new year’s eve musings on the miseries and delights of this most unusual of years

by christie shumate mcelwee

According to last week’s weather forecast, we were supposed to have a snow storm blow in for the new year, but, instead, the maps changed and now we will welcome 2021 with rain and perhaps a touch of ice and snow. Wet, gloomy weather for a wet, gloomy year. Seems appropriate.

And now I sit in the glow of lamplight in my upstairs office, pondering 2020, acknowledging the miseries that swirled throughout every household, somewhat like the ghostly presence in The 12 Commandments that ominously traveled throughout Egypt, taking some and passing over others. Families huddled together, praying the specter would not find them.

But instead of just one night, we are still in the midst of the plague. We are frustrated, yet hopeful. We see photos of first responders getting their first doses of vaccines. The reality show grifter and his band of sycophants are on their way out the door, while an older, decent man together with fierce women and men of all colors are ready, brooms and disinfectants in hand, to clean up the mayhem left by ignorance, selfishness, cruelty, and malice. 

None of this will be easy. We are a messy bunch. We argue and crow and brag and push our ways to the front of the line. Some are walked over. Some are sent back. Some are lost. Yet…I still believe most of us have the best of intentions. We want to do the right things, but it has been hard. So very hard in this year of finger pointing and accusations. Some bask in self-righteousness. Others cower in self-doubt. Most just ramble along, clutching at moments of civility.

In the midst of the miseries, though, I have found delights, simple joys that have forced me to pause and often gasp, hand clasped to heart.

I have discovered it in the changing of seasons: the brilliant spring, a sticky summer, our dazzling fall, and now, a damp winter. Living in the middle of the country, flanked by rivers, bluffs, and prairies, I know change.  All my life I’ve seen fields of corn and soybeans grow in tight rows. I’ve lived through droughts and floods. Tornados have torn through small towns. Midwest earthquakes occasionally awaken us with rumbles. 2020 gifted us with colors – neon pinks, deep purples, dark greens, and brassy reds and oranges. These shades went far beyond what any Sherwin-Williams paint chip could offer. Mother Nature reminded us to never doubt her wondrous power and glory.

I have uncovered it in the written word: authors who have offered escape, solace, and often uncomfortable truths. I began the year with As Bright as Heaven, a novel about the devastation of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, still ignorant of the parallels to present day. As the quarantine went into late spring, I finally figured out how to use Libby, the app which allowed me to download any available book from our library system. I still love the feel and smell of books, wandering aimlessly through aisles looking for titles, yet, Libby has given me the world when my own has been delegated to the confines of our little house. As of today, I’ve read 87 books, ranging from light feel-good romances to deep historical fiction. I’ve explored gothic mysteries, reread Stephen King’s The Stand, and followed Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache as he solved murders in the quaint Quebec village of Three Pines.

I’ve come across it in music: new and old artists who continue to amaze me with their magic. Through my Apple Music subscription, I’ve been able to download Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, Ashley McBryde, Jason Isbell, and, yes, even Taylor Swift. Diverse playlists have gifted me Chris Stapleton and Steep Canyon Rangers. Along with James Taylor, Waylon Jennings, and Van Halen, I plan to continue this magnificent musical journey into 2021 and beyond.

Where will the new year take me? I’ve pondered resolutions, but after surviving 2020, I’ve decided to live my life, Yes, I should cut down on screen time, eat healthier, exercise more, and drink less wine. You know, the top hits of resolutions, but 2021 offers more than shoulds. It offers promise, hope, surprise, delight, and, yes, mistakes. Here’s to all our mistakes. May they be life-altering and breathtaking.

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Makes glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, what it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing. Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Neil Gaiman

Happy New Year.

“unabashed gratitude”

by Christie Shumate McElwee

This past Wednesday on the first day of Lent I drove to the Botanical Gardens to revel in the late February snow that blanketed our area. I wandered the paths, running into just a few other hardy souls. Walking the quiet park, I was struck at how different it all looked in the winter with no leaves to hide the beauty. I breathed in the peace, knowing that in a few weeks when the bulbs burst forth and the cherry blossoms show their glory, the place will be jammed with people wanting to catch the first glimpse of spring. So I walked briskly around the grounds, saving the warmth of the tropical Climatron for last. I even wandered through an orchid show, though I must admit their beauty and intricacies are lost on me.

I have decided during Lent I am gathering up small delights, seeing joy in snapshots. I am learning how to live as an observer, a scientist, a traveler documenting life’s enchantments. Seeing the daily minutia as gifts will help me dig my way out of winter’s darkness. It will remind me to stop, to appreciate, to know spring is coming. In the Christian faith, Lent is a time of fasting and preparation for Easter. In Eastern Orthodox circles Lent is known as the season of “Bright Sadness,” which sounds achingly appropriate. Spring does not come one day all dressed up in its finery. No, it slogs and drags its muddy feet. Spring teaches us patience. During the forty days of waiting, we spy proof of the magic that surrounds us. We grudgingly endure storms and acknowledge the particular cruelty of spring, but we also know it always comes bearing flashes of pink and purple and white.

Back in January I listened to an episode of the podcast “This American Life,” which addressed the subject of delight. For an hour the narrator recounted different perspectives of delight. One was a young boy’s joy at his first school bus ride. Another was the jubilant pleasure of an older widow’s search for the delight in her life. The narrator’s inspiration was the poet Ross Gay and his collection of daily essays in “The Book of Delights.” Gay tumbled through a tough year chronicling the small delights he observed. I was struck by how we can examine our daily lives, gathering joy from the simplest of things.

Now, four days into my journey, I have already amassed a bounty of delights: the noises Finn the cat makes while he sleeps, mornings spent in my cozy chair, finally finishing The Grapes of Wrath, a long afternoon nap, texting with my oldest friend Sheila, my yoga instructor Sarah’s sweet smile as she cues our practice, the gratitude that comes from a clean house, a surprise phone call from son Christopher, Saturday breakfast at our favorite coffee joint, and enjoying the fragile beauty of one of the last snows of winter. 

Small moments can grace us with delight, even among the shards of despair, conflict, and heartache, but only if we hold open the door and let our unabashed gratitude tiptoe into the room.

“…what do you think

this singing and shuddering is,

what this screaming and reaching and dancing

and crying is, other than loving

what every second goes away?

Goodbye, I mean to say.

And thank you. Every day.”

~Ross Gay, “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”

“I am going to try to pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers, and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen.” ~Anne Lamott