Category Archives: Little Hymns to Montana

These are shorter pieces– postcards, codas, snippets of Montana.

Roll Call– What’s in a Name

botticelli_birth_venus_2In preparation for a writer’s lockdown for the next month, I’m reading some of my early Montana musings and learning from myself. This woman was being schooled by her need to see things from the inside out, coming into her intuition. Pour a cup of tea, take a quiet moment, and see if you remember this time in your life.  Maybe it’s right now…

The naming of things. I’ve never been very good at it. Seems so formal. Restrictive.
Babies don’t enter this world with the need to name everything in it. In their estimation, the world is not made up of nouns that must be pointed at; possessed. The world is merely an extension of their little selves, still more soul than flesh. The naming of things, then, becomes a social convenience. But every baby knows that it is not a matter of survival. We forget that, I think, once we discover that our index fingers have power.

It was the Renaissance that brought me around. I was living for a year in Florence, Italy as a student of Art History. The naming of names was not just a practice reserved for museums and classrooms in that boisterous city. Florence sang with names in a full crescendo Verdi. In the dome of the Duomo…Michelangelo… Brunelleschi… the bronzed doors of the Baptistry…Ghiberti…in the cornflower and squash blossom porcelain Madonnas and cherubini in vertical rounds throughout the city…Della Robbia…in the stone walls of the countryside…Etruscans…fig picking in the hills of Chianti…Gallileo… the great Palazzo Medici keeping watch, the spirit of Dante burning for a woman in a small church, the quiet river Arno reminding the Florentines that it can rise and destroy even a Leonardo, but not his name. The names that made their city great are in the hearts and mouths of every Florentine—child, teenager, middle-aged and old; you cannot get through a dinner without being reminded of the Renaissance and the events that led up to it.
pine_cone
After a while, the novelty of hearing a place in fortissimo twenty-four-seven, became jaded– sinister almost. It was what I imagine the early stages of madness to sound like: a roll call in my mind’s ear– Machiavelli, Raphael, Tiziano, Donatello, Giotto, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca… A simple walk through the city became deafening: San Lorenzo, Santa Croce, Santa Trinita`, Orsanmichele, San Marco, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito—with always this maniac coloratura: Michelangelo…Michelangelo. One foot into the Uffizi museum and the brain throbbed with it. Like a horror film shooting from every angle—there: the famous angel playing the lute up in a corner almost lost in the red dark velvet. There: the reds and blues of Raphael…there: the fair pinks and periwinkles of Fra Angelico…there: the structure and hulk of the Michelangelos, the red crayon of the de Vincis pulsing three dimensional on a sheet of paper. And always those eyes of the Botticelli divas.
There was no relief, no sanctuary. How could I sit in a café drinking espresso when The David was within walking distance? How many times should a girl spending a year in Florence visit the David before she really knows the David? Once a day? Twice a week. Twice a day? And what about the Slaves? Don’t forget them in their eternal half-emergence from their Carraran marble tombs. What about the unending palazzos, piazzas, chiesas, ponte? The tapestries and frescoes, the nunneries and the catacombs, and the gardens—the gardens? Every moment of looking down was a promise of missing the name that would surely be there should I look up.
But what about the tomatoes? The long stemmed artichokes and blood oranges, the walnuts and purple figs and hot chocolate so thick it hangs at the end of your spoon? What about the little forgotten churches, cold and wet, with a quartet practicing Vivaldi in the apse?
pine_cone
One day, I folded under the aural heft of it. I turned from the gallery of the Uffizi I had been skimming, and I ran—past Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Michelangelos’ Holy Family, Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino– past postcard vendors and character artists’ easels—past whizzing Vespas and women walking arm in arm– down to the Arno, where in a full sweat, I vomited. And I watched the voices drown in the steady slow stink until they were gone.
“You’re one of the lucky dozen,” said an old Italian man pointing at me with his cane as if he had been sent from the Renaissance to rub salt in my country’s artistic wound.
“Scusi?” I said.
“Il Stendhalismo. Stendhal’s Disease. Dizzy in the head and the stomach from all the art of Firenze. At least a dozen tourists get it every year.”
“But I live here,” I managed to say in my borderline Italian.
He smiled and shrugged and walked off as quickly as he had appeared.
I made a pact then. I would leave one museum unseen. Unheard. Its faces un-named. The other famous Florentine museum: The Bargello. I would save it. And instead, I would go slowly through the halls of the Uffizi for one year until the voices simmered to a whisper, or better, became woven into my heartbeat like a monk’s prayer.
It worked. Months later, I made my usual pass along the wall which holds the Birth of Venus, and stopped dead center. Not because I wanted to name her, but because I needed to forget a lost love– stare at something so beautiful, it would flush the hurt away. I stared into her wise eyes and her figure started to tunnel out of the painting toward me with a promise: she would clean away my heartbreak if I would not close my eyes. So I stood there, my eyes fixed on hers until they stung, museum patrons coming and going, reading the plaque beside her, saying the word Botticelli and leaving, and I stayed until there were sea-cleaned tears falling down my cheeks. Now, when I look into the eyes of the Venus on the half shell, I do not need to say Botticelli in order to believe in her perfect flaxen place in land, sea and sky.
I spent my last day in Florence making a café latte last four hours in my favorite outdoor café, around the corner from the Uffizi, one piazza away from the Bargello. I needed to return to the States with the taste of espresso in my mouth and the stink of the Arno in my nose and the perfume of squashed tomatoes fallen from street vendors, the sound of the horses’ hoofs and high-heeled shoes on the cobblestones. I did not hear Puccini or Verdi, not even in a pianissimo.
Instead, I overheard some tourists talking on the street corner, clad in money belts and brand new Nike sneakers. “Yeah, it’s been an awesome two weeks,” one said to the other similarly vested American, introducing herself. “First we did Paris, and then we did Madrid, then we did Milan, today and tomorrow we’re doing Florence, and then we’re doing Rome for a few days and flying back.”
That sealed it. I did not do Florence. I learned that year that a place cannot be done. Whether you have one minute in it, or an entire lifetime. The ultimate difference between doing a place and being in a place, I suppose, has to do with an openness, but too, the privilege of time. I will never know Florence like the Florentines do. But I understand the place past the name. And I understand that a name is just a name perhaps, until you have sat for many hours, and sipped a cup of coffee knowing it is there, around the corner. Having surrendered a lover in its midst. Trusting that it can clean you the next time you look it in the eye.
pine_cone

***
It took three years of living in Montana before it dawned on me that all cone-bearing trees are not called Pine trees. It took me five years of living in Montana before I could see that the structure of the distant hills was different from hill to hill. Six, before I could see what the hills were made of. Seven before I would stop and stare at a Hemlock and wonder why there were not, then, Cedars or Subalpine Fir dwelling nearby. Eight before I could tell when the Larch were just about to go as flaxen as the Botticelli Venus, before they went bare and asleep. And I got stuck there at eight for a while because I decided it was time for field guides and the naming of names—and suddenly my pack became heavy with books on wildflowers, trees, scat and track identification, and binoculars, and my walks in the woods were half spent with my nose in a topographical map. Suddenly my walks in the woods were like my early walks through the galleries of the Uffizi, with a running commentary of names: Fir, Larch, Subalpine Fir, Grand Fir, Cedar, Hemlock, Lodgepole, Ponderosa. And I was not seeing the forest anymore.
So I backed off. Lost the field guides and maps. Started riding horses and not carrying anything but a bottle of water and a piece of fruit. I cantered through the woods so that the trees were in constant blur, hoping that with my new vantage point, I might not see a Larch and think: Larch. And that brought me through to nine. My ninth year. Now. Today. When the forest started to sing.
I was sitting at a glacial lake, ten or so miles from home, not remembering that it was late September and that the ten o’clock sunsets are a thing of summer past. I had come to the woods not in the pursuit of trees, and not to forget a lost love, but to forget a potential one.
My husband announced that morning that he wanted to be scientifically done with our life “as breeders.” No more kids. I heard bits and pieces of it—one of each…enough for both sets of arms…we fit just right in a canoe…airplanes trips still affordable…college tuition possibly manageable if we start saving now…no shared bedrooms…we can take that trip back to Italy you’ve been talking about since I met you—show the kids all those paintings you love so much.
“I’m done,” he said. I heard that loud and clear. He wanted to know that I was okay with that.
pine_cone

So I lost light tonight at the lake, thinking about the fact that we humans have one miracle left that we can at least court, if not perform. An outward and visible sign, I think the Sunday school quote goes. Still, left up to Mystery, but perhaps, if all goes well, possible. One last stroke at genius—one last connection to the Creator. One last place of true breathlessness. Surrender.
And he wanted to cut off that line to Divinity in a matter of a few minutes in a fluorescent-lit doctor’s office, all for a small fee. “I think insurance pays for most of it,” he said.
I lost light watching the last of the bug hatches, and the fish rising and the clouds going crimson, breathing shallow little strikes at feeling okay about the last of my motherhood. No more would my belly swell with life kicking and swimming inside me like that mountain lake. I tried to force a cavalier alliance to population control. But it seemed all wrong, no matter how I tried to wrap my mind around it.
And then it didn’t matter, because it was dark. And I was far from home. And I wasn’t sure I knew my way. I’d always heard that horses did, but there were steep cliffs my horse was willing to go down in the dark that I wasn’t, and so I needed to be her guide. And I didn’t feel like I could be anyone’s guide just then.
I mounted and, loose-reined, she led me to the trail. The moon was a thin crescent—not much for lighting paths through thick stands of Fir and Larch. I turned her one way and she hesitated, ever-loyal, and I made my mind blank. Putting take me home…make my decision for me…into a parcel of intention she might be able to translate; horses are the most intuitive animals I have ever shared dark or light with. She stepped forward and I went with her into the dark woods. And I went like that for what seemed like miles and miles, not being able to see the trail, not really caring all that much, mourning my unborn children, trusting.
pine_cone
And then I thought about the Venus. How she asked me to stare into her, believe in her until my eyes stung with her cleansing power. I let out a sigh then. And my horse stopped. We were at an old granddaddy of a Douglas Fir that I recognized; it was the one that stood alone in the clear-cut, like some logger had just been too taken by it to cut it down. My horse was still; dormant. I looked up into its branches; they were full and architectural. Second growth. Maybe third. But statuesque and mighty in a way trees aren’t allowed to be around here much anymore.
I let my head fall back against my shoulders and sighed and let my breath rise up into its branches the way I had let the Venus pull out of her painting. And I held and it stung, only not in my eyes, but in my ears this time. And I did not say, Douglas Fir. I said, “Thank you.”
And we went then, through the next few undulations of forest until we were climbing the steep hill home. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it for all its silence. And I could smell it, for all its running sap. Rotting stumps. Dusty bottom.
I leaned forward on my mare’s neck, holding her mane. And we crested the ridge. Then back I leaned, holding firm with my knees, letting my hips go loose in her rhythm. Hearing the scuttle of scrim and glacial tilth, grinding under-hoof. The rustling of scrubby brush and nocturnal beasts, not the sort to trust daylight at all.
On the flat ground, we cantered. I held on to her mane, breathless in the dark. And I did the reverse. I closed my eyes.
I felt it: clean.
And the forest sang us home.

To plug into your intuition through the power of words and Montana…come to a Haven Writing Retreat this Fall 2017

September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8 (FULL)
October 18-22

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Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, Little Hymns to Montana, Motherhood, My Posts, Stories

No Black Friday

Give yourself or someone you love a Haven Retreat for the holidays!  My next one is Feb. 25th-March 1st and it’s filling fast.  Click here for the other 2015 dates and more info!

l Iike to re-visit this post every year on this day:


I grew up in a suburb of Chicago with a central square flanked by shoulder-to-shoulder shops in brick and tudor. A fountain on one end, a Parthenon shaped department store on the other, a park with grass and benches and a flagpole in-between. My goldfish met its maker in that fountain because I thought it a better life than the one he’d been living in a small bowl on my windowsill. I met my best friend at that fountain every day before school and ate donuts from the local bakery sitting on the side of it. I had a kiss or two in the dark at that fountain. I climbed that flagpole on a dare. I believed in the spirit of Christmas standing in that park, looking into the illumination of the crèche each December. We called it Uptown and it was an iconic yet controlled kingdom to us, the Downtown of Chicago being so vast and distant. My house was close to Uptown, and after school every day, I walked my dog around its streets, memorizing every alleyway, every store window, smiling at the familiar faces of the shopkeepers who knew my family, our names, our stories.

In those days, many families had charge accounts at the stores. So sometimes, I’d get permission to go on little shopping sprees, charging stickers and pens at the stationary store, ribbons at the dimestore, Bonnie Bell Lipsmackers at the drugstore, an album at the record store, a bike bell at the sports store, seeds at the hardware store for my vegetable garden. We had nicknames for these stores like old friends. They were our meeting places. Our stomping ground. Our stage. When my father died, the local grocery store gave us a cart full of groceries for free once they heard the news. These shops were the bones of our goings on as a community. Not because they represented greed or even commerce to us. They were the places where our mothers ran into each other and gossiped and wondered and pontificated. They were the places where we flirted with boys, dreamed up birthday parties, found the right words for a grieving aunt, played truth or dare over an ice cream sundae. A lot of these shops are gone now. Now the shoe store is a Williams Sonoma. The corner store is a Talbots. The hardware store is a True Value but it’s at least still there, even with a Home Depot lurking in the not-so-distance. I’m proud of the way my hometown values its local shops and supports them, even with so much bright-light-big-city so close.

Now I live in another small town, this one rural and full of economic hardship. I watch as the shop owners struggle to make ends meet and keep their doors open. I know most of them the way I knew my hometown shop owners. I watched as they took their vision and made it a reality. I see their pride because in our small mountain community, these shops hold deep importance. There is no option of city. People drive a long way to stock up on feed for their animals, paint for their barns, winter socks for their kids. Not long ago I was proud to say we didn’t have a Gap in the state of Montana. Or a Target, a Best Buy, a Home Depot, a Lowe’s, a Costco. That’s changed now. It’s here. Consumption Junction we call it. And it’s killing our local small businesses.

I see the store owners’ worry. All their money wrapped up in keeping their store running even if it’s barely paying the bills. I picture Central Ave. being one day like a ghost town of the old West, tumbleweed and all, the bars surviving because people will always drink away their woe. The churches surviving because people will always need to pray in public, knowing they’re not alone. But then I also picture a time when the box store will die. Our greed for unnecessary plastic items will fade if not devour us. We’ll stop filling up our shopping carts until they are brimming over when all we came for was…well, winter socks. And maybe things will return to the old ways. And people will live off the land. And buy only what they need and only when they can afford it. And barter for what they can’t afford. I picture a time when a person with sheep has profound power, shearing them and spinning their fleeces, and a person who knows how to work a forge is the reason why transportation is possible, horses needing shoes and meaning business—not just decoration or a vehicle of recreation. And the Farmer’s Market will be more than a sunny place to listen to a singer/songwriter and buy a hula hoop along with your Swiss chard.

There is a road called Farm-to-Market here in Montana where I live. It’s a pretty Sunday drive. When I take that road, I think about how it once was a bloodline for this community. Blood sport. Many broken hearts along its fences. Countless dashed dreams and false hopes. The kind of road where you sort out what you’re going to say to your wife when you come back with a full cart, someone else’s tomato crop being what it was. It’s not that I defy modern technology or progress or the possibilities of button pushing. It’s that I don’t trust us to know what to do with what we’ve created. I trust humility more than greed. And as much as I love that I get welcomed into Walmart and love that I can get winter socks for my kids and Swiss chard both and still get back in time to pick them up from school, as much as I know that those are local people working those jobs, in honesty and humility with dreams of their own, sorting out their own stories to tell their spouses…I want us to stop.

I want us to go to the local hardware store and eat a bag of popcorn while we discuss paint color and drill bits and talk weather while we do it. And what about that school bond and what about that new city councilman? I want us to drop our spare change into the Mason jar to help with the Nelson girl who has Leukemia. I want us to go slowly again. I want us to wonder about each other. I want us to ask, “How’s business?” and hear that it picked up this October, which is usually a slow time—better than last year. To nod and smile at that good news and feel like we’re going to be okay. We won’t lose our hats along with our dreams.

This holiday season, I want us to stop. Not take our turkey hangovers to the early morning, standing at a Target ready to run in like monkeys on a zoo break. I want us to continue the gratitude of the day before. I want us to sleep in and maybe take a walk into town later to see what the local shops have for sale. I want us to have those conversations. I want us to go Uptown instead of Downtown and especially I want us to steer clear of Consumption Junction. Even if it costs a bit more. Even if it is a little less shiny. Even if it means we buy less, or go to three stores to find that one thing our kid asked for. I want us to stroll down Central Avenue. And say hi to each other. I want us to be thankful for our town squares and our backyard businesses and see ourselves in the reflection of their holiday windows.

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

Feed Your Muse

Glacier.331028

I just had that attack: Summer is almost here. What am I going to do with my kids? And then I remembered I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. A place where people come from all over the world to visit. Northwest Montana is a stunner from now through September and I’m going to spend as much time taking advantage of its beauty as possible. Hiking in Glacier National Park, the Jewel Basin, the Whitefish Range. Riding horses in its woods and meadows. Swimming in its rivers and lakes. After the dormancy of winter, I’m going to refuel my Muse in my beloved Big Sky country. And I encourage you to do the same.

Come out to my neck of the woods this August or September. Do one of my Haven Retreats. And tag on a few days to have a solo adventure, or one with family or friends. Travel and renew. Two trips in one. Montana awaits…

Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

Take a scenic drive through Glacier National Park on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, an engineering feat completed in 1932.
Hike in Glacier National Park.
Visit Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake.
Pick your own fresh cherries along Flathead Lake.
Golf one of nine of the area’s magnificent courses.
Saddle up for a guided trail ride in Montana’s mountains.
Enjoy Downtown Kalispell and Whitefish shopping and eating establishments.
Experience whitewater rafting on the North Fork or Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
Fly fish on the Flathead River.
Take a hot air balloon ride.
Go skydiving.
COME TO HAVEN RETREAT!

August 7th-11th (Now Booking)
September 4th-8th (Now Booking)
September 18th-22nd (Now Booking)

Here is what a past retreater has to say about Haven:

When I first signed up for the February 2013 Haven Writing Retreat, I was hesitant. Hesitant that, at 25-years-old, I was “too young for this sort of thing.” Hesitant I was not a good enough writer. Hesitant to take a stand for myself and my writing, even if it wasn’t good writing. Heck, I was hesitant to go to Montana in the middle of February. But my hesitations and fears melted away as soon as I stepped onto the grounds of the beautiful Walking Lightly Ranch and met Laura with a warm and welcoming hug, as if we had known each other for years. What happened over the next three days was nothing short of amazing—I met and grew close with my fellow retreaters as we broken open our wounds by writing on the page. We dug deep and pushed ourselves to write honestly and share our stories.

With her humor and willingness to “go there” in her own writing, Laura creates a writing retreat that truly is a haven for all people—young, old, new writers, seasoned writers, non-writers alike. Everyone has a story. Everyone deserves to take a stand and take a break and take a chance. I did. And I came home with new friends, a fresh perspective and many tools I still use that have helped me become a better writer and a better person. If you are thinking of going to the wilderness of Montana, I ask—no, I urge—you to just go. Life is short. Go. And see for yourself how amazing this experience is. You—and your writing—deserve it. –Lindsay Henry, Wisconsin

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Filling Station

As seen on Huffington Post 50

When I was little, one of the things I most loved to do with my father was go to the gas station.  A child of the early 1900s, he called it the “filling station” and he always made sure that he had at least a half a tank of gas.  He took the filling station very seriously.  Shopped around for the best prices.  Knew the attendants and shot the breeze with them—Chicago Lake Effect weather, price of beans and corn down in central Illinois, the youth these days.  I kept my mouth shut and listened to the
soothing sound of his part scorn/part idolatry of it all.

And when we were back on the road, I memorized the lyrics and Big Band tunes on his a.m. radio station, “The Music of Your Life.”  This was safety to me.  The thought of women in white gloves, hats and heels, and smart cocktail dresses, and men in suits with slicked hair and doffed fedoras and overcoats…dancing in sync on a parquet dance floor with an orchestra and a cocktail waiting for them back at the small round table in a lowball glass.  I agreed:  what was wrong with the youth these days….sitting in ponchos and bell bottoms, smoking pot, talking about free love and war mongering?  I wanted his youth.  And I found it at the filling station.

I used to go there just to smell the gasoline, to see the rainbows of fuel in the wet pavement after a good old fashioned Midwestern thunderstorm, to see if the guy behind the counter might chat me up if I bought a Hershey’s bar or a bottle of Coke.  Over the years, I became friends with that guy.  His name was Bud.  He used to give me little plastic animals.  One time he gave me a whole tube full of Noah’s Arc plastic animals, who gladly joined my china figurines collection that I played with religiously (and now more religiously), in wooden structures I made in shop class.  I’m not sure what happened to Bud, but I do remember the look he gave me when I tried to buy beer in sixth grade.  Part scorn/part iconic.  The youth these days.

***

Now I live in a small mountain town in Montana.  I drive a big gas-guzzling truck because here…it’s justified, given the roads we travel and the creatures who travel it with us.  Thusly, I spend a lot of time at the gas station.  I go there for gas.  I go there for a carton of
milk.  I go there for elk meat.  I go there for box wine.  I go there for conversation.  Now my Bud is a guy called Murray.  For months he called me Laurie.  NOBODY calls me Laurie.  One day I got up the courage to tell this kind man with the Peace tattoo and the Jerry Garcia hair and the kind smile:  “I’m Laura.  Not Laurie.”  He looked at me in what I would come to know was mock-befuddlement, and belted out, “Hey, Munson!”

Now most every time I come into my gas station, there’s Murray saying, “Hey, Munson!”  I love this man.  Over the years, I’ve told him
jokes, we’ve shaken our heads over national tragedies playing out on the corner television.  He’s bought me a box of wine here and there.  He even gave me a glass horse figurine that he picked up at a consignment shop.  It’s clear with cobalt blue inside.  It sits next to another glass horse figurine that is almost identical, only I bought it for a lot of money at a glass-blowing factory in Venice.  The one I bought is on its knees, struggling to get up, neck craning and stretching.  The one Murray gave me…is just a little bit more on its feet.  I repeat:  I love this man.

A friend once told me, when I was new to Montana, that there are saints everywhere.  “Pay attention,” he said.  “They will stun you with their loving hearts.  Just when you least expect it.”

Well the other day, amidst all the holiday scrambling—sitting on the living room rug in a fit of wrapping paper, scissors, ribbons, and tape, my son entered the room and requested a ride to the ski resort in the town where we live.  Maybe you’ve noticed something about the kids these days:  they don’t make plans.  They text.  They walk in and demand things last minute, like your whole world revolves around their social life and their techno needs, even if it’s good clean fun like skiing.  I’ve got pretty amazing kids.  Kids who listen to NPR and write in journals and ring the Salvation Army bell.  Still…it’s different than it used to be and I’ve learned that being a mother requires some level of going with their flow, lest we be in constant conflict.  So I ditched the wrapping paper, and stuffed my night-shirt tails into my yoga pants, donned my Sorels, and with neither underwear nor bra, I grabbed my big parka and hit the road with my son.

You know that thing they say about always making sure to wear clean underwear?  Well…here’s what happened:

In the car on our way up the mountain, my son realized he had no money for his standard grilled cheese lunch at the Summit House.  I looked around for my purse, and there was no purse.  Which meant there was no money.  I always leave my purse in the car.  I was perplexed.  I said something to the tune of “Blame it on the holidaze.”  But then I realized that I had no license, and that just the other day I realized my registration had expired.  Blame it on the holidaze?  And my insurance card was expired.  And…then I looked at my gas gauge…and it was low.  Really low.  I always keep at least a half a tank of gas, just like my father.  And no cell phone to boot. This was so entirely not like me.  Holidaze?

I scanned the car for an errant twenty, or at least a five.  And there under the teacher gifts yet to be delivered on the dash, were two fives.  “Here, I’ll take one and you take the other,” my son said.

“I don’t know if I have enough gas to drive the ten miles home.  And my purse must be at home, so I have to go home in order to get money in order to get gas.”  I didn’t tell him about the part where I was driving totally illegally.  Not in unclean underwear, mind you…but in NO underwear.  Etc.  “Can’t you borrow some cash?” I said.

But there I was, teaching my child to be a mooch.  I humbly took the remaining five.  “Don’t worry, Mom.  That’s a gallon of gas.  And a gallon of gas goes fifteen miles.  We live ten miles from here and you probably have at least enough to get home and back to the gas station.”  He smiled, all faith.

For some reason, I bid him fondly adieu, feeling like a combo of Debbie Reynolds the later years, and Carrie Fisher, ditto.  What happened to me? I thought.  Two seconds ago I was in a twin set and khakis, fresh from the gym, with exfoliated skin and lunch plans. Now I am one beat-up Suburban away from bag lady with no buttons to push, and only an accelerator from which to hope for power. And then I remembered what my friend said about saints being everywhere.  And I thought of Murray.

So I pulled into my gas station on fumes, rehearsing what I could possibly say that wouldn’t be a total breach in customer privileges.  After all…what have I ever given him, except for a kiss on the cheek once when he told me that I was one of his favorite customers.  This after I’d spilled my guts about a particular glich in a particular relationship with a particular persona non-grata—also a customer of this said gas station.

Needless to say…I felt like the worst mooch ever.  Because I was about to ask him to spot me some cash.

I threw my shoulders back like my father used to do in facing an awkward situation.  Walked in.

“Hey, Munson,” he belted out.  “How’s it going?”

“Well…” I confessed, “Not so great, Murray.  I need gas.  And I don’t have any dough on me.  And I’m wondering…if I could borrow a few bucks to get home, so I can grab my purse, so I can come back and fill my tank and reimburse you.”  I looked past his Peace tattoo and into his kind eyes.  “I feel horrible, Murray.”

It’s a great experience going from the false power of button-pushing and bitching about little things like the holiday rush and the price of gas…to actually knowing that you are one step away from standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign, just to get home.  Where is our power, really?  Not in buttons.  I can tell you that.  It’s in making those connections with real live people over the course of time. It’s about looking in their eyes and past their tattoos and into their hearts.  And sometimes, it’s about asking for help.

Of course Murray spotted me that cash.  Saints are like that.

Look around.  Pay attention.  Chat with the people at your local filling station.  And be filled.

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Winter Mind

Here is one of my favorite poems on this austere day.  Love to all…

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing
in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens

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Oh Holy Night

Featured on Rita Wilson’s Huffington Post 50…

Every year at this time I meet the holidays with an Andy Rooney attack that comes on a lot like gout. It begins with the first Kay Jewelers ad. And expands with the Lexus sporting the big red bow in the driveway. Then it snowballs with the slender young mommies in cashmere V-neck sweaters sitting on the couch with their kids doing Fisher Price arts and crafts, and then the deal is sealed by Best Buy which manages to make me feel badly every year about my last Christmas present. And the anxiety ensues. Even if I boycott the TV…the anxiety ensues. Please don’t judge.

Only fifteen more shopping days til Christmas. Coughs up the same hairball as: It’s twelve o’clock– do you know where your children are? For some reason this year I’ve tossed change into every Salvation Army bucket I come across and managed to totally ignore the rest of the holidays. Call it over-compensation. I’m daunted. Dashed. Maybe even depressed. My children’s wish lists look like checklists for a Moon mission and everything begins with a lower case i. The only item I’ve had the stomach to purchase is a pair of Ellen underwear because I remember a friend of mine saying recently, “I would do anything for a pair of Ellen underwear.” I went on her website. And lo…they’re not just give-outs to movie-star guests. They’re actually for sale! So I bought her a pair. In red. Cost me twenty bucks. And didn’t do much in the way of assuaging holiday angst.

A long time ago, I used to revel and delight in this season. I used to make all my Christmas gifts. Ditto my wreaths and garlands. I’d lovingly tie raffia around jars of plum butter and tomato sauce; make homemade wrapping paper with potato-stamped designs from star and tree-shaped cookie cutters. Arrange sentimental photos in shadow boxes adorned with glue-gunned dried rose buds from my garden. There were collages I’d assemble using magazine cut-outs I’d collect for each loved one over the year in a box with their name on it, cuz that’s how thoughtful I was. Very very thoughtful. For years I hand-designed each Christmas card and wrote loving messages in each with a silver pen– three-four hundred of them. All addressed by hand. What the hell was my problem?

Oh I know…I wasn’t yet an embittered middle-aged woman. I was still in the spell, nay, the myth, of Christmas carrying me somehow into wintery wonderlandy bliss. Christmas trees hadn’t fallen yet and broken the antique ornaments. Prime ribs hadn’t come out grey and tough. Yorkshire puddings hadn’t fallen. Santa hadn’t had one too many glasses of nog the night before and woken up at three a.m. without the stockings attended to. Those were the pink pure days of dog-earing catalogues like L.L. Bean and Garnet Hill and Williams Sonoma and Land’s End and FAO Schwarz and systematically making sure that the usuals were under that tree Christmas morning– a pair of pj’s, slippers, monogrammed something-or-other, a puzzle, the hot new board game, a Breyer horse, a hard-back classic book, a Brio train, a stuffed turtle, a baby doll. One year my daughter asked for an orange baby from Santa Claus. “That’s all I want for Christmas. An orange baby doll.” And by gum…Santa found her a baby doll with orange hair and an orange dress that smelled like freaking oranges to boot. She named her Halloween. I don’t remember what she was for Halloween that year, but apparently it had an impact on her.

Here’s what I’d like to do for Christmas this year: convert to Judaism. The Jews have it right. Spread it out. Make it sacred day by day. They don’t blow it all in one heap of wrapping paper and Amazon boxes flung all over the living room. In our defense, however, at least our family opens the gifts one by one and ogles. At least the kids can’t come down the stairs until there are adults standing by at the bottom. Yes, with a video camera. Okay, and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas (that tradition ain’t going anywhere, even though they both roll their eyes the whole way down the stairs.) At least we’re not trying to impress anyone with our theme Christmas tree. No, each year our Christmas tree looks like a drag queen with dripping mascara because I’ve kept every single one of my ornaments from childhood, most of which have Snoopy on them somewhere, and every single one of the kids’ school project ornaments which means they sometimes catch fire. And because on principal I refuse to be “tasteful” and get dainty white lights anywhere near my tree. I like the big colored bulbs from my childhood– the kind that when you squint, the tree looks like it’s dancing. In Vegas.

I guess what I’m really saying is…I’m a sucker for Christmas. That’s the plain truth. And since my kids are growing up and will be off to college before I know it…and because they told me that they hope Santa has room on his Visa card this year wink wink…(and the truth is that Santa’s Visa card is in desperate need of some head room) Christmas hurts this year. It just plain hurts. Does anyone relate?

I don’t want it to hurt. I want to rally. I want to make a gingerbread house. I want to have a caroling party. I want to hang garlands over the breezeway door and adorn the mantle with cedar boughs and the staircase with drooping garlands and gold bows. I want to go to the Messiah and get chills and feel my heart explode during the Hallelujah chorus. I want to have Sees candy on the kitchen counter and I want to dare myself not to bite into one with a cherry in it. And smugly win. I want to force Paperwhite bulbs in my grandmother’s crystal bowl with tiny pebbles holding their roots and I want to smell them first thing Christmas morning when I start the tea kettle and everyone is still asleep and I want to feel grateful for the fact that I pulled it off another year. Everything magical. Dreams met. The baby Jesus safe in his olive wood creche being watched over by lambs and donkeys and shepherds and angels and loving parents and God. Traditions in tact. Still.

And yet, for some reason that’s beginning to sort of scare me…I’ve got my heels dug into the ground this year. It’s the 11th of December and I haven’t bought one present. Except for the underwear. I haven’t done Christmas cards. I haven’t even gotten the Christmas music out. Truth be told, there are still pumpkins on my front porch. Really rotten pumpkins. I guess it’s because I want a different kind of Christmas. I want a quiet little chapel in the woods where we go in, shake snow off our boots, and watch our breath merge as we sing Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel and Once in Royal David’s City and songs like that. Sacred songs.

How can I make Christmas sacred this year? I just don’t feel it. Maybe I need to have a Charlie Brown and It’s a Wonderul Life back-to-back all day marathon with toothpicks holding my eye-lids open like in Clockwork Orange. But even those good old standards (Clockwork Orange excluded) depress me. The sacred delivered by media. I want the holy to show this season. And yes, I’m sure that it will just when I least expect it. I’ll let you know when it does. And I’ll believe in it for now.

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Road-tripping it this Summer?

Country Living magazine has a great article about insider things to do across the United States.  They asked their favorite bloggers in each state to give them a local pick.  I chose Chico Hot Springs in Pray, MT– in the Paradise Valley south of Bozeman.  I go down there twice a year, usually in Fall and Spring.  I love the drive.  I love the vibe.  I love the scene.  I love the pools.  I love the restaurant, especially the orange flambe…  And I love that I can bring my dog.  Here’s the article.  I just spent my morning devouring it.  Now I’m hankering for a road trip!  Enjoy!  yrs. Laura

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If you sit long enough and watch…you’ll see things. Last night I saw the moon climbing trees.
 
And for just a moment…it got stuck.

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A Mind of Winter…


I miss the deciduous trees. The winter sculptures that remind us of our bare bones. Like metal fingers in the sky that warn against the cold. Stay quiet. Stay inside by the fire. It’s time to rest.

Here the conifers flaunt themselves against the snow and grey. The only technicolor. The only promise. Come on out and ski and sled and snowshoe and dogsled and have a snowball fight. Make a fort. You can hide in our skirts if you get cold.


I want to rest this winter. I want to play on the pages of the novel I’m writing. I want to incubate by the fire in a robe with tea. And be reminded that the trees will hold up the sky without me.

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Loveletter to NYC (and to Montana)

As a Chicago girl, I know I’m not supposed to say this…but I love New York City. I’ve been there ten times in two years, and this time it was for fun. Everything about it was fun. I met amazingly generous people who are doing amazingly inspiring things with their lives in the world of art and media. I left half day chunks to myself and went to the De Kooning exhibit at MOMA (which I highly recommend).  I hung out in the Madison Square Park dog park with my dear friend (a culture unto itself), poked around Chinatown and ate dumplings, walked and walked and walked until shin splints had me crying uncle and justifying a two hour sushi meal to relieve them. Ate a ridiculous four course dinner at Eleven Madison Park which my culinary genius friends/hosts think is currently the best food in NYC.  And I was so inspired by Lee and Bob Woodruff’s Stand up for Heroes gala which had me staring up-close-and-personal at people I idolize like Katie Couric (who I met!!! and gushed all over like an idiot), Bill Clinton, John Stewart, Rick Gervais, Bruce friggin Springsteen, Seth Meyer, Brian Williams… The city stuns me.

And yet, flying home into our little valley, I love that I’m limited here in Montana by the possibilities of what I can hold in my hand and pay for with a credit card. I love that the currency comes in snow plows and back hoes and chickens and horses who are easy keepers. I love that it’s going to get hairy now as the snow twirls in gusts around my office window. I love that I have a fire going and that I’ll need to keep it going most of the winter, propane prices being what they are. I love that my head will be cold in my bed at night and that I’ll see my breath when I wake. I love that it is hard here. I love who I am here. People kept asking me in New York why I have lived here so long. Why not come back to the land of the sophisticate, opportunity, options in full feast. “I trust myself in Montana. I trust the currency. I trust what it asks of me and I trust how I answer its questions.” But THANK YOU, New York, for one heck of a week. Maybe it’s because of weeks like this that I can receive Montana. yrs. Laura

Lee and Bob Woodruff raise money for wounded vets in a fabulous evening of entertainment-- Beacon Theater, NYC

Bob and Lee Woodruff with Bruce!

This is NOT with a zoom. Almost lost my lunch.

Today Show anchor, Natalie Morales at 30 Rock. This has been a dream since Jane Pauley Days-- look what she's holding...


Stone Crab and Uni at Eataly-- mecca!

Art Installation at MOMA

A dumpling walk in Chinatown

Thanks Sarah Brokaw for all your support of my book! Go buy hers: FORTYTUDE! So empowering!

A bastion of publishing-- the Hearst Building where I met with some FAB editors from Good Housekeeping!


This was my favorite!
Such expression. Here I go back to Montana….

I'll take the M train home now...

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