Haven Winter Blog Series: My Haven

IMG_0522Come wander in your words at a Haven Writing Retreat in 2018!
You don’t have to be a writer to come. Just a seeker who dearly longs for your voice.

Now Booking Haven I Retreats for 2018! Click here for more info.

February 28-4
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year I give my blog over to my Haven Writing Retreats alums for a week or so, and ask them to write on a theme. This year it’s this question: What is your haven and how do you show up for it? 

Here is my answer.

My Haven

Noha Al-Kadhi

My Haven

It has been a steady flood of colossal losses.

Within a window of six years, grief depleted me, starting with the tragic loss of my father, followed by that of my grandmother, only to be shortly shadowed with the sudden parting of my Basma, and ending–as it all started–tragically, with my husband passing away in my arms.

In the aftermath of those irreplaceable losses, I found myself in a position of choosing between doing what is right as opposed to what is popular. I chose the former.

And in doing so, I also lost a great deal.

In the wake of these past six years, which seemed the longest of my life, yet shortest…

Years that have been tremendously challenging, yet rewarding…

In the outcome of the immense losses, I have found great gain…

In these years, I have grown and risen from the brinks of despair only to find hope and optimism…

And in this process, I have learned how much I can endure and persevere…

How much I can continue to give, receive, and carry on, even if that meant starting from scratch and rebuilding from square one.

And as I slowly emerge from this prolonged submersion, as I finally begin to catch my breath, as I start to settle in from all the chaos, and gradually quiet the noise surrounding everything that was once a part of me but now ceases to be…

I gradually wean myself off conventional notions and comfort zones and embark on a new path, a new life, trenching foreign ground where true colors bloomed into authentic bonds, and others dissolved into nothingness.

I have come to taste, feel, and touch the motions of recovery, the liberation of detoxification, and the freedom of sacred spaces, along with the comfort of solitude and learning diverse paths towards replenishing one’s energy.

Throughout this journey, I have come to discover my haven.

It is the harbor that I cannot identify as a single place, action, person, or object.

I have always found haven in my sons’ eyes, their smiles, in their happiness and joy.

I have found haven in old friendships and new ones alike, and all of which have never ceased to show up and stand tall.

I have found haven in the abundance of love with which my family continues to fuel my soul.

I am privileged to have found haven in the support from those I never expected, the many beautiful souls and countless faces that have touched my heart and blessed my life, regardless of the element of place where continents stand distances and oceans divide spaces.

Haven in the peacefulness of my powdery blue clad bedroom, perched on my dark blue armchair that sits in the far right corner beside the tall window that faces north.

Haven upon the gold colored padded mat, embroidered in arabesque designs, placed at the perfect angle towards Mecca, on which I kneel covered in my cotton cream wrap, my forehead to the ground whilst the call for sunrise prayer sounds euphoniously in the distant background.

Haven in my father’s memory, my eternal haven, my guardian angel…the soul of my soul and the heart of my heart.

These are all my havens and the refuge from all the mayhem.

However, my real haven lives in me…and it has emerged in the process of self-discovery, as I continue to recognize the fragments of myself that got lost as I traveled through the motions of existing, as I welcome and as I begin to realize who I am indeed.

In trusting my path and allowing it to merely be…knowing I am forever held, unceasingly cradled, and eternally supported.

I have found all these havens, in which I have come to witness how a world of love can guide a person safely back home.

Studio 14

Wendy Yellin Hill

Wendy Hill

The day I sign the lease for my very first painting studio – an enormous, double-storied space with four very large, and very empty, walls — I feel so utterly unqualified that I am sure the landlord sees the word “Fraud!” written in neon letters on my forehead. I mean, sure, I talk a good game: I chatter away at cocktails parties how I worked for the late, great Irving Penn (true), that I trained as a photographer in NYC (also true if training is tantamount to wandering around the East Village with a camera), and that I have “always” painted. But by “always” what I really mean is that I take an occasional painting class when my schedule (read: family) permits. The classes are sporadic — they are often cancelled due to weather — and I lack discipline. As I push paint around, hoping for a good result or a compliment from a succession of increasingly random art teachers, I know that I am going to leave my paintings behind when the semester ends.

I soon realize that I will never become a painter, at least not a good one, by attending 3-hour art classes at the local JCC standing elbow-to-elbow with octogenarians in comfortable shoes. The classes afford me neither the space nor the time to actualize what is in my head. Thus, I want a studio of my own. But, still. What business do I have renting a studio in a building filled with real artists? Who am I kidding? When I sign the lease my palms are sweaty. I try not to flinch when the landlord hands me the key, because at this point in my head-movie she’s laughing hysterically, ripping up my lease and kicking me out the door. In reality, she just smiles and shows me to Studio 14.

The tenant before me has left two couches so I sit down and look around. Those four very large and very empty walls look back. I try not to panic. I remind myself that this is what I want: my own painting studio. I beat down the urge to flee.

And then I notice something: how quiet it is. My panic subsides as I realize that I am the only person in the room. No other painters, no teachers, no husband or kids. Just me. My studio.

I can do whatever I want.

My first paintings are acrylics on 60” x 60” canvases. In art class, I oil painted on small canvases, but in my studio something is unleashed. I buy cases of super-sized canvases and big brushes. I buy tubs of the boldest and brightest paints I can find. I fill a spray bottle with water and start to experiment. My acrylics, heavy-duty, full-bodied and lush, become drippy and wild when sprayed with water. I paint, all day, every day. I paint huge flowers and then color fields. I paint from photos and from imagination. I paint people and then abstracts. I paint using only black. While I would love to tell you that every painting is fabulous and they all sell like hot cakes, neither is true. Yet what happens is even better. I start to learn. I begin to really see. I become immersed in what had previously eluded me: the process, the actual problem solving, of painting.

It has been two years since I opened the door to Studio 14. I now paint in a way I never dreamed possible. And as my skills have improved, so have I.

In my studio, my haven, I am now, unabashedly, a painter.

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Haven Winter Blog Series: My Haven

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Come wander in your words at a Haven Writing Retreat in 2018!

You don’t have to be a writer to come. Just a seeker who dearly longs for your voice.
Now Booking Haven I Retreats 2018! Click here for more info.

February 28-4
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year I give my blog over to my Haven Writing Retreats alums for a week or so, and ask them to write on a theme. This year it’s this question: What is your haven and how do you show up for it?

Here is my answer.

My Haven

Heather Higinbotham

Heather Higinbotham

I’ve always had this dream of having a writing studio, an awesome and relaxing place where I could finally “be a writer.” It swirls around my subconscious like a familiar forgotten home: a cozy couch and fairy lights and teapot and library, a cool old writing desk and typewriter. Floor to ceiling picture windows, the snow whispering secrets outside. I’ve been daydreaming about this a lot lately, as I scramble from one life crisis to the next, scattered and stressed and having not picked up my journal in months.

I could make excuses about why I haven’t been writing, about how I don’t have the right writing spot, or the clutter on my desk hinders my mental clarity, or how life has been “soooo busy…” (eye roll). I could tell myself that someday I will be a real writer, once things settle down and I pay off my debt and start saving for my daughter’s college and can afford to spend my time on things that aren’t income generating.

I could, but I’m too tired of always operating from a place of scarcity. This has been my default for most of my life: never enough time, never enough money, never enough…anything.

This shifted for me a few years ago, when I unexpectedly found myself with an extra hour after an early morning run, before I had to get my daughter and me off to school and work. Something stopped me from my auto-pilot status quo, from doing what I should have—laundry, emails, something productive—and I made myself a cup of tea and sat on my back deck watching the sunrise. That was a luxury as a single mom working full time and attending grad school I could never afford myself.

I have started nearly every morning these past few years with my tea and mental white space. No matter the weather, no matter how early I have to wake up to gift myself this time. I don’t meditate, I don’t think about my to-do list. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I just sit. Almost without fail, by turning my brain off, my poems and words are suddenly clear and bursting to be let out into the world.

I now realize that my haven is not a physical place; it is a conscious choice. My haven is the simple act of breathing. Listening. Venting. Giving myself the space to not make my brain or body work, but to be curious and open about whatever my soul needs in this moment.

My haven is scraps of paper stashed in random places, stranded thoughts I don’t want to lose. I steal time at stoplights and stockpile words in every nook and cranny I can find. It is scribbled chicken scratch half written in dreams. My haven is fleeting at times, but always lingering in my periphery.

Most of all, my haven is learning to be gentle with myself. To know that no matter how crazy life gets, all I have to do is stop, and breathe, and remember that the time and space I need is up to me to choose.

Summoning the Owl

Michelle Roberts

Michelle Roberts

“Call on line two!” Phones still ringing.

“There’s a customer in the warehouse!” our manager announces from the doorway.

“I’m sorry. Could you repeat the credit card number? I couldn’t hear you.” Finger in my left ear.

In my twenties, I wouldn’t have believed that one day I’d be daydreaming about cubicles.

But working in an open office with three other salespeople, phones ringing and everyone talking at once, can make even half walls sound like a luxury.

As it is, two of our four walls don’t quite reach the ceiling, so the caveman intercom is our low-tech paging system.  Some days I don’t realize how noisy it is until my coworker turns off his small desk fan. The constant drone is only obvious in its absence.

A recent study found that two hours of silence led to cell recovery in the memory and emotional center of laboratory mice’s brains. There are days that I leave work needing more cell recovery than others.

Fortunately, my haven is just outside my front door. In our neighborhood, fourteen miles of walking trails wind around lakes bordered by century oaks.

I lace up my shoes with my head still buzzing like the desk fan. Blocks away and headed to Central Lake, my shoulders fall and my lower back loosens. My breath brings me back to my body as my mind clears. Instead of knots in my stomach, I feel the strength in the muscles of my hips and legs. The breeze along the lake is cotton on my skin.

Taking pictures of the same trees and bends in the trail, I capture the fading light at sunset as it glows through the Spanish Moss. No two photos are ever the same and it helps to see the beauty in the changing scenery. Reflecting on the fifteen years since we moved in, I can appreciate the differences in me. This is where I write. Each walk makes space for thoughts to come calling and the inspiration to enter. On especially magical days, the words are fully written by the time I reach my door.

By now it’s darker on the far side of the lake. Dusk is the perfect time to spot an owl, so I summon one. Over the years I’ve shared the trails with raccoons, birds, deer, a stray crawfish and a mother fox with the morning hunt still in her teeth. So often others pass without noticing their company, so I give them a special audience when they appear. These animal totems connect me to nature and the present moment, slowing my pace and my pulse.

Watching the trees, I hear him before I see him and, just as I’m passing, a Great Horned owl swoops across the trail to a branch high in the oaks. I stop. With only his silhouette visible against the sky, his head turns then faces me and I wait. Two runners with headphones speed past. My quiet deficit keeps me there. Soaking up the calm of standing still. When it’s time, in silence he flies across the lake and I continue on. In silence.

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Haven Winter Blog Series: My Haven

IMG_0007Come wander in your words at a Haven Writing Retreat in 2018!
You don’t have to be a writer to come. Just a seeker who dearly longs for your voice.

Now Booking Haven I Retreats for 2018: Click here for more info!

February 28-4
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year I give my blog over to my Haven Writing Retreats alums for a week or so, and ask them to write on a theme. This year it’s this question: What is your haven and how do you show up for it? 

Here is my answer:

I spend so much of my time in community with people who love the written word, inspiring them with guided writing prompts and the pristine wilderness that Montana offers. I love it. I love the bonds they make, I love to actually witness them finding their unique voice, I love hearing their minds stretch and grow, I love the look in their eyes as we hug goodbye, I love hearing these words, “You have no idea how much Haven just changed my life.” 

When I decided to lead writing retreats and workshops, it only made sense to call it Haven. My writing life has always been just that. It’s where I go when I’m scared or curious or proud or in love with life. I go there every day, usually in the morning, with a cup of jasmine green tea, in a small bedroom with coffee-brown walls, a pale-lavender day bed, paintings and prints hung all over the walls, the chest that my father was laid upon when he was born, a few dented file cabinets, a closet filled with unpublished books…and an armoire placed in a bay window which holds my computer, a shelf of first edition books, quotes and photos and museum postcards on the inside of the armoire doors, which I keep open, guts out, just like the way it feels to write. It’s dark and messy in that little room. I like it that way.

But it wasn’t until I started writing in community that I understood how good it feels to be inside-out with other people who are willing to expose themselves too. People who love the written word aren’t really in it to stay in shallow water. They want to take deep dives into dark, cold water and they want to come up with something in their hand that they can use back on shore. And they’re willing to go as far as they can, scrape the rocky bottoms with their knuckles and even their faces, even if they use up every last bit of breath and come up bloodied and gasping for air. But there are cautionary tales to this sort of thing: once you’ve done that a few times, or even once, you’re either a junkie and want more, or you let your better sense take over and you tell yourself that warm shallow waters with soft see-through white-sandy bottoms are much easier. Or maybe you tell yourself that the shore is where you belong. You don’t swim. Not even a toe in. What you once held in your hand wasn’t worth it. Even though it was the best thing you’ve ever held in your hand in all your life. Maybe you stop going to the beach at all.

I’m the other way. I’m a junkie for that knuckle-scraping breathless dive and gasp. I don’t really know who I am without it. I don’t want to know. I haven’t ever let myself think about it. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I don’t know what it is to feel stuck in that way. Other places in my life, you bet. But not there. Even when it feels like it might be the final dive that leaves me swimming up to that light, knowing that there might not be enough breath left to get me back for the gasp, even if it feels like I’m going to drop what’s in my hand and it’s the most rare treasure I’ll ever find…I don’t know how not to live in this way. It is my haven. And I know that it’s not always good for me. At all. Warm shallow waters would be much better for me.

That’s when a gentle voice reminds me: you don’t have to do this alone. You can bring people with you who can help you back to the surface, or support you with oxygen, or tell you when you can dive deeper or when you’ve gone too far. You can have a boat waiting for you at the surface with warm towels and cheers for your bravery and maybe a good lunch. That’s what Haven Writing Retreats and Workshops do for people. And even though I lead it, I still get the chance to do some of the prompts and stretch my mind along with the others in the circle. I get to be with word lovers and wild thinkers and it inspires me to take that deep dive every day.

If you are on the beach watching, I say, come. I have a boat for you. If you are at the bottom of the sea, running out of breath, look up and keep swimming. Reach toward that oar. You don’t have to do this alone. Because even if you’re on the beach, longing to put your toe in, your longing is real. And I promise you: Your longing is worse than running out of breath.

How are you going to find your words, if you aren’t willing to dive for them? You don’t always come up bloody and gasping. Sometimes, it’s a dive of ease, and the sea delivers them to you, shining on a ready rock. But you won’t know if you stay there on the shore, wondering, wanting, longing, waiting.

If words are your haven, I have a place for you. I have treasure for you in Montana. I have people for you. Here are some of their words about their own personal havens, and how they show up for them, whether it’s writing or painting or horses or a place they hold dear. Please enjoy, and take heart: when you’ve longed for too long…it’s time to dive in and see what’s there for you. It might just change your life.

First posts coming your way tomorrow!

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Haven 4:00 a.m. — My Face

Haven (4)

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!  The best holiday gift I can imagine…

 

February 28-4 (a few spaces left!)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

I was lying in bed last night at 4:00 a.m. thinking about my face.  I’d woken with a start from a dream inspired by the look I gave myself in the mirror before I went to bed—ghost of Christmas past.  Bruise-like circles along the insides of my eye sockets, puffy pillows underneath them, a little wobble under my chin, new slack in my jaw, random lines on my neck that cross like airplane wake outside of O’Hare, and land in the boggy décolletage that once held up pretty pert, albeit ample, bosom.  I’m not sure where those went.  I only know that when I sit in bed, they rest on my stomach.  And they sweat.  So sometimes I hike my shirt underneath them to cool off.  Nightmare material, for sure.

I lay there letting the beauty tips I never took reel through my mind. “Don’t forget about your decolletage,” I read in some magazine in my twenties.  Hah.  I’ll defy age by welcoming it, I remember thinking.  I’ll be one of those leathery salt-encrusted cranky Yankee long-grey-haired dowagers.  I’ll tout every age spot.  I’ll wear alligator skin like a Gucci purse.  Only I won’t carry a purse.  I’ll just carry a little old backpack from some place cool where I’ve just been on pilgrimage, like Santiago.  Or Honduras.  Or Botswana.

Thoughts from a girl who dabbled in modeling, and dressed intentionally like a bag to be taken seriously in her twenties.

And now it’s all gone to hell.  And I’m not so sure I want to be that leather lady, after all.

“You have to use what you’ve got, girl,” said the make-up artist on Good Morning America as she stabbed me with her mascara wand.  And she tsk-tsked the way the Korean lady at the express nail salon does when she looks at my hands.

I’ve been lucky.  I never really had acne.  I tan easily.  I didn’t really have any wrinkles until I hit fifty.  But even if I did, I truly believe that I wouldn’t see a plastic surgeon unless I was horribly disfigured.  Not that twenty-five years in cold dry Montana has been exceptionally helpful in the skin department.  Even so, I’ve always been more concerned with what’s going on inside of me, rather than on the outside.

But then it was Thanksgiving, and I was in Chicago visiting family, and I happened upon my old lover, Barneys, and the pull to the lower level found me asking an innocent question, “Can you suggest a good face crème?” to a man wearing make-up, sporting an orange silk scarf.  Before I knew it, I was sitting on a stool, obeying his “look up” “look down” like my life depended on it.  His name was Simon.  Of course it was.  He was sort of British, or maybe sort of Peoria-an.  His real name was probably Doug.  But I fell for him.  Hard.  “Dear, what have you been doing to yourself?  You have to take care of your face.  Look up.”  Before I knew it I was fully facially lubed, powdered, eye-lined, mascara-ed and lip-sticked.

“Look how gorgeous,” he said, and I’m pretty sure he meant his make-over artistry, not my actual face, but I went for it.  A girl needs a compliment from a dolled-up guy named Simon every so often.  And they don’t really make ‘em like that in Montana.

“Thank you,” I said, looking in the mirror, feeling like a woman who is just plain trying too hard to defy her age.  But maybe this was the new me.  Maybe I was going to have to start looking like this painted version of myself.  I started to drink the Kool-aid.  “But all I really need is some good lotion.”

He produced a sleek frosty glass tube and a snug little jar and said, “Face oil.  Firming lotion.  I have women buying these in droves.  These products will absolutely change your life.”

“I’ll take them both.”  I didn’t ask how much.  I just knew I needed them like I needed to have a happy Thanksgiving.  And as I signed the credit card slip, I gasped.  “Two hundred and forty dollars?!  What is it made out of?  Gold and bone marrow and stem cells?  And all of Paris?”

“It’s a fabulous product.  And you only use a little dab at a time.”  And then the old line that estheticians and sellers of multi-level-marketing love to use:  “You know…your skin is your largest organ.”  So now I’m going to go into renal failure if I don’t take out a second mortgage for it?  But it was that “medical emergency” which kept me out of the guilt doghouse as I made my way out of the store, down Michigan Avenue, through Thanksgiving, all the way back to my bed-side table, where my little $240 organ-transplant-preventer now lives.

I lay there at 4:00 a.m. this morning, getting real with myself.  A woman of a certain age, especially with the holiday blues, will do just about anything for the Simons of the world.  I mean, do you think that anyone really buys stupidly expensive skin care products because of the organ angle?  I mean, would you spend $240 on a tube of crème from France for your gall bladder?  Of course not.  That’s just what makes people feel good about all those lotions and potions in our medicine cabinet.  I think we all know that it’s not that we care about our biggest organ.  It’s because it’s the only organ you can actually SEE, and it’s the very one that you get judged for, gain power from, use to attract the potential father of your unborn children.  Saggy neck, crows feet, smile lines…  Would you spend $240 on dandelion and milk thistle tinctures that are supposed to help your liver functions?  Maybe if your liver lived on your face you would.  Let’s “face” it—we want to look young.  The world wants us to look young.  But I’m of my mother’s thinking.  Don’t wash your face with soap.  Lubriderm is just fine, thank you very much, but then again, Santa used to bring us toothpaste and dental floss in our Christmas stocking.  She’s a no frills kind of gal.  I always thought I was too.

In any case, each morning and at bed-time, I pump out a few drops of this liquid gold onto my finger tip, and dab, yes dab, it on my face organ.  And then spread a few dabs of the crème over it.  Is my face any more fabulous?  Apparently not, since it’s showing up in nightmares and waking me up at 4:00 a.m. with my heart racing.  But I think of Simon and his silk scarf and plucked eyebrows and perfect face.  He probably exfoliates.  He probably works at Barneys just so he can get a discount on the liquid gold.  And suddenly, I wish I’d bought the exfoliator too.  “Dear, you have to take care of yourself.”

I’m half way through the infusion, and a third of the way through the lotion, which I’m rationing like potable water.

And at 4:00 a.m., with a still-thick oil slick on my face, in the dark of a Montana winter, I can say, with confidence, “Mr. DeMille.  I’m ready for my close up.”  We’ll see how I feel when it runs out…  I have a feeling it’s back to Lubriderm.
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Haven 4 a.m. Christmas musing…

Haven (4)

Read the original post to this series here.

Nothing that I planned for this Christmas season happened.

And then everything that matters did.

I’m looking at empty nest this fall, and so Christmas at home with the kids, in all of our best traditions, feels especially important.  I keep saying I’m going to be fine in empty nest.  But this time of year, I cry easily anyway.  I’ve been a leaky faucet all December.  I’ve been cooking with my daughter, like I’m facing my death, teaching her every single recipe I know “for the record.”  I’ve been standing and chopping madly, so that I now have carpal tunnel and planter fasciitis.  From cooking?  Don’t athletes get that?  I’m a writer.  My carpals are used to my repetitive motion tapping keyboards.  I guess just not my knife moves.  And all this eating of all these “best of” meals has my stomach in knots.  So when we had a massive weather “event” this week, my kids took to the ski slopes, and I took to my bed, hanging my Santa cap on the Christmas traditions that would certainly carry us in these next days.

It happened, avalanche:

  • The family Christmas Eve party we’ve gone to for 25 years got cancelled.
  • The place where we’ve had Christmas Eve dinner for 25 years couldn’t fit us in.
  • My son announced that he has to work bussing tables Christmas Eve anyway.
  • Ditto the night of the family game/caroling party we always have.
  • All my daughter’s friends are home and vying for her attention.  And even if they wanted to let me hang out with them, I’m no fun at all.  Unless they want to lie on the couch and rub arnica salve into my feet and wrist, drink bone broth, and watch White Christmas and Holiday Inn over and over.  Can’t quite handle It’s a Wonderful Life.  I’ve had one too many George-Bailey-on-the-bridge moments in the last few months, and I’m sure, come Fall, there’ll be too many to count.  So…sing to me, Bing and Fred.
  • And so far none of the presents have arrived because according to the NBC Nightly News, UPS is “having a hard time,” (maybe they need Bing and Fred too).  And let’s not talk about the news.  It’s enough to make me want to curl into an egg nog coma through to New Years and beyond.  Or more like a bone broth coma.  Come to me, Clarence.

And then my friend had to cancel our annual Christmas shopping day with our friend, the Special Olympian, and all around lover-of-life and spreader-of-joy, Cedar Vance.  This is the sacred day when we shop for her mother’s gifts using a carefully planned-out, well-budgeted, Christmas list, but one that in no way can I pull off solo, especially with a limp and a stomach that sounds like it’s churning butter.  Let’s put it this way:  Cedar puts the drop in shop til’ you drop.

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She and her mom feed 30 head of horses twice a day on their Montana ranch, so she’s got…well…stamina.  It was no surprise to anyone that she took home a silver and almost a bronze from the Special Olympics World Winter games at Schladming, Austria last year in the Advanced Giant Slalom for downhill ski racing.  Cedar is a local hero in more ways than one.  She has friends everywhere, and makes them wherever she goes.  It’s like she’s in a constant parade when she’s out in the world.  The more people the better.  The more shiny glittery sugary things, the better.  And so yep– you guessed it:  she loves the big box stores.  I, on the other hand, loathe box stores.  Every year I try to convince her to support the mom and pops on Central Ave. in our little town, but she looks at me like I’m sooooo uncool, and so I give in to the box store pre-amble, and ply her with hot cocoa back in town at the end so I can decompress in our little shops and Christmas bells and boughs that hang across the street like George Bailey’s Bedford Falls, officially shop-dropped.  She humors me, after her tour of Consumption Junction in all its…glory?

But Cedar isn’t about consumerism, per se.  She’s about spreading Christmas cheer.  Singing as absolutely loud as she can in the car on the way, to her favorite:  Alvin and the Chipmunk Christmas album, which is…after the third go-around of Christmas don’t be late… you know…pretty heart-warming, actually.  She’s got her Santa hat with the red Who-ville curlie-que on the top, and she loves to walk into every store saying a brisk, “Happy Merry Christmas!” and waving the Queen’s wave, which she’s done plenty of times because she’s been in about a hundred real life parades and got a kiss on the cheek from Mr. Shriver in the Special Olympics gala tour of Washington, D.C. before launching off to Austria, and, as she’ll tell you with absolutely no ego, received a hug from the Prince of Austria.  Because that’s the thing about Cedar.  She has no ego.  She’s free like I’ve never seen free before.  She rides bareback on horses I wouldn’t dare mount.  She flies down ski hills and hugs her way through Walmart (Cedar loves her some Walmart) on a hunt for her mother’s Christmas present, mentioning that they could also use a new fridge.  And I tell her, “That’s not on the list, my dear,” and she’s off, around the corner, holding a velvet pillow to her face and saying, “my mother would love this.”  And I have to say, “I’m sure she would but she asked for a microwave.”  And people look at me like I’m a bad person.  So into the shopping cart the velvet pillow goes.  And she’s holding a rose, of course, because the woman in the floral department at Costco gave it to her, after she’s eaten triple cream brie, red pepper jelly, and crackers, cornbread, short bread, pretzels, nachos, ham, roasted chicken, and asiago squares and more crackers, and she confesses that she’s allergic to cheese and gluten.  But she’s forgotten about that, because now she’s sure her mother needs a quick-dry hair towel, and I have to break the news that her mother has very short hair and probably would rather have warm socks for all the work she does outside in the bitter cold of winter, but she insists that her mom has plenty of socks and absolutely needs a quick-dry hair towel.  And so…into the cart goes the quick-dry hair towel.  And so it goes.  “Happy Merry Christmas, everyone!” she hollers, especially to people with Christmas sweaters on, and for those people, she includes a hug.  And the whole world melts around her.  Kinda like Eloise, only we’re so everly not at the Plaza, my dear.

So…we’re in the check-out line, our cart full of bags, ready to face the parking lot mayhem. We’ve crossed off everything on the list.  And we’ve even found a few special things we know her mother will just love.  Pony-tail holders, even.  We have three dollars and seventy-three cents left and Cedar’s holding it in one mitten-ed hand, the red rose in the other, and she’s smelling it like it smells like the Garden of Eden, when we all know that Costco red roses don’t smell like anything other than hot dogs and three ply radial tires.  And she says, “I’m going to keep this rose alive forever, just like in Beauty and the Beast, because of looooove.”  And I tell her that she can also dry the petals in case it doesn’t live forever, and she looks at me like I am the Grinch who stole Love incarnate, never mind Christmas.  And then…here’s where I shop ‘til I officially drop.  Drop to my knees:

We walk through the automatic doors pushing our heavy cart, and there’s a Salvation Army man standing there, ringing his bell, and the hanging red bucket hundreds of box store be-dazed shoppers have passed all day.  And Cedar stops at the bucket.  Puts the rose stem in her mouth, of course, because where else would you put it, and carefully folds the three dollar bills in a sort of Olympic origami, and slips them, one at a time, into the bucket.  And then the seventy-three cents.IMG_2870

“Aw…Cedar, that’s so good of you,” I start to say, but then I stop.  Because that Olympian goes over to the man in the Santa hat ringing the bell, and stands on her tip toes and he leans in, and she whispers something into his ear, and hands him the rose, and they hug each other for what seems like a long time…and she waves at him as he holds up the rose, and she says to everyone coming through the automatic doors pushing heavy shopping carts, “Happy Merry Christmas!” and we sing Alvin and the Chipmunks all the way home, as absolutely loud as we can.

“Cedar, what did you whisper to the Salvation Army man?” I say, over hot cocoa on Central Ave. with the red bells and boughs over our heads.

She looks at me churlishly, elf-ishly, loving-ly, and says, “Laura Munson, what do you think I said to him?  I told him Merry Christmas!”

Of course that’s what she said.  And I think…of course, Cedar Vance.  Of course it’s a Merry Christmas.

And then…wouldn’t you know…Christmas came, avalanche:

“We have a spot for you in the dining room on Christmas Eve.”  “We’re having our party after all.”  “I got my shift off, Mom, so let’s have our caroling party.  And on Christmas Eve, I’ll be home by 10:00 after work so we can have our open-one-gift tradition then.”  “There are a bunch of UPS boxes for you over at my house.  I’ll put them in your mail box.”  And guess what?  My stomach…it stopped hurting.  And my wrist and feet too.  Maybe there’ll be egg nog in my future after all.  And maybe next year, we’ll do it all over again.  And maybe when they return to the nest, their mother will be just fine.  Better than fine.  Maybe she’ll learn how to drop to her proverbial knees all the time in wonder and gratitude for the small moments of looooove.

Thank you, Cedar.  Wink wink, Clarence.

IMG_6127Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018
You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind! Come find your voice this February… For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!  The best holiday gift I can imagine… Click here for more info.

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Haven 4:00 a.m.

Haven (4)Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!  The best holiday gift I can imagine…

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

I wake up most every night at 4:00 a.m., and have as long as I can remember.  It can be scary there, in that raw, nascent, dark of night.  It’s when I feel most alone.  As a child, I would listen for the Milwaukee Railroad in the distance, just to know there was someone else awake at that hour.  And it would lull me back to sleep.

I wake for different reasons:

Usually it’s because I’m dreaming something that I know I need to pay attention to, and somehow my conscious mind pulls me out of my unconscious concoction where the world is as weird as it is profound.  Some strand of reality calls and says, “That’s enough of that.  You wandered enough into the wilderness of your creative unconscious.  Now wake up, and stare into the moonlit room of your real world, and lie there in the soft safe pillows and see what it had to teach you.”  It’s a different kind of seeing, in the dark, when you are still more soul than flesh.  Like being born.

Maybe your heart is racing, and you brought yourself back to reality because you thought you might die, being chased like that.  Maybe you saw something you didn’t want to see, and like the hero on her journey, you needed to come back with the elixir to save something of yourself before day wakes.  Maybe you bound yourself into such an impossible situation that you beckoned yourself back into a less complicated world, but with the clear understanding that your real life is just as impossible in its own way, and it’s time to stop the madness.  In every case, what I have dreamed is so exact that I can’t help but believe in a parallel universe.  I mean, how could I have just imagined this house and every single detail of it, when I’ve never laid eyes on it before?  It doesn’t really matter.  I only know that I have.  And that there’s quite likely something to learn from it.  Sometimes I come out of a dream laughing.  Sometimes, I’m weeping.  I believe that I am working out something in my dreams that I’m not quite able to in my life.

Sometimes I wake at 4:00 a.m. dreamless, because the moon is full and it’s shining in my window and flooding my bed in shadows.  Then I just lie there and trace the silhouettes of the fir trees that tower around my house.  I’ve been told that the lungs are replenishing themselves at 4:00 in the morning, so I take deep breaths, usually like this:  in 1..2..3..4..hold 1..2..3..4..exhale 1..2..3..4…  Sometimes I repeat a line to go with the breathing—something I need.  Often it’s Julian of Norwich’s:   all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

4:00 a.m. finds me in a trance.  An in-between place.  Untethered.  Where I meet myself outside of the everything else.  I lie there in that trance, pushing back against full consciousness, and try to receive what there is to feel, know, fear, learn.  But without purchase.  This is the time to let it wash over me to the shores of the waking hour, still far away.  I lie there and let my unconscious mind give itself to my conscious one, however scary, strange, symbolic, even if I forget it by morning.  It’s okay to forget.  I know that what I experience in that trance stays with me in a woven way.  Unseen.  But sometimes there is something so powerful there, that I know I have to keep it close.  So I write it down on a notepad I keep next to my bed.  I don’t turn on the light.  I don’t want to wake fully up.  So sometimes I can’t exactly read every word the next day.  But the gist of it is there.

And every so often, in that 4:00 a.m. trance, something hatches that I know is as holy as I know holy to be.  Whether by dream or moonlight or breathing or words, that suspension between dreams and complete waking delivers a pure thought which can’t help but summon an idea.  A pretty good idea.  Whole books have come to me in that trance time.  The design for my writing retreats came to me in that between place.  Often I am delivered a sentence of truth that I know I have to use somehow, if only for my motherhood, or my own navigation of life.

So I’ve been starting my day by writing down what it feels like to wake up on those shores.  Back to reality, whatever that is.  Sometimes it’s one line.  Sometimes it’s a long riff.  It’s not a crafted piece with a beginning, middle, and end.  It doesn’t have a narrative trajectory, or a thoughtful premise or landing place.  It’s a piece of ash flying up from a fire and floating a bit on the heat thermals before it falls and joins the ground.  These trance-thoughts are ungrounded, but maybe more grounded than I know.  After decades of this 4:00 a.m. floating, I have learned not to feel so alone there, not to feel so scared.  Instead, it’s my safe haven for whatever needs to show itself, and why I love the word haven so much.  We all need one, yes in the world, but also in ourselves.  So from my 4:00 a.m. to yours…Haven (4)

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The Junk Drawer Cleanse

IMG_9770 3

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!  The best holiday gift I can imagine…

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
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October 24-28

In a pre-holiday purge this week, I dumped out my junk drawer.  It’s the little one in the kitchen by the stove where I put things that don’t belong anywhere in particular.  I only open this drawer to put things in it for later.  For later.  What is this mighty later?  From the story the contents of this drawer told me, the later lives despite these parts and pieces of our past.  And this past shrapnel just collects like lint until every single bit of what has been tumbled out of our lives becomes a throw-away…except what matters most.  So why even keep a drawer like this in the first place?

I stared at that pile of random stuff and I was frozen.  My son is going to college this year, and my nest is imminently empty.  It felt like every single one of those items needed to go back in that drawer by the stove, or my life would somehow be…as un-storied as it will be un-peopled.  If I put all of those pieces of our past into their appropriate places and got rid of the items that had no use at all, (like the god-knows-how-old lone Advil Liquid Gel), I would render the drawer empty. What would go in there now as I move into this later?  This unknown next chapter of my life.

To read the rest of the post, click here!

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Stop Trying: The Holiday Spirit Cure

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!  The best holiday gift I can imagine…

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
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October 24-28

Every year at this time I start to surge with mild panic.  It’s not about the presents.  I buy and make gifts for people throughout the year so that my pocketbook can weather the inherent extra spending of the season. No, the panic is about this thing called Holiday Spirit.  I want to feel it in my bones.  I want to feel it in the way I smile at a stranger in the street and the way that stranger smiles back.  We know something:  we still believe in Wonder.  The proverbial “they” say that it’s in the little things, the in-between moments, the pauses.  The snowy walk.  The lit candle.  The Christmas cookies you place in your neighbor’s mailbox.  When I wrote this blog post six years ago, I wasn’t so sure about this being true.  I was still in the height of my fulltime house-and-child-keeping, traditional-torch-bearing motherhood.  Things have quieted down in that regard, with a daughter in college and my son on his way next fall.  I’ve given up a lot.  I’ve taken the heat off the high burner in more ways than one.  I’ve let go of so many things I used to think were mandatory in order to have a meaningful holiday season.  I read the words of this woman from six years ago, and want to say to her, “You’ve got the right idea.  Keep going.  Keep practicing.  It’s all going to be okay.  You’re going to learn how to feel that holiday spirit in your bones without even having to try.  You’re going to learn in these next years how to allow the season to give itself to you.  You’re going to learn how to not try.  In fact, not trying is exactly how it happens.  You can not try all the way through writing holiday cards, getting the tree and decorating it, wrapping gifts, cooking the roast beast, and gathering friends fireside.  So to the woman I was six years ago, and to all of you, and to myself still, I say:  have a Wonder-ful Holiday season.

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 hemorrhage 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.

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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 kids’ 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 spare dough around the cookie cutters and baking those random shapes too. 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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Thanksgiving Gravy Haven

17212146_10154113844731266_1738394229619340222_oNow Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 3-7 & October 24-28

Well, Thanksgiving is almost here and many of us fear the  gravy.  Fear NOT!  You don’t need flour.  You don’t need to reduce anything.  And for heaven’s sake, you don’t need some powdered packet from the grocery store.  I have been playing around with my gravy for years, and this is where I’ve landed.  It’s a commitment, but you will be having “some turkey with your gravy” by the time you take your first taste.  Enjoy, and remember to tell the people you’re with on this holiday what you appreciate about them.  And stay off politics!!!!!!!

Laura’s 20 years-in-the-making Delicious Coveted and Begged-for Turkey Gravy Recipe

(Not heart smart, but who cares.  It’s one or two meals a year!)

The secret to this liquid gold requires some prep time but it pays off.  Oh, does it pay off.  The idea is this:  you dice an abundance of vegetables and line the roasting pan with them, cover with a rack and rest the turkey on the rack so that the juices drip into the vegetables during the cooking process.  Then, while the turkey is resting, you puree the entirety of the pan ingredients, grease and all, in a blender, and that is your gravy thickener!  It should be illegal.  The base is your reduced giblet stock.  It’s so easy and no stress and no raw flour ick and no corn starch yuck, and no intimidating de-glazing and no gizmo-dependent grease/juice separating… I’m telling you.  It’s the BEST.  Don’t be intimidated by the prep work.  I chop all the vegetables for the pan and for the stock the night before and put them in respective zip-loc bags so that Thanksgiving morning, I don’t have to do any more chopping than necessary for other preparations, like stuffing etc.  I strongly recommend this.  I never used to do this, and always was stymied by how long it takes to do this prep the morning of.  Cuts down your turkey morning prep by an hour!

Lining the Pan with your root vegetable gravy thickener...mmmm.  GOLD!

Ingredients for roasting pan:  (if you do this the night before, put all of the vegetable out-takes (see parenthesis below) into a zip-loc bag for your giblet stock, so that you have 2 ziplocs– one for stock, one for pan)

Peel and dice:

1 Turnip

1 Rutabaga

1 Parsnip

2 Carrots (use the ends plus another carrot for giblet stock)

4 Yukon Gold Potatoes

Celery stalks (use the outer tougher stalks for giblet stock)

2 Shallot cloves

2 Garlic cloves

1 Leek (use the white part, and some of the green.  Wash and reserve the tougher top greens for giblet stock)

1 yellow Onion

4 crimini Mushrooms (reserve the stems for giblet stock)

1 cup chopped (Yep):  Parsley (Italian flat leaf), Sage, Rosemary and Thyme—fresh (use the stems/twigs for giblet stock)

1 stick Butter

1 cup dry white Wine

Ingredients for final touches:

Madeira

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Liquid:

  • Melt butter in small saucepan and add white wine.  Turn off heat once combined.

Lining your roasting pan:  (gravy gold)

  • Dump the diced veggies into the roasting pan.
  • Pour a cup or so of the warm butter and wine mixture from stove.  Salt/pepper.
  • Stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula so that all the veggies are coated. (you don’t want them to dry out during the cooking process, so remember to baste them as well as the bird)
  • Add any additional chopped herbs.  This should coat the pan about an inch thick. 
  • Put the rack on top of this, flat.
  • Put turkey on top and cover with additional butter wine, salt and pepper
Bird stuffed, racked, seasoned, ready to shed its love on its veggies below...
Bird stuffed, racked, seasoned, ready to shed its love on its veggies below…
Giblet stock for gravy base
Giblet stock for gravy base

Giblet Stock:

Ingredients:  (Don’t cheat and use canned broth.  This stock has a very specific flavor and makes the gravy sooooooo good)

Giblets (The gross stuff in the turkey cavity, but get over it.  Your hand is in a turkey cavity!  That’s already gross.)

1 tbs. olive oil

Whole pepper corns

Out-takes from all of the above vegetables and herbs (described in parenthesis above.  Best to put them in zip-loc bags while dicing the rest for the roasting pan the night before, to make prep time faster on Thanksgiving morning.)

Additional sprigs of rosemary and thyme, roughly chopped, stems/twigs included

1 garlic clove– crushed

1 medium yellow onion quartered

1 Yukon gold potato quartered

  • Heat a large saucepan, add olive oil, not butter—too greasy.  When hot, put in the liver.  This needs to be cooked through first.  Then deglaze the pan with Madeira—1/8 cup or so.  This stuff has a lot of flavor and you don’t want it to overwhelm, but it’s perfect for this feast.  Let it cook down—you don’t want the next ingredients to stew in pan, but to sear like the liver seared.  (you might have to add a bit of olive oil again to give it something to cook in)
  • Add the neck and other organs—brown
  • Now add the veggie out-takes plus the additional veggies/herbs described above.
  • Cover with water, a cup of wine, and add a few tablespoonsful of whole peppercorns and a few bay leaves.
  • The trick to any stock is to bring it to a boil, and then drop the heat down so that it is just simmering.  This is going to simmer all
    day.  If it gets too low, then add more water.  Taste it as it cooks to make sure the flavors are coming along.  Add salt/pepper to taste.
  • Keep to about 8 cups total

Gravy:  (drum roll…HERE IT IS!!!  My very own special, time-evolved gravy recipe!)

  • When the turkey is done, remove from the rack and let rest, covered in foil.
  • Remove the rack and put all the pan-liner veggies/fluids in a blender and puree
  • Put a large bowl (preferably one with a pouring spout) in the sink with a colander on top of it.
  • Strain the giblet stock.
  • Pour the stock into a small/medium saucepan—should be about 8 cups of stock
  • Add 3 tbs. or so of Madeira and lots of fresh ground pepper (a tbs. or so)
  • Cook down for a few minutes.
  • Now grab your whisk, and whisk in the puree, little by little until you get the right consistency. 
    Swimming in turkey goodness.  Now for the blender...
    Swimming in turkey goodness. Now for the blender…
    Veggies from roasting pan to blender-- pureed heaven
    Veggies from roasting pan to blender– pureed heaven

It is absolute magic and you never need any flour or anything else for thickener!!!  Secret shared!  Now pass it on to future generations!  Say you learned it from an old friend who wrote.

 

And here...it...is!
And here…it…is!
Gravy happiness.  Happy cooking to all!  May you share it with loved ones!
Gravy happiness. Happy cooking to all! May you share it with loved ones!

 

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Holidays Re-invented: A Spoon Funeral

Processed with VSCO with b1 presetHolidays are my haven, and not for reasons you’d imagine.  Sure, as a child it began with We Gather Together, and the Macy’s Day Parade, Santa Claus, and presents, and lunch under the Christmas tree at Marshall Fields, gingerbreadmen and sugar cookie iced snowflakes, listening to Bing Crosby by the fire and dreaming into the bright colored bulbs with blurred eyes—so that it all looked like a jewel-toned menagerie of the ultimate Christmas kiss.  That was all yes, magic.  But to me, the haven of it was in the people the holidays brought home.  Holidays meant that my people came back.  My sister and brother back from school.  Relatives in rooms we never used.  The living room and dining room came alive.  The house was full.  We were “the whole family.”

We prepared for those who would come, with those who came before them.  My mother would let me set the table with her grandmother’s soup porringers and aspic plates with gold edges framing forget-me-nots and cabbage roses.  She’d open cupboards that hung dormant all year until Thanksgiving, through to New Years, and pull shiny things from their shelves:

“These were your father’s mother’s Steuben crystal Teardrop Trumpet goblets.  Your grandfather gave these to her as a special Christmas gift in the 1930s.  They were farm people.  I’m sure he didn’t give her much at their wedding.  But by then he was the head engineer of a corn syrup factory.  Each of these is worth at least $150 a piece.  I’m not sure she ever used them.”  She’d hold each one like a tiny bird and wipe their rims with a soft cloth before she set them on the dining room table.

I wanted to touch them, but I didn’t dare.  She’d never let me get near them, but she would let me set out Aunt Eleanor’s silver.  I memorized the words she assigned to it:  Towle.  Old Georgian pattern from the 1800s, with ionic columns and rosebud wreaths.  My favorites were the teaspoons, with the roses running around the back of the spoon’s head.  I’d run my fingers over them and feel transported into other days before television and cars and airplanes that took big sisters and brothers away to boarding school and college, and fathers away on business trips.  The laying out of these shiny things meant that we’d be together around this table, our faces dancing in candlelight, the silver and china and crystal reflecting it all back.  The chandelier sending spectrums of starlight back down over us.  I watched a lot of faces in those spoons.IMG_9358

So for a long time, after I inherited these things, I kept them locked in a china cabinet, or hidden in boxes in eaves.  Then with our children still small, we built a house.  I fought for a dining room.  “We’ll be the family that uses it.  I promise!  We’ll have countless dinner parties and holiday soirees.”  And we did.  And I’d bring the shiny things out beforehand, telling my children the same stories, naming the names and wiping down these delicate surfaces as my mothers and mothers before me had, as I placed them on the table.

And then everything changed.

The man sitting at the head of the table no longer sat there, and I was thinking more about what I’d have to sell in order to keep the house, never mind what to put on the table.  There was a day when I stood in front of this china cabinet and thought, “They’d want me to sell that Steuben.  Wouldn’t they?  They’re resourceful farm people.  They’d want me to make my mortgage with their crystal.  Wouldn’t they?  I’ll become an Ebay wizard.  I’ll sell all of this stuff, even though every piece of it brings me back to my peopled world.”  Where I felt safe, and protected, loved and special.  That feeling was inside me, wasn’t it?  The three of us would still gather together.  It just wouldn’t be with two hundred year old plates that came to Illinois in a covered wagon during the Homestead Act, and then to Montana when my parents’ sold their home of forty-five years.  It just wouldn’t mean that we ate our turkey with the Towle, or stirred honey into our tea with the silver that was dug underground before the Yankees raided our ancestral home in Camden, Arkansas during the Civil War.  Aunt Eleanor’s rose-clad ionic columns would hold another hand steady in another room somewhere.  The shiny things would become our eyes dancing off of each other, not off of silver spoons.  And that would be okay.  My ancestors were house people.  They’d want me to do everything I could to keep it.

So one day when the kids were at school, I went into every eave, the attic, the dormant cabinets, took it all out, and splayed it on the dining room table.  My family story in shiny things.  I wanted to shake with silent wails.  But I shook it off instead.  I had to stop seeing these things for their stories and their people.  These were just things, after all.  Weren’t they?

I couldn’t think about it.  I had work to do.  I started to research the cost of it all.  Nine crystal bowls for my wedding that I’d never used?  Those would be the first things to go.  Actually, all of my wedding china and crystal and silver—that hurt me the most.  It had been chosen with such hope, such belief in the future.  Part of that future came.  Most of it didn’t.  I’d been saving my wedding china for the part that didn’t.  Most of the parties we’d had weren’t formal.  They happened around bonfires and in the living room with mugs of hot cider and breakable risks in semi-shiny things.

“I should save it for the kids,” I thought.  But how sick was that.  They’d be better off with the china and silver and crystal from the parents whose marriages lasted, and whose tables were peopled in the way they’d set out to create.  “I’ll sell the wedding china.  And the crystal.  That’ll take care of another mortgage payment until I can get on my feet.”

Processed with VSCO with b5 presetBut when I got to Aunt Eleanor’s silver, the ionic columns and the rose wreaths, I ran my finger over the back of the spoon head, and sighed.  Aunt Eleanor hadn’t had children.  Aunt Eleanor had given me my first Emily Dickinson.  Aunt Eleanor had travelled the world and taught me to love stories of the finer things.  And she had passed these down to me, along with a farm—the original Homestead.  I owned those two things.  And I decided then that I would not sell them.  They were the comfort, the security of my people, long gone, but still dancing in these spoons if I looked closely enough, if I looked in just the right way.

It turned out that didn’t sell any of it.  I asked myself a different question, instead:  “what do I know how to do that I can monetize without selling my legacy?”  And I gave myself permission to create a business out of what I’d spent my adult life mastering—and started facilitating people’s creative self-expression by using what had sustained me all my life:  the written word.  Out of the ashes, as it were, rose Haven Writing Retreats.  So it makes sense then, that I use my shiny, storied things on my retreats.  New people around this table, lips to Steuben as they tell their stories, real and imagined.  Lifting my homemade food to their mouths with my Aunt Eleanor’s Towle as they think-tank their books and characters.  Share about their process and projects– new faces spinning in the silver, refracted by the chandelier that hangs above us.  The dining room is alive again!

But on my last retreat, ‘tis true:  a spoon was lost.  A Towle teaspoon.  I’m sure it was an honest mistake.  My mother used to count her silver after a dinner party, and often ended up rifling through the garbage in search of lost silverware.  I found myself doing the same that night, after all the candles were blown out and the good day spent from word play and the people too for the same reason.  Alas, no spoon.

And there was a time when I think I would have cried about it.  Bemoaned this loss.  Felt less secure because of it.  Or like an irresponsible person who shouldn’t be handling the shiny things, no matter what her age.  My mind parading with, I should have left them in the shiny suburbs of Chicago where they would have survived.  Not my Montana life, which came with a bit of country road dust on it.  There was a time that I might have just given it a damn…spoon funeral.  I’m not kidding.  You’d give your goldfish a funeral, wouldn’t you?

But it wasn’t that way at all.

Instead, I took in a short breath and a shorter sigh.  One less spoon.  If I could fill my dining room with such brilliant minds and open hearts and a spate of candlelight flickering off smiles and so many glittering surfaces, it was worth losing a piece of shiny something every time until there was nothing left.  Because what matters is what is gathered:  the people.  The people.  The elegance:  their minds.  Their hearts.Processed with VSCO with b5 preset

So this holiday season, my children and I will gather with yes, our shiny things, less a spoon.  But this year, it all won’t be so cold and dusty and faraway when we bring it to the table.  It will be recently used.  Maybe a little tarnished from being out in the air.  And maybe even chipped or without their perfect placing.  But they will hold new stories.  New people.  New hope.  New future.

A spoon funeral?  The funeral that the spoon inspired was instead for my old life.  And it came with no great pageantry.  Rather, a short sigh.  Because three out of four of us are where we are used to being for the holidays.  We are grateful.  We are blessed.  We are family.  Shiny things or not.

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 3-7 & October 24-28

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