as we sometimes make it. I hope this excerpt from our book encourages us all to make every day a lovely day. §

Making It A Lovely Day

When you get right down to it, whether man or woman, young or old, prince or pauper, our days consist of the same basic pursuits throughout our lifetime. I am glad we have all of our days to master these essential human tasks. Like the grumpy and arrogant weatherman Phil Conners learns in the movie Groundhog Day, each morning brings another chance to have a lovely day!

How To Have a Lovely Day ~

Waking ~ Rise and shine! When your first foot touches the ground, say, “Thank…” When your other foot touches the ground, say, “You.” Now, turn around and make your bed.

Loving ~ No matter what the day brings, meet it with loving kindness. Love God, love yourself, love others.

Bathing ~ Grooming and caring for ourselves is a basic necessity. Turn self-care into luxurious and pampering rituals.

Dressing ~ Put on something special. Greet the day looking your best.

Working ~ We all have work to do. Whatever your job, give it your all. Do it with cheerfulness, enthusiasm, and diligence.

Eating ~ Sit down and mindfully fuel your body with delicious and nutritious food. Practice good manners, even if eating alone.

Interacting ~ When you are in the presence of another human being, smile and make eye contact. Take the time to sincerely communicate, “hello, please, and thank you.” When someone behaves ungraciously, forgive them, and carry on.

Playing ~ When work is done, reward yourself with something positive and uplifting. Listen to music, chat with a friend, take a walk, browse the bookstore, go bowling, watch a funny show, or get lost in a hobby.

Learning ~ Do something that expands your mind spiritually, culturally, or intellectually. Read a book, visit a museum, finish the crossword, watch a documentary. Be a life-long learner.

Giving ~ We each have gifts that are uniquely ours to give. Someone is in need of your listening ear, helping hand, time, talent, or wisdom. Share your gifts generously.

Persevering ~ Everyone faces challenges. Big and small, they are a part of this thing called life. Whatever the circumstance, we must do our best to press-on with a tenacious and hopeful spirit.

Sleeping ~ End the day as you began it, with gratitude. Drift into peaceful slumber counting your blessings. Rest in comfort knowing that come tomorrow, you can try again.

“Give every day the chance to become the most beautiful of your life.”
~ Mark Twain

Five Simple Steps to an Inspiring Spring Closet

IMG_1477 (1)

The only place in the world we might be able to create complete peace and harmony is our own clothes closet. Overwrought by the chaos in the world, I decided this week to tweak my closet so opening its door would bring me a fresh boost of organization, color, and inspiration.

I spent most of a day and just a few bucks creating my happy place. I’m not offering extravagant ways to design a celebrity dream closet, but I do have a few specific ideas that can help you turn an ordinary closet into one that inspires your own brand of elegance.

Five Simple Steps to Creating an Inspirational Spring Closet ~

  1. Take everything out and clean every nook and cranny.
  2. Take stock of your clothing and accessories and pull out those items you know you will absolutely love wearing this spring.
  3. Store everything you won’t be wearing this season. I stored all off-season and less-than-loved items in bins on the top shelf or in a bedroom dresser.
  4. Display your spring wardrobe in your closet as if it is your own little boutique.
  5. Now, here’s the most important part. Carve out a little space for inspiration. Depending on your closet, this could be a shelf, a wall, or door. I used the back shelf and wall area. Here’s specifically what I did to add some personal inspiration.

First, I cut thick foam poster board to fit the wire shelf and create a sturdy flat surface. (This is also a great way to prevent folded clothes from getting indentations.)Then I decorated the shelf with things that inspire me.

From left to right, you can see a weekly calendar, a daily devotional, a cheery vase of flowers, a necklace holder, and a floral reed diffuser. There’s also a cute tray to hold earrings. On the top shelf, I arranged decorative boxes to add a dash of spring color and charm. Just for fun, I tied pink grosgrain ribbons on my plastic storage bins.

In what is probably the nerdiest feature of my closet, I printed out and framed my personal style guidelines. After getting dressed for sixty years, I should know what colors and styles work best for me, but I still get woefully confused. So I compiled a checklist to use before I hang something in my closet more suitable for someone else. I’m certain this guide is going to save me loads of time, money, and frustration, and help me step out of my closet each day feeling my most authentic self.

Finally, I hung a framed poster titled Making It a Lovely Day. It happens to be from the book Lessons in Loveliness which my friend, Natalie, and I wrote and published a few years ago. The section outlines simple ways to make the most of each day from morning until night. (Please come back next Wednesday when I share more about this.)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opened my closet door the past few days just to get a peek inside. Hopefully, there are some ideas you can use, too. Creating an inspiring closet isn’t going to change the world, but it just might bring a little joy to your corner of it. §

“Opening up your closet should be like arriving at a really good party where everyone you see is someone you like.” ~ Amy Fine Collins

The Elegance of Coloring Books & Ecclesiastes

IMG_1404

It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting in our sunroom in front of a bouquet of colored pencils and a coloring book for grown-ups. I open to the first page and press the book down flat in preparation to color for the first time in years.

I choose a green pencil and watch the color slowly fill an empty white space, and then another, and another. While my hand moves delicately and rhythmically, I feel my body and my heart release a long-held sigh.

After several minutes of coloring, I take notice of the quote in the center of the page ~ “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11. As I mindfully color flowers, leaves, and vines, I subconsciously reflect upon the verse.

The words dance across the page over and over with changing emphasis. “He has made everything beautiful in its time…He has made everything beautiful in its time…He has made everything beautiful in its time…He has made everything beautiful in its time.”

As my pencil makes flower petals bloom pink, I think about how desperately I want everything to be beautiful now, in my time, in my way. In a broken world, there is suffering. There is war. People disappoint. Loved ones die. We feel shame. Mama foxes are euthanized. We grieve for that which is lost and for that which never was. Life can be so inelegant.

Looking out the window, a dozen yellow finches match the flowers on my page. The hyacinths are the same shade of purple I hold in my hand. My husband waves as he mows the grass that has finally turned spring green. God colored our world with so much beauty, but it isn’t perfect. By design, it isn’t perfect.

I finish the coloring page and look at it with scrutiny. Oops, that should have been blue. Oh, I went out of the lines there. I close my eyes and reopen them with more faith and acceptance. No, it isn’t perfect, but it sure is beautiful. §

“You can’t be sad when you’re coloring.”
~ a six year old

The Elegance of Impressionism ~ 6 Ways To Live Like an Artist This Spring

IMG_1364

Spring is fickle here in the Midwest. It flirts and teases us with lovely days, but we’re never surprised by its capricious nature. On this cold and rainy April morning, I’m curled in front of the fireplace with a favorite book about Impressionist art. Admiring cheerful works with names like Water Lilies, Afternoon Tea, and The White Orchard, I disappear in the verdant beauty of springtime scenes and dream of these six ways to be inspired by the elegance of Impressionism.

1. Let nature inspire. Nature and Impressionism go hand-in-hand. The movement began with a few Parisian painters who went to the countryside to capture the transient effects of sunlight. The idea of painting en plein air, or outdoors, was a dramatic departure from painting in studios. Claude Monet said, “The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.” This spring be sure to enjoy nature with a picnic, a neighborhood stroll, or a good book read under a tree.

2. Appreciate ordinary moments. Impressionists painted candid glimpses of everyday people at work and play ~ a bowl of fruit, friends having lunch, a walk in the garden. Their work is a reminder to appreciate the significance and beauty in everyday rituals and pastimes. How sweet is the ritual of waking to the chirping of birds and taking a few minutes to listen to their springtime song.

3. Color your world. “Color in a picture is like enthusiasm in life,” said Vincent Van Gogh. The Impressionists valued pure, brilliant, and saturated pigments. They developed a method of painting that celebrated light, movement, and vibrant color. Nothing says spring like flowers. I love filling our home with colorful blooms and wearing floral blouses and dresses.

4. Loosen up a little. Impressionism was spontaneous and informal in style and subject. The artists broke away from serious historical and mythological themes. Instead, they freely painted contemporary subjects with visible, colorful brush strokes that weren’t carefully blended or shaded. The result was a joyful impression of real life. This season begs us to lighten up and skip, hop, or twirl like a child.

5. Be open to new ideas. The Impressionists, who preferred to be called Independents, faced harsh opposition and criticism from the established art community. They were considered radicals who broke every rule of the French Academy of Fine Arts. Rejected by the Salon de Paris, the annual state-sponsored art show, the artists held their own show in 1874. As it turned out, they were on to something the art world would eventually embrace. Spring is a good time to soften our hearts and reconsider some of our tired, stuffy thinking.

6. Make it pretty. Perhaps what draws me most to Impressionism is an underlying philosophy about creating a beautiful life in the midst of challenges. Pierre-Auguste Renoir said, “To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.” This spring, let’s fill our lives with as much simple beauty as possible.

I know springtime will eventually come to stay and quickly melt into summer. The trees will regain their splendor, perennials will magically bloom, and life will imitate art. Until then, I need only escape with a few of my favorite Impressionists, either through a book or a trip to the museum, to paint my life with the elegance of an artist.§

“All of a sudden I had the revelation of how enchanting my little pond was.” ~ Claude Monet

The Elegance of National Poetry Month

IMG_1039April is the loveliest month for hopeless romantics with a penchant for all things spring. Add National Poetry Month to the calendar, and it’s enough to make this former literature teacher’s heart skip a beat.

A perfect spring day allowed me to take my classes outside to teach a poem among the birds and the bees and eighth grade hormones in full bloom. There’s nothing quite like reading poetry with young hearts inspired by dreamy talk of love and life. My teaching days are behind me now, but I will forever celebrate two of my favorite things in April – springtime and poetry.

Launched by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is a reminder of the integral role poetry plays in our culture. National Poetry Month has grown to become the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of participants of all ages marking poetry’s importance in our lives.

There’s an extensive website at poets.org that offers activities and resources so anyone can join in the celebration. Discover dozens of ways to participate in National Poetry Month and sign-up for a free Poem-a-Day. Follow thousands of events through social media with the official hashtag #NationalPoetryMonth and follow the Academy of American Poets on Twitter and Instagram @POETSorg.

The arrival of spring, along with National Poetry Month, may be just the one-two punch we all need to get through a time of unrelenting shared worries and sorrows. Poetry can help us express our emotions and fills our heads and hearts with loftier thoughts. Our country’s Poet Laureate Joy Harjo said, “Without poetry, we lose our way.”

As birds sing their springtime song and faithful flowers pop up to say hello again, poetry can remind us of the peaceful rhythm of nature and that nothing we experience is unique to the human condition.

Let words like these from William Wordsworth’s 1804 poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud soothe your soul and breathe elegance into your day, “For oft when on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood, they flash upon that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude, and then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils!” §

“If you cannot be the poet, be the poem.” ~ David Carradine

Poetry for Ukraine ~ “An Elegant Response to War”

IMG_1319 (2)

“An Elegant Response to War”

how do I respond to war
with elegance and grace
when I know the pain and suffering
of my fellow human race

am I wrong to revel in            
the warmth and hope of spring
to laugh and dance and celebrate
the joy that living brings

do I fill my days quite blissfully
with love and peace and light
do I still thank God for all the things
that bring me such delight

is it enough to stay informed
and weep and sigh and pray
to shake my head and make a wish
for peace to come one day

how do I respond to war
with elegance and grace
would it be okay to greet the day
with a smile upon my face?

-Alicia Woodward

Read Alicia’s previous poems for Ukraine:
“With the Strength of Snowdrops” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/02
“War Can Turn to Peace”  https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/09
“Innocence” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/16

“There never was a good war or a bad peace.” – Benjamin Franklin

The Elegance of Growth

The anticipation of spring has me longing to write about growth, that natural urge to enrich and improve ourselves and our lives. On this bright and sunny morning I decide, for some reason, the public library is the place that will bring inspiration. 

Except for wifi, the C.E. Brehm Memorial Public Library hasn’t changed much since I came here as a child. I walk up the staircase toward the second floor where I sometimes studied in high school and become lost in the memory of a little girl in a plaid dress and ponytails reaching up to tightly grasp the oak banister. My hand slides along the railing, worn silky smooth from use, and I find myself on the third floor where the children’s section used to be, and still is. 

My childlike voice surprises me when I timidly whisper hello to the librarian. I quietly position myself at a small table hoping to be inspired by an ancient budding elm tree just outside the window. Sitting awkwardly in a small wooden chair, I ignore my laptop and let every sight, sound, and smell of the familiar space wash over me like a spell. 

Rising dreamlike, I slowly run my hand along a bookshelf, lightly touching the spines of Sounder, James and the Giant Peach, The Secret Garden, The Chronicles of Narnia. I smile at them like old friends.

For nearly an hour I try to focus on writing, but I’m distracted by a little girl I once knew sitting cross-legged in the corner lost in the big woods with Laura and Pa. I shake her out of my mind and read the quote I had jotted down by Mr. Twain. 

“What’s the most rigorous law of our being? Growth. No small atom of our moral, mental, or physical structure can stand still a year. It grows – it must grow smaller or larger, better or worse – it cannot stand still. In other words, we change, and must change, constantly and keep on changing as long as we live.”

Springtime helps us understand what Twain was talking about. Butterflies and birds, flowers and leaves, offer tangible reminders of the miracle and beauty of growth. The transformation that comes each spring is easier for us to appreciate than the much slower moral, mental, and personal growth to which Twain refers.

“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional,” said John Maxwell. But grow we must, as individuals, as a nation, as a global society. Going backwards, regression, is not growth, even when shrouded as nostalgia, heritage, or tradition. Growth is natural, essential, often painful, but ever so elegant. 

We may find ourselves sitting in the same place, in the same chair, reading the same book as we did a lifetime ago. We should drink in the memories, yet delight in knowing every feeling, every thought, every word is new, because we are new. We are faithfully growing in body, mind, and spirit, like flowers in springtime. §

“Watching something grow is good for morale. It helps us believe in life.”
~ Myron S. Kaufman

The Elegance of Hope

Like a tired child, America is having a meltdown. Already overwhelmed by a pandemic, racial injustice, climate disaster, gun violence, political division, and inflation, an unprovoked attack on a free country by a frightening bully has sent her to the floor sobbing breathlessly. She needs an adult, someone like you, to pick her up and soothe her with a lullaby of hope.

Speaking of hope in times like these may seem excessively optimistic and naive, but Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try.” Where can we find hope enough to calm ourselves, let alone ease others?

First, we can find hope in our country’s history. America has pulled through many times of darkness. In his book, The Soul of America, author Jon Meacham reminds us that periods of public dispiritedness are not new and offers reassurance that they are survivable. Through war, inequality, depression, and disaster, our nation has marched steadily forward to a hopeful chorus graced by what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Secondly, we can find hope in our global citizenry. The past several days, we’ve seen ordinary Ukrainian citizens show immeasurable courage, selflessness, and fortitude. We’ve watched thousands of Russians take great risk to protest their authoritarian government. We’ve witnessed people in neighboring countries welcome more than a million desperate Ukrainians. Every day, all over the world, good people work tirelessly for the well-being of others, and good people always bring out the good in people.

Finally, we can summon hope within ourselves. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” Her well-known poem celebrates the human spirit’s capacity for hope. Think of the times you mustered hope to get through a difficult challenge. Facing our personal and shared trials from a place of wisdom and sanguinity offers inspiration to those around us.

With everything that’s going on right now, we may want to throw ourselves on the floor in an all-out temper tantrum fueled by anxiety, anger, and fear. But we are adults, and children are watching. We must choose to face our struggles with strength and elegance, while bravely humming a song of hope. §

“Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible, and achieves the impossible.” ~Helen Keller