storms and rainbows

by christie shumate mcelwee

Yesterday was stifling hot. Hot like 97 degrees, feels like 107 hot. Then in the evening a storm blew in without much warning. The skies went dark. Winds picked up. Temperatures dropped. I quickly gathered all the outside pillows before they were blown to the nether regions. Rain came down in sheets. Lightening flashed and thunder booms immediately followed. Our already flooded neighborhood lakes groaned as they took on even more water. After the storm moved on, I glanced to the western skies. Streaks of yellow and red and orange and purple graced the horizon, reminding us that beauty often follows chaos. But even as I admired the sunset, the rain began again. Too late for rainbows. 

Facebook photo by Terri Steffes

This storm and its aftermath is a metaphor for my (and I’m sure many of your) moods since March: dark, manic, scary, colorful, gray, hopeful, ominous, resplendent. One moment there’s a squall and then suddenly, calm. I’m continuously wobbly, attempting to navigate these circumstances we are in right now. So, I breathe and gather my strength for the next storm, because it’s inevitable. This is the rollercoaster we call being human in the late summer of 2020. The rains blow in and out, leaving us soaked. We stumble in the house searching for a dry towel, hoping it isn’t sour smelling from the last downpour. We scan the sky for rainbows, nature’s most optimistic symbol. Or as my brother Jeff wrote in an Instagram post, “Morning rainbow apologizing for an angry sky.”

Instagram photo by Jeff Shumate, Atlanta, GA

Life is both storms and rainbows, and acknowledging these two are intertwined allows us to pull on our rain boots so we may gleefully stomp in the puddles. 

Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer day could end in a downpour. Could end in lightening and thunder.”

Benjamin Alire Saenz

casting off my teacher crown…finally

by christie shumate mcelwee

When I was a little girl, I loved to play school. My friends and I would assemble makeshift classrooms with leftover school supplies from the previous year, and on rainy afternoons when we couldn’t congregate outside for games of kickball or foursquare, we would reimagine the old, dank basements into glorious spaces of learning. We’d practice our handwriting, read out loud from old primers, and sing together from songbooks. I always wanted the coveted role of teacher, but often was forced to sit in the pretend desks while one of my friends wrote the daily instructions on the old chalkboard. It was more fun to be in charge than to solve multiplication tables that looked like undecipherable hieroglyphics. I loved being the boss. I wanted to guide the lessons and, yes, send misbehaving students to the corner.

When I reached middle school, my teacher dream faded. I wanted to become a nurse. I soon realized it was all about the cute white starched uniforms, because after volunteering at the local hospital during my 8th grade year, I discovered something shocking. There are sick people there! Nope, not for me.

In high school I had aspirations of a journalism career. I wanted to write for a newspaper or work at a television station. Woodward. Bernstein. Barbara Walters. After one year of majoring in mass media, though, I rediscovered teaching. I heard the call, and then spent the next 30 plus years in various schools and classrooms. I taught both high school and middle school students the majesty of Shakespeare’s language, how to develop a clear and concise spoken argument, and the virtues of using correct grammar in both writing and speaking. I loved the students, even the ornery ones. I was queen of my classroom and wore that crown with pride.

I retired five years ago, knowing it was time to leave. Yet…I still put my name on sub lists, tutored reluctant students, and even spent some time as an ESL instructor. I couldn’t seem to let go of my teacher crown. Every time I tried to take it off, the sparkling combs got tangled up in my graying hair.

Until now…

After a bungled attempt to teach beginning English learners online last spring, I knew it was finally time to cast off my crown. I was done. I no longer needed to be in front of a classroom. I didn’t crave the attention, the glory, the label of ‘teacher.’ So after I pushed ‘send’ on my resignation email, I carefully removed my glittering tiara and placed it on a back shelf, only to be occasionally admired. I will allow it to gather dust because it is time to finally move on from that teacher persona I clutched to my chest for so long.

So where here do I go from here? That’s the beauty of letting go. The path is not backwards. It’s the unknown, the mysterious, the corner not yet turned. I will attend an Anne Lamott writing webinar in August, and signed up for an online continuing education writing course through NYU in the fall. I would love to go on a writer’s retreat, perhaps in the spring. I’ll read and dive into difficult topics, hoping to unlearn years of privilege and then write about what I’ve discovered. I want to resurrect my often dormant blog and perhaps even submit my writing for publication, which is a terrifying yet exhilarating prospect. There is also my novel, this story I’ve been working on and setting aside for almost five years. Perhaps it is time to finally complete this mother/daughter tale of grief and music and forgiveness.

Now that is something worth dusting off.

The crown I imagine I wore throughout my career. Classic. Vintage. Royal. Not too ostentatious, yet beautiful. I’ll still hold my head high, but I no longer need to wear the crown. (image from
SWEETV Jeweled Baroque Queen Crown)

“that’s what the storm’s all about”

by christie shumate mcelwee

Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The world right now is exhausting. I know I am tired. Tired of cruelty and stubbornness and ignorance and injustice. I am drained. When my head hits the pillow at night and tears flow, I know I have over-consumed too much of the bad that is out there. And boy, it is out there, waiting in the darkness, ready to pounce and eat us all alive with its venom.

My heart is drained. What I am mostly tired of is the judgment and shaming, and yes, it is coming from within. I judge. I shame. And it is tearing my joy into shards. I am the Ancient Booer in The Princess Bride who shames Buttercup’s nightmares.

“Boo! Boo! Rubbish! Filth! Slime! Muck! Boo! Boo! Boo!”

The old woman was a manifestation of Buttercup’s conscience. She knew her love was out there, waiting. She was shaming herself because of the decisions she had made.

How do I move from becoming the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence? What is my conscience telling me about love? How do I maneuver this rocky and dangerous terrain and set aside my own judgment and shame? Is it even possible?

I do not have answers to these difficult questions. The sheer scope of the pandemic and the ongoing fight for social justice have presented us with many challenges. The stories in the news can be confusing. Where is the truth? How do we model honor and decency for our children and grandchildren? Whom do we look toward for guidance? Wisdom? Empathy?

Once again, I am not sure I have any answers. All I do know is that my soul needs peace. I seem to be at odds with so many, yet I do know this: I believe in the virtue of love, the dignity of grace, and the importance of our collective humanity. 

I will choose not to lose heart. I will soften my judgment. I will look and listen and try to understand. All of this may sound simple and naive, but it is all I have and I am willing to hang onto these nuggets of hope.

I will get through these confounding days. If I have moments of despair, I will sit with them. When I see magic, I will acknowledge its presence. I will embrace joyful moments. Navigating this complicated labyrinth may be a daily challenge, but I am choosing to live my remaining years with tenderness. I will strive to let go of the sharp edges and learn to forgive others and myself. I will weather this storm.

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is for certain, when you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what the storm’s all about.”
~Haruki Murakami

How am I weathering this storm? Through piles of books and yoga and good friends and fabulous food and music and hikes through glorious fields of wildflowers.

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

Friday the 13th: A New Perspective

by Christie Shumate McElwee

Friday the 13th has garnered a bad rap over the years. There are a litany of superstitions surrounding “triskaidekaphobia” that have perpetuated the mythology of 13, resulting in many office buildings skipping the 13th floor, hospitals bypassing Room 13, and some airports omitting Gate 13. But why the number 13? Maria G. Valdez wrote in The Latin Times, “that in numerology the number twelve is considered the number of divine organizational arrangement or chronological completeness, as reflected in the twelve months of the year, twelve hours of the clock day, twelve gods of Olympus, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve Apostles of Jesus, the twelve successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, twelve signs of the Zodiac, the 12 years of the Buddhist cycle, etc., whereas the number thirteen was considered irregular, transgressing this completeness.” 

12 good. 13 bad.

But what if we flipped the day and chose to focus on the optimistic aspects of number 13 instead of the dread?

After a little research, I discovered thirteen positive things to ponder today, Friday the 13th.

  1. The number 13 is considered lucky in Italy. And Italy has great wine and pizza….two of my favorite things on earth.
  2. The United State had 13 original colonies. Those bad boy founding fathers kicked ass and took names when they broke away from Britain.
  3. The 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery. 
  4. For followers of the Jewish faith, 13 is when a boy or a girl becomes a full member of the Jewish faith after completion of a Bar Mitzvah or a Bat Mitzvah. I attended a few of these celebrations back in junior high, and I must say dancing the Hora in my red velvet maxi dress is one of my favorite memories.
  5. Thirteen is the lucky number of the Great Goddess, and the number of blood, fertility, and lunar potency. Looks like this could be a charmed night for many fortuitous couples.
  6. The gift for thirteenth wedding anniversaries is lace. Lovely. 
  7. All members of the Apollo 13th mission returned home safely.
  8. The Hollywood sign was dedicated on July 13, 1923.
  9. Red brings more luck than any other color. Dig out your red sweater, socks, or even underwear. Make Friday the 13th the day to rock that red.
  10. It’s bad luck to clean on Friday 13th. Dust will have to wait.
  11. Pet a black cat today. Their purrs will bring you peace. My own black cat left this earth last year, but maybe I’ll visit one today in order to garner my own joy.
  12. My mom was born on the 13th of August, and without her, I wouldn’t be here and without me, my two boys wouldn’t be here. Thanks, Mom!
  13. A baker’s dozen is 13. Yum.

Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, suggested that believing in superstitions can be a way to avoid taking responsibility for your own failures. So, instead of fearing this day, sweep away the old thinking. Be the master of your own destiny. Decide for yourself what is good karma. Drink wine, wear red, and dance like no one is watching. At least that’s what I am going to do today. What about you?

“Here’s the thing about luck…you don’t know if it’s good or bad until you have some perspective.” ~ Alice Hoffman, Local Girls

image from betterbodydayspa.com

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.

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. 

The Bridge, like many small businesses, has been struggling during this time of quarantine due to COVID-19. They tried to manage curb service, but it proved too difficult to maintain. As of Saturday, this hub of our community is shutting down. Everyone is our neighborhood is heartbroken, but we all hope it is temporary, and that they find a way to get the coffee flowing again. For now, they are looking at all the options, including a GoFundMe page. I am including the link if you would like to donate.

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.”

by Christie Shumate McElwee

What defines a sacred space? A quiet garden, an empty beach at dawn, that corner of your home where you find peace? Over the years I have discovered many sacred spaces, some grand and others humble. When I stepped through the doors of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, I discovered both as I walked the quiet labyrinth beneath the glorious structure. Even though I no longer consider myself a church goer, whenever I enter a house of worship, I feel a sense of sacred space, of history, of all those who have gathered together. 

Sacred spaces are holy, but the most sacred of all is our essence, our bodies, our souls. And when those bodies are desecrated in the name of power or money or ignorance or prejudice, that sacredness is shattered. 

I am saddened by the looting, but I am even sadder about the looting of black bodies, those sacred bodies that were once rocked to sleep by their mamas. My heart is devastated.

I am sharing a post I wrote last fall about sacred spaces, and then I am stepping away from social media for awhile to read and move and rest and prepare myself for the fight ahead. Our world needs healing. My little old self is just one tiny molecule, but I believe if each of us dig deep and do the work, there is hope.

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


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

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