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How Questions Can Help You Find Your Voice

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We have just a few more spaces left on our 2016 Haven Writing Retreat calendar!

September 21-25 (one space left)
October 5-9 (spaces left)
October 19-23 (spaces left)

To schedule a phone call to learn more about the retreat, go to the Contact Us button here.

What does it really mean to find your voice?  I use this word “voice” all the time when I talk about writing.  Often I get met with looks of confusion or even terror.  “I don’t have a voice,” so many people say.  “Someone already said it better than I ever could, anyway.”

To me, that’s like being mad at God and saying that God doesn’t exist in the same breath.  If you’re mad at God, then you must think God exists.  If you simultaneously say that you don’t have a voice and that it isn’t unique, then you believe your voice exists!  And that’s where the writing comes in.

In my formative years, I had what my teachers called verbal diarrhea.  What’s the symbolism of the fish in “Old Man in the Sea?”  Oh oh oh!  Pick me!  Pick me!  I was THAT kid whose arm was raised so long that she had to prop it up with the other hand at the elbow until her fingers tingled, and still they only called on me when all the quiet people had been given a shot.  I screamed my lungs out at lacrosse and soccer and hockey games.  I was the president of the choir.  I spoke at chapel services.  I was in every musical, usually the brazen alto hussy.  Adelaide in Guys and Dolls is still one of the shining moments of my life.  In other words, all the world was a stage.  And that was before answering machines.  If there were answering machines in those days, I would have been cut off every time.  Beep.  Redial.  “Part Two…so anyway…”

And then, junior year in high school, I went mute.  I got vocal nodules.  I couldn’t talk without a severe rasp.  I couldn’t sing at all.  And I certainly couldn’t cheer.  The doctors told me that I could undergo an operation to remove the nodules, or I had to stop talking, including whispering, for three months.  Smack dab in the middle of my glory days.
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No talking?  Who was I without talking?  If I didn’t answer hard questions in the classroom, was I smart?  If I didn’t cheer at the game, did I have school spirit?  If I didn’t stay up late night with friends solving the problems of the universe, was I loving and loyal and deep?  If I didn’t join the throngs that converged between classes, in the dining hall, in assemblies and social gatherings with my stab at quick wit or charm or whatever it was that I was trying to prove in the weight of words…then who was I?

Everything changed that year.  In the classroom, my hand remained on my pen, taking copious notes where I would otherwise be thinking about what I was going to say next.  In conversation, I did the same.  I listened.  At sports games, I learned how to whistle loudly.  And to communicate what I had to say, I carried around a notebook.  High school girls talk fast, and writing takes a while.  So I learned to only chime in when I really had something important to add to the conversation.

But I felt left out.  So I fashioned a tool that changed my life.  I started asking questions.  Questions were the way to go.  People had opinions and answers and I loved writing them down and turning them into essays for the school newspaper, like Erma Bombeck.  I wanted to be Erma Bombeck.  But how was she so sharp and funny and real and deep?  How did she have that unique Erma Bombeck voice?  It dawned on me that it had to grow from a deep curiosity.  She had questions, and she wrote into the answers.  Questions held the key.  It would be years before I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:  “…love the questions themselves…”

A question, especially a powerful one, begs an answer.  And no answer is ever the same.  It’s only as good as the person of whom you ask the question.  Of course we all fear that we are ripping off something that we heard someone else say, or parroting the collective bombast.  But even if we try with all our puny might to opine the way Uncle Henry did last Thanksgiving…we really can’t.  I see it over and over at my writing retreats.  I put out a writing prompt, and ten minds go in ten directions.  Sometimes there are parallels, but even those are unique to the author.  It’s just not possible for me to think or speak or write like you, or vice the verse.

So how do you find your voice?  Maybe go mute.  Or mute-ish for a few days.  Make a conscious effort to take a beat before you speak.  If you’re not a big talker, let yourself off the hook and just listen.  The world will go on without our commentary.  We’re not going to lose our job or a loved one over a few lost words.  Tell them you’re on vocal rest, if you must.  Don’t tell them why.  And use this time very intentionally to write down your observations.  Then, turn them into powerful questions that you answer on the page for your eyes only.  Notice what you have to say and how you have to say it, without any pressure.  You might be surprised.  Now bring this back into your interactions with people (and if you’re a writer, in your work), and see if you feel more empowered.  See what your voice sounds like now.

Take away:  if you think you don’t have a voice, start with a powerful question.  (Notice that I began this essay with one.)  Answer it for yourself, in a journal, or on a walk when no one’s listening.  You have a voice.  No one can say what you have to say in the way that only you can say it.  Your job is to give yourself permission to believe that this is so.
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Haven Winter # 7

What is inspiring you?  I hope that you can ask, in the dormancy of winter:  what would happen if I took a stand for myself?

This is the seventh in a series of guest posts:   For the last few winters, I’ve offered up my blog as a place for writers to share. I believe in generosity.  I also know how important it is for writers to write.  To that end, I’ve spent a few weeks posting the alive and brave words that people who have come to a Haven retreat are willing to share.  Read these words.  Consider this experience.  Play around in curiosity and wonder.  I hope that my blog will honor all of us who sit in the intersection of heart and mind and craft that is writing.

That’s what I’m doing.  Quietly.  For these weeks.  Please think about taking this time for your heart language.

Haven by Maria Rodgers O’Rourke

Here’s the story of when I lugged a stack of notebooks across the country in the dead of winter, headed to Whitefish, Montana and the Haven Retreat.

I brought two of them (black and white composition books) to our first writing session. Like a kid at a new school, I hugged them tightly and tried to look confident. I left a Smash journal, filled with artsy-decorated blank pages, in my room. The cheap notebooks were for my first drafts, I thought: I’ll transfer my edited versions to the Smash later.

In our writing sessions, Laura welcomed us and our stories with open arms. My body relaxed into the daily writing routine, healthy meals, comfortable rooms, and the snow-covered grounds. My creative self snuggled into this haven space and took some risks. One afternoon, our yoga teacher asked, “So how’s it going?” and patiently waited for our response. The room held a small group of us, strangers just days before, and I felt safe. My heart in my throat, I blurted out that my golden retriever was dying, and sobbed. We cried and shared our stories of loss, lifting the grief that I dragged from home like so many notebooks.

With such healing going on, by the third day my writing sessions were producing real gems. Rough and honest, the drafts revealed my voice, stretching out like a bird opening its wings. That day I added the as-yet-unused Smash journal to my stack. After breakfast, we settled into our meeting room, which was awash in Montana winter sunshine, each window a postcard of evergreens on snowy hillsides. Sipping her tea, a fellow Haven-er noticed my notebooks. I explained about drafts and revisions and critiques, but my words trailed off as these once-hidden thoughts came into the light. I felt silly, but she smiled and said, “So, your first drafts aren’t worthy of the pretty pages?”

She nailed it. Turns out I only needed one notebook. The first draft is where the inner critic succeeds in dismissing a clever idea, or discouraging the hopeful writer, or quieting a fledging voice. To get out of our own way and get that first draft on paper is a victory. And they are worthy of pretty pages. All my Haven Retreat first drafts, clippings, and photos are secure in the Smash journal. When my creative self needs it, I flip through the pages and feel Laura’s embrace. At Haven, every first draft is beautiful.

Haven by Stephanie Maley

Writing was something I did for myself. Pages of self discovery, life experiences, and dreams, splattered flimsy journals. Now as a professional photographer, I knew I needed writing direction. Laura Munson’s words spoke to me in a personal way. After reading her book, “This Is Not The Story you Think It Is,” I felt connected. I knew I could learn from her. When she offered a writing retreat, I leapt at the chance to attend.

Short on trust and long on self doubt, I journeyed my way to Montana. Being at Haven was like bathing in warm light. From Laura’s squealing delight at meeting me, her faithful blog follower, until I boarded my plane for home, I felt loved and accepted. The attentive staff, vegan meals, snuggly down beds, and daily “love” mail from Laura, wrapped around me like a moth’s cocoon.

I took risks in this Haven. I shared secrets. Dressed in PJ’s, surrounded by my fellow retreatents and a hearty fire, I opened the pages of my heart. Words poured forth and bounced back with objective suggestions. Each of us reaching out to one another. My love of the power of words deepened. Story after story filled the smokey air. Raw, flesh- tearing, and humorous words kept us riveted.

Our group marches forward, together. We share our writings and seek advice from one another. Our private Facebook page keeps our connections strong. Some of us have been able to see each other beyond Montana. We cheer from the sidelines for each other and keep the Haven spirit alive. When my own writing progress stutters, I am reminded that I am still loved and accepted.

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Haven Winter Series #2

For the last few winters, I’ve offered up my blog as a place for other writers to share. I’ve spent a few weeks posting their words while I’ve focused on my own writing. This year, I’ve asked Haven alum to write a short piece describing something they’ve learned or a way they’ve transformed through our writing retreats. I’ll be sharing two pieces per post over the next couple of weeks. This is the second post, written by Erika Putnam and Patricia Young.

SSSssshhh! by Erika Putnam

Winter’s first soft snow is falling outside.  I am in a remote town on a solitary retreat determined to finish the final edits on the memoir I have been writing for the last four years.  Doubts creep in as I am re-formulating the story arc.  Shortly after my second cup of coffee the critical writers committee starts in my head.  They sound like a cluster of grey haired librarians who have the tone of laying hens in a chicken coop.  The old one with wire rimmed glasses says, “Who do you think you are to write this book?”  The skinny one with the chin hair pukes out, “No one wants to read your droning stories, honey.”  The pecking at my sacred writing heart goes on and on amongst the hens.  Their nasty voices have me pushed right up against my quitting edge.

The last time I wanted to quit being a writer was a year ago, September 2012, at the Haven Writing Retreat.  We were nine strangers sitting in a misshapen circle reading out loud from pieces we had written.  Cindy read a play about a feisty teenage daughter fighting with her cranky mother and refusing to get out of an old car.  Our erotica writer started stumbling, blushing and gasping for air when she got to the part in her story when the buxom blonde was making a move on the business man.  Mid-sentence she abruptly stopped that story and began reading to us about a pair of trouble- making hooligans in the Deep South.  Sweet Emily delighted us with a children’s book complete with cheerful watercolor paintings of dainty butterflies.  Then, there was me who was reading about my, oh, so broken heart.

“No, don’t quit, keep going,” said our facilitator, Laura Munson, in a soft and encouraging voice.  From the right I felt an encouraging hand touch my back.  With hesitation I took a deep choppy breath and began again.  It was the chapter and scene where I was shamefully telling my husband I had filed for divorce.   It was challenging reading my work to strangers but as I read my own story and gave voice to my unfolding sorrow, the emotion began filtering back through my bones.  I was the exposed woman depicted in this memoir and I wanted to stop reading her life out loud. I didn’t want to be that messy, that vulnerable, that woman who had lived this scene.  Surprisingly tears turned into sobs.  This was not like me.  Tissues came from all directions.  Again I heard Laura’s voice compassionately pressing, “Keep going.”  I shook my head “no” as raw emotion had taken over reasoning.  She encouraged me further, “We want to hear. We are right there with you. We want to know what happens. Please, read on.”

On days like today, when my committee is speaking harshly, I do consider quitting.  I don’t want to write words that make me vulnerable and I don’t want to feel the fear that comes with choosing brave sentences.  I am lucky to recall being supportively held by the other writers at Haven.  We were a community of writers hearing our own voices, relating to our individual writing journeys and collectively fanning the same embers of desire to create books that should be written and read.  Those tears, on that night, with those writers remind me to daringly SSSssshhh the dream stealing librarians and “keep going.”

 

Haven – August 2013 by Patricia Young

My journey to mindfulness in writing began when a woman I had never met, never heard of before reached out to me one night, when I sent an email I never expected to be read.    I can hear her voice now when I read her book and blogs.  She mentioned a possibility – a balm perhaps to sooth the soul which in turn heals a shaky spirit and worn out heart.  This writing retreat was SO much more than what you will read about.  Haven becomes a part of you, and you it.  You will walk away with something rekindled, or something completely new – but you will carry home something intimately personal and very powerful.

I mentioned to you the email:  not once did she ask me then or now to buy her book or a mug with her name on it, containing tea made in Whitefish that promotes good grammar!  Not once did she fill me with false hope or expectations that ‘THIS retreat will launch my professional writing career! This is exactly what I needed to succeed!’  Haven is not promising enlightenment – you must find that for yourself.  Montana is where I found my courage.

Going to Haven was an invitation to come and experience something uniquely personal.  To do this in not only a safe environment, meaning you could say what you wanted to, what you needed to without judgment or ridicule,  but you did this within the support of a circle of writers while  immersing  yourself in the surrounding beauty.  I was changed simply because I was there.

My “ah-ha” moment was during my one on one session. I could not ask for a more amazing gift than to have her all to myself for an hour, pouring over writing I didn’t know I needed to write.

I’ve always LOVED to read silently, but especially out loud.   Yet never have I poured out anything so unfiltered, opening myself to possibilities way more powerful than anything ever allowed before!

Laura read my writings.   She actually gave a crap about something I had to say!  And then she did something else wonderful.  She wrote comments on it!  Yep, she did and not in red ink – but with recognition and inspirationally bold and in capitals with arrows and excitement! It was golden, it was tangible, it was honest.  This was real.

She called me “A woman creating her life”, then read her comments out loud – “lightness & depth & playfulness & wisdom all together is rare” and circled them, telling me, I CAN WRITE!!   If there was any doubt before, it vanished!  She took my hand from over my mouth and allowed me to take another step in words.  The shadows faded to dawn for me at Haven.  I have no doubt they will for you too. Be brave.

Breathe Deep, Think Peace

 

 

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Filling Station

As seen on Huffington Post 50

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Relationship Questionnaire

 

Sometimes I wonder if the divorce rate would be so high if we could tailor make a questionnaire for our love interests to fill out before we step into the abyss of a serious relationship.  I’m not talking about a Match.com sort of questionnaire.  I’m talking take-no-prisoners, pedal-to-the-metal, full-frontal, in- your-face, cut-to-the-chase, head-for-the-hills stuff you would only dare to say out loud in the woods, walking alone with your dogs.  Of course, I’d NEVER actually have the guts/gall to do it.  But making a personal, private list might serve some purpose.

Stuff like:  (indulge/humor me a little here)

1)
Do you like to kiss?  If so, do you consider it merely foreplay?

2)
Precisely how many hours a week would you like to be with me?

Please break that down into the below categories:

Talking/ Doing chores/ Having sex/ Cooking/ Watching TV/Cultural outings/ Social outings/ Dates/ Family time/ In-law time/ Physical activities (not including sex)

3)
Do you call your mother?

4)
Do you tell your father you love him?

5)
What’s the worst thing that happened to you as a child?  What’s the best thing?

6)
Who is your best friend and why?

7)
Has anyone close to you ever died and how did you deal with grief?

8)
Do you like to sing and/or play an instrument?

9)
Do you care if I gain weight?  If so how much is too much?

10)
What is your filthiest habit?  Do you drink?  If so, do you get mean when you drink? How much do you drink?  How about smoking?  Drugs?

11)
Would you say that your family of origin is dysfunctional?  If so, rank it on a scale of 1-10, ten being totally cray cray.

12)
What books are on your bedside table?

13)
What’s the kinkiest thing you’ve done, sexually?

14)
What’s your deal-breaker as far as break-up goes?

15)
Have you ever cheated on a girlfriend/spouse?

16)
In a pinch, do you lie to get yourself out of a sticky situation?

17)
If you could describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

18)
Have you ever stolen anything?  If so, what was it?  How did you feel afterward?

19)
What kind of body are you planning to have when you’re fifty?  Seventy?  Do you plan on making it to 80?  What about 90?  If so, what’s your strategy?

20)
Do you want children?  If one had some sort of handi-cap how would you handle that?

21)
Why do you like me?  Give me at least ten reasons but no more than twenty because then I’ll know you’re bullshitting me.  (You’re about to run for the hills, aren’t you.  I can see it in your eyes.  Hang on—I’ll change my tone.  I’m flexible that way FYI.)

22)
On road trips, are you generally a conversationalist?  On road trips do you like to play music?  Can you take LOUD?

23)
Could you love a woman who listens to opera?  (not on road trips)

24)
Could you love a woman who still listens to the Indigo Girls?   (maybe on a road trip)

25)
Could you love a woman who ummm…still listens to James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Carol King and…ummm…in a rare moment…John Denver?  Or who would make a mixed CD with the aforementioned…and maybe throw in a little Violent Femmes and Nirvana for flavor?  NOT that I have ever done that.

26)
Could you love a woman who ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm—hang on I need a glass of wine for this one:  knows every word to A Chorus Line, Godspell,
Pippin, My Fair Lady, Annie, and uh…don’t worry, not Phantom or Les Miz…but maybe (slurp) Cats?

27)
Could you love a woman who would publicly mock you if you wore tightie whities?

28)
(but let’s get back to you)  Do you watch Saturday Night Live?

29)
What about Ellen?

30)
What about Jimmy Fallon?

31)
What about Glee?

32)
What about Smash?

33)
What about golf on television?  On a sunny day.  All day.  In August.

34)
What’s your Rorschach for parades?

35)
Have you ever or would you ever wear clogs?

36)
Have you ever or would you ever live in a foreign country?  Like say, Italy?  Tuscany, to be specific?  In a villa?

37)
Would you ride horses with me?

38)
Would you ever want me to play golf with you?  And if so, would you be kind?

39)
Can you shoot a decent game of pool?

40)
Do you pray?

41)
Do you know what foie gras is?  If so, do you like it?  Because that might be a deal breaker for me if you don’t.

42)
Would you ever be angry with me if I left crumbs on the counter?

43)
What about dishes in the sink?

44)
What about large piles of laundry rivaling Mt. Hood?

45)
Do you expect your woman to…you know…wax…down…there?

46)
Do you give foot massages?

47)
If your son or daughter was gay, how would you handle it?

48)
What are your top three places on earth that you want to visit?

49)
What’s on your bucket list?

50)
I repeat, do you watch golf on television?  How much ESPN do you watch in general?

51)
Do you eat bacon?  (See the foie gras question)

52)
What’s your favorite swear word and how often do you say it and do you say it a lot when you have sex?

53)
Would you ever burp/fart at the dinner table?

54)
Do you believe that chivalry is dead?

55)
DO YOU SNORE?  If so, would you be opposed to separate bedrooms?

56)
What did you get on the SAT’s?

57)
Did you think your last partner (if applicable) was better for having spent that part of their life with you?

58)
What do you think about marriage vows?

59)
What do you think about marriage?

60)
What do you think about divorce?

61)
When’s the last time you got called an asshole and why?

62)
What is your relationship like with yourself?

63)
Have you ever been arrested?

64)
Have you ever hit a person or gotten in a physical fight?  Do you have a bad temper?  Are you passive aggressive?

65)
How emotionally dependent are you, in relationships?

66)
Do you cry?

67)
What is your idea of a perfect Sunday?

68)
What is your sense of God?

69)
Wanna start this off by going to therapy with me?

Yeah…better off leaving it to the walk with the dogs in the woods.  But kind of a fun exercise.  You might want to give it a whirl.

(Thank you to my Facebook friends for helping me conjure this list.)

Yrs.

Laura

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Commencement Speech– David Foster Wallace

I love this bit of genius. It’s all in how we look at things…
RIP, DFW.

Commencement, Kenyon College. 2005

(reproduced from the Wallstreet Journal)

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

If at this moment, you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside me. As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in, day out” really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home — you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job — and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth…

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am — it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

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January 2012 Haven- Small World (A Case For The Trajectory Of Intention)

It is my not-so-humble opinion that people say “what a small world,” too much in not-so-small-worldish moments.  For instance, if you were raised in Montana in a ski town of 2,300 people, and you travel to Seattle and you tell someone you’re from a ski town in Montana…and they say, “Whitefish?” and you say “Yes, in fact!” and they say, “Do you know Joe Schmo” and you say, “You mean Joe Schmo of the Schmo Schmos??? I used to DATE Joe Schmo.  I almost MARRIED Joe Schmo!” well then…I’m not that impressed. There are exactly two ski towns in Montana.  And both populations totaled, it’s about the size of a small liberal arts college.  I went to a small liberal arts college.  I pretty much knew everyone.  And I considered marrying a handful of them.

Now here’s a small world incident that actually does impress me.  It happened this week.  And it happened to me.  And three other unsuspecting characters.

I was minding my own business, going about the post-holiday dig-out from emails, broken ornaments under couches, dried out cedar boughs, and stale headless gingerbread men…and a package came.  It was for me.  I opened the box, figuring it was a tardy gift like most of mine were this year, scanning my brain for who might have me on their list, and lo…it was a box wrapped in purple tissue.  Nothing Christmasy about it.  Two weeks after Christmas, and someone had sent me something.  That someone is my friend Alison.  My kids deemed her Alison Wonderland when they were little, innocently, but it has stuck because she is that friend that remembers every birthday, writes long heartfelt newsy notes, sends gifts to both kids even though only one is her god-child.  She sends hardback books, always age-appropriate, always a Caldecott prize or something enriching.  My kids love Alison Wonderland.  And so do I.

This time Alison outdid herself.  It was a long thin box.  Jewelry.  I don’t know about you, but at age forty-five, I’m beginning to get grandmother gifts.  Pot Pourri.  Room spray.  Soap.  Candles.  As if I smell bad.  Or my house smells bad, like maybe I’m incontinent.  Jewelry is divine.  So I opened it with a little lust.  And there, shimmering in silver, smoothed in leather, was the coolest damn bracelet I’ve seen in a long time.  It was a horseshoe with two leather straps lined in orange ribbon (my favorite color) that snaps.




I don’t know if you’ve seen the cover of my book, but if not, here’s a reminder.

It wasn’t my idea to put a horseshoe on the cover of my book, but it has grown on me.  The idea of strength in hardship.  The illusion of where strength lies.  A steady horse suddenly without a shoe, so suddenly lame.  No, our strength is inside us.  That’s what I’ve learned and that’s what my book is about.  And Alison Wonderland knows that I could use a little strength right now in my life.  So she sent me a reminder.  A talisman, if you will.  I put it on, snapped it, positioned the shoe so that it is on my inner wrist, pointing up, filled with strength.  And when I feel not so strong, I put my thumb in its cleavage and breathe and feel better.  Beautiful gift.  Beautiful friend.  I called to thank her.  She’d seen this jeweler’s work at a fundraiser in Hartford, Connecticut.  Thought of me.

So here’s the small world part, and I’m telling you:  I really think angels exist.

Two days later, I’m sitting at my desk going through my morning emails with my green tea, and I see a note from a friend of mine in Italy.  I met her in Seattle years ago, not because she was a friend of a friend, not because either of us were from Seattle and had gone to school together or because we were part of some sort of work environment.  I had lived in a house in a little alley in Eastlake and had moved next door.  I was on my new front stoop.  She was on my old front stoop.  I said, “Hey, I used to live there.”  She invited me over.  I saw that her only furniture was a piece of plywood over two sawhorses and a computer, said, “Oh…you’re a writer.  Me too,” and there began a friendship that probably has totaled less than ten hours in physical vicinity.  She lives in Rome now.  She writes and teaches.  I live in Montana.  We keep in touch via email.  She’s a kind supportive open soul.  The kind you carry with you as you go but that doesn’t demand much.  We all need friends like that.

So…I’m always happy to get a message from her.  This one read:

“Because the world is ever smaller, the other day I was chatting with my dear friend Jessica who used to live in Rome (and Montana) and she recounted to me that she had designed a horseshoe bracelet as a gift for a writer in Montana … and that she was now reading her book and wanted to get in touch with her … And then she asked if I had ever heard of the book and it’s author.  Well, of course you know the answer!”

Head to toe chills.  You’ve got to be kidding me!  Now THAT is a small world.  It turns out that her dear friend Jessica is a beautiful jeweler and lives in Providence, RI.  (And is my new friend, because you don’t blow this s*** off!)  I’d like to introduce her to you, because she is the perfect example of turning a dream into a reality.  And when “coincidences” like this happen, far be it from me to keep them to myself.  From intention to intention to intention, crossing oceans and the Rocky Mountains, a chain of thoughtfulness and deliberate living.  Let us remember the power of intention and how it can unite kindred souls.

Meet Jessica Ricci:  

I make jewelry. This is what I tell people when they ask me what I do, but I always feel strange when I say this, as if I am not telling the complete truth. 

The truth is, I am kind of making this up as I go along, and how I come to a finalized piece is much less than a master craft and much more than a product.

In my former life (I mean life before 30) I worked and studied to be a journalist in Rhode Island and then New York City. In one of those moments that are hard to recreate, I moved to Rome with a vague idea of becoming a foreign correspondent, but taught English instead.

Maybe to keep my mind off of this perceived “failure,” I began visiting the weekly Roman flea market, finding myself rustling through dirty boxes of bric-a-brac, collecting things that had no business cluttering my medieval apartment. I did this with the kind of passion you see in stamp collectors or bird watchers.

I became especially obsessed with the antique Italian prayer cards that depicted saints who met their mostly grizzly demise in the face of belief. By the time I unearthed them, they arrived tattered with intentions, scribbled with prayers left by generations of old Italian women in black.

The prayer cards and other obscure objects I found there seemed to me like beautiful slices of life that should be more than discarded formerly important things that travel from flea market to flea market. I wanted to freeze all that they mean — all those thoughts from all of those people.

Jewelry was the most obvious way and something I had always dabbled in. In a process that happened in two languages and languished in Roman pace that seemed to move backwards at times, I taught myself a version of a an ancient craft that I practice today. It has taken me back to the United States to a life I had not intended.

As a child I didn’t see myself trading a digital watch for a Masai spearhead in a Tanzanian market, but I am never more confident, honest, and tenacious than in the moments I get off the plane and eventually into an area of possible finds.

This summer I had the opportunity to add another adjective to this list.

I spent a month in Puglia, Italy in a remote one-church town called Martignano without a car unless road tripping to a market. I was left without an option but to bike from tiny town to tiny town if I wanted to see such dazzling theatre as the village priest blessing all the animals, from dogs to chickens.

It was on one of these twenty-mile bike rides that I had an overwhelming feeling of what I have come to describe as self-reliance.  The impetus wasn’t just being okay with being alone; it was more like being assured that I have everything I need.

I took this wave of self-reliance with me as I scoured the markets that were full of charming old horseshoes that the locals would hang for good luck. I thought that the horseshoe would be a perfect motif for the Puglia collection, but the likelihood of finding a small version was slim.

Like most of my good finds, it was at the end of the day — just when I had given up on finding the perfect piece — that I stumbled onto a shack replete with little horseshoe charms.

Back in my studio in Rhode Island, while carving the wax I created from the horseshoe, I thought about the self-reliance that anchored me as I went where I wanted to go, did what I wanted to do, with no one watching. I gave this particular piece this “intention” in a way, in a hope, that like the pieces I find in the markets, it will contain what has come before. 

 

 

 


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Raven

Heart_Shaped_Rock

Raven
by Laura A. Munson

I know a woman who frequently finds hearts. In rocks, in the dish suds, in the shape of manure clods. She’ll say, “Laura! Come here.” And I’ll know that I am about to see some mystical arrangement of two curves, cleavage, and a point.
I know another woman who claims that whenever she begins a trip—in her car, on horseback, by foot, a hawk flies right across her path. “That’s how I know we are going to be safe,” she says.
I know a man who says that when he was a boy, his father told him that there was a magic place in the forest where there was a circle of trees. And if he could find it, and stand in the very center of the circle, he would get any wish he could dream up. So he was always walking around in the woods behind his house in northern California, in search of the Circle of Trees. He never found it. But now, as a man, in northwest Montana, he says that he cannot take a walk in the woods without coming upon a perfect circle of trees.
“Do your wishes come true?” I asked him.
“I’ve never made a wish there, actually. I just figure that the circle is, in itself, the proof that wishes can come true.”
I knew a girl when I was young, who was on the lookout for stones with perfect rings around them. “They’re good luck,” she’d say, squatting on the banks of Trout Lake in northern Wisconsin. She would pick them up faster than it took for me to imagine how a ring in a rock could have power; never mind believe in it. I wanted to believe—her bucket filling up with all that luck.
For a while it was blue sea glass. On the beaches of Lake Michigan. Green, white, and amber were abundant. Blue was hard to find. But not for me. Red was almost impossible, but I’d find red too. Then someone said, “Do you know what that is? It’s broken glass. It’s litter. Pollution. How can you find that beautiful?” So I stopped looking. Still, on beaches, I find blue sea glass. Put it in my pocket. Don’t tell anybody.
My daughter finds X’s in the sky. From airplanes. “Look, Mama. Another X. Isn’t it beeuuuuuuuuuutiful?” I don’t tell her that it’s exhaust from an airplane. She can find beauty wherever she wants.
Now, for me, it is the raven. Always a raven with audible winging, coming out of nowhere as if it is the same one, following me, flushing at my presence, performing its fly-by. It halts me. Reminds me to breathe deeply; say thanks.
My husband finds faces in coals. Usually late-night, around a campfire, when the fire has burned down and everyone else has gone to bed, and it’s just us. He is silent, staring. I know what he is doing. I leave him to his faces. I have never seen them. He says I look too hard.
I apologize to the coals. I assume I have not looked hard enough. I assume I should be the sort to see every design in all of Creation.
But I hear the winging; the raven being released into the night. So close I could reach up and let it skim my fingertips.
Breathe. Thank you.
I take a stick and poke into the coals, collapsing the faces I haven’t seen for whatever reason. I do not need to see faces, I say in my mind. I am the fire. The faces are me. I am not Narcissus of the fire ring. Nor an interpreter of Nature’s art. I do not need to see the designs as much as receive them when they come.
And still, there is the raven. And I wonder: are these things offered? Or are they beckoned.

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Spring-blind

2007-03-06_snow-goose-4

Spring-blind by Laura A. Munson

I have not noticed spring like this before. Perhaps this owes to the fact that this spring has been a long one—two years, more or less.
It began with the Snow Geese migration last April which I drove five hundred miles round trip in one day to see, over the Rocky Mountains (and back), to a place called Freezeout Lake. I missed the geese by a week, but discovered Avocets and Northern Shovelers instead. I did see one Snow Goose. It was dead in a field. I wanted to spread out its wings and sleep by it like Terry Tempest Williams. But I was scared to touch it. So I touched it. It was soft and warmish. I wanted to pluck a feather. So I did. Three of them. I felt each one down my spine. I had never plucked a feather before.
Then, within days, there were birds in the morning, waking me with their nesting frenzy. Flocks of Robins feeding in the fields, Red-winged Blackbirds assuming their bossy haunt of the marsh. And the rest came: the Bluebirds, Western Tanangers, the Sandhill Cranes. And there was a time when spring was just spring with the promise of summer as I have known it. And there were times when I knelt in the soft earth to smell the sweetness and give thanks, but maybe, too, as a bargain.
4630930~Eastern-Bluebird-Nest-with-Eggs-Posters
Then, summer, as we have known it, did not come. Smoke came. And spring moved through a summer of forest fires and we did not see one bird for all the smoke. We needed the birds—how else could we believe in summer? And then the terrorist attack came, and we missed the migration for all the smoke and television. And we needed the migration. More than we ever have. We needed to watch them go. And to believe that we were worth returning to.
It was then that I started stealing things. Hoarding them. Cramming them greedily in my pockets and stock-piling them on my desk: heart shaped rocks, bones, pine cones. Hoping mostly for a nest.
Spring moved then, through the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, of my mind, slowly groaning under the snow heaves in the meadow and tossing and turning below the frozen ice of the pond, while its time-twin sunned on rocks in Costa Rica, and I was left with tiny questions presented by wet mittens holding empty nests: “Will the birds need this again? Do I have to put it back?”
“Yes. You should put it back,” I told my little girl, in the voice of the god I had been hearing as I pulled things through the snow and shoved them into my pockets. And we did. We put it back where she found it, in the low branches of an alder. I knew well that the bird which made this nest would not use it twice; I made her put it back so I could keep my three feathers. My heart shaped rocks. My shells and horseshoe crab skeletons and bones, all in a jumbled cairn on my desk, hoarded. Proof.
I went to Florida somewhere during this long spring. I did not see a Roseate Spoonbill; I did not know what they were then. But I found a pink feather on the beach on Marco Island and if you ask me how my trip to Florida was, I will tell you this story, and another one that had to do with a starfish I found on the beach and took even though it was still alive, then returned; then took again and kept. The nest in the alder branches is carrying more and more weight the longer this spring goes.
If you are my daughter, I will admit to you that I took a starfish that was still alive.
“You should not have taken that starfish,” my daughter said.
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I returned to Freezeout Lake this second April in spring to see the Snow Geese. Earlier this time. I crossed the Rocky Mountains, and drove through the bleak everlasting white that drove the pioneer women white-blind and is what was left to the Blackfoot Indians if you don’t count liquor stores and casinos. I drove past an historical marker, blowing horizontal in the wind. I stopped my car on the side of the road and waited for the wind to lay down its tale for a minute. When it did, I blushed. This is where Meriweather Lewis was shot by Blackfoot Indians who were insane with pride and fear and this is where Lewis and Clark turned around and traveled another thousand or so miles south until they found their mountain crossing and even then they were not at the Pacific Ocean and it would be months and months before they ever found what they were looking for and you just drove it in a few hours, you silly stealer-of-starfish birdwatching non-goose—or something to that tune; I wasn’t sure—the wind swooped it up again before I could read it all. Still I eyed the pass I had just negotiated in my SUV not forty miles behind me, and blushed.
I saw the Tundra Swans first, their white-silver necks pumping them forward like my daughter’s skinny legs on her swing. There are Mourning Doves in their song. Then all 300,000 Snow Geese came up at once and it roared; I felt it in my spine. A professor from the University of Montana told me they were going to the barley fields to feed on the spent grain for their nightly meal. The Northern Pintail Ducks followed them, so secondary in their brownness. I looked down and there was a dead Snow Goose with its breast sliced open, its feathers bloody, a ruby organ lying next to it in the sand. I looked up at the professor. “We gave it an autopsy this morning,” he said. “We checked the liver for Airborne Cholera. It didn’t have it. Sometimes they just die.”
All I could think to say was a tiny wet-mittened, “Do they fall out of the sky when they die?” which was code for, I took three feathers.
He smiled, sadly. “Sometimes.”
I went to the grain fields and they were white and roaring and there were farmer’s children with their noses pressed against picture windows with whirligigs and bird feeders on their front lawns. Then I drove back over the Rocky Mountains in time for a late dinner.
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I have a bowl made out of a dried, halved and hulled-out, grapefruit. It sits on my desk with the pink feather in it, the three white feathers, and the starfish, atop the cairn of shells, heart-shaped rocks, bones. I look at it and think about Airborne Cholera and non-brown birds falling from the sky after thousand mile migrations and mountain crossings and white-blindness. And I think about how starfish grow their points back if one breaks off. I need this bowl, at least until spring can turn to summer.
We put a bird feeder up in January even though the man at the store told us the winter birds would not trust us this late in the season; we’d have to wait until spring.
“Oh the birds will come,” said my daughter. “They’re hungry.”
But I did not trust. I missed the migration, after all.
She was right. In the first hour after we hung it from the eaves on the back porch, we had Mountain Chickadees and Black-capped Chickadees. And we learned that there is a difference in the world of Chickadees and it is this: a stripe through the eye. Then we had a Red-polled Finch with a broken foot. At first we thought it had a bloody head but then we saw that it was just its marking. It kept falling asleep under the feeder and tipping to one side when the snowy wind blew. We kept trying to catch it while it was sleeping; I’m not sure that we knew what were going to do with it. We just wanted to touch it. Save it somehow. Love it for trusting us and believing in spring in January. After three or four times, it flew away and stayed away; it didn’t trust us anymore. Would you?
Then we had Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Lincoln’s Sparrows and then the snow melted and we had Red-winged Blackbirds who are utterly obnoxious but I love them in the cattails so much that I cry when they come back. There has been a lot of crying this spring. Frogs make us cry, especially.
One morning, we saw two Evening Grosbeaks. They looked like parrots– accidentals. We have had Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers, Starlings and Juncos, Camp Robbers and Flickers, and once a Mourning Dove. And even when we stand at the window, not three feet away from the feeder, and stare through binoculars, we still can’t really see the yellow stripe in the Pine Sisken’s wing and tail. We only know it is there, like we only know it has been spring all along.
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When the Mountain Blue-bird came back to his house in the meadow, we said, “Hello, Friend.” That is his name, according to my daughter. Then we went to the pond and there was still ice in the middle, but we saw a male and female Barrow’s Goldeneye and a male and female Hooded Merganser and we couldn’t believe we could have such birds in our measly little pond that dries to cracked mud by August even without smoke. And there was a couple of Mallards and we could believe them, because there is always a couple of Mallards. The male Goldeneye was making quite a show with its purple head and its alabaster markings and its ability to dive down and then bob up like some kind of machine bird. The female seemed brown and unimpressed. It occurred to me that she might like to see my pink feather or maybe my long white Snow Goose feathers, or even my starfish. She looked at me and said, “You should put it all back, if you want summer.”
I answered her, “Maybe I do not want summer.”
That is when my daughter said, “I once saw two ants shaking hands. Come on. I’ll show you.” And we went to her anthill that I had mistaken for a stump all this time, and we peered down into it and held our breath over its roaring vertical migration. I watched two ants carry a twig to the top, politely going around the other ants who were on their way back down over the millions of fir and larch needles. And when they got to the top, they gently laid down the twig, then mounted it like a balance beam, came into each other, met at the middle, stopped…and then they shook hands. “See,” said my daughter.
“Yes. I do see,” I said.
So we went to the alder tree in the marsh where we had replaced the nest in January. To visit it. To see if it was still a tightly woven vessel. To see if a bird had claimed it. (I was not so sure about the ways of birds now.) And we saw instead, that it was gone. Now there was nothing to hold the weight of my bowl. And I knew that our long spring would be over soon. And we turned back for home.
And we came across a pile of fur leftover from a kill.
“Oh that’s sad,” said my daughter.
I looked to see what the animal had been. Something softer and smaller than a deer. Larger than a coyote. Something that was very white in places and very brown in other places. Something capable of carrying much weight.
“I’ll bet that fur will help the birds with their nests,” said my daughter.
Then we heard the three part pierce of the Varied Thrush but again, did not see it—we never see it. But we knew it was there, like we have known it is spring.
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Then later, by moonlight, I walked out to the marsh where the alder trees are, holding my brimming grapefruit bowl. I woke the frogs and they all warned each other of me with beautiful music. I stood with my bowl in my hands, and I lifted it up until the moon poured itself over my feathers and my starfish, casting them in its blue glow. Then I leaned over and put my bowl in the branches of the alder and went home to receive summer.
***
It came in April when I took my daughter to Freezeout Lake to see the Snow Geese on her birthday. I took her, not because she needed to believe, but because I needed to. At dawn, we stood out on a peninsula and watched them lift, rising to feed—300,000 fold.
No terrorists, no war, no loss or fear of hope can take away belief such as that. Each April, the Snow Geese become our permission.

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