live love breathe

The Gift of Love

by Christie Shumate McElwee

It’s a frigid Valentine’s Day here in the Midwest, and most of us are hunkered down under heavy blankets trying to keep warm. Me? I am sipping hot coffee while pondering the perplexities of this thing called love. I have many questions and no real definitive answers. Billions of words have been written over the centuries on the subject. Poets, philosophers, and scientists have studied the heart, how it works and the countless ways it breaks. We humans claim to know love, but we continue to stomp on each other in the name of it. It’s staggeringly complicated and stunningly simple, this love of ours. All I know of it is that I am still learning, still practicing, and still offering up love. It is a journey I hope to never relinquish.

The dictionary definition of love mentions words like tender, passionate, attachment, and affection. Phrases like “Love wins” and “All we need is love” are often glib testaments to our total confusion of the meaning of the word. If only it were as simple as loving one another. Wars would end. Guns would be stored away. Hate would return to its grave. But, because we do not understand love, we stumble blindly through life, hanging onto jealously, fear, regrets, and pain. Those we understand. Those we can keep close. They are our identity, our stories. Love, though, is often hazy in its message. Do we want to be loved or do we want to love? Is it selfish or selfless? Do we set contingencies on love or do we offer it up unconditionally? Do we love naturally or does it require daily practice?

All I know is this…love is a mystery worth knowing. It is a feeling, a presence, a pricking at the heart. It’s worried days and sleepless nights. It is the infinite stars we can never count. It can break us into a billion fragments and sloppily repair our damaged souls with crooked stitches and sticky glue. Love is believing in our brokenness, and not surrendering to hopelessness, to cynicism, to despair. Love is an impossible puzzle with missing pieces and no instructions. It is a simple gesture, a hand to hold, a wish before blowing out the candles.

Love, in all its crazy incarnations, is the reason we are here. It offers us hope. It serves up joy. It is all we hold in our hands when the sun sets, this love of ours.

Love is a gift, both given and received. And as the years pass, I hold this precious love close to my imperfect heart, knowing it is all worth it.

The Gift

by Mary Oliver

Be still, my soul, and steadfast.

Earth and heaven are both still watching

though time is draining from the clock

and your walk, that was confident and quick,

has become slow.

so, be slow if you must, but let

the heart still play its true part.

Love still as once you loved, deeply

and without patience. Let God and the world

know you are grateful.

That the gift has been given.

A peek at my collections of hearts and books. Love is often scattered across pages, years, and memories. It is both comedy and tragedy, fire and water, and lost and found. I find love everywhere, if I bother to look up.

Reflections of My Dry January: A Month without Wine and Facebook

by Christie Shumate McElwee

I have never been been any good at New Year’s resolutions. I have the best intentions, but it is the follow through that stymies me. Eat healthier? Smoothie for breakfast. French fries for lunch. Exercise more? Yoga three times a week. Binge watch the entire first season of “Virgin River” in one day. Cuss less? Damn, that isn’t happening.

My husband and I have tried Dry January for the last three years. Neither of us made it through a week the first time. He went the whole month last year, but I gave up after eleven days. This year, though, I was determined to get through the entire thirty-one days without booze. I hadn’t gone that long since I was pregnant with my second son, who is now twenty-six. Yup, I do like my wine.

But….giving up alcohol didn’t seem like enough, so kooky me also decided to step away from social media for the month. If I was going to give up the lovely buzz of a glass of Chardonnay, then why not discover how it would feel to squash the mindless chatter and endless scrolling of Facebook and Instagram?

So, after deleting apps off my phone and drinking my last glass of wine on New Year’s eve, I spent thirty-one long and gloomy days without either vice. What did I learn? Am I a better person? Was it all worth it? Will I do it again?

Random reflections of Dry/No Social Media January:

  1. Giving up Facebook and Instagram was easier than skipping the alcohol. Seriously.
  2. What did I miss not being on social media? Birthdays. Life moments. Funny memes.
  3. What didn’t I miss? Comments. Comments. Comments. Did I mention I didn’t miss the comments?
  4. Booze was harder. I was fine for the first few weeks, but when a snowy weekend was forecast, I ached for a glass of wine. After a desperate trip to Friar Tuck’s, I did purchase two bottles of non-alcoholic wine. Review? The white was disgusting, but the red was better after adding a handful of frozen fruit and letting it sit for awhile. The big thing that was difficult to get around was the smell. Yuck. Sparkling water is still a better alternative, even though I did find an acceptable non-alcoholic St. Pauli beer.
  5. I was hoping to lose weight, but that didn’t happen. Phooey. Did I consume more calories to compensate for my booze-less life? Perhaps. Dang.
  6. I did sleep better. This is a huge benefit. Sleep and I have had a contentious relationship for years, and if stepping away from booze and social media helps us reconnect, then bravo!
  7. Not looking at social media for a month gave me a weird sense of privacy. I enjoyed the coziness of it, as if I had locked myself up in a cabin in the woods for a month with no internet connection. Nobody knew where I was. It felt warm and fuzzy. I may return to this cabin from time to time. It’s nice there.
  8. What are my goals now that it is February? I will limit my social media time. No mindless scrolling. No getting lost in the comments. No wasting precious time lurking at other people’s lives. I’ll treat myself to a glass or two of wine on the weekends and attempt to savor each sip. Moderation is a good thing, but I’ll also remember that a can of cranberry flavored Bubly will not wake me up at 1:00 in the morning with a headache and the sudden urge to down a bottle of ibuprofen.

Even though I had a few cranky days, I am proud of myself. Will I do it again? Ask me on January 31, 2020. I may have an answer for you. As for my February goals? I plan on writing more, drinking less, living in the present more, and wallowing in despair less. Seems doable. I refuse to let go of hope and love and grace, none of which are found in nasty comments on social media.

“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work. You don’t give up.” ~Anne Lamott

“Don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.” ~Ella Fitzgerald

Me, celebrating February.
Friday the 13th: A New Perspective

by Christie Shumate McElwee

Friday the 13th has garnered a bad rap over the years. There are a litany of superstitions surrounding “triskaidekaphobia” that have perpetuated the mythology of 13, resulting in many office buildings skipping the 13th floor, hospitals bypassing Room 13, and some airports omitting Gate 13. But why the number 13? Maria G. Valdez wrote in The Latin Times, “that in numerology the number twelve is considered the number of divine organizational arrangement or chronological completeness, as reflected in the twelve months of the year, twelve hours of the clock day, twelve gods of Olympus, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve Apostles of Jesus, the twelve successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, twelve signs of the Zodiac, the 12 years of the Buddhist cycle, etc., whereas the number thirteen was considered irregular, transgressing this completeness.” 

12 good. 13 bad.

But what if we flipped the day and chose to focus on the optimistic aspects of number 13 instead of the dread?

After a little research, I discovered thirteen positive things to ponder today, Friday the 13th.

  1. The number 13 is considered lucky in Italy. And Italy has great wine and pizza….two of my favorite things on earth.
  2. The United State had 13 original colonies. Those bad boy founding fathers kicked ass and took names when they broke away from Britain.
  3. The 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery. 
  4. For followers of the Jewish faith, 13 is when a boy or a girl becomes a full member of the Jewish faith after completion of a Bar Mitzvah or a Bat Mitzvah. I attended a few of these celebrations back in junior high, and I must say dancing the Hora in my red velvet maxi dress is one of my favorite memories.
  5. Thirteen is the lucky number of the Great Goddess, and the number of blood, fertility, and lunar potency. Looks like this could be a charmed night for many fortuitous couples.
  6. The gift for thirteenth wedding anniversaries is lace. Lovely. 
  7. All members of the Apollo 13th mission returned home safely.
  8. The Hollywood sign was dedicated on July 13, 1923.
  9. Red brings more luck than any other color. Dig out your red sweater, socks, or even underwear. Make Friday the 13th the day to rock that red.
  10. It’s bad luck to clean on Friday 13th. Dust will have to wait.
  11. Pet a black cat today. Their purrs will bring you peace. My own black cat left this earth last year, but maybe I’ll visit one today in order to garner my own joy.
  12. My mom was born on the 13th of August, and without her, I wouldn’t be here and without me, my two boys wouldn’t be here. Thanks, Mom!
  13. A baker’s dozen is 13. Yum.

Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, suggested that believing in superstitions can be a way to avoid taking responsibility for your own failures. So, instead of fearing this day, sweep away the old thinking. Be the master of your own destiny. Decide for yourself what is good karma. Drink wine, wear red, and dance like no one is watching. At least that’s what I am going to do today. What about you?

“Here’s the thing about luck…you don’t know if it’s good or bad until you have some perspective.” ~ Alice Hoffman, Local Girls

image from betterbodydayspa.com
Facing Darkness/Finding Hope

by Christie Shumate McElwee

On the first day of December, I lit a candle, hoping the ceremony would brighten the gloom of a cold, windy morning. In the quiet I pondered the hectic past few days: the hours of organization and prep that led to family gathered around our Thanksgiving table, the crowds of shoppers my mother and I circumvented in the historic part of town on Friday, and the containers of leftover food still in our refrigerator. I sat in the stillness while listening to soothing traditional carols. I ignored my December to-do lists. A new morning. A new day. A new month.

December is the darkest month leading towards the shortest day. Even though bright lights twinkle from every street, melancholy often creeps into filled calendars of festivities. What can we do with our sadness when everything around us screams “Celebrate, damnit!”? Sometimes it is wise to sit with our grief, our brokenness, our mistakes, and slowly, quietly, and oh, so carefully, begin to forgive ourselves.

Maybe this is what Advent is all about: leaning into heartache, acknowledging pain, practicing hope. Many churches drape altars in purple during Advent, a color that denotes both royalty and repentance. During this hectic time, maybe we should wrap ourselves in that heavy purple. The darkness and weight of the material can remind us light is within reach. We forage for repentance, asking forgiveness for our snarky voices, petty minds, and selfish hearts. 

Maybe Advent is just an audacious feat of hope. Some of us find it in scriptures or a church pew. Others may hear it in a cat’s purr, the wind’s whisper, or Handel’s “Messiah.” Or perhaps it is discovered in the quiet of an early winter morning as one candle illuminates all the world’s despair…and wonder.

“Advent: the time to listen for footsteps – you can’t hear footsteps when you’re running yourself.” ~Bill McKibben

“The word advent means ‘expectation.’ What advent can do for us is create a sense of hope.” ~Louis Giglo

“Our response to the wrongness of the world (and of ourselves) can often be an unhealthy escapism, and we can turn to the holidays as anesthesia from pain as much as anything else. We need collective space, as a society, to grieve – to look long and hard at what is cracked and fractured in our world and in our lives. Only then can celebration become deep, rich and resonant, not as a saccharine act of delusion but as a defiant act of hope.” ~ Tish Harrison Warren, priest in the Anglican Church in North America and writer in residence at the Church of Ascension in Pittsburgh

My Trip Around the Sun

by Christie Shumate McElwee

Just one more candle and a trip around the sun.”

“Trip Around the Sun”
songwriters: Anderson, Vaughn, Bruton
recorded by Jimmy Buffett and Martina McBride
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay 

Even at my advanced yet fabulous age, I love my birthday. Everyone needs a day set aside just for them, that one day when you get to wear the crown and wave your parade wave. Yesterday, on my 61st trip around the sun, I was queen of the whole damn thing. 

After a great massage with a new therapist (where I discovered CBD oil – wow and wow), I went out to lunch with a dear friend. Sonya insisted upon telling everyone we encountered it was my birthday, from the police officer issuing tickets on the street in front of the cafe to our brand new waiter to the JJill clerk where we went shopping later. She made me feel like a celebrity without the annoying paparazzi. I was tempted to don sunglasses and sign autographs.

Throughout the day, birthday texts and Facebook wishes kept popping up on my phone, reminding me of all the special people who have touched my life. I received phone calls from both of my boys, which are the best presents a mother really wants.

That night I made us my favorite comfort meal, homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I ended the night on the sofa with my husband near as we watched a few sitcoms.

Birthdays remind us of time and how quickly it ticks by, especially as the years advance. Just like that, I am no longer 60, but 61. But what those years have given me is the knowledge that I am not in control of it all, and acknowledging that has been a valuable and welcome gift. I am letting go of old resentments, ancient grudges, and unreasonable fears. I’m embracing the winters I have left on this earth, knowing my heart is messy but true. I am really attempting to see myself and others as humans just trying to do the best we can with what we have been given. I am living each day on the lookout for wonder, and spotting grace in every sunrise and sunset.

Happy Birthday to me and to the rest of you who keep me living and loving and breathing as we enjoy this ride on our trip around the sun.

“I’m just hangin’ on while this old world keeps spinning

And it’s good to know it’s out of my control

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from all this livin’

Is that it wouldn’t change a thing if I let go.”

~”Trip Around the Sun”

The Holiday Season – Oh My!

by Christie Shumate McElwee

“It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.” – Ram Dass

The holiday season is supposed to be joyous, right? Carols sing to us from every store. Twinkling lights line each street. Santas are at the mall, on corners ringing bells, and watch us when we sleep. Amazon packages pile up on porches. Cookies and other sweets deck our festive tables. 

Our calendars begin to fill with family dinners, children’s concerts, class parties, shopping expeditions, and special holiday events. We wrap presents. Meals are carefully planned. Lists grow every day.

As the obligations pile up, so does anxiety. Is there enough money to cover presents and fun activities? How do I handle family issues? Will I be able to juggle scheduling conflicts? What about the weather forecast? Will all the lights work? How many trips to Target will be required? Did I mention family issues? How is it possible to conquer all this and still enjoy the season?

Last weekend my husband and I hiked some local trails that look out over a river. When we reached the top, right there on the top of that bluff, I shouted, “Take my holiday anxieties. I release them to you. They no longer own me.” After I made this offer, I immediately felt lighter. Yes, I realize it was ceremonial, but often rituals help clear away the fog.

What I have grasped over the years is that is it important to let go of tightly-held expectations. Holiday traditions can be revised. This is not an easy task, though. Clinging to certain customs may give us a sense of satisfaction, but in order to breathe, we must learn to release what doesn’t serve us or our families. We need to ask ourselves, “Does it give me joy?” If it only causes frustration and stomachaches, then it may be time to reevaluate.

Do we have to send Christmas cards to every one of our friends? Why not send cards to those special individuals who have touched us throughout the year? Write a short note, detailing how they make your life better. Or just text. Or forget the whole thing. Whatever makes your life easier.

What about presents? Are we required to get presents for everyone on our lists? If finances are tight, explain that you are passing on physical gifts, but will instead offer up your time. Schedule dates in the next year for a movie or coffee or just a walk around the neighborhood.

Is it necessary to attend every holiday concert, event, and festival? Instead, why not pick one or two that you love, or search for a new experience? You are not required to fill every day on your calendar from now until January 1. I promise.

What about holiday decorations? You ask, “If I don’t deck my halls, some may call me Grinch or Scrooge.” It is okay to pass if you are not up to it, or if you have a toddler who is a walking destruction team of one. Maybe just string some twinkle lights up on the mantle instead of dragging out the boxes of garland and ornaments. You do you.

What if bad weather disrupts plans? Realize you have no control over the weather. No. Control. It’s the freaking weather. It is always good to have a Plan B or even a Plan C, but if a huge snow storm blows in, power up the FaceTime or Skype or Portal and sit down together to a meal, even if someone is stuck at home or an airport. It will end up becoming a great family story to tell someday.

What about those dang family issues? Uncle isn’t talking to a cousin. Aunt insists on bringing a green Jello dish that hasn’t been on the menu since 1976. Grandpa wants to loudly pontificate about his politics as he downs his fifth beer. Grandma wants to help, but she’s just in the way. Mom is resetting your table. Everyone misses Dad. Adult children are at their in-laws’ holiday meals, again. I don’t really have any great fixes to the family crap, but breathing helps. And yoga. And meditation. And that bottle of Chardonnay, but that’s just me. If you end up finding the magic elixir to solving it all, let me know. I’ll pay you for your services. 

I guess the bottom line is to channel your inner Elsa and “let it go.” Let go of expectations that everything should be a picture postcard of what you think the holidays should be, and instead just smile. If you are a young parent, just enjoy the chaos. It goes by so damn quickly. If you are a teenager, remember to put down your phone and offer to help your parents around the house. You’ll be gone from their home soon enough. If you are an empty-nester and things aren’t what they used to be, create new traditions. If your kids can’t come to you, go to them. Or take a trip by yourselves. Lounge on a beach. Climb a mountain. Don’t be rigid. Have fun.

For the past few years, my husband and I have taken a long walk or hiked on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, depending on when our families decide to celebrate. We laugh, snap a few pictures, get lost, and find ourselves during these expeditions. This year we plan to head to Forest Park again on Christmas Eve to commune with the bears at the zoo, and then have lunch and a few drinks at the Boathouse. Our tradition. Our joy.

I hope you find yours.

“I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up – they have no holidays.”

Henny Youngman


When October Goes

by Christie Shumate McElwee

As October rolls into November, I always find myself searching for Barry Manilow’s song “When October Goes.” His melancholy interpretation offers plaintive sighs for October, those golden days of autumn, because when October does go, the cold days of winter settle into short days and dark nights. Manilow’s version is heart-wrenching in its unplugged simplicity, with only him at the piano. He sings of happy children coming home from school under a twilight sky, and as he dreams of a long, lost love, he turns his head to hide those “helpless tears.” 

When I dug deeper into the story of “When October Goes,” I discovered the lyrics were part of an unfinished ballad by lyricist Johnny Mercer who wrote “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” and “Autumn Leaves.” After he died, his widow arranged to give some of her husband’s unfinished lyrics to Manilow, hoping he would be able make them into complete songs. Working with the words, he wrote “When October Goes,” which was released as a single in 1984. Many other artists have covered the song, including Rosemary Clooney and Nancy Wilson.

“When October Goes” perfectly captures my own melancholy feelings this time of year. Thanksgiving is a few weeks away. Red and green decorations already fill store aisles. Christmas movies have been flooding the Hallmark Channel for weeks. My anxiety begins its ascent as I fret about holiday details. Who is going to host the meals? When will we celebrate? Who will be able to attend? Who will miss again? What traditions do we cling to and which do we let go? How many strings of lights won’t work when we begin to decorate? Do I bake pumpkin or apple pies? Cookies? What is the calorie count of one Thanksgiving meal? How will we stretch our budget this year? As the holiday season ramps up, I find myself longing for those lazy October days, driving through the countryside admiring the brilliant red and orange leaves, and then stopping at a local winery for sips and conversation.

The lyrics of “When October Goes” remind me that it is acceptable to mourn the passing of seasons, because it parallels the inevitable changes in our lives. Nothing remains the same. Children grow older. Gray hair appears. Loves are lost. Loves are found. Beloved pets die. Home are sold. New home are purchased. Traditions evolve. The magic of music appears when a well-crafted song gives us permission to cry over all of these emotions. The tears offer solace, helping us honor our own melancholy. We love and acknowledge how it often hurts, but then we breathe and begin to embrace our messy, complicated, painful, yet beautiful lives.

But I must admit, I still hate to see October go.

“I should be over it now, I know

It doesn’t matter much how old I grow

I hate to see October go.”

~Mercer and Manilow

Manilow’s remastered version of “When October Goes”
While I was researching “When October Goes,” I came across this version by cabaret singer Nancy Lamott. It is a gorgeous meld of “Autumns Leaves” and “When October Goes.” Along with Lamott’s fabulous voice and the accompaniment of a piano, there is also the lonesome, melancholy notes of a lone cello. It definitely made me cry when I first listened to it.
#drinkcoffeedogood

by Christie Shumate McElwee

On a corner in the middle of our neighborhood sits a busy hub where people gather for coffee and conversation. Big windows flank the street side, letting in lots of light, even on a gloomy day. Big, comfy chairs and tables invite customers to stay awhile, but some make a quick run for a to-go cup before work or school. There is always time for a few friendly words with the baristas, especially Donna, who is head diva in the morning. Remembering almost every customer’s name, she pours coffee, coos with babies, and nods and smiles at all who enter the door.

This is The Bridge Coffee House, a non-profit spiritual ministry plopped down on a side street in New Town, a community in St. Charles, Missouri. It was founded by partners in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Reformed Church in America. An inclusive ministry, it welcomes all. The young pastors spend a year here as part of their liturgical training. All are enthusiastic, knowledgable, kind, and passionate in their mission for justice in the world. Donations are collected for local schools, and every month a portion of the tips go to different charities. This month’s will be sent to help with hurricane relief in the Bahamas.

Almost every day there are groups who meet for book clubs, euchre, dominoes, tutoring, and story-time. On Sundays, a casual church service is held. Teens gather after school. Young parents attempt to visit while their children play with books and toys in the back room. A small fair trade store flanks the side wall in front of the counter. With its free wifi, the coffee house often looks like a shared work space with people hunched over laptops conducting their business. On some warm summer nights there may be a singer/guitar player in the corner of the back room, serenading customers and neighbors walking by with their dogs and strollers.

After moving to New Town over two years ago, I discovered The Bridge on my second day in the neighborhood. I was thrilled to have a coffee house three blocks from my home. Soon after I began attending the Wednesday morning book club discussion where I met women who welcomed me into their group and hearts. We have delved deeply into difficult topics. Not all of us agree, yet there is a solemn pact to respect our differences. While our group meets in the back, there are also women who play euchre in the front. Helen, a card player, always waves at me as I order my coffee. Sometimes we hug and exchange a few words. I love this woman. Some mornings I just sit with my coffee and journal as I attempt to scratch out a few words. 

Lately The Bridge has incurred a series of big ticket expenses. Over the past few months, the espresso maker, iPad payment system, ice maker, commercial kitchen faucet, and coffee grinder have had to be either repaired or replaced. In order to raise funds for these unexpected costs, a Go Fund Me page has been set up with a $15,000 goal. If you are feeling generous, donate a few dollars. I’ve included the link below.

On my own spiritual journey, I no longer attend traditional church. I find the sacred in many things: nature, friendships, family, yoga, books, music, and of course, pie. The Bridge, though, has provided me with a unique fellowship, and I am grateful for everything is does for our community. This little coffee house is the engine that keeps us all running on caffeine and camaraderie. It is our heart.

“I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” ~T.S. Eliot

A perfect fall morning: regular coffee with cream and a pumpkin scone
“M’am, I am tonight.”

by Christie Shumate McElwee

Last week I heard part of an interview with Marc Cohn, the singer/songwriter who wrote “Walking in Memphis,” a song with one of my favorite lyrics, “Tell me are you a Christian, child?” “And I said, ‘M’am, I am tonight.’” He spoke about the spiritual experience he had during that visit to Memphis when he was in a low place in his life. “Bluer than a boy can be.” He attended Rev. Al Green’s church, sat down to play piano with Muriel at The Hollywood, and spotted the ghost of Elvis walking up to Graceland. His walk through Memphis changed him. He was asked by the interviewer how he reflected upon this so-called “Christian” experience as a Jew. Cohn responded, explaining that spiritual experiences don’t have to be about religion. They can come from something or somewhere or someone that touches our hearts and lifts us off the ground. “Was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale.”

I began to ponder my own spiritual experiences, none of which have centered around church or scripture or organized religion.

Last winter on a frigid January morning, I drove out to the bird sanctuary to see the eagles. When I got there, I saw not just one or two, but over a hundred bald eagles, huddled on the ice. I could spot birds sitting in trees, grabbing fish from holes in the ice, and a few soaring through the air. I couldn’t breathe, it was all so beautiful. I remember texting a friend, sharing with her what I was seeing. I had my binoculars, but I only took a few photos because an iPhone picture wouldn’t have captured the awe, the sheer wildness of it all.

Eight years ago my son Jack and I went out to San Diego to visit my oldest son Christopher and his girlfriend (now wife) Kaitlin. On one of the last nights of our visit they took us to a sushi place in La Jolla and after dinner we wandered close to the water. They said we needed to walk out to this peninsula where the sea lions slept. In the darkness, Jack and I tiptoed down and stood among these snoring beings. We were so close we could smell their breath but saw only shadows. We looked at each other and knew we had shared a sacred moment together on that California coastline. 

Sometimes my husband and I have these perfect weekends. Nothing is planned or scheduled. We may eat breakfast out, take a long walk, listen to music as we sip wine and prepare dinner. Simple things. Joyous moments. Spiritual in its lack of anything momentous. We don’t go looking for it, life just hands us something intangible and pure.

I’ve experienced it in books, when I read words that catch my breath with their beauty and truth. I find myself gasping and placing my hand over my heart, hoping to hold onto the moment, the clarity of the prose, the gift the author gave me.

After a spring trip down to Gulf Shores a few years ago, I talked my husband into taking a detour so I could see Monroeville, Alabama, the childhood home of Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. As I sat up in the courthouse balcony, I could hear Reverend Sykes telling Scout, “Miss Jean Louise? Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin.’” And I could see Atticus walking down the aisle, head up, knowing he would have to explain difficult truths to his children. It was probably one of the most spiritual moments I have had in my life, sitting in that recreated courthouse, hearing the voices of fictional characters swirling through my head.

“Tell me are you a Christian, child?” “And I said, ‘M’am, I am tonight.’” To me, this lyric isn’t about religion. Marc Cohn, instead, wrote about how certain moments in our lives bring us closer to what we can’t explain. The wonder. The mysterious. The divine. Some of us may find them sitting in church, yet mine have always been outside those walls, on cold days or warm beaches or in the pages of my favorite books. I have discovered unexpected sacred spaces, and I am grateful for their gifts of authenticity and grace and astonishment.

“M’am, I am tonight.”

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
~Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird


How to Be a Decent Human in this Sometimes Indecent World

(to remind myself)

Inspired by Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself). Poem below.

Honor your morning. Have a routine. Make it meditative. Grind the coffee beans. Steep the tea. Sit in silence. Forgo screens, if possible. Do not grab phone the minute you get out of bed. Jot down random thoughts in journal. Bask in the early morning sounds: cat’s sleepy moans, children’s chatter on their walk to the bus stop, geese honking, construction trucks rattling down the road. Read Mary Oliver poems and breathe her words. Greet the day.

Know gratitude. Do not obsess over what you do not have. It takes up too much space. Instead fill your head and heart with what is here now. Be thankful for coffee and husband and friends and a good meal and fine wine. Oh, and desserts…a slice of apple pie, Bella Vino’s ooey gooey butter cake with cinnamon ice cream, warm chocolate chip cookies, brownies. Always brownies.

Exercise. Walk mindfully. Turn off the music and podcasts and walk in quiet. Hear what is presented. See the trees, especially now as leaves are turning red and orange. Practice yoga with mind and body. Feel each pose. Quiet the ceaseless chatter in your head.

Make meal preparation moving meditation. Chop with purpose. Stir and taste deliberately. See it all come together. Set the table. Light a candle. Put on music. Enjoy.

Pick one small, daily goal. No phone. Write. Exercise. No meat. Eight glass of water. No news. Read at night instead of television. Read a classic. Read for fun. No alcohol. Text or call a friend or family member. Don’t kick yourself over failures of long term goals. Glory in the accomplishment of what you did today.

Let go of things you have no control over. Worry eats you alive. Allow mistakes to be made. Let go and see what happens. 

Listen to old and new music. Really listen. Hear the instruments, the vocals, the lyrics. Know that music is medicine.

Honor your sacred space. Be a fierce gatekeeper. Do not allow anyone in who violates this space with untruths, negative energy, or constant complaining or blaming others for mistakes they created. Protect this sacred space with your life.

Own your mistakes. Ask forgiveness, and then offer to make things better. Move on. Accept you are human. Messy. Damaged. Broken. Stitched back up. Beautiful. Luminous. Transcendent. Decent and good.

Redwoods in Golden Gate Park
A sacred space

How to Be a Poet (to remind myself) by Wendell Berry

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill – more of each

than you have – inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your poems,

doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three dimensional life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsecured places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.