May 2022

Photos by Elissa

Wearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag in front of Water Street Café.

Dear Friends,

I love you! Remember the wise words of Dr. Samuel Johnson: We don’t need to be informed; we need to be reminded. It’s vitally important to me to continue to communicate with you my heartfelt love. As we face reality in these challenging times, be assured that I am with you, heart and soul, as we support each other spirit to spirit.

Because you share with me the urgent need for all of us to show our solidarity for the Ukrainian people during this dire tyrannical invasion, we will not turn our backs. We are witnessing in real time what genuine leadership looks like in a democracy. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s raw honesty reminds nations all over the world that what we may have taken for granted as our rightful inheritance is extremely vulnerable, fragile and uncertain.

As this brutal, agonizing war advances in unfathomable cruelty for the third month, we are called upon to bear the unbearable. I’m deeply moved by the bravery and unity of the Ukrainian people. Zelensky’s love of country, and his hands-on fighting in the trenches, is a shining example of the power of the human spirit to triumph. Because he is in close touch with his people, he shares in their pain with his physical presence. As our compassion and empathy grow stronger, we cultivate courage as we face fear in front of our nose. I’m grateful to Aristotle for teaching us that courage is the greatest of all virtues; when you are strong, all the other ethical values are thrown in. Zelensky is courageous because he is acting on his character and principles with a clear conscience, giving us all hope. Mark Twain taught us that courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not the absence of fear.

Alexandra holding a blue hydrangea in a pot

Hydrangeas, my favorite blue flower!

In war there are transcendent acts of bravery, generosity, kindness and gratitude that deepen our awareness of our shared humanity. We are living history. Zelensky continues to inspire leaders and citizens of other countries, as a transformative figure. In his words: “I’m not a hero. I’m an ordinary person.” Rare indeed. As a democratically elected president, he campaigned on an anti-corruption platform. How prescient his comedy series Servant of the People is today, illuminating his devotion to his beloved country with wit, honesty and love. Power, when properly utilized, is a win-win energy for all that is true, good and beautiful. I find Zelensky’s evolution—from comedian, actor and statesman to a world-respected voice for freedom and democracy—highly motivating.

Peter always reminded me that humor is a way to gain perspective. Recently, political satirist Jon Stewart, a comedian best known as the former host of The Daily Show, was honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington. He was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He said in his acceptance remarks, “Comedy doesn’t change the world, but it’s a bellwether. We’re the banana peel in the coal mine.”

I’m strengthened by Zelensky’s humility, refreshed by his eloquent words and moved by his actions that reverberate universal truths. Let the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow speak to our current situation:

Know how sublime a thing it is
To suffer and be strong

I quoted this poetic wisdom for this time of year in my daily Grace Notes book, published 32 years ago. It is sublime indeed to be strong. Together, let us encourage each other to rise to our higher angels, strengthened by others’ courage and example.

Yellow daffodils outside Alexandra's house

Daffodils look like they’re talking when they waft in the breeze.

The Promise of New Life in Spring

I’m grateful to each of you for reaching out to me with such inspiring messages of hope, faith and goodness. Nature has given us a magnificent gift of the promise of spring. Because we’re blessed to be on this precious planet, now, in the lightest, brightest, most colorfully beautiful time of the year, we can embrace the joy of each sacred, unrepeatable day. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us, “Everything once, once only. Just once and no more. And we also once. Never again.”

Thank you, Alicia, for your message on the first day of April, informing me that today you and your sisters will bury the ashes of your parents in a beautiful plot in your hometown of Mount Vernon, Illinois. Thank you for your kind words about the way I “faced the death of loved ones, especially Peter, with hope and positivity. You helped me plan happy celebrations of life for both my father and mother.” Alicia, I’m glad you expressed your gratitude for my “concern and devotion to the people of 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

Thank you for sharing one of your poems with me and letting me know you are writing poetry for Ukraine on your blog every day since the devastating attack began.

Cherié (also from the state of Illinois) sends me quotations and poems that always pertain to the season we’re in. Springtime and its fresh air are obviously enchanting her.

“What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again.” —Suzanne Collins

Thank you, Cherié, for your supreme compliment when you generously wrote that Susan J. Bissonette’s definition of an optimist “perfectly” describes me. I’m blushing! She wrote, “An optimist is the human personification of spring.”

Alexandra reading the newspaper in her living room

South light illuminates the space where I read the newspaper every day.

Long Longevity

A man who died at 111, Zhou Youguang, understood that “When you encounter difficulties, you need to be optimistic ... The pessimists tend to die.”

While I am seriously optimistic about the human potential to transcend to become wiser, I am awake to the ever-present fleeting passage of time. I loved Yo-Yo Ma’s thoughts about learning from experience over theory, published in the New York Times Magazine.

After you turn 60, if you say or do something and it’s really silly, people forgive you. And if you say something very useful and it halfway makes sense, people are pleasantly surprised. That’s the good part. Hopefully, as an older person you can see what’s coming down the pike better. You can see it from further away. There’s a sense of clarity. You know your time is limited. You can differentiate and maybe occasionally have some choice in saying, “I don’t need to do that. Let me tell you what I really care about.” You’ve gone through several cycles of life. It’s an authority that’s not coming from on high, it’s just an authority of experience.

I, too, feel a sense of clarity. I look at each day as an opportunity to care deeply about what’s vitally important to me right now. I choose to love my life in this exact stage, in this present moment. I’ve learned how to be happy. There’s no way to stop the clock from ticking. The only time we’re alive is right now, this very breath we take: our task is to be present. We embrace the arc of our life cycle. We’re given the gift of being a baby, being young, being old and, if we’re lucky, older!

Sunset from Alexandra's window

Watching the sunset on the harbor from my new sitting room brings me joy.

I have gotten a chance to live my longevity with magnanimity, grace, humor, beauty and love when my will is to joy. I’m well aware that my happiness is up to me. This has to be a top priority because happiness is only possible when we commit our energy to what is positive, productive and good for our health and the well-being of others. Only when we become enlightened can we influence and inspire others in life-affirming, useful ways. We can’t give to others from an empty heart.

There are certain books I’ve recommended that have made a lasting, life-transforming influence on you. I’m heartened that the feedback continues over all the years with The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama and the late Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams. Cherié wrote warmly about the two friends who wanted to share their practices with us to help us grow in our spiritual development and cultivate generosity of spirit.

Ponder the way the Archbishop beautifully describes this illuminated, joy-infused way of being in the world: “Becoming an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that ripples out to all of those around us.” Douglas Abrams wrote, “When we have a generous spirit, we are easy to be with and fun to be with. We radiate happiness, and our very company can bring joy to others. Exploring joy is nothing less than exploring what makes human experience satisfying.”

The week the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu spent together is an excellent example of the potential of two human souls merging into an inseparable bond of love and joy.

Tulips in front of a Roger Muhl painting

Sandy gave me these beautiful variegated tulips.

Loving Up my Home with Blossoms and Light

April brought us an effervescent exuberance of beauty, a solace for the soul. Everything that lived through the winter showed encouraging signs of new birth: greening, budding and blossoming. We had some snowflakes in Southeast Connecticut, some heavy winds and rain; now we have the merry month of May to celebrate. Spring has the magical ability to uplift the human spirit. We are instinctively drawn to being out in nature’s fresh air to work in our garden, going on “awe” walks, feeling refreshed by the breezes, with the warmth of the sun on our backs. The dazzling light beckons us to leave our closed-in spaces and expand our views of flowering fruit trees, daffodils, tulips, pansies and camellias.

Sandy dropped off some extraordinarily pretty variegated yellow tulips with pink and chartreuse streaks. Charlie came for a quick visit with a vibrant hot pink camellia from his garden on his way out of town.

Bob and Roger came to attach the American flag to a new pole after an old one snapped in the wind, also locking in place a toilet paper holder and door hook they’d installed years ago. Little domestic details that feel so satisfying when they’re maintained. The electricians put in several duplex outlets, including one for the brick patio. Mike, Scott and team changed ceiling lights to LED and put LED light panels under the kitchen cabinets, brilliantly illuminating the white countertops. Picture lightbulbs that had been burned out during the pandemic were replaced. Cesar cut off a shelf I’d built for a stand-up desk I no longer choose to use in Peter’s writing room, freeing up easy access to the stairs going up to “three.”

In a word, I’m arranging my spaces to suit my current wishes and desires. By letting go of the way things were, I’m upgrading the way I choose to have things now, in this exciting new chapter.

Tulips in front of a Roger Muhl painting

The vibrant camellia that Charlie gave me brings warmth and a pop of color to any room.

Voluntary Simplicity

I was recently in Capizzano’s, a nearby olive oil and vinegar shop, when I started philosophizing with the owners. The pointed out a quotation on the wall, and Suzanne removed it and made a copy for me. She said these words changed her life. Perhaps going to buy some olive oil and vinegar was a serendipitous moment for me as I am reconsidering my priorities in order to live in this joyful reality more abundantly alive. I trust “voluntary simplicity” will also resonate with you. I want to continue on the theme I discussed last month of simplifying our lives “by superior enlightenment,” to recall Voltaire.

Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition.

It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life.

It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some direction in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions.

It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose.

—Richard Gregg, 1936

Tulips in front of a Roger Muhl painting

My love for Peter has continued to grow in these 48 years since we were married, in May 1974.

As I’m going through the process of making my life more livable, as a single woman living in an old house I love, I am not alone. Home organizing companies have experienced a spike in business from people 70 and over. The New York Times received more than 500 responses to their request for readers’ stories about “death cleaning.” Reading a few of them made me so conscious of how each letter to the editor’s story is theirs alone, each coming from a profoundly different perspective. What’s universal is the reality that no matter what our age or story, everyone reading this letter will have to face this truth sooner or later. When we’re dead, we will no longer have a voice in the decisions made with our possessions, unless we influence the process.

In 2018 a book that became a New York Times bestseller is still being quoted and mentioned in podcasts. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, by Margareta Magnusson, is now backordered because of its spike in popularity. When I opened the book, the cover was upside down and opened to the last page of the book. I love this and wonder if it was done on purpose, or if I just got a fun copy! Ms. Magnuson is entertaining, irreverent and her stories are amazing. I’m in awe of her energy. She does her own simple line illustrations and tells the reader she is between the ages of 80 and 100. I’ve put an order in for a new book she wrote due to be published next year.

White gardenia blossom in purple pot

The power of one simple gardenia and its intoxicating scent.

In a recent interview from her home in Stockholm, however, she disclosed her age; she’s 87. “Death, that’s a word that scares a lot of people.” She wrote that she will probably die before her readers!

I know from my experience that it wasn’t until this last year that I’ve been able to sit down with my two daughters and have a serious conversation about my death. (My sister died at age 80 last year. Barbara was 14 months older.) Being prepared and making decisions when I’m ready, willing and able makes perfect sense. Death is “the only thing we know we will take part of,” Ms. Magnusson said. “If we know something about our lives, it’s that we’re going to die, that’s for sure.”

I find it utterly fascinating that “death cleaning” has hit such a nerve in our consciousness. I suspect the pandemic has awakened us all to the fact that we are not in control of when we will die. Ms. Magnusson believes that anyone after the age of 30 should begin the process of sorting through our accumulated possessions and letting go of anything that is no longer useful, necessary, beautiful or that we love. I’m grateful I’m being realistic about what I can manage by myself. Because my lifestyle has scaled back, it is appropriate to let go of an obvious excess of objects both utilitarian and aesthetic.

Lily of the valleys and a photo of Alexandra's daughters

I carried lily-of-the valley, as did my two daughters, at my wedding. I love the fragrance!

I’m continuing to find this process uplifting because it is a reminder of earlier days when my life was so different, so full, so busy. “Respond to every call that excites your spirit,” Rumi teaches. I’ve aged, and times have changed so greatly. When we simplify our outer spaces and material things, we make more room for our inner lives to flower, allowing our spirit to soar. We discover we feel a greater calm and sense of pleasure when we are at home enjoying more leisurely hours in our less crowded space. My home is my private sanctuary, and I want it to represent my spirit aesthetically. I’m reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson’s insight that “it is the first part of intelligence to recognize our precarious estate in life.” Whenever my time is up, I don’t want to have any regrets. So far, magnifique.

In a Memorial Day address, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932, reflected, “Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.”

I am the same person at heart that I was in all the exciting stages in my most joyful past eight decades. (Whoopie—I made it! I’m in my ninth decade!) I’m leaning in, elbows on the table, fragrant flowers and candles, contemplating how the end of my journey can shine as brightly as these past 80 years. Whatever the future has in store for us, I embrace the privilege of being alive to witness life lived to the fullest.

Nancy made this beautiful pincushion for me.

There were so many memorable times shared with people I love these past four weeks. In a parking lot in front of a CVS pharmacy, a man said, “I love your colors.” I responded, “Ukraine,” putting my hands together in prayer, then my right hand over my heart. “I’m Ukrainian,” he replied. He made the same hand gestures; we both smiled. I felt warm, sweet tears cascading down my cheeks.

My love of Cary Grant is widely known. Jane invited me to join her and her husband Sherman to go see Philadelphia Story on the big screen in our new United Theatre in Westerly the Wednesday after Easter. I’d seen it for the umpteenth time two days before on my 19-inch screen in the back living room, but I hadn’t seen this beautiful classic film in a theater in over 40 years. I’m still swooning over my utter ecstasy. Timeless greatness lives on.

Happy May! Peter and I were married 48 years ago on May 18th. Let’s toast to eternal love. In closing, I want Nancy to feel my love and appreciation for the needlepointed a pincushion she made with “Love and Live Happy.” Here’s a lamb, her signature, with a heart. As I “love up” my linens and quilts, I will have a smile of appreciation. Thank you!

Love & Live Happy,

Alexandra's door with a Ukrainian flag plaque with a heart

My friend Susan, who sent me last month’s Book of the Month, Simple Living, sent this Ukrainian plaque to me. The company who sold them sends proceeds to World Central Kitchen. You can purchase one here. 

“He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
—William Faulkner, in a speech after receiving the Nobel Prize

Book of the Month

A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles

Cheryl gave me The Lincoln Highway, and after I finished it recently, I went to Bank Square Books to buy this book, published in 2016. Towles is now a favorite author.