the power of words

by christie shumate mcelwee

A story about a drunk and the power of words.

Since the Midwest July weather was unusually steamy and I didn’t feel like heating up the kitchen, my husband and I decided to run to the local grocery store to pick up some fried chicken and potato salad for dinner. As we entered, the first thing we noticed was a security guard standing at the door. “Well, I’ve never seen that before,” whispered my husband. I shrugged and said it’s probably because it was a Friday evening. He then went to the deli counter to order the chicken and I wandered around the bakery section, trying to decide on a dessert. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man (one of the few in the store not wearing a mask) weaving in and out of the displays purposely knocking things off tables. He stumbled out of sight, and I, of course behaving like the mom/teacher I am, picked up after him. Rock met me with the chicken, we picked out a dessert and a bottle of white wine, and then made our way to the check out line. I did spy the same man making a small scene in another aisle, so I said to myself, “Please don’t let him near us. Please don’t let him near us.” At this grocery chain, customers must line up and wait for the clerks to wave them over when they are ready. We ended up in the first line. We were just about finished when I noticed this man throwing his beer and charcoal briquets on the belt. The clerk was stunned, so I automatically said, “Sir, you need to wait your turn.” He then bellowed, “What did you say? I need to wait my turn? What?” I then responded with, “I’m just sending peace and love. We all have to take care of one another.” His retort was, “You cunt!” Rock had the grocery bag in his hands attempting to counter the guy’s hateful rhetoric, but as the clerk threw me the receipt, I gave my sweet husband a look that said,” We need to get out of here…now.” So we quickly made our way towards the door. By this time the guy was screaming repeatedly “You cunt!” across the entire store and one of the other clerks had summoned the security guard. I held my peace sign up until we got out of his sightline and then practically sprinted to our car. My hands shook and tears fell the whole way home. 

This man went into the store drunk, itching for a fight. I was just the lucky recipient of his anger. I realize now I probably shouldn’t have engaged him. We would have gone on with our evening undisturbed, but here’s the thing: this is a man who, I’m pretty sure, uses that word whether he is drunk or sober, masked or unmasked. This disgusting word that demeans women with its violent sputter. I spent most of Saturday hunkered down, feeling bruised. I thought of all the store clerks, waiters, and others who have to put up with these types of people, individuals who feel their “liberties” are begin stolen from them with mask requests, who believe they have the right to call out strangers and weaponize language. I pondered all of the women in this guy’s life who have been on the receiving end of his vitriol. I then contemplated the repugnant words that have been lobbed at people throughout the history of man. Words that make stomachs churn and hearts cringe. We humans have immense jurisdiction to strike others down with just a cruel comment. I then decided I would not give this guy permission to break me. I scattered the word’s power and turned it to dust.

The words we choose are crucial. Do we spread love or scatter hate? The names we casually throw around hold tremendous weight, so how do we counter the despicable, the vicious, the evil language that permeates our society?

There isn’t an easy answer, that I know. Repulsive language has been around since humans first grunted. We quickly learned how to force others to their knees through one degrading slur. But perhaps…we counter divisive language with statements that stitch us back together.

So, dear ones, I offer up a few suggestions:

I love you.

You are magic.

Walk in peace.

I admire your strength.

You are a warrior.

What words will you give the world today?

Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Photo by ATC Comm Photo on Pexels.com

our little tree: tiny hopeful buds

by Christie Shumate McElwee

We have a two-year old tree in front of our house that isn’t doing well. While all the other trees on our block have leafed out, ours silently stands with just a few buds attempting to open. Every day I send energy to its roots, hoping it will feel the strength of my love. I acknowledge that all my tree hugging may not be able to save it, yet I pray to Mother Nature to summon her powers to revive this struggling plant.

Lately I have been pondering the difference between hope and optimism. Yes, these concepts are related, but they follow divergent paths. Both are guideposts to the future. Think in terms of their opposites. The opposite of optimism is pessimism, and the opposite of hope is despair or fear. Optimism relies on feeling good about the future, even denying that bad things can happen. Optimists expect things to turn out okay. Hope, on the other hand, relies on the effort to make life better, knowing hard times are ahead and barreling ahead in spite of them. Hopeful people continue on through the pain, fighting for justice and kindness and peace.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the thing with feathers”, she writes:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

The little bird clings to the branch while the storm swells, and continues to sing its song. Hope gives us warmth, yet doesn’t ask anything of us. We know things are rough. We see the darkness. We feel the pain…yet hope is still there, singing its tune.

Where do I see hope? It is in people trying their best to protect others. It is in our beautiful faces, even when covered by masks. Hope is in the reaching out, the praying, the grace we give one another. Hope sustains us.

And what about our little tree? Will my hope save it? I check it every day for new buds, and embrace its trunk, hoping it will feel my spirit. Will it survive? I don’t really know the answer, but I continue to hope, and that hope gives me strength to face what is ahead. I will live under hope’s roof.

“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, Animal Dreams

At first glance, our little tree looks dead.
But step closer, you can see tiny, hopeful buds.