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.”

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.

Pondering Grace on this Most Solemn of Days

I find myself pondering grace on this most solemn of days. I know I have written words on the subject before, but this word, this state of being, draws me into its possibilities. Often I think about what grace is not, yet that isn’t grace. 

So…what is grace?

It is being there for a friend in her pain or grief or loneliness. 

Grace is understanding.

It is kindness, a smile, a compliment.

Grace is letting go of past resentments, of anger, of mistakes made.

It is sitting in silence. 

Grace is seeing people, moving in closer.

It is a presence. It is humility. It is acceptance over judgement.

Grace is a rainbow, a wash of colors across a sky as the sun peeks out after a storm.

It is always learning, always opening a new page, always seeing the potential.

Grace is seeing our differences as the beautiful wonders they are.

Grace swirls around as I stumble. It ignores my clumsiness and awkward actions. It is there, waiting as I trip over my anger, my envy, my stubbornness, my overblown ego. It finds me, even when I am not looking.

Grace is the truth. Grace is an open door. Grace is a seat at the table. Grace is thank you.

Grace is admitting I have been wrong, and offering ways to mend it. Saying, “I’m sorry. What can I do to fix it?”

Grace is acknowledging my brokenness, my scars. Seeing the beauty in the cracks. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

Grace is my husband’s hand in mine…the sound of our grandchildren’s voices…a phone call or text from one of our adult children, just wanting to catch up…spending time with dear friends, swapping stories and listening to all of our joys and heartaches…sitting on our front porch swing, grateful for the peace it brings.

It is pie

and wine

and coffee with cream

and grilled cheese sandwiches

and warm chocolate chip cookies.

It is hanging onto hope when all is lost.

It is love.

Grace.

“Grace comes into the soul, as the morning sun into the world; first a dawning, then a light; and at the last sun in his full and excellent brightness.” ~Thomas Adams

Photographs and the Art of Letting Go

Personal photographs can be powerful entities. Instantly we are transported back to the moment the camera flashed. Silly grins. Outdated fashion. Awkward personal space. When we look at old pictures, we squint and ask ourselves, “Did I really look like that? Was I ever that young? Was I ever that innocent?” Old photographs may give us warm fuzzies, but they also require us to come to terms with past feelings of hurt and anger. There are people staring back at you who have hurt you, torn your heart apart. Time, though, has given you a gift. With age, you realize you also inflicted pain. Your regrets consume you. And as you gaze at these faded photos, you decide to let go, releasing the resentment you’ve hung onto for years. You begin to forgive others and yourself. You remember the sweet joy, the giggles, the softness that surrounded the moments in the photographs. 

A few weeks ago when I was visiting my mother, she brought out some pictures from my first wedding. “Do you want these?” she asked, “Because, if not, I’m throwing them away.” As I flipped through them I said, “Yes, I’ll keep them.” At first she looked a little shocked, but I said, “Mom, these are important. The formal album was lost in the divorce, and you possess the only copies left. Maybe the boys will want these some day. And man, look how cute I was back then!”

Later, after I return home, I spread the photos on our table. Taken almost thirty years ago, I spy glimpses of youth, of promises made, of hope. I remember my dad walking me down the aisle of Westminster Presbyterian Church, acting as though it was the red carpet as he smiled at all the assembled guests. I am reminded of how Bill and I giggled through the ceremony. I see the faces of my dear friends, most of whom are still extraordinary people in my life. Snippets of the reception float through my consciousness: our first dance, my dad enjoying the band, my mother’s smile, Aunt Bug and Uncle Jack, Bill’s parents, all of our friends, and the happiness of that day.

As I am perusing the pictures, I notice another one my mother had added. It is a formal photo from my sister’s wedding the next year. Staring back at me is us: Bill, me, and two month old Christopher. With a tilt of the head, I was transported back to the fog and joy of those first few months of parenthood. Onesies and formula and sleepless nights. Bill falling asleep on the couch with Chris on his chest. Our dreams of the future all wrapped up in this little human being. I see our family.

I begin to breathe, to forgive, to let go. Selfishly, I no longer want to feel the weight of it all. It requires too much energy to hold on to the old shit. I am lighter, almost floating with the freedom. Herman Hesse once wrote, “Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” I am releasing into the universe all that I used to clutch and scream “Mine!” if anyone dared question it, because you see, I no longer require any of it. Most importantly, I am forgiving myself. I am stronger than my resentments, my anger, my gripes.

For now the photos will be tucked away in a drawer, but I am grateful for their gifts: reminders of joyful moments and the wonderful liberation that comes with letting go.

The Fabric of my Life

Before a meeting last night, one of my colleagues asked me if this was my only job. Did I have hobbies? Volunteer work? My first reaction was to kick into defense mode. Of course I stay busy. I have this ESL position, which requires planning lessons for two classes. I write. I volunteer for Ride to Recovery, when I can. I read. A lot. I’m a member of two book clubs. I travel a bit. I spend time with friends. I practice yoga. Yes, damnit, I’m busy.

On my way home later that evening, I reflected a bit more. She was just asking questions, getting to know me better in her own way. Her inquisitive nature wasn’t accusatory, but I took it that way, and I shouldn’t. This retired life is my own, and finally, after four years, I am moving beyond mourning my old teaching life and embracing the fabric of what is it to live without bells, surly and sweet adolescents, rising at 5:30, and eating lunch at 10:30. (Yes, A lunch began at 10:20 am. It took me a year to get over the hunger pains that would strike at that time.)

I told my husband the other day as I perused back to school photos on Facebook that this is the first year I honestly don’t miss those times. My heart doesn’t ache when I see a school bus lumber by. I no longer see myself setting up my classroom in August, or producing the slideshow for the first day assembly. 

My life is quiet. Most days I choose what to do. I teach two ESL classes on Tuesdays, so Mondays are planning time. Some days I am on the couch with a book. I lunch with friends or go on solo day trips exploring the city or surrounding areas. I may write or nap or work on a puzzle. Occasionally, I volunteer. And there are days when bingeing a favorite tv show is all I want to do. And you know what? I’m good. I’m really really good.

I’m grateful for this life. For my sweet husband who never questions or judges when I have my down days. For my friends who understand and honor me. For a part-time job where I am still called Teacher, (yet not required to grade piles of essays or get up early every day.) For quiet mornings with hot coffee and my journal. For the freedom that comes with retirement. 

And one last word for my teacher friends and family who are deep in the trenches. My heart is with you, my loves. Those kids need your wisdom, your passion, your laughter, and your endless supply of tissues and hand sanitizer. You are my truest heroes.

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” ~Mark Twain

This morning I chose one of my favorite coffeehouses. My ideal life.