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Long Ago: Community Entry #9

Taking a break from the writing. Reading an old time favorite. "Live the questions." --Rilke

For those of you who have been submitting to and following this “Long Ago:  Community” writing series/contest…I want to thank you.  Your supportive comments and vulnerable stories represent the staples of true community:  support, bravery, creativity, generosity, and the willingness to share. 

As I enter into the next part of my solo writing retreat to work on my novel, it brings me great joy to know that you all are here, holding These Here Hills in my absence.  My Haven Writing Retreat season will soon begin, and I have learned that if we are going to nurture and inspire other people in their self-expression, we have to begin by doing just that for ourselves.  If you are interested in joining me for a retreat, email me at Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com.  June is fast filling.  And August, and September are now booking.  Contest winner for Haven scholarship will be announced soon…  Submissions are closed…  For more info click here.

Please enjoy this nostalgic piece about neighborhood magic by Betsy Nelson!

yrs.

Laura

The House at the End of Belvedere Road, by Betsy Nelson

 

When I was a girl growing up in the 1970’s living in a Texas town near the Louisiana border, I often visited my friend Molly’s house at the end of Belvedere Road.  Most houses on Belvedere were roomy, two-story brick traditional, enveloped by the deep green leaves of sprawling Live Oak trees and angular pine trees. But the very last house on this small-town street was not like the rest.

To begin with, it didn’t look like any of the other houses. The exterior was rough stucco, the color of French Vanilla ice cream.  It was topped off with an aged slate roof that looked like small, uniform waves, or like the curly, hard Christmas candy I found in my stocking each year.

The house was U-shaped, built around a central courtyard, shadowed by the iron balconies that lunged overhead, from the second-story bedrooms.  In the middle of the pebbled courtyard was a trickling fountain with a quirky bronze statue of an owl perched above it.  The image of this mysterious owl at his post, haunted and sometimes comforted me, as I caught glimpses of him on restless nights when I would sleep over.

Upon entering the house through the side door, into the kitchen, I would glance at the simple chalkboard hung on the wall next to the telephone, which was usually ringing or occupied.  Scribbled on the board were chalky messages or funny hand-drawn pictures, chronicling the various comings and goings of a lively family of seven children and their Mom and Dad.  If I was lucky and it was close to dinner when I visited, the kitchen would be filled with the pungent aroma of garlic and onions sautéing in preparation for some fabulous, exotic Southern dish.

Walking through the house on my way to the backyard, I would feel the warm sunlight streaming in through a wall of tall windows, as I passed the pine dining table, where twelve whitewashed, ladder back chairs stood neatly aligned, until the family would arrive and disrupt all order bringing vibrant life to the abandoned scene.

Sliding open the heavy glass doors that led to the expanse of sweet-smelling, green grass and billowy clover with bees hovering above their fragile stalks, I was met by a familiar chorus of gleeful, Southern voices and raucous laughter.  There, a throng of athletic-looking, tow-headed children of various sizes, ages and abilities, encircled a mammoth, jet-black canvas trampoline.  Calling, “Hi!” and “Come On!”, the family and a mélange of neighborhood children, jostled to make room for me there beside them.

Spindly, suntanned arms stretched out to rest on the cushioned rim careful not to get fingers caught in the coiled springs. All heads looked up at the glorified kid of the moment, the one taking his turn jumping on the trampoline.  Some could bounce high and touch their outstretched toes while suspended for a moment in the air.  Some could do flips, bounce up, land cross-legged on the canvas and bounce up again.  Others could do little more than jump shyly and roll onto the ground, holding their sides, aching from too much laughter.  Oblivious to all this, were Queenie and Greta, two silky, steel-gray and snow white, German Shepherd dogs, stretched out grandly on the cool ground in the sphere of shade beneath the mighty trampoline.

When we finished, a few of us might sneak off and clamber up the bare wooden stairs to the steaming, windowless attic of the house, to dig through the Magic Box, a deep, Chinese-red trunk, filled to overflowing with velvety and satin costumes, smelling of old perfume.  Or perhaps, with the late-evening sun beating down, we would climb onto our bikes and take off for the dusty “hills”, a bank of hard-packed dirt, nothing more than the result of a bayou that had been dug alongside the house.  Wheels whirring, our bikes glided up one side and coasted down the other until sunset streaked the sky coral pink and mustard yellow.  Then, reluctantly, we would all say bye to each other, as we would leave to return to our own homes, and anticipate the next time we would be lucky enough to visit this enchanted place on Belvedere Road.

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

Bodhisattva


Meet Bodie. My 14 year old daughter’s bear. She named him on her own at age two. Not knowing anything about Bodhisattva, and if I’ve ever seen an enlightened relationship between one creature and another, it’s with those two. I bought him when she was in utero because my father-in-law gave me some money for shopping, and I was in New York, and I thought, “My God, when am I going to have the dough to buy Steiff for my kid.” I coveted Steiff as a kid. I had one small small lamb that my mother gave me, and it’s one of my prize posessions– house is burning down kind of beloveds. I love those hard, mohair stuffed German animals. Love them. But they’re expensive. So I blew that $$$ in FAO Schwarz and it just so happened that the kid who came out loved/loves that bear. Bodie has been all over the place with us. He’s a well travelled bear.
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So when I picked my daughter up after a week of sleep away camp this summer, she looked at me, about to be a freshman in high school, and said, a plain, impassioned: "Bodie broke."

In my mind it was code for: "My childhood is ending and I'm going to be okay."
Was I okay?
Not really.
Until I saw what she had done with Bodie.
She had packed duct tape. And gauze. All on her own. What 14 year old girl packs duct tape for a week at camp? Mine, turns out. I was so proud.
She and her bunk mate doctored Bodie. And here he is. Maybe in his finest hour. I'm told you can send them back to Germany to be sewn back together. No way. This is what we will go into her teens with. This is Bodie. And he will be our guide.

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Motherhood, My Posts

Roaming in the Groaning

IceFest_011
Roaming in the Groaning by Laura A. Munson

My friend gave me a trout that she caught with her husband, ice fishing.
I asked her to tell me about ice fishing. I was new to Montana. I was bullied by other people’s peak experiences. By their permission to do things like ice fishing. I knew about art museums. Liberal Arts education. And traveling.
She said they go over to Browning where the Indian reservation is, on a lake where the wind blows so hard that when they stand up from the buckets they have been sitting on, the buckets blow away. She said that when there has been a fast freeze and lots of wind, the ice is clear and you can look through and see the reeds and fish below. She said she likes to bring her ice skates and hold her arms out and let the wind push her from behind, across the lake. She said she likes ice fishing because you can go any time of the day. Last night, they couldn’t go to sleep, so they packed up and went out on a nearby lake with their auger, poles, bait, buckets, and a few lanterns. They drilled their holes, sat on their buckets holding their poles, surrounded by lanterns on the frozen lake. They caught two fish. They gave one to me. She said she and her husband like to catch trout in the summer and then pick huckleberries and stuff them inside, wrap them in foil and cook them over their campfire.
“I’ll eat mine tonight with butter and lemon,” I confessed. (Unlike most respectable Montanans, I do not have huckleberries fresh, canned, or even stored in my freezer, because for me, the invitation to go huckleberry picking in the summer conjures up the image of a resounding dinner bell and the phrase Come and get it! In other words, I am afraid of coming face to face with a very hungry, 300 pound, uris horibiles.)
Then I proceeded to tell her that the mere act of getting out of bed to fetch a glass of water in the middle of the night is hard enough for me, much less trekking out into the cold with a fishing pole and an auger.
She smiled at me. She’s heard of people like me. Her mother warned her against people like me. Still, she gave me a trout.
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I know. I know. Too bad for me. Trust me when I tell you that from the minute I laid eyes on this magnificent corner of Montana, I wanted to be the kind of woman who considers herself open to the wild-wonders-that-be. When my friend talked, for instance, I saw the lantern light flickering in her eyes. I saw the wind still at her back. I felt the tug on her pole. The stillness of the night and just her husband and this fish.
But I was not that person. I am still not that person.

I can see it in my child– the wonder of her. The tiny hands arranging colored pencils in a row and telling them a story about bees and skunks. I see it in art. The wonder—the risk– the abandon, played out in dances and canvases, words, songs. I see it in the majestic cathedrals of Europe—the catacombs—the flying buttresses—the stained glass. And true, when I have the courage, I feel it sitting on a rock by a river. I feel it on a sunny day, floating in salty waters just offshore. I feel it walking the dog in the meadow with patches of rain mottled with patches of sun. Looking for full-arch rainbows. Sleeping by the ocean. And still it’s hard for me to get myself out there, even to those quiet places. Sometimes all I have the courage for in Montana, is my own warm bed.

There is a sound here in the Northwest that I hadn’t heard before. It is reminiscent of a bird sound. Or a train whistle. But it is neither. It is the whoop. People whoop. There is pressure here to whoop. To skate the second the lakes freeze, to sleep in your car in the ski mountain parking lot to be sure you get the first run on a powder day, to land the biggest lunker, to bag the biggest buck, to kayak the most rapid rapids, to float the mightiest rivers, to sleep with bears and wolverines and mountain lions and lynx and to call them all Friend. I’d rather be eaten by a grizzly than die in a car accident on the freeway, so sayeth the soothsayers at the local bar, apre-whoop.
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Another friend—a long-time Montanan– gave me an Atlas for a Christmas present one year because he asked me what I wanted and I told him– an Atlas. “I like to travel. I can’t imagine I’ll live here for very long.” He’s that kind of friend—gives me what I want, even when he doesn’t understand.
I held its heft in my lap and looked at him churlishly: “If you could go anywhere, where would you go?” I said.
He looked unimpressed. He said he wasn’t sure that staying right here in Montana was any different in the long run than traveling every page of those pink and green pastel countries and squiggly rivers. And he’s not one of these smug bumper-sticker Montana Native sorts either. And I’ll tell you one more thing about him– he’s in to the long run. Gets his oil checked regularly. Tires rotated. Always has extra gallons of gas in his garage. He said he lives in the most beautiful place he can imagine, and that’s okay by him. No need to travel. Plenty to do right here in his own valley. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, he said, watching me wilt. Although he’s not the kind to overly-measure a mood.
“I don’t get it,” I admitted. “How can you live here and not ski and not feel guilty about it? You don’t fish. You don’t hunt. You don’t even have a horse! Heck—you don’t even have a dog! Your idea of a perfect Sunday is a day spent with a history book about Queen Victoria. Maybe a little walk in the meadow. See a bird or two.”
He said this: “Montana has been here a lot longer than skiing. Fishing. Hunting. Horses—well maybe not horses…Heh-eh…but dogs, anyway.” He said that, and it changed my life. For a day. And a glorious day it was. I called three friends, and like an alcoholic at an AA meeting said, I hate skiing. I’m Laura Munson, and I hate skiing. It felt like I’d shed a tumor or something. I sat on the couch and read a book about Tuscan cooking and watched the snow fall without thinking for one second that the whole of it was only as good as the numb of my cheeks and my whooping ability to nail an Aspen tree with a bull’s eye of perfectly packed snow. What’s wrong with snow angels?, I said to myself. What’s wrong with catching snow on your tongue and calling it good? What’s wrong with watching snow fall from your window seat, with the cat curled on your lap? (This kind of deductive reasoning and ten bucks can get you a cup of coffee in New York.)
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I have another friend. He is a fishing guide all summer in Alaska, and then comes down here to Whitefish to ski in the winter. In the fall, he hunts deer. Not all deer. One deer in particular. He goes out in the morning alone, and walks the woods, looking for one specific buck. It’s been four years of this. Other deer present themselves, but he doesn’t take them. He knows his buck now. He knows where he sleeps, where he roams. He’s learned a lot about squirrels and weather, stalking this buck. This is what he can tell me of hunting.

My first year living in Montana, a childhood friend came to visit from New York City where he is a trader of bonds. He had a ten month old and his wife was expecting a baby in four weeks. He wanted to come to Montana and do anything but change diapers, get his wife pickles…no potato chips…no pickles, and yell at people on the phone about money. The first day he sat and stared out the window, content. (I was thrilled.) The second day he looked at the ski mountain and said, “I gotta go up there.” (Okay. When in Rome…) The next day he saw a dogsledder and said, “I gotta try that.” (Had to see a guy about a dog—humor. Okay, whatever.) That afternoon he saw the local casino and said, “I gotta try my hand at cards.” (I gave him the number of the local taxi service, which is, incidentally, a guy in a mid-70’s pick-up truck, probably occupying the seat next to him at the bar, albeit a fine driver.) The next morning he said, “I’ve got a hangover and my leg muscles are killing me. It’s exhausting here. I feel like I’m back in New York. Let’s just lay low today.”
I told him not to worry. Montana seems to have that effect on people. Something about getting out there and conquering it that nobody can resist. (Unless you’re me. Or my Atlas-less friend.) “It’s exhausting just considering the myriad ways in which one can keep oneself dry, warm, and in motion in the state of Montana,” I told him. “Relax. I give you permission. We’ll listen to the opera at the Met on NPR.”
This took care of his hangover, fast. “We could at least drive into Glacier National Park today, I suppose,” he said, nervously. “Just tell me they have Ibuprophen in Montana.”
So we drove into the Park. We got out. We stood by a river. I thought: Finally. A friend with whom I can sit on a rock, and just be. No guilt. No pressure to be in any form of aerobic, cardio-vascular frenzy. Minutes went by. He stood up. Paced. (He’s a bond trader; he can’t help it.) He found three chunky rose-colored river rocks and one by one, pummeled them into the ice, whooping, raising his hands in victory, suggesting, then, that we play a version of Boci ball in which we see how many rocks we can slide into the holes he had just made in what was otherwise, a smooth white canvas of Mother Nature. “Oh no! Not you too! Can’t we just sit here? Can’t we just be?” I objected.
He shrugged and played alone for a while.
It looked fun, but I had set a precedent– (which is another way of saying, in this instance anyway, I was scared.) I don’t recognize this. Give me something from the German Expressionist movement—let me tell you all about the mystic poets of the 14th century—how ‘bout we talk Conspiracy Theory regarding the foils of the Liberal Arts education?
But I threw in my fear towel, got up, and said, “Fine. Lemme me have a turn.”
I was rose-colored rock. He was sage green. We bowled away the afternoon on the thinly-iced banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River. There was whooping a-plenty. Even from me. I hadn’t whooped like that before. I’m not sure I had ever whooped at all.
He wrote me a week later to tell me that our afternoon on the river was the thing he’ll remember most about Montana.
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I have an elderly friend who visits from Chicago. He likes to take long walks in town. One day, he stood on the viaduct for hours, watching the freight trains change cars and tracks. “Incredible, this Montana,” he said in a hushed version of his immigrant Italian accent. “When I am tired of looking at the trains, I look up at the mountains. When I am tired of looking at the mountains, I look at the trains.” Then his eyes went a little crazed and he leaned in and said, “There is a verse in the Bible that I never understood. It is in Romans. Chapter Eight, I think. Paul is talking. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Now I understand. Groaning.” And I hadn’t even taken him into Glacier National Park yet.

Now I think of the pair of women I passed ten years or so ago, when I was living in Washington, and still so bullied by whoopers that I was attempting to climb a section of Mt. Rainier. Two women, with wooden, hand-whittled walking sticks, wool pants, old stiff leather hiking boots, bandanas around their necks…two grey-haired crow-footed older women stood rubber-necking a blanket of moss. I stopped. It was too green not to. They were too Patagonia-free not to. They were too still not to.
They smiled at me, so ogly and goofy-eyed. “Isn’t it beautiful?” they said, together.
“Yes,” I said, the way you talk to an Alzheimer’s patient.
“We take this hike every year and every year we see if we can do it slower than the last,” they traded off saying.
And I stood there for a while too, watching the green, seeing it for the green and not for the happy grey heads which nodded at it like old friends. And when I turned to go, as I recall, it was not for lack of courage, but for a genuine hunger to move on. Slowly. To maybe get to know this trail. To invite myself into a lifelong acquaintance with Mother Nature. To abuse a quote meant for Hollywood, to find the there, there.
And as I walked on, I heard the smallest little sound, from behind, like a mouse’s glee. But it was a whoop. It was. I remember it now.

It has been fifteen years that I have lived in the Northwest—almost half my life. I still haven’t done much in the middle of the night except for waking up to tend to my babies. But I know how to go down the stairs now…to pull up my robe around my neck, and step out into the night chill and stand there and see what gifts might present themselves. A deer or two. The distant glare of fox eyes. The green swirls of the Northern Lights. A Great Horned owl silhouette. A meteor shower like the sky is falling. There is always something. That is the promise. I wish I could tell that girl all those years ago that there is elegance in every kind of moment that Mother Nature presents. And you don’t need to be strong or brave or even particularly adept to know it. All you have to be is open. I wish I could have given her that permission.
“Creation is groaning,” I would have said.
“Sit a spell. Whoop if you must.”owlillustration-442x590

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My Lover, LA

chicken

My Lover, LA
by Laura A. Munson

I love my children. I love my husband. I love my mother and deceased father. Sister and brother. Every person on my Christmas card list. Two dogs, two horses, cat, and pet rat—love ‘em all. I love Montana too—my twenty acres and the hills around our house, the miles I log in them on my trusty horse, the tracks I make on my cross-country skis, the birds and trees and insects and frogs and wildflowers and mushrooms I recognize as they do their seasonal dances. I love the peaks of Glacier National Park, and I’ve even grown to love the fact that here, I’m on the food chain; grizzly bear sushi. It builds character. But what I love a lot more than perhaps I should or would dare to openly admit in a small Montana town where it’s popular to hate all things urban, and Californians as well…what I yearn for, especially in mid-January, is what I can’t get here and that’s excellence in the following: art, dining, shopping, sunshine, surf. So every so often, I sneak off to LA.
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I have two great friends there. Best friends. God-mothers to my children. They don’t know each other, and maybe it’s better that way because I can divide my four-day get-away between them, and basically act as gluttonous and selfish as possible. And they forgive me for it every time. Gluttony and selfishness are forgivable in two-day stints/binges, turns out—especially if you’re from Montana.
So I am picked up at LAX in a Mercedes station wagon, by one dear friend, and delivered back four days later in a Volvo station wagon, by the other– my suitcase doubled in bulk, my intestinal tract processing things it hasn’t known in a long while like foie gras and uni and cassoulet, my face a little tanned, my skin a little bare, my toes feeling sad covered in shoes again, but my hands happily around a new, fabulous purse. I take my seat on the plane wearing even huger sunglasses than last time, with a smug movie-star feeling inside—like I’ve had an affair. The flight attendants notice it. I might be famous. I’m glowing. I’ve bloomed.
Friendship is an interesting creature, especially when it’s long distance. It’s alive, but it doesn’t necessarily need your tending. It goes about life without you changing its diapers or helping it with its homework, or remembering its birthday. But then it suddenly shows up and you feel like, without it, you can’t live– you’ll have no oxygen. And then it goes, and you’re breathing along again just fine. You’ve heard people say, it’s like we just pick up from where we left off every time. That’s the kind of friends these two women are to me.
They listen to me sob and bitch about the impossible rejections of the writing life and how my husband likes skiing more than he does me, and that my kids are ungrateful, how I should have gone to Yale, should have stayed in Seattle, or Boston, or Chicago, or New York, and whenever will I get back to Firenze… These are two women who’ve loved me, combined, for longer than I have lived and probably will live. And I love them. They show up at weddings and funerals and they answer my calls; granted each of them spends a lot of time bored on the freeway.
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Here’s what we usually do when we’re together—and this extends past LA, to all the afore-mentioned cities, including Firenze and Paris too: We go directly to the best restaurant we can think of, order wine, and eat a long, multi-course meal. Then we go walk around somewhere edgy or gritty or shiny, but with lots of people to look at. In LA, we go to Venice Beach and mix with the Carnies, or to Rodeo Drive and try on dresses at Prada in the best dressing rooms ever (you can watch yourself in a Prada dress on a virtual runway video), or to Montana Ave. in Santa Monica (so far away from my Montana), or to Abbot Kinney or Melrose, or just simply to Mecca: Fred Segal. Once, on Venice Beach, we saw a two-headed turtle and a two-headed raccoon at the same time, and once, we saw Glen Close (who looks like George Washington in person) and Rick Ocasek (who looks like Ichabod Crane in person)—not at the same time and not on Venice Beach.
Then we go back to their houses and lie around on their outdoor futons and read Vogue or do The LA Times crossword puzzle together— because even though we’ve been New York Times crossword puzzle snobs all our east coast spawned lives—hey—we’re in Cali. This crossword puzzle is way more fun. Then we make a pitcher of mojitos and get into the hot tub nude, and talk about mutual friends—their divorces and dalliances or suburban woes. We feel pretty good about ourselves then. So we get dressed up and go out and flirt. Maybe go to a bar cantilevered over Malibu Beach (Moonshadows) or to a museum cantilevered over the hills of Brentwood (The Getty). The last trip, I went to Moonshadows and The Getty twice—once with each friend. The last time I visited LA, both of them had coi ponds.
Well this most recent trip to LA, let’s just say, there were no coi ponds. No Moonshadows and no Getty and no flirting. Why? Because these women are mothers, just like me, in their Januarys, with their kids’ science fairs looming, their constant state of chauffeur-dom, and too much goddamn sun sun sun all the time…and besides, LA is so ridiculously expensive and with the way the economy is going, who can afford a place with a coi pond. In particular, one of them is a new mother—eight weeks. And for the other, this was her weekend with her kids. Which was great. I love these kids. But I had huge sunglasses to buy!
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Somewhere between gathering water samples from eight beaches and NOT getting to put my toe in the water due to impending traffic constraints, and wiping up that old familiar French’s mustard-colored diaper goo, I realized that this trip was not going to be about buying sunglasses. At all. Here’s how it went down, present tense so you can feel my pain (keep in mind that in my valley in Montana, we get on average, seventy-five days of sunshine a year, and you can’t get a New York Times—except the Sunday—on Wednesday), and you can’t get an LA Times at all:

Part I
I awake to bamboo and the sounds of exotic birds. It’s pitch black and twenty-two below in Montana, but blue sky winks at me through the blinds and I think I’m at the Hotel Bel-Air—my fantasy hotel, with my non-existent but very real to me, Italian lover, Giovanni.
I burrow into my pillows and dream about my lox and bagels and my crossword puzzle. And the amore Giovanni and I will make… More important, it’s Monday—the easiest day for the crossword puzzle; like David Sedaris, I base my personal worth on the completion of major urban crossword puzzles, and today I won’t have to do it online—just good old fashioned ball point pen (yep) to newsprint!
I sit up and stretch, anticipating the walk I’m going to take later on the beach, alone, because I will be done with Giovanni by then and he’ll be off shopping for me on Rodeo Drive. Then I hear the cries of a newborn and remember that I’m in a child’s cot, in an office in Long Beach, and that I’m staying in the home of exhausted people who “miss the seasons.”
That’s okay—this is their little miracle bundle of joy and I’ve come here to visit it. Help them. Give them their much-needed break. Yeah, right.
I put on my Nike Frees, instead of my lug-soled Sorels, and try to sneak out for a walk to the beach just three blocks away—terra firma. No snow. But they see me. And I am so helpful. I am so good and kind. And loving. What a friend am I. Watch me hold this baby so “you can get some rest.”
I forget why I needed so much chiropractic during my children’s infant years. Four hours later, we go out. We’re walking to the beach. I am ecstatic. Baby starts to cry. We decide to drive. My friend has to do some banking. No, of course I don’t mind sitting in the car with the baby. I end up standing in the parking lot for a half an hour, the baby asleep, leaning against the car, face in the sun. This isn’t so bad. I’m in LA! There’s a tree with flowers on it…right here in this…parking lot…where I’m so lucky to be…standing…in the sun! A deliveryman makes fun of me. I flirt with him, but he’s unimpressed.
We get to the beach. I forget that my friend has moved from Santa Monica, and let me just say this about the Long Beach beach: It’s got a great view of some of the largest oil refineries in the world.
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Part II
I meet my next friend in Santa Monica, and I’m thrilled because I love Santa Monica—barefoot, wet-suit clad surfers jaywalking with their boards, the Farmer’s Market, Shutters on the Beach… We experience a movie-star sighting—a movie star I can’t stand—fingers on the chalkboard. Why do they have to wear those stupid baseball hats that say, I’m a movie star—look at me so that I can say, ‘no thanks—I’m not giving out autographs right now.’
We wait in line a half an hour to order a panini, and slowly…I begin to realize that there’s no wine list. But we’re close to my friend’s kids’ school, plus we have a parking place, so this is it. Slowly too, I begin to realize that it’s a vegetarian restaurant. So there’ll be no fancy meat in my panini. Ah….Firenze. For a quick moment, I think of Giovanni—wonder how he’s doing on Rodeo Drive.
We spend the afternoon taking water samples from beaches that we don’t walk on more than to get to the water and walk back to the car. Then we get stuck in traffic. It’s sunny, but it’s sixty-four degrees, and in LA this is freezing. It’s parka weather. My friend’s actually wearing a parka. And huge Prada sunglasses. I’m sweating in a tank top with the windows down, sporting the knock-off Gucci sunglasses I bought the last time I was in LA. At least I get to see the Malibu fire damage. In Montana when we have fire damage, it doesn’t look like you could make it go away if only you had a crane, a really good landscape architect, and a truckload of Mexicans.
That night, we have an early dinner because the water samples need to incubate.
We spend a lot of time cutting holes in a Styrofoam cooler—again, nails on chalkboard, and go to bed early.
Phone rings at 8:00 am. It’s a professor friend from UCLA who’s a famous writer/friend of my friend’s (I would be her non-famous writer/friend) and what I hear from my end is something like this: Oh, hi. Yes, my son would LOVE to accompany your son to the pre-party for David Sedaris tonight. Yep. Uh-huh. Back stage passes? Great. We’ll just drop him off at your house, and then my friend who’s visiting from Montana (that would be not Montana Ave. See: hick) and I are going to take my daughter to a pizza party in Beverly Hills. We’ll just drum up all his David Sedaris books so David can write charming meaningful notes of inspiration in them, and we’ll see you tonight.
It is everything I can do to remain cool and not brown-nose my friend’s thirteen-year-old son. I’ll probably meet David Sedaris in Whitefish, Montana—right? Isn’t he, like, really into skiing?
I can’t go into the rest of this aspect of my trip because it’s just too heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that I met the writer/friend of my friend’s on the front porch of her home in Pacific Palisades, and said something really mature like: “Hi. I’m the un-published novelist friend.”
prada

Then we dropped off the girl at a pizza party which was behind big gates that I didn’t attempt to penetrate as the un-published-novelist-friend-from-not-Montana-Avenue, and went to Shutters and had a drink or ten and the rest of the night, to tell the honest truth, was kind of a blur. Fine, base your entire self-worth on the completion of a daily crossword puzzle. Jerk. Loser. You missed out. I’m so friggin fabulous. You could water-ski behind my fabulous career someday if I’d let ya. Sedaris. Did I tell you I coulda gotten into Yale! That’s a different story. But I coulda. Just didn’t wanta.
So, it’s my last chance for huge sunglasses, and I wake up hung-over, with an airplane to catch and the little girl, who is my god-daughter, (and exceptional I may add), climbs in bed with me– not as much to cuddle, but to get to the laptop I’ve smuggled away in a drunken stupor to watch re-runs of Brothers and Sisters. She wants to do Webkinz together. I don’t even stay in the same room with my kids when they’re doing Webkinz. I feel about Webkinz the way I felt about Teletubbies and Cabbage Patch Dolls. But I lounge around with her and help her choose furniture for her weird consumerist Webkinz world. Hey, I figure, I’m shopping in LA. The tambourine table actually feels like something you might be able to pick up on Abbot Kinney.
I decide then to make a varsity decision: I’m not leaving. I’m going to have my Hotel Bel-Air fantasy. Damnit.
So I book it—change my ticket and book a room at the Hotel Bel-Air. Spend an extra hundred dollars for a room with a courtyard. Book a dinner reservation and everything. My friend is thrilled. We’re all going to be sprawled poolside for the day, sucking on lavender Popsicles, our faces spritzed with Evian water by guys in pink polo shirts and white shorts. We’ll eat dinner in their fabulous vine-covered outdoor dining room with a fire going. We’ll eat foie gras! And what’s more, her kids will love me forever—maybe even enough to introduce me to Davis Sedaris!
But the incubator was too hot and the bacteria fried, and she and her thirteen-year-old have to go back to All Eight Beaches and take NEW samples.
Uh-uh.
prada

So I spend my day at the Bel-Air, with my adorable but still EIGHT-year-old, god-daughter. She’s wearing a scarf, Jackie-O style, and her mother’s yes, HUGE, (real) Gucci sunglasses, a dress she got in yes, Paris, and Uggs (I’m wearing flip-flops because I wear Uggs every day of my life—for function!)…and we sit by the pool while she eats a nine dollar hot dog and tells me about her trip on safari in the Serengeti. Wait ‘til I tell my own kids about my trip to LA. Absolutely no elephants. Or famous authors. Or even my dear dear friend, Fred Segal. But at the Hotel Bel-Air, they do have pads of butter in the shape of swans. I have a photograph of one.
I eat dinner alone, and have drinks at the bar afterward and hang out with the piano player and request Laura, which is one of my all time most disgusting personal habits. In fact, I have a vague memory of doing the same thing the night before at Shutters.
This story ends like this: I wake up. Five hours to spend in LA, alone, on my one hundred dollar terrace. Five lovely, languishing hours on my sunny terazza…and it’s fucking raining. So I lie in my bed, surf between the Today show, Good Morning America, and the Food Network, get bored, and decide, for the first time in my life, to order porn—see what all the fuss is about. That’s right, porn, at the Hotel Bel-Air. Maybe I can find one with an Italian guy in it.
The whole experience is so utterly tacky that I turn off the television after about five seconds and decide to add porn to the Webkinz, Teletubbies, Cabbage Patch Doll list. Then I pay twenty-five dollars for it at check out, where they give me a look which I’m not going to base my entire self-worth on, but I’m not going to not either. I tip them about as much as I would have dropped on huge, non-knock-off, sunglasses because I want to be invited back.
Sometimes I wish my friends lived in Montana. And I lived in LA. And I could complain about sun sun sun. And then maybe I’d take graceful joy in dirty diapers and fried science projects in a dark, culturally barren, January place, thickly coated in snow—far away from traffic and the horrible torpor of sun and shopping and surf and fine dining. Maybe I wouldn’t be so selfish and gluttonous…and horny.
prada
When I board the plane, I do not look like I’ve seen my lover. I look like I need a vacation. Maybe in a ski town.
As we’re hovering over our white valley, the square claims of farmland, feminine S-ing rivers, masculine mountains, I have a very real attack of not wanting to return to this place. Not because of anything to do with sunglasses; not really. But because of how hard Montana is. How tough you have to be. How brave and humble and honest.
As the wheels hit the runway, the flight attendant announces, “Welcome to the beautiful Flathead Valley, Montana. If you’re here on business or pleasure, we do hope you enjoy your stay. If you live here, welcome home.” And I join the part of me that never went to LA, and never wanted to in the first place.
When it comes down to it, there’s really not much room for the silliness of the “excellent.” Not when it comes to towing your neighbor’s truck out of a snow bank, or feeding your shivering herd in twenty-two below temperatures, digging your buddy out from an avalanche, saying a friendly, “Hey, Bear” as you come around a switchback on a mountain trail, or finding Mountain Lion scat in your back yard where your children play. Whatever Bacchanalian indulgence I might crave, is just that. A craving. And when it’s met, it doesn’t last very long. And I can’t say I’m really better for it. Not really.
What I am better for, I realize, as I turn the key in the ignition and wait while the engine moans and squeaks and finally turns over, is the good coffee I had with my friend at six am, her baby at her breast; the way my god-daughter’s hair smelled as we cuddled in bed, and the way her eyes looked when she told me about the wildebeests, the way my friend leaned down at the water’s edge with her son and collected water samples. For the indulgence of friendship that picks up where it lets off every time.
And it occurs to me as I pull out to the white stark highway, with the logging trucks whizzing by, and the dilapidated old barns and abandoned businesses with permanent Closed signs, that there is power in displacement. Everyone should try living just where they least expect to find themselves. Because it reminds you where home is.
When I get to my house, I am greeted by four feet of new snow, my two dogs, and the neighbor’s dead, frozen, and half-eaten, chicken placed, sacrificial, on my front stoop.
Do you feel sorry for me? Probably not. Either way, please don’t tell anyone in the City of Angels…that way down deep, it is precisely in this mangled but beautiful offering of this exact chicken, that I find my self-worth.

prada

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Mother Bear at the Plaza

Plaza silver
Mother Bear at the Plaza
by Laura A. Munson

I was reared for walking in and out of places like New York’s Plaza Hotel. But I live in Montana now and sometimes I forget how to be that girl. That girl having her first tea at the Palm Court in low riding white tights and a scratchy wool coat, standing three feet and agape below the Eloise portrait, thinking, “Now that’s the life. Living in a fancy hotel, pouring water down the mail chute, dragging chalk along the corridor walls, no mommy telling you what to do. Eloise is my hero.” And later, in Chinaman pajamas, I do both and feel huge.
Much later, I am waiting in the lobby for my first boyfriend, a meeting place between airport and brownstone, with my dead grandmother’s Hartman luggage all around me, considering losing my virginity while the ladies in minks and high stiff hairdos go by. And I still feel huge.
eloise
But today, in jeans and steel-toed boots, a suede thrift shop jacket, a sloppy scrunchy bun flopping at the nape of my neck, a baby in a front pack like a kangaroo, I am the only one who recognizes my footprints in this red rug. The doorman, the concierge, the maitre d’ at the Palm Court, even Eloise, even the little girl in white tights standing agape—they all step aside as if I might be dangerous. I wink at Eloise and stroll by, holding my neck as tall as it has ever stretched and find the Powder Room, for I am here today not to pay homage to my first hero, nor for tea, nor to meet my old beaux. I am here to breastfeed. I am in the safest place I know in New York City, crummy old boots or no crummy old boots. I look down and see what is very possibly dried manure on the sides of the Vibrum soles and think, It’s good for this rug to know a little of God’s country. And I open the white door with the gold gilt. And I still feel huge.
Inside, there is a woman in a black dress and white apron staring at me with an expression that sighs, Oh dear, you must be lost.
“I need a place to breastfeed my baby,” I say, looking for a place to sit. Realizing there is none. Realizing women don’t breast-feed in public, not even in the bathroom, at the Plaza Hotel. I start to lose confidence. Maybe I am a stranger here now. Maybe the little girl who ran in here, tinkled on toilet-paper-lined seats, dilly-dallied at the vanity, transferred pettifores from napkin to coat pocket chatting with the nice maid lady like in a Frances Hodgson Burnett book, remembering to tip a little something, never was. And I am a rancher’s daughter, and I am scared of places like this, and rich people are strangers to me.
eloise

The woman speaks in broken English, which feels like my language now– something like, “I know good place. Come with me. I have daughter.” In silence, I follow her down the hall, into an elevator, up a few floors, through a grand lobby with twenty foot French doors all in a row, and the girl who knew debut parties and benefit fashion shows knows there is a ballroom through those doors.
The Powder Room attendant looks down the hallway toward a row of small well-lit rooms full of mumbled voices and whispers, “No let them see you. Here. In here.” With case-the-joint eyes, she ushers me through tall gold doors.
We are in some sort of V.I.P. Ladies’ Lounge. The kind of place where Madonna hides from paparazzi and society younglings sneak lines of cocaine. We are surrounded by mirrors and high gold and white ceilings, garish escutcheons holding up huge Baroque-looking chandeliers, red damask fainting couches.
“When you finish with baby, come back same way. Don’t talk to nobody.” She leaves.
I sit.
My knees poof up to my nose and I see myself in the mirrors. I see what they
have all seen: This me does not belong. Whatever possessed me to dress like some sort of cross between Salvation Army and Rodeo Queen? The thrift-shop-look hasn’t been in since the early Eighties. Have I lost all sense of taste? All sense of now? I could have at least put on a pair of Nikes and sweats and posed as a stay-at-home mom going to the gym.
eloise

My baby starts to fuss. She is unimpressed with the spectrum of me’s unless they include my lactating breasts. I take her out of the front pack and unbutton my shirt. In the mirrors, I see through maitre d’ eyes: I have too much of my breast showing. Not enough make-up. Ridiculous hair. And then I notice the bruisy-colored haystack– the Monet above me. And I start to sweat. I’m all alone in a room with a Monet. Our next door neighbor growing up had Monets. I’ve been in a room alone with Monets before. But this me, this Montana me, she’s got to touch that thing. Maybe it’ll make her real in this old world of hers. Gotta touch that thing. What if there’re cameras? What if there’re alarms? I reach up, eyeing my aim from the mirror across the room as if I am watching a movie of me. Baby gasping for more suction. A few more inches. Yep. Oil paint. Thick fat brush strokes. Either that’s a damn good reproduction or the real Mackoy. And why not? This is a room for people who own Monets. Who don’t have to touch a Monet to prove they belong. My finger returns to my baby. I guess I don’t know either me.
I consider the thing that brought me back to New York for this visit: to plug into my old scene. Museums. Art galleries. Take in a few shows. Drink ten-dollar-a-pop martinis and not bat an eyelash. Maybe buy a pair of absolutely fabulous leather pants from a gaunt Madison Ave. saleswoman who will greet me with a low-toned: welcome. To see how my old gaggle of friends are handling this next stage of motherhood. To compare gear notes where we used to compare hair stylists. To see if million dollar apartments with doormen and live-in nannies can make one exempt from stretch marks and saddle bags. To just for one night, sit in a trendy new restaurant with city friends and over foie gras hear the one in the self-important glasses say, That’s some of Venturi’s worst work. It’s exhausting looking at mountains all the time…dishing out that kind of awe all the time. I want a bit of what people have done. I want the Chrysler Building. I want—just for a few days– to not be on the food chain!
eloise
I look at myself in the mirror and see that I am instead in some sort of social purgatory. How do I plug into this scene when I’ve lived so long in a place where there is no scene? How can I care about leather pants for the sake of leather pants and not think: Do they repel water? Do they breathe? Do they come in poly-propalene? Good God! Where is my sense of humor? My sense of power? I am giving the light fixtures in this place more importance than myself. Than perhaps even my baby.
And then it occurs to me. It’s the city—it’s stealing my soul. I am feeding my child, for crying out loud. This is a pure moment where nothing should matter but nutrition– the arc between mother and child– let no man put asunder. I stare at my baby and try to keep from thinking about the dress I’ve packed for dinner tonight. The one that looked so chic on the mannequin in Whitefish, MT, that now strikes me as something a Phys Ed teacher would wear to the end-of the-season sports banquet. Whistle and all. Maybe I’ll dress down. I’ll wear jeans. What about all those movie stars that have homes in Montana? I bet they wear jeans when they’re in New York. I’ll pretend I’m one of them. Like I’m above all this…all this…ephemera.
eloise

And just when I am hit with the whiplash of my total-unenlightenment, the door opens. It’s a tall woman in a pink Chanel suit. Her hair is Ivana Trump high and I think, I’d rather talk to Ivana herself– she’s a foreigner. She might understand.
“What are you doing in here?”
This is my payback for all those years of ‘belonging,’ I think. I deserve this. I try to sit up straight in the poof of the couch but only manage a few inches of height. I thrust my chin in the air so I am at least staring at her kneecaps. I put every amount of Mayflower descent, Anglophile, Junior-Year-Abroad, boarding-school-procured nasal and lock jaw into these words: “I am breastfeeding my child.”
She raises a singular, well-plucked eyebrow. “Well, you will have to leave immediately.”
I imagine the guards. I imagine the I told you so on the doorman’s face. “Look, I was led up here–” and then I stop. I don’t want to get that sweet sample of humanity in trouble.
“Who? Who brought you here?”
Do you always talk in Soap Opera-eze? “I don’t feel at liberty to say.” Did I just say ‘at liberty?’ I tuck my boots under the sofa and eye the Monet. And then it happens. I feel this mother bear claw-sharpened edge raise its hackles down my spine and I look up even higher, to her pink Channel un-lactating breasts and say, “I will leave when my child is finished eating.”
“You will leave now.”
And whether I end up being hauled out of here by the scruff of my hickish laurels, I suddenly cannot hold back: “What do you think? Just because I’ve got a little shit on my shoes, I’m going to run outta here with the goddamn Monet?”
She lets out a giant Huffffffffff, blows through the door, and leaves a blinding trail of hairspray and Joy de Patou in her wake.
eloise
Bring on the guards– I’ll call the mayor. I’ll get on the front page of the ‘New York Times’– ‘Plaza Hotel– No Safe Place for Mother and Child.’ Ivana herself will give me a golden key to the front door. I’ll have an open tab at the Palm Court. I’ll be given a check for a million dollars and I’ll put that bathroom attendant’s children through college. I’ll buy a new pair of shoes. Maybe some leather pants?
The door opens. It’s the woman from the Powder Room. For some reason I can look her straight in the eye and it’s not because she’s no inch shy of five feet. “I thought you get lost.”
“No. We’re just finishing up. There was a lady who came in here and got mad at us and I didn’t tell her you brought us up here, but she might–”
“Lady? Lady with…” she holds one hand a foot over her hair and the other a foot in front of her chest.
“Yeah.”
“Uh-oh. You come with me, please.”
Baby back in kangaroo position, boots ready for any terrain, we go from hallway to hallway, looking around the corner before we go like James Bond babes. We skeeter down servant’s stairways thick with grey paint and the smell of rotting room service. One more door and we are back by the Powder Room and I am Eloise. No…better: I am at the intersection of all me’s. I am my own society.
I want to give this saint of a woman a hug. She has put her job on the line for me and my little girl, but maybe for more. The girl reared for tea at the Palm Court says, you owe her a fat tip. But that is an insult, the Montana me says. There is no financial compensation for human kindness. I give her a hug and she holds me hard and then sneaks back to her post taking quarters for hand towels.
eloise

And I walk tall back past Eloise, little girls in white tights, blue-haired dowagers sipping Earl Grey, suburban virgins in transit considering sex but for now a Marlborough Light, a doorman who doubles as a bouncer, but not to me, not today; I am looking at my sleeping baby, safe in my perfectly acceptable chest.
***
Back in Montana. Full of sushi and museums, sky-scrapers– the great stuff of Men. It is nighttime and my baby and I are driving back from a party. She has been fussy and I’m hoping she will fall asleep. I am watching the stars and keeping an eye out for deer, humming lightly to the country music station which I don’t normally like, but tonight it’s like what subway shoosh must be for a New Yorker– a hymn of Home Sweet Home. I look in the rear view mirror and see she is finally asleep and I feel tucked-in by the mountains around me; not awe necessarily. And then I see flashing red lights.
Immediately I get adrenaline in my chest cavity and a ringing in my ears and pull over, reaching for the glove compartment where I know the stuff cops want is kept. I unroll the window and wait, shaking. His boots on the gravel get louder and louder and by the time he is at my window I am no longer scared; I am mother bear. I am all hackles and sharpened nails and to his bellowing “Do you know how fast you were–” I raise my finger to my lips and hiss, “SHHH! I’ve got a sleeping baby in the back seat!”
“Oh!” His shoulders shirk and slump. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I know how that is.”
“Can we make this quick? I want to get her home.”
“Uh– sure, Ma’m. I’m sorry. You were going seventy-five and that’s too fast at night so uh–”
I look back at my baby. She’s stirring and she begins to cry. “Oh that’s okay darlin’. Go back to sleep.” I scowl at the police officer.
He looks in the back seat and whispers, “Tell you what. Let this be a warning. Now go get that baby to bed.” I see his teeth make a smile in the headlight.
“Thank you,” I barely say. I have no need to butter him up. There is a child who is teetering on the edge of sleep and I am her mother. Nothing can get in my way.

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Motherhood, My Posts, Stories