end of september musings

by christie shumate mcelwee

Fall has finally arrived to our section of the Midwest/Northish South/Smackdab in the Middleish. I’ve bought mums, baked a few pies, and brought out a few decorations. I even brought home a seasonal candle I only light when I practice yoga because its strong scent allows me to enter a pumpkin spice zen state. I have a lot going on in my messy mind these days. So much that it is affecting my sleep, but I’m working on fixing that (no phone scrolling after 8:00 pm, news and social media apps off phone, nightly chamomile tea, and nothing election related is allowed to enter my brain as I slip into bed. I’ve only had this routine for a few nights, but I think it’s working. I’ll keep you posted.)

What else fills my head these days?

  1. As an American and one who has taken a few US Constitution tests, I have always been in awe of the peaceful transfer of power on Inauguration Day. One president steps down and another takes on the title. No violence. No coup. But to have this one declare the election “illegitimate” before it has even begun makes my stomach churn like the witches of Macbeth’s cauldron. My vote is not cheating. It is not fake. My vote is my voice. It is my super power.
  2. I’ve paid my fair share of taxes since I first donned the red polyester uniform at Monical’s Pizza back in 1976, and I’m proud of it. Yes, I was rather shocked when I saw my first paycheck, and yes, I grumble when we fill out our yearly returns, but I also know taxes go toward important public institutions such as infrastructure, schools, police, firefighters, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Does the tax system need reforming? Yes. Do funds need to be rerouted? Probably. If we only cut taxes and don’t come up with definitive ways to supplement that money will systems collapse? Most definitely. All of us, especially the president of the united states, should pay equitable taxes on income, property, and assets.
  3. Still hanging onto hope. Focusing on words like decency, compassion, honesty, sacrifice, empathy, and kindness. Strong words. Upstanding characteristics. Attributes I look for in people…my people.
  4. I’m starting to come up with a post-Covid bucket list. Things like a cross-country road trip, singing along to musicals at The Fox, seeing our favorite comedians live, attending concerts, having people over for dinner, setting a crowded holiday table, and, of course, hugging. There will be lots of hugging. What is on your list?
  5. I will continue to look for joy, search for wonder, and wallow in gratitude despite the insanity that swirls around us. I see kind people doing their best to walk the bumpy walk. I smile through my mask and say a quiet thank you for their grace. I admire anyone who sees hope as an act of defiance.

“Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.” ~Rebecca Solnit

This Mary Engelbreit postcard on my desk reminds me every day that hope does spring eternal, even for this little mermaid.

sending love on this solemn and sacred of days

by christie shumate mcelwee

Love.

Usually on Valentine’s Day I write a post on love and include some of my favorite quotes on the subject. I’ve collected love quotes since I first began writing. Some dance with joy, others are thick as fog around my old heart. They tug, pulling me towards the light. What is love to me these days? It is decency, respectability that comes from kindness. It is compassion, a true sympathy and empathy for another’s pain. Love is sacrifice, surrendering ourselves for others.

Love.

Love is a life-long learning curve that weaves around corners, stalls at intersections, and often crashes into itself. It can be horrible and exquisite, just like every moment of our lives. Love is making terrible mistakes. It is forgiveness. It is reaching out in times of tremendous grief and walking together when there’s peace. Love gives us hope, even in the bleakest of times.

Love.

So, on this 11th day of September, 19 years after those towers fell and our collective hearts broke, I am sending you love. Pure, deep, true love. Magical love. Love that is our quirky, crooked flaws, yet also celebrates our grace. Love that sees us, naked and beautiful, and, because only love will carry us home.

Love.

Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. – Neil Gaiman, The Friendly Ones

You can have other words – chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it. – Mary Oliver

Love is the ultimate expression of the will to live. – Tom Wolfe

My, wasn’t life awful – and wonderful? – Mrs. Soames, Our Town, Thornton Wilder

Where there is great love, there are always wishes. -Willa Cather

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle. Love is a war. Love is growing up. – James Baldwin

Tell me who admires and loves you, and I will tell you who you are. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
-e.e. cummings

a half bushel of hope

tuesday morning musings: september 8, 2020

by christie shumate mcelwee

  1. Even after five years of retirement, three day weekends throw off my internal clock/schedule. Is it Monday morning? Tuesday? Was yesterday Sunday? Wait, what day is it again? Is Friday only four days away? When is garbage day? Once again, what day is it?
  2. I’m working on a few things in my life: diet, routine, hope vs. optimism, my cranky judgment and constant complaining.
  3. I don’t really believe in diets, yet I know I need to do something about this CWG (covid weight gain….another sad new saying born from the pandemic I learned from my friend Lisa). I need to be more accountable for what I decide to eat: more vegetables and fruits, less fats, maybe less wine????? Phooey. 
  4. I am heading up to my office to write for at minimum an hour each day. What will I write? It doesn’t matter. I’m working on my routine, but there are blog posts, prompts, and that book of mine. Maybe some dirty limericks?
  5. We ventured out some this past weekend, which helps my mental health. We’re careful. Mask are worn. Precautions are taken. We need this. I understand, though, those who don’t feel comfortable yet. I also acknowledge the risks, even with all of the protocols in place, but after six months, we need outings. Each step out brings hope.
  6. And…I believe in hope. Even during these murky days, I see hope. Is hope always looking on the bright side, denying reality, and pushing aside the struggles? No. There are times when we need to sit with our pain. Hope is in the darkness. It appears within the cracks. Hope is our strength, our belief, our power. Hope is stronger than optimism. Optimism, an expectation of a favorable outcome, often brings disappointment, but hope hangs on, even during the storms. Hope is releasing expectations. Hope often just floats.
  7. I’m also working on letting go of judgment and complaining. Wow, you say. That’s a colossal undertaking these days. Yup, but it is another task that will improve my mental health. I’m releasing things I cannot control, which is a looooooong list, and focusing on what I can control, a shorter yet more obtainable list.
  8. Still on my anti-racist journey, I’m currently reading me and white supremacy by Layla F. Saad. It’s a squirmy, difficult, and oftentimes heart-wrenching read, but it is necessary. As stated previously, I can control my own path, and this work is part of it.
  9. On one of our outings this weekend we picked Honeycrisp apples at a local orchard. Now we have sixteen pounds of apples (approximately half a bushel – I looked it up) and I’m pondering different recipes. Apple salad? Apple bread? Applesauce? Any suggestions?
  10. One more thing about hope. Hope is not blind. It acknowledges the broken, the messy, the dismal, yet it is the strength of hope that places our feet on the floor each morning, ready to navigate another day.  Where is my hope? It is my favorite pen. A blank notebook page. A book recommended by a dear friend. An unexpected gift. A text sent. A text received. Our cozy house. My snoring cat. That man lying next to me in bed. A half bushel of apples. Hope.

“Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.” ~Anne Lamott

“When hope is not pinned wriggling onto a shiny image or expectation, it sometimes floats forth and opens.” ~Anne Lamott

Hope often comes in the form of an apple and its infinite possibilities.

The first day of September musings

(September 1, 2020)

by Christie Shumate McElwee

I don’t know about you all, but six months into this debacle, I’ve hit a wall. I can’t sleep. I can’t think. I have trouble concentrating on much of anything. Yesterday my friend Marcia sent me a link to an article that helped me define how I’ve been feeling. It discussed an ancient Greek word that encapsulates these days for many of us. The word is “acedia,” defined as “a seizing up or freezing of feelings; spiritual or mental sloth; a lack of care.” Medieval monks cloistered in monasteries often experienced “acedia.” They suffered a sense of listlessness, sighing at their lonely existence, not knowing what to do next. Does this sound familiar? It’s not depression or laziness. It’s acedia, and sometimes it is reassuring to have a name for our emotions. When Marcia forwarded me this yesterday, I was at my desk staring at a blank page. It was almost as though she knew I needed help. It’s the universe (and a good friend) holding out a hand.

I think all of us are grappling with some form of acedia right now. We are stuck in an anxiety-riddled mire, constantly worrying about the impact of the virus, our political climate, hurricanes, fires, racial injustice, voting, our “leader’s” unhinged Twitter rants, the openings of schools, keeping our families safe, and not forgetting a mask when venturing out. No wonder we feel stranded, wishing we had a soccer ball companion named Wilson who would listen to our endless strings of worry beads.

How do I sit with my own acedia?

Place purple mums on my front porch.

Text dear friends my fears and hopes and deepest desires.

Rearrange my office.

Bake an apple pie.

Write cards to my grandchildren.

Read. Read. Read.

Read fiction. Read nonfiction. Read poetry.

Read. Read. Read.

Nap when I can.

Take my mom out to lunch.

Brew good coffee.

Practice yoga.

Listen to music. Always music.

Buy stamps.

Limit time on social media and the news.

Stay out of the comments. Nothing good ever comes from reading the comments. Nothing.

Reach out to our kids. Grateful when they reach out to us.

Venture out from my cloistered life.

Bask in the cooler days.

Hang onto hope.

Look for magic.

Send big messy everlasting love out to the universe.

“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

“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” ~Roald Dahl

“You can only go with loves in this life.” ~Ray Bradbury

And…because I’m still an English teacher in my heart….

Stillman, Jessica. “The Ancient Greeks Had a Word for the Specific Kind of Bad You’re Feeling Right Now.” Inc. 31 August 2020.

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.

The Beautiful Cruelness of Spring

by Christie Shumate McElwee

-Updated blog piece from March 2017-

(I wrote this piece three years ago after returning from a former student’s funeral. It was a heartbreaking service that gutted me. I pondered the irony of spring: its cruel beauty. How could a young person die in the midst of nature’s return to glory? Spring 2020 brings a new fear, COVID-19, yet offers me time for quiet contemplation. Today it rains and snows. Tomorrow the daffodils bloom. I left most of the writing intact and added two new paragraphs. I hope you are all safe, and hopefully soon we can all dance in the rain together.)

Spring is about new beginnings. Fresh pinks and yellows and greens sprinkle the landscape. 

But oftentimes spring is cruel. Storms fly in with screeching warnings from the sky. We scramble to basements, praying for safety.

Along with daffodils and blooming magnolias, spring also delivers ends. Disasters still happen. Tragedy still strikes. People still die. Hearts still break.

Spring is prom, Easter, bunnies, flowering trees, and new clothes. We clean our houses with a renewed energy. The windows fly open, inviting breezes to gently kiss the curtains.

But spring has also brought Columbine, Oklahoma City, Waco, and other tragedies. Our hearts have cried with pain for the fear and hatred lurking in the darkness of souls.

Spring 2020 brings a new cruelty to the entire globe. We are sequestered in our homes, attempting to stave off the spread of COVID-19. The experts call it flattening the curve. Businesses are shuttered. Students are learning online. Some have the privilege of working from home while others worry about loss of income. Doctors, nurses, first responders, grocery store employees, and restaurant workers delivering curb side service are all on the front lines. The numbers of sick and dying grow every day. Store shelves are empty. People are scared. We crave brave, honest leaders so we turn to Dr. Anthony Fauci, our voice of reason who speaks daily about the virus and what is being done to combat it.

No longer will we take for granted a leisurely al fresco meal on a warm summer evening, a crowded church service, or a raucous concert. For now, though, we stay inside and plan our future vacations and when we can hug our children and grandchildren again. The future, for now, is on hold. 

Spring is a reminder. While there is expectation and promise, endings lie in wait. Flowers peek through while a freak spring storm cancels out the remaining buds. We celebrate the joys of spring, knowing life is breathing its way back to us after a long winter, yet finales creep up and tap up on the shoulder to remind us of what it is to be human, to experience joy and loss in the same ragged breath.

Spring rains encourage growth. We smell the future in each drop. And even though we know a tempest could be brewing, we still hope. We still know love. We still dance in the rain. We still celebrate life.

This is spring.

This photo of a magnificently budding tree was taken a few years ago in my old neighborhood. The trees right now are just beginning to show themselves. We will wait.

Facing Darkness/Finding Hope

by Christie Shumate McElwee

On the first day of December, I lit a candle, hoping the ceremony would brighten the gloom of a cold, windy morning. In the quiet I pondered the hectic past few days: the hours of organization and prep that led to family gathered around our Thanksgiving table, the crowds of shoppers my mother and I circumvented in the historic part of town on Friday, and the containers of leftover food still in our refrigerator. I sat in the stillness while listening to soothing traditional carols. I ignored my December to-do lists. A new morning. A new day. A new month.

December is the darkest month leading towards the shortest day. Even though bright lights twinkle from every street, melancholy often creeps into filled calendars of festivities. What can we do with our sadness when everything around us screams “Celebrate, damnit!”? Sometimes it is wise to sit with our grief, our brokenness, our mistakes, and slowly, quietly, and oh, so carefully, begin to forgive ourselves.

Maybe this is what Advent is all about: leaning into heartache, acknowledging pain, practicing hope. Many churches drape altars in purple during Advent, a color that denotes both royalty and repentance. During this hectic time, maybe we should wrap ourselves in that heavy purple. The darkness and weight of the material can remind us light is within reach. We forage for repentance, asking forgiveness for our snarky voices, petty minds, and selfish hearts. 

Maybe Advent is just an audacious feat of hope. Some of us find it in scriptures or a church pew. Others may hear it in a cat’s purr, the wind’s whisper, or Handel’s “Messiah.” Or perhaps it is discovered in the quiet of an early winter morning as one candle illuminates all the world’s despair…and wonder.

“Advent: the time to listen for footsteps – you can’t hear footsteps when you’re running yourself.” ~Bill McKibben

“The word advent means ‘expectation.’ What advent can do for us is create a sense of hope.” ~Louis Giglo

“Our response to the wrongness of the world (and of ourselves) can often be an unhealthy escapism, and we can turn to the holidays as anesthesia from pain as much as anything else. We need collective space, as a society, to grieve – to look long and hard at what is cracked and fractured in our world and in our lives. Only then can celebration become deep, rich and resonant, not as a saccharine act of delusion but as a defiant act of hope.” ~ Tish Harrison Warren, priest in the Anglican Church in North America and writer in residence at the Church of Ascension in Pittsburgh

“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


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.

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