Let the Lights Shine this Season

cheerful graphicJust as nights become colder, darker and longer, neighborhoods and towns are beginning to sparkle with the warmth and joy of holiday lights. Main Streets glitter with decorations, Christmas trees warmly glow through living room windows, and barren trees come to life with strands of colorful bulbs. Holiday lights have a magical ability to make us feel happiness and hope.

Most of us like to decorate our homes at least a little for the holidays, and we usually have some pretty strong opinions on the matter. Some of us like to keep it simple. Others like to go all-in like Clark Griswold with his fuse-blowing decor in Christmas Vacation. Chances are we could each weigh-in on a discussion about white or colored lights, big or tiny bulbs, flashing or continuous settings, and, of course, those inflatable yard decorations. I do love driving around seeing people’s holiday decorations, and I always appreciate the effort even if they’re not exactly to my taste.

One year I wasn’t able to micromanage the hanging of the lights in our own yard, because I needed to attend my school’s winter chorus concert. I left detailed directions, including a carefully-drawn graphic, for my husband and teenage son. When I returned home that evening, I chuckled smugly at the tacky lights flashing from someone’s house down our street. As I drove closer, my heart sunk when I saw the brightly colored lights haphazardly strung every which way were in my yard.

I took a deep breath, walked into the house, and said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, “The lights look so…fun.” My husband and son fell on the floor with laughter. They got me. I always feel like I passed some great test of Christmas spirit by not completely freaking out. Of course, those lights came down that very evening, and we all had a great time decorating according to plan.

I’ve had the chance to see some amazing holiday lights around the country, and I’m thrilled that this year there is a huge holiday light display right in my hometown. For the first time, our local museum is celebrating the holidays with more than a million sparkling lights. The only thing better than holiday lights are holiday lights mingled with beautiful architecture, sculptures, and artwork!*

Whether the display is large or small, extravagant or simple, holiday lights inspire all the wonderful feelings of the holiday season. It’s impossible to look at twinkling holiday lights shining against a clear dark sky filled with its own brilliant stars and not feel joy for the beauty of the world and hope for all of humanity. If we’re very lucky, some of that enchanting light will sink deep into our souls so we can go out into the world and shine a bit of our own light this holiday season. §

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”
~ Traditional Hymn 

*For information about The Lights at Cedarhurst Center for the Arts in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, go to cedarhurst.org or call 618-242-1236.

Poetry for Ukraine ~ a Haiku

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“Mourning Dove”

cooing mourning dove
iridescent wings of mauve

softly prays for peace

~Alicia Woodward

“Faith is the bird that sings when the dawn is still dark.”
~Rabindranath Tagore

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
“An Elegant Response to War” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/23
“The Sky” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/30

Poetry for Ukraine ~ “The Sky”

IMG_1318“The Sky”

The sky belongs to the hazy moon and to the glowing sun
It wasn’t made for fighter jets, bursting bombs, or guns

That sacred space is for the birds to glide on wings and soar
It’s unnatural to be the scene of destruction, hate, or war

The place where God put rainbows, stars, and butterflies
Does not belong to greedy men and self-important lies

A peaceful sphere for passing clouds and for the gentle wind
Is best reserved for reverie and flying kites with friends

The wild blue yonder holds for us a promise up above
It’s good for prayers and wishes and hopeful thoughts of love

The heavens have watched over us since the dawn of time
When we are at our very worst and moments when we shine

The sky belongs to angels and people who can fly
For those set free from earthly woes and gravity defy §

-Alicia Woodward

Note regarding this poem’s allusion to “people who can fly” ~
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales is the title of a book written by Virginia Hamilton in 1985. It is a collection of 24 folktales including one called The People Could Fly. In this tale, slaves sing ancient African words and magically fly away to freedom. I’d like to believe people bound by chains of oppression, illness, addiction, disease, or poverty can defy all odds and break free. Maybe strength comes in  knowing these are only earthly chains and will not last forever.

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
“An Elegant Response to War” https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/23

“I thank you God for this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.”
~ e. e. cummings

Poetry for Ukraine ~ “An Elegant Response to War”

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“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 Sympatheia

A news anchor broke down in tears while interviewing a Ukrainian father whose wife and two children were killed while trying to escape their city under siege. I know I’m not the only viewer who wept with them. In that moment, we were experiencing what the ancient Greeks called sympatheia, an elegant concept that all things are mutually woven together and have an affinity for each other.

Sympatheia reminds us we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves. You’ve probably seen a photo called The Blue Marble. It is an image of Earth taken fifty years ago by the Apollo 17 crew on their way to the Moon. It was shot 18,000 miles from our planet and is one of the most reproduced images in history. Astronomer Carl Sagan said, “There is perhaps no better a demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” 

Maybe you’ve had a similar feeling standing on the ocean shore, on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or under a million stars in the vast night sky. This oceanic feeling happens when we allow ourselves to have a zoomed-out perspective. It’s then we experience a feeling of awe and realization that we are very small, but part of something incomprehensibly big.  

Stoic philosophy is rooted in the concept of sympatheia. Roman emperor Marcus Arelius wrote, “Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.” The Stoics understood we are essentially all the same. We all suffer and cry, love and laugh, live and die. Sympatheia allows us to understand that our actions affect one another. 

Ryan Holiday, author and host of the podcast The Daily Stoic said, “We are all unified and share the same substance. We breathe the same air. We share the same hopes and dreams. We are all descended from the same. And this is true no matter what race you are, no matter where you come from, or what you believe.” 

My guess is sympatheia doesn’t come naturally to our selfish egos. Of course, we look out for number one. We probably care about family and those immediately around us. We might even feel a duty to those who look like us, live like us, and think like us. Sympatheia takes some work. 

If we think about that photo of Earth and hold that zoomed-out perspective, our connection and our responsibility grow. We can see we are part of an interconnected world, where everything and everyone is united in a delicate relationship. It is this connection to each other that can push us to be and do what’s good, not just for a part, but for the whole.

Aurelius wrote, “The universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other, with an eye toward mutual benefit and never for harm.” In the big picture, our differences are insignificant. What unites us is our sameness. Our planet. Our humanity. What if our world leaders understood and practiced the concept of sympatheia? A better question might be, what if we all did?  §

“What’s good for the hive is good for the bees.” – Marcus Aurelius

Poetry for Ukraine ~ “War Can Turn to Peace”

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“War Can Turn to Peace”

War
Ugly, Inhumane
Hating, Destroying, Dying
Explosions, Fear…Silence, Hope
Loving, Creating, Living
Beautiful, Compassionate
Peace

-Alicia Woodward

Like most Americans, I’m frightened and saddened by the inhumanity of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In my effort to find something positive I can do to to help, I’m writing poetry in support of the brave people of Ukraine which I will share on Wednesdays in my Just Between Friends post.

The form of poetry I’ve written this week is called a diamanté. It’s made up of just 16 words in seven unrhymed lines which form a diamond shape. Diamanté is the Italian word for diamond. The first and last lines are nouns, usually of opposite meaning. The rest of the lines are made up of nouns and adjectives related to the beginning and ending words. (I chose to divide my poem with ellipses.)

This relatively new form of poetry was created in 1969 by American poet Iris McClellan Tiedt. Studying and writing this simple form of poetry was always a favorite of my middle school literature students. 

Writing poetry is, if nothing else, an elegant way to process and express our feelings. It won’t end a war, but it might offer a little comfort. If you’d like to try your hand at a diamanté poem, here’s the format:

Noun
Adjective, Adjective (related to first word)
Verb, Verb, Verb (related to first word)
Noun, Noun (related to first word)… Noun, Noun (related to last word)
Verb, Verb, Verb (related to last word)
Adjective, Adjective (related to last word)
Noun

Please read my previous poem for Ukraine ~ The Strength of Snowdrops at https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2022/03/02

“No one in the world will forgive you (Vladimir Putin) for killing peaceful Ukrainian people.”
~Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Poetry for Ukraine ~ “With the Strength of Snowdrops”

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“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 the Train’s Song

In the quiet darkness of night, I hear the comforting rumble of the train as I lie awake in the same southern Illinois town where I grew up. My head rests now on a pillow not far from the cozy bed of my childhood, where the train’s song was a lullaby of comfort, a reminder of perseverance, and an elegant symbol of life’s journey.

As a child, the train that ran through Mt. Vernon watched over me like an angel. Day or night, its approaching sound assured me life was chugging along in a steady rhythm, and I was never alone. My train angel’s steel wings sang a soothing hymn as it flew by my house, school, or secret spot in the woods.

Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I’m conditioned to feel peace when I hear the distant sound clattering down the tracks. Even now, the train’s vibration sinks deep into my heart and instantly makes me feel calm and connected. In her poem Song of the Railroad Train Mrs. John Loye wrote, “How grand by night o’er countryside is that wild melodious strain; and music blown at eventide, is the song of the railroad train.”

No child should grow up without reading the American folktale The Little Engine that Could. The 1930s story teaches the value of optimism and hard work. At nearly sixty years old, I confess to finding strength in the little blue engine’s mantra, “I think I can. I think I can.”

Sometimes the rails we ride are long and monotonous. Other times they take us up steep hills, down plunging valleys, and through dark tunnels. Even when we can’t see the light, we find the hope and will to keep going.

Trains are an easy metaphor. We’re all aboard a journey that takes us to different stations in life, some by choice and others by chance. There are love trains, peace trains, freedom trains, runaway trains, midnight trains, and crazy trains. I’ve ridden them all.

Along the way, we’re joined by fellow passengers – family, friends, teachers, loves, children, coworkers, and neighbors – but we all begin and end our trip alone. Sometimes the train takes us right back were we began. We step off the platform carrying a lifetime of lessons, experiences, and memories collected on our sojourn.

On this night, the ambient wail and low blowing horn remind me of a salvation song. I hum a familiar tune by Curtis Mayfield, “People get ready, there’s a train a comin’. You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board. All you need is faith, to hear the diesels hummin’. Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.” §

“There’s something about the sound of a train that’s very
romantic and nostalgic and hopeful.”

~Paul Simon

The Elegance of Resting Like a Fallow Field

Here in America’s Heartland, the farmers’ fields lie fallow now. Barren squares stretch out like a patchwork quilt gently covering the land while it settles in for a well-deserved nap. The scene makes me want to snuggle under a cozy blanket and enjoy the time of year when nature encourages us to elegantly rest like the fallow fields.

Fallow periods are traditionally used by farmers to maintain the natural productivity of the land. Leaving a field inactive for a time allows the soil to recover, restore, and rebalance itself. You see, the land becomes depleted and unproductive if it isn’t given a chance to rest.

Can you relate? What if we took a cue from nature and thought of this season of the year as a natural time to recover, restore, and rebalance ourselves?

I know, the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve is the busiest time of the year. Maybe you’re in a season of life when rest seems impossible. A stressful job, child-rearing, caregiving, and other challenges can be exhausting. Keeping up with the daily news is taxing. Even fun-filled celebrations can leave us feeling worn out. All the more reason to rest.

My husband is the most steady and calm, yet efficient and productive person I know. He manages to get everything done and more, yet he’s the first one to suggest we stop and chill. It’s no surprise his favorite Christmas carol is Silent Night. Like my laid-back husband, the elegant song hushes and reminds, “All is calm. All is bright.”

Rather than waiting until the hustle of the holidays is over, let’s give ourselves the gift of rest now, when we really need it. Here are ten ways we can follow the fallow fields, even if just for a few minutes each day.

  1. Be still. Being busy isn’t necessarily being productive. Sit in complete stillness a few minutes every day to let your body and mind recharge.
  2. Stay home. Sometimes we stay on the go out of habit or fear of being bored. Be it ever so humble, home should be the most comforting place in the world.
  3. Renew your spirit. Read, pray, sing, create. Do more of whatever renews your soul.
  4. Turn down the noise. Do what you can to quiet your surroundings. Unplug at least once a day and experience total silence.
  5. Say no. We aren’t obliged to say yes to every invitation or request. Graciously decline an avoidable situation that’s likely to be more draining than fulfilling.
  6. Eat well. When a field lies fallow, the soil regains its nutrients. Be sure to consume healthy foods to replenish your own nutrition.
  7. Talk a walk outdoors. Not only is walking good exercise, the crisp air is a great way to clear your head.
  8. Practice self-care. Schedule a massage, a haircut, a manicure, or try some at at-home spa treatments. Take time to take care of yourself.
  9. Go to bed early. Sleep research shows human beings have a natural circadian rhythm that mimics the sun’s rising and setting. Shorter, darker days are a good excuse to get more sleep.
  10. Observe nature. Take a closer look at nature. Appreciate its beauty. Be inspired by its simplicity. Learn from its wisdom.

This morning at sunrise, a single bright star twinkled in the glowing horizon while the waning moon illuminated a frosty, barren field dotted with several deer. The elegant scene looked like a Christmas card sending sincere wishes for a beautiful, peaceful, and restful holiday season.

“It is precisely those who are busiest who most need to give themselves a break.”
~Pico Iyler

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! §