damn blues and freaking hope: two christmas trees

by christie shumate mcelwee

Christmas. To many it is a time of bright lights and colorful presents and joyful noise unto the world. To others it can be a difficult, and even blue time of the year. One is bombarded with jolly messages and flocks of red and green, but these things can be reminders of things lost or broken. Often, the heart can’t take all this forced Christmas cheer.

Then came 2020. 

Plans altered. Trips postponed. Family gatherings changed. More and more of us are experiencing those damn blues.

Not even Hallmark movies that depict the “perfect” small town Christmas, complete with caroling townspeople and a magical Santa, can lift our spirits. The onslaught of heart-wrenching songs such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” or “Please Come Home for Christmas” that focus on missing loved ones who are far away during the holiday season bring ugly sobs when heard on the radio. Even holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life reinforce our blue funks.

Instead of cheerful, we feel melancholy. Our expectations are way out of whack with reality. We are gloomy, even when surrounded by holiday lights. Crawling in a dark closet and staying there until February sounds surprisingly appealing.

How do we combat the 2020 holiday blues? There’s tons of advice out there. Exercise. Eat well. Drink more water than alcohol. Step away from the news. Simplify. Learn to say no. Have gratitude for what you have instead of focusing on what is missing.

Blah. Blah. Blah. Sometimes you just have to sit with the damn blues.

Me? In our old house, I had a blue Christmas tree. We’d tramp out to the tree farm for a real one that went in the family room, and the artificial tree was set up in what was the living room and eventually became my writing office. This was the tree I decorated with all the blue and silver bulbs and ornaments I  collected over the years. It sparkled and glittered and reminded me that even when I was glum during this crazy season, I had only to look at this shimmering tree to experience joy.

This strange year I’ve decorated two outside trees. One is my blue tree. I tried to put colored lights on it, but experienced an electrical shock when I attempted to use an old extension cord. I believe it was just another one of 2020’s messages to me, so no lights this year, just blue and silver globes. I also decided to place stars and sparkling snowflakes on our “little tree that could.” This fierce guy came back from the brink of death after I watered and sang and danced around it during quarantine. It is a reminder that even in the darkest of times, we must keep freaking hope in our hearts. 

I find Brave Joy in both “Charlie Brown Christmas” trees. They remind me to breathe, slow down, and acknowledge the blues (and hope) are part of the human condition.

    “And when those blue snowflakes start falling

    That’s when those blue memories start calling

    You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white

    But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas.” 

    –Blue Christmas Songwriters: Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson

birthday stories

by christie shumate mcelwee

The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.

Oprah Winfrey

In November of 1976, my parents organized a surprise party for my 18th birthday, and I didn’t catch on until I walked down the basement steps to my friends yelling “Surprise!”

Midwest birthdays in the 1960s and 1970s were simple affairs. In our family, it usually included a dinner of our choice. Growing up with a mother not known for her stellar cooking skills – but who possessed a myriad of other gifts –  my meal was baked mac and cheese, one dish she’d mastered. That year, though, my famously frugal dad took us all to Ponderosa, a 70s chain restaurant known for mid-grade chopped steak. I later realized it was a ruse to get me out of the house.

On our long and meandering drive back, I noticed many of my friends’ cars parked in front of Greg’s, a friend who lived a block up the street from us. I quickly spiraled into a pathetic pool of late adolescent self-pity. “Greg’s having a party and I wasn’t invited. And it’s my birthday!” I wailed.

As I stomped into the house, mom asked me to get something from the basement, and after the surprises and hugs, I realized they had all parked up the street instead of in front of our house. (Despite my mother’s instructions, my father forgot to take an alternate route, hence the spotting of cars.)

This simple party with friends, punch, and cake is still one of my favorite birthday memories. That my siblings didn’t give it away, that I never caught on to the subterfuge, and that I walked into a room filled with friends marks a special page in this old heart.

My pandemic birthday didn’t include any grand surprises. It was quiet and sweet, with friends and family wishing me joy. Our children called and texted. I was able to safely share a meal with my mother, who had ordered an ice cream cake with my name on it! Later that evening, my husband and I opened a bottle of wine and noshed on charcuterie before we watched the final three episodes of Schitt’s Creek. Christmas lights twinkled. Cold rain pattered the windows. Finn the cat snored from his perch on my pastel chair.

Despite the total freaking crappiness of this past year, there are moments that offer up grace, and my 62nd birthday was one of them. And like the Roses of Schitt’s Creek, I am surrounded by magical messy magnificent love.

~Dylan Thomas

And I rose

In rainy autumn

And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.

Dylan Thomas

I’m gonna need a stiff drink to get through this.

David Rose
Photo by spemone on Pexels.com

rituals of peace

by christie shumate mcelwee

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ritual as, “a ritual observance; a ceremonial act or action.”   

Performing daily rituals may help combat the swirling stress and anxiety, especially now as we enter the winter of this pandemic.

What rituals can we incorporate into our lives? I am sharing a few of my own that help lower my anxiety and allow me to uncover a corner of peace from the chaos.

prayer – Some read Bible verses, others offer words to whomever they worship. All are prayer. Me? I have begun to whisper these words each night and then ceremoniously release them to the universe. 

I acknowledge the pain, anger, and anguish of lost celebrations, closed businesses, and canceled plans.

I honor all grief.

I pray for the sick. I mourn the dead. I wish for an end to all this sadness.

I give thanks for simple joys.

journal writing – I have been writing in a daily journal since I retired. Even though I may miss days, returning to my own messy handwriting centers me. 

coffee – Filling my French Press and making my husband’s pour over each morning have evolved into small sacred steps.

exercise – I have my own home yoga practice. I turn on soothing music, roll out my mat, and for an hour relish in moving meditation.

walk – When I walk I often listen to music or podcasts, but lately I’ve hiked through woods in silence. Each birdsong and crackling leaf brings me closer to grace.

candles – I have a candle in my office, and before I begin work, I take a moment to inhale and exhale and then light the wick. Breathing in the scent inspires my soul.

read – Right now I am working my way through Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, and yes, it is delightful.

twinkle lights – We have twinkle lights set for 4:00 pm on a privacy screen in our backyard. Every time I see them turn on, I whisper a prayer of joy.

poetry – My favorite poets are Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, and Naomi Shihab Nye, all brilliant and ethereal.

I encourage you to discover your own rituals, and permit the acts of performing them grant you a small sanctuary of tranquility amid the disarray that is our world right now.

…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

family of things

by christie shumate mcelwee

I listen to the rain hit the window, cold late October rain. Lights are flipped on throughout the house. The furnace buzzes during its first full fall day of operation. 

I ponder my place in this crazy family of things. Oldest sister. First daughter. Mother. Step-mother. Wife. Ex-wife. Aunt. Cousin. Grandmother. Friend. Teacher. Writer.

I think of things older than me. Books. Rivers. Trees. Churches. Religions. Laws. Constitutions. Prejudices. Art. Music. Poetry. 

I know I have not always been good. I have often asked forgiveness. I have lived through deep despair. I have risen from the ashes of it. And, yet, I know despair will come again, but so will the rise.

I look at the landscape of my life. I have grown, shrunk, cowered, screamed, cried, disappeared, reappeared, lied, sang, prayed, despised, danced, pondered, studied, loved. Even through the shattering, I have chosen love.

I cling to words as one would frantically grasp a branch while trying not to get swept away by a raging river. Ravishing, heart-breaking, wistful, gasp-worthy words.

I swim against the tide. I gather exquisite shells. I walk leaving damp footprints in the sand. 

I am a mermaid. A witch. A pixie. A kelpie. A peasant. A queen.

I am Mary Oliver. I am Harper Lee. I am Anne Lamott.

I am Me.

I believe in faeries. I believe in hope. I believe in magic.

And I am announcing my place in the family of things.

Wild Geese
 by Mary Oliver

 You do not have to be good.
 You do not have to walk on your knees
 for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
 You only have to let the soft animal of your body
 love what is loves.
 Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
 Meanwhile the world goes on.
 Meanwhile the sound and the clear pebbles of the rain
 are moving across the landscapes,
 over the prairies and the deep trees,
 the mountains and the rivers.
 Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
 are heading home again.
 Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
 the world offers itself to your imagination,
 call to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
 over and over announcing your place
 in the family of things.

Brave Joy

by christie shumate mcelwee

Brave: possessing or exhibiting courage

Joy: the emotion of great delight or happiness or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation

Brave Joy: possessing the courage to recognize delight despite difficulties due to sorrow or grief or loss

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

What are you going to do with your time? Yes, life is different and often difficult right now, but this is the life given to you. You…now.

Will you breathe in delight? Laugh deeply and sincerely? Know there is great treasure in the quiet?

Or…will you stubbornly sit with bitterness? Point shaking fingers while yelling “Shame! Shame!”? Fester and brood as you make endless lists of all you miss while ignoring what you have?

There is a paradox to living a life of brave joy, because it may create great cognitive dissonance. How can we revel in simple delights while chaos and darkness descend upon us?

How do we find brave joy? Is it in the brilliant red and orange fall leaves? How about that glass of pinot at our favorite outside wine bar? Or perhaps those long walks around the city park, observing all of the people with their dogs and kids and bikes?

Or is brave joy deeper that all that? What if brave joy was more than a visit to the zoo or botanical gardens? What if brave joy was an ongoing journey of discovering our hearts? Is it walking past the dread and, instead, seeing the wonder? Is brave joy allowing ourselves to love and forgive while attempting to put aside shame and judgment?

Brave joy is not ignoring our emotions. If you are having one of those “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days,”* then roll with it. Breathe in the ‘shittiness’ of the moment, but also see it through and then send it out the door. Brave joy is honoring emotions, yet still believing in the wonder, the exquisite, the delight that is this one life.

We’ve all made a voting plan, so how about we make a Brave Joy winter plan together? We will come up with concrete ways to discover Brave Joy as the cold winds rattle the windows. During the next few months I will explore Brave Joy through research, experiences, and reflection. I may also chat with a few friends and experts who may present their own original takes on Brave Joy.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. I would love the company.

A few Brave Joy topics may include:

(definitions of brave and joy from dictionary.com)

(*Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst)