Haven Holiday Giveaway starts TODAY! A priceless collection of some of my very favorite things… Sign up here and win!
Haven Holiday Giveaway starts TODAY! A priceless collection of some of my very favorite things… Sign up here and win!
Still a few spaces left for the Feb. Haven Retreat Montana…
What would it be to take a stand for yourself? And what would that look like on the page? You know. Here is something that might help you feel embraced:
Whether you have decided to join me for one of my upcoming writing retreats in Montana, are on the fence, or have decided that this is not the right year or season for you…I wanted to share this letter I wrote to a young writer this morning who is considering attending my retreat. But she is scared. Perhaps it’s about being vulnerable in a group of people, scared of the remoteness of Montana, scared to face herself on the page, even though writing is something that is dear to her and has been since she was a little girl. In an effort to catapult her past her fears, I told her that it was when I started doing writing retreats that my entire writing life changed. She asked me why. Here is part of my answer. I hope it speaks to you.
Here are the retreat dates for 2014:
First a word from a former retreater:
“My time in Montana was the most empowering and uplifting experience of my life and has helped my writing in ways awesome and profound. Laura is a master at bringing out your voice, and the sisterhood that is created in the process is incomparable. GO! GO! If you have any inkling that this might be what you need, you are correct– it is JUST what you need…”
Here’s the letter:
So…why did retreats change my life as a writer… Well, I was in my twenties, living a life that was so different from the one in which I’d been raised. I was out of my comfort zone, on purpose. I’d left the east coast where most of my friends were climbing the corporate ladder. I’d turned down a job opportunity at a major advertising agency in Chicago. I’d even deferred from a creative writing program in SF where I had been planning to get my MFA. I was living in Seattle where I knew no one. I was waitressing. I was a nanny. I was living in a tiny house on an alley. My parents were concerned. My friends were confused. I didn’t have a car—rode my bike everywhere. And I wrote. Writing had always been my lifeline. But it had always been quite private—lonely even. Those early novels I wrote were not just exercises in learning—they were how I processed who I was becoming. The problem was, I wanted to be a published author more than anything in the world and it wasn’t happening.
I had read Natalie Goldberg’s book “Writing Down the Bones” when I lived in Boston, and happened to see that she was speaking in Seattle. That book had been so helpful to me, and I longed to have writer kindreds and to share in her methods which involved group work. So I went to see her and that night joined a writing group of total strangers that still exists to this day. They are my writer sisters, even though we live very different lives in very different parts of the US. We so loved the power of a group of writers that we started doing weekend retreats together which still occur annually. The writing life, plainly put, is deeply solitary. It doesn’t have to be. It can be shared, and that’s what retreats do. It is so important to be witnessed in what you do on the page, in a safe and nurturing environment. That is what I provide on my retreats.
I have designed a three day workshop which helps people go places they might not go on their own in their writing, and find out where their blocks are, hopefully causing breakthroughs. These exercises work no matter where you are in your writing journey. Some women who come on my retreats have finished books. Some have only written their Christmas letter. Some have never written anything since school days. It doesn’t matter. You can engage in these writing exercises within the context of a work-in-progress, or simply as inspiring ways for self-expression. And I promise to keep things safe and nurturing, while still offering opportunities for helpful feedback.
One of the things I care most about is helping to shift the tortured artist paradigm, to the empowered artist. To that end, I’ve shaped the retreat days so that we have an intensive morning class, then free time for a few hours after lunch to be in our bodies in beautiful Montana (yoga, guided outdoor snow-shoeing hikes, and equine therapy). People can choose to sign up for these activities, which are meant to mirror the writing work we did that morning, or spend that time writing or relaxing. Our evenings begin with a social hour that I host, move into dinner, and then to the fireplace in the lodge where we share readings. Some people bring work that they’ve written previously. Other people read from something they’ve written that day. And others might share writing that they love from other authors. This is your chance to get feedback on your terms, while the morning classes are structured for expression without as much feedback (part of what frees the muse and keeps you feeling safe to just go where you need to go on the page).
It is such an honor to guide these retreats and to watch people bloom, get unstuck, move through blocks, have breakthroughs, and mostly to see what happens when a group of women take a stand for their self-expression in the woods of Montana. The experience is profound. I would love to see you here in February.
Here is a blog post I wrote about it with photos:
If you are interested, email me at Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com. There is still space available but it’s filling up fast…
FYI: Whitefish Mountain Resort is a world class mountain, and Glacier National Park is just 20 miles away so consider taking a vacation afterward…
Now Booking for February Haven Retreat!
I like to re-visit this post every year on this day:
I grew up in a suburb of Chicago with a central square flanked by shoulder-to-shoulder shops in brick and tudor. A fountain on one end, a Parthenon shaped department store on the other, a park with grass and benches and a flagpole in-between. My goldfish met its maker in that fountain because I thought it a better life than the one he’d been living in a small bowl on my windowsill. I met my best friend at that fountain every day before school and ate donuts from the local bakery sitting on the side of it. I had a kiss or two in the dark at that fountain. I climbed that flagpole on a dare. I believed in the spirit of Christmas standing in that park, looking into the illumination of the crèche each December. We called it Uptown and it was an iconic yet controlled kingdom to us, the Downtown of Chicago being so vast and distant. My house was close to Uptown, and after school every day, I walked my dog around its streets, memorizing every alleyway, every store window, smiling at the familiar faces of the shopkeepers who knew my family, our names, our stories.
In those days, many families had charge accounts at the stores. So sometimes, I’d get permission to go on little shopping sprees, charging stickers and pens at the stationary store, ribbons at the dimestore, Bonnie Bell Lipsmackers at the drugstore, an album at the record store, a bike bell at the sports store, seeds at the hardware store for my vegetable garden. We had nicknames for these stores like old friends. They were our meeting places. Our stomping ground. Our stage. When my father died, the local grocery store gave us a cart full of groceries for free once they heard the news. These shops were the bones of our goings on as a community. Not because they represented greed or even commerce to us. They were the places where our mothers ran into each other and gossiped and wondered and pontificated. They were the places where we flirted with boys, dreamed up birthday parties, found the right words for a grieving aunt, played truth or dare over an ice cream sundae. A lot of these shops are gone now. Now the shoe store is a Williams Sonoma. The corner store is a Talbots. The hardware store is a True Value but it’s at least still there, even with a Home Depot lurking in the not-so-distance. I’m proud of the way my hometown values its local shops and supports them, even with so much bright-light-big-city so close.
Now I live in another small town, this one rural and full of economic hardship. I watch as the shop owners struggle to make ends meet and keep their doors open. I know most of them the way I knew my hometown shop owners. I watched as they took their vision and made it a reality. I see their pride because in our small mountain community, these shops hold deep importance. There is no option of city. People drive a long way to stock up on feed for their animals, paint for their barns, winter socks for their kids. Not long ago I was proud to say we didn’t have a Gap in the state of Montana. Or a Target, a Best Buy, a Home Depot, a Lowe’s, a Costco. That’s changed now. It’s here. Consumption Junction we call it. And it’s killing our local small businesses.
I see the store owners’ worry. All their money wrapped up in keeping their store running even if it’s barely paying the bills. I picture Central Ave. being one day like a ghost town of the old West, tumbleweed and all, the bars surviving because people will always drink away their woe. The churches surviving because people will always need to pray in public, knowing they’re not alone. But then I also picture a time when the box store will die. Our greed for unnecessary plastic items will fade if not devour us. We’ll stop filling up our shopping carts until they are brimming over when all we came for was…well, winter socks. And maybe things will return to the old ways. And people will live off the land. And buy only what they need and only when they can afford it. And barter for what they can’t afford. I picture a time when a person with sheep has profound power, shearing them and spinning their fleeces, and a person who knows how to work a forge is the reason why transportation is possible, horses needing shoes and meaning business—not just decoration or a vehicle of recreation. And the Farmer’s Market will be more than a sunny place to listen to a singer/songwriter and buy a hula hoop along with your Swiss chard.
There is a road called Farm-to-Market here in Montana where I live. It’s a pretty Sunday drive. When I take that road, I think about how it once was a bloodline for this community. Blood sport. Many broken hearts along its fences. Countless dashed dreams and false hopes. The kind of road where you sort out what you’re going to say to your wife when you come back with a full cart, someone else’s tomato crop being what it was. It’s not that I defy modern technology or progress or the possibilities of button pushing. It’s that I don’t trust us to know what to do with what we’ve created. I trust humility more than greed. And as much as I love that I get welcomed into Walmart and love that I can get winter socks for my kids and Swiss chard both and still get back in time to pick them up from school, as much as I know that those are local people working those jobs, in honesty and humility with dreams of their own, sorting out their own stories to tell their spouses…I want us to stop.
I want us to go to the local hardware store and eat a bag of popcorn while we discuss paint color and drill bits and talk weather while we do it. And what about that school bond and what about that new city councilman? I want us to drop our spare change into the Mason jar to help with the Nelson girl who has Leukemia. I want us to go slowly again. I want us to wonder about each other. I want us to ask, “How’s business?” and hear that it picked up this October, which is usually a slow time—better than last year. To nod and smile at that good news and feel like we’re going to be okay. We won’t lose our hats along with our dreams.
This holiday season, I want us to stop. Not take our turkey hangovers to the early morning, standing at a Target ready to run in like monkeys on a zoo break. I want us to continue the gratitude of the day before. I want us to sleep in and maybe take a walk into town later to see what the local shops have for sale. I want us to have those conversations. I want us to go Uptown instead of Downtown and especially I want us to steer clear of Consumption Junction. Even if it costs a bit more. Even if it is a little less shiny. Even if it means we buy less, or go to three stores to find that one thing our kid asked for. I want us to stroll down Central Avenue. And say hi to each other. I want us to be thankful for our town squares and our backyard businesses and see ourselves in the reflection of their holiday windows.
As featured on Huffington Post 50
Now booking Haven Retreats 2014…give yourself the sacred gift of creative self-expression in Montana…
“A toast does not require a glass with which to clink. It really doesn’t.”
The holiday season can be for many people…let’s just say: fraught. Maybe your life hasn’t gone the way you imagined. Maybe you’d planned to spend Christmas Eve with a spouse, fireside, toasting to the future over your grandmother’s secret egg nog recipe. Maybe you had dreams of children gathered around a beautifully set Thanksgiving table, drooling over the cooked beast, begging to hold hands and make sweeping statements of gratitude for another year of your endless bevy of sage advice. Maybe you fell hook-line-and-sinker for the Holiday card photo that would be yours until death did you part—only this year, there’s only one parent in it, and you can’t find your camera anyway, and your kids refuse to pose. Maybe you strung up your heart on the one small square box that would await you under the tree, filled with a tiny trinket with your name on it from someone called, Forever Yours. Maybe your adult children and your grandchildren chose to go to the in-laws for Christmas and you’ve heard SHE makes better gravy than YOU, never mind her croquembouche ! My God…maybe you’re alone on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years. Maybe your traditions never got a chance to birth. Maybe the last time you felt that holiday cheer was when you were little and you’re far from little these days. Maybe you want to beam yourself back to a time in your life that was more fair, simple, abundant, safe. Or at least call someone who could remember that time with you fondly. Only maybe, all those people are gone now.
Don’t worry. I’ll stop. It’s not my goal to depress you. But I’d like to think it’s my job to provide you some comfort and joy. So here goes:
Whoever you are, wherever you are, the holidays are bound to leave your heart in shreds at least a little. And before we get too far into the season, I’d like to help your heart hearth make its way to 2014 whole. Fortified. Happy to be beating whatever shape it’s in.
There are all sorts of ways to make the holidays sacred without focusing on what’s missing. You can get a turkey from the grocery store (a lot of them give free birds this time of year), make soup out of it, and bring it to the local shelter. You can invite friends you know are alone to sing carols at the local nursing home and gather for a meal afterward. If your kids are elsewhere for a holiday, you can celebrate it with them on another day of your choosing and make it just as special. You can make a Gratitude Tree out of branches, put it in a vase in the middle of the kitchen, and write notes of thanks on pieces of paper and hang them like ornaments—one per day until you ring in 2014. You can read to kids at your local library some of those books your mother read to you and you read to your kids, or wanted to read to the kids you never had: Truman Capote’s “A Thanksgiving Visitor,” “A Christmas Memory,” Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Whales.” You can gather up every holiday song you ever loved and blast them from the rafters of wherever you currently call home and sing your heart out.
A toast does not require a glass with which to clink. It really doesn’t. You may tell yourself that it does. And where will that get you? On the Polar Express to the Holiday Blues. Let’s step away from that train wreck and into the sacred. Because no matter how you shake it, the truth is: There is no shortage of sacred this time of year. It’s everywhere. You just have to receive it as the gift it is. And there’s no re-gifting the sacred. It comes to you, often when you least expect it, and it fastens you to reality like nothing else can, because it’s all yours. No one can feel it for you. Or take it away. You can stand in a holiday-bedecked Lincoln Center, dripping in holly and cedar bows in the height of Handel’s Halleluiah chorus, standing next to everybody who’s ever been in your Christmas Card from the year you were born…and feel nothing. You can hold hands around a cooked beast, candle-light dancing on the faces of generations of loved ones and generations of china, crystal, and silver…and feel empty. You can stop in a snowy field in the middle of the night and watch steam funnel from the noses of draft horses, sweating from the sleigh ride they just took you on where you sang Jingle Bells, and drank hot-buttered-rum and someone quoted Robert Frost…and feel heartless.
So it’s time to stop bowing at those altars, especially this time of year. If the magic happens…good for you. As long as it’s something not nothing…full not empty…heartful not heartless. Otherwise, let’s change the way our holiday minds think. Let’s look truthfully at what is comfort and what is joy. And let’s create that safe haven around us. It begins with us. Not who stands or sits next to us and in what hallowed hall. Not who toasts with us. Sings with us. Eats with us. Gives us gifts. Receives ours. We can take those Action verbs and send them up the chimney. And we can replace them with a Being verb. It’s possible to actually BE comfort and joy. Not wait for it. Of course it’s powerful (and yes, comforting and joyful) to take that Being and share it with loved ones in celebratory holiday moments. But again, it has to start with us. Whether or not you have a faith base, the truth is plain: Our heads don’t bow on their own. We bow them. And whatever we’re bowing them to, especially at holiday time, let’s let those altars be ones that truly fill the heart hearth with comfort and joy. Not expectation for the future or grief over the past.
This simple bowing to this simple altar is better than any tradition ever has been or will be. Because it’s free. It’s un-fraught. It’s as simple as lighting a candle. Not as a window-sill vigil for family lost or never gained. But as an act of pure delight in the exact moment of your heart and breath. This exact moment. Right now. Take a flame to that wick. Sit quietly and watch. Smell the wax warm and watch it pool and dare yourself to stay long enough to see it flood and drip. Don’t clean it up. Maybe put your finger into its stream and wonder at the fact that you can take the heat. That it’s still friendly flame. Just you and a lit candle. All of a holiday winter’s night.
I had a personal day today. I wrote. I rode a bike around Tubac, Arizona where I just lead a Haven retreat. I took photographs. I looked at light and breathed deep. Here’s something that came in on the desert wind:
To teach is to listen for heart language
And to let people know that they have a pulse.
Or to remind them.
Sometimes to convince them.
To teach is to aid and abet the vivid “yes”
And the vivid “no”
And to call the troops off the battlefield
At least for the observance of Sunday supper.
To teach is to see past windows of eyes
And be a curator with hands behind you
Not touching the painting
But seeing its meaning
Feeling the waves of the oil-brushed tempest against the dinghy
Smelling the salt air
And the breath of the painter
Knowing, if you were to point,
Exactly where her tear dropped
Into that salt sea.
To teach is to push a cart up a steep hill.
And have a line of people who believe in your brawn and compass.
And feet’s familiarity with the ground.
And to have people fall out of line.
Come in front of you and push against the cart.
Until you show them a better place to push.
You say, “Thank you.”
You feel a wordless joy.
And you weep a little.
But only inside.
You have a cart to push.
And you are tired.
And your muscles are in question.
And your sense of direction.
And you can never remember on which hilltop stands:
The Bo Tree
You are a student.
You know where it is.
You just need reminding.
As featured on the front page of the Huffington Post 50 on 9/11/13
I’ll admit it: I have been afraid to go to Ground Zero. Since 9/11/01 I’ve probably been to New York City ten times. I have no excuse but just what I’ve said– Fear. Fear of what? The horror? Empathy? Sympathy? My imagination? The human heart? That there would be an element of voyeurism? That somehow it wouldn’t be memorialized in a way that felt reverent?
Then I met Christie Coombs.
She came to one of my Haven writing retreats in Montana. I started Haven in an effort to be of some sort of service in this beautiful and heartbreaking thing called life. Writing is the primary way I know how to process life. I write as a lifeline, as a seeker, and to understand. People who come on my retreats are made of the same heart language– kindreds who are often in a time of transition, longing to not be emotional victims in response to the pain that has come their way; longing to heal through creative self-expression. For Christie, that pain began on that fateful day when her husband, Jeff Coombs, died on Flight 11 from Boston, bound for LA, only to meet with a destiny that forever changed the world. And Christie is writing about it. We need her to. It gives us permission to see further into what we experienced that day in person, on TV, or radio, or in newspapers and magazines across the globe. We need the personal stories of the people who lost the most. To know what it was like microscopically, then and now, and she is not afraid to do just that.
She started the Jeff Coombs Foundation and works tirelessly to honor his memory through giving back to families who have suffered great loss and are rebuilding their future. She has turned pain into answering the most powerful question I know: what can I create? And she answers it every day.
A few months ago, I was in New York on business, and Christie invited me to come to the 9/11 Memorial. She offered to drive down from Boston, and to show me around, including the temporary museum which holds personal effects and photos salvaged from the site, as well as the church down the street which served as a community gathering place and held first responders as they did their brave and unconscionable work. And she showed me the “Survivor Tree,” a pear tree, which she explained miraculously made it through both the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, as well as 9/11.
As we stood at the memorial, staring at the cascading waters that run down the footprints of each tower, and the bottomless, yet re-generating square hole in the middle…sending water back up and down, flanked by the names of the dead…I was breathless. I didn’t know what to feel or what to say or what to do with my hands or how to even stand there. I just went on overwhelm, watching people embrace and weep, but mostly watching Christie for cues.
She told me the stories of the people on Flight 11, whose family members she now holds dear. She humanized it– told me the way it went down from the pieces they have all put together, paired with the facts from the airlines. It’s gruesome and brave and terrifying…and it just…doesn’t…make…any sense. Not at all. I’ve never wanted to make sense of something more, standing at that memorial, looking at Jeff’s name carved in metal alongside the other fallen from Flight 11.
I looked at her, running her hand over his name. Should I intrude upon the sacred moment between the two of them? Should I leave her alone? What was she feeling? Did I have any words that might help? Of course not.
She saved me: “There’s no sense to be made of it, so don’t try,” she said somehow smiling as I let the tears go.
“You give us permission,” I said.
When we finished our time in what I believe is the most reverent place I’ve ever been, she said, “I want to show you something cool.”
Cool, I thought? How could there be something cool in any of this? And she took me to the gift shop. There, she showed me a necklace–leaves from the Survivor Tree cast in metal. “I’d like to get this for you,” she said, bringing it to the counter.
It meant the world to me in that moment. I have it over my desk as I write. We can all bloom, no matter what’s going on in our lives.
Life doesn’t make sense. But the action of paying homage to the pain, creating something that builds community and reverence out of the inevitable ashes of life, feels essential in our healing.
Nobody wants to earn this VIP ticket, but Christie uses her “membership” to the memorial park with a sense of belonging; pride even, but always wishing she didn’t have to learn this lesson. She is a master at finding and building community in tragic loss, and the day we spent together at the 9/11 memorial changed my life. Thank you, Christie, for showing us how to survive…even in this.
To all those who lost loved ones in 9/11, I send you love from Montana.
The Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation:
Welcome to the Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation website. The Jeff Coombs Foundation was formed to assist families who are in financial need because of a death, illness or other situation that challenges the family budget. It also provides emotional support to families by funding special outings and fun events. Committed to education, the foundation helps fund enrichment programs in the Abington Schools, and awards scholarships to graduating college-bound seniors and students in private high schools.
The foundation was created in response to the incredible outpouring of support Jeff’s family received after he was killed on Flight 11 in the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. Christie, Jeff’s wife, and their kids, Matthew, Meaghan, and Julia, wanted a way to “pay it forward.” They began raising money to help others in November, 2001. Since then, the Foundation has raised and distributed about $50,000 a year in Jeff’s memory.
Montana has been my home, my muse, my inspiration, my teacher, my challenger, my haven for over twenty years this month. Here is my tribute to this Last Best Place under the Big Sky.
Haven Retreats in Montana: email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
August 7th-11th (full)
September 4th-8th (full with a wait list)
September 18th-22nd (full with wait list)
Come with me on an adventure of a lifetime!
Haven Retreats in Montana: email me: email@example.com
August 7th-11th (just a few spots left)
September 4th-8th (now booking)
September 18th-22nd (full with wait list)
This year, a miracle occurred in my garden. It wasn’t a great year. Let’s just leave it at that. And I decided that my home was my safe haven. So I took crystals from a light fixture that belonged to my childhood room and wired them to the old honeysuckle wood that surrounds the archway beginning my garden path. And I decided that they were protection. That in passing under that crystal be-decked archway, I would be protected, whether I was entering my home, or exiting it. Every time I passed under, I took a deep breath and imagined myself surrounded in a white light that nothing or no one could permeate.
Fall came, and with it, the usual garden death and dormancy. One by one, the last asters and sedum and black-eyed Susans gave way to frost. Then rain, matted it all down, their winter cover. I chose not to put the garden to bed as I usually do, cutting back the stems so that in the spring, the tulips and jonquils have space to send their shoots. I just let the garden blanket itself, knowing that snow would soon come, holding that blanket firm. I’d pull off the plant blanket in the early spring when the snow melted to make way for the bulbs. But each day, as I passed under that arch, the crystals hanging from stark, leafless, bloomless honeysuckle wood…I noticed that there were a few small branches that weren’t yet dormant. Paler green leaves, yes, and limp less-orange blooms…but still thriving. November, December, January, February…they held on in the driving ice and snow of a Montana winter. I couldn’t believe it.
It was as much hopeful as it was stubborn as it was a little scary and sad. I worried about the whole vine, not taking its winter rest. I rely on that archway to be full of lush orange and green welcome all summer long, and I feared that the honeysuckle was somehow trying to martyr itself for me. But there was nothing I could do but just receive this feat of nature as what it needed to be. I wasn’t sure what that was. But I had to let go. I finally resolved that it was a gift. It was promising protection, year long, and it was getting its power from the crystals of my childhood ceiling light– one which I gazed into all my foundational years for comfort. I thanked it every time I passed through. Which meant that I not only felt protection. But I felt gratitude too. Gift after gift. Day after day.
And this summer, in its twenty year long life, I have never seen my garden in such profusion. I let it go. And it took care of itself. And even thrived when it wasn’t supposed to. The lesson in this runs as deep as those honeysuckle roots. Sometimes when we let go, the world holds us just a little closer, a little more bravely, a little more tenderly. And hope abounds.
Please enjoy this slideshow of my garden haven, 2013 by clicking the right arrow after each slide: