by christie shumate mcelwee
According to last week’s weather forecast, we were supposed to have a snow storm blow in for the new year, but, instead, the maps changed and now we will welcome 2021 with rain and perhaps a touch of ice and snow. Wet, gloomy weather for a wet, gloomy year. Seems appropriate.
And now I sit in the glow of lamplight in my upstairs office, pondering 2020, acknowledging the miseries that swirled throughout every household, somewhat like the ghostly presence in The 12 Commandments that ominously traveled throughout Egypt, taking some and passing over others. Families huddled together, praying the specter would not find them.
But instead of just one night, we are still in the midst of the plague. We are frustrated, yet hopeful. We see photos of first responders getting their first doses of vaccines. The reality show grifter and his band of sycophants are on their way out the door, while an older, decent man together with fierce women and men of all colors are ready, brooms and disinfectants in hand, to clean up the mayhem left by ignorance, selfishness, cruelty, and malice.
None of this will be easy. We are a messy bunch. We argue and crow and brag and push our ways to the front of the line. Some are walked over. Some are sent back. Some are lost. Yet…I still believe most of us have the best of intentions. We want to do the right things, but it has been hard. So very hard in this year of finger pointing and accusations. Some bask in self-righteousness. Others cower in self-doubt. Most just ramble along, clutching at moments of civility.
In the midst of the miseries, though, I have found delights, simple joys that have forced me to pause and often gasp, hand clasped to heart.
I have discovered it in the changing of seasons: the brilliant spring, a sticky summer, our dazzling fall, and now, a damp winter. Living in the middle of the country, flanked by rivers, bluffs, and prairies, I know change. All my life I’ve seen fields of corn and soybeans grow in tight rows. I’ve lived through droughts and floods. Tornados have torn through small towns. Midwest earthquakes occasionally awaken us with rumbles. 2020 gifted us with colors – neon pinks, deep purples, dark greens, and brassy reds and oranges. These shades went far beyond what any Sherwin-Williams paint chip could offer. Mother Nature reminded us to never doubt her wondrous power and glory.
I have uncovered it in the written word: authors who have offered escape, solace, and often uncomfortable truths. I began the year with As Bright as Heaven, a novel about the devastation of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, still ignorant of the parallels to present day. As the quarantine went into late spring, I finally figured out how to use Libby, the app which allowed me to download any available book from our library system. I still love the feel and smell of books, wandering aimlessly through aisles looking for titles, yet, Libby has given me the world when my own has been delegated to the confines of our little house. As of today, I’ve read 87 books, ranging from light feel-good romances to deep historical fiction. I’ve explored gothic mysteries, reread Stephen King’s The Stand, and followed Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache as he solved murders in the quaint Quebec village of Three Pines.
I’ve come across it in music: new and old artists who continue to amaze me with their magic. Through my Apple Music subscription, I’ve been able to download Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, Ashley McBryde, Jason Isbell, and, yes, even Taylor Swift. Diverse playlists have gifted me Chris Stapleton and Steep Canyon Rangers. Along with James Taylor, Waylon Jennings, and Van Halen, I plan to continue this magnificent musical journey into 2021 and beyond.
Where will the new year take me? I’ve pondered resolutions, but after surviving 2020, I’ve decided to live my life, Yes, I should cut down on screen time, eat healthier, exercise more, and drink less wine. You know, the top hits of resolutions, but 2021 offers more than shoulds. It offers promise, hope, surprise, delight, and, yes, mistakes. Here’s to all our mistakes. May they be life-altering and breathtaking.
I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Makes glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, what it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing. Do it.
Make your mistakes, next year and forever.Neil Gaiman
Happy New Year.
by christie shumate mcelwee
Dear Editor: Many of my friends say there isn’t a Santa Claus because 2020 has been the worst year ever. Please tell me the truth. How can Santa exist after this horrendous year?
Christie, your friends appear to be skeptical, which is understandable after the year we have experienced. An insidious virus, a racial reckoning, and an combustable political climate have created a terrifying vortex and every aspect has seeped into our consciousness. We’ve been stuck in the eye of the hurricane for months now, watching scraps from our previous world blasted away.
But, Christie, there is hope, and hope IS Santa Claus. He comes in many forms, from Hallmark movies to twinkle lights, but 2020’s Santa Claus is more than a jolly elf dressed in red. Santa has manifested himself in the hearts of all who believe in love and courage and goodness.
Santa is in the scientists who worked to create safe and effective vaccines, and in everyone who is involved in the shipping, distribution, and inoculation process of said vaccines so we can eventually hug one another without fear.
Santa is in everyone who has donated to a favorite charity or ordered takeout from a local restaurant or supported a small business.
Santa is in all the millions who either mailed in their ballots or waited hours in line on November 3 to preserve our precious (and fragile) democracy.
Santa is in all who wear masks, knowing it is the decent thing to do in order to keep us all safe.
Santa is in all who smile through those masks, who are kind to retail and food service workers, who tip generously, and who spread love instead of animosity and discord.
Santa is in all the exhausted educators who have been there in person and virtually for their students since March.
Santa is in all the delivery workers, especially those who work for the US Postal Service. You carry hope in every letter and package you deliver.
Santa is in the courage and dedication of health care workers, those on the front lines of this pandemic.
Santa is in all the artists who have entertained us throughout 2020: the musicians, the writers, the actors, the poets, the TikTokers, the YouTubers.
Santa is in all who forgive more than accuse, give more than grab, understand more than judge.
So, Christie, there is a Santa Claus! He will live on in our hearts forever, and years from now when we look back on these dark days, we will know that Santa still exists because he continues to spread hope and generosity and magic to all who believe.
No Santa Claus! Thanks God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”Frances P. Church, editor of The New York Sun, published September 21, 1897
by christie shumate mcelwee
Christmas. To many it is a time of bright lights and colorful presents and joyful noise unto the world. To others it can be a difficult, and even blue time of the year. One is bombarded with jolly messages and flocks of red and green, but these things can be reminders of things lost or broken. Often, the heart can’t take all this forced Christmas cheer.
Then came 2020.
Plans altered. Trips postponed. Family gatherings changed. More and more of us are experiencing those damn blues.
Not even Hallmark movies that depict the “perfect” small town Christmas, complete with caroling townspeople and a magical Santa, can lift our spirits. The onslaught of heart-wrenching songs such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” or “Please Come Home for Christmas” that focus on missing loved ones who are far away during the holiday season bring ugly sobs when heard on the radio. Even holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life reinforce our blue funks.
Instead of cheerful, we feel melancholy. Our expectations are way out of whack with reality. We are gloomy, even when surrounded by holiday lights. Crawling in a dark closet and staying there until February sounds surprisingly appealing.
How do we combat the 2020 holiday blues? There’s tons of advice out there. Exercise. Eat well. Drink more water than alcohol. Step away from the news. Simplify. Learn to say no. Have gratitude for what you have instead of focusing on what is missing.
Blah. Blah. Blah. Sometimes you just have to sit with the damn blues.
Me? In our old house, I had a blue Christmas tree. We’d tramp out to the tree farm for a real one that went in the family room, and the artificial tree was set up in what was the living room and eventually became my writing office. This was the tree I decorated with all the blue and silver bulbs and ornaments I collected over the years. It sparkled and glittered and reminded me that even when I was glum during this crazy season, I had only to look at this shimmering tree to experience joy.
This strange year I’ve decorated two outside trees. One is my blue tree. I tried to put colored lights on it, but experienced an electrical shock when I attempted to use an old extension cord. I believe it was just another one of 2020’s messages to me, so no lights this year, just blue and silver globes. I also decided to place stars and sparkling snowflakes on our “little tree that could.” This fierce guy came back from the brink of death after I watered and sang and danced around it during quarantine. It is a reminder that even in the darkest of times, we must keep freaking hope in our hearts.
I find Brave Joy in both “Charlie Brown Christmas” trees. They remind me to breathe, slow down, and acknowledge the blues (and hope) are part of the human condition.
“And when those blue snowflakes start falling
That’s when those blue memories start calling
You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas.”
–Blue Christmas Songwriters: Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson
by christie shumate mcelwee
The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.Oprah Winfrey
In November of 1976, my parents organized a surprise party for my 18th birthday, and I didn’t catch on until I walked down the basement steps to my friends yelling “Surprise!”
Midwest birthdays in the 1960s and 1970s were simple affairs. In our family, it usually included a dinner of our choice. Growing up with a mother not known for her stellar cooking skills – but who possessed a myriad of other gifts – my meal was baked mac and cheese, one dish she’d mastered. That year, though, my famously frugal dad took us all to Ponderosa, a 70s chain restaurant known for mid-grade chopped steak. I later realized it was a ruse to get me out of the house.
On our long and meandering drive back, I noticed many of my friends’ cars parked in front of Greg’s, a friend who lived a block up the street from us. I quickly spiraled into a pathetic pool of late adolescent self-pity. “Greg’s having a party and I wasn’t invited. And it’s my birthday!” I wailed.
As I stomped into the house, mom asked me to get something from the basement, and after the surprises and hugs, I realized they had all parked up the street instead of in front of our house. (Despite my mother’s instructions, my father forgot to take an alternate route, hence the spotting of cars.)
This simple party with friends, punch, and cake is still one of my favorite birthday memories. That my siblings didn’t give it away, that I never caught on to the subterfuge, and that I walked into a room filled with friends marks a special page in this old heart.
My pandemic birthday didn’t include any grand surprises. It was quiet and sweet, with friends and family wishing me joy. Our children called and texted. I was able to safely share a meal with my mother, who had ordered an ice cream cake with my name on it! Later that evening, my husband and I opened a bottle of wine and noshed on charcuterie before we watched the final three episodes of Schitt’s Creek. Christmas lights twinkled. Cold rain pattered the windows. Finn the cat snored from his perch on my pastel chair.
Despite the total freaking crappiness of this past year, there are moments that offer up grace, and my 62nd birthday was one of them. And like the Roses of Schitt’s Creek, I am surrounded by magical messy magnificent love.
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.Dylan Thomas
I’m gonna need a stiff drink to get through this.David Rose
by christie shumate mcelwee
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ritual as, “a ritual observance; a ceremonial act or action.”
Performing daily rituals may help combat the swirling stress and anxiety, especially now as we enter the winter of this pandemic.
What rituals can we incorporate into our lives? I am sharing a few of my own that help lower my anxiety and allow me to uncover a corner of peace from the chaos.
prayer – Some read Bible verses, others offer words to whomever they worship. All are prayer. Me? I have begun to whisper these words each night and then ceremoniously release them to the universe.
I acknowledge the pain, anger, and anguish of lost celebrations, closed businesses, and canceled plans.
I honor all grief.
I pray for the sick. I mourn the dead. I wish for an end to all this sadness.
I give thanks for simple joys.
journal writing – I have been writing in a daily journal since I retired. Even though I may miss days, returning to my own messy handwriting centers me.
coffee – Filling my French Press and making my husband’s pour over each morning have evolved into small sacred steps.
exercise – I have my own home yoga practice. I turn on soothing music, roll out my mat, and for an hour relish in moving meditation.
walk – When I walk I often listen to music or podcasts, but lately I’ve hiked through woods in silence. Each birdsong and crackling leaf brings me closer to grace.
candles – I have a candle in my office, and before I begin work, I take a moment to inhale and exhale and then light the wick. Breathing in the scent inspires my soul.
read – Right now I am working my way through Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, and yes, it is delightful.
twinkle lights – We have twinkle lights set for 4:00 pm on a privacy screen in our backyard. Every time I see them turn on, I whisper a prayer of joy.
poetry – My favorite poets are Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, and Naomi Shihab Nye, all brilliant and ethereal.
I encourage you to discover your own rituals, and permit the acts of performing them grant you a small sanctuary of tranquility amid the disarray that is our world right now.
…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”
by christie shumate mcelwee
I listen to the rain hit the window, cold late October rain. Lights are flipped on throughout the house. The furnace buzzes during its first full fall day of operation.
I ponder my place in this crazy family of things. Oldest sister. First daughter. Mother. Step-mother. Wife. Ex-wife. Aunt. Cousin. Grandmother. Friend. Teacher. Writer.
I think of things older than me. Books. Rivers. Trees. Churches. Religions. Laws. Constitutions. Prejudices. Art. Music. Poetry.
I know I have not always been good. I have often asked forgiveness. I have lived through deep despair. I have risen from the ashes of it. And, yet, I know despair will come again, but so will the rise.
I look at the landscape of my life. I have grown, shrunk, cowered, screamed, cried, disappeared, reappeared, lied, sang, prayed, despised, danced, pondered, studied, loved. Even through the shattering, I have chosen love.
I cling to words as one would frantically grasp a branch while trying not to get swept away by a raging river. Ravishing, heart-breaking, wistful, gasp-worthy words.
I swim against the tide. I gather exquisite shells. I walk leaving damp footprints in the sand.
I am a mermaid. A witch. A pixie. A kelpie. A peasant. A queen.
I am Mary Oliver. I am Harper Lee. I am Anne Lamott.
I am Me.
I believe in faeries. I believe in hope. I believe in magic.
And I am announcing my place in the family of things.
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what is loves. Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sound and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, call to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting- over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
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