“M’am, I am tonight.”

by Christie Shumate McElwee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“M’am, I am tonight.”

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


How to Be a Decent Human in this Sometimes Indecent World

(to remind myself)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redwoods in Golden Gate Park
A sacred space

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

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill – more of each

than you have – inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your poems,

doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three dimensional life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsecured places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

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

prayed back to the one who prays

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.

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.

Gifts of Hope

Last Saturday gifted me with surprises. I wasn’t searching for hope, yet it still slapped me silly with its glorious presence.

After my husband left for his weekly golf game, I blinked my eyes open and realized there was no coffee in the house. I must have coffee, so I pulled on my clothes, grabbed my journal and phone, and walked the three blocks to our neighborhood coffeehouse. I brought my steaming cup to one of the outside tables, and then settled in to watch customers and write a little. I soon noticed a group of women and their dogs gathering at a nearby table. I caught bits on conversation pertaining to the proliferation of gun violence, and yes, I found myself eavesdropping. I turned around to comment, and then, surprisingly, I was invited to join their circle. I spent the next hour listening to these wise women discuss subjects close to my heart. One, an immigrant from a small South American country, gave me insight to the crises in both of our countries. As I rose to leave, one said, “We’re here every Saturday morning. You are welcome to join us.” I had accidentally stumbled upon hope, at a crooked, black rod iron patio table just blocks from my house.

After I walked home, caffeinated and rejuvenated, I decided to hop on my bike and ride down to the historic part of town. My first stop was the small Saturday farmer’s market that is located in a parking lot close to the river. I wandered the different booths, admiring fresh produce and baked goods. One of the last vendors had rocks, crystals, and sun catchers. I admired her work and we chatted about how she collected most of her beads from old jewelry and the prisms from dumpster diving expeditions. I wanted to purchase two of her sun catchers, but she informed me she didn’t take credit cards and I didn’t have any cash. Stupid move on my part when visiting a farmer’s market, by the way. The artist then said, “Take ‘em. You can owe me.” At first I shook my head. “Oh no. That doesn’t seem right.” She replied, “I do it all the time. Most people pay me back, and those who don’t, oh well. They still have my art.” After some hesitation, I picked out my two favorites. She wrapped them up, and then wrote her name and phone number on a small piece of paper. I told her, “Oh, don’t worry. I will be back next week.” She said, “You seem like an honest person. I can usually see it in people’s faces.” I smiled. I will return next Saturday with what I owe her, and will purchase more of her work. This quirky, open-hearted, trusting soul handed me hope at the farmer’s market.

I stuffed my new treasures in my wicker basket and rode down to my favorite outside restaurant, The Bike Stop Cafe, one part restaurant-one part bike rental/repair shop. I left my bike alongside others at the rack, and went inside to order my usual lunch: a veggie sandwich with an iced tea. A breeze was blowing in off the river, and bikers and young families were scattered throughout the patio. Halfway through my sandwich, a man behind me stood up and said, “A man knocked over two bikes. He did pick them up, but then took off. You might want to check if yours is okay.”

I glanced over at the rack, and my first panicked thought was my bicycle was gone. “I think my bike has been stolen,” I gulped. My ten-year old tan Schwinn from Target. The one with the wicker basket and clanking gears. My grandma bike that takes me to bookclub, the neighborhood grocery, and the mail room. I adore that bike. I flew to the rack, but quickly realized that whoever had knocked over the bikes had just moved them. My basket must have become dislodged in the fall because it was now hanging from one of the handlebars. But here’s the amazing part. Just before this discovery, many of the diners were ready to go after the alleged perpetrator. “I think he rode up to Main Street,” they said. “We may be able to catch him.” All these strangers, without even blinking, were willing to run after my nonexistent thief. After checking to make sure everything was working and returning the basket to its rightful place, I waved at the crowd and said with an embarrassed smile, “Thank you. I’m good. You can go back to talking among yourselves.” 

I headed back down the trail, pondering the morning. All I wanted when I woke up was coffee, yet I also found a table of intelligent, social justice-minded women, a generous and trusting artist, and strangers looking out for me. In a world swirling in the language of hate and conspiracy theories, hope just danced with this girl on a sunny Saturday morning. It is easy to become mired in the mud of despair, but often hope tiptoes into our lives, presenting us with the possibility of hot coffee, true human connections, and smiles.

“I dwell in possibility.” ~Emily Dickinson

When I first turned on the trail, I spied this guy slowly making his way across the gravel toward the river. I stopped my bike to snap a photo. He froze, but didn’t retreat into his shell. I said to him, “You’ve got this, buddy. Keep going.” On my way home, there was no sign of him. I’m confident he made it safely to his destination, this little guy with his determined hard-shell self.
Hope.

In Search of Hope/Reality Bites

This past weekend illuminated again that devastating evil permeates our realities. In less than twenty-four hours, back-to-school shoppers and Saturday revelers paid the price of hate and fear. The pictures were terrifying, the words divisive, and once again we stick to our sides, our talking points, like in a bloody game of Red Rover. 

By Tuesday I am heart-sick and exhausted. I need a break. I want to just drive, so I turn up the radio, slip on my Ray Bans and take off down Route 94 in search of hope. The skies are blue. The tunes raucous. Yes, this two lane road taking my little car along the banks of a great river will offer up peace for my aching soul. Yet. Yet as I drive deeper into the backroads, I soon discover that escaping isn’t possible. Not today. Not yet.

I begin to see remnants of the massive flooding that devastated our area last spring and early summer. My first indication that things are not back to normal is the abandoned fields where scruffy weeds clog the once flooded ground. A few bean fields look like they were just planted, rows upon rows of tiny seedlings the first week of August. Water still covers a closed side road.

Then I approach the town of South Alton where I see concrete human evidence of the effects of the flood. Piles of garbage are stacked at the end of driveways. Scraps of torn drywall, moldy furniture, and family memories sit, waiting for dump trucks to clear it away. A few homeowners have haphazardly tacked plywood to garage doors and spray painted warnings to potential looters of security cameras and guns. Appliances litter lawns. My stomach churns. In our old house we fought water in the basement for years. I cried every time it rained, but those tears do not compare to the destruction tucked away in this small, scruffy town. It will take years for these families to recover.

I cross the Mississippi and drive up the Great River Road toward Grafton. High bluffs to the right and the churning river to the left delivers a dramatic view. Still, there are bits of flood residue: yellow police tape strung across broken fences, shuttered businesses, and mud. Mud everywhere water had once been.

When I arrive in Grafton I head up a bluff to one of my favorite vistas, Aeries Winery. Grafton had been under water most of the spring and into June, but now it’s back in business. Bars and restaurants welcome tourists while workers in yellow vests manning huge machinery work the water’s edge attempting to clean up what nature has destroyed. From the top of the bluff, the residuals of the spring flooding aren’t visible. Just a panoramic tableau of a great river at work: tow boats lugging their goods up north, a lone ferry waiting on passengers.

The main purpose of my day trip was to escape from the dark realities in the news and find hope despite the gloom. Instead I drove straight into reality. Life is not all good or all bad, all rainbows or all storms. It’s a complicated palette. One moment your heart is shattered as it aches with grief, but then you smile at the children gleefully jumping on the trampoline next door. This is life. It is why we tell funny stories after a funeral. Amid the mourners as they pick at casseroles and sip cheap win out of plastic cups, stories about the deceased filter through the sadness. Then there is laughter, a funny anecdote. This is reality. This is life. Sorrow, laughter, tears, grief, and hope.

Hope is not denying the ills of this world. It isn’t putting our hands over our ears and muttering “blah, blah, blah” as Rome burns. We must never close our eyes to injustice and lies and pain, yet I also know there is beauty amongst the ashes. On my day trip in search of hope I found it in yellow butterflies, white herons, a glass of rose, and a panoramic view of the Mississippi.

Life’s truths are a paradox. Anne Lamott writes, “Paradox means you have to be able to keep two wildly different ideas in your head at the same time.” Life is hard. Life is miraculous. We sit with the suckiness. We dance in all its joy. We learn to celebrate the paradox. We dig ourselves out of hopelessness and continue to search for wonder. 

“All truth really is paradox, and this turns out to be a reason for hope.” 

“We have all we need to come through. Against all odds, no mater what we’ve lost, no matter what messes we’ve made over time, no matter how dark the night, we offer and are offered kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness, which create hope, sufficient unto the day.” 

~Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope