Late-Blooming Roses ~ Accepting Joy as it Appears

cheerful graphic

My rose bushes disappointed this year. I waited all summer for them to explode into a riotous celebration of yellow, but they never did. I watered them, fed them, sprayed them, pruned them, and pleaded with them, but throughout the hot dry summer, they only produced a few wimpy flowers.

By summer’s end I’d stopped paying attention to the leggy bushes and never even got around to cutting them back this fall. Halloween came and went, and the calendar turned to November. Imagine my surprise when, without any help or encouragement from me, the bushes suddenly produced a bounty of beautiful yellow roses!

At first, I admit to being slightly annoyed. “Oh, great, now you decide to bloom.” And then it dawned on me those roses might be teaching me a few things. Stop trying so hard. Good things take time. You’re not in control. Beauty is spontaneous. Stay present. Be open to joy whenever it appears.

I rejoiced in the late-blooming roses for a couple of weeks as I watched an abundance of sweet yellow buds slowly unfurl into big silky soft flowers. The prolific rose bushes looked so odd surrounded by bare trees and covered in crispy brown leaves. Alas, it seemed our unusually warm weather had come to an end, and with a forecast of snow flurries, I cut the roses and took them inside.

As any flower-lover knows, the process of arranging them is part of the delight. I set the roses by the kitchen sink, carefully removed excess leaves, and delicately cut each stem to the right height. It was a ritual I performed slowly and mindfully, knowing it would be the last time for many months.  As I placed the roses in vases of water, I couldn’t help but thank them and apologize for my impatience, my pushiness, and my lack of faith.

I ceremoniously set a vase in the living room where a shaft of autumn light came through the window. My curious kitten hopped on the table and pressed his heart-shaped nose into the yellow flowers. “Yes, Mr. Darcy, you’re right. Stop and smell the roses, especially when you least expect them.” §

IMG_3302

“The earth laughs in flowers.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Elegance of Changing Seasons

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.

Do you find the journey through each season of life 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’m looking at life through a car window and watching it pass by in a blur.

When I’m not quite ready for the next season, I think of a favorite Bible verse, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Its author, King Solomon, was known as an elegant seeker on a quest for the meaning and purpose of life.

He  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.”

King Solomon reminds us there are good times and bad, and just like the meteorological 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.

On my personal journey, I know 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.

The seasons of life pass so quickly. The carefree, verdant spring and summer of our youth fade to a season when daily responsibilities, chores, and chaos scatter endlessly like falling leaves. Suddenly, we are older and days can stretch before us as empty as winter’s bare branches.

It’s fine to warm ourselves with yesterday’s memories and look forward to the future, but we are wise to show acceptance, gratitude and enthusiasm for each and every day of the season in which we find ourselves. George Santayana so elegantly said, “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” §

“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be
are full of trees and changing leaves.”

~Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

The Elegance of Golf

 

IMG_1804In what might be seen as a risky move, my husband gave me golf clubs for my birthday last year. At 59, I never had any desire to take up the sport, but I graciously accepted the gift as a way for us to spend time together in our retirement. Although I’m still learning to play the game, I have discovered golf is an exceptionally elegant sport. 

Nature was initially what got me on the course. While Mike recalls each hole by his shots, I remember the wildlife. “The second hole was my best drive,” he says. “Oh, that was the one where we saw the great blue heron. On the third hole, there were turtles,” I reply. There are golf courses all over the world known for their breathtaking scenery, but even an inexpensive neighborhood course can be a great place to appreciate flora, fauna, and animals in their natural habitat.

I was quickly impressed by the etiquette of golf. There is a clear tradition of customs and rules designed to make the game safer and more enjoyable for everyone. After thirty years in noisy middle school classrooms, I was thrilled to discover silence is golden on the golf course. Other elegant practices include punctuality, thoughtfulness, a respectful dress code, and self-discipline. 

Self-control and golf can seem antithetical. It’s a frustrating game that can cause the most stoic player to lose all sense of dignity and restraint. At one Mt. Vernon golf course, a club dangles thirty feet high in an overgrown tree. Forty-five years ago my husband’s buddy threw it up there after an exceptionally bad round. Professional golfer Walter Hagen said long ago, “They called it golf because all of the other four-letter words were taken.” Golf is a great game for anyone wishing to practice the art of self-discipline. 

Golf strengthens both the body and mind. The perfect swing requires smooth and graceful control of the physical body from head to toe, but most golfers agree, it’s a mind game. Golf teaches concentration and equanimity. Keeping a clear head when water taunts on the left and a sand trap teases on the right requires mental focus. Jack Nicklaus said, “The game of golf is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.” 

This elegant game can bring together people of all ages and genders. Children can learn to play and keep playing the rest of their lives. Mike frequently plays with his 83-year-old father, who can still hit the ball straight and far. I’m personally encouraged by female golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias who said, “Golf is a game of coordination, rhythm, and grace; women have these to a high degree.” 

Like many sports, the game of golf possesses a unifying spirit. Personal politics and discord can be left off the course while players bond over 18 holes of shared challenges, simple victories, and friendly competition. In a testament to golf’s bipartisanship, former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both love the game. 

Life and golf have a lot in common. Every day on the links is a chance to practice as much poise, precision, and elegance as possible, and that practice can be extended to life in general. As golfer Ben Hogan said, “As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.” §

“Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening, and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.” 
~Arnold Palmer

 

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.” §

A Summertime Poem ~ “Unplugged”

IMG_1364

“Unplugged”

Sit outside in dappled shade
Unplugged from tech and things man-made

Don’t fret the wifi isn’t stronger
This connection lasts much longer

Tick-tock is the sound of time
Spend some in nature and offline

Leave social media behind
Post a picture in your mind

Instead of clicking on that link
Find out what your own heart thinks

Trade television and play stations
For incredible imagination

The cloud is good for storing info
Look up, there is a fluffy hippo

Real flowers smell so sweet
Listen to the birdies tweet

Shooting stars and lightning bugs
We miss it all if we don’t unplug §

By Alicia Woodward

Featured Art ~ A Bridge Over Water Lilies, Claude Monet, 1999

Poetry for Ukraine ~ “With the Strength of Snowdrops”

IMG_0936

“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