Tag Archives: career

What I Learned on Career Day…

career
as featured in Huffington Post 50

Recently, I was asked to be on a panel of professionals for Career Day at a local therapeutic prep school in the Montana woods. I had no idea what to expect. I went to a prep school, but not a “therapeutic” one. I went to one that was all about having big answers to the “what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you- grow-up” question. As a dreamy, driven teen, it was a challenge that both daunted and inspired me throughout my high school career. My dreams were always out-of-the-box — an artist of some sort — an actress, maybe a film-maker … but luckily I was someone who figured out how to be comfortably in-the-box, keeping my out-of-the-box thoughts mostly to myself. So I wrote a lot. That practice turned into an obsession which turned into a craft which turned into a career. That was the goal for this Career Day: panelists were supposed to tell our stories — talk about the arc of our careers, then and now. But we weren’t talking to in-the-box kids. It turned out, we were talking, quite frankly, to our interior adolescent selves.

Given the nature of the students at this school, I knew that my story had to be as transparent and true as possible. These weren’t kids who dance to any level of BS. They’ve been through hard stuff and they don’t want the Kool-Aid. They want the raw, the real, the impossible possible.

I practiced my 15-minute presentation in the car as I drove further and further into the woods. I speak and lead retreats about the power of using my profession (writing) as a therapeutic tool, so I figured I had this one in the bag. All I needed to add to my well-developed story was the part about how I discovered that creative self-expression on the page is an excellent way to process life, and how I’ve learned to practice this every day, against the odds. How it sustains me personally, and now financially. Lesson: find out what you love and do it with all your heart, no matter what, and eventually you will succeed, whatever that means to you. I’m living proof. Easy.

The first panelist to present was a prosecuting attorney. I prepared for a serious talk from a serious person. Instead, he talked about wandering. Living in Hawaii. Surfing. Snow-boarding. Bartending. Being misunderstood. Feeling like a loser. Worrying his parents. Wanting something different. And finding his way eventually to a profession that meets his needs. The second panelist was a successful web-developer with prominent clients all over the world. In his presentation, he talked about wandering. Living in New Zealand. Surfing. Skiing. Bartending. Turning down corporate America for mountain living. Worrying his parents. Wanting something different. Inventing things. When it was my turn, I found myself telling a very similar story, mostly the wanting-something-different component. Oh, and I bartended too. And wandered. And worried my parents.

We had three rotations of students who listened to our presentations, all with interesting questions, and a modicum of blank stares. These kids were listening. And we on the panel were listening to each other … three times. It’s one thing to wow a crowd with your best one-liners, cutting honesty, and slightly irreverent stories. But looking into the eyes of these kids who’ve travelled miles of hard road, there was zero room for schtick. I pride myself on heart language. Turning heart language into schtick is a depressing trajectory, but truth-be-told, it’s happened to me along the way, likely out of a self-preservation that grows from being constantly on the road, sharing your message. Given this Career Day format, there was no way it was happening here. Quite probably because of this fact, what I saw in myself and my co-panelists (we supposed “experts”) was a fountain of truth.

The first time around, we gave blow-by-blow plays on the journey of our careers. Fascinating details. Twists and turns. Yellow brick road of success with pitfalls you only admit when you’ve found your way to Oz. The second time, we three offered more — personal stuff, odd vignettes that ended up inspiring major life choices right down to a conversation on a plane and a pair of flip-flops. But before the third group of students came into the classroom, one panelist admitted, “I’ve been telling it wrong.” His eyes lit up and he offered to go first. He spoke about inventing things — got deep into what made him want to invent things and why. Which begat a confessional from the other panelist about how he didn’t always love his profession, but how he has learned to live by his principles, moment by moment. And when it was my turn, I got ready to tell my usual story — about wanting to follow my passion with all my might, even if it left me poor and unpopular … but instead, this voice escaped like it was pulling free from very old shackles:

“I wanted to be famous. Really famous. Meryl Streep famous. I was jealous of Julia Roberts. I wanted that career. I was jealous of the literary brat pack from the 80s. I wanted those careers. Desperately. But the voices inside my head were so loud: you’re not good enough, your dreams will never come true, who do you think you are to have those lofty dreams, you’re a show off, you’re self-centered, you’re not talented, you’re an embarrassment to your family, you’re a failure.” My heart pounded and my face heated, but I continued. “I’ve let my inner critic run me. Until very recently. Even though I give speeches and lead writing retreats about how to become aware of that voice and shed it, I’ve still allowed my inner critic to hold court. I don’t want that for you all.” And then privately, a very new thought brought me to my proverbial knees. And I added, “I never realized until this moment … that I’ve allowed her to be much freer than I am. She lives out-of-the-box. I’m the one still somehow in-the-box because she tells me the story, and I dance. I don’t want a story. I want to be rid of stories and just be.”

I looked at those kids and I realized: that’s what they wanted — to be free of their story. Of their pain, their pressure, their past. To free themselves of boxes altogether. And yes, to have permission to wander. And worry their parents.

I ended up staying for lunch. I sat with the students and answered more questions but mostly I listened to them. I commended them for being different and admitting it and wanting to understand themselves, truthfully. I commended them for being honest and outed for exactly where they are in their evolution. “Most of the stories we tell ourselves are myths,” I told them. “If there’s one thing to live by, it’s that. Find your truth, no matter how inconvenient, and live into it. And for what it’s worth, the “experts” are really grown-up high school kids, scared, just like you.”

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My Happily Ever After: what I’ve learned from writing something that a lot of people read.

author_photos_heath 008You never really know where life will lead you, but if you live with pure intention and feed what you love with all your might, consistently and honestly…you might find yourself in places you’d never dreamed you’d go. 

That happened to me in 2009 when I published the essay version of a memoir I’d written in the New York Times Modern Love column.  The entry point was a marital crisis, but the book and the essay were not really about marriage.  They were about being responsible for your own well-being no matter what’s going on in your life.  They were about focusing on what you can control and letting go of the rest.  And they were about powerfully choosing to not play emotional victim to the things that others say and do to you.

The book (This Is Not The Story You Think It Is) became a New York Times and international best-seller, and that essay went viral.  Today, five years later, the essay is having a resurgence all over the internet and in The Week magazine where thousands of people have made comments, and over 200,000 people have shared it.  That number is increasing by thousands every hour.  (At this moment of writing, it’s at 214K.  When I finish this post, if it is going the direction it’s been going, we could be at 22K, and I write fast!)  It has been the top read article for days on The Week, sparking blog posts and ribald conversation on social media platforms from Facebook to Twitter and beyond. 

Normally, I don’t follow this sort of stuff.  I’m a writer and a mother and those things take up most of my time.  I’ve learned that media often manipulates the meaning of my message and unfortunately a lot of the press I’ve gotten spins my essay/book to make it about how a woman saves her marriage.  But it’s not about that.  It’s about saving yourself.  Turns out, people aren’t easily open to that message.  People are used to playing emotional victim, and society re-enforces that.  I see things another way, and when you offer new solutions, people oftentimes not only don’t want to hear them, they go on attack mode.  I don’t have much room for that.  I wrote that essay and that book to help myself process a difficult time in my life, and I wrote it to help others do the same.  It has helped people all over the world and when I wonder whatever possessed me to be the main character in a book (I normally write fiction), I take heart in the knowledge that I have been true to my author’s statement:  I write to shine a light on a dim or otherwise pitch black corner to provide relief for myself and others.  If I have helped one person out there, then it’s all worth it.  And I’ve heard from thousands of people who tell me my writing has done just that. 

I walked a line of integrity throughout the whole experience of book promotion, not exposing my family outside of their comfort zone, not naming names, and turning down major media when my gut told me that it wasn’t right.  And I mean MAJOR media.  My message never has been about staying in a relationship.  It’s about taking care of yourself and stepping outside of emotional suffering to do so.  Moment by moment.  Thought by thought.  Breath by breath.  Stepping into the most powerful question I know and that’s:  What can I create?  You don’t have to suffer, even under fierce rejection.  Even when your spouse says, “I don’t love you anymore.”  I’m here to tell you—this is the exact time to find the greatest emotional freedom of your life!  You don’t have to take that personally!  Nor do you have to take “You’re fired” personally.  Or “You’re a jerk” or “You didn’t win the prize.”  These are just words.  I’m not always good at it, but it’s a practice I’m dedicated to because it works.  It’s truth.  I own what there is to own, set boundaries for myself, and mind my own business.  It’s actually easy once we gain the self-awareness that it’s possible to choose our own happiness no matter what’s going on in our lives.  And that usually begins with getting in touch with our own self-talk.  Most of us speak to ourselves ten times worse than we’d speak to our enemies!

That’s new news to a lot of people and so now I find myself in the Wellness realm, speaking about the subject of non-suffering through self-awareness and creative self-expression at conferences and at my Haven Retreats, and I’m happily working on three books that have nothing to do with marriage.  I have moved on from that time in my life, and while the end of the essay and the book leave my marriage in a place of healing, that marriage needed to end, and it did.  Again, it was never about staying together.  It was about taking care of yourself in a time when society says that you should suffer greatly, fight, splay yourself supplicant.  I refused to do that.  I felt that it was his crisis, and my job was to focus on what I could control and let go of the rest, which included the outcome of my marriage.  I gave myself a stopping point.  And eventually we stopped.  And now we are divorced.  Amicably.  We are on to new chapters.  All the players are thriving.  And I’ve been given the opportunity to re-live the messages in my book/essay from a new angle.  They still apply and they are still lifelines.  And I can say that I know, without a doubt, that happiness is within.  I’ll leave it at that.

But in the light of this break-neck resurgence of that small essay I wrote what seems a lifetime ago, I am moved to respond to a few things that might help you wherever you are in your lives—in a crisis, post-crisis, free zone.  With the recent inundation of intimate, bleeding emails these last few days, for the most part about a painful marriage…thanking me for my essay on The Week, which indeed provided relief for people, and perhaps a new way of looking at life…I am moved to investigate this phenomena of the collective We. 

We are in pain. 

We are looking for hope. 

We are looking for empowering messages. 

We are looking for these things from every-day people. 

We want to know that We are not alone.

We want to re-invent our relationship with pain.

We want to know that to fight is not always the best way to win.

We want to know that the only real winning is in our ability to step outside of suffering and into emotional freedom.

We want to know that we can powerfully choose our emotions.

We want to know that no one can really make us mad or sad or feel guilty.  Or even happy.

We want to know that life is daily and that we don’t have to go to the top of the mountain to find enlightenment.  It’s right where we stand.  Even at our kitchen sink.

We want to feel connected to our loved ones, but sometimes the best way to connect is by stepping out of their way.

We have forgotten the power of deep breathing.  A long walk.  Candlelight.  A hot bath.  A singular flower in a vase on our nightstand.

We have forgotten that pain can be a terrific guide when we breathe into the groundlessness of it.

We have forgotten that life is about endless possibility.  And endless Yes.  And THAT’S where the real power lives.

Writing helps.  I have used my writing to process this beautiful and heartbreaking thing called life since I was a child.  I did it in my published memoir and essay so many people have read, are re-reading, or  reading for the first time and sharing with their loved ones. 

It’s for precisely this reason that I started Haven Retreats which were recently listed in the top five in the country!  Now I help others dig deeper into their creative self-expression on the page.  I invite you to write your way through the difficult times in your life.  You never know what might happen… 

One hour later.  219K shares.  We are 5,000 hungry for these messages and counting…

Note: As of June 4, 2014 there are now over 300,000 shares at The Week so it looks like we’re in this together!

Now booking Haven Retreats in gorgeous Whitefish, Montana. 

For more information email:  Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

2014

September 10-14
September 24-28
October 8-12
October 22-26

2015

February 25-March 1
June 3-7
June 17-21
September 9-13
September 23-27
October 7-11
October 21-25

 

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To a Young Writer

I was recently asked to write down some writing advice to a young person who loves to write and needs some guidance. There’s practically nothing I’d rather do. Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” largely shaped who I am as a writer and a person today. The following is what came out of me. Please feel free to share it with anyone– young, or old, or in-between who needs a little help in this category. Writing ain’t for sissies, and we need a little hand-holding/nudge every-so-often. yrs. Laura

Write what you HAVE to write.

Don’t give up.

Write and write and write.

And write.

Don’t believe in writer’s block.

Don’t worry about getting published.

When you think you’ve gone deep enough, go deeper. And then go deeper.

Think of yourself as an archaeologist and you want to crack the case on the cavewoman.

What did she worry about? What did she do to find comfort?

Tell people, “I am a writer.”

Hold your head up high when they look confused, and even judgmental.

Allow yourself to be misunderstood in life and on the page.

Believe in yourself.

Only you can tell your story the way you can tell it.

When you sit down to write: get butterflies in your stomach. Feel like it’s a snow day.

Always believe that you have something to say.

Always know that you have nothing to say.

Say it anyway.

Be brave.

Be kind to yourself.

Believe. Receive. It’s all happening.

All you have to do is show up.

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To the Horses I Go…

 


Back to the Horses I go…  (as seen on the Parelli website)

It’s trail riding time again in Montana and I can’t wait to get back to this thing that I so love.  I used to do it for the lakes and forests, the runs across meadows of wildflowers, the swimming in the river bareback, the sacred time with my horse of 12 years.  But this season, I’m doing it with a different set of needs and dreams.  In the last three years I went from having no career, to having a bigger career than I’d ever imagined.  I went from being an unpublished author of fourteen book babies…to a New York Times bestselling author with a book published in nine countries.  I’ve been on the road for the most part of the last two years, doing book tours, major national and international television and radio, speaking engagements, teaching, workshops, book fairs.  It’s been quite a ride, not unlike galloping across a meadow– fear of falling and all.

It’s taken its toll.

I recently treated myself to a Thai massage at a wellness center where I was giving a keynote speech.  It was the day after I’d spoken to a large group of people, under a lot of pressure to perform and to hopefully help change lives with my story and my message about empowerment.  Thai massages go very deep.  The practitioner crawls all over you, walks on you, stretches you like nothing I’d ever experienced.  And I started to weep.  The practitioner said, “That’s okay.  It happens a lot.  Out of curiosity, are you going through a major life change?  Your muscles are like armor.”

“Uh, I guess I am.”  And I explained what has become my sudden new reality, adding, “I’ve had to be so focused and intense all the time.  A lot of people reach out to me for advice and sharing since my book is so vulnerable and raw.  I struggle with boundaries.  I just want to help people.  Maybe I’ve built an armor I didn’t know about in some sort of attempt at self-preservation.”

“Very definitely, you’ve built an armor.  I’m going to ask you a question:  can you do what you do without being so (in your words) focused and intense?”

It floored me.  Because it dawned on me that at the beginning of this whole published author journey, I’d made a Statement of Purpose—or a mantra if you will.  I wrote:
“I give myself permission to be exactly who I am and have it be easy.”  And then a year in, I’d added to it, “And have it be fun.”  I’d totally lost sight of this mantra.  Easy?  Fun?
Exactly who I am?  I wiped my tears and I told her, “I used to have a life in balance.  I used to work with horses.  They were my grounding and ballast and teachers.  I haven’t seen my horse in
months.  And a brutal Montana winter is no excuse.  I board him only three miles down the road where there’s a heated arena.  I miss him.  I miss who I am when I’m with him.”

And I realized right then and there, lying on that massage mat, that I needed to overhaul my entire relationship with my work, my mind, body, soul– and fast!  I don’t need to be sitting at my computer twenty-four seven answering emails, social networking, simultaneously writing a novel and another memoir, taking speaking gigs, running to the airport to catch planes to my next gig.  It’s my work and I love it, but I need to stop.  Breathe a little.  Just…be.  If even for a few hours a couple days a week.  I need to shed this “armor” and get back in my body again.

So it’s to the horses I will go this season to find that “play” again.  They will sense my armor immediately and they will not trust it, being the prey that they are to my predator…and they will teach me moment-by-moment that it doesn’t serve me one bit.  They will help me return to myself, as I shed that armor, and as they feel the way my body moves softer and softer on their back and on the ground.  They will help me to go “with” life instead of muscling it.  And if I pay attention and receive what they have to teach me, they will help me to re-set my intentions, gather my awareness, get in tune with my instincts.  I simply cannot wait.

 

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I’d love to speak in your neck of the woods!

Sooo…some shameless self-promotion:  if your business, school, social group, club, library etc. is looking for a speaker who is all about empowerment…pick me!  Here’s the scoop:   http://www.apbspeakers.com/speaker/laura-munson

LAURA MUNSON

A writer for over 20 years, Laura Munson is the author of theNew York Times and international best-selling memoir, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness. Passionate about “finding the intersection of heart and mind and craft on the page,” Munson shares a story that explores marital crisis and imparts a message of empowerment, the importance of living in the present, and the necessity of claiming responsibility for one’s own happiness – no matter what is going on in life.

It all began when Munson penned an essay, “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear,” for the “Modern Love” column of The New York Times in 2009. Stunned by the firestorm reaction she received, Munson emerged as the face behind an essay that ignited dinner talk, office chat, and book groups around the globe. A short version of a memoir she had written during a rough time in her marriage, the essay touched people with its powerful honesty. And they wanted more. After having written for two decades, having completed 14 novels, and having endured countless rejections, Munson had a book deal within 48 hours.  Her memoir has been published in nine countries.

Munson’s work has appeared in the New York Times ”Modern Love” column, the New York Times Magazine ”Lives” column, O. MagazineWoman’s DayRedbook, Good Housekeeping, More magazine, Shambhala Sun, The Sun, and Big Sky Journal, as well as on HuffingtonPost.com and through many other media outlets. She has been on two national book tours with appearances on Good Morning America, The Early Show, London’s This Morning, Australia’s Sunrise, various NPR stations, and many other television and radio shows, including Dr. Christiane Northrup’s Hay House radio program.

TOPICS

How to Turn Crisis Into Personal Freedom

How to Get What You Want by Getting Out of Your Own Way

The Power of Story in Times of Crisis

Please call 800.225.4575 or contact The American Program Bureau for more information on this speaker’s speech topics.

REQUEST MORE INFO

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Mommy’s Got Talent

As seen on the Huffington Post

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

Until she quit her day job and became a businesswoman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On The Road: (or Where am I?)

You may think the road is glamorous…but think again.  There are lessons in limos that you might not expect…

Origninally published in Author Magazine

I’m home now after two months on the road promoting my book, and every morning, I wake up with a start: Where am I?
I could be anywhere. I could be in a Hampton Inn in Dayton, Ohio. I could be in a Ritz Carlton in downtown Los Angeles. I could even be in my own bed. And it’s an interesting experiment lying there, daring the early morning birds, living into that not knowing.

I’ve known exactly where I am when I wake for many years. I am in my bed in Montana, once again waking to the same cool celadon green of my walls, the same mahogany antique desk that I’ve ruined with hot tea mugs, the rings to prove it. There is a stack of books covering those rings, and I’ve read too little of those words, and so usually, I awake to guilt. Guilt in the rings and books and inevitable dust—a dead fly or two on the window sill. I feel guilt, but I feel comfort. I am the keeper of these inanimates.

In My Dinner with Andre, Andre has to climb mountains to know that he exists. Wallace Shawn is happy to wake up to the cold cup of coffee from the day before in his New York City apartment. In both cases, these are proof that they are alive. I have been alive then in dead bugs and low grade guilt. But I’d like to have kinder proof, so usually I try to think of a few nice things to say to myself. Sometimes I think of people to whom I want to send loving kindness. Either way, there is always this butterfly flicking around in my rib cage: when do I get to write? That question is what quells it all. And it is with that question that I get out of bed and enter my day. It is in answering that question, that I know where I am.

I had a friend who spent a lot of time and money getting her masters in creative writing. At the end of it she realized she’s not a writer. “I dreaded every minute of it,” she said. “Really,” I said. “I feel like a little girl getting away with something every time I sit down to my writing desk.” It felt that way in 1988 when I realized I am a writer and it feels that way in 2011, and if I know anything about myself, it will feel that way as long as I live.

As I’ve said before, writing is my practice and my prayer. My meditation. My way of life and sometimes my way to life. It is the holiest ground I know. And so, you might wonder what happens when you wake up day after day on the road in a startle, wondering what you will see when you open your eyes and really not knowing what the answer is to the question, once you get around to it: when do I get to write? Because the answer most likely is: this summer. And summer is months away.

So do you feel sorry for yourself? Or worried for yourself like your grandmother worries for you? Maybe a little. Your life, for as much as your dreams are now realities, is dearly out of balance. Writers have nervous breakdowns on book tours because of this imbalance. Their personal lives suffer. Their children suffer. Mothers without their children suffer, whether or not they are writers. I have a writer friend who doesn’t call her kids when she’s on the road. “It upsets them,” she says, and she’s right. Better to extract yourself and to leave them be. They don’t need the reminder. It doesn’t feel good hearing your voice. It feels sad. For both of you.

It’s true that I bring my journal with me when I travel. But it’s also true that I don’t write in it. I can’t quite ask and answer my good questions. I can’t quite go into the woods of my heart and depict my wanderings well or even at all. It’s too painful. It’s what my friend with the MFA felt when she sat down to write. I think that for me, it’s because novels hatch in journal entries. Or at least short stories and essays. And I can’t afford that to happen. Because I can’t take their hand and breathe air into their lungs. They will be like my children. Abandoned for now.

So I am out of practice on the road. I am disoriented. Where am I? This is not just a question of toilet and nightstand and lamp and toilet paper. This is deeply psychic. Where am I? What CAN you take with you? Well here is my answer:

Every so often, like the Pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim who travelled with his book and his knapsack, trying to learning what it is to pray without ceasing, we need to find the wilderness that is us. To give up our earthly possessions and even that cold cup of coffee and those dead flies that remind us we are alive, and climb our Everests like Andre or take to wandering with one single intention like the Pilgrim. We need to forget what Monday is from Tuesday and what Portland is from Jacksonville, and just be Somewhere. It’s nice to become aware of a comfortable bed because of the uncomfortable bed in which you slept the night before. It’s nice to know the difference before you even know where you are longitudily and latitudinaly speaking. A good pillow leaves you wanting to weep in gratitude. The smile from a cab driver. A wink from the woman at the train ticket box. The way the waitress calls you “hon.”

At home, you don’t notice these things quite the same way. You know exactly where you are. You berate yourself for being forty-five years old and still not having the wherewithal to keep a stock of tampons in your medicine cabinet. You feel guilt over ruined antiques and pressure from dead flies, and you forget sometimes that they are reminders that yes, you are alive. You can’t think about being alive. You have so very much laundry to do.

And yes, you are home. You have a place to practice your prayer. And the road reminds you: you have your room of your own…and you are so grateful for it because you forgot: a long time ago, you pined away for that room. You wrote inbetween shifts at the restaurant and while the babies slept. You have your desk that awaits you. You have your work. You have a life in balance, for the most part. You know where the toilet is. The road has been a great teacher: you need to be OUT of balance every so often, so that you know what balance is in the first place. You need to learn to be grateful for dead flies by climbing the mountain. There are times to live and times to write and times to do both. And so to the road, and to all those hotel rooms and that new question (Where am I?) which for many weeks this last year have replaced my usual question at waking (When do I get to write?)…Thank you.

And now it is summer.

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Lost in Translation?

A lot of things have been blessings in disguise from this journey of book, but one of the greatest ones has been knowing that my words are reaching people all over world.  Wow.  Wow.  The UK has been amazing. So have been the Auzzies and Germans. Thank you.

Hearing from a blind woman in Israel who tells me that my book helped her through the greatest loss of her life and that is the death of her seeing eye dog to cancer.  This is the power of story.  To know that my words, written here in my small room in Montana, are being translated around the globe:  well that is just hitting me.  And it’s hitting me hard.  Today I got my words in Chinese. 
And recently in German. Soon in Dutch, Italian, and in Taiwanese.
Universal truth is universal truth.  It crosses oceans and countries and cultures.  Thank you.

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The Year My Mother Hit the Road

Family bike ride in Glacier National Park (photo credit Kelly Marchetti)

If you haven’t stepped into my house during the day, you wouldn’t know what it sounds like.  There is NPR on low in the kitchen, an occasional UPS delivery and thusly, the occasional sounds of a golden retriever and a black lab barking, gravel being rolled over by truck wheels.  Sometimes there’s the sound of a sump pump in the basement throbbing like a hospital breathing machine.  Sometimes rain gushing from gutters.  Sometimes errant flies caught between the window and its screens.  And from May to August, birds.  These sounds come and go and I am their only witness. 

If you walked into my home and I didn’t know you were here, you’d also hear the popcorn of my computer keyboard, right when it’s really popping there at the end, before it burns.  You’d be my witness.  You’d hear first and then see if you walked to the sound coming from the small room at the foot of the stairs, that I write.  All day.  And have since 1994 when I stopped working fulltime and became a fulltime writer.  I’d been writing inbetween jobs since 1988, but my steady writing life really began when we moved to Montana and my husband took a well-paying job running a brewery– which meant I finally had the time to put my total energy into finding the intersection of mind and heart and craft that is writing.  And then the babies came, but I still wrote during their naps and at night after they went to bed, and then when it was time for them to go to school, I had my days wide open again to write.  From 9:00 until 3:00, more or less, once first grade began for the last child.  That happened six years ago.  Since then, I’ve written and I’ve mothered. 

I get down and dirty with the tuna fish and the mayo and the deli meat and the peanut butter at 7:00 am, slicing apples and carrots and putting them into small waxpaper bags for school lunches.  I serve up French toast with warmed real maple syrup in yoga pants and a fleece and my hair in a scrunchie, trying to take advantage of the ten minute ride into school– everything always a teaching moment.  There’s a lot of philosophy and world religion and English 101 on those drives.  And then the popcorn pops all day. And then I return to the school at 3:00 to escort my children to their music lessons and sporting practices and games.  The “how are yous” from other parents are met with “I’m fine.  How are you?”  And the conversation wanders around in the field of parenting, sharing opinions and concern for local issues from the sidelines and parking lots that house our public lives.  But privately, I have another world with no witnesses save for flies and dogs. Privately, I write.

And then my dream came true.  I got a book published. And everything changed. I got to serve the popcorn.  And people ate it and wanted more.  And I went around the country serving it up in whopping portions.  It turns out, I make good popcorn.  And people paid me for my popcorn.  And then flew me around so I could serve up more of it.  And put me up in fancy hotels and drove me around in limos.  Man, I never even knew that my popcorn would really ever be eaten, much less eaten like that!  It was really really satisfying.  I’ve been told, my popcorn even has changed people’s lives.   (OK– I beat the shit out of that one.  Sorry Strunk and White. Outside of metaphor-land, I always burn the popcorn, for what it’s worth.)

Suffice it to say, I’ve been gone a LOT for a year or so.  Sometimes for two whole months.  At one point, I couldn’t remember what grade my son was in.  At another, I found out that my daughter had started Driver’s Ed.  Who wrote that check? Who signed that permission slip? The answer is:  my husband.  And it’s not like I wrote a book about a small tribe in Africa.  I wrote about writing.  I wrote about a hard time in our marriage.  I wrote about practicing what it is to live powerfully right there at your kitchen sink when the world tells you you’re a victim.  I wrote about lifelines– canning tomatoes with my children, digging carrots from my garden, picking huckleberries, learning how to breathe deeply…rather than exploding in pain and agony.  I wrote my way through this time to help myself and to help other people.  I went public with my deepest thoughts and emotions.  And even though it’s not really a book about marriage, let’s face it:  my husband was going through a major crisis of self, and I reported on what that looked like.  Not to expose him, or my children, but to expose me.  My book is about my journey– my committment to stop basing my happiness on things outside my control.  The publishing world, my marriage, all of it.  And somehow, the world wants to hear that message.  And somehow, my husband has the grace to know that our story is helping people, even though it’s no one’s first choice to be depicted in a time of personal crisis. 

When I am out of town, and even sometimes when I’m here and things are busy in this little room at the bottom of the stairs, here’s what that grace looks like:  he wakes up, gets down and dirty with tuna fish, mayo, deli meat…well you get the picture.  He signs the permission slips and writes the checks and drives the kids to school and has those conversations and picks them up and escorts them around to their after school activities.  He has those conversations with other parents in the parking lots and sidelines.  And on top of that, he works.  His work day is compacted because of it, like mine used to be.  And when I return from my travels, I can see it.  They are in a rhythm.  And it works.  I am not part of that rhythm.  I am so grateful for what he is doing in my absence and in honor of my dream come true.  He is the reason I can publicly be my book’s messenger. 

I will admit here that it’s also a haunting experience, re-entering my house and my family life and seeing how it has worked without me in it.  It’s like I’ve died and I’m looking from the afterlife into this farmhouse in Montana.  Wow, look at that– the windows got washed. The windows haven’t been washed in ten years! Gosh that’s a big pile of laundry. Has anybody fed the dogs? I’m not at all comfortable with my son going to that kid’s slumber party.  But these are not my calls to make when I am on the road.  I have to let go.  I am not home.  You relinquish a certain level of your parenthood when you travel for business or if you work late hours.  It’s like the opposite of sending your kid off to college.  YOU are in college, as it were.

I tell you all this because it matters to me that you know, if you too have suddenly catapulted out of your daily regime as a parent and are feeling…well, a little scared of what that means to your kids and spouse.  A little guilty.  A little overcome by the new rhythms of family.  I tell you this because I have compared notes now with plenty of working mothers and fathers whose work brings them far from home.  And I’m here to say that, as long as it’s not constant, as long as there is balance and regularity and a system in place that works…you are setting a GOOD example for your children.  You can have your parenthood and your job.  You can have your dreams come true in your field of work and still be a good parent.  If it happens quite suddenly…it can be a shock at first–for everyone in your family.  And there are conversations that need to happen.  There may well be abandonment issues that need to be worked out with a therapist.  I check in with my kids about this regularly.  I want them to know that I am not choosing my work over them.  But rather that work is part of life.  Knowing them, they will work hard too, and hopefully it will be doing something they love and hopefully the world will receive them into it and hold them up to their best selves.  That’s what I’m trying to do with my life.  Be my best self.  Which means that sometimes, I have to leave my family and hit the road. 

So to my family, thank you.  Thank you thank you thank you.  And yep– your mother’s back.  Brush your teeth.  Don’t slouch.  Take off your hat at the dinner table.  And no, you can’t go to that kid’s slumber party.  And to my husband, thank you for marrying me as the woman I am, and not only the mother that I am.  But p.s. I don’t do windows. Way to raise the bar! I love you.

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Are Stay-at-Home Dads Macho?

This is the third in a five part series of discussions by Laura Munson and Tom Matlack of “The Good Men Project.”

Laura Munson:

Last year, my husband was suddenly unemployed, and after many years, I finally got a book published. I was working insane hours and touring the country on book promotion and he was making breakfast and bag lunches, driving kids from school, to music lessons, to sporting events. He gave me the greatest gift anyone could have given me at that time in my life: He kept our family life normalized. Sure, the kids now got chips in their lunches, and he opted out of organic milk. But I saw what really mattered, and it wasn’t a potato chip or a pesticide here or there. It was security. It was the kind of love that men seem best at giving — at least my man. It didn’t mean there was a lot of “I love you when you sit in a dark room and type all day” or “You look sexy in those flannel pajamas that you’ve worn for two weeks.” It was a quiet knowing that he had a role to fill, and he did it powerfully. It was a perfect swap, but we both believed it was temporary. That was the unspoken operative word. Because if someone had told us when we were courting that I’d one day be the breadwinner, and my husband was going to be a stay-at-home dad, we would have balked. At 20-something I wanted to pursue my career and have him pursue his. I wanted to re-convene at the end of the day and share food and conversation and maybe snuggle on the couch while we watched a movie. In my 30s I wanted to have children and we did. Then I wanted to stay at home and be a mother and write books while my babies slept, and I wanted him to work, and be fulfilled — and then I wanted that end-of-the-day meal and that conversation and that snuggle. Life went like that and we felt lucky. But in our 40s, things changed for a while and we are better for it. I’m not sure I know what “macho” means. But if it has to do with power, then being given the space and time to fulfill my career dreams is one of the most powerful gifts I’ve been given.

 

Tom Matlack, stay-at-home dad:

Not only are stay-at-home dads macho, but all dads who show up for their kids are macho. You can’t be a dad and wall yourself off from your child. Perhaps that was the way in prior generations, but one of the greatest changes for men today is the opportunity we have to engage and learn about ourselves through our relationship with our kids.

I spent 18 months at home with my young children just after getting divorced. I only had the kids part time and I found it amazingly hard when they weren’t around — and amazingly rewarding when they were.

The feeling of holding a child, especially my own, in the crook of my neck is as close to God as I have ever been. When my life was completely falling apart around me — at least in part because I’d been working so hard that I had completely forgotten that I was a father — spending time with my kids reminded me what was important and gave me a purpose.

Machismo is about confidence, swagger and knowing what is important. Dirty Harry is macho, not only for what he does, but how and why he does it. He’s a badass on a mission to right the wrongs of the world. Dads, particularly stay-at-home dads, are the same way. They take care of their kids with a purpose. Mothers have something essential to give their children, but what dads have to offer is no less important. For those of us who have finally, fully internalized that fact, there is nothing in our lives more important than our children — and no one who is going to tell us otherwise. We will dive through brick walls — and endure being called “sissies” — to care for our kids in a way that makes up for time lost in prior generations.

Fifty years ago, women were trying to figure out how to get out of the home and into the workplace while still being good moms and wives. For men in 2011, our primary challenge is to figure out how to be at home with our kids while still holding down a job. To those guys who stay home to raise their kids: You are lucky, macho men. The dad at the playground or at the “Mommy and Me” playgroup doesn’t have to cower over in the corner. He can stand tall and do his thing, playing with his kid in a manly way, because it is cool to be a dad.

Laura Munson:

I totally agree. I live in a town where most of the fathers I know are able to show up at their kids’ sporting events and play performances and music recitals, and even school parties because of the close proximity to their workplace — if they have a work place. Here, many of the men are out of work, and their wives are the breadwinners. I also live in a town that is full of Montana “macho” men who strut their stuff all over the ski hill, and in the mountains, hunting, fishing, climbing — “getting after it,” as they say. I asked my son to define this “it.” He said, “It is doing what you love.” In this sense, being with your kids as much as possible is just that.

MATLACK:

I agree with you here. I agree macho means power, but power with intention for good. Macho men are heroic men, whether in Westerns or sports or at home. One of the biggest changes in the gender geography, as you describe so well and as we explored at length in The Good Men Project is the transformation of men as seeing fatherhood not as some kind of obligation in addition to their jobs but as the central role they fulfill on the planet—-one that can be done with machismo. The dad at the playground, or at the mommy and me playgroup, doesn’t have to cower over in the corner as some kind of freak. He can stand tall and do his thing, playing with his kid in a manly way, because it is cool to be a dad.

***

Tom Matlack and Laura Munson debate other questions about modern love:

How Important is physical appearance to long-term fidelity?

What’s more important to a good marriage — great sex or fighting fair?

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