Category Archives: Motherhood

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

Commencement: A Mother’s Guide to the Extra Stuff

cap tossas seen on mamalode.com

I can never remember if the word “commencement” means beginning or ending. My knee jerk reaction is to think that it means ending, though my writer’s mind quickly corrects it.

That’s probably because graduation ceremonies are called Commencement, and I think of graduation day as an ending– leaving the known behind: a good reputation, dear friends at a stone’s throw, families whose refrigerators and bikes and kitchen tables are yours for the sharing… the dismantling of decorated walls soon to betray you for guests, or someone else with new photo collages, new tapestries, new blue ribbons. I have never been good at leaving the familiar, and I usually mark it with a little hidden graffiti—Laura Munson lived here, and the dates.

But it’s not my turn this upcoming Commencement. It’s my daughter’s. Now it’s she who is dismantling her room, coming down to the end of her check list, five more days of school to go, graduation invitations in the mail, college deposit in, orientation dates in stone. There is a new timber in her voice; something dire. “Mom, can you do something with my Breyer horse collection?”

“Can’t you just leave them on your shelf?” I ask, vignettes reeling by of mock horse races on the lawn and barnyard feedings with tiny plastic apples, and that one coveted palomino paint that became real one Christmas.

“I need room for my stuff.”

“What stuff?”

And then I realize that the stuff that has been strewn all over her room for the last four years of high school actually could have had a home in her bookshelves if we’d been more able (or willing) to pack up her plastic horse collection.  I’m not sure whose job this is. Please Lord, not mine.

I look into her eyes. And I see…it’s my job. Some things are just too hard.

Suddenly, I feel a desperate need to give advice in fast forward. “Have I taught you how to make hospital corners? And to never leave a wet towel on a bed? Or leave a glass directly on wood?”

“I know. Respect the wood. You’ve told me.” She’s tolerating my Mom-ness much more than usual lately. She’s in the bittersweet of Commencement while I am bursting into tears in pathetic public places, like at the bank drive thru, catching myself in the video screen looking miserable. Will her roommate know that when she needs a hug but is too shy to ask, she makes tea? Will she know that she likes to sing in harmony and that all those eye-ball rolls don’t really mean anything? Will she know that she acts street-tough sometimes, but is deeply sensitive and if she’s playing the ukulele along with Jack Johnson, something pretty rough probably happened at school that day?

“Mom, why are you crying?” she says, bringing me back to the grim task of packing up her happy childhood.

“I’m sorry. I’m just going to miss you.”

Last week was when it really hit. I was doing laundry and I heard from her room in that new dire timber, “How do stamps work?”

Stamps? Like postage stamps?”

“Yeah.” This from a 4.0 student.

I went into her room. She was sitting on her bed addressing graduation party invitations. “Really? You can program a computer, but you don’t know how stamps work???”

“My generation doesn’t really use them.”

I was sure she was playing a joke on me. Stamps? But she wasn’t. She really had no clue that you use the same stamp for a local letter that you do for one that goes all the way to New York City.

Geez– what other glaring omissions have there been in my mothering? I’ve tried so hard to fill in every blank, taking every single second possible as a teaching moment. “Maybe I should write you a survival handbook for college and beyond. Would that be helpful?”

“I know all the basic stuff. But yeah…maybe the extra stuff.”

I wracked my brain, taking inventory. The extra stuff. If stamps are “extra” this could get ugly! I decided to do it room by room, compartmentalizing life in cross-section, like the dollhouse we spent hours decorating and playing in.

Kitchen:
I started with How to boil water, tell if pasta is ready, smell a gas leak, turn off the water main…but suddenly it turned into a different kind of “extra.”
• If you’re having a bad day, leave the dishes. But do soak them, or you’ll really be in a bad mood when you get around to cleaning them.
• If you’re having a really bad day, don’t adhere to the utensil slots. Just chuck ‘em all in and let them fall where they may. Actually, if it’s a really bad day, just leave the dishes alone. They can wait.
• No matter what kind of mood you’re in, make yourself a nice meal, especially if you’re lonely.
• Always eat some fruit in the morning and some veggies at some point in the day. Keep bananas, carrots, apples, and potatoes around. They do the trick when you’re not feeling inspired.
• Keep a granola bar in your purse. (Tip: Use only small purses—lest you end up with a Mary Poppins carpet bag, coat rack and all. Read Nora Ephron’s essay on women’s purses.)
• Splurge on really good jam and really good bread.
• Always have a flower or a piece of greenery in a vase on your kitchen windowsill. It really helps.
• If you see evidence of mice, set traps immediately. This probably will not apply to 99% of the places you’ll live, (we live in Montana), so take it metaphorically: See s*** for what it is and get rid of the source before it gets out of control.
• If you use To Do lists, get rid of the word “goal” and replace it with “possibility.” You’ll be nicer to yourself that way.
• If you find yourself writing down something that you’ve already done on a To Do list, just so you can cross it off, you might want to stop making To Do lists.
• Allow yourself to grocery shop without a list, but not when you are hungry. You might surprise yourself by what ends up in your grocery cart—like rhubarb or radishes or kale or pistachios!
• Always smell fish before you buy it. If it smells like fish, it’s no good. Also, look into its eyes. They should be clear. This also applies to boyfriends.
• To cut goat cheese, use dental floss. (Unflavored! Duh. Don’t roll your eyes.)
• To make Deviled Eggs, put boiled eggs into cold water/ice bath. When cool, cut in half, shell ON, with sharp knife, then scoop egg out with spoon. Magic!
• Learn how to make homemade chicken broth. (Ask your mother)

Living room:
• Splurge on nice candles. Light them for yourself daily. Light the not-nice ones for guests. Not the other way around.
• Lie on the couch and do other things than watch TV. Like read a book or listen to classical music.
• Watch old movies. You know…back when people used stamps, and women dressed for travel. There’s a lot to learn from the “olden days.”
• Limit TV.
• Listen to NPR. Especially opera on NPR. Pretty much everything you need to know about life is in operas.
• Make sure to have musical instruments and keep them within eye-range so you’ll actually play them. Guitars and pianos welcome group jam sessions.
• Always have a drum somewhere for that person who claims they “aren’t musical.”
• Have board games and cards in a drawer or on a shelf. Play them. Especially Scrabble, backgammon, gin rummy, Farkle, and Scattagories.
• Have guide books and binoculars. It’s good to know your birds and flowers and other critters. Even in the city, there are hawks.

Bathroom:
• Have nice hand towels and nice soap in your powder room. Your guests should feel special.
• Use your powder room. You should feel special too!
• Always have an extra roll of toilet paper in each bathroom.
• And a plunger. (Replace plungers every-so-often, unless you are the type to wash and disinfect toilet plungers. Dirty secret: I’m not. That’s what the second flush is for.)
• Don’t forget to wash the toilet flusher handle when you wash your toilets. They are dearly overlooked. (Try not to think about that too much in hotel rooms.)
• Put nice art in your bathrooms. And magazines. You can learn a lot about a person from their bathroom.
• Supply room spray.

Bedroom:

Don’t be a slob.  Pick up your clothes.  If they’re not dirty, put them somewhere to wear again during the week, like in a hamper in your closet. NOT on a chair. And definitely NOT on your treadmill. Like your mother. Who then forgets she has a treadmill.
• Wash your sheets at least once a month.
• Splurge on nice sheets and feather pillows.
• If the person/people with whom you are sharing your room snore, make sure you have earplugs by your bed.
• Supply your nightstand with books that you want to read when you grow up: a book of poetry, a spiritual text of some sort, a classic novel, something on the best-seller list that is not written by a celebrity.
• If you eat breakfast in bed, use a tray. Crumbs are worse than bed-bugs in some cases, especially if you’ve listened to your mother and splurged on good bread.
• Eat breakfast in bed, but not lunch or dinner. That means you’re depressed.
• Do not let your dog sleep with you. Or your babies. They need a bed of their own, and so do you.
• Sleep in every-so-often. Like till eleven. This will get harder and harder the older you get.

Closet:
• You’re on your own on this one, but do get nice hangers if possible.
• Oh, and do accept that your “skinny” clothes are probably a thing of the past if you haven’t been able to fit into them for a few years…

Office:

Virginia Woolf was right—you need a room of your own, even it’s in an eave, or a closet under a stairway, or (if you’re lucky enough) a whole studio over your garage, or an unoccupied bedroom, or a renovated garden shed.  Claim space for yourself!

• Don’t allow people to come and go without knocking.
• If you have children, always have an available chair in it for them. It’s important to have your own space, but it’s also important that they know that your work does not take away your motherhood.
• This one is really really important: Whatever it is that you do in that office, whether it’s a vocation or avocation, make sure it’s something you love. NOT something that you are necessarily good at. If you happen to be good at what you love, then that’s a bonus, but not a rule!

Outside:
• Have a communal outdoor space that feels like a room in your house, but isn’t exactly…like: A screened porch, fire escape, hammock, hot tub, front stoop, garden or terrace. It doesn’t have to be big. Just a place where you sit at least once every few days and dream a little.

A few extra extras:
• Write handwritten notes on nice stationary to people you love. That’s where the stamp comes in…
• Try not to kill bugs. If they’re inside, put a mason jar over them and take them outside. They do elegant things like lick the wax off the peony buds so that they can bloom. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.) (Mice are a different story. If you’ve had one die in the walls, you’ll know what I mean.)
• Practice Yes and Possibility instead of No and Not Possible. Positive begets positive and negative begets negative. You don’t want the latter.
• Have fun, for crying out loud! Life is beautiful and heartbreaking any way you slice it so you might as well enjoy the ride!
• There is no such thing as cool.
• Judge not.
• Don’t mistake a full schedule for a full life. If you find yourself saying, “There’s never a dull moment,” you should probably make it a goal to have at least one “dull moment” every day.
• Take walks. (especially in the rain)
• Sing.
• Dance.
• Read poetry.
• Have dogs.
• Grow a garden.
• Travel.
• Create the sacred wherever you are.
• Be kind to old people and remember they know a lot more than you do. Ask them to tell you their stories.
• Know that there are saints everywhere. Look for them. They’re often where you least expect it.
Call your mother. Texting is a challenge since she can never find her reading glasses. Plus, she likes to hear your voice. It reminds her of lying in bed with you when you were little, reading books, singing, praying, watching the moon, dreaming. And she loves you no matter what, which is hard to find.
DRINK WATER

graduation_cap

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Mother’s Day Haven

Do you know a mom who needs a break?  Who longs desperately to dig deeper into her creativity?  Who always talks about how she wants to write but doesn’t have time, doesn’t know how to find “me” time, needs an adventure?  Are you one of them?  Are you spending time booking your kids for summer camp and internships right now?  What about you?  Who takes care of you?  Who says, “Mom, you know how you are always talking about writing that book, or how you used to love to write in school but you haven’t had time since?”  Unfortunately, most of us moms don’t have those champions.  We have to champion ourselves.

In the woods of Montana…there is a place for you.  I designed the retreat I needed and I hold them year round.  I am now booking for my summer and fall Haven retreats.  Come re-charge.  Be nurtured.  Supported.  Challenged.  And inspired.  All in the place that has been my muse for 20 years.  I want to share my Haven with you.  Please give yourself this gift.  If you don’t, who will.  YOU DESERVE IT!  Contact me at laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

yrs. Laura

August 7th-11th
September 4th-8th
September 18th-22nd


1.The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new. ~Rajneesh
2.God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers. ~Jewish Proverb
3.“Most of all the other beautiful things in life come by twos and threes by dozens and hundreds. Plenty of roses, stars, sunsets, rainbows, brothers, and sisters, aunts and cousins, but only one mother in the whole world.” -Kate Douglas Wiggin
4.“There is no way to be a perfect mother, and a million ways to be a good one” – Jill Churchill
5.Mother’s love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved.- Erich Fromm, psychologist
6.“A mother understands what a child does not say.” -Jewish proverb
7.”Woman knows what man has long forgotten, that the ultimate economic and spiritual unit of any civilization is still the family. -Clare Boothe Luce
8.“A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials, heavy and sudden, fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine, desert us when troubles thicken around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.” -Washington Irving
9.“When you were small and just a touch away, I covered you with blankets against the cold night air. But now that you are tall and out of reach, I fold my hands and cover you with prayer. Dona Maddux Cooper
10.’The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.’ ~ Honore de Balzac
11.’A mighty power and stronger Man from his throne has hurled,For the hand that rocks the cradle Is the hand that rules the world.’~ William Ross Wallace

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Kendama– Buttons paused!

A strange thing has occured in our little ski town since the holiday season.  The local sporting goods store carried and featured
this Japanese wooden toy called Kendama and now…kids everywhere can be seen flicking
their wrists and sending this little red wooden ball into the air, hoping to
have the trajectory meet with the toy’s wooden spike or either of its wooden
cups.  As if it’s 1920 and they’re shooting
marbles or playing with a yo-yo, or a top.

So many kids are obsessed with Kendama in our town, the Middle School
banned it as if it were a cell phone or ipad.
It’s positively life-renewing in our tiny-screened button-pushing world
that a wooden toy which likely had its origin in the 18th century,
is so shiny to our  21st century
kids that its ban-worthy.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

To play with a kendama, one holds
the toy, pulls the ball upward so that it may be caught in one of the cups or
land the hole on the spike. More advanced tricks are sequential balances,
juggles, and catches. There are endless possibilities of tricks with a kendama.
[2] There are eleven prescribed moves on
the kendama trick list for achieving a kyu ranking and several more for
a dan ranking. A 1-kyu rating, for example, is attained by simply
catching the ball in the largest cup. A book published by the Japan Kendama
Association lists 101 different tricks for the toy and there are supposedly
tens of thousands of trick variations.[3] Different stances and grips are
required to perform different tricks.

While most people play with
kendamas for personal satisfaction, competitions do take place, especially in
Japan. Participation in such competitions entails performing lists of tricks in
sequence or completing particular tricks repeatedly for as long as possible.
Additionally, tricks may be performed head to head with a rival to determine a
winner. The competitor who is first to fail a trick loses.

In the trick moshikame (もしかめ?), the ball is juggled between the big cup
and the smallest cup at the bottom repeatedly. A Japanese children’s song of
the same name is often sung to help with timing.

I don’t know the song, but if I
could write one myself I would say:

Oh happy little sound clip clop
clip clop

In my living room, please don’t
stop

Yes I’ll watch yes I’ll watch

My sweet pre-teen

Anything to see your face free
from the screen

Kendama I love you

I worship at your altar

May you take on all things button

And make them falter.

Something like that.

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Certainly Uncertain

As published on the Huffington Post, and Relationship Advice Cafe

I know my way around uncertainty. Namely in the form of marital crisis. I wrote an essay and a memoir about a particular season of my life in which my husband wanted out of the marriage. I felt that he was in a deeper crisis of self, brought on by career failure. And rather than “kick him to the curb,” as so many have told me would be their reaction, I chose to hold the space for him to get through it. I had limits. I wasn’t going to go on like that forever. But I loved him and had twenty years invested in the life we’d created together—two wonderful children, a farmhouse in Montana, a life we’d so deliberately built. I privately gave him six months and stood back while he behaved in ways that challenged me to the core. I practiced living in the present moment, focusing on what I could control and what I could create, letting go of the rest and trying not to take his actions personally. My commitment was not to suffer emotionally. This was his issue, not mine, but when you are in a marriage, the actions of your spouse are likely to ultimately affect your emotional and even physical safety, especially the overall climate of the family. It was my job to keep my children’s life as normal and safe as possible, hold down the “fort,” as it were, and communicate with them throughout. We can love and respect someone, but not necessarily love and respect their choices. Life isn’t always black and white. Crisis does not have to be your undoing. These were the concepts I tried to model for them.

It was a fine line I walked…between taking a stand for myself and my own well-being, (as well as that of my children), and giving my husband the space to work through his crisis. Three years later, things are not all tied up in a pink bow. Not at all. I don’t look at marriage like that. Marriage is about ebb and flow. And some marriages are meant to end. Mine has never been a strategy to stay married. Mine has been a philosophy about how to live your life during hard times, especially when you are dealing with rejection—something I know all too well from being a writer and dealing with the publishing world. People like to use my story as an example of how to save a marriage, but to me, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about living in the grey zone and how to cope, moment by moment.

For whatever reason, I have been given the opportunity to learn much about crisis and have often asked myself: How long is too long? When is it time to move on? Even if you still hold hope that your spouse is going to heal and come back as an equal loving partner, at what point is it taking a toll on your well-being and even your health? At what point do you model graceful endings to your children? There is no rule. There is no road map. Each marriage has its complexities and mysteries that cannot be understood from the outside. Or even sometimes from the inside. It’s a fruitless pursuit to judge that which you do not understand, even though people seem to consider it a lusty sport on the internet.
I do know this for sure: life is ever-changing, ever-evolving. Ever-uncertain. When the kids were little, it felt static. My life was measured by nap times and play dates. Now with one in high school and one in middle school, each day brings last minute “surprises”: “Mom, I just remembered, I have a soccer meeting tonight at 7:00.” There goes the roast chicken/dinner around the table fantasy. “Mom, can I spend the night at Ryan’s tonight and then go skiing tomorrow with his family?” There goes the family game night/popcorn fantasy.

It turns out that a lot of what I have built is in fact, a fantasy, or in laymen’s terms: goal-driven. And while those fantasies/goals might have been sustainable when the kids were little, they aren’t now. Everybody has their own needs now and voice them boldly…and we dance together to meet them, not always well. Life has turned into more of a democracy in our home than anything else. And there is always the knowledge that you just might get voted down. What was familiar and felt “safe” not long ago, has been replaced with surprises. Some bittersweet. I have been there for my children every step of the way. Very suddenly, that changed. The last two years I’ve been travelling, promoting my memoir and doing speaking engagements. I’ve worked a long long time for career success and on top of it, we need the money. Because I live in rural Montana, that means I can’t commute into New York City to do a reading at a library while the kids are at school, or pop up to Boston to speak at a fund-raising luncheon. It means that I am on tandem-airplanes, thousands of miles away from home and usually for at least three days. The constructs upon which I co-built this family are different now. We have been through upheaval. We have learned that upheaval is the natural course of life. It doesn’t have to be “bad” or scary or resisted. There is no such thing as the perfect family. But no matter what, we know that we love each other.

Life is ever-changing, ever-evolving. I have learned that when we accept the “groundlessness” of that, as the Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chodron says, when we breathe into it and find that there is actually comfort in the not-knowing, it’s easy to hold that space. For going slowly and not projecting into the future, worrying about the turns life might take. I read a quote recently: Something to the tune of—“if you worry about something and then it actually happens, then you’ve worried twice. And if it doesn’t happen, you’ve worried in vain.” I want to live my life like that. Not in an ode to what I had envisioned. But to what’s actually happening. Right now. In this moment. Certainly uncertain.

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The Anti-Martha Stewart


I have had my share of Christmas trees fall down in my forty-five years. Lost balloons. Fallen souffles. Cancelled flights. Burnt toast. Tough meat. Lemon cars. I wouldn’t call myself unlucky. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I can say that the butterflies of Christmases past have sort of flown the coop. In the last few years, I’ve mildly dreaded the Holiday season for all its glut and Amazon boxes and blow-up Costco snowmen and braggadocio holiday cards with “perfect” families in matching white linen on a beach…only for it all to end in a hemmorage of ribbons and bows and tape and wrapping paper, kicked into the mudroom and eventually burned.

I miss the little girl in me that used to sit in her window seat and gaze at the moonlit snow– who knew a holy night when she saw one. I’ve become resentful somehow of Christmas. In other words, I’d like to punch the Kay Jewelers people in the throat. It begins with the manic Black Friday and ends in buyers’ remorse and an overheated living room full of things you thought for a few weeks you couldn’t live without and turns out…you could. For a holiday that is supposed to be about love and wonder incarnate and stopping to honor it, I’m with Charlie Brown–Christmas has gone berserk. Mostly what I’ve come to resent is the expectation.

This year I’ve decided to rethink Christmas altogether. I don’t need to bully myself into feeling “the Christmas spirit.” It doesn’t need to be a season that erases pain and promises much of anything. It can be whatever it needs to be this year. I want to go lightly and untraditionally. I want to see if Christmas comes without ribbons and bows, Grinch-style. I got It’s A Wonderful Life over with last week. It’s just not going to be like that. We’ll fight over the Christmas tree. Ornaments will break. Somebody won’t get the latest in technology they’ve been begging for. Somebody will forget a god-child’s gift. In fact, this year, so far, I’ve done it all “wrong.” It’s the 12th and I haven’t bought one gift. I didn’t plan a Christmas photo shoot– in fact, our card shows the four of us with greasy hair standing on a marginally frozen lake, taken by a complete stranger. I didn’t get my paper whites forced so we’ll have those beloved white blooms in time for Valentine’s day. We’re not having our sledding party– we can’t afford it. There’s no snow on the ground anyway. And yesterday, the tree fell over.

I used to do it all so well. Year after year. A Dickens-worthy Christmas party with a half mile of luminaria lovingly leading our guests up our snowy driveway. Live music and caroling and roast beasts laid out in my grandmother’s best china and silver on the diningroom table. Handmade cedar garlands splayed on the mantle, the olive wood creche placed lovingly in its branches. Pepper berries dripping from the crystal chandelier. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters cued up for the kid’s race down the stairs, all filmed with a fully charged movie camera. Santa had special wrapping paper. My father’s 1925 Lionel train ran around the dining room while we read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Visitor. Gingerbread houses. Cookies from scratch with marbled icing. Neighborhood gifts (usually homemade jam) delivered by Flexible Flyer and smiling children in hand knit hats. Sing-along Messiah. It all sounds exhausting to me this year. Maybe those butterflies will come anyway. But I’m not forcing them to.

I’m just going to let Christmas carry me this year. Quietly. Little moments in pjs. A walk in the woods with the dogs, even if no one wants to come with me. I’m making CDs for people. That’s about it. Sorry if you’re on my list. In fact yesterday when my son and I were making Christmas cookies, we got so giddy we started using the dough on the other side of the cookie cutters. So along with our santas and stars and gingerbread men, we made cookies that look a lot like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and alligators. We almost wet our pants we were laughing so hard.

That’s what I want this Christmas to be. That’s my expectation: to expect nothing. And to trust that grace happens when we least expect it.

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An old friend, this poem. Kipling.

I had this poster on my dorm room wall.  It needs no introduction, however, pay attention to the first few lines….IF…..

IF you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

If
you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If
you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,

if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

 


 

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Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, Motherhood, My Posts

Mommy’s Got Talent

As seen on the Huffington Post

For 13 years I had one consistent role and I performed it well. It’s been my primary area of expertise and with it I have molded social groups and inspired movers, shakers, and decision makers. I’ve given sustenance to the thirsty, hungry, sick, needy and taught the illiterate to read and write. I’ve served as professor emeritus in the fields of Comparative Religion, English, Earth Science, Physics, Chemistry, Music, Ethics, Political Science, Economics, Architecture and others. Without me, there are small civilizations that wouldn’t have thrived. Ok, one very small civilization. Comprised of two people, a king, and a queen. The king has spent these years ruling other civilizations by day. The queen has stayed at home, ruling the one of which I write. And the civilization has thrived in every way the queen hoped in health, wealth, and wisdom.

Until she quit her day job and became a businesswoman.

The civilization, as you have surmised, is my family. The queen is me. The king, my husband. While it’s a woman’s liberated “civilization,” it’s fairly traditional. My husband has been the bread-winner. I’ve stayed home with the kids. Both of us happily so. I love creating teaching opportunities with my children, doing art projects, gardening, cooking, playing games, reading. I’ve been that mother at the kitchen counter with her kids on chairs next to her, hulling strawberries for jam to can for Christmas gifts. I’ve spent hours singing them folks songs, their fingers taking rides on mine as we crawl up and down the piano keys. It’s been what you might call, “an enviable life” in the house of my motherhood. I’ve been deeply grateful for the choice to be at home with my children and it’s fed me like nothing else.

I’m also a writer. I’ve been writing since college, and so I entered motherhood knowing my craft, working during their naps, freelancing to help with family costs, and indulging my greatest personal passion: novel writing. I’ve written many novels over the years — not all good ones; many of them exercises in learning. So while my kids learned to walk, talk, eat, cut paper, use glue… I grew as a writer. All-the-while, I had a dream: to get a book published. To have readers. To speak at bookstores and in libraries across America. To write something that would help people in the same spirit of my motherhood. Only this dream was about my journey, not theirs.

I believed this was a healthy thing to teach my children, when they were old enough to wonder what I was doing in my office. “Mommies and daddies have lives of their own and that’s a good thing.” I’d put my hand on their chests and say, “I’m always here in your heart. No matter what.” And put their hands on mine and say, “And you are always in my heart.” Their knowing nods told me they understood.

Still, after a publishing rejection, I’d say, bittersweet, “Thank God I’m not published yet. How could I justify leaving my kids when they’re so young?” But deep down I was conflicted. I wanted that dream to come true with all of that heart that lived in them and lived in me. It was an inner war I fought every day.

And then in 2009, I got a book deal and everything changed. I had to rethink my motherhood. Suddenly deadlines had me seat-belted to my office chair for long hours, breaking only for meals. Homemade sauces percolating on the stove were forgotten for, yes, Stouffer’s frozen lasagna. A who-are-you-and-what-did-you-do-with-my-mother was in order, and I got it in eyeball rolls, dramatic exits, and out-of-the-blue crying fits. But the truth is that dream or no dream, a change in my husband’s career meant that we desperately needed the money. And this was what presented itself in the way of livelihood. I had his total support and my children’s blessing, so they said.

But then the travel began and I became a second-class citizen in my own home. I’d return, haggard after 12, cross-country, back-to-back events in 10 days, and the kids would ignore me. Suddenly it was “Dad, I need you to sign this for school,” and “Dad, where are my cleats?”

I liked that he was such a presence in their daily lives. I didn’t like that I wasn’t.

So I hired a therapist. “You need to tell them this is what career success looks like for now. Things are different. They’re still safe. You still love them. Children are manipulators. You’ve done nothing wrong.” But it didn’t feel that way. I felt that I had done something very wrong. And maybe it was because of the mother I’d been all those years.

Would they have been better off in day care? More well-adjusted, flexible, less reliant on a mother who eagerly pushed them on the swing of life; answered every why-is-the-sky-blue question. Maybe Legos don’t count as Architecture, and lemonade stands don’t speak much for Economics, nor Chutes and Ladders for Physics, nor bedtime discussions about God for World Religion, nor patching up playground-politics-gone-amuck in the way of Ethics. Maybe those efforts feel like a slap in the face when the creator of them is out the door again with her roller bag and a plane to catch.

In all my career dreams, I never imagined I’d lose my power in this little civilization. Or that I’d fail it. And no matter how many hugs I give, or muffins I make, or soccer games I drive eight hours in both directions to support… I can’t seem to redeem myself. Maybe it’s because they’ve had to swallow a sudden bitter pill: their mother is a human being with dreams and needs and talent. Didn’t they know this? Did I sell them a myth in Band-aids and bedtime stories? Did I omit the fact that dreams-come-true sometimes take you far from home? Why must I be the first to break their hearts?

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Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, Huffington Post Blog Pieces, Motherhood, My book: This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, My Posts

Montana Mudpies

When my children were very young, I often read them a wonderful book I love called Mudpies and Other Recipes by Marjorie Winslow, who is a shirt-tail relative of mine. We had many mudpie parties where the kids made up a menu and served their creations to their dolls and stuffed animals. I love that at fifteen and eleven, my children are still making them.

Here are a few sample recipes from Margorie’s book, and what they inspired in my yard this fine summer day:

 

Pine Needle Upsidedown Cake

Sage Sushi
Sunflower Torte

Sunflower Torte

Tea and Toast

Tea and Toast

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Bullies Posing as Adults (coming to a neighborhood near you…)


as seen in the Huffington Post
If you ask a kid these days what’s the number one issue they hear about in school, they’ll usually say, “bullying.” Then they might follow it with the school acronym. Around here it’s: P.R.I.D.E. (personal responsibility is a daily expectation.) It’s spoken over the PA by the principal, the whole school shaking with his thunderous, authoritative, almost militaristic voice. He speaks, the kids listen. The parents are appreciative. They don’t remember this even being on the charts in their school systems growing up. In fact, if we were bullied, we were taught to hide it. We’d done something to deserve it. Shame on us. These days, it seems like schools have an awareness toward interpersonal relations that is far more evolved than what it was not so long ago. Think of all the playground scenes from movies of yore with kids picking on each other, huge brawls breaking out, a school marm sending the wrong kid home with his book-bag to his Grapes of Wrath homefront, a rabid dog, a father on the front porch with a bottle of moonshine. Heck, even Opey got bullied on the Andy Griffith Show. In those days you hid it, or you got even. Which meant you probably got sent home again.

Now the kids are taught to report bullying as if they’ve witnessed a drug deal. There are serious repercussions. They even have bullying classes, wherein they’re taught to take a stand for themselves by saying, “That’s not appropriate,” then tell a teacher. They’re taught to diminish it by using humor, “Wow– THAT felt really good. Thanks for the compliment,” and then tell a teacher. Or ignore it, and then tell a teacher.

I recently taught a fifth grade class and added this to the bullying issue: “Just remember,” I said, “even if someone says something really mean, no one can actually make you mad or cry or feel guilty. Our emotions are always our choice. There’s no such thing as an emotional victim. Not that pain isn’t real. And if someone hits you, well that’s another story. You can’t control a bloody nose. But emotionally, it’s different.”

I’ve been crossing the country sharing this message with people who often seem like this is new news. I like to say, “What if someone told you that emotions are your choice when you were ten years old? Wouldn’t you have lived your life differently?” The heads nod.

Webster’s defines a victim as such:
n. 1. A living being sacrificed to some deity, or in the performance of a religious rite; a creature immolated, or made an offering of.

2. A person or thing destroyed or sacrificed in the pursuit of an object, or in gratification of a passion; as, a victim to jealousy, lust, or ambition.

3. A person or living creature destroyed by, or suffering grievous injury from, another, from fortune or from accident; as, the victim of a defaulter; the victim of a railroad accident.

So nowhere does ol’ Noah talk about choice. He seems to imply that “grievous injury” is both emotional and physical, as in being slain on an altar, or being jealous, lustful, ambitious. But nowhere does this definition come with choice. I’d like to take a look at this for a moment. Here’s the context:

Recently, I was at a baseball game. The coaches were adults. The players were in middle school. In this sporting system, it is up to the coaches of the opposing team to name the MVP for their competing team. I think this is a grand idea. What a good way to show the players that we can be opposing forces and also supportive at the end of the competition. That people can be your champion even if they are “the enemy” because there’s no REAL enemy in sports. It’s a game. The human spirit is above such small-mindedness. The human spirit is ultimately about the positive, yes? Right? Right?

And when the coach from the other team announced the home team’s MVP, he said, knowing full well that all the players were boys, “Let’s give it to the girl on first base.” And all the kids from both teams laughed and some people in the stands too, and that kid, whose hair tis true, was a bit on the longish surfer side of things, went to receive his MVP medal with a look of dismay and embarrassment in his face.

This is a kid who lets things like this roll right off him. Who makes a point to see the glass half full. Who happens to like his hair a little long. But if it was a rule to have it short, he’d happily comply. He’s not trying to make a point, after all. It’s just a matter of preference. It’s a free country, isn’t it? But that look of dismay came from real pain.  Because when you’re a kid, and an ADULT slams you one, it’s confusing.  You didn’t know that adults could be bullies.  That’s not being spoken over the school PA system…

Think about it:  how is this different than saying, “Give it to the fat kid on first base.” Or the “faggot.” And what if the kid ran more on the sensitive side of things? What then?

The next day, the kid came to his game with short hair. I was sorry for him. I was sorry for the people who laughed. But mostly, I was sorry for that coach. Because he took a situation in which he was given an opportunity to practice grace, to lift up someone who’d done a good job, and recognize him even if he was for a time, considered the opposition. He had an opportunity to make the world a better place just then, and be a living example of kindness, positivity, integrity. But not only did he disregard his charge as role model and responsible adult, he gave a gift and took it away at the same time by trumping praise with judgment. Disapproval. And yes, sexism.

He should have been sent to the principal’s office. Instead I’m sending him to the Huffington Post and to my blog. Because in these here hills, and maybe in yours too, adults can act worse than kids. And I think that in that case, kids have every right to apply what they learn in bullying class, and tell a teacher. And that repercussions follow. And with teenage suicide being what it is, that’s what I mean by repercussions. Coach.

Lighten up, you say? It was just a joke? The world can’t always be fair.

No.  I will not lighten up. 

I’ll say this instead: Grow up. Or maybe in a language you might understand better: Man up. Or in the principal’s resounding voice: FOUR LETTERS…P.R.I.D.E.

But most of all, coach, thank you for giving that kid a teaching opportunity– to practice the pure fact that no one can make him feel bad. If he gets his hair cut, well…as unfortunate as it is that he changed his personal preference based on public humilitiation brought on by adult bullying…his emotions around it are still his choice.

Hopefully you’ll remember that the next time someone calls you an a**hole.

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