February 4, 2018

The Real Life

N E W  Y E A R ' S  E V E 
After a wonderful Christmas loaded with quiet times, good food, old movies and thoughtful gifts, my family welcomed the new year surrounded by friends and the frigid beauty of one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the country, Niagara Falls. On the last day of 2017, bundling up in layers of sweaters, we bravely walked along the ice-coated Horseshoes Falls while the temperatures were quickly dipping well below freezing. Nothing could ever compare to the fairy tale scene of pristine white snow enveloping everything in a fragile blanket, long crystal icicles hanging like stalactites on rocks and railings, and the colourless flow of rushing water descending swiftly into the river in a magical thick cloud of mist...
What a marvel it was! What an uplifting and hopeful celebration of the crossover from the old year to the new one we had!

J A N U A R Y 
And then came January with its agonizing unhurried pace. It was throwing bad news – one after another – into the lightless, cold first days of 2018. Little ups and huge downs – the new year has been a scary roller coaster. I have experienced some of the most terrifying and debilitating hours of my life when my beating heart was ripped from my seemingly soulless body and my anxious mind felt lost and deserted like a ghost town... There were mornings stuffed with pessimism, anger and resentment. Layers of inner pain and uncertainty, so uncomfortable, challenging and deep, paralyzed the core of my being. You thought you had already grown wise, strong and fearless, but when it came to the well being of loved ones, life took you by surprise and threw you unprepared, emotionally raw and unarmored into the rough wave of the latest ferocious storm (or at least it was the way it seemed at the beginning).

T H E  R E A L I T Y
And then the basic truth has begun to appear from within. L i f e  i s  h a r d. Life is not always fair. Life involves a certain amount of hardship and suffering.  Life does not always work the way we would like it to and often we have no control over many things that happen to us. However, when hard times hit, we have an important choice to make – either let the situation define us, let it destroy us or let it strengthen us. What I know for sure is that one of the main differences between those who live their lives to their fullest potential and those who let life happen to them can be found in their choice of how to handle adversity: whether they allow themselves to be crushed, to give up, and to feel sorry for themselves or choose acceptance, face the fear, look for a source of strength within them (it is always there), and turn the negative experience into a positive one as a means of transformation and growth.      
If there is one single lesson I would like our son to learn from his parents, it would be in the words of the wise Eppie Ledere, better known by the pen name Ann Lander; something I read years ago, wrote it down on paper and hung it on the refrigerator for encouragement and a clear-eyed perspective: 
"If I were asked to give what I consider the single most useful bit of advice for all humanity it would be this: Expect trouble as an inevitable part of life and when it comes, hold your head high, look it squarely in the eye, and say, "I will be bigger than you. You cannot defeat me."  
(Later I found that she also said: "I would rather have my column on a thousand refrigerator doors than win a Pulitzer." Isn't it the most refreshing perspective on success?!)

Once we accept the fact that life can be "wild, hard and sweet" as well as "wild, hard and cruel', we begin to grow by recognizing that every difficulty is also an opportunity and a learning experience. It is then that we dig down and discover what we are made of. It is then that we find a means to transform negative events into positive ones, wounds into wisdom. In her book "Broken Open", Elizabeth Lesser is convinced that "Suffering and crisis transform us, humble us, and bring out what matters most to us."
And just like that, my word for 2018 came to me. During a month of convoluted and unstructured thoughts on a new year, a challenging month with snow and lots of cold (figuratively and literally), this word has been coming back to me.
It does not matter what kind of experience we have had, it is of no consequence. What kind of transformation the experience brings is what matters in life. We cannot destroy anything, dissolve it, or make it disappear. We can only transform it.
Resistance into Acceptance. 
Negative thoughts into Positive Affirmations.
Worries into Present Moments. 
Pain into Inner Search. 
Fear into Actions. 
Tension into Listening. 
Overgeneralized Statements into Concrete Statements. 
Emotional Reasoning into Rational Responses.
Prejudice into Knowledge.
Complaining into Gratitude.
"I used to see a butterfly in my mind's eye every time I hear the word transformation," wrote Cheryl Strayed in her book "Brave Enough". I did it too, Cheryl. I did it, too. "But life has schooled me", she continued. "Transformation isn't a butterfly. It's the thing before you get to be a pretty bug flying away. It's huddling in the dark cocoon and then pushing your way out. It's the messy work of  making sense of your fortunes and misfortunes, desires and doubts, hang-ups and sorrows, actions and accidents, mistakes and successes, so you can go on and become the person you must next become." 

I asked myself out loud:
Sylvia, will you be broken down and defeated, or broken open and transformed? 

I found my body the other day on one of the swings in the empty park. I was pushing it hard forwards and backwards through the winter air. The old snow was glistering while the timid sun was trying to rip the clouds off. Pumping my legs, I was gaining height and the world was spinning around me...
Forward – breathing in. Back – breathing out. I leaned my head back and then I remembered how fortunate I was to be breathing... what a richness to my life my family and friends were... how strong my faith in the goodness of life was...
This shall pass.
Everything passes.
Life is hard, but life is also g l o r i o u s. Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a dark tiny tunnel and the light at the end seems unreachable. Nevertheless, we do come out the other side drained, yet transformed to better daughters, better sons, better mothers, better partners, better friends, better Humans... and before we know it, we will have slid over this rough wave and we will ride again onto the next one.

(Chestnut Bundt Cake with Chocolate Chunks, recipe by the inspiring Mimi Thorisson of Manger)

November 25, 2017

Autumn Impressions

November has presented itself this year as the most talented and impressive painter among the months, slowly drawing canvases of cloudy skies, wet leaves and smoky fogs. While perfectly capturing Earth's treasures, November has displayed the most sophisticated colour palette of deep brown and rich yellow, blended into old glory burgundy, with a mix of orange and green in between... I am in love with its artistic work and I spend every day diving into its exquisite exhibit of beauty, nature's brilliance and sublime ordinariness. I learn from it, I drink with it, I breath and grow in it...
I spread my eyes among the undressed trees, put my face into the gentle, fresh wind and feel...  
I chase the light – soft, plush and golden, play hide-and-seek with the tired from the summer sun and let it penetrate all the chambers of my heart...   
I rejoice in the solitude with autumn. I pulse with Earth's unhurried rhythm of grace and gain patience. This season offers me a refuge from the eventful summer and the bubbly mind. Humility emerges from its raw beauty. The world isn't such a broken place, blurring meaning, values and human dignity after all. Life is full of goodness and the good sinks into me as I sink into it. My small, separate self loosens and dissolves into what surrounds me. 
Autumn makes me settle into my home, my simple needs and disorderly dailiness. It teaches me how to observe with passion, savour my thoughts and live life in the slow lane... 

I am whole and full of gratitude. 

I taste like a pear tart.

I smell like happiness.

Thanks to a lovely supporter who sent me a heartwarming email, I reopened SylviaSimpleLife Etsy Shop with a limited quantity of original greeting cards featuring my simple photographs and my Holiday creations. The images are carefully selected in order to covey a message of a simple, handmade Christmas and a truly meaningful season. Baking cookies, making wreaths, wrapping a gift, decorating the home – it should be a celebration of its own. Spread some handwritten cheer this season with a gift of time and thought with these humble greeting cards.

Shop the collection here

Thank you to all of you for your kindness and endless support! 

Sharing with Home Sweet Home

August 21, 2017

Celebrating August

August has a magic of its own... the last full month of summer – the most awaited, full of hope and plans, and the fastest one of all that slips through time and space like sand through fingers. 
Like a sweet dream you don't want to end, August brings forgotten wishes, alluring destinations, open doors and hearts exposed to ease, sea waves, hot nights, lemonade and love...   
But August's eternity only lasts 31 days and is just one more reason to celebrate the season instead of wondering where the summer went. 
There's  still time for 
lying on a beach and reading poetry,
camping on the lake and having a bonfire,
hosting a backyard barbecue,
climbing mountains, 
travelling to places you always wanted to see,
taking a road trip,
drinking coffee on the porch,
heading to an outdoor concert, 
meeting with a dear friend you haven't seen for years...
There are herbs to be grown and jams to be cooked.
There are sunrises to be seen and shooting star wishes to be made.
There are raspberries to be picked, a lemonade to be made and a teacake to be shared.
I am sitting here at the table in my late grandparents' garden enjoying this memorable summer day and thinking that if August had a colour, it would be the hue of an apricot.
If it had a taste, it would be the sweetness of a ripe peach. 
If August was a feeling, it would be nostalgia.
But above all, August for me right now is everything I ever wanted and everything I ever lost, wrapped together in a perfect bundle by my deep sense of gratitude.

How do you celebrate August?

Tell me about it in the comments below for a chance to win a copy of Field Guide To Everyday Magic, a sister publication of Bella Grace Magazine filled entirely with worksheet-style prompts, inspirational photographs and quotes. The contest giveaway is open to U.S. residents only. International participants will be eligible to receive free digital edition of Bella Grace! Leave your comment below by September 10th for a chance to win!  

Please, check the wonderful articles of all the invited writes who are part of the exciting Bella Grace Blog Hop


Congratulations to ROSE COUEY from Secondhand Girl for winning a copy of this beautiful publication.  
Thank you very much to everyone for writing such thoughtful and heartfelt comments. I hope your August was splendid! 

July 12, 2017

A Portrait of CHICAGO

When the GPS navigation voice made us turn on Washington Street because our hotel would be on the right, I realized we were right in the heart of the city. While the valet waited for us to take our luggage from the car which we stopped almost chaotically in the middle of the busy street, I listened to the street musicians jazzing under the iconic green Marshall Field's Clock. Inside of an unassuming perfectly preserved Historic Building – typical office corridors with mahogany doors and trim, multicoloured marble walls, ceilings and floors, and an original ornate open elevator grill – a friendly smile from hotel receptionist welcomed us to the Loop. From the window of our tiny, but comfortable room, I was able to see the illuminating sign of the Historic Chicago Theatre in the bustling Theatre District. I felt that our weekend trip to the Windy City, the Working City, the Second City, the White City, whatever name you pick from the numerous nicknames given throughout the years, was going to be fabulous. And partially because it was the beginning of June and every local we met affirmed us that there was nothing like summer in Chicago – boats would be on the lake, festivals and concerts in the park and locals on the beach soaking up the short months of sunshine.  
I thought a lot of how to describe this wonderful, self-made, industrious American town that had surprisingly impressed me with its hospitality, unpretentiousness (perhaps realness), bold spirit and most of all its remarkable ART. What was that single word that defines it, that identifies the life that was happening there, that establishes Chicago like a place nowhere else among the metropolises of North America. And the word that came up first and most often to my mind was LIVEABLE. It is an adjective, of course, but derived from a verb and as a visitor I think it captures the vibes pretty well.
Chicago is a LIVEable city, a working city, and as one English Professor once said "an underdog city and a good place for an underdog to live". Frankly, I felt that from the first minute I put my feet on Washington Street, sort of inexplicably, but tangibly. Against my dislike to compare one city to another or one country to another, Chicago seemed to me more liveable than the city of New York, one of my all time favourite cities in the world, and more real than Miami, for example.
Despite all the beautiful signature clocks registering the time, Chicago happened rather slowly... like the gently moving Chicago River in the middle of downtown. Chicago happened less ostentatiously, but not less convincingly for a huge, yet life-sized city... like the great waters of lake Michigan which is as big as a sea, but it is still a lovely lake. Even the iconic 'L' trains passing over the river seemed to move slowly than any other trains in the world and I mean it as a compliment.
Chicago is a city of details. You might not get the big picture at first, but if you look up and look closely you will see the spectacular details that are everywhere and make the picture unforgettable. The wealth of innovative architecture rebuilt in record speed after the destruction of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and the museum collections as well as the outdoor public art (created by Miro, Picasso, Moor, Chagall and other prominent modern artists) is impressive and inspirational for every art lover.
Chicago also gives an impression of a city that stays true to itself, to its roots, to its communities, to its waterways. Diverse. Creative. Dichotomous. Strangely attractive. Modest.
And I believe it will always be there waiting for my return with a glass of Rosé and a romantic Riverwalk view of the boats going by under the movable bridges...


The Alise Chicago
Housed in a landmark 1895 skyscraper, designed by the widely known architect Daniel Burnham, this elegant hotel is a short walk away from Michigan Avenue, Millennium Park and all the major cultural institutions in the Loop. Personable and polished service. Pricey valet parking.  

Located in the heart of downtown, this cozy, a "Cheers"-like type restaurant, opened in 1974 by two Italian brothers immigrated to Chicago from a small town near Torino, serves the best, fresh from the oven, steaming hot, picture-perfect stuffed deep-dish pizza; the recipe is the same as the recipe of their Mama Giordano's double-crust, cheese stuffed pie which she used to serve on special occasions.
What a wonderful story it is, isn't it?      

For a Chicago-style hot dog: an all-beef frankfurter on a perfectly steamed poppy seed bun, topped with yellow mustard, chopped onion, relish, a dill pickle spear, sliced tomato, sport peppers and a sprinkle of celery salt. Actually, where you go to try it seems to me less important than how you eat it – Do not put ketchup on a Chicago dog!

Toni Parisserie and Cafe 
Located in the Pittsfield Building, one of Chicago's finest 1920-era beautiful skyscrapers on Washington St, right off Michigan Avenue, it is a good choice for a French-style lunch with delicious macarons and pastries for a dessert.
Do not forget to wander into the lobby of Pittsfield and take delight in its gorgeous interior and coffered ceiling.

City Winery on The Riverwalk
With its wonderful location, nestled next to the water, this is a place for true relaxation on a summer evening with a glass of Rosé while people-watching. It offers Mediterranean-style dishes.

3 Arts Club Cafe
One of the highlights during our trip!
Located north of downtown in the Gold Coast Historic District, this place is really special. I suggest to take a walk and explore the charming, affluent neighbourhood. The restaurant inhabits a five-floor landmark building of 1914 which used to house young women studying music, drama and the visual art from where it has obtained the name Three Arts Club. Restored by Restoration Hardware, the Grand Courtyard with its historic fountain, window ceiling, gorgeous chandeliers and Heritage olive trees is nothing less than spectacular.

Millenium Park
A place for art, music, architecture and landscape design, this big public park features:
Jay Pritzker Pavilion , designed by Frank Gehry for outdoor concerts;
Cloud Gate or The Bean, one of the largest sculptures in the world made from highly polished stainless steel plates by British artist Anish Kapoor that provides a distorted mirror of the city skyline;
Crown Fountain, an interactive video fountain inspired by the people of Chicago, whose faces appear via LED display on the 50-foot-tall glass block towers. Truly impressive!
Lure Garden, a leader in cutting-edge design and responsible gardening, the garden pays homage to the city's motto "Urbs in Horto", City in a Garden;

Buckingham Memorial Fountain
One of the largest in the world, this beautiful fountain is located in Grand Park close to The Bean and produces a major twenty-minute water display every hour; at sunset it is accompanied by music and colourful lights.

Willis (formerly Sears) Tower
The Chicago's tallest building, once the tallest building in the world, with its glass Skydeck puts you 1,353 feet over the city simply to experience the amazing 360 view spanning up to four states.

Architectural Boat Tour
A fantastic way to explore the architectural history of Chicago along all three branches of Chicago river.

Chicago Riverwalk
Stroll the scenic 1.25-mile pedestrian stretch on the Chicago River full of restaurants, places to just sit, public art exhibitions and boat rentals.

Theatre District 
Chicago owns a well established live theatre scene and many, many theatres in downtown. The famous Chicago Theatre, opened in 1921 is probably the most recognizable landmark of the city with its massive, vertical sign. It offers a variety of performances as well as a behind the scenes tour. The very popular musical Hamilton can be seen at The PrivateBank Theatre through January, 2018  

Chicago Cultural Centre 
A beaux art-style building that hosts a variety of free performances, events and exhibitions. Here you can see the spectacular world's largest stained glass Tiffany Dome.

The Chicago Picasso 
Perhaps the most iconic piece of public art, located at Daley Plaza, the untitled Picasso sculpture celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and you can even climb on it if you feel like doing so.

Abraham Lincoln "Return Visit" Sculpture 
A 25-foot-tall interesting bronze installation created by 86-year-old artist Seward Johnson, who also designed the well known big Marilyn Monroe statue, is located at Pioneer Court on Michigan Avenue until the end of the year. It depicts Abraham Lincoln handing a copy of the Gettysburg Address to a modern-day man, with Lincoln gesturing to the window where he stayed the night before delivering the "all men are created equal" speech.  
Navy Pier
It is a 3,000-foot-long pier that reaches across lake Michigan and is full of restaurants, theatres, boats amusements, live performances and attractions. There is a tall ferris wheel, called Centennial Wheel, offering an amazing view of Chicago and Lake Michigan. Fireworks in the summer – Wednesday and Saturday nights.  

 Art Institution of Chicago
My favourite personal experience! I could easily spend my entire day contemplating all the masterpieces on the walls.   
The second largest museum in the country, the gallery is voted the best museum in the world for 2016 by TripAdvisor, based on an analysis of travellers' reviews. But even if it is not, the Art Institution of Chicago sure felt like a world-class art museum with its 300,000 pieces of art and the largest collection of Impressionist art outside of Paris. It is like time travel with so much to see and so little time (especially if you are not a local). Do not forget to take a coffee break at one of the fine cafés in the museum. I enjoyed every bit of my visit there and can't wait to go back and explore more.

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