January Presence ~ waking up your house

IMG_3928One way I’m living more poetically this year is by being more present. On the second Wednesday of each month this year, I plan to write about a simple way to be more mindful. We all have certain rituals we perform every day whether we pay attention to them or not. We can elevate these little acts into meaningful rituals that help us be more present. My first ritual of the day is what I refer to as waking up the house.

January is a perfect month to be more aware of the blessing of having a place to call home, no matter how humble. If we are lucky enough to have a roof over our heads, we can be grateful to have somewhere safe to live that protects us from winter’s cold, snow, wind and rain.

Every morning, before the sun rises, I get out of my warm, cozy bed and slide open the curtains that cover our bedroom picture window. I do this gently so I don’t startle myself or any critters that might be visiting the large birdbath just outside the window. More than once there has been a deer staring at me eye-to-eye. I take a deep breath and look out the window with a nod to the new day and take note of what the weather is up to at that moment. (In January, I always wish for snow!)

The next happy part of my morning ritual is opening the bedroom door to see my nine-month-old kitty who comes flying through the house to greet me when he hears the curtains open. I reach down to the floor, sweep up Mr. Darcy and nuzzle my cheek into his soft golden fur. Holding him like a baby in one arm, I move through the house turning off the porch light, turning on the living room lamps, and opening the shutters. That’s usually when he hops out of my arms with a satisfying purr.

Especially in wintertime, I like to light a fragrant candle on the mantle. The flame flickers like a promise in the dawn light. Standing on the brick hearth, cold against my bare feet, I take a sweeping look around my home. While I don’t always say it out loud, I at least think, “Good morning, little house, thank you for keeping us safe last night.” By the time I head into the kitchen and find my husband sitting in the sunroom doing the crossword puzzle, I have had dozens of wonderful thoughts, any of which could be turned into a poem.

No matter where you live or what stage of life you are in, I encourage you to be aware of your own morning rituals, including all you do to wake up your house. Move through each ordinary action with awareness and gratitude. Like a poem, our rituals add structure, flow, rhythm and beauty to our life. There is poetry in being present. §

“Be where you are. Otherwise you will miss your life.”
~ Buddha

How to Live Like a Poet This Year

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A new year is upon us, and it is time again to choose a word that will serve as a guide for living more intentionally throughout the next twelve months. I’ve long given up resolutions and instead dedicate each new year to a particular word or phrase to be sprinkled liberally through all facets of life. My past words have included simplicity, joy and wisdom. For me, 2023 is the year of living poetically. 

In his 1929 book, Letters to a Young Poet, 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.” The quote always grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me into remembering that every day, every moment, is a gift filled with beauty that is mine for the taking. 

Living a poetic life requires a shift in how we move through the world, in what and how we choose to see, speak, act and think. Sitting on the cusp of a new year, we have no idea what adventures and challenges await us. Like years past, there are likely to be moments of monotony, heartache, rage and splendor. Some of us will sleepwalk through it all barely allowing it to register in our souls and reaching the end of our year, and eventually our life, wondering how we missed it. Here are ten ways to poetically call forth the riches of daily life, as Rilke so eloquently urged. 

  1. Notice the sublime. That which is sublime possesses awe-inspiring excellence, grandeur and beauty. In literature, sublimity refers to elevated language that is said to strike the listener with the mighty and irresistible power of a thunderbolt. The sublime exists in everyday moments, the quiet of the morning, the notes of a song, a juicy grape, and the hand of a friend.
  2. Stay present. In his poem, What We Need is Here, Wendall Berry wrote, “And we pray, not for a new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. What we need is here.” We just need to pay attention, stay mindful and be present. 
  3. Observe nature. Poetry is often filled with images of nature’s magnificence. It seems impossible to watch a ruby-throated hummingbird or see an orange-pink sunrise and not be somehow moved. Lord Byron wrote, “by the deep Sea, and music in its roar: I love not Man the less but Nature more.”
  4. Seek solitude. Emily Dickinson was a poet who understood the benefits of being alone. In her poem There is a solitude of space, she explores the idea of being alone even amongst a sea of humanity. It is only in occasional solitude that we can sort out our thoughts and disappear into them without the influence of a noisy world.
  5. Read poetry. One of the surest ways to live more poetically is to read more poetry. Keep a book of poetry on your nightstand and read a poem every morning or evening. If you prefer to read poetry online, sign up for a poem-a-day at https://poets.org or read the Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day at https://www.poetryfoundation.org. 
  6. Write poetry. Thirty years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the late poet Robert Bly who told me he instituted the routine of writing a poem every single morning before getting out of bed, drastically changing his life for the better. In 1997, he published the book Morning Poems. I can think of nothing that would help us live more poetically than actually writing poetry.
  7. Follow your dreams. Living poetically means living deeply and fully. We are reminded of this in Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day. In it she poses a burning question we might constantly ask ourselves, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 
  8. Explore your senses. We experience life through our senses ~ sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Poets lean into these senses to create strong images. Walt Whitman joyfully wrote, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.” Maya Angelou wryly appealed to our sense of taste in The Health-Food Diner and William Carlos Williams wrote how the nose knows in Smell! Tuning into our senses will help us live more poetically.
  9. Show gratitude. In the busyness of life, we can take things for granted. In Our Prayer of Thanks, Carl Sandburg thanks God “For the gladness here where the sun is shining at evening on the weeds at the river, our prayer of thanks.” A poetic view of life increases our awe and appreciation for the simplest things in life. 
  10. Create beauty. The Cambridge Dictionary defines poetic as anything that is very beautiful or expresses emotion. Living poetically means elevating our daily life. John Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” In how we dress, keep our home, talk to our children, and treat our neighbors, we can add beauty to all we do.

    Even if we never publish, or even write, a single poem, we can live like a poet in every little thing we do from morning to night through each new day of the next twelve months. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote the poetic life  “makes your toenails twinkle.” That seems like a pretty good way to step into the new year. §

Fall Leaves Show How to Let Go

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This time every year, nature gently teaches us the beauty 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 let go of 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 current 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 and keeping them alive. Letting them go frees us to rest, grow stronger and be happier.

If we were sitting in my classroom, I might 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 big words like worry, resentment, guilt, hurt and anger. What would you write on a leaf you are finally ready to let drift away?

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 special time of year. Let’s follow its lead and graciously let go in preparation for a golden season of gratitude and abundance. §

“Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”
~ Eckhart Tolle

Note to Readers ~ Thank you for subscribing to The Simple Swan! I’ve been tinkering with my logo, website, and mission a bit, so please have a look around. (Go to http://www.thesimpleswan.com to get to my website.) There are pages titled “About Alicia”, “About The Simple Swan“, and “My Love for Swans” that tell a little more about me and my goals for my writing. You’ll find them at the right of your computer or near the bottom of your phone. Spoiler alert ~ I just hope my writing brightens your day!  Alicia ❤

The Elegance of Getting Through Thorny Times

IMG_1671“I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometime.” Lately I’ve been humming those lyrics from a 1970 country song. As much as this optimistic romantic wishes it to be, life isn’t always a bed of roses.

We all deal with difficult things in life. Personal challenges may involve our health, relationships, work, children, finances, grief, anxiety and a host of other issues that can seem more like a heap of fertilizer than a bouquet of flowers. I’ve learned there are things we can do to help us navigate those inevitable thorny times with elegance.

Seek professional help. First and foremost, realize if your needs require the help of a professional. There is never shame in seeking professional help. Caring people are trained to address our physical and mental wellness. If you don’t know where to start, call your primary care doctor, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or go to MentalHealth.gov.

Nurture yourself with nature. “Mother nature has the power to please, to comfort, to calm, and nurture one’s soul,” wrote Anthony Douglas Williams. The evening of my mother’s death, a friend texted me a picture of an impossibly brilliant sunset with instructions to go look out the window. That memorable sunset provided me deep comfort that I still hold in my heart.

Create beauty where you can. I was recently in the hospital for a few days and did everything I could to make my surroundings prettier. My husband removed the typical hospital clutter from the main shelf in my view and replaced it with some gorgeous flowers and a sweet gift from a friend. A nurse raised the blinds each morning to let in the sunshine. Classical music from my phone filled the room. One afternoon when I felt particularly gloomy, I pulled out a perfume sample from my purse and spritzed it around my bed. No matter where we find ourselves, there are things we can do to make our place a little more beautiful.

Pamper yourself. During that hospital stay, I also did what I could to make myself feel as well as I could under the circumstances. Since I was attached to needles, tubes, and beeping machines, my husband carefully shampooed my hair in the sink. Although it wasn’t cute, I made sure to put on a fresh hospital gown every day. I slathered my feet and legs with rose-scented body lotion. I filed my nails and kept my face and lips well-moisturized. I’m convinced all these little efforts helped me feel better and make a speedier recovery.

Take a break from the news. When we are going through a difficult time, we need to treat ourselves more gently. One way we can do that is by taking a break from the news which is almost always upsetting and depressing. World events will go on without us, and we can always catch up with it when we’re feeling stronger.

Lean into your faith. Times of crisis and uncertainty can be an opportunity for our faith to grow. Passages and parables can offer strength, encouragement, and understanding. A familiar hymn can take on new meaning. Martin Luther King said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Lift your own spirits. We all have simple, positive things we can do to brighten our own day. Maybe we enjoy watching a funny movie, reading a mystery, taking a long walk, playing the piano, or baking cupcakes. It’s good to know we always have the ability to lift ourselves up when we’re feeling down.

Help someone. Mark Twain said, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Helping others gives us purpose, gets our mind off our own problems, and makes everybody feel good. Call someone you know is lonely, lend a neighbor a hand, or get plugged-in to volunteer somewhere.

Be grateful. No matter what we’re going through, we must still count our blessings. Remember what French novelist Alphonse Karr wrote in the 1800s, “You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses.” §

The Elegance of Gratitude This Holiday Season

As we head into the most wonderful time of the year, we can’t help but recall this time last year when a pandemic put the kibosh to most of our holiday traditions and celebrations. On Thanksgiving 2020, my husband was in the kitchen preparing a feast for two, while I fretted like a turkey in November.

The Coronavirus was affecting each of our four grown children in different ways, and there was nothing I could do to help. My mother, a widow, was experiencing health problems, and I was worried about her living alone four hours away in southern Illinois. I gazed out the window and smiled at the sight of a mama fox and her baby happily trotting through the frosty woods, blissfully oblivious to the worries of the day. 

I jumped up and darted to the kitchen, licked a finger-full of mashed potatoes, and grabbed an empty jelly jar. I tied a festive red and green ribbon on it and added a tag that read, “Gratitude Jar 2020”. Then I cut dozens of small slips of paper. The plan was for my husband and me to secretly write something we were grateful for and drop it in the jar each day from Thanksgiving until the end of the year. We would read our entries together on New Year’s Eve. 

A couple of days later, my mom had a stroke. Thankfully, she recovered well, but I spent all of December with her, first from the hospital parking lot (as visitors weren’t allowed to go inside) and then in her apartment. I went back home to Indiana on New Year’s Eve to help my husband pack up our house. We had made the quick and necessary decision to sell our cabin and buy a house in our hometown so my mother could safely live with us. 

As I hastily packed box after box, I saw the Gratitude Jar sitting on the kitchen counter. To my surprise, it was filled with tiny slips of paper! I took an envelope out of my purse and added 31 more slips to the jar. Though we’d been apart and hadn’t said a word about it, both my husband and I had continued to write down things for which we were thankful. 

I’d like to say we read the entries from our Gratitude Jar at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, but we were asleep by 9:30. On New Year’s Day, we pulled each piece of paper from the jar and read it out loud.

Many of our entries expressed thanks for my mother’s recovery and for the doctors and nurses during such a difficult time. Several were about simple things in nature such as a beautiful sunrise, a bird at the feeder, or a peaceful snowfall. Some showed gratitude for our children’s resilience in facing their challenges. Others revealed our appreciation for each other. 

For most of us, 2020 is a blur filled with varying degrees of trials and tribulations. Yet through it all, there were always glimmers of hope and happiness. Never was Dr. Suess’s message in his story How the Grinch Stole Christmas so true. 

“It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags! Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.'”

Theodor Seuss Geisel

Before we get too caught up in the renewed holiday frenzy of decorating, shopping, and merry-making, let’s remember what 2020 taught us. Underneath all the tinsel and trimming, lies the season’s faithful and enduring gifts of beauty, peace, and love. I have already assembled our 2021 Gratitude Jar with the intention of being reminded throughout this holiday season of the simple elegance of gratitude. §

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
~ William Arthur Ward

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

December Gratitude Challenge – a positive way to bid farewell to 2020

The year 2020 will probably go down in the history books as one of the worst ever! How can we possibly be grateful for a year like this? It reminds me of a story I heard when I was very young.

There once were twin boys. One was exceedingly pessimistic and the other exceedingly optimistic. Their parents, quite concerned, took them to a psychiatrist. The doctor put the pessimist in a room full of everything a child could ever desire. From a one-way mirror, they observed the boy sitting in the corner crying and wailing, “The candy is sticky! The toys are broken! The ice cream is melting! Everything is just terrible!”

Meanwhile, the optimist was placed in a room filled to the brim with horse manure. The boy was observed laughing and cheerfully digging through the manure. Astonished, the doctor went in the room and asked what he was doing. The young optimist replied, “With all this poop, there has to be a pony in here somewhere!”

I don’t know about you, but against a backdrop of serious global and national challenges, I had my share of personal struggles this year. More than once, I felt like that little boy in a room full of horse manure. What the story taught me long ago was to always look for the pony.

It’s when things seem bad that it’s most important to look for the good. It might sound overly simple and trite, but appreciating the little things really is what makes life worth living ~ an amazing sunrise, a funny joke, a bluebird at the feeder, a delicious meal, a beautiful song, a hot bath, a friendly wink.

Gratitude and optimism go hand-in-hand. Businessman Price Pritchett said, “There’s a lot more to be gained from being grateful than you might think. Managing your outlook towards appreciation and thankfulness feeds the soul. It brings calm and contentment. It lifts your levels of happiness and hope. Gratitude will amplify your positive recollections about times past, and in turn sets the stage for optimism about the future.”

To help say goodbye to 2020 with an attitude of gratitude, I’m suggesting a December Gratitude Challenge. The idea is to focus on all the joy that still surrounds us at the end of what was not the greatest year ever.

There are many ways you can join in the December Gratitude Challenge. Keep a journal, make a paper chain, stick Post-Its on the mirror, or just add it to your nightly prayers. I decided to make a Gratitude Jar.

Every evening in December, my husband and I will each write something specific for which we were grateful that day and drop the slip of paper into the jar. On New Year’s Eve, we will read them together. (That Mike is going along with this will likely be the first thing I add to the jar!)

Even, no, especially in a year like this, December is a month when miracles happen. Tiny miracles. Big miracles. Good things are all around us. Sometimes we just have to dig a little to find them. §

To Everything There is a Season

As summer turns to fall, I feel an equal sense of sadness and anticipation. I will miss warm sunny days spent outdoors but look forward to cozy chilly evenings curled up by a glowing fire. Similar mixed emotions can appear when we say goodbye to one season of life and step into another.

As we travel through our lives, we are like tourists passing through towns and villages with names like childhood, adolescence, adulthood, parenthood, empty nest, retirement and old age. As much as we may wish to permanently settle in any one of those places, we must move on.

Although seasons of life are often of equal length, do you find the journey through each one speeds up as we get older? Looking back, my first twenty years or so seem to take up the most space on my personal timeline.

The same number of years spent raising my children was a blink of an eye. Thirty years as a teacher was a snap of my fingers. It’s as if I was looking out a car window and watching it pass by in a blur.

I miss it like I miss summertime.

Then I remember a favorite Bible verse ~ To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. King Solomon employs the poetic device of repetition to illustrate the ceaseless, often antithetical, changes in life.

A time to break down, and a time to build up

A time to weep, and a time to laugh

A time to mourn, and a time to dance

Solomon reminds us there are good times and bad, and just like the changing seasons, we are not in control. The verse encourages us to enjoy each season of life, no matter what it brings, and rejoice in all of our days.

Quite honestly, I spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror. Doing so can fill me with a deep sense of longing and regret that keeps me from paying attention to the road I’m on. I suspect I’m not alone in this struggle. Perhaps that’s why Ecclesiastes 3 is a compass for so many of us sojourners. We know it as scripture and as song.

Everything is made beautiful in its time, the poet goes on to say. The carefree, verdant spring and summer of our youth fade to a season when daily responsibilities, chores and chaos scatter endlessly like falling leaves. Then, quite suddenly, our days stretch before us as empty as bare branches.

It’s fine to warm ourselves with yesterday’s memories or look forward to the future, but we are wise to show acceptance, gratitude and enthusiasm for each and every day of the exact season in which we find ourselves. §

A Poem as Lovely as a Tree

I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree… 

So begins Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees. I was about ten when I first read the poem in a book at school. I was drawn to its uncomplicated rhythm and rhyme. At such a tender age, I was also excited to understand a poem not written for a child. Gazing out the library window, I could see Kilmer’s beautiful trees joyfully reaching towards the heavens.

I find it amusing that Mr. Kilmer’s well-known poem is sometimes disparaged for being overly simple, sweet and straightforward. Funny, because that’s exactly how I like things to be! There are more sophisticated poems about nature, but Trees was one of the first to offer me a poetic reminder to be filled with gratitude, acceptance, and humility for my own existence.

Trees

I think that I shall never see  

A poem lovely as a tree

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

~Joyce Kilmer, 1913

Gratitude ~ Kilmer personified a tree that lifts its leafy arms to pray in appreciation for its life and the nourishment it receives from the sweet earth’s flowing breast. Like the tree, shouldn’t we rejoice and give praise for our creation and the abundance of earthly resources that allow us to live and grow?

Acceptance ~ The poet uses clear imagery to portray a tree that in summer may wear a nest of robins in its hair. The tree gladly accepts its purpose of providing shade and shelter for birds and other creatures. It may be covered deep in snow and pounding rain, yet it stands sturdy through the seasons. Can you and I accept our responsibilities and challenges with as much as grace?

Humility ~ More than one hundred years after writing this poem, Kilmer’s message still rings true. As we try to make our mark on the world in whatever way we’re led, we’d be fools to think our accomplishments could ever match the perfection found in nature. It’s humbling (and a bit of a relief) to remember no matter how creative and productive we become, man-made things will never compare to God’s handiwork.

National Poetry Month seems a perfect time for us to reflect on this poem. It encourages me to humbly, though perhaps foolishly, continue writing about the peace, joy, and gratitude I feel for nature’s beauty created by the greatest poet of all. §