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.

the things i didn’t know i missed

by Christie Shumate McElwee

Nazim Hikmet, a renowned Turkish poet, wrote a poem titled “Things I Didn’t know I Loved” after he was released from jail after serving years for his radical acts and words. In this poem, Hikmet is on a train looking out the window. He is pondering what he forgot he loved when he was incarcerated. He writes of curling rivers and asphalt roads. He remembers brief moments from his life that now seem precious. He also recounts how snow “flashes in front of my eyes..I never knew I liked snow.” The poem is a joyous love letter to all he had missed when in prison.

During this unprecedented time in history, the world has paused. Restaurants are shuttered. Stores are closed. Many of us stay sheltered in place while others work the front lines. As the curve flattens and plans begin to come together on how to open up again, we mourn what we have lost. My niece won’t have her college graduation celebrations. My nephew is missing his end-of-the year 8th grade traditions. Another friend’s daughter is contemplating rescheduling her wedding. Some friends and family members have been furloughed or fired from jobs. And, especially, we all are grieving the pain and lives lost due to this virus.

As I read Hikmet’s poem, I pondered my own list of things I miss while sheltering in place.

What are the things I didn’t know I truly loved until now?

Al fresco dinners at dusk while twinkle lights sparkle

Wandering through stores, touching the merchandise, chatting with clerks

Laughing with good friends over lunch at Massa’s

Walking sandy Gulf Shores and later stopping for drinks at The Pink Pony

Hugging (always hugging)

Hiking park trails while admiring the wildlife, both animal and human

Practicing yoga at Blue Bird studio

Weekend breakfasts with my husband at Crooked Tree or The Shack or any of our other favorite establishments

Meeting friends for coffee at The Bridge and diving deep into conversations  

Visiting the zoo on a warm day and saying hello to the bears and elephants and tigers

Meandering the walkways of the Botanical Gardens

Going to a play or a concert or a festival

Having my hair washed by my stylist. Ahhhh……

The pure joy of life is what we grieve. Soon we will be able to call up a friend and say, “Hey, let’s meet for coffee,” and we will reminisce about our sequestered days over lattes, but for now we remember the things we didn’t know we missed.

We missed our annual trip down to Gulf Shores.
Next year.

Link to “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” by Nazim Hikmet

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.

April: a festival of poetry-because the words will save us

by Christie Shumate McElwee

When I taught high school English, I loved April. Yes, April brings tulips and daffodils and dazzling purple trees, but it also gives us National Poetry Month. During April my lessons often revolved around reading and writing poetry. I especially loved poetry slam days when the students would read their original work, some of which were both hilarious and profound. Along with Shakespeare’s sonnets and Robert Frost, I also introduced them to Joy Harjo, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Adrienne Rich. Poetry does not need to be complicated or dissected to death. I just wanted students to dive into the words and really feel the beat of the language. Some rolled their eyes, but others fell face first into the festival of poetry.

During my retired life, I have sought out more poetry. I follow The Academy of American Poets on Facebook and through email. This organization posts a poem a day and other articles about various poets. Yesterday’s poem, Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” is a timely reminder of the preciousness of life. Brain Pickings, another site I follow, the curator Maria Popova writes about the impact of artists, including poets. It is where I’ve discovered Mary Oliver, Ross Gay, and Nikita Gill. Oliver’s gentle and introspective soul delivers simple comfort, especially during tough times. Gay expounds his “unabashed gratitude” through a garden of sweet and sad verses. Gill crushes the staid stereotypes in fairy tales and creates fierce new interpretations, inspiring children and adults to look beyond the ordinary and the expected.

There are so many poems I love, from e.e. cummings’ [i carry your heart with me (i carry it in)] to Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is a thing with feathers.” I collect poems like others collect salt and pepper shakers or glass figurines. Over the next month I would like to share some with you and write about how the words can trip and strut and shimmy into your hearts. A few may challenge your convictions; others may steady your anxious mind.

The first poem is “An Old Story” by Mary Oliver. Like many of you, I haven’t been sleeping well. I’m worried about EVERYTHING. Even my dreams nag me with distress. One of the things I have decided to do every morning, along with writing a page or two in my journal, is to read a few poems. I found this one today. It is as though she was there with me as I woke from my troubled sleep.

“An Old Story” by Mary Oliver

Sleep comes its little while. Then I wake

in the valley of midnight or three a.m.

to the first fragrances of spring

which is coming, all by itself, no matter what.

My heart says, what you thought you have you do not have.

My body say, will this pounding ever stop?

My heart says: there, there, be a good student.

My body says: let me up and out, I want to fondle

those soft white flowers, open in the night.

I am going to listen to my heart and body today by taking a long, socially distant walk in nature.

What are you going to do? Whatever it is, I hope you remember to live and love and breathe.

“An Old Story” by Mary Oliver was first published in A Thousand Mornings by Penguin Press, 2012. This version is from Devotions by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2017.