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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!

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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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The Junk Drawer Cleanse

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Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

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

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

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

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When Doing Our Best Feels Like Failure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were late to the party.  Very late.

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

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

But the breathing is shallow at best.

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

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

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

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

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(previously published in Grown and Flown)

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