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


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

Not if. Not when. Now.

live.

This past weekend a young friend of mine posted a photo on social media of herself and her four month old daughter on a train ride at the zoo. Her caption began, “I wasn’t going to post this because my first thought was “I am fat.” She then wrote she worked through her doubts because she’s acknowledging motherhood is hard, post baby weight loss is difficult, and postpartum depression is real, but these moments she has with her baby are precious and she wanted to capture it. I am glad she decided to own the photo because it is beautiful in its exquisite spontaneity. 

When our bodies make humans, they go through amazing transformations. We grow babies for nine months, and when these fully formed people arrive, we quickly learn our old selves no longer exist. Our new reality is motherhood: soft bellies, curdled milk, elastic waisted pants, and leaky boobs. The first few months are foggy. Our bodies rebel against us as we cling to these needy little beings who depend on us for their very existence. We try to lose the weight yet the comfort of the couch and a bag of Oreos sing their siren songs while we catch a few quiet moments between feedings. Photos of celebrity and royal mothers quickly bouncing back to pre-baby weight fill our feeds, making us feel unworthy, (even though we know they spend thousands on professional trainers and chefs, and are always on the trendiest diets.) So, we hate on ourselves, on our bodies, on what we think we see when we look in the mirror.

My babies are in their twenties. It has been years since I’ve sung them lullabies or pushed their strollers. I’m way past menopause, yet body image is still a struggle. I look down at my soft belly and sigh as I try to fit into a pair of jeans. I’ve deleted images of myself, thinking I looked fat and old. I’m currently on a weight loss program, but I’ve hit a plateau that is discouraging. Many of my friends are on the same journey. With our childbearing years behind us, we feel our bodies betray us each time we step on the scales. We pluck gray hairs, spend unspeakable amounts of money on “anti-aging” products, and learn how to do the “turtle” with our chins when our pictures are taken. Photos of fit celebrity women in their sixties and seventies fill our feeds, making us feel unworthy, (even though we know they spend thousands on professional trainers and chefs, and haven’t eaten a carb in years.) So, we hate on ourselves, on our bodies, and on what we think we see when we look in the mirror.

So, how do we love ourselves now? Not when we lose the weight or if we go to the gym five days a week. Now. What if we love our bodies for the astonishing things they have done over the years. Yea, those things. Remember? Our miraculous bodies have fought illnesses, birthed and fed babies, worked grueling hours, endured sleepless nights of worry, ran races (often after little ones taking off across playgrounds), built empires (even if they were assembled with Legos), and planned, cooked and cleaned up thousands of meals. How about we love on our alleged “flaws”? What if we see our curves and our wrinkles and our gray hairs as medals of honor? 

I will acknowledge this isn’t an easy task. In fact, it is gargantuan in its heft. We’ve been wired since before adolescence to see our size as our worth. I suggest we take our bodies back. Tell society, those damn Kardashians, every single asshole who has cat-called us, and our mirrors to fuck off. Yup. That’s right. I said it. Fuck off. Let’s own those jeans, our boobs, and the right to see our power. Let’s eat healthy, walk those miles, but enjoy a piece of the damn pie. When we look at a photo of ourselves, let’s not judge. Instead, see the beauty and the strength presenting itself to the world.

Are you with me? Let’s own this shit.

“Worthy now. Not if. Not when. We are worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is.” – Brene Brown

Years ago when I first viewed these photos, I saw only the double-chins, big thighs, and bellies. Now I see the beauty, the strength, the fierceness. Hallelujah.

The Last Guardian of the Street

A few days ago the last guardian of the street said her farewells. She was the last of the families that had at one magical time graced Riverview Avenue. Her white house held court up at the corner, looking over both the 15 and 16 hundred blocks of Riverview, a street that never did have a river nor a view. 

Fifty years ago, though, the neighborhood sang with the voices of children as we organized games of kickball in the street, appointing one child the job of lookout at the top of the hill who yelled “car!” when one was spotted. We scattered, allowing the automobile to pass, and then resumed our game, sometimes mid-play.

Most of the families had two to four children, providing built-in friends for my siblings and me. My best friend Michelle lived down the block in a neat, white brick home. My sister’s and brothers’ friends were scattered up and down the tree-lined street. On warm summer evenings we met in our front lawns to play games of Ghost or Red Rover or Statue.

Family names like Kester, Steele, Yettaw, Stahulik, Fisher, Loftus, and Beyer peppered the two blocks. Doors were rarely locked. We wandered in and out of each other’s houses carrying balls, board games, and Barbies. Most days we ruled the neighborhood, exploring the gully or the gravel pit. Rainy days sent us to our basements where we played marathon sessions of Yahtzee or “School.”

My sister Ann is four years younger than me. When you are growing up, four years can seem like decades. When I was discovering Jim Croce and John Denver, Ann and her best friend Ann Beyer were giggling over the Bay City Rollers. They poured over Tiger Beat, googling Leif Garret and other cute teen pop stars. My dad would often ask, “What are those girls screaming about now?” I would just shrug and stick my nose back in the book I was reading.

The Anns and their friend Jani formed a fierce pre-teen trifecta. They often met at the Beyer house after school where Ann’s mother would serve snacks on a tray. Our messy house had a choice of the hose or Dixie cups of Kool-aid, so according to my sister, we couldn’t compete with Mrs. Beyer’s tidy home.

As the seventies moved into the eighties and nineties, families began to move away, one by one. As the new century approached, the only ones remaining were the Beyers and my parents, but even that eventually fractured as my dad’s memory faded and my mother moved to a smaller home in a senior community.

Mrs. Beyer was the last guardian of the street. After she lost her husband, she kept to herself, mostly spending time with her daughter and granddaughters. And now she’s gone, leaving the memories of Riverview Avenue to those of us who recklessly careened our bikes down the hill or played hours of four-square at the end of driveways. We can still hear our mothers calling us home for dinner. We often feel the cool spray of the sprinklers we jumped through on hot afternoons. And we will never forget the freedom we held tightly during those treasured sepia-colored days.

We, the children of Riverview, the holders of those precious snapshots of childhood, say goodbye and thank you to the last guardian of the street. Or as they say in the Navy, “Fair winds and following seas, m’am. We have the watch.”

 Photo: mykidstime.com
Photo: mykidstime.com