Like a Swan ~ inspiration for living with grace, simplicity, and joy

The Swans, 1900 by Joseph Marius Avy

Many times I’ve been asked why I named this blog The Simple Swan. I suppose I’ve always had an affinity for this elegant bird that graces the scenes of art, literature, and ballets.

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 in his journey first to self-love and eventually to true love with a beautiful swan named Serena.

My love 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 lovely picture book of the ballet has had a place on my shelf.

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

When my own children 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 fifteen minutes or so, I would sit in my car and watch the swans on the small peaceful lake.

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.

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

No matter what life brings, we can at least aim to effortlessly glide through both the seasons of the year and the seasons of life inspired by the serenity, grace, and joy of a simple swan. §

An Optimist’s Guide to Politics

Politics and optimism seem to mix like oil and water, but formidable British statesman Winston Churchill once said, “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.” Those of us with such dispositions can successfully navigate a contentious election year by clinging to some simple values most optimists hold dear to their hearts.

At the end of the day, optimists just want everyone to be happy. It’s an idea our founding fathers shared, at least in theory. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When optimists vote, they want nothing more than our country to keep moving towards fulfilling those promising words adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

Most optimists believe good character to be the most important quality in any person, particularly someone who wishes to hold a public office. Voters who don’t care about a politician’s character, just their policies and party, are probably not optimists. Abraham Lincoln reminded us, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Think about the personal qualities you admire and likely insist upon in the people you want in your inner circle. Before you vote, consider how well the candidates hold up against that basic measure.

Optimists have heaps of trust in their fellow citizens and in democracy itself. We have faith in the democratic process and take seriously our right and responsibility to vote. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote after decades of protest and civil disobedience. When we go to the polls we must keep in mind that democracy, the cornerstone of an optimistic nation, is always at stake.

At the risk of sounding like a Miss America contestant, optimists really do want world peace. George Washington said, “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” Here at home, we want to live in a country that’s peaceful and united in the belief that we all deserve to feel safe and respected, despite our differences. Support the candidate who wants that, too.

For those of us who like to keep things light, the next few weeks are going to be pretty heavy. Let’s stay true to our ideals of happiness, character, trust, and harmony. Don’t worry when the cynics call us dreamers, because they will. Finally, remember another thing Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

The Mourning Doves’ Call for Peace

Note: This post was written in response to a weekend marked by gun violence in our country. 

A quiet sadness hung in the air defying the bright August morning. The rising sun was still behind the treetops, but slivers of light cut through thick branches in stark, illuminating shafts. Nature seemed to know mankind awoke again to unnatural hate and violence.

Under the mysterious stillness was a low, haunting call of a mourning dove. Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo! Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo!  

A pair of doves landed on the ground, their fluttering wings breaking the strange silence. They moved gracefully searching for seeds below the bird feeders. Oddly, they foraged alone. No squirrels scurried around them. The cardinals, finches and orioles reverently relinquished the morning to the soft gray, slender-tailed doves.

In the distance another soft, slow coo was heard. Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo! Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo!  

Their distinctive melancholy song gives mourning doves their name, but the birds are not associated with despair. To the contrary, they are universally recognized as symbols of peace. Since the beginning of time, the dove has represented a transformative symbol of optimism and hope in folklore, mythology, literature and scripture. Doves are referenced in the Bible more than any other species.

Artists and musicians often turn to doves for inspiration. In 1949, the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso drew the iconic Dove of Peace-Blue for the World Peace Congress, becoming a lasting symbol of respect and harmony between people of all nations.

The mourning dove is one of our country’s most common birds. It’s found in nearly every environment and has adapted well to man-altered habitats. Yet despite their abundance, despite their well-known symbolism, despite our love for the idea of peace on Earth, we aren’t getting their message. We’re moving further and further off the path of civility, kindness and goodwill that leads to peacefulness.

A third mourning dove joined the other two at the bird bath. Noticeable was their calm and serene demeanor. They sipped the water delicately, occasionally looking up with round, dark eyes. They elegantly cocked their heads as if understanding the sacred beauty of the world and their role in it.

Just as the sun peeked over the top of the trees, flooding the new day with golden light, a mourning dove sang its pleading song of peace. Oo-woo-oo  oooo oooo! Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo! §