bad news on the doorstep

by christie shumate mcelwee

When I woke up this morning, I was assaulted by bad news. Tragedy all around us. My heart shattered. I took my coffee to my front porch swing and sat while the late spring breeze whispered a few lines from “American Pie”: “Bad news on the doorstep/I couldn’t take one more step.” I pondered the lyrics of this iconic song, remembering how my friends and I would pour over them and attempt to find some meaning in Don McLean’s symbolism. We knew it was about the 1959 plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, but we also loved the tune and vainly attempted to memorize this 8 minute epic. 

After I came inside, I pulled up the song and its lyrics, and listened to it again, suddenly coming to the realization that “American Pie” is a mourning hymn. It sings of grief and regret and loss and confusion. Where do we go when our heroes die? Can innocence be lost over and over again? What saves our souls? Who do we turn to when all seems unsalvageable? The song doesn’t give any pat answers. It just allows us to sit with our heartache.

This is where many of us are right now. We don’t know what to do with our feelings of despair. We see the numbers: positive cases, deaths, unemployment figures, shuttered small businesses. The news contains wrenching stories of hate and lies and gaslighting. Fear is everywhere and hope seems, well, often hopeless. How do we process all of this? We often search for silver linings and gratitude, listing our simple joys, but sometimes we just need to sit with this overwhelming sadness. Sometimes life sucks. Don McLean sang of how it appears as though the devil is “laughing with delight.” How do we go on if evil is cackling at our pain?

I am not a theologian or a great philosopher. I’m just an anxious, messy, and awkward woman who writes rambling words with questionable syntax and punctuation. I attempt to find some type of solace through song lyrics, poetry, and prose (along with coffee and wine).

Today I found it in “American Pie.” 

I met a girl who sang the blues

And I asked her for some happy news

But she just smiled and turned away

I went down to the sacred store

Where I’d heard the music years before

But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

And in the streets the children screamed

The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed

But not a word was spoken

The church bells all were broken

And the three men I admire most

The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost

They caught the last train for the coast

The day the music died

And they were singing

Bye, bye Miss American Pie

Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry

And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye

Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die

This’ll be the day that I die

music and lyrics by Don McLean

our little tree: tiny hopeful buds

by Christie Shumate McElwee

We have a two-year old tree in front of our house that isn’t doing well. While all the other trees on our block have leafed out, ours silently stands with just a few buds attempting to open. Every day I send energy to its roots, hoping it will feel the strength of my love. I acknowledge that all my tree hugging may not be able to save it, yet I pray to Mother Nature to summon her powers to revive this struggling plant.

Lately I have been pondering the difference between hope and optimism. Yes, these concepts are related, but they follow divergent paths. Both are guideposts to the future. Think in terms of their opposites. The opposite of optimism is pessimism, and the opposite of hope is despair or fear. Optimism relies on feeling good about the future, even denying that bad things can happen. Optimists expect things to turn out okay. Hope, on the other hand, relies on the effort to make life better, knowing hard times are ahead and barreling ahead in spite of them. Hopeful people continue on through the pain, fighting for justice and kindness and peace.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the thing with feathers”, she writes:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

The little bird clings to the branch while the storm swells, and continues to sing its song. Hope gives us warmth, yet doesn’t ask anything of us. We know things are rough. We see the darkness. We feel the pain…yet hope is still there, singing its tune.

Where do I see hope? It is in people trying their best to protect others. It is in our beautiful faces, even when covered by masks. Hope is in the reaching out, the praying, the grace we give one another. Hope sustains us.

And what about our little tree? Will my hope save it? I check it every day for new buds, and embrace its trunk, hoping it will feel my spirit. Will it survive? I don’t really know the answer, but I continue to hope, and that hope gives me strength to face what is ahead. I will live under hope’s roof.

“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, Animal Dreams

At first glance, our little tree looks dead.
But step closer, you can see tiny, hopeful buds.

‘show me’ how to breathe: the reopening of my state and how to navigate my anxiety

by Christie Shumate McElwee

I woke up in the middle of the night with a rapid heart beat and a litany of questions. Is this really a good idea? Are our numbers flat enough to reopen? When will I feel safe again in public? How do I manage my ramped up anxiety? Is there a right way to do this thing? A wrong way? What about those who don’t adhere to the rules? What about the small business owners who need to open so they can stay afloat? Will I ever feel comfortable eating in a restaurant? Shopping in a store? Can establishments keep their workers safe while operating? What about more tests? More PPE? What if there is a surge in positive cases? What about those who won’t wear masks? Will we ever go to a concert again? A street fair? The pool? Will I ever be able to catch my breath again?

My state and county officially reopened at 12:01 am today. (A few counties with larger populations have chosen to remain closed.) The “show me strong recovery plan” has lists of rules and regulations on its website, but with the exception of a few places, the doors have been thrown wide open. The businesses I follow on social media have been posting their procedures for reopening. Some are waiting at least a week while they hammer out the logistics. Others, especially restaurants, are moving tables and chairs six feet apart, instituting hygiene rules, and begging for patience from their customers while they attempt to figure this all out.

On Saturday my husband and I went for a drive. We decided to check out a county park that had just reopened. During “normal” times we love to walk the path around the lake, but when we arrived, the place was packed. People were everywhere. Parking lots were full. Despite the signs encouraging safe social distancing, few seemed to comply. We quickly left the premises and found a small semi-deserted place to walk where I could breathe.

I am slowly realizing that in order to come to some kind of peace with all of this, I have to sit with my anxiety and then remember I can only control myself.

So, here’s my list of what I can control:

  1. We are going to maintain our own ‘shelter-in-place’ for at least another month. We will venture out for walks, trips to the grocery and hardware stores, and for my husband, an occasional game of golf, but we need to see how this all works before we tip-toe out in public. (And yes, I am getting my hair cut. You can judge me if you want, but it’s happening.)
  2. I am going to attempt to set aside my own judgment of others. I don’t like the icky feeling I get when I’m in the judgment zone. (This is difficult for me. I must be honest. If you are rude, unkind, racist, or just plain stupid, I may continue to judge you.) We humans are social animals. Staying sequestered goes against our natures. This I understand. I also know businesses cannot stay closed forever. If an establishment is going to the trouble to keep its workers and customers safe, I’m holding my judgment…for now.
  3. We will wear our masks when entering any establishment. Yes, it is a hassle. Yes, it is a pain in the butt. Yes, it is the smart thing to do in order to protect the health of others.
  4. I am cutting way back on the quarantine amount of wine I have consumed. I’m rationing myself to the weekends instead of every night. My sleep cycle and liver will thank me.
  5. I will continue to exercise almost every day. This is important for maintaining my weight and my mental health.
  6. I am also rationing my reading and viewing consumption of anything that concerns the current occupant of the White House and his hateful, small, ignorant words. A friend of mine said she won’t allow him in her house, and I’ve decided that’s brilliant! I would never invite such a person in my home, so why am I doing it now? I will permit one or two articles a day, an occasional rant, and that is it. I will vote in November and hope, hope, hope we can heal.
  7. I’ve decided to let go of my part-time teaching job. This pandemic has taught me the importance of listening to my heart, and it is telling me it is time to hang up my teaching cape. It’s been a good run, but I am done.
  8. We will continue to order from our favorite locally owned businesses. We’ve finally figured out this whole take-out routine, and we kind of like it. On nice days, we will grab a blanket and head outside for a picnic, just to mix things up a bit.
  9. Today I will start meditating. It may just be for five minutes a day, but it will help me breathe.
  10. I will attempt to live in the moment and push aside the fear. I will love with my messy heart all that is good in the world. I will breathe in hope and breathe out compassion.

“Life is beautiful in spite of everything…There are many thorns, but the roses are there too.” ~Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Crimson clover has overtaken empty lots in our neighborhood. Isn’t it gorgeous?

coming to terms with my vanity

by Christie Shumate McElwee

“We’re older but no more the wise

We’ve learned the art of compromise

Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry

And sometimes we just break down

We’re good now ’cause we have to be

Come to terms with our vanity

Sometimes we still curse gravity

When no one is around”

“Hey Cinderella”

Songwriters: Suzy Bogguss / Matraca Berg / Gary Harrison

I have a confession to make. It has been 11 weeks since my last haircut. A couple of weeks ago I had my sweet husband take his trimmer to the back of my neck to clean up the errant hair that stubbornly grows there. No matter what I do to it, though, it is in my eyes. I am constantly playing with it, trying cute hair pins and bandanas, yet it is still a mess.

I acknowledge this is not the worst thing that is happening these days. I read the news and see the devastation this virus has wreaked across the globe. I know I shouldn’t be worrying about my vanity…

But…my hair. What about my hair? Before Zoom, I never had to look at myself as I participated in conversations. Now all I can see is my hair. I fidget with it or attempt to restyle it as the meeting is going on. Truthfully, I’m annoying myself.

We women are our own worst critics. Every supposed flaw is torn apart. Billions of dollars are spent on creams and makeup and styling products in order to look pretty, but we can’t seem to give ourselves a freaking break. I know this because these days when I look at myself in Zoom or FaceTime all I see is an aging woman desperately in need of a trim.

I gave up coloring my hair almost two years ago, and I’m pleased with the touch of gray. I don’t wear much makeup, but I do enjoy a little if I’m going out. But…my hair. What about my hair?

Soon as the shelter in place guidelines are slowly lifted, I will tentatively tiptoe back to my stylist. Safe procedures are promised and I trust her to keep everyone safe. Small businesses need their customers and we need to support them. I also realize not everyone feels safe to visit some establishments yet, and I respect that. I know my anxiety levels peak every time I even think about venturing out in public. Wearing masks, washing hands, and practicing safe habits are our new normal. 

And after that first haircut in over three months, will I look at myself differently? Perhaps, but I do know a trip to the salon is a good boost for the morale. During these difficult times, we are all doing things to help our psyches. Some are planting flowers, others are knitting. Me? I scratch a few rambling words every week, but a trim would certainly help.

We are all just stumbling through this thing.

Be safe.

Be kind.

Forgive others and yourself because even Cinderella didn’t know how the story would turn out.

“Hey hey, Cinderella, what’s the story all about

I got a funny feeling we missed a page or two somehow

Ohh-ohhhh, Cinderella, maybe you could help us out

Does the shoe fit you now?”

Jane Jetson had it figured out. Now, where do I buy these masks? Amazon, perhaps?

“shelter from the storm”

by Christie Shumate McElwee

After I graduated college, I lived in an assortment of dwellings, from my first studio apartment with a pull-out couch for a bed to a brick walk-up in Bucktown with tin ceilings and tiny bedrooms. Each place offered its own brand of comfort, despite my dismal lack of funds. I gathered books and cheap trinkets, bought dishes and rugs, and attempted to fill my little places with music and laughter. The furniture was mostly hand-me-downs or items I purchased from friends. One beige and peach sofa I bought cheaply from a friend of a friend in Dallas was awkwardly transported to five different places over the years, but, man, that was the best nap couch. When I was pregnant and couldn’t sleep, it was my sanctuary many nights, and later it became a favorite place for my ex to nap, with our oldest son comfortably asleep on his chest.

From the time I left home (not counting the few times I landed back there to heal) to now, I have lived in fourteen different apartments and houses. Each one unique. Each with its own set of memories and heartache. Apartment walls listened as I cried over breakups. My old rocking chair comforted me as I sang my babies to sleep. The small white cottage in Palatine wept when I gathered my boys up and moved us to another life downstate. I bought my first house on West Decatur and filled it with toys and books and music, and messily attempted to create a joyous childhood for my sons. Many of the small kitchens remained virtually unused until I finally learned how to cook in the house on Cresthaven Avenue. When we moved down to our cozy green gables cottage, we discovered new adventures to explore.

Now home takes on a greater significance. It is our safe place from a virus that is ravaging the globe. My husband and I are privileged to live in a house that has enough space (and internet!) to have him work in his basement office while I write upstairs in the loft. We venture out for walks, he grocery shops once a week, and we occasionally get in the car for long drives. We video chat with the grandchildren. We’ve hosted a few virtual happy hours with friends. Our lives are small now, but our house nurtures us.

Our kitchen table is set for two. A half finished puzzle sits at one end. I long for the day when we have a crowded table, filled with friends and family telling stories and eating pieces of freshly baked apple pie, but we wait patiently until it is safe to gather. 

I hope with all my heart your home is offering you shelter from the storm.

“Come in,” she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
Shelter from the Storm, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Watching a storm blow in from the shelter of our top porch.

the things i didn’t know i missed

by Christie Shumate McElwee

Nazim Hikmet, a renowned Turkish poet, wrote a poem titled “Things I Didn’t know I Loved” after he was released from jail after serving years for his radical acts and words. In this poem, Hikmet is on a train looking out the window. He is pondering what he forgot he loved when he was incarcerated. He writes of curling rivers and asphalt roads. He remembers brief moments from his life that now seem precious. He also recounts how snow “flashes in front of my eyes..I never knew I liked snow.” The poem is a joyous love letter to all he had missed when in prison.

During this unprecedented time in history, the world has paused. Restaurants are shuttered. Stores are closed. Many of us stay sheltered in place while others work the front lines. As the curve flattens and plans begin to come together on how to open up again, we mourn what we have lost. My niece won’t have her college graduation celebrations. My nephew is missing his end-of-the year 8th grade traditions. Another friend’s daughter is contemplating rescheduling her wedding. Some friends and family members have been furloughed or fired from jobs. And, especially, we all are grieving the pain and lives lost due to this virus.

As I read Hikmet’s poem, I pondered my own list of things I miss while sheltering in place.

What are the things I didn’t know I truly loved until now?

Al fresco dinners at dusk while twinkle lights sparkle

Wandering through stores, touching the merchandise, chatting with clerks

Laughing with good friends over lunch at Massa’s

Walking sandy Gulf Shores and later stopping for drinks at The Pink Pony

Hugging (always hugging)

Hiking park trails while admiring the wildlife, both animal and human

Practicing yoga at Blue Bird studio

Weekend breakfasts with my husband at Crooked Tree or The Shack or any of our other favorite establishments

Meeting friends for coffee at The Bridge and diving deep into conversations  

Visiting the zoo on a warm day and saying hello to the bears and elephants and tigers

Meandering the walkways of the Botanical Gardens

Going to a play or a concert or a festival

Having my hair washed by my stylist. Ahhhh……

The pure joy of life is what we grieve. Soon we will be able to call up a friend and say, “Hey, let’s meet for coffee,” and we will reminisce about our sequestered days over lattes, but for now we remember the things we didn’t know we missed.

We missed our annual trip down to Gulf Shores.
Next year.

Link to “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” by Nazim Hikmet

https://poets.org/poem/things-i-didnt-know-i-loved

cece’s 19 thursday musings

by cece (my grandma name)

Day WTF

(A few are political, so if you don’t want to read or believe my sassy liberal views, move on.)

  1. I see online all the wonderful bread being made. It all looks so delicious I can almost smell it! Last week I baked a loaf of banana bread. Does that count?
  2. Please do not share conspiracy theories of body counts in urban areas. It is sad and sick and just not right. These “bodies” are people’s friends and family members. Say a silent prayer and step away from the propaganda.
  3. I miss hugs. I really miss hugs.
  4. I ration myself to just a few news articles a day that deal with our government’s total ineptitude of dealing with this crisis. My sanity can only take so much stupidity.
  5. Support mail-in voting. Widespread voter fraud is a myth. Yes, I love going to the polls to vote, but I shouldn’t have to risk my life to do it. Any type of voter suppression is morally repugnant. There. I said it.
  6. All the calories we are consuming during the quarantine don’t count, right?
  7. And the same goes for all the booze, yes?
  8. I went to our neighborhood market this afternoon, and it took half an hour for my heart rate to come down after I returned and wiped down everything. Again. I miss our weekly trips to the grocery store when Rock would push the cart while I’d dance down Dierberg’s aisles finding everything on the list. Dierberg’s has the best music, I’m just saying.
  9. Overnight, how did we all become hypochondriacs, agoraphobics, and Howard Hughes? Damn.
  10. Please do NOT gather in a church this Sunday. God will hear your off key version of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” during your online worship. Me? I’m going to rewatch Jesus Christ Superstar with John Legend. Hosanna, baby.
  11. According to the numbers and models, social distancing is working. Stay home, if you can. If you are an essential worker, stay safe. If you are venturing out to the stores or picking up food, follow the rules. Also, stop gathering in large groups. STOP. IT.
  12. I am trying to donate to a charity or order takeout or delivery from a local establishment at least once a week. What are you doing?
  13. Once again, it’s okay to feel sad. There are no rules for how to behave in a global pandemic. 
  14. I really really miss my lunches out with friends. 
  15. When I found out I wouldn’t be meeting my ESL students in person again this semester, I cried.
  16. If you will be missing graduations, proms, and end of the school year celebrations, I am truly sorry. My heart hurts for you.
  17. If you are having financial troubles, I am wrapping you all in my fierce warrior goddess energy. Stay strong, my loves.
  18. Spring is still on its way. No virus will stop spring.
  19. Listen to good music. Enjoy the quiet. Love one another.

You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.

Pablo Neruda