Tag Archives: dreams

Life List

I was speaking recently to a well-known writer about success. “It’s all about the work,” she said. She then proceeded to list all her accomplishments. Short of a Naional Book Award or a Pulitzer, she’d pretty much achieved “it all.” Multiple published novels and memoirs. Rave review in the New York Times. Stories in the New Yorker, Atlantic, Paris Review, Granta. Regular columns in glossy magazines and major newspapers. Yadoo and McDowell residencies. Teaching gigs in the Ivies. She knows a lot of other writers who have achieved the same accolades as she, check check check check check. And she told me something that breaks my heart, especially for writers, but anyone can relate with what she said: Without that Pulitzer, those writers pine away in levels of self-loathing and criticism. When is it enough? And if they do get that National Book Award or that Pulitzer…will it be enough THEN? It’s all in the books, she said. “Creative ambition is one thing. Career ambition is another.”  You better watch out for the latter.

It’s what I’ve known all along. It’s how I’ve been living for the last 17 years out here, tucked into my Montana life, writing books and raising kids. The “prize” I’ve had my eye on is writing the best books I can possibly write. For a while it became about getting them published, but I had to let that go because it was eating me alive. My job was to write the best books I could write, send them to my agent, and let go of the rest. My job was to get back to work writing books. And once I did, that’s when I, in fact, “achieved” that “prize.” I’ve loved that “prize” because I get to have readers. I get to speak to audiences and try to inspire unpublished writers not to give up. And I got paid, which has given me the gift of more writing time.

But I know, that no matter what kind of list I have in my own mind about accolades I’d like to receive for my hard work, that list is secondary to the creative ambition that asks me good questions like, “How can I breathe this character into life?” “How can I imbue this unlikeable character with a humanity so true that the reader will love them despite their mistakes?” “How can I make this book sing?”

This to say that I think there are different kinds of lists in regard to dreams. I think it’s important to have them. I think it’s important to take a dream scan of your wildest ones and write them down. Maybe put that list somewhere like a little altar that you occasionally smile at or nod at or bow to…glad that you have dreams in the first place. But I think, after that, it’s a deep breath and a committment to the work at hand. I believe that with that committment, we move into those dreams. Creating our moment begets more creating, and suddenly we’ve blown through a few items on that list without even “trying.” Check check check. Our intentional living has birthed that dream child.

The difference between wanting and creating is something I wrote about in my memoir. Those dreams were born inside us, and while they often have to do with something outside of us and outside of our control with variables that have to do with other people and other places…we still can begin the arch that lands in the creating of them simply by acknowledging that we’ve dreamed them in the first place. I have my list. I no longer look at it, wanton. Covetous and clinging. I look at it like a character in one of my novels– I can breathe it alive. But that begins right here, in my moment, in me.

This morning, a certain teenaged girl in my life, asked me to print out something for her for school. It was an assignment: 30 thing you want to experience in your life. I of course read the list, smiling and teary. It was so inspiring and raw and real and huge-minded and huge-hearted and yet so much about the creative spirit I know so well that dwells in her bones– that dwells in things she creates every day in our little town in Montana…that I asked her if I could share it here. Give it a read. What do you want for your list? What can you create today that might breathe some of those dreams alive?

Life List
1. Receive certification as a scuba diver and then go to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
2. Become multilingual in French, Italian and German so I can live in Europe without getting the “American” treatment.
3. Ski where no one has ever been
4. Work at a bakery
5. Live in New York City
6. Do something completely humbling
7. Travel in another country after senior year in high school
8. Photograph a sleeping turtle
9. Meet a wild dolphin
10. Make orange juice from oranges I picked from a tree in my backyard
11. Live alone for a while
12. Climb a tree and make a fantastic tree house
13. Go to Columbia University
14. Build an igloo
15. Be completely independent and self sustained
16. Live sea-side, mountain-side, city-side
17. Read all Chronicles of Narnia books
18. Do something that gives me an insane adrenaline rush
19. Become ambidextrous
20. Never lose my love to run
21. Help a family in need
22. Ride on the back of an elephant
23. Live without a cell phone or the internet for as long as I want
24. Drift along in a hot air balloon
25. Learn to be content
26. Swim on the equator
27. Explore the Alaskan coast
28. Visit my Swiss heritage lands
29. Go to every state in the United States
30. Kayak through a river

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What's Not Said

I love this photograph. I found it recently and lifted it from my mother’s house. (Sorry, Mom. Will send back soon. I’ve never done that before, I swear.) Here’s what I love: it’s a moment between moments. Two sets of parents at the wedding of their only children, from two very different backgrounds and social demographics, aligned for the rest of their lives through the lovely young man and woman at center. The moment between things, where looks are being delivered in the raised-eyebrow packages that they are. Proverbial ribs are being elbowed. Dreams are being re-charged and debunked. I wish I had a bubble over each of their heads. What is my mother saying to my father out of the side of her bridely mouth? What is my father’s father communicating to my mother’s father with that over-the-spectacle look? Is the whole iconic experience of their only child’s wedding not as they had dreamed after all those months of planning? Is myth in the end just that? Is there talk about virginity about to be lost? Dowry content? Does someone have to go to the bathroom? Or do they feel like MGM Hollywood greats for a day? Superstars. Alabaster sculptures. These are my elders– all such ladies and gentlemen. But here, to me they look like kids. I love this picture for that.

Do you remember the exact moment when you realized that your parents weren’t just parents, but that they were human beings with needs and weaknesses and fears and dashed dreams? That they were young like you once? Looking at photos like this help. It didn’t make it into the wedding album, where everybody’s lips and teeth and arms are in the “right” place. But still it wasn’t ripped up and thrown away either. Something about it was worth saving. The heart doesn’t want things all lined up. It speaks a different language– the language that is being spoken here. And so it doesn’t really matter then what they were saying. Only that they were saying it, and that one generation gets to be let in on the heart language of another.

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Dreaming Big.

A few years ago, there was a major threat to the open space around our town. It inspired me to get involved in a way I hadn’t before. People realized that the wandering rights we’d all enjoyed for so long– a vital part of why we live where we live, were not to be taken lightly. We had to get creative and we had to do it fast. I learned about a group which had a crazy little idea to build a forty mile trail connecting private and public land in our valley. They needed people to apply for positions on a steering committee and I decided to give it a whirl. I wrote the below piece as part of my application and was honored to serve on that board in the project’s genesis. People said it would never happen. Well it has. I am proud of all the people who have come together to be stewards of our wandering rights. Introducing The Whitefish Trail. May you dream big wherever you live.

Wandering Rights. October, 2005

I rode my horse along the highway the other day to see what it might be like if the 13,000 acres of State Land gets sold off to developers and our open lands become gated communities. I have lived in Whitefish, Montana for twelve years and I finally know my State Lands—where I ride my horse, my mountain bike, take walks, introduce the difference between pine trees and fir trees to my children. It’s in the State Lands that I run into friends walking their dogs and stop for a chat under the fall dapple of aspen shadows on the forest floor. This is our green belt. Our link to who has come before us and considered it sacred. This is where we wander. Get lost. Let a trail lead us to an unexpected way home.

I rode my horse on the side of the highway for six miles just to see what it would be like to let the cement and flung beer bottles, road kill and hidden culverts be my guides. Our valley is wide. The shoulder was small. Logging trucks careened down on us and sent frayed pieces of bark in our faces. My horse was brave; I only felt him shudder. But that’s because I have been training him for this, setting down crushed Coke cans and plastic bags in his paddock and leading him over them for months now, to get him ready, just in case.

My father used to come to Whitefish in the 40’s before it was a ski town. He was in the railroad business and he’d come to sell bolsters and brake beams to the then Great Northern. He’d take customers out for a beer at the Hanging Tree Saloon and listen to locals complain about the threat of a ski resort. Scarring the mountain with ski runs, building chair lifts and attracting “city folk.” He was city folk, but he recognized the love of place. When I moved to Whitefish he said, “Be careful. That town doesn’t know what it wants to be.” It sounded good to me since I wasn’t sure I knew what I wanted to be either.

The rural West has been kind to its denizens. Whitefish, specifically, has had some years to figure out the answer to that question. And I think I know what it is: It wants to be home for wanderers of all sorts. It wants to be the sort of place where people run into each other on a trail, or at a bar or at a school parking lot and look around and say, “God, it’s beautiful today.”

So when I was at the local farmer’s market and my friend, a State representative, told me that there is a plan in place to link forty-miles of State Land to private land—mostly in conservation easements—a trail system to last forever—for multi-non-motorized use—I took pause. “What can I do to help? Sign me up.”

A stakeholders group is being formed and I have submitted my application. We need a place to wander—all of us—even the people in the inevitable gated communities. We need links, not gates. And there are people brave enough to understand that it has to be us/us if we are to ever know what it is to be a co-denizen of the rural West.

Still, I walked the highway, just to see. I tried to keep my horse focused on the tall grass straight ahead. We must have crushed fifteen beer bottles, got tangled up in wire twice, tripped over two culverts, and at one point where the barrel ended, I had to get off and lead him down fifty yards of highway up against the guard rail, a three foot margin for error. We just missed a head-on between a Hummer and a fawn. The fawn lost.

People say we’ll be riding on the highway soon if the State Lands sell out. They say we have a twenty-four month window of opportunity to work with the State and private sectors before that happens to secure this forty-mile long trail. I hope Whitefish knows at least this much about what it is. A place for wanderers. If not, I won’t be riding on the road again. I’ll be the one trespassing in the night. Like the deer. And if I am jailed or shot at, I’ll say: I just wanted to wander in the woods. Don’t you?

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Wishing Tree

There are two Yoko Ono Wishing Trees that I know of:
One at the Guggenheim in Venice.
One at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Both were surprises and both filled me with hope for all those people standing there, writing wishes on paper slips, hanging them like Christmas ornaments, not at all shy…and then leaving them behind them; a wake of hope for others to witness. I loved that in both cases, people were fingering through the hung wishes, smiling fondly. What permission it was to be given that opportunity to witness and to wish. A cousin of an “embarrassment of riches.” The non-embarrassment of wishes.

I had a free day in New York the other day, and I spent a lot of it at MOMA. Here is the Yoko Ono wishing tree.

Both times I wrote about getting a book

published. The first was a wish.

The second one was thanks.

I think a lot of people miss that Ms. Ono has arranged to collect the wishes and hold them for safe keeping in a box on display, upstairs in the museum’s galleries. Something cast in ephemera and some sort of deliberate whimsy, that lands in a box called Art for all to see. Maybe that is the definition of the term.

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Extending THE SENTIMENTAL RECIPE CONTEST! Send in by 10/10


In my book, THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS, I include a recipe that I hold near and dear. Not because it’s particularly hard or original, but because of what it represents to me. It is the tomato sauce commonly made in the summer by Tuscans and put up in jars for the winter. They call it the Pomarola sauce, and for it they use the freshest tomatoes from as close to the sea as they can find. The goal: to capture summer.

To me the Pomarola sauce captures much more than that. It is a symbol of a year in my life in which I found my heart language in a place and a family far from home. It is a symbol then, of finding home inside myself in a time of my life when I was morphing from child to adult. It is with this heart language that I went into the “rest of my life” and it was this heart language which I revisited with my daughter 21 years later (a few years ago). I had longed for it for all those 21 years, aching for it, naming it as the most important year of my life, yet not granting my return. I had realized a few dreams, some of which felt within my control: Getting married, having kids, building a home in Montana. Writing books. But I couldn’t seem to get those books published.

So after years of longing for it, I realized that I needed to stop basing my happiness on things completely outside of my control. I could write the books, and I could submit them for publication, but the rest was out of my hands. I decided to embrace the freedom of this surrender. And I started to look at the un-realized dreams of my life that I COULD control. Going back to Italy, with my daughter, to live with this wonderful family, was just that.

So I booked it and went.
One afternoon, my Italian host mother, Milvia, showed us how to make this sauce, how to can it, what to look for in ingredients. It was magical.

Little did I know that my new philosophy of surrender would be put to the test in a way I never dreamed, when my husband announced he wasn’t sure he loved me anymore and wanted to move out—this just two days after my return home from Italy.

There began a season of my life depicted in my book, THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, wherein I got the chance to practice what it is to embrace the present moment in a place of creating, not wanting. Of claiming responsibility for my own well-being despite what was going on with my husband. Of focusing on beauty and freedom and even joy. On p. 295 you will find a scene in which I make this sauce with my children, shopping for just the right ingredients, and spending the day up to our elbows in tomatoes, garlic, onions, basil, parsley. carrots, celery and pots of boiling water. On p. 300 you will find the recipe.

In re-visiting those pages now, six months after my book’s publication, I find it not coincidence that we came up with twenty-one jars of sauce. Instead, it feels quite deliberate, subconsciously. As if each jar represented of year of not claiming a dream that was completely within my control, and focusing so hard on another dream that was not.

So I pass on this message to you, in the form of a recipe. What is your Italy? What do you deprive yourself of that you CAN create in your life? What place do you long to re-visit in your life? So often I find that there is the nurturing element of food attached to our fondest memories and even our wildest dreams. Afternoons in a kitchen with a grandmother, a holiday feast with family in town from far-away places, picnics on a beach, a particular glass of lemonade. I’d love for you to share those sentimental recipes here. And a scene or story that shares why you hold that food, that memory, so dear.

The winner will be randomly selected and will receive a free signed copy of THIS IS NOT THE STORY OU THINK IT IS. I look forward to this sharing. Yrs. Laura

My Italian Family’s Pomarola Sauce Recipe
This is a light sauce that is the epitome of the summer harvest and is usually canned to capture summer in the middle of winter. It must be made with the freshest Roma tomatoes to get the right consistency, preferably from somewhere close to the sea.

Sauce for one pound of pasta. Serves six.
2 1/2 pounds unpeeled ripe Roma tomatoes
1 onion
1 clove garlic (Americans generally use more garlic than is the Italian custom.)
1 stalk celery- just the white part, not the leaves
1-2 carrots (depending on how big they are)
3-5 leaves basil
3 sprigs flat-leaf parsley- no stem
A pinch of salt
A pinch of white sugar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Cut tomatoes in half. Cut vegetables into small pieces. Rough-cut basil and parsley with scissors. Put all ingredients into stockpot. Simmer, covered, very slowly until the carrot is soft and can be easily mashed with a fork (about an hour and a half). Then pass everything through a passatutto, or food mill– a wide-mouthed hand-cranked strainer. Keep turning the passatutto until only the seeds and skins are left. Then put the sauce back on the stove until it reaches a boil. You may need to cook it for a bit longer to ensure desired consistency.

If you’d like to make a big batch of this sauce for canning, then adjust ingredients proportionately, adding an extra hour or so before passing the ingredients through the food mill, and after returning the sauce to the stove. Working with eleven pounds of tomatoes at a time is a good amount.

At this point you can serve or keep it in the refrigerator for a week, or put it in jars. Use the ones that have a self-sealing lid– which pops as the sauce cools and provides a vacuum seal, making it possible to store for months. The wonder of this sauce is in its fresh ingredients and its simplicity.

Here’s a blurb for my book written by my dear friend and literary hero. If you haven’t read his “Brother’s K,” you simply must.
“With amiability, wit, and a modicum of self-pity, Laura Munson’s memoir reminded me of the twenty-one jars of organic tomato sauce she and her children hand-made. A chapter is like a jar lid: if it doesn’t pop as the contents cool, the seal is faulty and the sauce is worthless. Exhausted from their all-day effort, mother and kids sipped hot chocolates and listened as twenty-one jars cooled. To their satisfaction, they counted twenty-one distinct pops. In reading this brave memoir I counted about the same.” —David James Duncan, author of The Brothers K and God Laughs & Plays

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"Glory Daze"

Okay– I know it’s obnoxious to post a photo of yourself when you weighed 119 pounds and all your dreams were coming true, but I want to use this newly dug out photo for my grade school alumni news as a tool of inspiration. This photo was taken in 1981 at my grade school graduation. That smile depicts THE LAST official “Glory Day” of my life (excluding obvious things like my wedding and the births of my children)……until I got my book published. In the realm of personal achievement, that was my Mt. Everest. I won the drama, art, writing, and speaking awards. That stack in my hands contains the proof.

In the 29 years to follow, there would be a desert in this regard. Nothing grandiose to put on my resume. So what, I wrote and completed 14 NOVELS. So what. Nothing to hold in my hand and show off. And the spiritual scum that ensued had me in knots.

On April 1, 2010, I had the next installment of “Glory Day.” I had a book published. But it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I spent the day in a NYC hotel room with the stomach flu. Cosmic humor abounding. Because as much as I wanted to be the answer to that dreamful girl in that white dress smiling and believing that the rest of her life would be one long drawn out “Glory Day,” I knew that glory days are myths. And that success lies inside us. Even and especially if we’re sitting on the couch with greasy hair feeling lumpy. Or throwing up in a hotel room on one of the most momentous days in our lives.

We create something, people do or don’t relate to it. We move on. And we create something else. Success is an illusion. But happiness is real.

To that end, I’ll tell you a secret. As much as the below picture is of me feeling the temporary bliss that comes from achieving a dream…it’s really just a fleeting moment. So to those of you who are beating yourselves up with your dreams, go easy on yourselves. Do what you need to do, create something you are proud of, and let go of the result.

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The View Out My Bedroom Window

If I look out my window right now, at this moment in my life, it’s the exact pink and ash lavender sunrise on snow-laden conifers…the exact photo I chose when I started this blog last May. Eight months ago, when I decided to take things under my own control and start this blog. As some of you may remember, it was more of a literary journal than a daily back and forth. More of a sharing of my world in Montana and my writing– that I could create, without having to face more rejection from publishers. I began it with surrender. Little did I know what that surrender would bring, in just two months. Little did I know that in just a matter of weeks, my 20 year old dreams would come true.

So as the sun rises this morning in a very new 2010, and the view from my window brightens and loses color, I encourage the act of surrender. I feel as powerful this morning as I did that morning in May when I created this place to share my writing. The simple act of creation is what makes me want to press my nose against the cold window pane and say, “Thank you.”

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