“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

The Ache for Home

love.

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” – Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling

My husband and I are fans of HGTV. Watching House Hunters, we chuckle as couples wander through three houses, nitpicking every small closet and outdated kitchen. We gasp at some of the prices, even though the structures are run-down and lacking adequate heating and air conditioning. We also love all the rehab shows, especially ones that have quirky pairs (cute Southern couple, mother and daughter, brother and sister) renovating old homes with “good bones.” 

Here’s the thing, though. Neither of us are very handy. We just love to see others demo walls and lime green bathrooms, although we personally have no desire to ever gut a house. The house we bought two years ago was a fairly new build with little need of rehab. We did have wood floors installed, and yes, the kitchen needs a modern overhaul, but that has to wait until we can afford it. For now, we have settled into our little home with the quaint double porches and tiny backyard.

Dictionary.com has 31 definitions of home: twelve nouns, four adjectives, four adverbs, seven verbs, and five idioms. It has 41 of house: twenty-two nouns, eight verbs, four adjectives, and seven idioms. But when posed with the question, what is the difference between a house and a home, most of us will say a house is the physical structure where we keep our stuff, and a home is where we live and love.

The home improvement industry is a billion dollar behemoth. People pour hard earned dollars into expensive tiles, farmhouse sinks, and trendy wallpaper installation. We are taught to believe we won’t be happy without the granite countertops or that top-of-the line gas oven. It is a vicious form of house shaming. How dare you live with popcorn ceilings! What, carpet instead of wood floors? Your house looks like the others on your street? Shame! Shame! Shame!

But here’s the truth. No one really cares. All that is important is this: Does it give YOU joy? It doesn’t matter if you can’t afford the improvements. Just fill your house with love. Cook good food. Display beloved items you’ve collected over the years. Invite family and friends to sit at your table, no matter how battered or small or mismatched your furniture may appear. That is a home.

Don’t despair if your house doesn’t have a pricey Wolf oven (I do covet one, though!) or Carrara white marble in the master bath. Instead, create your own refuge, whether it is downsizing to 1200 square feet, a dramatic dream cottage, or a tiny house on wheels.

Our little home will never win any awards. It has builder grade cabinets and vinyl flooring in the bathrooms, yet I have hung pictures that are dear to me on the walls. Every corner contains stacks of vintage books I have bought over the years. I love antique linens and inspirational sayings. I try to keep fresh flowers on the counter. There is no apparent style, except perhaps “Christie’s Cute Shit,” as my friend Nancy likes to define it. It’s a good thing my husband does not have a strong opinion on how I decorate because our entire house is my personal “She Shed,” complete with pastel florals and fuzzy pink pillows. But when I look at each room, I feel a sense of peace and comfort. Our house is our haven, our refuge, our sanctuary.

My sister Ann and her husband Mike worked for years on the design on their dream house. It took lots of planning and over a year from the demolition of the existing structure to their move-in date, but their home is a gorgeous example of taking a vision on paper and making it a reality. Their Craftsman cottage has layers of light that twinkle off the pond that peeks through the wall of windows that line the back of the house. Its simplistic yet careful design tells their story in every corner. It is a beautiful and inviting home to witness.

After my friend Leslie retired from teaching, she and her husband decided to fulfill their dream of traveling all over the country in their camper. They sold their house, and have recently logged over 24,000 miles since June 2018 with their small white dog Pierre in tow. They wander the country spending time hiking and visiting with family and friends who are scattered around the U.S. Leslie said, “My home is the wonderful spacial surroundings that I share with my husband and Pierre…Now we are kids again, like before children. We are looking for our next campsite all the time. Researching terrain, weather, and last summer avoiding fires.” They have gathered peaches in Georgia and are now headed out to Washington State for cherry season. Soon they will have a new hard sided camper that will offer better protection from harsh weather and bears.

My sister’s Craftsman is a warm, welcoming retreat. Leslie and Mark have found a rolling home where their sanctuary is nature. My husband’s and my haven has a green gabled roofline with a white swing on the front porch and pink roses in the back.

What is your home? Wherever or whatever it is, I hope your home is your heart, because wherever your heart is, you will find home.

“I could be your state and I could be your nation
It doesn’t get better than home, now does it?
Doesn’t get better than home, now does it?
I could be your welcome, I could be your greeter
I could be sweet and I could be sweeter
I want to be where your heart is home”

“Home” songwriter: Zooey Clare Deschanel

Leslie and Mark’s home parked in the desert.
My sister’s view from her deck.
My collections of vintage linens and aprons.

I know not all houses contain a sense of safety. In fact, some are dangerous places where the halls echo with hateful language and hurt feelings. Children cower in closets in order to escape abusive words and fists. I also acknowledge there are many out there who left their homes in order to attempt to give their families a better life, and now may be stuck in dismal refugee camps, worrying about about their futures. Others live alone, with no visitors to brighten their days. Some houses contain sickness, and no amount of fresh paint will cure the illnesses that seep throughout the halls.

I wish I possessed the cures for all these cheerless dwellings. I am not that powerful. I only know my heart aches for those who do not live in a joyful place, be it a trailer or a mansion by the sea. Home should be safe, yet it is a dangerous or sad or harrowing place for many in the world.

Here are a few organizations which you may want to donate money or volunteer your time in order to help families create safe and happy homes. These are only a few. Do your own research. See which fits your heart.

Building Homes for Heroes

The Fuller Center for Housing

Habitat for Humanity

Home for Our Troops

CASA: Court Appointed Special Advocate

International Rescue Committee

How About Love?

 Green Gables Cottage
Green Gables Cottage

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure,
Measure a year?
In daylights?
In sunsets?
In midnights?
In cups of coffee?
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes,
How do you measure a year in a life?

— “Seasons of Love” Rent, Jonathan Larson

How do you measure a year? 

On May 12, 2017, we traveled, with cats in tow, from our old hometown to this new place, this new town. We signed stacks of papers and eagerly entered a different phase of our lives. We downsized. We minimalized. We put together furniture, arranged throw pillows, and planted flowers. We hung a white swing on the porch, and quickly settled into our little house with the green gables. This cottage would help tell our next chapter.

A year and a few days have passed since that warm Friday in May. We have acclimated to living in a bigger city, discovering cozy breakfast joints and maneuvering chaotic expressways. I’m not clenching the steering wheel as hard as I did last summer, but traffic still accelerates my heart rate. And no one, except maybe my husband, needs to be subjected the language that spouts from my mouth when I encounter a distracted driver swerving from lane to lane as he texts at 70 miles per hour. Nope. It could make a burly truck driver swoon.

We love all the choices: of restaurants, of grocery stores, of places to walk or hike. There are wineries that snake down 94 we will explore this summer. Seat Geek will get us into Cardinal games. Our weekend galavants will include the Missouri Botanical Gardens, a new museum at the Gateway Arch, bike trips on the Katy Trail, and even a road trip up to Mark Twain’s Hannibal. 

As I rejoice in our not so new abode, I do miss certain things about our hometown. It holds our stories, our families, our histories. I miss running into friends at the store. I miss having the grandchildren over for Sunday night dinners and hosting big holiday meals. I miss long walks at Rock Springs with my sister. I really miss the timed stoplights that run the length of the downtown center.

This past winter I went through a few blue months. At first I attributed it to the cold, dreary weather, but I soon discovered I was grieving, truly grieving for what I missed. My yoga tribe. Our favorite Mexican restaurant. Weekly lunch dates with my mom. The grief was real and palpable.

That grief has lifted with the coming of spring. I sat with my winter sadness of what we left behind, but after a year, I welcome what we now possess: a community, a cozy place to land, a home filled with laughter and music and wine and pie. My friends here are no longer new. My husband and I have another favorite Mexican restaurant. My brother’s family and our new grandchild live close. Our gatherings are more intimate. We welcome visitors. We are surrounded in love. 

This is how we measure a year in the life.

 Our New town
Our New town

 Finn kicking back in the kitchen
Finn kicking back in the kitchen

  cozy office/home yoga space
 cozy office/home yoga space

 tribe
tribe

 family
family

 holiday pies
holiday pies

 birthday sunset
birthday sunset

 morning coffee with zozo. i sure do miss her highness.
morning coffee with zozo. i sure do miss her highness.

 This is us: crazy, complicated, weird, drunk on love
This is us: crazy, complicated, weird, drunk on love

The Winter (and Spring) of Our Discontent (and Joy)

“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” William Shakespeare, Richard III

The bleak yet resplendent winter bled into cruel spring. Great loss and tremendous riches were callously thrown together.  Our broken hearts were pieced back together, and again tossed asunder. These storms have had us seeking refuge in kind words and gentle souls. Our sense of stability shattered, yet love still blooms even in the darkest of alleys. 

When we said goodbye to one of our cats, we were enveloped in a cloud of disconnect and deep grief. This bitchy feline who had graced our lives for the past eleven years with disdain and adoration caught us mourning her absence in every empty corner of our home. The one left behind snuggled closer, confused with the disappearance of his companion. We ached.

A new grandchild came three weeks early, making his family’s “party of five” complete. He had little problems entering this world other than jaundice and the complete surprise of his parents. Schedules had to be readjusted, appointments rescheduled, and more diapers purchased. We rejoiced.

Another grandchild made her dramatic entrance six weeks early, causing worry and distress among all who love her and her mother. After only two weeks in the NICU, this tiny girl is strong and fierce and adored by all. We celebrated and breathed.

A father’s heart stopped beating, leaving his family grieving the loss of this big, loud, loving, complicated man. We are still wrapping our wrecked hearts around the finality of this loss. Gratitude flows for the people who have shown up for us, offering their presence, their words, their sympathy. We grieve.

A daughter-in-law, after three years of intense study, is graduating law school on Saturday. All who love this smart and splendid women will be walking with her as she accepts her diploma. We beam with pride.

This weekend we will gather to honor mothers, family, and that damn circle of life. Each loss chips away at our hearts, but with every birth and joyful occasion the wounds begin to heal. We steady one another, throwing out our arms to the universe and embracing all that is joyful and agonizing and glorious. Summer is still weeks away, yet we feel its warmth and its light. We love.

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” – John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

Our Front Porch

For years now I have wanted a big front porch. Not a puny one with just a few steps and barely room for a potted plant. A porch with comfy furniture, big pots of herbs and flowers, and, of course, a swing. A place to gather, to contemplate the day, to nod at neighbors, to just be quiet. That has been my dream, and now, finally, it has come to fruition. 

American architecture of homes has evolved over the years. Once upon a time the front porch was a staple in most houses. Before air conditioning, families gathered on the porch after dinner to catch a cool breeze and visit. Even after WWII when suburbia creeped outward, children played games in the streets as their parents gossiped together over coolers of cold beer. Eventually, though, houses became fortresses where families locked themselves in against the world. Two car garages now faced the streets while large decks were built behind fences, and high tech security systems protected the ones inside against the evils lurking beyond the front stoop.

In all the homes I have inhabited the porches have been small, nondescript cement blocks I attempted to beautify with pink begonias and tinkling wind chimes. These spaces welcomed visitors, yet did not invite people to stop, sit, and share stories. When we knew we would be moving to a new town, I had a wish list and a spacious front porch was among the important items. I looked at dozens of places, yet nothing spoke to me. I knew it was out there, this new smaller home where we would live and love. I would feel it as I walked in the door. And then I wandered into this community where almost every house has a front porch, some even two. I saw stately Adirondack chairs facing quiet ponds and wicker plumped up with colorful pillows. But most importantly, I noticed the porch swings. Somehow, this was where we were intended to live.

This past weekend my husband and I assembled four vintage looking metal chairs, two small tables, and, of course, a swing. Last night we sat on the porch, sipping drinks, and relaxing in the beauty that is our cottage. Even this morning I spent time on the swing with my journal and a cup of coffee. Later this week I will make a pilgrimage to the local garden store for flowers and herbs, but for now this porch fills me with gratitude and simple joy.

“I return to my front porch to find a place where the air smells sweeter and the sun feels warmer than at any other bend in life’s long road.” – John Sarris

A job offer has presented us with a new opportunity for adventure. We have moved our stuff from our hometown to a bigger city filled with rivers, arches, and Cardinals. It is both exciting and terrifying, but we welcome the journey. I hope to chronicle this odyssey as we stumble toward the future. Stay tuned.

 

Featured

Hearts and Words and Sighs

As the author of a blog called Drunk on Love in the Kitchen, I knew I had to post on Valentine’s Day. This holiday conjures up dreams of kisses for some and animosity in others. Me? I’ve always adored Valentine’s. I loved exchanging those silly cards in grade school. I prayed a boy would slip me a love letter in my locker as I grew older. My children still get care packages and cards filled with chocolates and candy hearts and gifts. It’s a festival of love, whether it is romantic, friendly, or family. A day cloaked in pink roses and red hots. Oh, what’s not to love about this day?

And the words written about love….oh, the beautiful, heartbreaking, breathtaking words that have flowed from writers’ pens to readers’ hearts….These words fill me with such passion. I pause to consider life’s wonders as I share a few of them…

He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even with looking. 

– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. 

– Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth be a liar; But never doubt I love. 

– William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same. 

– Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be. 

– Robert Browning, Rabbi Ben Ezra

If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you. 

– A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. 

– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

I just want you to know that you’re very special…And the only reason I’m telling you is that I don’t know if anyone else ever has. 

– Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

If people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane. 

– John Green, Looking for Alaska

And I’ll still stay, to have thee still forget, forgetting any other home but this.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.

– John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.

 – James Baldwin

Always. 

-J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows



So sulk not, my dear friends. Embrace the warmth of Valentine’s Day. Write a letter to a friend. Bake cookies. Read a romantic tale. Watch a sappy movie. Choose joy. And me? I’m going to bake a lemon tart and sip some wine because I wish to be drunk on love in the kitchen.

 There seems to be some DISCREPANCY on who wrote this. no matter. It’s beautiful and so true.
There seems to be some DISCREPANCY on who wrote this. no matter. It’s beautiful and so true.

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Advice to Twenty-Somethings from a Fifty-Something on How to Address the Stress in Your Twenty-Something Life

My husband and I have four children together, all in their twenties. They are knee-deep in new jobs, school, kids, in-laws, and money worries. All of them handle stress in different fashions, but they are finding their ways in the world. Some listen to our sage advice; others nod, ignore, and move in completely different directions. 

What I would say to my twenty-something self about how to successfully maneuver through those difficult and stressful years?

  1. Pay attention to your money! Yes, you have bills and you don’t get paid very much, but know how much you have. Pay bills first, then yourself, and then budget the rest for fun, food, and travel. Try to save a little every paycheck. Don’t get into debt. Pay all of your bills on time. Set aside money for emergencies, because there will always be emergencies.
  2. Take care of yourself! Don’t eat a bag of chips and dip and call it dinner. Don’t drink to excess. Exercise. Exercise. Exercise. I ran at least four to five times a week back in my twenties, and I think it saved my sanity. 
  3. Have a circle of good friends! Even if you have a significant other, don’t lose track of your friends. Surround yourself with strong people who love you, and cut loose the ones who don’t. Your friends will keep you grounded, even in turbulent circumstances. And be a friend. Help people move, take food over when they are sick, and listen when they need to talk. A good friend is precious.
  4. Get a hobby! Learn to cook, train for a marathon, take up photography. Do anything that you have yearned to do. Your hobby may even lead to new relationships, whether it is a friendship or love.
  5. Don’t be a complainer! Yes, life is hard, but you don’t need to bitch about it to everyone. Get a journal and write it all down, but don’t be that person that everyone avoids. You’ll be amazed on how far a sunny disposition (or at least not a Debbie Downer) gets you in life.
  6. Acknowledge your own mistakes! Don’t blame others for every bad thing that has happened in your life. Sometimes things ARE your fault. Admit it and then move on. 
  7. Seek out help! It’s okay to admit you need assistance. See a therapist. Talk to your minister. Get advice from a financial planner. Learn how to meditate. Call your mom or dad.

And most importantly:

Be happy! I know these years are hard, but don’t forget to smile. Play music. Dance around the house. Take a weekend trip with friends. Embrace each moment. You may be surprised later how much you will miss these years. Life happens. Mistakes are made. Change occurs. Try to greet every day with joy and surprise.

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”

-Gilda Radner