Tag Archives: Chicago

Amtrak Ode– The Train to Haven


Haven Writing Retreats 2016

June 22-26 (full)
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

Now Booking 2017

February 22-26
June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22

Every-so-often, there is a perfect confluence in life—even in the life of a writer. When childhood romanticism meets adult sentimentalism, when whimsy and bravery stand side-by-side, when the world of possibility opens and you can see clearly through a widened “peephole,” as Vonnegut calls our limited perception of the world. That happened this weekend when I learned that Amtrak is offering free “residencies” aboard their trains for writers. Woah. Instant tears flowed fast.

You see, I come from Chicago train people. And I live in a small mountain train town where the train is the one solid thing that connects my life here to whence I came. I’ve been here for twenty years, have built my home and raised children and written and basked in the beauty of all that northwest Montana gifts us season after season…but Chicago will always be my starting point.

When I told my father I was moving to Whitefish, Montana, he got tears in his eyes (it runs in the family). “What a beautiful part of the world. I used to take the Empire Builder there when I was a young man in the 1940s, calling on railroad customers. I loved watching the city turn to farmland, and the Great Plains, and then the Badlands, and then the Rockies. I used to look out the window and just dream.”
Whenever I’m having a hard day, I go to the Whitefish Depot, like a Chicagoan goes to Lake Michigan, and watch the freight trains change tracks with names I grew up knowing thanks to my father: GATX, Santa Fe, Burlington Northern. From my childhood bedroom in suburban Chicago, I used to listen to the gentle chugging of the Milwaukee Railroad, comforted that there was someone else awake in the middle of the night. Sometimes when I see the gleaming silver Amtrak waiting at the station, I think: “I could hop on and go home.” It brings me that same comfort to know that I am still connected to “home” in this small town in the shadow of the great peaks of Glacier National Park.images

The last time I took my kids back to Chicago, we went to the Museum of Science and Industry. “I want to show you something,” I told them, ushering them to one of my childhood treasures. “It’s the train room! It’s a model of the route of the Empire Builder from here all the way to the west coast. My dad used to take me here. It’s the coolest model train ever built!” I said, remembering how I’d hold his hand as he traced the lights of Chicago across the country all the way to the ports of Seattle, marveling at all his days riding those rails as a businessman and journeyer.

“Mom, why are you crying?” they both said.

“It’s all just so beautiful. Taking your time. Going slow. Watching our wonderful world go by from the safety and comfort of a train car. Meeting people in the dining car, chatting about life, comparing notes about places to see. I love trains. This used to be the way everybody travelled. They would dress up for meals. They would socialize and revel in the landscape. I trust trains much more than I do airplanes. I always feel so grounded and happy when I pull into a train station after a long ride. When I land at airports, I feel disoriented. Sometimes speed and convenience are way over-rated!”

“Look, Mom,” my twelve year old squealed. “It’s our train station!”amtrak

And sure enough, there was a little model of the Whitefish depot. I’d spent hours in this room, gazing at the Empire Builder line with my father, but I didn’t remember that building. Surely I’d watched my father point his way through the Rocky Mountains to this tiny depot, built in the design of the great lodges of Glacier National Park by the visionary train baron, Louis W. Hill who brought the east to the Rockies in comfort and style. Surely I’d looked at that little depot and wondered what the wilds of a place like Montana would be like. Talk about full circle, watching my son stand there with his eyes blazing, feeling so proud of his home. Like a game of tag from my original home to his…all connected by the Empire Builder.
A few years ago, I started leading retreats in our stunning part of the world. I realized that after leading the writing life with all my heart for almost three decades, my muse basking in the mountains of Montana, that it made good sense to share it with other kindred seekers. So I founded Haven Retreats. Hundreds of people have come to Montana to dig deeper into their creative self-expression on the page, in search of greater self-awareness, whether or not they call themselves “writers.” Some do. Some don’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that opened “peephole,” and Montana knows how to inspire that in spades.

Yes, people come to Haven by plane, car, bus. But they also come by Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Louis W. Hill would be proud of these stalwart travelers who have been known to ride thirty hours here and thirty hours back post-retreat. And every time, those who ride the train rave about how the rhythm of the tracks and the views from the window put them in the perfect mind-frame to engage fully in our intensive four days together, tucked into the woods of Montana, and process their experience as they make their way back into their lives, re-fueled, inspired, empowered.

I can think of no better way to come to a Haven Retreat than through that little Whitefish train depot. With this new amazing offer from Amtrak for writers to ride for FREE, it truly is the perfect confluence: experience a personal writing “residency” on the train, enjoy a Haven Retreat in our beautiful part of the world just a matter of miles from the train station, and write your way back home!
I hope that if you are considering a Montana Haven Retreat, that you will also consider this golden offer from Amtrak!

A special thanks to Alexander Chee for stating his love for writing on trains and inspiring this incredible offer! And to Jessica Gross for making a “trial run!”

From my father’s obit in the Chicago Tribune: 260060_10150205192746266_3265283_n

John C. Munson made a run at retiring when he turned 65. It lasted three days.

“He hated retirement,” said his wife of 48 years, Virginia. “His great passion was work, and ever since he was a little boy playing with his trains he has loved the railroad industry.”


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Long Ago: Community Entry #12


Bad news: "Closed for the Season." Oh for a pint of porter and a cup of venison stew... Solo writing retreat is getting a bit anti-social. Cabin fever?

As you may know, I am spending a few months in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments.  Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject.

Contest submissions closed. Winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana, announced mid-February…

Now I am further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing. If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June, August, and September retreats are now booking and filling fast.  Email me for more info:  Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

As a fellow North Shore Chicago girl, this piece spoke to me in spades. The shores of Lake Michigan are calling me out of this winter of writing retreat to do three events in March and I cannot wait! Thanks, Kim for this lovely reminder of home and community. Please enjoy, everybody! yrs. Laura

The Girls from Wilmette, by Kim Smith

Forty-nine years. It hardly seems possible, but we’ve been friends for forty-nine years.  We met in kindergarten, and we ten are friends to this day. Forty-nine years later, we share a kinship, a connection that has somehow survived the visissitudes of life.  We’re a cohort, a gang, a community of friends for whom time and distance mean nothing, and history and laughter mean everything.

The Wilmette (Illinois) of our collective childhood, back in the Pleistocene Era, also known as the 1960’s and 1970’s, was an idyllic place to grow up. The main east-west thoroughfare, Lake Avenue, was lined with trees so mature and majestic, that they reached across the sky to meet and form a canopy, a lush, green cathedral of sorts, all the way from Green Bay Road to the lake. Streets paved with brick, ancient and hand-laid, that made your teeth chatter as you rode your bike to get to Peggy’s  house or to school or to the beach, or one of the myriad other places that you visited on your trusty Schwinn.  There were corner bakeries and neighborhood drugstores where your folks ran a tab, and dimestores where you could actually buy things, lots of things, for a dime. And there was Parker’s, the diner that made the best chocolate shakes and cherry phosphates, and that served french fries with an addictive orange salt called Lawry’s. No shakes or fries would ever taste as good.

And there were families…families with children. Scores of children. Heaps of children. Oh yes, a healthy Catholic population (and the rhythm method) ensured that there were plenty of kids. And all those Catholic offspring went, of course, to Catholic school – St. Joe’s or St. Francis in Wilmette, Faith Hope & Charity or Sacred Heart in Winnetka – and there they stayed, at least through the eighth grade. Plaid skirts and saddle shoes, confession and communion, reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. All God’s children, all on the same righteous path. These things bound us together, and bind us still.

Of course, friendships lasting almost five decades don’t come without hiccups, and we’ve had our share. I’ve come to know that, much like a successful marriage, lifelong friendships require a “for better or worse” philosophy; with age comes the realization that the value of this circle of friends far outweighs our individual failings. As one of the girls who moved away, and who often yearned for contact with my friends that was not forthcoming, I have, at times, come very close to “divorcing” them, only to think “How do I divorce a piece of myself?”

Put another way, with the exception of my parents and my sister, no one else in my life today knows what I was like back then, except “the girls.” No one else remembers the tiny townhouse in which I grew up, or the twelve Girl Scout badges we earned in one year, or how Sister Loretta Marie would make you write out a dictionary page if you were naughty…but they do. Neither my co-workers, nor my clients (thank god!), are aware that I affected a British accent for a time in third grade, thanks to my infatuation with Davy Jones, but “the girls” remember. They remember hiding in my closet to surprise me on my 15th birthday, and they remember getting me pulled over by one of Wilmette’s finest, one hot August Friday night, by hanging out of all the windows of my car. They were there, so they remember.  First Communion, confirmation, Scouts, braces, dating, driving, birthday parties, first jobs – we did it all together. How could I possibly leave that shared history behind? Well, I couldn’t, of course. I can’t.

That’s not to say that our shared childhood memories are all that keep us together. As adults, we’ve been in one another’s weddings, mourned the passing of parents, and watched children grow up, in Christmas cards, if not in person. In fact, Madeleine was there when my son came into the world, taking him from the nurse and handing him to me. Despite the time and distance often separating us, moving through life’s stages and phases somehow only served to deepen our bond. Two moments, in particular, both when I was in my 20’s, remind me of the powerful and enduring nature of these friendships.

When I was 23, in the depths of post-collegiate penury, and in despair that I would ever figure out what to do with my life, I realized I needed to join the rest of my family, since relocated to Seattle. (Note to 2013 self:  Please figure out what to do with your life.) I arranged for my belongings to be shipped, and booked my flight out of O’Hare; one of the girls, Mary, offered to drive me to the airport. We pulled up to the curb outside of Departures, and got out of the car; I went around to the trunk to retrieve my suitcase. Glum does not begin to describe my mien that day – I didn’t want to leave, and my friend knew it. Now, I’m not a huge fan of emotion, especially tears; I’m old school…to me, they’re a sign of weakness, and they make me terrifically uncomfortable. (Yes, of course, I know I’m horribly repressed and completely wrong to feel this way. I understand. Please just don’t cry in my presence. Please. Don’t.) So it’s possible that I cried that day, but if I did, I appear to have blocked out that particular detail.  I can tell you that, as we stood there saying goodbye, neither of us knowing when I might return, Mary shed a tear. And it touched me deeply that she was so sad that I was leaving, deeply enough that I remember, and treasure, that moment to this day. Not despite the tears, as one would think, but because of them.

A short four years later, my mother had a nasty run in with a brain tumor. There were weeks in the hospital, followed by months of recovery and rehabilitation; she made it all the way back, but it was tough. By this time, my sister and I were living in Chicago, so we alternated spending time in Seattle caring for Mom. During one of the periods that I was at home, one of the girls was visiting from out-of-town, so we all got together for Mexican food and margaritas. Kathi and I were friends, good friends, but, as I’m not one to share my emotions (pesky things), we had never had that kind of moment. As we left the restaurant though, she asked me about my mother, and I told her about the stress, the anxiety, and the fear that were constant companions throughout the journey with Mom. And Kathi took my hand as we walked, and squeezed it. I was moved by a gesture so simple, yet so kind and so compassionate. It moves me still.

The idea of friendship sometimes seems like the topic du jour…books are written about how to make them, how to keep them, how to end them. Be they new friendships or old, they are often fraught affairs, with the demands of modern life taking a toll. There are people for whom a handful of good friends is enough, and people who seem to require a veritable village of friends. We lose touch, we reconnect. Or perhaps we don’t. Some friendships evolve, some endure, and some die.  If you’re lucky enough to have made it through forty-nine years with the same group of friends, you know that it’s a special thing, a great thing really, a thing worth celebrating. This, then, is my tribute to friendships forged in childhood, but maintained through the years by MIller Lite and margaritas, by Hackney Burgers and barbecues, by the squeeze of a hand, by hugs that last just a little bit longer and are just a little bit tighter than hugs from anyone else, by laughter and tears, by sheer force of will, and, dare I say it…by love.

Bio: Kim Smith is a Chicago girl who resides, reluctantly, in Western Washington.  She’s a writer, but has a day job as a sales assistant to pay the bills. She spends her free time tapping into the zeitgeist and making snarky observations about the world around her, although, thanks to Laura Munson’s workshop, she throws in an honest, emotional bit every now and then.  Just for giggles. You can find her blog, KimSmith/WordSmith, at www.kimwordsmith.com.


Filed under Blog series-- Long Ago: Community, My Posts

Writer Psychology 101: Filtering Critique

For many years prior to being published, I honed the skill of asking for help.  It’s never easy, but one writer told me a long time ago that you have to ask.  As every writer of books knows, after a certain amount of time, we can’t really see our story objectively anymore.  We so love our characters and the world we’ve created for them, that we can’t tell how much we are filling in blanks with our intentions for them or hitting the reader over the head with something we can no longer see.  We forget that they lit their cigarette with a lighter and have them toss a spent pack of matches into the trash.  We forget the color hair they have the way we can’t remember what tie we’re wearing.  We let a crime get unpunished, racing to resolve.  In other words, there are holes.

To that end, for years, I’d ask trusted friends or fellow writers to read my books prior to submission.  I got better and better at how I asked.  At first, I’d just sort of, tail-between-the-legs ask ”Hey, would you be at all interested in…you know…reading this thing I wrote?  No worries if you don’t want to.  I mean, I’m not even sure if it’s any good.”  And they’d kindly agree– who wouldn’t with that kind of nihilistic request?  Then I’d leave them alone.  Take a different aisle if I saw them in the grocery store.  And if we bumped into one another, I swore I could see “I loathe your book but don’t know how to tell you” written across their forehead.  Or feel their guilt in not having cracked it yet, even after three months; not so sure afterall that they want to know me on the page.  And if I did get a book back, a lot of the time there would be no notes whatsoever.  They’d just say, “I liked it.”  Great.

So I learned to make a contractual agreement with people from the start to help us both.  We’d discuss what kind of critique they were willing to give.  A book report?  Line editing?  Notes in the margins?  I wanted them in their comfort zone.  And then we’d agree on a timeline.  If they couldn’t finish it in say, two months, then they’d return it.  No hard feelings.

That worked better, but still I wasn’t getting what I needed:  a real dish session.  I wanted them to put a smiley face where they laughed.  Circle tears where they cried.  Write gag when they rolled their eyes.  And even if they agreed to just that, they rarely would give me that kind of totally pure critique.

So I decided to do an experiment.  I started asking friends across the country who were in book groups if they’d be willing to read my manuscripts and record their discussion.  I’d supply the manuscripts and the tapes (dates me, I know) and all they had to do was let it rip.  I didn’t know the people in the group, save for the friend (who usually kept quiet, and I don’t blame them) so what did they care if my feelings got hurt?

And boy, did it ever hurt so good.  I got more out of those tapes than any other critique ever, save for that of my eventual editor.

But I had to get over the initial pain inherent in listening to someone talk about you.  And not at all nicely in places.

It was a lot like being in high school and hearing the mean girls talk about you from the other side of the locker room.  But it was helpful, even when it was a little on the mean side.  And I learned that if people are arguing about your work, you must have written something good enough to stir the pot.  Struck a chord.  Hit a nerve.  And I learned to see when it was really about my book…and when it was really about them.

I got to practice this in spades these last few years after my New York Times article went a bit viral all over the world.  And then again when the book came out.  It was at times brutal– total strangers judging you and insulting you…and the worst: making wrongful assumptions about your life and then reacting to them as if they were true.  (In other words, I do NOT have a fancy horse, nor do I have a fancy horse trailer, nor do I live on a lavish ranch!)  But of course, I was curious to see what people had to say.  And as a writer, I wanted to learn the lessons I needed from the people out there who truly had something constructive to share.  So I developed a technique.  I’d read the comments and the minute I started to smell something cruel or irresponsible (cuz let’s face it– people have all kinds of big cajungas behind a computer screen), I’d stop reading.

Works like a charm, but only if you’re able to have the discipline to stop reading.  I’ve learned that discipline.  In the end I am not a glutton for punishment, I guess.  Likewise, when the comments are sooo positive, it’s another kind of discipline to not have an ego explosion.  I remind myself…I am looking for ways to improve my writing.  That is the goal.

So when this radio interview came into my world this morning from a writer I admire and who recently covered my memoir in the Chicago Tribune, I put on my writer’s filter.  “We talked about your book for fifteen minutes on WGN radio the other day,” her email said.  My ego shouted out:  WGN radio?!  My alarm clock was tuned into that station as a kid– woke me up each morning for years and years.  WGN radio!

And then my inner critic crashed the party:  what if they argue about my book?  What if ten of those minutes are callers who hated it.

In all the interviews I’ve done this year, I can always control what comes out of my mouth.  I can always try to steer the questions the way I think best depicts my book and its message.  I can always make sure the facts are right.  Listening to people talk about my book and my story was something entirely new.

I took a deep breath.  I pushed play.

Jenniffer Weigel of the Chicago Tribune

Jenniffer Weigel of the Chicago Tribune

And I just want to say…thank you, Jenniffer Weigel and WGN.  You made a Chicago girl’s day.  You got it just right.  Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Have a listen!  jen weigel 3-12

Can’t wait to read your new book with possibly one of my favorite titles ever:  “I’m Spiritual, Dammit!”


Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, Listen to an Interview, My Posts

Sweet Home Chicago Pummeled

Play this from iconic weatherman (and one of my personal idols), Tom Skilling while you gasp at these photos of Chicago, my home town.

This is insane even by Montana standards!

I remember the blizzard of 1979– we jumped off our second story roof into the snow!

Tom’s greenboard at WGN studios and me fulfilling a fantasy, pointing to Montana.


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Not Another Coffee Table Book. Munch.

I love this book. I am drawn to books about artists. I want to know how other people, whether they were painters or sculptors or writers, lived the solitary life. Some did it in suffering. Some did not. Munch suffered. I’d like to see the paradigm of the tortured artist shift; to see more artists find freedom in their expression rather than having it beget more pain. It begs the question: does art have to come from pain in the first place? Can’t it come out of love and celebration and receiving the beauty of creation? I do not have the answer and there doesn’t need to be one. I only know that I am better for reading books like this which so deeply bring me along the empathic journey of a man’s passion for his art. With so many stacks of books in my office and nightstand and living room, I find that I need books with visuals. To move out of words and into images. This book is a perfect balance of both. It gives visuals as it gives wisdom. It’s not a coffee table book. It is the work of an art historian who, like certain doctors, has not detatched, but rather has moved further into her subject, if you will. When it comes to art historians, I want them to show me and then tell me what they know, in a language I can understand, as a result of all their years of passion in their field yes, but also as the humans that they are. Thanks to Jay Clarke, I feel like I know Munch now. I have had this book next to my writing desk for the last year. I refer to it often. It helps me to know the heart language of this man, behind his art. And in-so-doing, it helps me to know my own work that much better. It has me ask the question of art and suffering and freedom. We are all better for this sort of intuitive view that Jay Clarke has widened her art historian’s eye to see.

Dr. Jay Clarke is the Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Clark Museum, Williamstown, MA

Maybe you saw the fabulous exhibit which debuted at Chicago’s Art Institute in 2009 and which Ms. Clarke curated. Here is a rave review and very interesting article in The New York Times.

Excerpt: CHICAGO — Society tends to prefer creative types who neatly fit the pigeonhole labeled Other. The artist as solitary, tormented, possibly insane genius is among the most durable staples of the modern imagination. It is also comforting. That’s not me, you can tell yourself. I may not be creative, but at least I’m not crazy.

The modern foundation of this stereotype lies with Vincent van Gogh, but no one gave it more definition than the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944). It is the ambition of “Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety and Myth,” a thrilling exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, to upend or at least balance Munch’s famous persona, which he himself helped shape, with a more realistic portrayal. Munch’s well-known suffering began with a childhood scarred by poverty and the deaths from tuberculosis of his mother and a beloved sister, Sophie; was made harsher by the religious fervor of a stern father; and was mitigated by precocious talent and the encouragement of a loving aunt. There followed early and repeated disappointments in love; recurring illness of several varieties; debilitating melancholia and bouts of paranoia; another sister committed to a mental asylum. His alcoholism didn’t help. Perhaps fittingly Munch’s most emblematic image, “The Scream,” with its hallucinatory sky and shrieking button face, was vandalized early on with delicately scrawled graffiti that reads in Norwegian, “Could only have been painted by a madman.”
Read more at The New York Times

Click here to read an illuminating interview with Jay Clarke.


Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, My Posts

Circling the Heart of Community

Take a quick mind stroll down your top five favorite buildings from childhood.

Now take away any of them that were closed to the public.

What’s left? Church? The library? The post office? The hardware store? The local theater or community center or both?

I wouldn’t be surprised. These were the places your mom bumped into friends on the way in and out the door, and you stood there with them in the parking lot, a little bored, but feeling the comfort of safety because you knew you belonged somewhere in the world. You were home.

Have you ever been to Greece? Have you ever been to Ephesus, where the biblical book of Ephesians took place? If you have, you get a pretty strong sense of how civilization hasn’t changed much. What’s left is a temple, a library, a theater, a road. Lone columns and marble shrapnel from a time of greatness long gone. It makes you look at your town differently when you stand among those ruins. It makes you think about what lasts. Where the spirit of the place lives.

This morning, I heard that the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest, my hometown, may have to shut its doors. If it doesn’t meet with an immediate $250,000 it may meet instead with the wrecking ball. Turns out that its community relevance is in question. It took my breath away. How could this be so? Since 1901 this building has meant so much to so many.

Memories flickered fiercely through my head as I sat staring at this email bearing this impossible news. My sister went to kindergarten there. I spent my summers doing Group For children’s theater there. I heard my first live “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on that stage, flung from a seven year old’s mouth and thought it was as good as Judy Garland herself. I remember crying and thinking, “One day, I’m going to stand on a stage and be somebody.” We bought our Christmas tree in that lot—an annual hockey league fund-raiser, my mom and dad looking for just the right Balsam fir. My grandmother took art classes there in her 80s when it served as a senior citizen center. My mother wraps presents there at Christmas-time—a service for local children who can’t yet wrap, and as a young woman, she attended bridge and dress-smocking classes at Gorton. Over the years my parents attended jazz concerts and plays and author readings there.

When I was in Lake Forest on my book tour this April, I was sad to miss the full circle opportunity to have my reading at Gorton, as it was booked that day. It would have been so personally meaningful to stand on that stage in my little girl’s footprints– a forty year old reading from her memoir where her third grade self said, “I’ll get you Dorothy, and your little dog too!” Still, I smiled as I passed Gorton on the way to my reading at the college, which was lovely, thanks to the Lake Forest Bookstore for putting together the event, and all who attended. It was my favorite of the tour. Because, I was “home.” Home begins inside a person, and spreads out to the people we know and love and to the places that contain those memories and beyond. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to have that place be Gorton. To look into that audience and see not just the many friends sitting there in support, but the ghosts of my childhood, smiling and clapping too. Call me a sentimental hometown girl. And it would be true.

A lot of what makes a community building matter is that full circle experience. From young to old, sitting in that space, feeding the senses with your community around you. Applauding great performances. Feeling pride in what your town can do to marry heart to mind to talent. Who it can inspire to stop on their way through your geographic area, connecting you to other audiences in other community centers in other towns across America. How it stitches us together.

I wish I had the money to personally come up with that $250,000. But what I do have is a love of the arts and community gathering spaces, and a belief that Lake Forest can honor the ancient and universal need for just this—community sacred space. That my hometown can advocate for community and especially for the arts, and for the future Lake Foresters who will bring that inspiration out into the world. And come home, full circle one day, proud.


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Break Me In, Montana

Break Me in, Montana by Laura A. Munson
I begged for this. This house. This land. This time. This husband and these children. I begged to know a place season for season. To use last summer’s spent perennials as winter mulch. To rake it off when the Lenten roses poke through. To know, finally, which one is the North Star, and use it to find my way home. I begged to feel my heart sink with the leaving V’s of geese. And become buoyant again with their return.
I did not know I was begging. All those years in cities. Chicago, New York, Boston, Florence, London, Seattle. I would catch myself in storefront windows and say yes, I am alive. I see myself here in the crowd. In that great outfit. Those fantastic shoes. And return to the apartment with the cockroaches and the blinking answering machine, ready to make my home in some glittering concert hall, some stark white art opening, some hushed mocha-toned new restaurant. I did not know I was begging for this when I dropped to my knees one night at the side of my bed like my grandmother used to, and said, please, please, bring me home.
Three weeks later my husband walked into our brand new Seattle house and said, “I just got a job in Montana. You would be able to write full time. We could have our kids there, and you wouldn’t have to work outside the home.”
So we left.
I watched the Cascades until they were little harmless divots in the horizon, and
I cried all through the dry nothing of Eastern Washington and over the pass that brought me, for the first time, to the Flathead Valley.
Over a hill, and there it was: Flathead Lake to the south, the ski mountain in Whitefish to the North, the Jewel Basin in front of us drifting off into the Swan and the Mission ranges. The canyon leading to Glacier National Park off to the east. Twin bald eagles riding a thermal over us.
“It feels like a set up,” I said.
I could not receive this place at first. It felt like it had power over me like one of those guru types posing to know you better than you know yourself. More so, it felt like my enemy. The answer to a prayer I never meant to pray. Like it would break me in half if I slacked off for one second. Grizzly bears. Forest fires. Avalanches. Mountain lions. Angry loggers. Angry environmentalists. People dying for and from what I could only perceive as folly—kayaking, mountain climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, back country skiing, downhill skiing, horseback riding, ice climbing, river rafting…and on and on.
“Let go of the city,” the lovers of this country would say. “Stay. Sit a spell.”
No, I secretly schemed. Letting go would mean a betrayal. Of that girl in the shop window.
Instead, I spent many years letting go of Montana. Taking hits off the city in drug-dose proportions. Looking down from my returning flight into our little valley, seeing the outline of the mountains, the five or six farm lights still on, landing, thinking I can do it this time. I can stay. Three months later, I would be up in the sky again, panting over the grid of lights below and the skyscrapers on the horizon beckoning me back.
Until I had my first child. And the subway so suddenly went villain. The honking cars and heaving bus exhaust and hissing sewers…like land mines. I clung to my baby. I ended up in parks. Grant Park. The Presidio. The Boston Garden. Central Park. The Arboretum. Leaving the city windows to another girl’s self-fascination. Then I would hover over our little valley with the landing gear descending, see the half-dozen little lights below, the moonlit ranges, and begin to find thanks.
It occurred to me then, that letting go was not a leaving. But a climbing in. A yes.
I proclaimed that yes. At first quietly. Ashamed. Then louder. Then so I didn’t know the difference between yes, and living.
Fifteen years. Dog sled racers, endurance riders, snowcat operators, medicine women, stunt pilots. Grizzly trackers, loggers, bowhunters. Helicopter nurses, heart surgeons, brewers and preschool teachers. Electric company cherry pickers, and Flathead cherry growers. Pizza parlor proprietors and organic farmers. Cowboys. Rodeo queens. Horse whisperers. Blacksmiths. Piano tuners. Cross dressers. Quilters. DJ’s, hot dog vendors, mule packers. Vietnam Vets. Ski bums. Fly-fishing guides, bartenders, computer programmers, train conductors. Double Phds that live in their car and grift at the pool hall for food money. Wives who live to hunt. Husbands who live to cook their wives’ kill.
I still have not been mauled by a grizzly bear. Still have not even seen a mountain lion. Have only come upon the aftermath of forest fire…and found a bounty of mushrooms there. Montana never broke me in– like a cowboy who thinks it needs to break the mare’s spirit to gain respect. I was never that mare. It was never that cowboy.
Instead, it was there all that time– in purple Alpine glow and sparkling wide rivers, in the sight of my child’s fingers on a trout belly, the safe back of an old horse lakeside in August, dipping its neck down and drinking slow sips of glacial run-off, in soft rains and misting meadows, anthills and golden Larch, in the little white farm lights and moonlit snowy peaks– it was there, all that long sweet time…welcoming me home.northern lights


Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Stories