The Gift of Love

by Christie Shumate McElwee

It’s a frigid Valentine’s Day here in the Midwest, and most of us are hunkered down under heavy blankets trying to keep warm. Me? I am sipping hot coffee while pondering the perplexities of this thing called love. I have many questions and no real definitive answers. Billions of words have been written over the centuries on the subject. Poets, philosophers, and scientists have studied the heart, how it works and the countless ways it breaks. We humans claim to know love, but we continue to stomp on each other in the name of it. It’s staggeringly complicated and stunningly simple, this love of ours. All I know of it is that I am still learning, still practicing, and still offering up love. It is a journey I hope to never relinquish.

The dictionary definition of love mentions words like tender, passionate, attachment, and affection. Phrases like “Love wins” and “All we need is love” are often glib testaments to our total confusion of the meaning of the word. If only it were as simple as loving one another. Wars would end. Guns would be stored away. Hate would return to its grave. But, because we do not understand love, we stumble blindly through life, hanging onto jealously, fear, regrets, and pain. Those we understand. Those we can keep close. They are our identity, our stories. Love, though, is often hazy in its message. Do we want to be loved or do we want to love? Is it selfish or selfless? Do we set contingencies on love or do we offer it up unconditionally? Do we love naturally or does it require daily practice?

All I know is this…love is a mystery worth knowing. It is a feeling, a presence, a pricking at the heart. It’s worried days and sleepless nights. It is the infinite stars we can never count. It can break us into a billion fragments and sloppily repair our damaged souls with crooked stitches and sticky glue. Love is believing in our brokenness, and not surrendering to hopelessness, to cynicism, to despair. Love is an impossible puzzle with missing pieces and no instructions. It is a simple gesture, a hand to hold, a wish before blowing out the candles.

Love, in all its crazy incarnations, is the reason we are here. It offers us hope. It serves up joy. It is all we hold in our hands when the sun sets, this love of ours.

Love is a gift, both given and received. And as the years pass, I hold this precious love close to my imperfect heart, knowing it is all worth it.

The Gift

by Mary Oliver

Be still, my soul, and steadfast.

Earth and heaven are both still watching

though time is draining from the clock

and your walk, that was confident and quick,

has become slow.

so, be slow if you must, but let

the heart still play its true part.

Love still as once you loved, deeply

and without patience. Let God and the world

know you are grateful.

That the gift has been given.

A peek at my collections of hearts and books. Love is often scattered across pages, years, and memories. It is both comedy and tragedy, fire and water, and lost and found. I find love everywhere, if I bother to look up.

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

by Christie Shumate McElwee

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

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

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

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

Random reflections of Dry/No Social Media January:

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

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

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

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

Me, celebrating February.

Gifts of Hope

Last Saturday gifted me with surprises. I wasn’t searching for hope, yet it still slapped me silly with its glorious presence.

After my husband left for his weekly golf game, I blinked my eyes open and realized there was no coffee in the house. I must have coffee, so I pulled on my clothes, grabbed my journal and phone, and walked the three blocks to our neighborhood coffeehouse. I brought my steaming cup to one of the outside tables, and then settled in to watch customers and write a little. I soon noticed a group of women and their dogs gathering at a nearby table. I caught bits on conversation pertaining to the proliferation of gun violence, and yes, I found myself eavesdropping. I turned around to comment, and then, surprisingly, I was invited to join their circle. I spent the next hour listening to these wise women discuss subjects close to my heart. One, an immigrant from a small South American country, gave me insight to the crises in both of our countries. As I rose to leave, one said, “We’re here every Saturday morning. You are welcome to join us.” I had accidentally stumbled upon hope, at a crooked, black rod iron patio table just blocks from my house.

After I walked home, caffeinated and rejuvenated, I decided to hop on my bike and ride down to the historic part of town. My first stop was the small Saturday farmer’s market that is located in a parking lot close to the river. I wandered the different booths, admiring fresh produce and baked goods. One of the last vendors had rocks, crystals, and sun catchers. I admired her work and we chatted about how she collected most of her beads from old jewelry and the prisms from dumpster diving expeditions. I wanted to purchase two of her sun catchers, but she informed me she didn’t take credit cards and I didn’t have any cash. Stupid move on my part when visiting a farmer’s market, by the way. The artist then said, “Take ‘em. You can owe me.” At first I shook my head. “Oh no. That doesn’t seem right.” She replied, “I do it all the time. Most people pay me back, and those who don’t, oh well. They still have my art.” After some hesitation, I picked out my two favorites. She wrapped them up, and then wrote her name and phone number on a small piece of paper. I told her, “Oh, don’t worry. I will be back next week.” She said, “You seem like an honest person. I can usually see it in people’s faces.” I smiled. I will return next Saturday with what I owe her, and will purchase more of her work. This quirky, open-hearted, trusting soul handed me hope at the farmer’s market.

I stuffed my new treasures in my wicker basket and rode down to my favorite outside restaurant, The Bike Stop Cafe, one part restaurant-one part bike rental/repair shop. I left my bike alongside others at the rack, and went inside to order my usual lunch: a veggie sandwich with an iced tea. A breeze was blowing in off the river, and bikers and young families were scattered throughout the patio. Halfway through my sandwich, a man behind me stood up and said, “A man knocked over two bikes. He did pick them up, but then took off. You might want to check if yours is okay.”

I glanced over at the rack, and my first panicked thought was my bicycle was gone. “I think my bike has been stolen,” I gulped. My ten-year old tan Schwinn from Target. The one with the wicker basket and clanking gears. My grandma bike that takes me to bookclub, the neighborhood grocery, and the mail room. I adore that bike. I flew to the rack, but quickly realized that whoever had knocked over the bikes had just moved them. My basket must have become dislodged in the fall because it was now hanging from one of the handlebars. But here’s the amazing part. Just before this discovery, many of the diners were ready to go after the alleged perpetrator. “I think he rode up to Main Street,” they said. “We may be able to catch him.” All these strangers, without even blinking, were willing to run after my nonexistent thief. After checking to make sure everything was working and returning the basket to its rightful place, I waved at the crowd and said with an embarrassed smile, “Thank you. I’m good. You can go back to talking among yourselves.” 

I headed back down the trail, pondering the morning. All I wanted when I woke up was coffee, yet I also found a table of intelligent, social justice-minded women, a generous and trusting artist, and strangers looking out for me. In a world swirling in the language of hate and conspiracy theories, hope just danced with this girl on a sunny Saturday morning. It is easy to become mired in the mud of despair, but often hope tiptoes into our lives, presenting us with the possibility of hot coffee, true human connections, and smiles.

“I dwell in possibility.” ~Emily Dickinson

When I first turned on the trail, I spied this guy slowly making his way across the gravel toward the river. I stopped my bike to snap a photo. He froze, but didn’t retreat into his shell. I said to him, “You’ve got this, buddy. Keep going.” On my way home, there was no sign of him. I’m confident he made it safely to his destination, this little guy with his determined hard-shell self.
Hope.
Featured

live. love. breathe.

live.

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

love.

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

breathe.

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

We live. We love. We breathe.

Every moment, of every day. 

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

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

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

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

live.

love.

breathe.

Drunk on the Idea That Love Can Heal Our Brokenness

 pixabay.com
pixabay.com

“O brawling love! O loving hate!

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

This love feel I, that feel no love in this.” -Romeo, William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

Romeo’s despair has been swirling in my head this Valentine’s Day. How can we celebrate love with so much hate seeping into our existence? I gaze out at the gloom and my heart aches, so I close the drapes, turn off the internet, and stumble around in the dark.

But then…but then I remember the words. Those exquisite, brilliant words writers and artists and peacemakers have given us throughout the centuries. Words celebrating the heart, the soul, the complicated and the simple pieces that make us human. They ponder love and all its miraculous adaptations. 

Words will save me. Words will save us all, because we cannot let love die. We must fight against the harsh winds to gather love up and hold it close, because love is our only hope.

You’ve got to love life to have life, and you’ve got to have life to love life.
― Thornton WilderOur Town

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

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

Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold. -Zelda Fitzgerald

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

Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love. -Marc Chagall

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

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

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

The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live. – Auguste Rodin

There is no remedy for love but to love more. – Henry David Thoreau

Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. – H.L. Mencken

Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears. 

“After all this time?”

“Always,” said Snape. 

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

 society6.com
society6.com

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

(Revised and updated from February 14, 2017)

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

Stand in Love

Love presents itself in a multitude of forms. I truly believe there is no cap on love. With everyone or everything that touches our hearts, we grow and learn. Love prepares us to give, to be brave and strong and fierce. It also guides us toward forgiveness, of others and ourselves. Love is scary, but it is the greatest of all teachers.

But before exploring the different types of love, what about the science of it all? What makes our hearts beat faster, our eyes widen, and our palms sweat? After a short Google dip, I found hormones and neurotransmitters play a big part in this process. Testosterone and estrogen fuel the beginning stages in both men and women. These are the hormones that guide us to one another. Soon adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin fire up the transmitters in our brains. Our blood circulates as our breathing rate increases. We feel a strong sense of euphoria. We can think of nothing else. We lose our minds as we fall “madly in love.” One article I read stated that parts of our brain literally shut down during this stage. Later we attach with the help of oxytocin and vasopressin. We cuddle. We bond. We nest.

The ancient Greeks honored love in many varieties. They believed in the importance of defining and sharing all types of love.

1. Eros – sexual passion

Eros was the Greek god of fertility. Eros, the fiery and irrational form of love, is that loss of control. It is dangerous and often fleeting.

2. Philia – deep friendship

The Greeks valued true friendship above all other forms of love. A good friend is loyal, self-sacrificing, and generous.

3. Storge – family

Storge is the natural affection between parents and children. Most of us feel it at birth, and then it develops through the years. Many of us struggle with storge as we grow and fly away. We begin to question lessons taught us. Some find storge later in a strong circle of friends.

4. Agape – love for everyone

Agape is a selfless love, given to all people, especially strangers and those different from us. Empathy and sympathy come out of our sense of agape. C.S. Lewis called it “gift love,” and believed it is the highest form of Christian love, but other religions embrace some form of agape.

5. Pragma – longstanding love

Pragma is mature love. It is that level of understanding that evolves throughout the years. Compromise, patience, and tolerance are the major tenets of pragma. Longstanding marriages and friendships practice pragma every day.

6. Philautia – love of self

The ancient Greeks believed in order to love others you first have to love yourself. Self-compassion widens our capacity to love. It is important, though, to not think of self-love as narcissism, which is a self-obsessed focus on fame and fortune. Narcissists do not share love with others, they only “love” themselves.

Erich Fromm, the renowned psychoanalyst and psychologist, once stated that we humans need to learn how to “stand in love.” I believe this means instead of focusing on the process of “falling in love,” we should focus on love itself. What does love bring to the table? How can love save us? How do we incorporate all these different types of love into the fabric of our life in order to make it more vibrant, more tactile, more generous?

Standing in love is a practice, not an end goal. We must train ourselves to embrace, not turn away; forgive, not judge; and love, not hate. None of this is an easy path. Love exposes us, makes us susceptible to heart break and agony, yet it is a gift beyond any sane explanation.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

 photo: i.pinimg.com
photo: i.pinimg.com