The Beautiful Cruelness of Spring

by Christie Shumate McElwee

-Updated blog piece from March 2017-

(I wrote this piece three years ago after returning from a former student’s funeral. It was a heartbreaking service that gutted me. I pondered the irony of spring: its cruel beauty. How could a young person die in the midst of nature’s return to glory? Spring 2020 brings a new fear, COVID-19, yet offers me time for quiet contemplation. Today it rains and snows. Tomorrow the daffodils bloom. I left most of the writing intact and added two new paragraphs. I hope you are all safe, and hopefully soon we can all dance in the rain together.)

Spring is about new beginnings. Fresh pinks and yellows and greens sprinkle the landscape. 

But oftentimes spring is cruel. Storms fly in with screeching warnings from the sky. We scramble to basements, praying for safety.

Along with daffodils and blooming magnolias, spring also delivers ends. Disasters still happen. Tragedy still strikes. People still die. Hearts still break.

Spring is prom, Easter, bunnies, flowering trees, and new clothes. We clean our houses with a renewed energy. The windows fly open, inviting breezes to gently kiss the curtains.

But spring has also brought Columbine, Oklahoma City, Waco, and other tragedies. Our hearts have cried with pain for the fear and hatred lurking in the darkness of souls.

Spring 2020 brings a new cruelty to the entire globe. We are sequestered in our homes, attempting to stave off the spread of COVID-19. The experts call it flattening the curve. Businesses are shuttered. Students are learning online. Some have the privilege of working from home while others worry about loss of income. Doctors, nurses, first responders, grocery store employees, and restaurant workers delivering curb side service are all on the front lines. The numbers of sick and dying grow every day. Store shelves are empty. People are scared. We crave brave, honest leaders so we turn to Dr. Anthony Fauci, our voice of reason who speaks daily about the virus and what is being done to combat it.

No longer will we take for granted a leisurely al fresco meal on a warm summer evening, a crowded church service, or a raucous concert. For now, though, we stay inside and plan our future vacations and when we can hug our children and grandchildren again. The future, for now, is on hold. 

Spring is a reminder. While there is expectation and promise, endings lie in wait. Flowers peek through while a freak spring storm cancels out the remaining buds. We celebrate the joys of spring, knowing life is breathing its way back to us after a long winter, yet finales creep up and tap up on the shoulder to remind us of what it is to be human, to experience joy and loss in the same ragged breath.

Spring rains encourage growth. We smell the future in each drop. And even though we know a tempest could be brewing, we still hope. We still know love. We still dance in the rain. We still celebrate life.

This is spring.

This photo of a magnificently budding tree was taken a few years ago in my old neighborhood. The trees right now are just beginning to show themselves. We will wait.

“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 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