by christie shumate mcelwee
Brave: possessing or exhibiting courage
Joy: the emotion of great delight or happiness or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation
Brave Joy: possessing the courage to recognize delight despite difficulties due to sorrow or grief or loss
What are you going to do with your time? Yes, life is different and often difficult right now, but this is the life given to you. You…now.
Will you breathe in delight? Laugh deeply and sincerely? Know there is great treasure in the quiet?
Or…will you stubbornly sit with bitterness? Point shaking fingers while yelling “Shame! Shame!”? Fester and brood as you make endless lists of all you miss while ignoring what you have?
There is a paradox to living a life of brave joy, because it may create great cognitive dissonance. How can we revel in simple delights while chaos and darkness descend upon us?
How do we find brave joy? Is it in the brilliant red and orange fall leaves? How about that glass of pinot at our favorite outside wine bar? Or perhaps those long walks around the city park, observing all of the people with their dogs and kids and bikes?
Or is brave joy deeper that all that? What if brave joy was more than a visit to the zoo or botanical gardens? What if brave joy was an ongoing journey of discovering our hearts? Is it walking past the dread and, instead, seeing the wonder? Is brave joy allowing ourselves to love and forgive while attempting to put aside shame and judgment?
Brave joy is not ignoring our emotions. If you are having one of those “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days,”* then roll with it. Breathe in the ‘shittiness’ of the moment, but also see it through and then send it out the door. Brave joy is honoring emotions, yet still believing in the wonder, the exquisite, the delight that is this one life.
We’ve all made a voting plan, so how about we make a Brave Joy winter plan together? We will come up with concrete ways to discover Brave Joy as the cold winds rattle the windows. During the next few months I will explore Brave Joy through research, experiences, and reflection. I may also chat with a few friends and experts who may present their own original takes on Brave Joy.
I hope you’ll join me on this journey. I would love the company.
(definitions of brave and joy from dictionary.com)
(*Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst)
by christie shumate mcelwee
The death of Eddie Van Halen sucker punched me with a serving of unexpected grief. During my 61 years, I’ve lived through the deaths of many famous people, even a few performers close to my age. When Michael Jackson died, I sang along to “Smooth Criminal” in my car. Prince’s demise had me dancing in the living room to “Let’s Go Crazy.” When we lost Joe Diffie and John Prine this spring to Covid-19, I had my husband pull up “Third Rock from the Sun,” “John Deere Green,” and “Angel from Montgomery” while I toasted their songwriting and musical skills.
But Eddie…Eddie made me cry. What was it about the death of this rock and roll guitar player that brought about such unexpected grief?
Van Halen’s music, especially their 80s videos on MTV, are a part of the soundtrack of my young adulthood. I played the tape of 1984 in my old Honda until it screeched and snapped. I’ve always joked that I was “Hot for the Teacher” in my younger, hotter teacher days. I was no Mary Kay Letourneau or the bikini clad woman in the video, but I do know I was the object of a few high school boys’ crushes. When Sammy Hagar took over vocals from David Lee Roth, I loved the new sound. “Right Now” is still one of my favorites.
And then there is Valerie Bertinelli, whom I’ve adored since I first saw her bounce that basketball on One Day at a Time. How I envied her 1981 marriage to Eddie. She and I were pregnant at the same time in 1991 and our sons are just two months apart in age. I’ve always felt a connection with her, through her divorce and remarriage and her love of cooking. We’d be friends, if we knew one another. Her online tributes to her ex-husband broke my already fractured heart.
I’m still not sure I am able to explain the tears that fell on Tuesday evening after I read of Eddie Van Halen’s death from lung cancer. Maybe it is this loss on top of the pandemic and this crazy world we all live in now. I’m grieving everything: the deaths of over 200,000 American lives, the incivility of current politics, the lies spread every day, the ignorance and cavalier attitudes that some have toward this virus, the hatred spewed online, and especially the unknown of when our lives will get back to some semblance of “normal.”
So, thank you, Eddie, for your glorious guitar playing, your infectious smile, and that hair, oh that hair. You have reminded me to gather close those I love, forgive past indiscretions, and always always dance with abandon because, “Right now…It means everything.”
Don’t want to wait ’til tomorrow
Why put it off another day
One more walk through problems
Built up, and stand in our way, ah
One step ahead, one step behind me
Now you gotta run to get even
Make future plans, don’t dream about yesterday, hey
C’mon turn, turn this thing around
Right now, hey
It’s your tomorrow
C’mon, it’s everything
Catch a magic moment, do it
Right here and now
It means everything.Songwriters: Alex Van Halen, Edward Van Halen, Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony
by christie shumate mcelwee
Fall has finally arrived to our section of the Midwest/Northish South/Smackdab in the Middleish. I’ve bought mums, baked a few pies, and brought out a few decorations. I even brought home a seasonal candle I only light when I practice yoga because its strong scent allows me to enter a pumpkin spice zen state. I have a lot going on in my messy mind these days. So much that it is affecting my sleep, but I’m working on fixing that (no phone scrolling after 8:00 pm, news and social media apps off phone, nightly chamomile tea, and nothing election related is allowed to enter my brain as I slip into bed. I’ve only had this routine for a few nights, but I think it’s working. I’ll keep you posted.)
What else fills my head these days?
- As an American and one who has taken a few US Constitution tests, I have always been in awe of the peaceful transfer of power on Inauguration Day. One president steps down and another takes on the title. No violence. No coup. But to have this one declare the election “illegitimate” before it has even begun makes my stomach churn like the witches of Macbeth’s cauldron. My vote is not cheating. It is not fake. My vote is my voice. It is my super power.
- I’ve paid my fair share of taxes since I first donned the red polyester uniform at Monical’s Pizza back in 1976, and I’m proud of it. Yes, I was rather shocked when I saw my first paycheck, and yes, I grumble when we fill out our yearly returns, but I also know taxes go toward important public institutions such as infrastructure, schools, police, firefighters, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Does the tax system need reforming? Yes. Do funds need to be rerouted? Probably. If we only cut taxes and don’t come up with definitive ways to supplement that money will systems collapse? Most definitely. All of us, especially the president of the united states, should pay equitable taxes on income, property, and assets.
- Still hanging onto hope. Focusing on words like decency, compassion, honesty, sacrifice, empathy, and kindness. Strong words. Upstanding characteristics. Attributes I look for in people…my people.
- I’m starting to come up with a post-Covid bucket list. Things like a cross-country road trip, singing along to musicals at The Fox, seeing our favorite comedians live, attending concerts, having people over for dinner, setting a crowded holiday table, and, of course, hugging. There will be lots of hugging. What is on your list?
- I will continue to look for joy, search for wonder, and wallow in gratitude despite the insanity that swirls around us. I see kind people doing their best to walk the bumpy walk. I smile through my mask and say a quiet thank you for their grace. I admire anyone who sees hope as an act of defiance.
“Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.” ~Rebecca Solnit
This Mary Engelbreit postcard on my desk reminds me every day that hope does spring eternal, even for this little mermaid.
by christie shumate mcelwee
Usually on Valentine’s Day I write a post on love and include some of my favorite quotes on the subject. I’ve collected love quotes since I first began writing. Some dance with joy, others are thick as fog around my old heart. They tug, pulling me towards the light. What is love to me these days? It is decency, respectability that comes from kindness. It is compassion, a true sympathy and empathy for another’s pain. Love is sacrifice, surrendering ourselves for others.
Love is a life-long learning curve that weaves around corners, stalls at intersections, and often crashes into itself. It can be horrible and exquisite, just like every moment of our lives. Love is making terrible mistakes. It is forgiveness. It is reaching out in times of tremendous grief and walking together when there’s peace. Love gives us hope, even in the bleakest of times.
So, on this 11th day of September, 19 years after those towers fell and our collective hearts broke, I am sending you love. Pure, deep, true love. Magical love. Love that is our quirky, crooked flaws, yet also celebrates our grace. Love that sees us, naked and beautiful, and, because only love will carry us home.
Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. – Neil Gaiman, The Friendly Ones
You can have other words – chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it. – Mary Oliver
Love is the ultimate expression of the will to live. – Tom Wolfe
My, wasn’t life awful – and wonderful? – Mrs. Soames, Our Town, Thornton Wilder
Where there is great love, there are always wishes. -Willa Cather
Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle. Love is a war. Love is growing up. – James Baldwin
Tell me who admires and loves you, and I will tell you who you are. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
by christie shumate mcelwee
I discovered Brene Brown a few years ago when I was drowning in a mire of self-doubt, grief, and oodles of regrets. I dove deep into her trilogy of books: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong. Her words about fear, vulnerability, shame, courage, and doing the damn work saved my life. I often refer her books to friends who are struggling with similar circumstances.
Yesterday on my walk around the neighborhood I decided to forgo my usual political podcast boys and instead listen to Brene introduce the second season of her show. In thirty minutes she broke down and named what it is to live during these times. She calls it Day 2.
If you’ve ever attended a multi-day conference or seminar, you can relate to Day 2. On the first day, everyone is excited about the possibilities. There are name tags and introductions. Everything is fresh. Day 2, though, is difficult. It’s exhausting. We often find ways to resist. Day 2 can be painful. We ask ourselves, “How long will this all last? Who’s really in charge here? When’s lunch? A break?” We discover that Day 2 asks us to really delve into difficult subjects. Day 2 is messy; we can’t wait until Day 3, which often brings revelations and “Ah ha” moments.
Right now we are squarely in the middle of Day 2. We can’t turn back, yet we don’t know where we are going. Brene compared it to Space Mountain at Disney World, a roller coaster that whips you around in the dark. We’re on that ride now. We can’t get off and we can’t see what is coming. All we know is that we are moving forward.
Day 2 is the muddled part, but it is also an opportunity to learn and grow. Right now we are in the middle of the story. You can’t skip the middle, even though we’d love to find out the ending. The middle is the meat of the narrative. It’s the journey where our hero learns through heartache and mistakes and vulnerability how to solve the problem. Only then does she find redemption. This retired English teacher loves a good storytelling analogy, by the way!
Once we put a name to our story, it is easier to navigate. Dreaming about a vaccine, sitting down to crowded holiday tables, and planning family reunions can give us hope, but we need to face Day 2. Day 2, according to Brene Brown, is when we learn the hard shit. It is how we handle that shit that determines our fate. In order to steer Day 2, we must reach out and learn with grace. Yes, we will stumble, but there are hands to grab along the way. It is the “Messy Middle.”
Brene’s prediction is that fall (Day 2) will be the “long haul.” Yup. Along with the pandemic, there’s a contentious election, a racial reckoning, and a rocky economy. Day 2 sucks, my friends. Yet….we know Day 3 beckons. Day 3 is the last act of a story. It’s the resolution. It’s when questions are answered and the protagonist learns something about herself. But we can’t skip Day 2. Day 2 is where we “own the truth of our story.”
Join me on Day 2. It may be uncomfortable, but it is where the magic happens. I’m willing to take that ride. Are you?
“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” ~Joseph Campbell
Brown, Brene. “Brene on Day 2.” Unlocking Us with Brene Brown. Podcast. 2 September 2020.
tuesday morning musings: september 8, 2020
by christie shumate mcelwee
- Even after five years of retirement, three day weekends throw off my internal clock/schedule. Is it Monday morning? Tuesday? Was yesterday Sunday? Wait, what day is it again? Is Friday only four days away? When is garbage day? Once again, what day is it?
- I’m working on a few things in my life: diet, routine, hope vs. optimism, my cranky judgment and constant complaining.
- I don’t really believe in diets, yet I know I need to do something about this CWG (covid weight gain….another sad new saying born from the pandemic I learned from my friend Lisa). I need to be more accountable for what I decide to eat: more vegetables and fruits, less fats, maybe less wine????? Phooey.
- I am heading up to my office to write for at minimum an hour each day. What will I write? It doesn’t matter. I’m working on my routine, but there are blog posts, prompts, and that book of mine. Maybe some dirty limericks?
- We ventured out some this past weekend, which helps my mental health. We’re careful. Mask are worn. Precautions are taken. We need this. I understand, though, those who don’t feel comfortable yet. I also acknowledge the risks, even with all of the protocols in place, but after six months, we need outings. Each step out brings hope.
- And…I believe in hope. Even during these murky days, I see hope. Is hope always looking on the bright side, denying reality, and pushing aside the struggles? No. There are times when we need to sit with our pain. Hope is in the darkness. It appears within the cracks. Hope is our strength, our belief, our power. Hope is stronger than optimism. Optimism, an expectation of a favorable outcome, often brings disappointment, but hope hangs on, even during the storms. Hope is releasing expectations. Hope often just floats.
- I’m also working on letting go of judgment and complaining. Wow, you say. That’s a colossal undertaking these days. Yup, but it is another task that will improve my mental health. I’m releasing things I cannot control, which is a looooooong list, and focusing on what I can control, a shorter yet more obtainable list.
- Still on my anti-racist journey, I’m currently reading me and white supremacy by Layla F. Saad. It’s a squirmy, difficult, and oftentimes heart-wrenching read, but it is necessary. As stated previously, I can control my own path, and this work is part of it.
- On one of our outings this weekend we picked Honeycrisp apples at a local orchard. Now we have sixteen pounds of apples (approximately half a bushel – I looked it up) and I’m pondering different recipes. Apple salad? Apple bread? Applesauce? Any suggestions?
- One more thing about hope. Hope is not blind. It acknowledges the broken, the messy, the dismal, yet it is the strength of hope that places our feet on the floor each morning, ready to navigate another day. Where is my hope? It is my favorite pen. A blank notebook page. A book recommended by a dear friend. An unexpected gift. A text sent. A text received. Our cozy house. My snoring cat. That man lying next to me in bed. A half bushel of apples. Hope.
“Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.” ~Anne Lamott
“When hope is not pinned wriggling onto a shiny image or expectation, it sometimes floats forth and opens.” ~Anne Lamott
Hope often comes in the form of an apple and its infinite possibilities.
(September 1, 2020)
by Christie Shumate McElwee
I don’t know about you all, but six months into this debacle, I’ve hit a wall. I can’t sleep. I can’t think. I have trouble concentrating on much of anything. Yesterday my friend Marcia sent me a link to an article that helped me define how I’ve been feeling. It discussed an ancient Greek word that encapsulates these days for many of us. The word is “acedia,” defined as “a seizing up or freezing of feelings; spiritual or mental sloth; a lack of care.” Medieval monks cloistered in monasteries often experienced “acedia.” They suffered a sense of listlessness, sighing at their lonely existence, not knowing what to do next. Does this sound familiar? It’s not depression or laziness. It’s acedia, and sometimes it is reassuring to have a name for our emotions. When Marcia forwarded me this yesterday, I was at my desk staring at a blank page. It was almost as though she knew I needed help. It’s the universe (and a good friend) holding out a hand.
I think all of us are grappling with some form of acedia right now. We are stuck in an anxiety-riddled mire, constantly worrying about the impact of the virus, our political climate, hurricanes, fires, racial injustice, voting, our “leader’s” unhinged Twitter rants, the openings of schools, keeping our families safe, and not forgetting a mask when venturing out. No wonder we feel stranded, wishing we had a soccer ball companion named Wilson who would listen to our endless strings of worry beads.
How do I sit with my own acedia?
Place purple mums on my front porch.
Text dear friends my fears and hopes and deepest desires.
Rearrange my office.
Bake an apple pie.
Write cards to my grandchildren.
Read. Read. Read.
Read fiction. Read nonfiction. Read poetry.
Read. Read. Read.
Nap when I can.
Take my mom out to lunch.
Brew good coffee.
Listen to music. Always music.
Limit time on social media and the news.
Stay out of the comments. Nothing good ever comes from reading the comments. Nothing.
Reach out to our kids. Grateful when they reach out to us.
Venture out from my cloistered life.
Bask in the cooler days.
Hang onto hope.
Look for magic.
Send big messy everlasting love out to the universe.
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” ~ Barbara Kingsolver
“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” ~Roald Dahl
“You can only go with loves in this life.” ~Ray Bradbury
And…because I’m still an English teacher in my heart….
Stillman, Jessica. “The Ancient Greeks Had a Word for the Specific Kind of Bad You’re Feeling Right Now.” Inc. 31 August 2020.
by christie shumate mcelwee
Yesterday was stifling hot. Hot like 97 degrees, feels like 107 hot. Then in the evening a storm blew in without much warning. The skies went dark. Winds picked up. Temperatures dropped. I quickly gathered all the outside pillows before they were blown to the nether regions. Rain came down in sheets. Lightening flashed and thunder booms immediately followed. Our already flooded neighborhood lakes groaned as they took on even more water. After the storm moved on, I glanced to the western skies. Streaks of yellow and red and orange and purple graced the horizon, reminding us that beauty often follows chaos. But even as I admired the sunset, the rain began again. Too late for rainbows.
This storm and its aftermath is a metaphor for my (and I’m sure many of your) moods since March: dark, manic, scary, colorful, gray, hopeful, ominous, resplendent. One moment there’s a squall and then suddenly, calm. I’m continuously wobbly, attempting to navigate these circumstances we are in right now. So, I breathe and gather my strength for the next storm, because it’s inevitable. This is the rollercoaster we call being human in the late summer of 2020. The rains blow in and out, leaving us soaked. We stumble in the house searching for a dry towel, hoping it isn’t sour smelling from the last downpour. We scan the sky for rainbows, nature’s most optimistic symbol. Or as my brother Jeff wrote in an Instagram post, “Morning rainbow apologizing for an angry sky.”
Life is both storms and rainbows, and acknowledging these two are intertwined allows us to pull on our rain boots so we may gleefully stomp in the puddles.
Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer day could end in a downpour. Could end in lightening and thunder.”Benjamin Alire Saenz
by christie shumate mcelwee
A story about a drunk and the power of words.
Since the Midwest July weather was unusually steamy and I didn’t feel like heating up the kitchen, my husband and I decided to run to the local grocery store to pick up some fried chicken and potato salad for dinner. As we entered, the first thing we noticed was a security guard standing at the door. “Well, I’ve never seen that before,” whispered my husband. I shrugged and said it’s probably because it was a Friday evening. He then went to the deli counter to order the chicken and I wandered around the bakery section, trying to decide on a dessert. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man (one of the few in the store not wearing a mask) weaving in and out of the displays purposely knocking things off tables. He stumbled out of sight, and I, of course behaving like the mom/teacher I am, picked up after him. Rock met me with the chicken, we picked out a dessert and a bottle of white wine, and then made our way to the check out line. I did spy the same man making a small scene in another aisle, so I said to myself, “Please don’t let him near us. Please don’t let him near us.” At this grocery chain, customers must line up and wait for the clerks to wave them over when they are ready. We ended up in the first line. We were just about finished when I noticed this man throwing his beer and charcoal briquets on the belt. The clerk was stunned, so I automatically said, “Sir, you need to wait your turn.” He then bellowed, “What did you say? I need to wait my turn? What?” I then responded with, “I’m just sending peace and love. We all have to take care of one another.” His retort was, “You cunt!” Rock had the grocery bag in his hands attempting to counter the guy’s hateful rhetoric, but as the clerk threw me the receipt, I gave my sweet husband a look that said,” We need to get out of here…now.” So we quickly made our way towards the door. By this time the guy was screaming repeatedly “You cunt!” across the entire store and one of the other clerks had summoned the security guard. I held my peace sign up until we got out of his sightline and then practically sprinted to our car. My hands shook and tears fell the whole way home.
This man went into the store drunk, itching for a fight. I was just the lucky recipient of his anger. I realize now I probably shouldn’t have engaged him. We would have gone on with our evening undisturbed, but here’s the thing: this is a man who, I’m pretty sure, uses that word whether he is drunk or sober, masked or unmasked. This disgusting word that demeans women with its violent sputter. I spent most of Saturday hunkered down, feeling bruised. I thought of all the store clerks, waiters, and others who have to put up with these types of people, individuals who feel their “liberties” are begin stolen from them with mask requests, who believe they have the right to call out strangers and weaponize language. I pondered all of the women in this guy’s life who have been on the receiving end of his vitriol. I then contemplated the repugnant words that have been lobbed at people throughout the history of man. Words that make stomachs churn and hearts cringe. We humans have immense jurisdiction to strike others down with just a cruel comment. I then decided I would not give this guy permission to break me. I scattered the word’s power and turned it to dust.
The words we choose are crucial. Do we spread love or scatter hate? The names we casually throw around hold tremendous weight, so how do we counter the despicable, the vicious, the evil language that permeates our society?
There isn’t an easy answer, that I know. Repulsive language has been around since humans first grunted. We quickly learned how to force others to their knees through one degrading slur. But perhaps…we counter divisive language with statements that stitch us back together.
So, dear ones, I offer up a few suggestions:
I love you.
You are magic.
Walk in peace.
I admire your strength.
You are a warrior.
What words will you give the world today?
Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.Nathaniel Hawthorne
by christie shumate mcelwee
When I was a little girl, I loved to play school. My friends and I would assemble makeshift classrooms with leftover school supplies from the previous year, and on rainy afternoons when we couldn’t congregate outside for games of kickball or foursquare, we would reimagine the old, dank basements into glorious spaces of learning. We’d practice our handwriting, read out loud from old primers, and sing together from songbooks. I always wanted the coveted role of teacher, but often was forced to sit in the pretend desks while one of my friends wrote the daily instructions on the old chalkboard. It was more fun to be in charge than to solve multiplication tables that looked like undecipherable hieroglyphics. I loved being the boss. I wanted to guide the lessons and, yes, send misbehaving students to the corner.
When I reached middle school, my teacher dream faded. I wanted to become a nurse. I soon realized it was all about the cute white starched uniforms, because after volunteering at the local hospital during my 8th grade year, I discovered something shocking. There are sick people there! Nope, not for me.
In high school I had aspirations of a journalism career. I wanted to write for a newspaper or work at a television station. Woodward. Bernstein. Barbara Walters. After one year of majoring in mass media, though, I rediscovered teaching. I heard the call, and then spent the next 30 plus years in various schools and classrooms. I taught both high school and middle school students the majesty of Shakespeare’s language, how to develop a clear and concise spoken argument, and the virtues of using correct grammar in both writing and speaking. I loved the students, even the ornery ones. I was queen of my classroom and wore that crown with pride.
I retired five years ago, knowing it was time to leave. Yet…I still put my name on sub lists, tutored reluctant students, and even spent some time as an ESL instructor. I couldn’t seem to let go of my teacher crown. Every time I tried to take it off, the sparkling combs got tangled up in my graying hair.
After a bungled attempt to teach beginning English learners online last spring, I knew it was finally time to cast off my crown. I was done. I no longer needed to be in front of a classroom. I didn’t crave the attention, the glory, the label of ‘teacher.’ So after I pushed ‘send’ on my resignation email, I carefully removed my glittering tiara and placed it on a back shelf, only to be occasionally admired. I will allow it to gather dust because it is time to finally move on from that teacher persona I clutched to my chest for so long.
So where here do I go from here? That’s the beauty of letting go. The path is not backwards. It’s the unknown, the mysterious, the corner not yet turned. I will attend an Anne Lamott writing webinar in August, and signed up for an online continuing education writing course through NYU in the fall. I would love to go on a writer’s retreat, perhaps in the spring. I’ll read and dive into difficult topics, hoping to unlearn years of privilege and then write about what I’ve discovered. I want to resurrect my often dormant blog and perhaps even submit my writing for publication, which is a terrifying yet exhilarating prospect. There is also my novel, this story I’ve been working on and setting aside for almost five years. Perhaps it is time to finally complete this mother/daughter tale of grief and music and forgiveness.
Now that is something worth dusting off.