our little tree: tiny hopeful buds

by Christie Shumate McElwee

We have a two-year old tree in front of our house that isn’t doing well. While all the other trees on our block have leafed out, ours silently stands with just a few buds attempting to open. Every day I send energy to its roots, hoping it will feel the strength of my love. I acknowledge that all my tree hugging may not be able to save it, yet I pray to Mother Nature to summon her powers to revive this struggling plant.

Lately I have been pondering the difference between hope and optimism. Yes, these concepts are related, but they follow divergent paths. Both are guideposts to the future. Think in terms of their opposites. The opposite of optimism is pessimism, and the opposite of hope is despair or fear. Optimism relies on feeling good about the future, even denying that bad things can happen. Optimists expect things to turn out okay. Hope, on the other hand, relies on the effort to make life better, knowing hard times are ahead and barreling ahead in spite of them. Hopeful people continue on through the pain, fighting for justice and kindness and peace.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the thing with feathers”, she writes:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

The little bird clings to the branch while the storm swells, and continues to sing its song. Hope gives us warmth, yet doesn’t ask anything of us. We know things are rough. We see the darkness. We feel the pain…yet hope is still there, singing its tune.

Where do I see hope? It is in people trying their best to protect others. It is in our beautiful faces, even when covered by masks. Hope is in the reaching out, the praying, the grace we give one another. Hope sustains us.

And what about our little tree? Will my hope save it? I check it every day for new buds, and embrace its trunk, hoping it will feel my spirit. Will it survive? I don’t really know the answer, but I continue to hope, and that hope gives me strength to face what is ahead. I will live under hope’s roof.

“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” 

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

At first glance, our little tree looks dead.
But step closer, you can see tiny, hopeful buds.

‘show me’ how to breathe: the reopening of my state and how to navigate my anxiety

by Christie Shumate McElwee

I woke up in the middle of the night with a rapid heart beat and a litany of questions. Is this really a good idea? Are our numbers flat enough to reopen? When will I feel safe again in public? How do I manage my ramped up anxiety? Is there a right way to do this thing? A wrong way? What about those who don’t adhere to the rules? What about the small business owners who need to open so they can stay afloat? Will I ever feel comfortable eating in a restaurant? Shopping in a store? Can establishments keep their workers safe while operating? What about more tests? More PPE? What if there is a surge in positive cases? What about those who won’t wear masks? Will we ever go to a concert again? A street fair? The pool? Will I ever be able to catch my breath again?

My state and county officially reopened at 12:01 am today. (A few counties with larger populations have chosen to remain closed.) The “show me strong recovery plan” has lists of rules and regulations on its website, but with the exception of a few places, the doors have been thrown wide open. The businesses I follow on social media have been posting their procedures for reopening. Some are waiting at least a week while they hammer out the logistics. Others, especially restaurants, are moving tables and chairs six feet apart, instituting hygiene rules, and begging for patience from their customers while they attempt to figure this all out.

On Saturday my husband and I went for a drive. We decided to check out a county park that had just reopened. During “normal” times we love to walk the path around the lake, but when we arrived, the place was packed. People were everywhere. Parking lots were full. Despite the signs encouraging safe social distancing, few seemed to comply. We quickly left the premises and found a small semi-deserted place to walk where I could breathe.

I am slowly realizing that in order to come to some kind of peace with all of this, I have to sit with my anxiety and then remember I can only control myself.

So, here’s my list of what I can control:

  1. We are going to maintain our own ‘shelter-in-place’ for at least another month. We will venture out for walks, trips to the grocery and hardware stores, and for my husband, an occasional game of golf, but we need to see how this all works before we tip-toe out in public. (And yes, I am getting my hair cut. You can judge me if you want, but it’s happening.)
  2. I am going to attempt to set aside my own judgment of others. I don’t like the icky feeling I get when I’m in the judgment zone. (This is difficult for me. I must be honest. If you are rude, unkind, racist, or just plain stupid, I may continue to judge you.) We humans are social animals. Staying sequestered goes against our natures. This I understand. I also know businesses cannot stay closed forever. If an establishment is going to the trouble to keep its workers and customers safe, I’m holding my judgment…for now.
  3. We will wear our masks when entering any establishment. Yes, it is a hassle. Yes, it is a pain in the butt. Yes, it is the smart thing to do in order to protect the health of others.
  4. I am cutting way back on the quarantine amount of wine I have consumed. I’m rationing myself to the weekends instead of every night. My sleep cycle and liver will thank me.
  5. I will continue to exercise almost every day. This is important for maintaining my weight and my mental health.
  6. I am also rationing my reading and viewing consumption of anything that concerns the current occupant of the White House and his hateful, small, ignorant words. A friend of mine said she won’t allow him in her house, and I’ve decided that’s brilliant! I would never invite such a person in my home, so why am I doing it now? I will permit one or two articles a day, an occasional rant, and that is it. I will vote in November and hope, hope, hope we can heal.
  7. I’ve decided to let go of my part-time teaching job. This pandemic has taught me the importance of listening to my heart, and it is telling me it is time to hang up my teaching cape. It’s been a good run, but I am done.
  8. We will continue to order from our favorite locally owned businesses. We’ve finally figured out this whole take-out routine, and we kind of like it. On nice days, we will grab a blanket and head outside for a picnic, just to mix things up a bit.
  9. Today I will start meditating. It may just be for five minutes a day, but it will help me breathe.
  10. I will attempt to live in the moment and push aside the fear. I will love with my messy heart all that is good in the world. I will breathe in hope and breathe out compassion.

“Life is beautiful in spite of everything…There are many thorns, but the roses are there too.” ~Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Crimson clover has overtaken empty lots in our neighborhood. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Love in the Time of Corona

(Shout out and apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

by Christie Shumate McElwee

“The search is the meaning, the search for beauty, love, kindness and restoration in this difficult, wired and often alien modern world. The miracle is that we are here, that no matter how undone we’ve been the night before, we wake up every morning and are still here. It is phenomenal just to be.” ~Anne Lamott, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair

I picked up Stitches, a small handbook of hope by Anne Lamott, in order to get myself through these troubling times. Now, one little book will not cure all my fears and panic, yet rereading Lamott’s wise, rambling, and comforting words gives me a calming sense of unity. You see, we are all in this crazy thing together, and even though we are sitting in our homes tucked away from exposure, we are connected. Ponder that.

We humans are social animals. We venture out of our caves in search of company, joining book clubs, gyms, and churches to find other humans seeking contact. When we are told not to socialize, it goes against all of our natural instincts. We introverts have our books and Netflix and we’re good, but others among us crave humans. Not in a vampire type way, but social interaction. Those extroverts out there may be having a more difficult time with this quarantine, so you might want to check in on them.

But, once again, we are all in this together. Don’t hoard the toilet paper or hand sanitizer. Do not post false or misleading information online. And for goodness sakes, stay out of crowded bars. Support local restaurants by ordering delivery or carryout. Offer help when needed. Call a friend or elderly relative. Be a decent human being, even though we are shut away. The internet gifts us a network of connections, but don’t get bogged down in the hype and negative energy. Step away. Meditate. Listen to music. Read a book. Cook a new recipe. Watch a classic movie.

These are extraordinary days we are living in at the moment. No one knows what will happen next. What we do have control over is how we treat ourselves and others.

Spread your awesomely messy love (but not your germs) to the entire human race.

You’ve got this.

“Love is the question. How can it possibly be enough this time, in the face of such tragedy, loss or evil? And it is the answer: It will be. How can this family or town make a comeback? The next action, the breath of time passing, love. Go figure.” ~Anne Lamott

(Note: I am going to attempt a blog piece each day of the quarantine. Don’t quite know what I will write about, but I hope you hang with me. Live gently, love madly, and breathe compassionately.)

Reflections of My Dry January: A Month without Wine and Facebook

by Christie Shumate McElwee

I have never been been any good at New Year’s resolutions. I have the best intentions, but it is the follow through that stymies me. Eat healthier? Smoothie for breakfast. French fries for lunch. Exercise more? Yoga three times a week. Binge watch the entire first season of “Virgin River” in one day. Cuss less? Damn, that isn’t happening.

My husband and I have tried Dry January for the last three years. Neither of us made it through a week the first time. He went the whole month last year, but I gave up after eleven days. This year, though, I was determined to get through the entire thirty-one days without booze. I hadn’t gone that long since I was pregnant with my second son, who is now twenty-six. Yup, I do like my wine.

But….giving up alcohol didn’t seem like enough, so kooky me also decided to step away from social media for the month. If I was going to give up the lovely buzz of a glass of Chardonnay, then why not discover how it would feel to squash the mindless chatter and endless scrolling of Facebook and Instagram?

So, after deleting apps off my phone and drinking my last glass of wine on New Year’s eve, I spent thirty-one long and gloomy days without either vice. What did I learn? Am I a better person? Was it all worth it? Will I do it again?

Random reflections of Dry/No Social Media January:

  1. Giving up Facebook and Instagram was easier than skipping the alcohol. Seriously.
  2. What did I miss not being on social media? Birthdays. Life moments. Funny memes.
  3. What didn’t I miss? Comments. Comments. Comments. Did I mention I didn’t miss the comments?
  4. Booze was harder. I was fine for the first few weeks, but when a snowy weekend was forecast, I ached for a glass of wine. After a desperate trip to Friar Tuck’s, I did purchase two bottles of non-alcoholic wine. Review? The white was disgusting, but the red was better after adding a handful of frozen fruit and letting it sit for awhile. The big thing that was difficult to get around was the smell. Yuck. Sparkling water is still a better alternative, even though I did find an acceptable non-alcoholic St. Pauli beer.
  5. I was hoping to lose weight, but that didn’t happen. Phooey. Did I consume more calories to compensate for my booze-less life? Perhaps. Dang.
  6. I did sleep better. This is a huge benefit. Sleep and I have had a contentious relationship for years, and if stepping away from booze and social media helps us reconnect, then bravo!
  7. Not looking at social media for a month gave me a weird sense of privacy. I enjoyed the coziness of it, as if I had locked myself up in a cabin in the woods for a month with no internet connection. Nobody knew where I was. It felt warm and fuzzy. I may return to this cabin from time to time. It’s nice there.
  8. What are my goals now that it is February? I will limit my social media time. No mindless scrolling. No getting lost in the comments. No wasting precious time lurking at other people’s lives. I’ll treat myself to a glass or two of wine on the weekends and attempt to savor each sip. Moderation is a good thing, but I’ll also remember that a can of cranberry flavored Bubly will not wake me up at 1:00 in the morning with a headache and the sudden urge to down a bottle of ibuprofen.

Even though I had a few cranky days, I am proud of myself. Will I do it again? Ask me on January 31, 2020. I may have an answer for you. As for my February goals? I plan on writing more, drinking less, living in the present more, and wallowing in despair less. Seems doable. I refuse to let go of hope and love and grace, none of which are found in nasty comments on social media.

“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work. You don’t give up.” ~Anne Lamott

“Don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.” ~Ella Fitzgerald

Me, celebrating February.

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.

Acknowledge Fear, Breathe Courage

Breathe

“Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventures or to be limited by the fear of it.” – Judy Blume

I have a few true fears that make my heart race and my blood pressure soar. I try not put myself in situations where I may begin to feel the claustrophobic effects of a small, enclosed space or the stomach-dropping terror that comes when I am dangling from a ferris wheel. These fears are visceral. I have no control over the physical symptoms, so I choose to avoid certain circumstances that might accelerate the panic. 

Other are not so well-defined. I can’t swerve around sudden change, failure, rejection, or the unknown. These fears come at me like fast-moving projectiles in an 80s video game. I may attempt to dodge or side-step, but they are always there, bombarding me with anxiety.

The world can be a grim, terrifying place. Danger lurks, even in the bright light of day. How do I cope? Do I hide, cowering in the safety of my little house, never venturing out? Unless I want to embrace agoraphobia, that isn’t a realistic choice. 

Fear is a big part of my writing. I enjoy the process, but I fear everything about it. I’m too old. It is drivel. Someone will be offended. It is embarrassing. I’ve run out of ideas. No one wants to read my inane ramblings. These fears often block my creativity. Fear is my personal writer’s block.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book Big Magic about how she lives simultaneously with fear and creativity. She states, “…I don’t try to kill off my fear. I don’t go to war against it. Instead, I make all that space for it. Heaps of space. Every single day…I allow my fear to live and breathe and stretch out its legs comfortable. It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back.” So she invites fear on the journey. Fear is allowed on the trip, yet it doesn’t make decisions and it definitely doesn’t drive. Fear must sit in the back seat as a member of the family, but it does not have a vote.

This is a novel approach. So much of our lives we are told to “conquer our fears.” If we are afraid of the water, we must learn to swim. If we are petrified of flying, buy that ticket. And if we are scared of the deep water, dive right in. Sometimes these approaches work, but often we are just more afraid. 

What if we invited fear in, introduced ourselves and told it to have a seat? We don’t feed fear any snacks, and we never let it touch the thermostat. We acknowledge fear is part of the family, but we sit it at a small card table in the next room, knowing it is there yet not letting it dominate the conversation. 

Acknowledging our fears is acknowledging our vulnerability. Creative work requires vulnerability, putting our voices out there for the world to judge. We are often shamed back into the cave by our harshest critics, which often are the voices in our own heads. I know this personally. Shame and fear run neck and neck in my world. 

I have been working on a novel for over three years about loss and grief and learning to forgive. Every time I enter the world of my characters I become lost in the smells and sounds. I want to live there. Yet. Yet, I have struggled with the ending. A few weeks ago my dear friend Ann came for a visit while my husband was on a business trip. We giggled, ate, drank wine, and shed a few tears over our shared stories. One night I began to tell Ann the plot of my book. After I was done, I looked at her and said, “You know, that is the first time I have shared the details of my story with anyone.” And she replied, “I’m honored.” I then said, “You know, I think I’m afraid to finish the book, because if I complete the story, then what do I do? I’m scared.” Ann replied, “Then you need to do it. Who knows what will happen, but you’ll never know until it is finished.” The day after she returned home I sat at my laptop and banged out the ending. I then printed out the 150 pages. Three plus years of words stared back at me. I read through them, circling errors and making notes. Some of the story was wonky, but other parts were good. Damn good.

My shitty shitty rough draft now requires hours of editing, revising, and reworking, but I have relegated my fear to the back seat. It is buckled safely in its car seat. I will glance at it from time to time, but I will not grant it power over my process. I will not worry about publishing. Now is the time to dive into the details and work on the flow, dialogue, and pacing. It terrifying and exciting and I’m ready for this journey.

Courage is not conquering fear. Courage is recognizing fear, not giving it power over your heart. Brene Brown writes, “Courage is like – it’s a habitus, a habit, a virtue: You get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn to courage by couraging.” Courage is knowing the truth and showing your truth to the world. My courage, my vulnerability, my truth is writing, and I will no longer grant fear the power to silence it.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.” – Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead


“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something-anything-down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Featured

live. love. breathe.

live.

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

love.

“It takes courage to love, but pain through love is the purifying fire which those who love generously know. We all know people who are so much afraid of pain that they shut themselves up like clams in a shell and, giving out nothing, receive nothing and therefore shrink until life is a mere living death.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

breathe.

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

We live. We love. We breathe.

Every moment, of every day. 

We live. We experience pain. We sit with grief. We dance in joy. All is living. Every bite of food gives us sustenance, yet we savor the flavors. Each sip of wine reminds us of the soil where the grapes were nurtured. Family recipes speak languages of communal stories. Our rituals awaken our memories as we gather for weddings, baby showers, and funerals.

We love. Every great writer has attempted a definition, an example, a story of love, but it is often undefinable. No one has the quintessential explanation of love. It is something deep and mysterious that awakens our hearts. Our first crush. That high school relationship. A good friend. Our wedding. Those babies. With love, though, comes a precarious tightrope walk, filled with the fear of losing it. We wrap our arms around it, often with suffocating consequences. This love of ours is scary, but it is also marvelous in its luminosity. Love makes our days sparkle and our nights sigh with delight.

We breathe. The average human takes 12 to 20 breaths per minute. We take our breath for granted until we can’t breathe. We marvel at its wonder. Breath gives us life. It is a direct link to our hearts. When we are calm, our breathing slows. When we are scared, we often can’t catch our breath. Breathing is the hub of the wheel that connects us to everything that is sacred.

Our lives. Our loves. Our breath. All are who we are in this world. We weave ourselves to one another with tenuous filaments of fragile moments. Life is a lovely, breathless dance, one to experience in all its pain and glory and bitterness and joy.

live.

love.

breathe.