birthday stories

by christie shumate mcelwee

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

Oprah Winfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Dylan Thomas

And I rose

In rainy autumn

And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.

Dylan Thomas

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

David Rose
Photo by spemone on Pexels.com

rituals of peace

by christie shumate mcelwee

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

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

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

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

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

I honor all grief.

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

I give thanks for simple joys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

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

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

family of things

by christie shumate mcelwee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am Me.

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

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

Wild Geese
 by Mary Oliver

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

Brave Joy

by christie shumate mcelwee

Brave: possessing or exhibiting courage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few Brave Joy topics may include:
Creativity
Nature
Music
Art
Books
Poetry
TV
Relationships
Exercise
Family
Breathing
Connections/Friendships
Cooking/baking

(definitions of brave and joy from dictionary.com)

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

unexpected grief

by christie shumate mcelwee

The death of Eddie Van Halen sucker punched me with a serving of unexpected grief. During my 61 years, I’ve lived through the deaths of many famous people, even a few performers close to my age. When Michael Jackson died, I sang along to “Smooth Criminal” in my car. Prince’s demise had me dancing in the living room to “Let’s Go Crazy.” When we lost Joe Diffie and John Prine this spring to Covid-19, I had my husband pull up “Third Rock from the Sun,” “John Deere Green,” and “Angel from Montgomery” while I toasted their songwriting and musical skills.

But Eddie…Eddie made me cry. What was it about the death of this rock and roll guitar player that brought about such unexpected grief? 

Van Halen’s music, especially their 80s videos on MTV, are a part of the soundtrack of my young adulthood. I played the tape of 1984 in my old Honda until it screeched and snapped. I’ve always joked that I was “Hot for the Teacher” in my younger, hotter teacher days. I was no Mary Kay Letourneau or the bikini clad woman in the video, but I do know I was the object of a few high school boys’ crushes. When Sammy Hagar took over vocals from David Lee Roth, I loved the new sound. “Right Now” is still one of my favorites. 

And then there is Valerie Bertinelli, whom I’ve adored since I first saw her bounce that basketball on One Day at a Time. How I envied her 1981 marriage to Eddie. She and I were pregnant at the same time in 1991 and our sons are just two months apart in age. I’ve always felt a connection with her, through her divorce and remarriage and her love of cooking. We’d be friends, if we knew one another. Her online tributes to her ex-husband broke my already fractured heart.

I’m still not sure I am able to explain the tears that fell on Tuesday evening after I read of Eddie Van Halen’s death from lung cancer. Maybe it is this loss on top of the pandemic and this crazy world we all live in now. I’m grieving everything: the deaths of over 200,000 American lives, the incivility of current politics, the lies spread every day, the ignorance and cavalier attitudes that some have toward this virus, the hatred spewed online, and especially the unknown of when our lives will get back to some semblance of “normal.”

So, thank you, Eddie, for your glorious guitar playing, your infectious smile, and that hair, oh that hair. You have reminded me to gather close those I love, forgive past indiscretions, and always always dance with abandon because, “Right now…It means everything.”

Don’t want to wait ’til tomorrow

Why put it off another day

One more walk through problems

Built up, and stand in our way, ah

One step ahead, one step behind me

Now you gotta run to get even

Make future plans, don’t dream about yesterday, hey

C’mon turn, turn this thing around

Right now, hey

It’s your tomorrow

Right now,

C’mon, it’s everything

right now,

Catch a magic moment, do it

Right here and now

It means everything.

Songwriters: Alex Van Halen, Edward Van Halen, Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony

“Right Now” is as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1991.

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.

storms and rainbows

by christie shumate mcelwee

Yesterday was stifling hot. Hot like 97 degrees, feels like 107 hot. Then in the evening a storm blew in without much warning. The skies went dark. Winds picked up. Temperatures dropped. I quickly gathered all the outside pillows before they were blown to the nether regions. Rain came down in sheets. Lightening flashed and thunder booms immediately followed. Our already flooded neighborhood lakes groaned as they took on even more water. After the storm moved on, I glanced to the western skies. Streaks of yellow and red and orange and purple graced the horizon, reminding us that beauty often follows chaos. But even as I admired the sunset, the rain began again. Too late for rainbows. 

Facebook photo by Terri Steffes

This storm and its aftermath is a metaphor for my (and I’m sure many of your) moods since March: dark, manic, scary, colorful, gray, hopeful, ominous, resplendent. One moment there’s a squall and then suddenly, calm. I’m continuously wobbly, attempting to navigate these circumstances we are in right now. So, I breathe and gather my strength for the next storm, because it’s inevitable. This is the rollercoaster we call being human in the late summer of 2020. The rains blow in and out, leaving us soaked. We stumble in the house searching for a dry towel, hoping it isn’t sour smelling from the last downpour. We scan the sky for rainbows, nature’s most optimistic symbol. Or as my brother Jeff wrote in an Instagram post, “Morning rainbow apologizing for an angry sky.”

Instagram photo by Jeff Shumate, Atlanta, GA

Life is both storms and rainbows, and acknowledging these two are intertwined allows us to pull on our rain boots so we may gleefully stomp in the puddles. 

Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer day could end in a downpour. Could end in lightening and thunder.”

Benjamin Alire Saenz