Tag Archives: empty nest

10 Year Anniversary of My Season of Unlikely Happiness…

…Sometimes you need a dose of your own medicine…

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One of the blessings of writing my memoir, “This Is Not The Story You Think It Is:  A Season of Unlikely Happiness,” and the essay version of it, “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear,” are the notes you get from people.  I have been lucky enough to hear from a LOT of people, from all over the world, because the New York Times “Modern Love” column is mighty, and so is Amy Einhorn and Penguin/Putnam.  The essay went viral (#2 “Modern Love” essay in the history of the column), and the book was published in nine countries!  I never dreamed any of that would happen when I wrote it.  I was just writing my way through a challenging summer of rejection from my then husband, and I was fiercely committed to non-suffering in a time when most would call me an emotional victim.  I’d suffered enough in my life because of my sensitivity to other people’s actions, and I wanted to look this suffering beast in the eyes and shout Gandalf’s “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”  I wanted to finally find emotional liberation from my reactions to the things people say and do to me.  I wanted to be even…happy.  Which meant I had to become acutely aware of the way my mind works, how it gets in its way, and how it finds its way out of the dark forest.  During that six month time of my life, I practiced this self-awareness moment by moment.  Sometimes I failed.  Sometimes I was even good at it.  And always, I learned.

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This was new news to many people—that you could find your way out of suffering at a time when your beloved utters these dread words:  “I don’t love you anymore.”  The responses to the book and the essay were a brilliant reflection of what is at the core of humanity and it drove home something that I have always believed:  people everywhere want the same things.  To love.  To be loved. To feel of value. To be happy.  And there are a lot of people out there who are in pain and don’t know what to do with it.  They’ve given themselves to a relationship, and their partners are rejecting them.  They think that their well-being is contingent upon someone else’s treatment of them.  And it’s…just…not.  Happiness is in you.  It doesn’t get bestowed upon you.  Even from the ones who are supposed to love you most. writing

One of the things I loved dearly about the whole experience (and it still goes on nine years after the book’s publication), were the notes I got over and over, so often saying these words:  “Thank you for helping me know I’m not alone.”  Because as memoir writers know…writing your heart out starring you as the main character ain’t for sissies.  And to know that your transparency truly helped someone out there…makes it a little less hard to write past the fear of self-exposure.  It helps give us the courage to be honest, and sometimes brutally so.  If you can think, “I am going to let myself bleed in these pages in hopes that it might be of service to myself and others,” it makes it a lot easier to open that vein.  The key is to do it from a place of service, and not venom.  To be self-responsible the whole way through, with your eye on the service piece.  Even so, there are the haters out there.  The people who enjoy kicking you when you’re down.  It’s easy to have big cojones behind a computer screen.  I always just think:  I’m glad I don’t have to live in that person’s mind, making people wrong all the time instead of trying to find the light in what it is that they have to say.

This person found the light.  And asked a good question.  My birthday was this week, and this fan, whom I’ve never met, sent me a lovely birthday blessing on Facebook.  I looked back at our message feed to remember who he was, and found his note from 2009 when the essay came out in the New York Times, prior to the book.  And then I read my response to it.  Boy, did I need those words.  Sometimes it’s as if we hold our wisdom in words…so that later…when we’ve forgotten or really need a re-fresher, it’s there for us.  This is what reading my own words, sparked by his kindness, did for me, as I bring my son to college in a few days, and come home to my Empty Nest.

IMG_0061Looking back now, I know that the time depicted in my memoir/essay was one of the most powerful times of my life.  A true awakening.  But we go back to sleep sometimes.  Or take little naps.  I’ve been so focused on the dread of Empty Nest, that I have perhaps forgotten the blessings.  May my response to him, then, help all of us.

Here are our notes to one another:

Dear Laura,
I was re-reading your wonderful essay last night, and had a very practical question: at one point you talked about “I’d committed to the ‘End of Suffering.’” I see what you mean by not looking to outward success as a measure of personal happiness, which is very wise.

Were there particular techniques or strategies that you found helpful? In my own life, I find it easy to disengage from material success or career success as a measure of happiness, but I still do find myself often defining my happiness through the success of my marriage, which is struggling at this point.

Not looking for any marriage guru advice here! Just was intrigued about the “End of Suffering” idea, and wondering if you had found something that helped. Thank you for the gift of your time.

Just lovely.  Right?  The kind of letter an author cherishes. 3d-notthestory (1)

My response:

Thanks for reaching out. I’m sorry you’re having a rough time in your marriage. And thank you for your good question. Here is my attempt to answer it– before breakfast—with my tea beside me: When I think of suffering, I think of the years in my life when I didn’t know I was in pain. Most of that had to do with being a writer and not understanding how I could feel so deeply called to daily arrive at this intersection of heart and craft and mind and intuition on the page…and yet not have that trajectory met. I just couldn’t understand how to bear that pain. What was the point?

Well…finally I realized that I was plagued with some pretty faulty thinking. The act of creation simply had to be enough. So I dedicated myself to that. And immediately– the pain was gone. It was so liberating. I didn’t have to be a victim of something. I never wanted to be a victim– it’s not my true nature. I think of myself as a joyful, powerful person. But I saw how I had been playing that victim role as a writer, and as a woman… for quite some time. Basing my happiness on things outside my control. It truly is insanity and a wise woman helped me to see that.

So when my husband had his own crisis of self…I recognized it. I had been in that place. But even still…I had to let go of him getting through it. It was a moment by moment act of surrender. Returning to the present moment. And being creative in it. I could control what I could create and there was a lot of joy there if only I tapped into it. And joy sure beats pain. “What can I create?” is the most powerful question I know.

But here’s the thing: pain has become our normal in so many cases, and most of us, even those of us who are seekers and aware and practice being so…sometimes can’t see where we’re in pain. And we re-choose it over and over out of habit. You may already know all this. I guess I did too, at that time in my life. I just had never gotten the chance to practice it like I did in that season of my marriage. Sure, I had a large dose of pain after my father died…but meeting with dis-affection is different. It wants to creep into you and tell you that you are somehow bad. Wrong. And the worst: unlovable. But that is simply a lie. And one that we often live into and make true.

So I guess I would say to you on this spring Montana morning with the first red-winged blackbird singing in the marsh, that you don’t have to be defined by your marriage or your spouse. You can be free and even joyful in this time. Regardless of how it ends up. It’s such a wonderful way to live, and dare I say, you become rather magnetic when you live like that. And yes, maybe even quick to love.  But that never made anybody a fool, even though our reactionary society will try to tell us this. Not everybody wants to receive our love, but WE can receive our love. In that act of creation. Even this tea that sits steaming next to me on my desk– I created that. And it feels good. So I wish for you creation today. Hope that helps.

Yours,

Laura

10 years later from this season of my life, I send love to us all,

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Laura

Now booking:

2018 Haven Writing Retreat Montana Dates

September 19-23 (full)
September 26-30 (one spot)
October 24-28 (one spot)

 

For information about the February Haven Wander:  Morocco, click here!

 

For more information about Haven Writing Retreats, Montana click here!  Now booking 2019!

To arrange for a phone call with the Haven team, email:  Laura@lauramunson.com

 

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The Art of Giving Up…to Go On.

Processed with VSCO with m5 presetPart One

Ten years ago, I watched my friend go through Empty Nest.  Her solution:  drive a massive ice-breaking truck at the McMurdo Research Center in Antarctica.  She brought some home-made hula hoops too, and a few instruments, because she’d never go anywhere without those personal items.  She faced Empty Nest with something more like…Empty Next– with the same electrifying spirit and adventure with which she’d raised her boy and girl…and now they were off to see the world.  And she was too.

At that time in my life, my boy and girl were still thick in the throes of music lessons and sports events and homework at the kitchen table and weekend slumber parties.  I couldn’t imagine letting them go, much less letting myself go.  Not like that.  I was sad for her, even though I knew she’d come back with tales to tell and more life experience under her frost-bitten belt.  But I felt like she was avoiding the grief…going so far away.  It looked like running away to me.

I mentioned it to another friend and she said, “Are you kidding?  Motherhood is great.  But you’re always a mother, even after they leave.  It’s just different.  Your kids are on to new things, and you should be too!  And you get to have your life back!”

My life back?  I felt like I was just getting the life I’d dreamed about.  Being a mother was the most fulfilling thing I’d ever done.  Sure, I’d travelled all over the place in my teens and twenties with a backpack on my back.  Intrepid, stubborn, solo, and full of wonder.  Writing my way through it all.  But it felt like all of that was preparation for the most hair-raising, plot-twisting, heart-warming, soul-feeding work of my life:  raising children.

And I did it.  I did it well.  For twenty-two years.

And here I am.  In a few weeks, my boy will go to college.  My daughter just graduated from college and moved into an apartment in San Francisco.  She’s got a great job, great friends.  He’s got a great roommate and will be living out his dream playing baseball at an institute of higher learning.  I couldn’t be more proud.  We’ll move him in.  My daughter will go back to the city.  I’ll come back here to my house in Montana.  It’ll all be over.  That part.  And I’m afraid of the grief.  I’m not afraid of my future.  I’m just afraid of who I’ll be without them.  Here.  In my empty nest.  In short, this last month has been excruciating.  And I want so deeply to appreciate these last weeks.

This helps:  (maybe it will help you if you are a parent with a child soon leaving…)

So…just like my friend…I anticipated this pain.  About two years ago, I started imagining the next chapter of my life.  The fear of Empty Nest had me by the throat, even then.  But I took my friend’s lead, and my other friend’s comment, and I decided that I was going to grab this next chapter by the ponytail and yank the weeping woman attached to it back out into the world.  To trust-fall into travel and adventure, only as the woman she is now.  Exactly as she is.

So this winter, I’m hitting the road.  I’m going to live my own version of breaking the ice on Antarctica, only for me…it’s with my journal.  I’ve started a new Haven Writing Program:  Haven Wander.  First stop:  Morocco.

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My primary Haven programs  are still here in Montana, and you can bet that I scheduled four of them back-to-back for this fall with the express intention of healing Empty Nest in my own back yard by doing the nurturing work I most love outside my motherhood– helping people to find their voice through the power of the written word.

But for people who are less writing-focused and more travel-focused…I have a new adventure and it utilizes yes, my experience facilitating meaningful small group experiences in the grandeur of the Rockies…but now in exotic places around the globe!

For my first Haven Wander, I found the perfect place and the perfect people to help me plan this remarkable, priceless, uniquely local Haven program, and it lands us in a small village outside of Marrakesh, Morocco.  With the help of these fabulous and inspiring locals, I have spent the last two years putting together a week of intentional wandering around Morocco, using the Haven Wander Portfolio as our guide.  It will be a feast for the senses and soul, and with a component of giving back through Project SOAR, to empower young women in finding their voices.  I’m going first to get the lay of the land, my journal and me, so that I’m rooted and ready when the women join me for our first Haven Wander._MG_2142_20150412

Personally, I do want to see who that stubborn young dreamer was with that backpack on her back, traipsing around the former Yugoslavia and Turkey, and all over Europe in the mid-’80s.  I know she’s still in me and I do want to see what her confidence and curiosity is all about.  And I also want to meet her with the wisdom she’s gathered along the way as a mother and as a woman and an author.  I want to scoop her up and tell her that she doesn’t have to do it alone.  She can do it in the company of kindreds. Because I’m pretty sure that the nest travels with you, wherever you go.  And you don’t have to live it empty.  You can live it with a small group of women who are just as curious and just as hungry for connection with the world outside their front door as you are.  Who long to have their senses activated in a rich and deep way, and who want to learn and fill their souls with powerful and meaningful experiences.

Arabian dining tentI want to sit her down on benches and on Mosque steps and in public gardens and seaside café tables…and ask her to be still.  To watch.  To listen.  To be.  After all, she never had a cell phone.  Or a screen of any kind in that backpack.  She had a journal.  And curiosity.  And courage.  I want to scoop her up and merge with her, and tell her that she becomes a very good mother of exceptional beings who fledge well.  And that she gets to have a new chapter of her life.  And it’s going to be wonderful.

poolSo Haven Wander:  Morocco is hatching this February.  I’m taking seven women on a one week journey of intentional living and being, using writing as our guide.  As for me, I’m going to take the whole month and write my way through this first blush of Empty Nest.  I’m going to start imagining who this next me is.  Who she’s always been and who she became and who she is becoming and will become.

In this next chapter, I want to wander all over the world.  I want to go to places that scare me a little, that feel exotic, and I’m going to do it with these small, temporary communities of women who need this as badly as I do.  The sky is the limit.  Uruguay.  Ethiopia.  Kathmandu.  Thailand.  But first…Morocco.

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Part Two

Before that, though…first and foremost…when I get back home from college drop off, to this empty nest, (and even this Empty Next)…before the back-to-back fall Haven Writing Retreats and Haven Wander:  Morocco…I know I need a very deliberate and very serious pause between chapters.  A full stop to honor it all. 

So I’m borrowing from the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva. I’ve always been fascinated by the power of this tradition of sitting shiva for a week after someone dies.  Of stopping your world and observing the loss and your grief, and the life that has left.  I’m going to have my personal version of it.  But not in uncomfortable chairs.  I need soft pillows for this.

Processed with VSCO with g3 presetI’ll light a candle and sit on my screened porch in my favorite chair, and reflect in thought and prayer, and write in my journal.  No TV.  No screens at all.  Just observations of my motherhood and who these children of mine have been:

I’ll sit my personal version of shiva for my babies turned little ones turned big, and my mothering of them.  I’ll sit shiva for all the learning to crawl and learning to walk and learning to speak and running barefoot in the grass and swinging on the swing set and making mudpies.

I’ll sit shiva for piano lessons and guitar lessons and school plays and orchestra concerts and soccer games and track meets and football games and baseball baseball baseball.  I’ll sit shiva for all the birthday balloons on the garden archway and all the streamers taped to the corners of the porch and the dining room and down the banister.

I’ll sit shiva for the pony rides in the front yard and the badminton, and the croquet, and bocce, and backgammon and cards and Farkle and Scrabble on the screened porch by candlelight.  For all the bonfires and marshmallows and star-gazing in sleeping bags on the dewy cool grass.  For every ahhhhh to every shooting star.  And every ooooo to every falling one.

And then, I’ll borrow the rest of this Jewish custom.  On the seventh day, I’ll take a walk around my land, all four corners of my twenty acres, and then return to my front porch to symbolize my return to society.  I may even call my rabbi friend to read these customary words from the Old Testament:

No more will your sun set, nor your moon be darkened, for God will be an eternal light for you, and your days of mourning shall end. (Isaiah 60:20)

My kids always say, “Mom.  You walk so confidently without having any idea where you’re going.  You even walk confidently in the wrong direction.”  They’re making fun of me, of course, in their own way.  Millennials.  They’ve never navigated directions without their noses in their GPS screens, robots telling them when and where to turn.  I doubt they really know their right from their left, frankly.

“I know where I’m going,” I tell them.  “Essentially.  I like taking an unexpected turn.  I like asking actual human beings how to get to the train station.  Siri and Uber have done our civilization a grand injustice!  I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about the world and humans by asking strangers questions.  And heck, if I really need to be so exact and so punctual, I have my phone, or I can research it prior.  There’s this thing called making plans, you know!”

They part laugh, part roll their eyes.  They don’t seem worried about me in the least, for this next chapter.

“The truth is…I’m sick of racing to get everywhere on time,” I tell them.  “I’m sick of being so responsible.  Of having a life where everything has to be so full and stacked and go go go.  I just need to wander again.  I need to have room in my life to stop when I want to stop.  And sit.  And just…be.  And to do it…in a very meaningful way.”

Their faces fade a bit.  Maybe the way mine did when my friend announced her Antarctica adventure.  They think that it’s nice, their mother wanting to travel in this way.  But probably a bit depressing too.  This gung-ho fling-the-windows-open mother I’ve been, pushing us all out the door on to our next adventure.  They think that maybe I’m…giving up…by wanting to wander so slowly.  Wanting to luxuriate in the senses and in connection with people and place.  That maybe I should go break ice for penguins in Antarctica!

But that’s exactly what I need to do.  Give up.  In the best sense of the phrase.

Give myself to this next chapter.

Let go of the last, onward.  Upward.

There will be that week of sitting with it.  Honoring it.  And I’m sure there will be a lot of tears and nostalgia and wanting it all back, those little ones, that young bright mother.  I’m sure I’ll sit in both of their rooms, bawling my eyes out, rocking in a corner covered in their blankets and pillows and maybe a stuffed animal that made the cut that I’ve dug out of their closet.  I’m sure I’ll be a mess.

But here’s the thing:  I can’t get it back.  It’s not possible.  And I don’t want to be miserable.  This last month, I’ve been miserable, watching the last of everything.  The last graduation.  The last family boat ride of the last summer.  The last bonfire with his buddies.  The last home game.  The last the last the last of this long chapter of our lives.

I want to feel my joy again-- the same joy I felt when they were little and we had a whole day in front of us with so much possibility and learning and wonder.  Wandering in the woods for Calypso orchids and morels.  Singing.  They say it goes so fast.  It didn’t for me.  It went long and to my core, and it makes it hard to remember who I was before it all.  I was a joyful young woman, without children, loving life.  I want her back.

tangineNow I’ll be wandering in spice markets for tangines with a world-renowned chef who will show us how to authentically cook with them.  Wandering in the Secret Garden, learning about the history of tea.  Wandering on the beaches of Essaouira and maybe even riding a camel.  Wandering in the Medina and learning about Moroccan history with a local guide who knows just where to take us so that we can follow and let go and pay attention and let this colorful country give itself to us…writing our way through it all and sharing at the end of the day about it.  And maybe we’ll even get a little lost.  And a lot…found.

Next chapter, please.  Empty NEXT, indeed!

For information about the February Haven Wander:  Morocco, click here!

For more information about Haven Writing Retreats, Montana click here!  We have few spots available for the 2018 fall schedule! 

To arrange for a phone call with the Haven team, email:  Laura@lauramunson.com

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Managing Expectations: Or how to drive a U-haul in San Francisco

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Now booking the fall 2018 Haven Writing Retreats! 

From book writers to journal writers and everything in-between, Haven will meet you where you need to be met! Come find your voice in the woods of Montana!

September 19-23 (FULL)

September 26-30 (one spot left)

October 24-28 (two spots left)

Well it’s summer and likely, if you’re anywhere over ten years old– actually even if you’re ten and under…you’re managing expectations.  Your mother’s, your father’s, your sisters’ and brothers’, your boss’, your children’s, partner’s, house guests’…everyone’s expectations.  And it’s also likely that you feel like you’re letting someone, or a lot of people, down.  It’s also likely that you feel that someone is letting you down.

Except for maybe the Culligan Man.  He showed up this morning and I looked out the window hearing that familiar diesel truck moan and sputter, and I smiled and ran to the front door because I knew it was for one thing and one thing only:  to find out if we have enough salt in the softener.  Salt in the softener so that we can have the best of our well water.  And then maybe he’ll check the filter to see if our reverse osmosis thingy is working well, or whatever he does in my basement.

All I know is that he shows up with big bags of salt like he’s Santa, smiling– always smiling, takes off his shoes at the door, knows just where the light switch is for the basement, (I’ve lived in this house 20 years and I’m never sure which of the three switches it is on the panel, but he does!), and marches down my stairs.  He doesn’t balk at the mouse droppings, or comment on the disarray of my son’s Man Cave.  He plows right through it all to the mechanical room that I try to enter as seldom as possible, and does whatever voo-doo he does.  I don’t follow him.  I don’t micro-manage his little tete-a-tete with the bowels of my home.  He has it under control.  He knows we need him, and it’s his job to show up and he does, like Swiss clockwork.  I even feel the house being relieved that someone competent and consistent is in charge of its digestive system.  The house has expectations too.  I try to meet them.  But sometimes…I just fail.  The refrigerator, lawn mower, and front stove burners are all currently broken.  The gutters are spilling over, and there’s a significant ground squirrel problem under my porch, and I missed last month’s electric bill.  I just can’t do it all or be it all.  I have to fail something or someone.

As I explained to my daughter, home for the Fourth of July:  you just can’t be all things to all people, even the ones you love most.  You’re just gonna let people down from time to time.  Even and especially when you’re doing your best.  Something’s got to give.  But there’s no shame in that.  You have to learn to let yourself off the hook.  And to let others off the hook.  And sometimes…all the people you think should be there to help you, won’t be.  And you’ll need to pay people instead.  Or you might be surprised at who shows up when the primary people don’t.  Or can’t.  Or won’t.  No matter how hard we try…people fail each other.  You’re going to fail people.  And I hate to say it, but ultimately…it’s not your problem.  It’s theirs.  Even if it’s your mother.  Or your child.

I can say this to her…but do I really believe it?  Truth is:  I haven’t had that much experience royally failing someone I love.  Recently, I had to.  I had to choose:  Move my mother?  Or move my daughter and son?

Pretty much every primary person in my life is in a major transition right now:  moving, going to college, going from college into the work force, down-sizing from house to apartment, changing jobs.  Everyone needs each other’s help and no one has the capacity to give it fully.  They can barely give it to themselves, teetering in the untethering.

Some of this is help we can pay for.  But a lot of it isn’t.  Like who gets Dad’s World War II army blanket?  And who gets Mimi’s crocheted afghan, lovingly knit with arthritic fingers, even though it’s in every shade of diarrhea?  And who gets the monogrammed wedding tray?  And what to do with the old letters?  And who will meet the roommates and get just the right toiletry case and put the Montana flag on the dorm wall, or christen the apartment with a bottle of prosecco after getting the right kitchen table that exactly fits the nook.  And who will drive the U-haul through the streets of San Francisco?  This isn’t just stuff you can do with a credit card online.  This is stuff that needs a daughter, a sister, a mommy.

I’m all three.  And I just can’t be all three right now.  Not well.  My plate is so full, it’s over-flowing.  I can barely be one person, never mind three.  I have to choose.  I have to say “no.”

Sure, I can take on a portion of the help that’s been asked of me, but not all of it.  Most of all, I hate that I can’t freely offer it, because I know it’s hard for people to ask—even loved ones.  I have to leave it to them to divvy up their needs with other people, paid and volunteered.  No matter how I shake it, no matter how much I know that I have to say “yes” where I must and “no” where I must…still, there’s shame.  Guilt.  Because I know that there are old, engraved, ingrown expectations attached to every request, especially the ones which are non-verbal.  People show up for people they love.  That’s just the way it is.  Especially family.  Especially when they are in big transition.  They get on planes and roll up their sleeves and help pack boxes, and bring tea and food and comfort and love to the one in need.  They don’t say, “no.”

Until this summer, I have never been in a position where I just…can’t…give everyone the support I want to give.  My physical world won’t let me.  No matter how hard I try to juggle my life, it’s just not possible.  I have to say, “no” to most and “yes” to the ones who truly are incapable of doing what they need to do, without me.IMG_3464

That means that I just drove a fifteen-foot U-haul through the streets of San Francisco with both of my kids in the front seat, to move my daughter from college into her apartment.  Yes, I drive a horse trailer, but not on insanely-vertical urban hills!  Where you have to parallel park!  I was afraid to drive a car in San Francisco, never mind a U-haul!  But I pulled it off.  She asked, and it was the best answer I could give.  “Yes.”  That was what I had to offer.  That’s what needed to get done.  My daughter:  the organizing and packing.  My son:  his strong back and football-honed muscles, the heavy lifting.  And in a few weeks, my daughter and I will do it all for him when he moves into his dorm room in college, thankfully midwestern-flat.  As for my mother’s move, thank God for my other family members and the professional movers.  I’ll come later to help settle them in to their new apartment.  I’ll do my best to manage their expectations then.

So far, I’ve been met with grace.  But I still feel awful about it.  Just awful.  Even my mother’s “Don’t worry.  I have help now.  You have enough on your plate with the kids and work.  You can come later,” doesn’t feel all that great.  I should be there.  I should.  Period.  But I do feel a little less guilty.  Thanks, Mom.

Here’s the lesson in it:  when I say, lovingly, responsibly, that I just can’t…people figure it out.

Or someone else steps in.

The world doesn’t rely on your shoulders’ ability to hold it up.  And it doesn’t end if you give it a much-needed shrug.  And…so far, no one dies.  And I’m not the bad guy.

I have to choose the expectation that I can actually manage, have to manage.  And let the others go.

Maybe the world works that way when we claim our truth and let go of our guilt.

So today, thank you, Culligan Man, for managing mine.  You do it so well.  I don’t even know when you leave, I trust you that much.  I just hear that moan and sputter down the driveway, and know that I have good water to drink.  May we all have at least a few expectations that manage themselves as easily as that.

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Come wander in your wonder with me this February in Morocco! To learn more, click here!

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Memorial Day: Remembering Two Lakes and Two Men

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  Now booking our fall 2018 Haven Writing Retreats! From book writers to journal writers and everything in-between, Haven will meet you where you need to be met! Come find your voice in the woods of Montana!

September 19-23 (FULL)

September 26-30 (one spot left)

October 24-28 (still room)

4:00 am.  Montana.  May.

I awake to a hard rain and a deep longing.  I’ve felt it all day and can’t quite place it.  But the rain drums on the metal roof like it’s my skull, and scares it out:  I have been longing for a lost and very old feeling…of safety.  Of being held.  And I know that I have to listen to the rain on the roof of my longing.

It’s not a rational longing.  I know that I live a life that is for, all intents and purposes, safe.

It’s my heart that forgets.

It happens this time of year when winter so rapidly wakes to the greening and blooming of May.  With the robin eggs hatching and little yellow beaks pointing to the sky– puffed up red-breasted daddies poking at worms for their babies.

It especially happens this weekend, when my son was born and my father died.  Memorial Day weekend.

Remembering hurts and I don’t want it to.  I want it to bring me the solace and salve that their love gave me–my father’s open arms, carrying me up the stairs each night when he came home from work, my son’s eager limbs, letting me carry him until he was too big and a snuggle on the couch sufficed.

I lie in bed at 4:00 am, the dawn-soon birdsongs maybe staved off by the rain, and I wonder:  Where is this heart-safety now?  I can’t see it in my tomorrow—not the way I want to.  I’m losing the people in my house, one by one.  My son is about to go to college.  And soon it’s going to be just me.

I lie here and let the longing out, letting myself imagine what it would take to feel like I did in my father’s arms and with my baby boy before he became big.  When we’d sit on the porch and nurse, while the robins fed their babies.  I lie here and let myself want that tender pause time, where I felt tucked in to the promise of those particular loving arms.

But I have to feel it.  Not just long for it.  It’s still in me.  It must be.

Now the rain bats, adamant, and I reel through the places of my life, trying to land on that warm, cared-for, safe feeling.  To use this tender time between consciousness and sleep to re-create it, and let it lullaby me through ‘til morning.

And I land.  I land on lake.  Two lakes.  Two men.  One me.

073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24Trout Lake.  Wisconsin.

Here, I am baby, child, little sister.  Here I am safe from suburban swimming pool rules and an un-swimmable 1970s Lake Michigan.  Here I dare the cold clean Wisconsin water, staring into it, pretending that it is thick glass, that I am that brave, that powerful, that in need of this particular water.

I’m not scared.  This isn’t a swimming lesson and there’s no winning or losing.  I pray my hands water-ward and go with a grin, slicing through, cast in Muskie-kissed water.  I float down until my hands lay flat on the sandy bottom.  Here I am lake baby, invisible now to my other self as long as I can hold my breath from leaking tattletale air bubbles, listening to the zing of the ski boats on the other side of the swimming ropes.

I like the sound of ski boats in my ears.  It’s the day’s Reveille to the night’s loon Taps.  You can’t have one without the other, as far as I know.  But I don’t think a lot here.

Here I pick up lapped-at stones along the lake shore, but not forget-me-nots.  I have a pact with them:  If I don’t pick them, they will remember this me, while I am back doing suburban Chicago things.

While the others nap, I sit on the screened porch and polish the rocks with Baby Oil so they look wet again– amber, sienna, umber marbles.

Dad comes in to admire my collection.  “I think it’s even better than last year’s.”

“Will you make sand castles with me now?”

He puts on his excited face, and I can tell that he only pretends to like making sand castles, but I can also tell that he loves how I want him to play with me.  That he longs for it.  Always this pressing, this knowing, that this is all so fleeting, fifty years my senior.  Maybe I make him feel as safe as he makes me feel.

“Carry me!” I beg, and he puts on the same pair of Ray Ban aviators he’s worn since World War II and hoists me up to his sunburned shoulders.  He smells like Sea and Ski, not like newspaper and the Chicago Loop.  He warns of rogue tree roots.  Leeches.  Black bears.  But we both know that this place is safe in all the ways that count.

We walk toward the lake, looking for chipmunks as we go, and he tells me stories of the one chipmunk who is always here, all winter when the cabins are empty, and screened doors don’t slap.  This one chipmunk who knows my heart and who knows me, and who will look over the little polished rock cairn that we leave under the cabin before climbing back into the station wagon for home.  This creature will keep my wonder safe and my father will remind me of it at bedtime, every night until we are back.  But we both know that it’s my father who holds my wonder.

On Memorial Day in 2004, I am standing at the end of his bed.  I hold his feet while he takes his last breath after 86 good years.  My son is four.  We go to the lake after that.  It’s been a long time.  No rocks under the cabin.  The forget-me-nots help.

073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24Whitefish Lake.  Montana. 

Here I am mother.  Here I am teaching the littlest of two children to dive from the dock.  He doesn’t want to point his hands to the glacial Montana lake.  He wants to do 360 Moonshine and mid-air Karate kicks and see how big the splash.  He wants to do it again.  And again.  And again.  He wants to see how long he can hold his breath underwater, but he is anything but invisible.  There is no suburb to wash off of him.  He lives here.  His screened porch door slaps all year long.

He collects stones too.  Flat ones to fling across the water and see how many times it will touch before it falls, counting the ripples.

“Watch, Mom,” he says, not caring if I do.  But I always do, and he knows it.

“Sixteen times!  You have one heck of an arm, son!”

He beams and I grab him and hold him to my hot summer skin.

“1…2…3…,” he shouts and takes my hand and we jump in the lake together.  And for a moment I lose him, and then I feel his arms under me, and his extraordinary face emerges.  “Look!  I can carry you!”

Don’t forget this, I think.  Do NOT forget this.  And I let him swim me to shore.

“When you get big, do you promise that you will still let me play with you?  And hug you?  And that we’ll swim in the lake together?”

“Of course, Mom.  Of course!”

And I can’t help but think:  He looks just like my father.

5:00 am.  Montana.  The first birds.  Robins.

He’s graduating next week.  And then he’s leaving for college September 1st.  There’ll be a lot of baseball through to August and for the next four years.  Leftie pitcher.  Heck of an arm.

I lie in bed, tears melting into my pillow.  But I’m smiling too, remembering.  I have held and been held.  I feel it, lying here.  And I wonder:  can I feel held by myself?  That’s what I truly long for.  That’s what I truly want to feel.

I decide that this year when the robins leave their nest on the porch lantern behind, I will take it and place it on my mantle.  I won’t fill it with anything.  Instead, I’ll study its woven grasses and mud, moss and twigs.  I’ll study the holding.  It’s my turn.

With so many of you enjoying Memorial Day, likely at lakes and on bodies of water across the country, I hope that you will let yourself feel held by the waters of your heart, where you can always find loving arms.  Your own.

Love,

Laura

Come write with me on Lake Superior this July at the Madeline School for the Arts!

This program will be very different from my Haven Writing Retreats in Montana.  For more info, 

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An Empty House: This I dread


Haven-4-1024x1024“I’m going to be fine in empty nest.  Don’t worry about me out here in Montana in my farmhouse.  I’ve got my writing.  I’ve got my writing retreats.  I’ve got my horses.  I love my land.  I’m going to travel the world.  It’s time for me again.”

That’s what I tell people.

That’s what I tell myself.

Inside, I’m terrified.  It seeps in at 4:00 a.m. when I wake most nights, when the fears are immune to my internal motherly “hush now.”  My mind isn’t just racing, it’s hauling ass down every dark alley I am able to avoid in daylight.  It’s trapped in this labyrinth of panic by Fear incarnate and it wants OUT.  And it’s not bills and health and aging and the other usuals.  It’s this dwindling last flame on the last wick of my motherhood.  And it’s the last light out of this Fear-mongered labyrinthine haunt.

How am I going to do this ‘being alone’ thing?  How am I going to feel secure without that last child’s room full?  That boy who wakes up in the morning and wants an egg sandwich, and a lovingly filled lunchbox– his sandwich cut in half and a Honeycrisp apple, not a Gala. A little bag of carrots and that note that I sometimes write, but not usually anymore, because I don’t want to embarrass him around his friends. Or make them feel sad that they don’t have a mother who does that for them.  I’m letting my motherhood go. I feel it.  Some mornings I make his lunch the night before, and put out cereal on the kitchen table with a note:  Have a nice day.  And I peek my head into his room in the glow of computer and cell screens and say, “I’m going to sleep in tomorrow.  I have a long day of work and I need my sleep.”  But what I’m really saying is, “This thing is crushing me.  I need to prepare.  I can’t go cold turkey.  I need to know that you can do this on your own.  I need to know that I can do this alone.”073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24

And he can.  Of course he can.  I always said I was raising adults.  Flexible, adaptable, adults.  I let them use knives early.  I literally touched their fingers to the hot stove so that they would learn.  On my terms, I guess.  I wanted to get it over with.  But what about me?  Am I going to take to my bed?  Am I going to have long dark nights of the soul like I did after my father died? I can’t bear those.  Will I feel unexplained joy, the way you do when your motherhood gets served to you in surprise heaping plates—when they crawl into bed with you on a Sunday morning, all six feet of them, and want to just “hang out?”  When they come into your office and sit down in the same chair they used to when they were little, and start talking about their day, on and on, knowing that you care, that you’ll listen, that you are their only and forever mother?  Are those moments all over now?  Will I have to manufacture them on the phone or on vacations?  The mundane, the holy mundane, of my motherhood is going in five…four…three…two…

You know when you are about to leave a relationship or a place, and you start to look at all the things you can’t stand about it?  How you’re going to be better off without it?  “Never liked that neighbor.  I’ll be better off without all that ridiculous traffic.  Can’t stand the way he eats.  Never wanted a cat anyway.”

I’m doing that with my motherhood.

And I think my son is doing it with his childhood.

We’re butting heads where we usually can find humor.  We’re finding fault where we normally make spaciousness for each other.  I’m getting rip-shit-mad over dishes in the sink.  I don’t get rip-shit-mad as a rule.  I am a Talker-through-er.  A Let’s-sit-down-and-have-a-heart-to-heart-er, kind of mother.  Some would say too lenient.  But I have always set my sites on trust and not blame.  Trust is what will bring my relationship with my children into the future, fortified and stalwart.  My go-to line:  “We all screw up.  It’s how we act around it that matters.”  I know that when people get rip-shit-mad it’s because they’re afraid.  So here I am…being afraid.  Apparently dishes are as scary as that dark 4:00 a.m. Fear monster.

I remember my daughter acting this way her senior year. Nothing I did was right.  And when your offenses are small, it’s like, “I can’t believe we have to have lamb chops again.  And why are they always medium rare? And why do you have to have that stupid jazz on in the background?  And why do we have to go to Belize for Spring Break when all my friends are going to Cabo?”  And now, neither of us can barely remember that blip in our relationship. Now it’s all humor and love and forgiveness and open-heartedness. I have every faith that it will be that way with my son.  He’s ready to fly.  I know.  I know.  But still…

073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24Last night, I lay there at 4:00 a.m., the Fear chasing me down those dark alleys:  no more boy in the house.  No more impromptu dance moves around the kitchen—and he can finally dip me!  No more “Let’s meet in town and have a special dinner, just you and me.”  No more “Mom, I have an orchestra concert. You should come.”  No more baseball.  So much baseball.  I’ve measured my life in innings every spring/summer for the past twelve years.  I love it and I loathe it.  My life is already so sedentary as a writer.  All that sitting.  My back is already a wreck.

And my eyes blinked open wide.  No more baseball.  Hmmm….

What else is there going to be no more of?

Well heck— might as well.

And I grabbed my journal from my bed-side table and went for it.  It’s raw, but I’m sharing it with you.  Maybe it will help you.  Don’t judge.

No more mayonnaise at 7:00 a.m.

No more moldy lunchboxes showing up on the counter.

No more “Sign this form. It’s already late. Hurry.”

No more fifteen pairs of sneakers strewn in the breezeway.

No more being ignored for the glow of screens.

No more “Why don’t we have any food?” when there’s an entire freezer and pantry full of it. (#malepatternblindness)

No more “I forgot my cleats.  They’re under my bed.  Can you drop them off at the office?  Like…in ten minutes?”

No more “Can I stay out until 1:00 am?”

No more “No way. Midnight, latest.”

No more “Calm down.  Everyone else is allowed to stay out until 1:00.”

No more “Will the parents be there?”

No more “I think so.”

No more “Midnight.  Drive carefully, please. The roads are icy.”

No more “I’m okay, but the car isn’t.”

No more teenaged lumps lying on couches until noon on a Saturday, eating pancakes with hooded sweatshirts on and sometimes a thank you.  Sticky plates in the sink.

Who am I kidding.

I’m going to miss those sticky plates.  I’m going to miss those thank you’s when they come.  I’m going to miss driving in to school to save the day.  And yes…I’m going to miss baseball.  I’m going to roam around those stands when he’s gone, and wish I could sit all day in the blazing sun hearing all that “Go kiiiiiid” and “You got this, kiiiiiiid,” and “Bring ‘er home, kiiiiiiid.”  Who am I kiiiiiding.

It’s morning.  It’s Sunday.  He’s on a bus going to an Orchestra showcase in Bozeman, Montana.  Probably with his sweatshirt hood over his head, drooling on his baseball pillowcase, headphones on.

So I call him.  And he answers.

“How are the roads?”

“Not bad. But it’s snowing pretty hard.”

Quick prayer to the bus driver. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to sleep. Listening to tunes.”

“I hope not Rap.  And not too loud.  You’re going to ruin your ears.”

“Calm down, Mom.  I’m listening to the Brahms song that we’re playing.”

Gulp.  “Brahms wrote the lullaby I used to sing to you every night.”

Silence.

Not gonna cry.  Not gonna cry.  “I’m really going to miss you next year, you know.”

“I know.  I’m going to miss you too.”

“We going to be okay.  We’re going to be better than okay.  Onward!”

“Yeah.  Onward.”

“Text when you get there.”

“I will.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

So now what?  A Sunday morning in early February.  I’m alone.  In bed.  Propped up in old smelly pillows.  What’s left of my tea is cold.  The snow is gently falling.  Do I sob?  Because you can bet, I’m crying writing this.  I could sing that Brahms lullaby and spend hours bawling my eyes out.  But I don’t think I will.  Not today.  I have a book to write.  And a quiet house.  All day.

A quiet house.

So I go downstairs to make my second cup of Earl Grey tea, sending a whisper to myself next February.  You’re going to be okay.  This isn’t going to hurt as much as you think.  Go cup of tea by cup of tea, page by page, word by word, gentle (and yes motherly) thought by gentle thought.  It’s time to mother yourself now.  

But for now…I’m scared.  And I’m taking all the advice I can get from those who have been here.  Comments appreciated!

Love, Laura

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Haven 4 a.m. Christmas musing…

Haven (4)

Read the original post to this series here.

Nothing that I planned for this Christmas season happened.

And then everything that matters did.

I’m looking at empty nest this fall, and so Christmas at home with the kids, in all of our best traditions, feels especially important.  I keep saying I’m going to be fine in empty nest.  But this time of year, I cry easily anyway.  I’ve been a leaky faucet all December.  I’ve been cooking with my daughter, like I’m facing my death, teaching her every single recipe I know “for the record.”  I’ve been standing and chopping madly, so that I now have carpal tunnel and planter fasciitis.  From cooking?  Don’t athletes get that?  I’m a writer.  My carpals are used to my repetitive motion tapping keyboards.  I guess just not my knife moves.  And all this eating of all these “best of” meals has my stomach in knots.  So when we had a massive weather “event” this week, my kids took to the ski slopes, and I took to my bed, hanging my Santa cap on the Christmas traditions that would certainly carry us in these next days.

It happened, avalanche:

  • The family Christmas Eve party we’ve gone to for 25 years got cancelled.
  • The place where we’ve had Christmas Eve dinner for 25 years couldn’t fit us in.
  • My son announced that he has to work bussing tables Christmas Eve anyway.
  • Ditto the night of the family game/caroling party we always have.
  • All my daughter’s friends are home and vying for her attention.  And even if they wanted to let me hang out with them, I’m no fun at all.  Unless they want to lie on the couch and rub arnica salve into my feet and wrist, drink bone broth, and watch White Christmas and Holiday Inn over and over.  Can’t quite handle It’s a Wonderful Life.  I’ve had one too many George-Bailey-on-the-bridge moments in the last few months, and I’m sure, come Fall, there’ll be too many to count.  So…sing to me, Bing and Fred.
  • And so far none of the presents have arrived because according to the NBC Nightly News, UPS is “having a hard time,” (maybe they need Bing and Fred too).  And let’s not talk about the news.  It’s enough to make me want to curl into an egg nog coma through to New Years and beyond.  Or more like a bone broth coma.  Come to me, Clarence.

And then my friend had to cancel our annual Christmas shopping day with our friend, the Special Olympian, and all around lover-of-life and spreader-of-joy, Cedar Vance.  This is the sacred day when we shop for her mother’s gifts using a carefully planned-out, well-budgeted, Christmas list, but one that in no way can I pull off solo, especially with a limp and a stomach that sounds like it’s churning butter.  Let’s put it this way:  Cedar puts the drop in shop til’ you drop.

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She and her mom feed 30 head of horses twice a day on their Montana ranch, so she’s got…well…stamina.  It was no surprise to anyone that she took home a silver and almost a bronze from the Special Olympics World Winter games at Schladming, Austria last year in the Advanced Giant Slalom for downhill ski racing.  Cedar is a local hero in more ways than one.  She has friends everywhere, and makes them wherever she goes.  It’s like she’s in a constant parade when she’s out in the world.  The more people the better.  The more shiny glittery sugary things, the better.  And so yep– you guessed it:  she loves the big box stores.  I, on the other hand, loathe box stores.  Every year I try to convince her to support the mom and pops on Central Ave. in our little town, but she looks at me like I’m sooooo uncool, and so I give in to the box store pre-amble, and ply her with hot cocoa back in town at the end so I can decompress in our little shops and Christmas bells and boughs that hang across the street like George Bailey’s Bedford Falls, officially shop-dropped.  She humors me, after her tour of Consumption Junction in all its…glory?

But Cedar isn’t about consumerism, per se.  She’s about spreading Christmas cheer.  Singing as absolutely loud as she can in the car on the way, to her favorite:  Alvin and the Chipmunk Christmas album, which is…after the third go-around of Christmas don’t be late… you know…pretty heart-warming, actually.  She’s got her Santa hat with the red Who-ville curlie-que on the top, and she loves to walk into every store saying a brisk, “Happy Merry Christmas!” and waving the Queen’s wave, which she’s done plenty of times because she’s been in about a hundred real life parades and got a kiss on the cheek from Mr. Shriver in the Special Olympics gala tour of Washington, D.C. before launching off to Austria, and, as she’ll tell you with absolutely no ego, received a hug from the Prince of Austria.  Because that’s the thing about Cedar.  She has no ego.  She’s free like I’ve never seen free before.  She rides bareback on horses I wouldn’t dare mount.  She flies down ski hills and hugs her way through Walmart (Cedar loves her some Walmart) on a hunt for her mother’s Christmas present, mentioning that they could also use a new fridge.  And I tell her, “That’s not on the list, my dear,” and she’s off, around the corner, holding a velvet pillow to her face and saying, “my mother would love this.”  And I have to say, “I’m sure she would but she asked for a microwave.”  And people look at me like I’m a bad person.  So into the shopping cart the velvet pillow goes.  And she’s holding a rose, of course, because the woman in the floral department at Costco gave it to her, after she’s eaten triple cream brie, red pepper jelly, and crackers, cornbread, short bread, pretzels, nachos, ham, roasted chicken, and asiago squares and more crackers, and she confesses that she’s allergic to cheese and gluten.  But she’s forgotten about that, because now she’s sure her mother needs a quick-dry hair towel, and I have to break the news that her mother has very short hair and probably would rather have warm socks for all the work she does outside in the bitter cold of winter, but she insists that her mom has plenty of socks and absolutely needs a quick-dry hair towel.  And so…into the cart goes the quick-dry hair towel.  And so it goes.  “Happy Merry Christmas, everyone!” she hollers, especially to people with Christmas sweaters on, and for those people, she includes a hug.  And the whole world melts around her.  Kinda like Eloise, only we’re so everly not at the Plaza, my dear.

So…we’re in the check-out line, our cart full of bags, ready to face the parking lot mayhem. We’ve crossed off everything on the list.  And we’ve even found a few special things we know her mother will just love.  Pony-tail holders, even.  We have three dollars and seventy-three cents left and Cedar’s holding it in one mitten-ed hand, the red rose in the other, and she’s smelling it like it smells like the Garden of Eden, when we all know that Costco red roses don’t smell like anything other than hot dogs and three ply radial tires.  And she says, “I’m going to keep this rose alive forever, just like in Beauty and the Beast, because of looooove.”  And I tell her that she can also dry the petals in case it doesn’t live forever, and she looks at me like I am the Grinch who stole Love incarnate, never mind Christmas.  And then…here’s where I shop ‘til I officially drop.  Drop to my knees:

We walk through the automatic doors pushing our heavy cart, and there’s a Salvation Army man standing there, ringing his bell, and the hanging red bucket hundreds of box store be-dazed shoppers have passed all day.  And Cedar stops at the bucket.  Puts the rose stem in her mouth, of course, because where else would you put it, and carefully folds the three dollar bills in a sort of Olympic origami, and slips them, one at a time, into the bucket.  And then the seventy-three cents.IMG_2870

“Aw…Cedar, that’s so good of you,” I start to say, but then I stop.  Because that Olympian goes over to the man in the Santa hat ringing the bell, and stands on her tip toes and he leans in, and she whispers something into his ear, and hands him the rose, and they hug each other for what seems like a long time…and she waves at him as he holds up the rose, and she says to everyone coming through the automatic doors pushing heavy shopping carts, “Happy Merry Christmas!” and we sing Alvin and the Chipmunks all the way home, as absolutely loud as we can.

“Cedar, what did you whisper to the Salvation Army man?” I say, over hot cocoa on Central Ave. with the red bells and boughs over our heads.

She looks at me churlishly, elf-ishly, loving-ly, and says, “Laura Munson, what do you think I said to him?  I told him Merry Christmas!”

Of course that’s what she said.  And I think…of course, Cedar Vance.  Of course it’s a Merry Christmas.

And then…wouldn’t you know…Christmas came, avalanche:

“We have a spot for you in the dining room on Christmas Eve.”  “We’re having our party after all.”  “I got my shift off, Mom, so let’s have our caroling party.  And on Christmas Eve, I’ll be home by 10:00 after work so we can have our open-one-gift tradition then.”  “There are a bunch of UPS boxes for you over at my house.  I’ll put them in your mail box.”  And guess what?  My stomach…it stopped hurting.  And my wrist and feet too.  Maybe there’ll be egg nog in my future after all.  And maybe next year, we’ll do it all over again.  And maybe when they return to the nest, their mother will be just fine.  Better than fine.  Maybe she’ll learn how to drop to her proverbial knees all the time in wonder and gratitude for the small moments of looooove.

Thank you, Cedar.  Wink wink, Clarence.

IMG_6127Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018
You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind! Come find your voice this February… For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!  The best holiday gift I can imagine… Click here for more info.

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The Junk Drawer Cleanse

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Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!  The best holiday gift I can imagine…

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In a pre-holiday purge this week, I dumped out my junk drawer.  It’s the little one in the kitchen by the stove where I put things that don’t belong anywhere in particular.  I only open this drawer to put things in it for later.  For later.  What is this mighty later?  From the story the contents of this drawer told me, the later lives despite these parts and pieces of our past.  And this past shrapnel just collects like lint until every single bit of what has been tumbled out of our lives becomes a throw-away…except what matters most.  So why even keep a drawer like this in the first place?

I stared at that pile of random stuff and I was frozen.  My son is going to college this year, and my nest is imminently empty.  It felt like every single one of those items needed to go back in that drawer by the stove, or my life would somehow be…as un-storied as it will be un-peopled.  If I put all of those pieces of our past into their appropriate places and got rid of the items that had no use at all, (like the god-knows-how-old lone Advil Liquid Gel), I would render the drawer empty. What would go in there now as I move into this later?  This unknown next chapter of my life.

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When Doing Our Best Feels Like Failure…

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For those of you who feel like your best falls short sometimes…here’s some permission to GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK!  (special permission for mothers of college bound seniors, in the throes of athletic recruitment!)

“Mom.  I’ve decided that I want to play baseball in college.  It’s my dream.”

This came out of my rising senior son’s mouth, early this summer, after his first few games with his new Legion baseball team.  This was not the plan.

I am a planner ahead-er.  Especially when it comes to my children.  So throughout my son’s high school career, I’ve gently teased out ideas of what college might look like for him.  What his dream would be.  The long and short of it was this:  A big school with great sports teams, near a city, with a lot of diversity and opportunity, and a strong Business School.  We knew he wasn’t D1 baseball material, and so playing ball at a large university wasn’t really on the map, even though I know how much he’s loved the game, all the way back to T-ball, buck teeth, and a scrappy little mop of blonde hair.

It was time for him to spread his wings and see what else there was out there to love.  Plus, he’s been raised in a small mountain community in NW Montana, unlike the Chicago of my youth, and the New York city of his father’s.  We were excited for him to start playing the field of life, not just the field of and around the baseball diamond.

“Just think—you’ll have a regular spring, for once.  You’ll have extra time to be able to expand academically into new terrain, and enjoy what college life has to offer.”  He seemed copacetic.  Relieved almost.  And frankly, it was a relief for me too– I’ve logged a lot of hours on those baseball bleachers, and he’s logged a lot of hours on that diamond and in those dug-outs.  It would be a good step for us all.  Because how could I pass up being in those bleachers as much as possible, even if it meant a long road trip.  Heck, in Montana, we’re used to those—all for the love of ball.  I was privately happy to put it in the rearview mirror.13325635_10153431308556266_4887280178150671123_n

And then that day in June…  “Mom, I love this sport.  I love the kids who play this sport.  I’m good at it.  I want to play in college.  I don’t care if I don’t have as much of a social life.  My team will be my social life.  I don’t care if it’s not some big university near a city.  I’ll play D3.  I just want to play baseball.”  Out of the mouths of not-so-babes.

I’m a mother.  Far be it from me to stand in the way of my child’s dreams.  And what he said was all true.  He’s a talented leftie pitcher, and a great first-baseman, and a spirited team member.  He never ever complains about any of it.  He takes it as the Hero’s Journey that baseball is:  The call to leave home, go out in the world, and come back, more the wise, despite some scrapes and losses along the way.  As of this June, he just wants “to play baseball.”  I remembered a seventeen-year old girl who just wanted “to be an artist.”  So I Googled D3 baseball colleges:  Small.  Liberal Arts.  No Business major.  Mostly rural.  And very…very expensive.  Plus, they don’t offer athletic scholarships.  Huh.

I quickly learned that on top of it all, the kids who get recruited for D3 sports, have been going to recruitment camps for years.  They’re on the coaches’ radars.  They know all about scholarships and are in touch with Financial Aid departments.  They have their lists in place and have toured campuses.  They’ve met with Admissions people.  Just when, I’m not sure.  Surely not in the summer.  They’re the Boys of Summer– they’re playing baseball every second of every day—eighty-eight games!  And if they play other sports, not then either.  AND, the cherry on top of the top:  it all has to be done Early Decision or Early Action…by…drum roll:  November 1st!  That’s in a matter of months!  And the cherry atop the cherry on top:  my son is the quarterback of the football team.  Just when are we supposed to visit campuses?  If he misses a practice, he misses the Friday game.  How does one fly from Montana to Pennsylvania, and upstate New York, and Ohio, and Minnesota, and Oregon, have a proper visit during the school week, and make everybody happy?  Never mind pay for it all?

We were late to the party.  Very late.

This is not my style.  Usually…I’m throwing the dang party.  How could this have happened?  How could I not have at least seen the potential of this coming our way and had a back-up plan in place?  How could I make my son proud, and make it through this without guilt, shame, the feeling of less-than, the feeling of failing him?  I hadn’t been able to save the marriage from ending, or keep his father from moving thousands of miles away, or his friends from moving, or his sister from taking an internship far from home this summer.  I hadn’t been able to provide a house full of action and fun like it used to be.  In fact, in the last five years, I’ve been working all the time.  Leaving him home alone.  Leaving him to cook his meals and fend for himself– the opposite of what I would ever have opted for as the mother to my son.  I was not going to fail him this time.  No way.

And so it began.  The baptism-by-fire SAT sign up and tutoring, the college essay boot camp, the virtual college advisor meetings, the recruitment videos and the camps in Long Island and Oregon, the Common Application.  I’ll save you the stress of it all, and me the blood-pressure spike, but suffice it to say that on top of my full-time job leading writing retreats in Montana, and a book deadline for a novel I’ve been working on for a few years, as a single mother, I was now scrambling to put together a schedule that would be do-able.  For all of us.  Not perfect.  But possible.  And all before November 1st.  Deep breath. 13450882_10153462757811266_6947302589785351012_n

But the breathing is shallow at best.

I am smack dab in the throes of it right now.  And here’s what I’ve learned:  You can’t be perfect.  Even with the best of intentions, as a mother…you’re just going to fall short sometimes.  Even with your heart and soul and mind as sharp and on it as possible, there are times as a mother of a college-bound child when you are going to look around and say, How did I get here?  I didn’t mean for this to happen.  I was trying so hard.  I was doing my best.  And my best…well, it just isn’t good enough.  And you’ll look around at the other mothers, and somehow, they are at the party that you didn’t even know existed.  They are seasoned party-goers, with gracious hostess gifts, and the perfect, in this case, little red-white-and-blue jersey, and ball cap, with the proverbial stadium seat sporting their son’s soon-to-be alma mater’s mascot.

And you’ll feel small, or wrong, or just plain bad.  And you’ll find yourself crying in bed in the early hours, or lying in the dark with heart palpitations, and the feeling of true hopelessness, desperation even.  You were the one that dropped him off on his first day at Montessori with a backpack full of black-eyed Susans for his teacher, with a loving note.  You were the one who lay in bed with him every night reading him Ferdinand, and Mike Mulligan, and Dr. Seuss, who sang him Lullaby, and played This Little Piggy, and taught him how to make homemade ice cream.  You were the one who drove over mountain passes for any number of baseball and football games—and that one time when he missed the bus, and you drove six hours to drop him off at camp, and turned around and drove six hours back.  You were that mother, yes you were.  You promised him you’d give him the very best of you.  And here you are failing him in his, to date, biggest opportunity, his biggest dream.  Because…what if he doesn’t get that scholarship money, and what if you can’t swing it to get him to more than three of those schools so he doesn’t even know where he wants to apply early, and what if what if what if…well, what if his “dream” doesn’t come true?

I know the answer.  He’ll be okay.  We will all be okay.  First world problems.  But still…this is one of the last things we can do for our kids—shepherd them into their next chapter, and the first one far from home.  We’ll see what happens in November.  We’ll see if he’ll get that golden ticket, and he’ll open that letter and smile, and nod, and fold into my arms in happiness and relief.  We’ll see if we get that moment of, “We did this.  This dream is going to come true!”  But even if we don’t, I have to believe that regrets are never really teaching tools.  We will always fall short somehow.  We’re mothers.  There is no A+.  There is only the very best we can do.  Even if we are late to the party.  Especially…if we are late to the party.  Because here’s the bottom line:  There is no party.  It’s really, in the end, just the Hero’s Journey, after all.

If you would like to take a break in 2017 and live the writer’s life in the woods of Montana, find community, find your voice, and maybe even find yourself…check out this video and info, and email the Haven Writing Retreat Team asap to set up a phone call! Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

Now Booking 2018 Haven Writing Retreats!

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(previously published in Grown and Flown)

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Summer Mother

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I wrote this 20 years ago one summer evening, after a day of hiking in the mountains of Montana with my brand new baby. It’s all about letting go– something I am learning all over again as she enters her senior year in college and my son, his junior year in high school.  Deep breaths to all mothers out there who are facing empty nests…

It is summer in Montana and it is past our collective bedtime, but we are driving into a sky glowing burnt orange, steel green mountains not yet silhouettes. The days are full here, too full, maybe. There is a three month panic to be scantily clothed and to wave the limbs around in hot air, in water, on a sweaty horse’s back. Suddenly there is so much sun after so much snow and grey matte sky and it’s a drug we agree to take in overdose. I don’t wear sunblock. Neither does my husband. We slather our baby in it, but let the undersides of our arms rest on the hot black paint of the car door while the tops– all the way to our fingers– in-between our fingers, bake in high-noon sun; then on our foreheads and backs at the lake in sparkling water, on hot rose rocks, on alpine trails, in meadows of lupine, Indian paintbrush, yarrow, huckleberries. With red and purple-stained skin pulsing sweet dried sweat over the throb of cooling highway, we cover our tracks back, turning off fourteen dead, fifty injured in a bombing today in an Israeli market; hold hands, try to find the moon.

Look. A star, I say, letting go of his hand, pointing. Yeah, he says. Two of them. That one’s bright. I wonder if it’s a planet. Wondering, I reach back for my baby’s hand without looking, craving a little loose bundle of fingers. There is a soft sigh from the back seat and I get my offering. Everything to her is this kind of sky. A chirping squirrel is still as full of wonder for her as the stars popping out over the blue Jewel Basin one way, the pale orange still hanging over the Canadian Rockies, the other. I close my eyes a moment; a small prayer in honor of squirrels. I want wonder.rbk-little-gitl-0513-1-mdn

There is heartbreak in all this. I fight to be there, under the gaining stars, not to consider the end of this day’s light a misfortune. It doesn’t have to be a death. It doesn’t have to make me think about tomorrow. I flirt with the story of the market bombing– picture a mother handling tomatoes, her son slipping an orange into his pants– fight the image of their bleeding bodies lying splayed and still in the dirt, covered in blown-up tomato pulp. No. I hold my baby’s hand tighter and weave a few of her fingers into mine. They’re sticky with huckleberry juice. I feel the stinging of sunburn on my back, minus an X. I mouth, I am here…I am here. The wonder does not have to be scary. She’s not scared. She is singing. I peek back to see what she is doing with this closing darkness. She is fingering the window. Counting stars. Feeling glass. Drawing pictures with her saliva. She is where I want to be.

I look at my husband’s face. It is the color of the Whitefish range: the last coal. He likes the window down halfway. He likes total silence. He is driving. He is where I want to be. Earlier, in the hardware store parking lot, I wait in the car with my daughter asleep in her car-seat, checking to see that the seatbelt is not cutting off her breathing. How can she breathe slumped over like that, her head to her belly? But she does– I can see her shoulders rising and falling. In-between checks, I stare at puddle mirages in the hot pavement, at women in passenger seats on the diagonal, all lined up; babies sleeping behind them. They are checking too, staring at mirages. One by one they click into ready position, their husbands walking proud and purposeful with a new hammer, a bag of fertilizer, dandelion killer. I am waiting for bear mace– red pepper spray, as if that would do anything, a grizzly bear bounding at us, our baby in the backpack singing to the bear, a cliff behind us, my husband reaching to his belt for his pathetic weapon. Play dead…play dead…play that woman and her son with tomatoes all over them in Israel, frozen, watching paw over paw hurl toward me over lupine and Indian paintbrush and yarrow, huckleberries. But I don’t know about the market bombing yet. And there is no bear. But I don’t know that yet either, sitting in the car in the hardware store parking lot.gnp_4

The day is done. Pepper spray– check. Pants and a sweater for later– check. Teva’s for the beach– check. Sunblock for the baby, three extra diapers, wipes, baby food, sun hat, a change of clothes for her, life vest– check check check check check check check. Back pack, fanny pack, water bottles, trail mix, sunglasses, camera– all checks. Bathing suits, towels, beach-blanket, rafts– yep. A cooler full of cold beer, sandwiches and whole milk in baby bottles– done. Gas– we’ll get some. Where are my sunglasses? Have you seen my sunglasses? Oops, forgot the keys. Where the hell are my sunglasses? On top of your head. Oh. We need bear mace. That stuff costs forty bucks…you have a better chance being killed in a car wreck than by a griz, anyway. Put your seatbelt on…we’re getting bear mace– we have a kid now. All right all right all right.

The day is done. We used everything but the pepper spray. I look at my husband, still losing light at the same rate as the Whitefish range, and feel safe and in love with him for carrying the baby in the backpack, the mace on his belt, pumping the gas– little things he wouldn’t want to know I loved him for. Little things that free me up to think about breathing and seat belts and bleeding bodies covered in tomatoes, and grizzly bears. I let go of my baby’s hand and reach for his again. He is where I want to be.

It’s all stars now. They call it big sky and they’re right. What are you thinking about? I whisper. Nothing, he says. I sit there and try to think of nothing, watching headlights come at us at seventy miles per hour on my baby’s side, pull at my seatbelt quietly to see if it would really stop me, nothing…nothing… I look back to see if she’s asleep. She is. I reach my hand back and rest it on her chest. She is breathing. Nothing…nothing… I put the same hand on my shoulder and feel the hot from the sunburn. My mother has had five melanomas removed from not wearing sunblock. Nothing…IMG_0804

I am left with my breathing. Check. My heart beat. Check. A raven sky. Countless lights twinkling…God, they really do twinkle. Twinkle twinkle little star– I figure out that it’s the same tune as the alphabet song. And then I am left without songs, because one of the stars loses itself in dust and falls right in front of us, right on the highway. We pass where I think it has fallen and look for stardust and leftover glow, but there is just an old cracked double yellow linesee that? I say. The star? he says. And I look for another; pick one and stare at it, ready to see it go down. But the longer I stare at one, the more I see all around it, and none fall, and it doesn’t matter, because I’m going deeper and deeper into the biggest sky I have ever seen, and I have lived here for years now, and I’m not thinking about that either. I am lost, in star after star after star after star…after star. After star. And I am there, wherever that is.

If you would like to take a break this fall and live the writer’s life in the woods of Montana, find community, find your voice, and maybe even find yourself…check out this video and info, and email the Haven Writing Retreat Team asap to set up a phone call!

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Commencement: A Mother’s Guide to the Extra Stuff

cap tossas seen on mamalode.com

I can never remember if the word “commencement” means beginning or ending. My knee jerk reaction is to think that it means ending, though my writer’s mind quickly corrects it.

That’s probably because graduation ceremonies are called Commencement, and I think of graduation day as an ending– leaving the known behind: a good reputation, dear friends at a stone’s throw, families whose refrigerators and bikes and kitchen tables are yours for the sharing… the dismantling of decorated walls soon to betray you for guests, or someone else with new photo collages, new tapestries, new blue ribbons. I have never been good at leaving the familiar, and I usually mark it with a little hidden graffiti—Laura Munson lived here, and the dates.

But it’s not my turn this upcoming Commencement. It’s my daughter’s. Now it’s she who is dismantling her room, coming down to the end of her check list, five more days of school to go, graduation invitations in the mail, college deposit in, orientation dates in stone. There is a new timber in her voice; something dire. “Mom, can you do something with my Breyer horse collection?”

“Can’t you just leave them on your shelf?” I ask, vignettes reeling by of mock horse races on the lawn and barnyard feedings with tiny plastic apples, and that one coveted palomino paint that became real one Christmas.

“I need room for my stuff.”

“What stuff?”

And then I realize that the stuff that has been strewn all over her room for the last four years of high school actually could have had a home in her bookshelves if we’d been more able (or willing) to pack up her plastic horse collection.  I’m not sure whose job this is. Please Lord, not mine.

I look into her eyes. And I see…it’s my job. Some things are just too hard.

Suddenly, I feel a desperate need to give advice in fast forward. “Have I taught you how to make hospital corners? And to never leave a wet towel on a bed? Or leave a glass directly on wood?”

“I know. Respect the wood. You’ve told me.” She’s tolerating my Mom-ness much more than usual lately. She’s in the bittersweet of Commencement while I am bursting into tears in pathetic public places, like at the bank drive thru, catching myself in the video screen looking miserable. Will her roommate know that when she needs a hug but is too shy to ask, she makes tea? Will she know that she likes to sing in harmony and that all those eye-ball rolls don’t really mean anything? Will she know that she acts street-tough sometimes, but is deeply sensitive and if she’s playing the ukulele along with Jack Johnson, something pretty rough probably happened at school that day?

“Mom, why are you crying?” she says, bringing me back to the grim task of packing up her happy childhood.

“I’m sorry. I’m just going to miss you.”

Last week was when it really hit. I was doing laundry and I heard from her room in that new dire timber, “How do stamps work?”

Stamps? Like postage stamps?”

“Yeah.” This from a 4.0 student.

I went into her room. She was sitting on her bed addressing graduation party invitations. “Really? You can program a computer, but you don’t know how stamps work???”

“My generation doesn’t really use them.”

I was sure she was playing a joke on me. Stamps? But she wasn’t. She really had no clue that you use the same stamp for a local letter that you do for one that goes all the way to New York City.

Geez– what other glaring omissions have there been in my mothering? I’ve tried so hard to fill in every blank, taking every single second possible as a teaching moment. “Maybe I should write you a survival handbook for college and beyond. Would that be helpful?”

“I know all the basic stuff. But yeah…maybe the extra stuff.”

I wracked my brain, taking inventory. The extra stuff. If stamps are “extra” this could get ugly! I decided to do it room by room, compartmentalizing life in cross-section, like the dollhouse we spent hours decorating and playing in.

Kitchen:
I started with How to boil water, tell if pasta is ready, smell a gas leak, turn off the water main…but suddenly it turned into a different kind of “extra.”
• If you’re having a bad day, leave the dishes. But do soak them, or you’ll really be in a bad mood when you get around to cleaning them.
• If you’re having a really bad day, don’t adhere to the utensil slots. Just chuck ‘em all in and let them fall where they may. Actually, if it’s a really bad day, just leave the dishes alone. They can wait.
• No matter what kind of mood you’re in, make yourself a nice meal, especially if you’re lonely.
• Always eat some fruit in the morning and some veggies at some point in the day. Keep bananas, carrots, apples, and potatoes around. They do the trick when you’re not feeling inspired.
• Keep a granola bar in your purse. (Tip: Use only small purses—lest you end up with a Mary Poppins carpet bag, coat rack and all. Read Nora Ephron’s essay on women’s purses.)
• Splurge on really good jam and really good bread.
• Always have a flower or a piece of greenery in a vase on your kitchen windowsill. It really helps.
• If you see evidence of mice, set traps immediately. This probably will not apply to 99% of the places you’ll live, (we live in Montana), so take it metaphorically: See s*** for what it is and get rid of the source before it gets out of control.
• If you use To Do lists, get rid of the word “goal” and replace it with “possibility.” You’ll be nicer to yourself that way.
• If you find yourself writing down something that you’ve already done on a To Do list, just so you can cross it off, you might want to stop making To Do lists.
• Allow yourself to grocery shop without a list, but not when you are hungry. You might surprise yourself by what ends up in your grocery cart—like rhubarb or radishes or kale or pistachios!
• Always smell fish before you buy it. If it smells like fish, it’s no good. Also, look into its eyes. They should be clear. This also applies to boyfriends.
• To cut goat cheese, use dental floss. (Unflavored! Duh. Don’t roll your eyes.)
• To make Deviled Eggs, put boiled eggs into cold water/ice bath. When cool, cut in half, shell ON, with sharp knife, then scoop egg out with spoon. Magic!
• Learn how to make homemade chicken broth. (Ask your mother)

Living room:
• Splurge on nice candles. Light them for yourself daily. Light the not-nice ones for guests. Not the other way around.
• Lie on the couch and do other things than watch TV. Like read a book or listen to classical music.
• Watch old movies. You know…back when people used stamps, and women dressed for travel. There’s a lot to learn from the “olden days.”
• Limit TV.
• Listen to NPR. Especially opera on NPR. Pretty much everything you need to know about life is in operas.
• Make sure to have musical instruments and keep them within eye-range so you’ll actually play them. Guitars and pianos welcome group jam sessions.
• Always have a drum somewhere for that person who claims they “aren’t musical.”
• Have board games and cards in a drawer or on a shelf. Play them. Especially Scrabble, backgammon, gin rummy, Farkle, and Scattagories.
• Have guide books and binoculars. It’s good to know your birds and flowers and other critters. Even in the city, there are hawks.

Bathroom:
• Have nice hand towels and nice soap in your powder room. Your guests should feel special.
• Use your powder room. You should feel special too!
• Always have an extra roll of toilet paper in each bathroom.
• And a plunger. (Replace plungers every-so-often, unless you are the type to wash and disinfect toilet plungers. Dirty secret: I’m not. That’s what the second flush is for.)
• Don’t forget to wash the toilet flusher handle when you wash your toilets. They are dearly overlooked. (Try not to think about that too much in hotel rooms.)
• Put nice art in your bathrooms. And magazines. You can learn a lot about a person from their bathroom.
• Supply room spray.

Bedroom:

Don’t be a slob.  Pick up your clothes.  If they’re not dirty, put them somewhere to wear again during the week, like in a hamper in your closet. NOT on a chair. And definitely NOT on your treadmill. Like your mother. Who then forgets she has a treadmill.
• Wash your sheets at least once a month.
• Splurge on nice sheets and feather pillows.
• If the person/people with whom you are sharing your room snore, make sure you have earplugs by your bed.
• Supply your nightstand with books that you want to read when you grow up: a book of poetry, a spiritual text of some sort, a classic novel, something on the best-seller list that is not written by a celebrity.
• If you eat breakfast in bed, use a tray. Crumbs are worse than bed-bugs in some cases, especially if you’ve listened to your mother and splurged on good bread.
• Eat breakfast in bed, but not lunch or dinner. That means you’re depressed.
• Do not let your dog sleep with you. Or your babies. They need a bed of their own, and so do you.
• Sleep in every-so-often. Like till eleven. This will get harder and harder the older you get.

Closet:
• You’re on your own on this one, but do get nice hangers if possible.
• Oh, and do accept that your “skinny” clothes are probably a thing of the past if you haven’t been able to fit into them for a few years…

Office:

Virginia Woolf was right—you need a room of your own, even it’s in an eave, or a closet under a stairway, or (if you’re lucky enough) a whole studio over your garage, or an unoccupied bedroom, or a renovated garden shed.  Claim space for yourself!

• Don’t allow people to come and go without knocking.
• If you have children, always have an available chair in it for them. It’s important to have your own space, but it’s also important that they know that your work does not take away your motherhood.
• This one is really really important: Whatever it is that you do in that office, whether it’s a vocation or avocation, make sure it’s something you love. NOT something that you are necessarily good at. If you happen to be good at what you love, then that’s a bonus, but not a rule!

Outside:
• Have a communal outdoor space that feels like a room in your house, but isn’t exactly…like: A screened porch, fire escape, hammock, hot tub, front stoop, garden or terrace. It doesn’t have to be big. Just a place where you sit at least once every few days and dream a little.

A few extra extras:
• Write handwritten notes on nice stationary to people you love. That’s where the stamp comes in…
• Try not to kill bugs. If they’re inside, put a mason jar over them and take them outside. They do elegant things like lick the wax off the peony buds so that they can bloom. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.) (Mice are a different story. If you’ve had one die in the walls, you’ll know what I mean.)
• Practice Yes and Possibility instead of No and Not Possible. Positive begets positive and negative begets negative. You don’t want the latter.
• Have fun, for crying out loud! Life is beautiful and heartbreaking any way you slice it so you might as well enjoy the ride!
• There is no such thing as cool.
• Judge not.
• Don’t mistake a full schedule for a full life. If you find yourself saying, “There’s never a dull moment,” you should probably make it a goal to have at least one “dull moment” every day.
• Take walks. (especially in the rain)
• Sing.
• Dance.
• Read poetry.
• Have dogs.
• Grow a garden.
• Travel.
• Create the sacred wherever you are.
• Be kind to old people and remember they know a lot more than you do. Ask them to tell you their stories.
• Know that there are saints everywhere. Look for them. They’re often where you least expect it.
Call your mother. Texting is a challenge since she can never find her reading glasses. Plus, she likes to hear your voice. It reminds her of lying in bed with you when you were little, reading books, singing, praying, watching the moon, dreaming. And she loves you no matter what, which is hard to find.
DRINK WATER

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