singing the blues: in the sky, lord, in the sky

by Christie Shumate McElwee

Yesterday I had the blues, the kind that brought a thick fog of melancholy. I was overwhelmed. Even yoga couldn’t cut through the gloom. Was I alone in all of this? I wrote a short Facebook post about my blue mood, and many of my friends responded, stating they were struggling with the same feelings. We are all going through something strange and indescribable. Yesterday evening in another Facebook post, writer Glennon Doyle defined it as the aches:

“My ache is the the touch tree of my life. I spent most of my life running from the deep ache inside me – tumbling it, ignoring it, denying deflecting it – because I thought if I let it rise up it would kill me…I live in the ache these days. If you live there too just know: we are there together. The ache is the meeting place of the brave. It’s the touch tree of all humanity. When we’re there, we are not lost: we are found.”

The blues are the ache for what we are experiencing. The rising numbers of deaths. The dangerous ignorance and ineptitude of some of those ‘in charge.’ The lack of human touch. The virtual birthday parties and happy hours and business meetings. The quiet loneliness. The deserted streets. The empty restaurants. The malevolent fear festering beneath an ancient wound.

Blues and gospel singers knew about sadness and grief. Their songs spoke of heartache, reaching through the chords to help heal the brokenness. Even some traditional hymns sprang from loss. Music and poetry (song lyrics are the ultimate poetry) woven together create the perfect storm, stitching together our aches.

For the past three Saturday evenings, my husband and I have tuned into Circle Access’ Opry Livestream. The musicians play to an empty Opry with only a skeleton crew to film their performances. I’ve shed more than a bucket of tears listening to Marty Stuart’s mandolin, Vince Gill’s and Amy Grant’s harmonies, and the powerful trio of women (Terri Clark, Alaina Lauren, and Ashley McBryde) pay tribute to Joe Diffie with their interpretation of “John Deere Green.” There is a haunting silence after each song ends and the camera pans the empty Opry pews. 

This hour has been our church, the songs prayers, and the musicians preachers. The simple acoustic beauty of the songs flows through each artist. A few have even shed tears of their own. The actual Opry circle is a remnant from the original Ryman stage, installed in 1974 at the new venue across town. The circle of wood reminds all of those who passed before us, of their talents and hearts and pain. 

Life is an unbroken circle. Believe in love. Believe in kindness. Believe in joy, even as our hearts, like a gospel choir, sing the blues.

“Will the circle be unbroken

By and by, lord, by and by

There’s a better home a-waiting

In the sky, lord, in the sky”

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was written by Ada R. Habershon and Charles H. Gabriel in 1907. It has been covered by many artists, but the reworked version is attributed to A.P. Carter and the Carter Family. My favorite is the 1972 performance featuring Mother Maybelle Carter and the ensemble gathered by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.


Sharing Our Passions: Opera, Pasta, and Friendship

Have you ever had one of those days when adventure and friendship collide? When passion and food and music are shared? Some days are spent in our dreary routines filled with mindless trudging. Other days, magical days, collect fairy dust and memories that make life more festive. Yesterday was such a day.

My dear friend Ann and I were having a conversation a couple of weeks ago about music. She is a trained opera singer and college music professor with a stunning voice. Opera is her love, her infatuation, her ultimate desire. I admitted I have never watched an entire operatic production. I worked a few traveling shows back in college when I was a crew member at our college auditorium, but I only saw and heard bits from back stage or the sound booth. Ann said I needed to really appreciate opera as an audience member. A week later she texted me with an invitation to see a Met Live in HD production of Turandot at a movie theater in a neighboring town. What? An opera at the movies? I was both confused and intrigued, so I accepted.

The Metropolitan Opera has been transmitting live productions, along with backstage interviews and scene changes, to various movie theaters for ten years now. I had no idea. We were watching Tourandot along with audience members sitting at the Met in NYC. I sat back in my comfy stadium seat and drank in all the sights and sounds of an epic fairytale set in mythical China.

I was mesmerized with this sad tale of heartache, unrequited love, and riddles. The costumes were gorgeous. The sets were massive. The voices were breathtaking. Ann patiently answered my whispered questions about subtitles and performers, but I was especially intrigued by the camera shots of the scene changes during intermission. Colossal sets were pulled across the stage as dozens of stage hands took their positions. It was a show unto itself.

As the singers took their final curtain calls, I turned to Ann and we both smiled. My friend had shared her love with me and I will forever be thankful for the experience.

Later that evening she and her husband came over for dinner, and I shared a vodka sauce with penne dish and a bourbon butterscotch pie with them. This is friendship. Sharing stories. Exchanging recipes. Walking new roads together. 

With age comes a certain knowledge of joy. My circle of friends has grown tighter. I’m pickier about those I spend my precious time with these days. My friend Ann is one of the special ones. She is a storyteller, a musician, a cook, a mother, a true friend, and a sharer of peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwiches on white bread.

How much good inside a day?

Depends on how good you live ‘em.

How much love inside a friend?

Depends on how much you give ‘em.

-Shel Silverstein, Light in the Attic

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