Poetry for Ukraine ~ “With the Strength of Snowdrops”

IMG_0936Unable to do much to help, on Wednesdays I’m sharing poetry I’ve written in response to the war in Ukraine…

“With the Strength of Snowdrops”

Snowdrops pierce through frozen ground
Amid fiery blasts and artillery rounds

Tiny flowers so brave and bright
Show strength in their tenacious fight

Eager blossoms unfurl with glee
Like a flag flying free

Beauty and promise spring after spring
Despite despair the season brings

While man may sow hate and strife
Nature blooms with hope and life §

~Alicia Woodward

“Snowdrops: Theirs is a fragile but hardy celebration …in the very teeth of winter.” ~ Louise Wilder

The Elegance of Letting Go

About this time every year, nature gently reminds us of the elegance of letting go. Colorful falling leaves release their hold and dance and twirl in the autumn wind, gracefully showing us the way.

There’s a scientific reason deciduous trees lose their leaves in winter. It’s a process called abscission. Rather than fruitlessly expend energy during the harsh winter months, trees shed their leaves to conserve resources. The process helps trees retain water and keeps them from blowing over. As a bonus, fallen leaves add replenishing nutrients to the soil. In a beautiful act of self-preservation, trees let go in order to stay healthy and alive. 

The trees’ annual decluttering process might initially inspire us to let go of a few material things ourselves. Broken things. Meaningless things. Uncomfortable things. Too many things. Perfectly wonderful things that no longer suit our season of life.

It’s no easy task to rake all our physical clutter into a big pile like so many fallen leaves. Harder still is letting go of intangible things that clutter our hearts and minds. As we watch the autumn leaves cut loose and fly, what can we let go of to help protect, replenish, and nurture the very root of our being? 

Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” We convince ourselves we must tightly cling to old memories, thoughts, and behaviors, and we spend precious energy feeding them and keeping them alive. Letting them go finally frees us to rest, grow stronger, and be happier. 

If I was still teaching, I would assign us to draw a tree with falling leaves. On each leaf, we’d write something we’re ready to let go. Those little leaves would probably hold some very powerful words like worry, resentment, guilt, hurt, and anger. What would you write on your leaves? 

Poet May Sarton wrote, “I think of trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep. Imitate the trees.” Autumn is such a beautiful time of year. Let’s follow its lead and elegantly let go in preparation for a season of thanksgiving, peace, and hope. §

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

The Elegant Inspiration of Swans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Elegance of a Daily Walk

I have a penchant for novels and movies set during the 1800s. My favorite scenes feature characters gracefully strolling through the beautiful countryside. Without the invention of the automobile or the luxury of a horse-drawn carriage, walking was the only way most people could visit friends or go to church, school, or shops. These days, walking is primarily done for exercise, but taking a daily stroll has many more benefits that can add elegance to our lives. 

There’s no denying the simplicity of taking a walk. It requires no special equipment, it’s free, and we can do it on our own schedule. Whether walking through a misty moor or around the block, all one needs to do is put on shoes and go. We can even do as they did during the Regency era and “take a turn” around the living room after enjoying tea or a rich meal. 

Nature is the main reason I head out the door for my daily walk. Though my route may stay constant, each walk tells a different story with a unique setting that includes the weather and colors of the sky at that particular hour. One never knows what may appear in the unfolding scenes of a walk ~ a bunny in the neighbor’s yard, a fawn at the edge of the woods, Queen Anne’s Lace growing alongside the road. 

Walks can also provide much-needed solitude. One of my most beloved characters in literature is Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. This complex introvert frequently takes long walks alone to sort her thoughts and clear her head. About Lizzie, Jane Austen wrote, “Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk.” 

On the other hand, walks can provide a connection to our community. I often walk down the sidewalk of the busiest road in town. Hardly a day passes that I don’t run into someone I know who honks, waves, or stops for a quick chat. No one tips their hat or curtsies, as they do in my favorite movies, but walking in my hometown makes me feel grateful to be part of a place I love.  

Finally, taking a long solitary walk feels like a romantic nod to the past. I have to admit, I wouldn’t mind spending an afternoon strolling across a field of wildflowers, stopping under a large shade tree to read a book of poetry or write a few lines of my own. I usually walk in a baseball cap and sneakers, but I dream of the day that I confidently go for a stroll wearing a flowing dress and carrying a parasol. §

“An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

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

Rocket the Flying Squirrel ~ a ridiculously true story

Rocket the Flying Squirrel makes his landing on our backyard bird feeders

Just before winter’s biggest snowfall, some new people moved into the house on Oxford Avenue. Before they even unpacked their clothes, they set-up several bird feeders. Continuous drama has since ensued from a cast of wild critters and feathered friends. There are many stories to tell about life in any backyard, but this is a tale about Rocket “Rocky” J. Squirrel.

This hunk of a squirrel got his name from the flying ace and sidekick of Bullwinkle. He lives in the same backyard as Squirrel Nutkin, a namesake any Beatrix Potter fan would recognize, and Twinkleberry, a sweet little squirrel who loves to preen herself in front of the window where the people sit to watch nature unfold in its simple, joyful ways.

Within a few days of putting out that tempting cage of peanuts suspended from a sturdy bird-feeding system, Rocket was spotted sitting on top stuffing his cheeks. He looked at the people through the window, nodded his head approvingly, and gave a thumbs-up as if to say, “Nom, nom, nom. Delicious!”

“How did he get up there?” the people asked each other. After all, this was a fairly sophisticated feeder system with a proven squirrel-proof baffle. Any trees were a good nine feet away from the pole.

It wasn’t long before they saw Rocket shimmy up a tree, gingerly tightrope-walk onto a tiny limb, so thin it was nearly imperceptible, bounce three times, and launch himself through the air in a beautiful swan dive onto the top of the feeder. Squirrel Nutkin and Twinkleberry attempted the feat several times in what could only be called epic fails.

As it was a time of sub-zero temperatures, the people began tossing bread and crackers on the deck so the poor things wouldn’t starve to death. The squirrels, as well as an occasional deer and raccoon, appreciated the feast, but it did nothing to deter Rocket from gorging himself on expensive peanuts truly meant for the woodpeckers.

One day Squirrel Nutkin lodged an entire Ritz cracker in his mouth and carried it up a tree fifty feet in the air to enjoy in peace. Rocket followed closely behind, cozied right up next to him, and stuck out his paw to snatch it from Nutkin, who had clearly had enough of Rocket’s antics. They fought in a tangled circle of squirrel tails and squirrel gibberish until the cracker fell all the way to the ground and hid itself deep in the snow. Nutkin was livid. He leapt to another tree still squawking and pouted most of the day while he watched Rocket swing gleefully from the feeder of nuts.

After the snow melted, the lady of the house propped a ladder against the tree, climbed up, and ceremoniously snipped the thin limb from the tree effectively ending Rocket’s fun, or so she thought. A few weeks of this work-out, combined with a high-protein diet, had made Rocket stronger than the average squirrel. Within a day, he was able to launch himself directly from the side of the tree onto the top of the bird feeder.

When the people see Rocket perched on the feeder, they open the backdoor, clap their hands, and shout strange words. Sometimes the man even throws ice cubes. It’s a fun game that signals the squirrel to do an impressive reverse leap right back to the tree. The only way to stop Rocket from getting on the feeder would be to move the entire system to another spot which, for some reason, hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps the people get a thrill watching Rocky fly, or maybe they understand no matter what they do, this squirrel will win.

Early one morning this week, the lady stood at the window watching several gold finches and juncos, a cardinal, a flicker, and two downy woodpeckers at the bird feeders. Suddenly, on the trunk of a tree just a foot from the house, appeared an upside-down Rocket “Rocky” J. Squirrel looking at her eye-to-eye through the window. Not at all surprised, she smiled and said, “Hello there, Rocky.” He held up his right paw and waved it slowly back and forth.

From the table, her husband sat perfectly still and whispered, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing right now.” “Good morning,” the lady said through the window. The squirrel smiled at her and waved again before jumping to the deck, darting up his tree, and flying to the top of the bird feeder for breakfast. §

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10 Ways to Bring More Joy to Your Days

Hard to believe we are already three months into the new year. My personal mantra for this year is Joie de Vivre, or joy of living. Honestly, on more than one occasion I double-checked my poor French didn’t cause me to sign-up for more stress, than joy, in my vivre!

Of course, true advocates of la joie de vivre would say it’s when things get a little crazy, or fou in French, that we must remember to celebrate life’s simple joys. We each have our own ideas about what brings happiness, but here are ten areas where we can all find more everyday joy.

1. Dining ~ No matter what we’re eating, we can make meals a more pleasant ritual. We can take time to put our food on a pretty plate and sit down with a placemat and napkin. We can turn off the television and put away our phones. It will soon be warm enough to dine al fresco. Savoring our meals with gratitude is a simple joy we often take for granted.

2. Nature ~ Research indicates many people, especially children, are increasingly experiencing a nature deficit. With spring right around the corner, most of us are eager to get outside in the fresh air. Take a walk. Listen to the birds. Enjoy the sunshine. Nature is good for the mind, body, and soul, and it is such a simple way to increase our joy.

3. Creativity ~ When we get lost in something creative, we give our brains a break from fret and worry and get into a meditative state some scientists call flow. Whether we enjoy gardening, cooking, painting, quilting, or some other hobby, delving into a creative pursuit is where we can find our happy place.

4. Flowers ~ Flowers bring joy to any space. I’ll never forget how my students reacted when I brought in fresh flowers for our classroom. It won’t be long before the earth will be speaking to us through blossoms of every type and color. Pick a single flower or budding tree limb and arrange it in a vase of water for instant happiness.

5. The Arts ~ The arts have always brought joy to humanity. Thankfully, we all have different tastes in architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music, performance, and film, but we know what makes our heart sing. Until we can safely return to our beloved museums, libraries, and theaters, we can explore the arts at home. I’m already planning my trip to see the Van Gogh Immersive Experience in Chicago.

6. Wardrobe ~ Opening an organized closet filled with a small selection of clothing I want to wear brings me such joy. I personally love the simplicity and femininity of dresses. I’ve already put away my darker, heavier ones and brought out my spring things. Getting dressed is something we do every day, and it can easily become something that brings us joy.

7. Attitude ~ Nothing adds more joy to our days than having a positive attitude. Cultivating a good attitude is a daily habit. Whatever we focus on seems to increase, so it only makes sense to think on the positive. Long ago I heard someone say we can choose to wake up and say, “Good God, morning” or “Good morning, God.” The choice is ours!

8. Color ~ What colors bring you joy? This week I looked at thousands of rugs at a large decorating store. I had to dig deep to find one in a color that made me smile. That peachy-coral rug and a few cans of paint in fresh, happy colors have made our new house feel like home. To a large extent, we have a choice about the colors that surround us. What color do you need more of in your life?

9. Self-Care ~ Sometimes we need to pamper ourselves a little. My sister sent me a gift set of heavenly lavender-scented bath products. She knows how much I value the simple joy of closing the door and luxuriating in an hour or so of at-home beauty treatments. It’s not about primping and preening for vanity’s sake. It’s about taking time to care for ourselves, so we can take care of others.

10. Spirituality ~ Our spiritual growth is a lifelong process that can bring us the ultimate joy. We can seek it throughout our days from books, music, meditation, scripture, yoga, art, nature, prayer, silence, service, and religious practices. Many would agree, the greater our spirituality, the greater our joy. It was Mother Teresa who reminded us, “Joy is strength.” §

(To read more about the French expression, Joie de Vivre, please go to my January article at http://www.thesimpleswan.com/2021/01/03. Merci!)

Me and My Shadow – Winter Solstice inspires living more authentically

My shadow on Winter Solstice 2020

Here in the Heartland of America, the Winter Solstice couldn’t have fallen on a more beautiful December day. I took a walk in the bright sunshine without mittens or a heavy coat. I was alone, except for an exaggerated shadow that followed me playfully. Turns out we cast our longest shadow on the shortest day of the year.

As my shadow loomed next to me and mocked my every move, I felt like Peter Pan, whose shadow was a distinct character in the novel by J. M. Barrie. At its insistence, I finally stopped and addressed the figure that boldly stretched more than fifty feet across the ground as the late afternoon sun hung low in the horizon. My shadow seemed to plead, “Look at me!”

Had I been accompanied by a child or a friend with my sense of wonder, I imagine we would have jumped, posed, danced, and laughed out loud at our circus-like shadows. Instead, I just moved my arms and legs a little and giggled, hoping no one was watching.

When we look at our shadows, we don’t see facial features or skin color. We don’t see signs of age or wealth. We don’t see talents or insecurities, good luck or misfortune, successes or failures. We only see the shape of a human body, a vessel that carries us through every moment of our lives.

Psychology has much to say about the shadow self. My limited understanding is that it’s the darker side of our personality containing parts of ourselves we might not even be aware of, or want to admit to if we do.

Observing my shadow, one would never know I struggle with perfectionism. No one could tell how I crave solitude, or that conflict fills me with anxiety. I hide these things about myself, convinced they’re negative traits I should be embarrassed by and try to change.

I am learning to honor those shadow parts of myself and accept they’re part of what makes me uniquely me. By the same token, I must try to view others without judgment, knowing the traits hiding in their shadow make them uniquely them.

Despite our individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, we are more alike than different. This year has revealed that more clearly than most. Line us all up shoulder-to-shoulder around this big blue marble and deep in our shadows we all want the same things ~ health and happiness, equality and respect, love and peace.

The Winter Solstice marks the beginning of brighter days ahead. It comes at the end of a year filled with stunning moments that made us re-evaluate who we really are, what we stand for, and how we want to live.

As for me and my shadow, we’re going to end the year with the intention of living more authentically. On the next Winter Solstice, my shadow and I are going to joyfully do a cartwheel, no matter who is watching. §

2020 Vision – a look at our resolutions halfway through a wacky year

Way back in late December, most of us looked ahead to the new year with enthusiastic focus and clarity. Six long months later, it might seem our 2020 vision was blindsided.

We never saw it coming!

The coronavirus pandemic. A presidential impeachment. Record-breaking unemployment. Wildfires. A drone assassination. Murder hornets. A global shut-down. Social unrest. Plane and helicopter crashes. Saharan dust clouds. Masks. An imploding economy. It’s enough to forget the UK exited the EU and Harry and Meghan packed up the baby and exited Buckingham Palace.

In times like these, we’re tempted to throw all that vision stuff right out the window, but having a clear focus for our lives is even more crucial during uncertain times. Truth be told, people have always lived in chaotic times. That’s the human condition.

A crazy year is no time to abandon our intentions for living a better life. “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision,” wrote Helen Keller.

Since we’re halfway in, now is a good time to think about how we’re doing. My own vision for 2020 is encapsulated in the word seasons. Come along with me to see how I’m doing so far, particularly in light of the pandemic.

  • This year I intend to enjoy the natural beauty and seasonal gifts offered by nature. Honestly, the quarantine has made this even easier. Since we’ve been staying home, I’ve spent lots of time watching our world slowly morph from winter to spring to summer. In my stillness, visits by woodland critters haven’t escaped my notice. Against the steady beat of the daily news, I’ve appreciated more than ever the peace and beauty nature faithfully provides.
  • This year I intend to embrace my current season of life. At 58 years old, I’m as comfortable in my own skin as I’ve ever been. In the scheme of things, wrinkles, age spots and wild strands of white hair seem like silly things to worry about. I’m grateful for a body that will never be tall and thin, but is fabulously strong and healthy. When I hear the increasing number of people who have died from Covid-19, I’m reminded of my own mortality and the gift of each and every day.
  • This year I intend to show compassion to those in more challenging seasons of life. Since my husband and I are retired, we haven’t had to navigate working from home. We haven’t faced unemployment or financial insecurity. We haven’t felt loneliness or isolation. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to extend empathy and help to those who don’t have it as easy as we do right now.

A mid-year evaluation of our vision brings it back into focus and reminds us to make it a daily priority. So what was your vision for 2020, and how’s it going? There are still six months left in this wacky wonderful year. What do you intend to do with those months, weeks, days and hours?

Nelson Mandela offers this wisdom, “Action without vision is only passing time, vision without action is merely day dreaming, but vision with action can change the world.” §

Note: This post was published in Minimalism Life’s Journal earlier this week. You can read it and subscribe here: https://minimalism.life/journal/2020-vision

The Man in the Moon

The August moon is full and bright on the night of my father’s birthday. I miss him even more than usual, and the gossamer glow both increases and soothes my melancholy.

Gazing at the mysterious moon in the still of the night, I imagine Claude Debussy’s piano classic Claire de Lune quietly playing in the background as a perfect accompaniment to my bittersweet emotions.

Claire de Lune, meaning moonlight, is one of the most well-known and beloved piano pieces of all time. It is the third and most famous movement of Debussy’s 1890 Suite Bergamasque. In a spirit of creative cooperation, Debussy was inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem Claire de Lune which was inspired by the moon itself.

Whether or not you speak French, doesn’t this poem sound lovely? Et leur chanson se mele au clair de lune. Au calme clair de lune triste et beau. These lines from Verlaine’s poem are translated to mean, And their song blends with the moonlight. With the sad and beautiful moonlight. 

Triste et beau. Sad and beautiful. Yes, those two words do strike a chord. I’m in awe and appreciation of nature’s ability to inspire masterpieces that express our seemingly inexpressible emotions. Both nature and art make us feel less alone and connect us through a timeless shared humanity.

My mind travels back to a moonlit evening many years ago. My handsome young father is at the piano plucking out chords and humming a tune. He had an ear for music and could find the notes to any song he heard. My sisters and I gather around him in our nightgowns, squeaky clean from evening baths, and sing together for at least an hour before dreamily floating off to bed.

Looking up at the full moon this evening, I wish my dad a happy birthday. Silhouetted against a heavenly circle of light is the man in the moon. He is sitting at a piano elegantly playing Claire de Lune. §