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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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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, 

Click here ! 

MISA

 

 

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Ask Your Mother

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Well it’s Mother’s Day. I am ever aware of how grateful I am for mine, and for the honor of being a mother too.  Not everyone feels so great on this day.  I have a hard time on Father’s Day.  But for all of you, no matter what…there are people you love, who are older than you, and who have inspired you.  Here’s a list of questions that bring out a lot in those people.  We are honored to have the answers of my mother, and two mothers of Haven Writing Retreat alums HERE!  Pour a cup of tea on this fine morning, read, enjoy, and learn.  It’s all about the questions, after all.  (list of questions at the end)

Love,

Laura

Questions to Ask Your Mother:

Virgina 

1)    What would you like your descendants to know about you?

My whole life I’ve felt secure.  I’ve been very lucky.  Not everybody has had wonderful parents, and two wonderful marriages.

2)    What excites you?

I like the feeling of performing and meeting people’s expectations, whether it was my mother, or my teachers.

3)    What is your idea of a perfect day, from any time in your life?

I was twelve and it was my birthday, and my mother and father gave me a watch and a hay ride for my birthday party, and that stands out as one of my most favorite days. In Glenview, IL.  A gold watch—with a little black band—made out of a twisted woven sort of material.  A HAY RIDE IS SUCH FUN!  AND IT WAS A SURPRISE!  That was 74 years ago!

4)    If you could ask your mother or father one question, what would it be?

I have a genealogical question I would ask them:  Who was Seth Aldrich’s father? (Spencer, MA—married Mary Knight (Holly), married in 1804, and had Jefferson, who had William Elliot, who had Hilan Duane, who had Jefferson Elliot, who had me.

5)    When they say, “don’t sweat the small stuff,” what specific small stuff should I not sweat?

You should sweat the small stuff.  I’m a perfectionist.  And I haven’t changed what I want to be perfect in my life.

6)    What are some things you spent a lot of time on in your life that in hind-sight weren’t worth it?

Nothing.

7)    What is your favorite swear word?

shistervonboodlebottom

8)    What should I look for in a friend?

You want someone you can trust, who is loyal, who loves you, and has your best interests at heart, and who would never want to hurt you, and who cares deeply about you.  And there are not many people like that.  You’re lucky if you have three friends in your life, who you would do anything for and they’d do anything for you and you’d stop your life for them.  They remember my anniversary, and details, and they care.

9)    What should people look for in a partner?

Someone who has a belief in God, and who you can trust.

10) What is your advice on marriage?

Marry someone that you can trust.  Who you know adores you and you adore them.  Who you would do anything for and they would do anything for you.  And they would make the effort to make sure it lasts forever, and would never do anything to hurt you.  Someone you admire and respect.  You have to give all of yourself—you marry someone for better for worse, and you don’t give up.

11) What is your advice on aging?

Try and take care of yourself, exercise, be more flexible, because things don’t go the way you wished as you age.

12) When in your life have you been most happy?

Being married to your father.  I loved when he walked through the door.  I adored your father.  Just to see him and be with him, knowing he loved me, and he’d change his clothes and take the kids, and have dinner, and go outside and garden.  I could count on him.  I could trust him.  He would take care of those topiary trees.  He was always working to make sure that things were just perfect.  All of our friends hired gardeners and we never did.

13) What is the value of school?

To learn all that you can to help you in life later on.  Two examples:

In 7th grade, Miss Lawrence who was very demanding, and was my English teacher.  I felt challenged and supported by her.

There was a woman at Bennett name Miss Cody, and also expected you to do the best you could do.  She scared the hell out of me.  I wanted to do what she wanted me to do.

14) What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Knowing all that I have to do.  I’m a day person.  My friends say that I do five times what they do in a day, so I have to get up early to accomplish it all.

15) What is your advice to parents:

Make sure that as parents, you are honest with each other and in good communication.  And are a united force.

16) What is your advice on money?  Save it or spend it or a little of both?

Be as wise as you can be about how you spend your money, but knowing that you’re not going to live forever, you might as well do what you want and travel.  I try not to order the most expensive thing on the menu.  Know how much money you have.  You don’t want to be in debt.  We were never trust fund children, so we had to borrow money.  That’s why I started my business so I could make extra money to support us. I might not have started my business if I had more money.

17) What are three places I must see on this planet?

Israel—knowing that Jesus was there

Thailand—so exotic

Africa—looking at all the animals free and in the wild

Nepal—rode elephants to look for tigers

Loved going to Norway and all the Fjords

Alaska—islands

India was too dirty.  Liked Agra.

18) What are some words to live by?

Be honest.  Do your best.  Be all that you can be.  Be kind to others.

19) What makes me special?

You’re able to support your family, be everything for your family, and you work so hard and you are amazing and I don’t know anyone who can do all that you do.  I don’t know when you sleep.

20) When I am your age, what should I strive for?

To be somebody who people respect, and to have done the best job you knew how to do.  Your father used to say that on my gravestone it should read, “At least she tried.”

21) What are your hopes for this planet?

That we never have war.  That we have peace.  That people will love each other.  And we can be environmentally safe.

22) What would you like your legacy to be?

To have people remember me with love.  And that I was the keeper of memories.  I had a different color photo album for each child.  I didn’t put your photos in a shoebox.  I tried!

23) When you get to the Pearly Gates, what will you say to God?

I hope I’m worthy to be here.

Haven Writing Retreat Alum, Kim Smith’s mother:  Madalenne 

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1) What would you like your descendants to know about you?
That I was loving, kind, and generous. Unless you’re giving me bad service – then I’m a bit of a pill. But, otherwise, loving, kind, and generous.
2) What excites you?
Projects and challenges! Keeping busy and staying productive is so important - there’s really no age at which that doesn’t hold true. I’m currently the volunteer librarian at a local Catholic high school, and am thoroughly enjoying putting their library and their textbook dispensary in order. The Dewey Decimal System is a thing of beauty!
3) What is your idea of a perfect day, from any time in your life?
The first time I became a mother is the closest thing to a perfect day in my life that I can recall.
4) If you could ask your mother or father one question, what would it be?
“Can you please tell me the details of your family history?”
5) When they say, “don’t sweat the small stuff,” what specific small stuff should I not sweat?
Someone else’s idiosyncrasies! Remember that you, too, have idiosyncrasies, and that you cannot change someone else’s behavior – it’s a waste of precious energy to try. So, as the young folks say “Just chill!”
6) What are some things you spent a lot of time on in your life that in hind-sight weren’t worth it?
Trying to change someone else’s idiosyncrasies!
7) What is your favorite swear word?
While I may, or may not, have used the colloquial word for bull feces once or twice in my life, my “go-to” expletive is “numb nuts!”
8) What should I look for in a friend?
The best friends possess a magical combination of kindness, loyalty, intelligence, and good humor. When you find them, do all you can to cherish them and keep them close. They, along with your children, are life’s great treasures.
9) What should people look for in a partner?
Love. Generosity. Fidelity. Shared interests and goals. A sense of humor.
10) What is your advice on aging?
Keep your sense of humor (are you sensing a theme?!). Stay busy. Stay loving and caring, and focus, as best you can, on your blessings, and not your burdens. Choose happiness.
11) When in your life have you been most happy?
Having lived a life rich with happiness – in both small moments of quiet joy and of overwhelming bliss – I cannot isolate any particular time or year, and call it my happiest. Having said that, the years we spent on Chicago’s North Shore, raising our children, being involved in rugby (and so many other things), and making lifelong friends, was a very special time for me.
12) What is the value of school?
The value of education is incalculable. If you aim to be a happy and productive human, capable of enriching the lives of others, get thee to school! The best education inculcates not only knowledge, but also character, compassion, and integrity. And NEVER stop learning. Never, never, never.
13) What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Prayers, projects, and challenges. Also, cortisone shots and a not-insignificant amount of Motrin.
14) What is your advice to parents?
Demonstrate, every day in every way possible, the following qualities: love, positive communication, thoughtfulness, compassion, patience. Be kind and respectful to everyone you come in contact with, and there is a far greater chance that your children will grow up to be kind and accepting as well. Remember…they are always watching you, always listening to you. Show them the kind of person you’d hope them to be.
15) What is your advice on money? Save it or spend it or a little of both?
Are you joking?! I am the last person anyone should seek financial advice from.
16) What are three places I must see on this planet?
Oxford, Florence, St. Petersburg.
17) What are some words to live by?
“Nothing is worth more than this day.”
18) What makes me special?
The inner beauty you have always possessed. Your kindness and thoughtfulness. Your intuitive understanding of family, friends, and associates, that enriches them all.
19) When I am your age, what should I strive for?
Humor. Activity. Acceptance. Serenity!
20) What are your hopes for this planet?
The return of the Messiah. This is what I devoutly wish for this troubled, wonderful, singular planet of ours.
21) What would you like your legacy to be?
My legacy is a living one…the jewels in my crown, my extraordinary children, Kim, Paige, and Richard, who have already made this world, and the many lives they’ve touched, a better place.
22) When you get to the Pearly Gates, what will you say to God?
At Last!
Haven Writing Retreat Alum Cathy Kenworthy’s mother-in-law, Lucille

1.  I would like my descendants to know I love them more than anything in the world.
2.  What excites me – A good Symphony or Opera
3.  One Mother’s Day with my Mother and three children in a little mountain town. And my 75th Birthday in NY.
4.  If I could ask my mother or father one question what would that be? Do you wish you had had more than two children?
5.  Don’t sweat what you cannot change.lucille_in_maine
6.  In hindsight I would not be jealous – ever.
7   My favorite swear word is s___.   Sorry about that.
8.  In a friend I demand loyalty.
9.  In a partner – same thing but unconditional love.
10.  On aging – enjoy the benefits, forget the tribulations.
11.  I was most happy when my three children were in their teens.
12.  I don’t know what I would do without school.  I enjoy learning.
13.  Time of the day gets me out of bed in the morning.
14   Advice to parents – Know what is going on with your children and care about it.
15.  Advice on money – spend it!
16.  Two of the places I must see on this planet I have already seen – Italy, Great Britain. Would like Galapagos.
17.  Words to live by – Golden Rule.
18.  What makes you special:  There are many things– you are exceptional.  Bright, beautiful, caring.
19   At my age – don’t change what you are striving for – same as what you are striving for now.
20.  My hopes for this planet – environmentally in much better shape than it is now.
21.  What I like my legacy to be – a happy family.
22.  When I get to the Pearly Gates I will say I am so glad to have made it there – instead of the other place.

THE QUESTIONS.  Call your mother today if you can.  Ask her some of these questions.  Cherish the moment.  Keep the answers.  And if your mother isn’t available, ask someone else’s mother, or mother-in-law, or your father, or an elder in your world.  It’s a gift to them too.

1)    What would you like your descendants to know about you?

2)    What excites you?

3)    What is your idea of a perfect day, from any time in your life?

4)    If you could ask your mother or father one question, what would it be?

5)    When they say, “don’t sweat the small stuff,” what specific small stuff should I not sweat?

6)    What are some things you spent a lot of time on in your life that in hind-sight weren’t worth it?

7)    What is your favorite swear word?

8)    What should I look for in a friend?

9)    What should people look for in a partner?

10) What is your advice on aging?

11) When in your life have you been most happy?

12) What is the value of school?

13) What gets you out of bed in the morning?

14) What is your advice to parents?

15) What is your advice on money?  Save it or spend it or a little of both?

16) What are three places I must see on this planet?

17) What are some words to live by?

18) What makes me special?

19) When I am your age, what should I strive for?

20) What are your hopes for this planet?

21) What would you like your legacy to be?

22) When you get to the Pearly Gates, what will you say to God?

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!

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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.

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
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Stop Trying: The Holiday Spirit Cure

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…

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
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October 24-28

Every year at this time I start to surge with mild panic.  It’s not about the presents.  I buy and make gifts for people throughout the year so that my pocketbook can weather the inherent extra spending of the season. No, the panic is about this thing called Holiday Spirit.  I want to feel it in my bones.  I want to feel it in the way I smile at a stranger in the street and the way that stranger smiles back.  We know something:  we still believe in Wonder.  The proverbial “they” say that it’s in the little things, the in-between moments, the pauses.  The snowy walk.  The lit candle.  The Christmas cookies you place in your neighbor’s mailbox.  When I wrote this blog post six years ago, I wasn’t so sure about this being true.  I was still in the height of my fulltime house-and-child-keeping, traditional-torch-bearing motherhood.  Things have quieted down in that regard, with a daughter in college and my son on his way next fall.  I’ve given up a lot.  I’ve taken the heat off the high burner in more ways than one.  I’ve let go of so many things I used to think were mandatory in order to have a meaningful holiday season.  I read the words of this woman from six years ago, and want to say to her, “You’ve got the right idea.  Keep going.  Keep practicing.  It’s all going to be okay.  You’re going to learn how to feel that holiday spirit in your bones without even having to try.  You’re going to learn in these next years how to allow the season to give itself to you.  You’re going to learn how to not try.  In fact, not trying is exactly how it happens.  You can not try all the way through writing holiday cards, getting the tree and decorating it, wrapping gifts, cooking the roast beast, and gathering friends fireside.  So to the woman I was six years ago, and to all of you, and to myself still, I say:  have a Wonder-ful Holiday season.

I have had my share of Christmas trees fall down in my forty-five years. Lost balloons. Fallen souffles. Cancelled flights. Burnt toast. Tough meat. Lemon cars. I wouldn’t call myself unlucky. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I can say that the butterflies of Christmases past have sort of flown the coop. In the last few years, I’ve mildly dreaded the Holiday season for all its glut and Amazon boxes and blow-up Costco snowmen and braggadocio holiday cards with “perfect” families in matching white linen on a beach…only for it all to end in a hemorrhage of ribbons and bows and tape and wrapping paper, kicked into the mudroom and eventually burned.

I miss the little girl in me that used to sit in her window seat and gaze at the moonlit snow– who knew a holy night when she saw one. I’ve become resentful somehow of Christmas. In other words, I’d like to punch the Kay Jewelers people in the throat. It begins with the manic Black Friday and ends in buyers’ remorse and an overheated living room full of things you thought for a few weeks you couldn’t live without and turns out…you could. For a holiday that is supposed to be about love and wonder incarnate and stopping to honor it, I’m with Charlie Brown–Christmas has gone berserk. Mostly what I’ve come to resent is the expectation.

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This year I’ve decided to rethink Christmas altogether. I don’t need to bully myself into feeling “the Christmas spirit.” It doesn’t need to be a season that erases pain and promises much of anything. It can be whatever it needs to be this year. I want to go lightly and untraditionally. I want to see if Christmas comes without ribbons and bows, Grinch-style. I got It’s A Wonderful Life over with last week. It’s just not going to be like that. We’ll fight over the Christmas tree. Ornaments will break. Somebody won’t get the latest in technology they’ve been begging for. Somebody will forget a God-child’s gift. In fact, this year, so far, I’ve done it all “wrong.” It’s the 12th and I haven’t bought one gift. I didn’t plan a Christmas photo shoot– in fact, our card shows the four of us with greasy hair standing on a marginally frozen lake, taken by a complete stranger. I didn’t get my paper whites forced so we’ll have those beloved white blooms in time for Valentine’s day. We’re not having our sledding party– we can’t afford it. There’s no snow on the ground anyway. And yesterday, the tree fell over.

I used to do it all so well. Year after year. A Dickens-worthy Christmas party with a half mile of luminaria lovingly leading our guests up our snowy driveway. Live music and caroling and roast beasts laid out in my grandmother’s best china and silver on the diningroom table. Handmade cedar garlands splayed on the mantle, the olive wood creche placed lovingly in its branches. Pepper berries dripping from the crystal chandelier. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters cued up for the kids’ race down the stairs, all filmed with a fully charged movie camera. Santa had special wrapping paper. My father’s 1925 Lionel train ran around the dining room while we read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Visitor. Gingerbread houses. Cookies from scratch with marbled icing. Neighborhood gifts (usually homemade jam) delivered by Flexible Flyer and smiling children in hand knit hats. Sing-along Messiah. It all sounds exhausting to me this year. Maybe those butterflies will come anyway. But I’m not forcing them to.

I’m just going to let Christmas carry me this year. Quietly. Little moments in pjs. A walk in the woods with the dogs, even if no one wants to come with me. I’m making CDs for people. That’s about it. Sorry if you’re on my list. In fact yesterday when my son and I were making Christmas cookies, we got so giddy we started using the spare dough around the cookie cutters and baking those random shapes too. So along with our Santas and stars and gingerbread men, we made cookies that look a lot like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and alligators. We almost wet our pants we were laughing so hard.

That’s what I want this Christmas to be. That’s my expectation: to expect nothing. And to trust that grace happens when we least expect it.

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Thanksgiving Gravy Haven

17212146_10154113844731266_1738394229619340222_oNow 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!

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
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October 3-7 & October 24-28

Well, Thanksgiving is almost here and many of us fear the  gravy.  Fear NOT!  You don’t need flour.  You don’t need to reduce anything.  And for heaven’s sake, you don’t need some powdered packet from the grocery store.  I have been playing around with my gravy for years, and this is where I’ve landed.  It’s a commitment, but you will be having “some turkey with your gravy” by the time you take your first taste.  Enjoy, and remember to tell the people you’re with on this holiday what you appreciate about them.  And stay off politics!!!!!!!

Laura’s 20 years-in-the-making Delicious Coveted and Begged-for Turkey Gravy Recipe

(Not heart smart, but who cares.  It’s one or two meals a year!)

The secret to this liquid gold requires some prep time but it pays off.  Oh, does it pay off.  The idea is this:  you dice an abundance of vegetables and line the roasting pan with them, cover with a rack and rest the turkey on the rack so that the juices drip into the vegetables during the cooking process.  Then, while the turkey is resting, you puree the entirety of the pan ingredients, grease and all, in a blender, and that is your gravy thickener!  It should be illegal.  The base is your reduced giblet stock.  It’s so easy and no stress and no raw flour ick and no corn starch yuck, and no intimidating de-glazing and no gizmo-dependent grease/juice separating… I’m telling you.  It’s the BEST.  Don’t be intimidated by the prep work.  I chop all the vegetables for the pan and for the stock the night before and put them in respective zip-loc bags so that Thanksgiving morning, I don’t have to do any more chopping than necessary for other preparations, like stuffing etc.  I strongly recommend this.  I never used to do this, and always was stymied by how long it takes to do this prep the morning of.  Cuts down your turkey morning prep by an hour!

Lining the Pan with your root vegetable gravy thickener...mmmm.  GOLD!

Ingredients for roasting pan:  (if you do this the night before, put all of the vegetable out-takes (see parenthesis below) into a zip-loc bag for your giblet stock, so that you have 2 ziplocs– one for stock, one for pan)

Peel and dice:

1 Turnip

1 Rutabaga

1 Parsnip

2 Carrots (use the ends plus another carrot for giblet stock)

4 Yukon Gold Potatoes

Celery stalks (use the outer tougher stalks for giblet stock)

2 Shallot cloves

2 Garlic cloves

1 Leek (use the white part, and some of the green.  Wash and reserve the tougher top greens for giblet stock)

1 yellow Onion

4 crimini Mushrooms (reserve the stems for giblet stock)

1 cup chopped (Yep):  Parsley (Italian flat leaf), Sage, Rosemary and Thyme—fresh (use the stems/twigs for giblet stock)

1 stick Butter

1 cup dry white Wine

Ingredients for final touches:

Madeira

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Liquid:

  • Melt butter in small saucepan and add white wine.  Turn off heat once combined.

Lining your roasting pan:  (gravy gold)

  • Dump the diced veggies into the roasting pan.
  • Pour a cup or so of the warm butter and wine mixture from stove.  Salt/pepper.
  • Stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula so that all the veggies are coated. (you don’t want them to dry out during the cooking process, so remember to baste them as well as the bird)
  • Add any additional chopped herbs.  This should coat the pan about an inch thick. 
  • Put the rack on top of this, flat.
  • Put turkey on top and cover with additional butter wine, salt and pepper
Bird stuffed, racked, seasoned, ready to shed its love on its veggies below...
Bird stuffed, racked, seasoned, ready to shed its love on its veggies below…
Giblet stock for gravy base
Giblet stock for gravy base

Giblet Stock:

Ingredients:  (Don’t cheat and use canned broth.  This stock has a very specific flavor and makes the gravy sooooooo good)

Giblets (The gross stuff in the turkey cavity, but get over it.  Your hand is in a turkey cavity!  That’s already gross.)

1 tbs. olive oil

Whole pepper corns

Out-takes from all of the above vegetables and herbs (described in parenthesis above.  Best to put them in zip-loc bags while dicing the rest for the roasting pan the night before, to make prep time faster on Thanksgiving morning.)

Additional sprigs of rosemary and thyme, roughly chopped, stems/twigs included

1 garlic clove– crushed

1 medium yellow onion quartered

1 Yukon gold potato quartered

  • Heat a large saucepan, add olive oil, not butter—too greasy.  When hot, put in the liver.  This needs to be cooked through first.  Then deglaze the pan with Madeira—1/8 cup or so.  This stuff has a lot of flavor and you don’t want it to overwhelm, but it’s perfect for this feast.  Let it cook down—you don’t want the next ingredients to stew in pan, but to sear like the liver seared.  (you might have to add a bit of olive oil again to give it something to cook in)
  • Add the neck and other organs—brown
  • Now add the veggie out-takes plus the additional veggies/herbs described above.
  • Cover with water, a cup of wine, and add a few tablespoonsful of whole peppercorns and a few bay leaves.
  • The trick to any stock is to bring it to a boil, and then drop the heat down so that it is just simmering.  This is going to simmer all
    day.  If it gets too low, then add more water.  Taste it as it cooks to make sure the flavors are coming along.  Add salt/pepper to taste.
  • Keep to about 8 cups total

Gravy:  (drum roll…HERE IT IS!!!  My very own special, time-evolved gravy recipe!)

  • When the turkey is done, remove from the rack and let rest, covered in foil.
  • Remove the rack and put all the pan-liner veggies/fluids in a blender and puree
  • Put a large bowl (preferably one with a pouring spout) in the sink with a colander on top of it.
  • Strain the giblet stock.
  • Pour the stock into a small/medium saucepan—should be about 8 cups of stock
  • Add 3 tbs. or so of Madeira and lots of fresh ground pepper (a tbs. or so)
  • Cook down for a few minutes.
  • Now grab your whisk, and whisk in the puree, little by little until you get the right consistency. 
    Swimming in turkey goodness.  Now for the blender...
    Swimming in turkey goodness. Now for the blender…
    Veggies from roasting pan to blender-- pureed heaven
    Veggies from roasting pan to blender– pureed heaven

It is absolute magic and you never need any flour or anything else for thickener!!!  Secret shared!  Now pass it on to future generations!  Say you learned it from an old friend who wrote.

 

And here...it...is!
And here…it…is!
Gravy happiness.  Happy cooking to all!  May you share it with loved ones!
Gravy happiness. Happy cooking to all! May you share it with loved ones!

 

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Holidays Re-invented: A Spoon Funeral

Processed with VSCO with b1 presetHolidays are my haven, and not for reasons you’d imagine.  Sure, as a child it began with We Gather Together, and the Macy’s Day Parade, Santa Claus, and presents, and lunch under the Christmas tree at Marshall Fields, gingerbreadmen and sugar cookie iced snowflakes, listening to Bing Crosby by the fire and dreaming into the bright colored bulbs with blurred eyes—so that it all looked like a jewel-toned menagerie of the ultimate Christmas kiss.  That was all yes, magic.  But to me, the haven of it was in the people the holidays brought home.  Holidays meant that my people came back.  My sister and brother back from school.  Relatives in rooms we never used.  The living room and dining room came alive.  The house was full.  We were “the whole family.”

We prepared for those who would come, with those who came before them.  My mother would let me set the table with her grandmother’s soup porringers and aspic plates with gold edges framing forget-me-nots and cabbage roses.  She’d open cupboards that hung dormant all year until Thanksgiving, through to New Years, and pull shiny things from their shelves:

“These were your father’s mother’s Steuben crystal Teardrop Trumpet goblets.  Your grandfather gave these to her as a special Christmas gift in the 1930s.  They were farm people.  I’m sure he didn’t give her much at their wedding.  But by then he was the head engineer of a corn syrup factory.  Each of these is worth at least $150 a piece.  I’m not sure she ever used them.”  She’d hold each one like a tiny bird and wipe their rims with a soft cloth before she set them on the dining room table.

I wanted to touch them, but I didn’t dare.  She’d never let me get near them, but she would let me set out Aunt Eleanor’s silver.  I memorized the words she assigned to it:  Towle.  Old Georgian pattern from the 1800s, with ionic columns and rosebud wreaths.  My favorites were the teaspoons, with the roses running around the back of the spoon’s head.  I’d run my fingers over them and feel transported into other days before television and cars and airplanes that took big sisters and brothers away to boarding school and college, and fathers away on business trips.  The laying out of these shiny things meant that we’d be together around this table, our faces dancing in candlelight, the silver and china and crystal reflecting it all back.  The chandelier sending spectrums of starlight back down over us.  I watched a lot of faces in those spoons.IMG_9358

So for a long time, after I inherited these things, I kept them locked in a china cabinet, or hidden in boxes in eaves.  Then with our children still small, we built a house.  I fought for a dining room.  “We’ll be the family that uses it.  I promise!  We’ll have countless dinner parties and holiday soirees.”  And we did.  And I’d bring the shiny things out beforehand, telling my children the same stories, naming the names and wiping down these delicate surfaces as my mothers and mothers before me had, as I placed them on the table.

And then everything changed.

The man sitting at the head of the table no longer sat there, and I was thinking more about what I’d have to sell in order to keep the house, never mind what to put on the table.  There was a day when I stood in front of this china cabinet and thought, “They’d want me to sell that Steuben.  Wouldn’t they?  They’re resourceful farm people.  They’d want me to make my mortgage with their crystal.  Wouldn’t they?  I’ll become an Ebay wizard.  I’ll sell all of this stuff, even though every piece of it brings me back to my peopled world.”  Where I felt safe, and protected, loved and special.  That feeling was inside me, wasn’t it?  The three of us would still gather together.  It just wouldn’t be with two hundred year old plates that came to Illinois in a covered wagon during the Homestead Act, and then to Montana when my parents’ sold their home of forty-five years.  It just wouldn’t mean that we ate our turkey with the Towle, or stirred honey into our tea with the silver that was dug underground before the Yankees raided our ancestral home in Camden, Arkansas during the Civil War.  Aunt Eleanor’s rose-clad ionic columns would hold another hand steady in another room somewhere.  The shiny things would become our eyes dancing off of each other, not off of silver spoons.  And that would be okay.  My ancestors were house people.  They’d want me to do everything I could to keep it.

So one day when the kids were at school, I went into every eave, the attic, the dormant cabinets, took it all out, and splayed it on the dining room table.  My family story in shiny things.  I wanted to shake with silent wails.  But I shook it off instead.  I had to stop seeing these things for their stories and their people.  These were just things, after all.  Weren’t they?

I couldn’t think about it.  I had work to do.  I started to research the cost of it all.  Nine crystal bowls for my wedding that I’d never used?  Those would be the first things to go.  Actually, all of my wedding china and crystal and silver—that hurt me the most.  It had been chosen with such hope, such belief in the future.  Part of that future came.  Most of it didn’t.  I’d been saving my wedding china for the part that didn’t.  Most of the parties we’d had weren’t formal.  They happened around bonfires and in the living room with mugs of hot cider and breakable risks in semi-shiny things.

“I should save it for the kids,” I thought.  But how sick was that.  They’d be better off with the china and silver and crystal from the parents whose marriages lasted, and whose tables were peopled in the way they’d set out to create.  “I’ll sell the wedding china.  And the crystal.  That’ll take care of another mortgage payment until I can get on my feet.”

Processed with VSCO with b5 presetBut when I got to Aunt Eleanor’s silver, the ionic columns and the rose wreaths, I ran my finger over the back of the spoon head, and sighed.  Aunt Eleanor hadn’t had children.  Aunt Eleanor had given me my first Emily Dickinson.  Aunt Eleanor had travelled the world and taught me to love stories of the finer things.  And she had passed these down to me, along with a farm—the original Homestead.  I owned those two things.  And I decided then that I would not sell them.  They were the comfort, the security of my people, long gone, but still dancing in these spoons if I looked closely enough, if I looked in just the right way.

It turned out that didn’t sell any of it.  I asked myself a different question, instead:  “what do I know how to do that I can monetize without selling my legacy?”  And I gave myself permission to create a business out of what I’d spent my adult life mastering—and started facilitating people’s creative self-expression by using what had sustained me all my life:  the written word.  Out of the ashes, as it were, rose Haven Writing Retreats.  So it makes sense then, that I use my shiny, storied things on my retreats.  New people around this table, lips to Steuben as they tell their stories, real and imagined.  Lifting my homemade food to their mouths with my Aunt Eleanor’s Towle as they think-tank their books and characters.  Share about their process and projects– new faces spinning in the silver, refracted by the chandelier that hangs above us.  The dining room is alive again!

But on my last retreat, ‘tis true:  a spoon was lost.  A Towle teaspoon.  I’m sure it was an honest mistake.  My mother used to count her silver after a dinner party, and often ended up rifling through the garbage in search of lost silverware.  I found myself doing the same that night, after all the candles were blown out and the good day spent from word play and the people too for the same reason.  Alas, no spoon.

And there was a time when I think I would have cried about it.  Bemoaned this loss.  Felt less secure because of it.  Or like an irresponsible person who shouldn’t be handling the shiny things, no matter what her age.  My mind parading with, I should have left them in the shiny suburbs of Chicago where they would have survived.  Not my Montana life, which came with a bit of country road dust on it.  There was a time that I might have just given it a damn…spoon funeral.  I’m not kidding.  You’d give your goldfish a funeral, wouldn’t you?

But it wasn’t that way at all.

Instead, I took in a short breath and a shorter sigh.  One less spoon.  If I could fill my dining room with such brilliant minds and open hearts and a spate of candlelight flickering off smiles and so many glittering surfaces, it was worth losing a piece of shiny something every time until there was nothing left.  Because what matters is what is gathered:  the people.  The people.  The elegance:  their minds.  Their hearts.Processed with VSCO with b5 preset

So this holiday season, my children and I will gather with yes, our shiny things, less a spoon.  But this year, it all won’t be so cold and dusty and faraway when we bring it to the table.  It will be recently used.  Maybe a little tarnished from being out in the air.  And maybe even chipped or without their perfect placing.  But they will hold new stories.  New people.  New hope.  New future.

A spoon funeral?  The funeral that the spoon inspired was instead for my old life.  And it came with no great pageantry.  Rather, a short sigh.  Because three out of four of us are where we are used to being for the holidays.  We are grateful.  We are blessed.  We are family.  Shiny things or not.

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!

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 3-7 & October 24-28

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Mother’s Day

(as featured on BlogHer)

Give your mother, your daughter, yourSELF the gift of  a Haven Writing Retreat!  

Now Booking 2017

June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 18-22

The other day I was wondering about my great-grandmother and the land she came to Illinois to Homestead with her husband and eight kids.  I have a photograph of the family in my office, all seated in their finest clothes around a buffalo hide rug.  Mid 1800s.  She looks like she could kick your ass if you were good enough for an ass kicking.  If not, she’d just turn her boney Yankee shoulder to you and you would understand for the first time what it is to be on the receiving end of disdain.  I wanted to know about my mothers. Especially this one.  I wanted to know what she was like outside this photo.  If she had a soft side.  I was wondering about the farm she’d left in Manchester, Vermont.  If she ever looked back.  And I was wondering about the china tea set that somehow made it to my china cabinet in Montana a hundred and fifty plus years later, along with a caned birds-eye maple chair…and if she’d like me to use them more often, or take care of them differently, or better yet, I wanted to know the story about them.  How she chose what she chose to make her covered wagon crossing from Vermont to Illinois.  I was wondering how I can serve her memory.  Mostly, I was wondering if I have her in me.  If I can look at my life like chapters instead of a tower of blocks that add up to some sort of art in the end.

So I called my mother.

My father is dead. This was his side of the family.  But my mother is the sort of person to marry it all—not just the man.  I’ve traipsed through cemeteries all over New England and Illinois with my mother in search of my ancestors’ resting places on both sides of the family.  She calls us “cemetery people.”  I never knew what that meant.  Now, in middle age, I think I do.  It means that we hold our deceased in story and artifacts and we don’t let them go.  We firmly believe that we need them.  We believe that they are in our lives holding us from a mystic zone that might be called Heaven.  (We are also Heaven people.)  My mother actually prays for our deceased ones.  And asks them to protect us.  Like we go God both ways.

“They left in a covered wagon for central Illinois because the land was rich and they didn’t rotate their crops in Vermont so the soil wasn’t any good,” she rattles off like a memorized soliloquy from the phone between bridge and altar guild.  “I have some of their letters if you want me to Xerox them and send them to you.”

And suddenly I am in a panic.  She’s in her 80s.  She’s vibrant and frankly looks better than I do after a rough Montana winter…but like she says, “Nobody cares about you quite like your mother.”

She’s always telling me how sad it is for her, an only child, to accomplish or experience or suffer something, and not be able to call her parents anymore.

“They thought I could do no wrong.”

Suddenly, I am imagining that day for myself and I dread it.  It will be a claustrophobic feeling:  I need my mother.  She’s not here.  There is quite possibly no one who has the answer to my question left on earth.  There is quite possibly no one who cares about my little story or my little panic or my little woe.  Who do I call?  A friend?  It would sound too needy or too braggadocio.  A child?  Children shouldn’t bear your emotional burdens.  After your parents pass…who is strong for you?

I called her the other day to find out about my great-grandmother, and ended up learning all about my mother.  I asked her questions instead of just monologuing about my life and my victories and problems.

She talked about the view from her bedroom window in Chicago’s Whitehall hotel.  “The Water Tower.  I believed it was my fairy princess castle.”  There is a newspaper clipping I’ve seen of her as a white-gowned debutante with Buckingham fountain behind her and the Chicago skyline.  “Virginia Aldrich has the City of Chicago in the palm of her hand.”  I always loved that my mother was such a beauty.  I haven’t told her that.  There is so much I haven’t told her.  (And I have to add here that when I asked her to send me a photo of her as a young woman…without letting her know what it was for…on top of the fact that she was packing to go to a fundrasier in Washington, she sent me this LOVELY photo of herself.  She is so loyal that she took the time in her nightie which you can see reflected, to do this for me, having no idea what I’m up to.  You can see it in the reflection and that is such a metaphor for who she is to me.  May we all have mothers like this.  Busy, in our nighties, who pull through in the eleventh hour for our daughters and sons…)

So, in honor of my mothers, and Mother’s Day, I’d like to tell her now.

Mom, I love the way you like to dance with abandon.

I love that you are a flirt.

I love that you have a big laugh.

I love that you love to skip.  I am sorry I stopped skipping with you when I was a teenager.

That’s Mom in the bottom left!

I love that you love Gran Marnier soufflé.

I love that you give things up for Lent and stick to it.

I love that you never missed one of my school plays, and even drove the station wagon from Illinois to Connecticut to see me in Guys and Dolls and The Fantastiks.  That would
not have happened without you.  Dad wouldn’t have made that effort.

I love that you always make the effort.

I love that you know what time my flights leave and track them until they land.

I love that you read every single thing I write and I love knowing that you will read this.

I love that you told me to go to Italy for my junior year in college instead of Vienna.  I loved that you cried about it, knowing what cloth I am cut from.

I love that you go to church.  That you value community service and volunteer endlessly.

I love that you have your own business and are good at what you do.

I love that you gave me a solid foundation and did not make crazy in my life.

I love that you don’t watch a lot of TV.

I love that you are a good friend to many.

I love that you aren’t wasteful.

I love that every single time I call you, and ask what you are doing, you give an exhilarated sigh and say what you are doing.  Which is always a lot.

I love that you don’t “sit around and eat bon bons all day” and never would.

I love that you made us read aloud a Bible passage every night at dinner.

I love that you made us say Grace.

I love that you made us wear shoes at the table and learn where all the utensils are supposed to go and to say, “are you finished” instead of “are you done” and taught us to Remove from the right and Serve to the left.

I love that you made us take piano lessons.

I love that you were never late.  Never.  I am usually five minutes late.

I love that you sang to me and read me stories when I was little.

Where all the snapdragons and pansies and pink roses grew.

I love that you had me take horse-back riding lessons but told me that it would be too pressured a life if I got into competing in the horse world.  You were right.  I was not cut out for that kind of pressure.

I love that you framed my childhood art.

I love that you love pink roses and snapdragons and yellow pansies.  I love that you made little arrangements of them and put them on my bedside table.

I love that for someone who sure does know a lot of influential people, you aren’t a snob.

I love that you wear the same sweaters in 2017 that you wore in 1950.

I love that you love yourself.

I love that you love me.

At my hometown book signing– look how happy we are. Wow.

What a class act.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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We Gather Together: or How to Have a Happy Thanksgiving 2016

IMG_0091Thanksgiving is here and families are assembling from all corners of the country.  And unless you come from a family I didn’t know existed, this year brings with it a new challenge, on top of the usual political, religious, sexual, gender, racial, and on and on differences.  This year all of us…ALL of us…experienced something that let’s be honest:  blew us away.  A business man is going to be the 45th president of the United States of America…and it has a lot of people…well, feeling pretty un-united.  This is problematic in too many ways to opine about now, plus I’m probably not smart enough to make any fetching points that haven’t already been made by people like David Remnick and Noam Chomsky.  (Now you know who I voted for.  And why my teenager says, I shouldn’t post this because when you talk about politics, you get “butt hurt” for it.)  I don’t even want to know what that means.  But I am sure:  we all need to find our Thanksgiving gratitude.  So…

I’m not here to talk about politics today.   I’m here to write about something I’m truly worried about for us as a nation:  How to make Thanksgiving work this year.  Really work.  Uh oh…I smell a top ten list coming on.  As you might have noticed, I loathe top ten lists.  But this year…we need to boil some sh** down.  So here goes.  No hate mail please.  I’m trying to help:

1)    Maybe don’t bring up politics or religion AT ALL, and I mean a total moratorium on both of them.  Like even in the family Grace and in the What I’m Grateful For thing.  Talk about the weather.  Talk about the gravy.  Talk about why you love the person sitting next to you.  Talk about the walk you’re going to take after the meal, and on the walk after the meal, don’t talk about anything other than the weather and why you love the person you’re walking with and what you’re going to buy on Black Friday, especially if it’s at your local independantly owned mom and pop shop.  Wait– stay off the homogenization of America theme.  Maybe go back to why you love the person walking next to you and call it good.

2)    Maybe, unless you’re from Cleveland, talk about the Cubs winning the World Series.  And if you are from Cleveland, talk about what a super bitching game it was all the way to the end.

3)    Maybe…be the artsy token weird aunt and say, “Why don’t we take a vow of silence during our meal, in honor of the Pilgrims and how they felt silenced enough to leave their country and fight for their religious freedom.”  Oops.  Axe that.  We’re not bringing up religion or politics, remember.  Or race relations.  Maybe just take a vow of silence.

4)    Maybe ask the host to give you a play by play break down of how she/he cooked the turkey.  If she/he brined…FABULOUS.  This will take up at least ½ an hour of the meal and the pride which he/she deserves will gush.  Gushing joy and pride is a good thing in the way of feeding loved ones.  Let’s raise the rafters on that!  (True to the holiday, we’re going for gratitude.)  If he/she deep fried the bird, you can compliment them on their rogue courage.  If she/he basted every half an hour and made their own giblet gravy, you can take deep bows and call them Martha Stewart.  If you need more content, you can ask them about their position on to stuff or not to stuff.IMG_0097

5)    Maybe play an after meal family game.  Like Pictionary.  Or Scattegories.  Just stay away from Celebrity Apprentice the Board Game, and Bridge.

6)    Maybe decide that this is the year where you truly will put your unconditional love barometer to the test.  Love them all.  Love them especially because they voted for someone you couldn’t stand.  Love them for their differences.  Love them for the conversation that is behind it all:  I need to believe in something.  Everyone is scared.  Voting shows hope.  And that’s what we want in the end:  a hopeful nation.

7)    If you are in grief over the election, find someone who is too and talk to them.  Do it privately in hushed tones.  Is stirring the pot, or even raging at a friend or family member (or some random innocent who was invited last minute) going to help anyone, especially you?

8)    If you are in victory over the election, see #7 and do the same.

9)    Maybe sing Kum-bah-yah and mean it.  It just means Come by Here, which is what you did in trusting sacred traditions and the community of family and friends.  Sing it loud.  Sing it proud.  Sing it because you have the freedom to sing in the first place, no matter who you did or didn’t vote for.  Maybe dust off your old Free to Be You and Me album and sing along!  (maybe skip William Has a Doll)

10) And ten…maybe have a dry Thanksgiving to keep the fight, the right, the wrong, the very ugly out of it.  Or heck, if you’re in MA, CA, OR, WA, NV, or CO, pass a joint around.  Oh wait.  Don’t talk about that either.  Stick to the “this is what I love about you” theme.

May we all enjoy peace this holiday season.  Let love and gratitude show us the way.


IMG_0093Peace and love, (and some humor for crying out loud)

Laura

Are you longing to say what you want to say?  Find your voice?  Haven Writing Retreats is now booking for 2018.  The gift of voice awaits you in the woods of Montana.

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!

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 3-7 & October 24-28

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Laura’s Best Winter “Food for the Muse” Recipes: Pasta Bolognese

While I am taking this time of dormancy to write, and enjoying what Haven Writing Retreats alums are saying about creativity here on my blog, I am also cooking up a storm!  It’s the perfect balance to the act of writing because while characters and stories dwell and grow in my mind, with food creation, there is an immediately met trajectory.  I create it:  people eat it.  Complete creative arc!  We will finish the Haven Winter Blog series this week.  I hope you are enjoying these musings on the creative process.  In the meantime…here is one of my very favorite things to create, perfected over many years of trial and error…never before written down.  From my kitchen to yours!  May it fuel your muse! Buon appetito!

Now Booking the Haven Writing Retreats 2016 Schedule

February 24-28 (one spot left)
June 8-12
June 22-26
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23
Sunday-Pasta-Tagliatelle-alla-Bolognese-2-640

Bolognese Sauce

(with apologies to the people of Bologna– this is an American woman’s best stab at what you do, and will always do, much better than this lowly lover of your cuisine)

I have learned to make this sauce over the years from the family I lived with in Italy, to Italian friends along the way in Chicago and Montana, and by cooking it over and over and becoming its friend, as with all favorite recipes.  It is my go-to happy meal and my family’s too.  Cook it when you need inspiration, when you feel inspired, when you’re in the dumps, when you want to dance in the kitchen for half the day, when you just…need…to…remember what it is to delight in holding beautiful lovingly grown manna in your hands and turning it into a blissful creation.  Sharpen your knives, clear the cutting board and counter, turn on some great music, (perhaps a bit of vino), and let’s go!  I serve this on the first night of my Haven Writing Retreats!  …food for the muse…

Note:  This is for a gallon of sauce!  It will feed a lot of happy people.  You can also freeze it.  I use about a quart for a box of pasta.

To begin:   The Sofrito– which is the base for many Italian sauces and soups

sofrito

Sofrito Ingredients:

2 yellow onions

4 cloves of garlic → 2 tbsp minced

4 cups chopped carrots

2 cups chopped celery

1 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

 

Additional ingredients:

1 6oz can tomato paste

2 cups organic whole milk

2 cups dry white wine

3 28 oz cans of Italian whole plum tomatoes, hand crushed

 

Meat:

4 slices very thick pancetta, cubed

2 lb ground pork (no spices)

1 lb ground beef

 

Step: #1:  Meat

Add olive oil to cover bottom of pot

Let oil heat but not smoke

Add cubed pancetta

Remove pancetta when fat is rendered and brown (should take about 4 minutes) with slotted spoon so the grease stays in the pot — Don’t burn

Add ground pork

Remove with slotted spoon once brown, leave enough grease to coat bottom (note:  you don’t want the meat to stew– you want it to brown, so add each meat so that it touches the bottom of the pan)

Add ground beef

Remove with slotted spoon once brown, leave enough grease to coat bottom (ditto)

Set all meat aside and cover with foil

Step #2: Sofrito (cooking process takes about 20-30 minutes)IMG_0125

Saute onions in pot at medium heat, add large pinch of good salt, [no pepper until end-- makes it bitter]

Once onions are transparent and beginning to brown, add garlic, stir, add carrots

Once carrots begin to stick to the bottom of the pot, add celery and parsley, don’t brown

Cook sofrito until all liquid is absorbed

Step #3:  Combine meat to sofrito, and add liquidsIMG_0135

Add all browned meat and can of tomato paste, cook 10 minutes stirring occasionally to avoid burning

Add milk and wine, let cook ~15 min or until liquids are absorbed and bubbling

Add the crushed tomatoes and remaining juice (I like to do it by hand rather than buying diced tomatoes.  It’s a feel thing.)Pasta Bolognese

Let sauce gently simmer for an hour, adding salt to taste during the processIMG_0141

 

 

 

 

Step #4:  Assembly:

Bring water to a rolling boil in stock pot, add salt

Cook pasta until al dente– This pasta sauce can be served with any hearty pasta.  I like papardelle, penne, and rigatoni the best.


Strain in colander

Add sauce to stock pot and warm on low

Keeping burner on low, add pasta, grated Parmigiano Reggiano to taste (a cup or so), fresh ground pepper to taste, and stir lightly until pasta is coated (this is key, and too many Americans skip this step and pile the sauce on naked noodles.  Bad form!  The sauce never really marries with the pasta.)

Plate and garnish with fresh chopped Italian parsley

Serve additional fresh ground pepper and grated Reggiano for people to add themselves.

YOU WILL HAVE VERY HAPPY PEOPLE AT YOUR TABLE…who will all know that they are eating food made with love.

Enjoy!

yrs.

Laura (and my daughter, Ella, who cooked this with me, took the photos, and recorded the recipe which had never before been written down…and told me a long time ago that my food was “made with love.”  High compliment.)

 

pomodoroNow Booking 2016 Haven Writing Retreats

February 24-28 (one spot left)
June 8-12
June 22-26
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

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