Tag Archives: happiness

The Color of Wonder: Stop Expecting. Start Receiving.

loveI remember the first time it happened.  I was five and we were at Disneyworld and there it was:  Cinderella’s castle, right in front of me! The towering glistening lavender place where dreams were made.  I broke free from my parents’ hands, and I ran into what was sure to be the most enchanted, world of wonder ever!  The Magic Kingdom was going to deliver me my first slice of real magic.  But wait!  What’s this tunnel?  I’m on the other side of the castle!  Where are the crystal chandeliers and the marble ballrooms and the gold ceilings and the mice-turned-coachmen?  The whole thing was a Disney-spun ruse!  If castles were fake, then maybe princesses were too.  But what about dreams?  Was Jiminy Cricket full of it?

The next time it happened was in New York City.  Broadway!  I was ten and my parents were taking me to Annie.  I’d memorized every word of it.  Annie was a dreamer.  She believed in infinite possibility– that she…she was special enough to have all her dreams come true.  Seeing her live would mean that I could believe that too.  And the voice of those dreams:  Andrea McCardle.  She was my hero.  I was going to be Annie one day.  Somehow.  I wanted to be the deliverer of that supreme message.  Andrea had a cold that day.  Understudy.  But I did see Patti Lupone in Evita.  I didn’t cry for Argentina.  I was too young to get it.  I wanted to dream about Tomorrow with a raspy redhead.  But more and more, dreaming seemed like a gamble.  And judging by the bit parts I got in the community theater shows, maybe being a Broadway actress wasn’t quite it.

Then in 1983, I went to see the movie Flashdance.  That angsty dancer in leg-warmers was me!  (Proverbially speaking– pigeon-toed kids with scoliosis probably wouldn’t have flash-dancing in their future.)  But the rest of it?  Yes, please!  I would live in a loft like that and do whatever it took, weld even, to go after my dream.  So what if dreaming was a gamble?  It was worth it.  I just wasn’t sure yet what dream I should dream, and I knew that I had better figure it out fast.  When these words came, they slayed me:  “If you lose your dream, you’re dead.”  Not me.  That wasn’t going to happen.  Whatever it was, I was going to dream a big one, even if the castles were fake and heroes got colds and you had to live in Pittsburgh.  I was not going to die that death.  But if not acting…then what?  I started to dig deeply into spirituality.  Seemed that the Divine would have some answers.

In 1987, I took trains through a Yugoslavia on the brink of revolution, to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.  I was obsessed with ceramic tiles and I was told that exact color blue existed nowhere but there…and that it was one of the most sacred, inspiring places on earth.  I ascended those steps, ready to cover my head and slip off my shoes to behold this ancient sacred blue and yes, dreamy, place.  The mosque was closed.  Renovation.  We didn’t have the internet so who knew anything prior to anything back then?  I was crushed.  Was I looking in all the wrong places?  I spent the afternoon sitting on the ground next to the mosque, writing in my journal, and what came out appeared a lot like what you’d find in the pages of a novel about a young woman with undreamed dreams.  I looked up into the minarets, not unlike Cinderella’s castle, and thought:  Maybe I could write books.  Yes.  Books.  I’d found it.  And it wasn’t blue or red.  It was the color of Wonder in the written word.

The same year, I went to the Sistine Chapel to see the Creation of Adam.  I wanted to see what God’s finger looked like when He pointed to humanity and breathed it to life, still more soul than flesh.  That surely must be what it took to be a writer—on both sides of those fingers– the constant act of co-creating with the Divine.  That’s what I would spend my life trying to accomplish.  I would wander in this wonder, and I would use words to do it.  There it was again:  ristrutturazione.  Renovation.  Scaffolding.  Over one panel.  That one.  But I bought a postcard of God’s finger almost touching Adam’s.  Still have it.  It lives under my keyboard, where I write.  It’s getting a little ratty, but it still breathes life into my muse, I like to think.

Skip ahead a few more years, and along came the children.  I did everything I could to pass this wonder gene to them, in whatever form I could.  Disney had failed me, so I figured nature was a good place to start.  Our life in Montana served up wonder over and over and they received it, so we took it on the road.  We went camping in Patagonia, Arizona, to see the Elegant Trogon bird.  Each of us with our day packs and binoculars, and me with my Sibleys, we stalked through the forests slowly, all day.  Saw a lot of people looking for the Elegant Trogon bird.  But no Elegant Trogons.  The next year, we went to Belize to see Howler monkeys, looked up at breakfast and there were eight Elegant Trogons perched in the tree above us.  We didn’t see Howler monkeys.  But we heard them.  Family joke goes:   If you want birds, look for monkeys.  Works every time.  My kids were well on their wonder-ful way.  They knew that the expectation wasn’t the end game.  The wonder was.

But when it came to the girl at the Blue Mosque, things were getting dire.  She hadn’t had the kind of publishing success she’d coveted.  In short, she’d sung a lot of Tomorrows, and had learned all about crying for her inner Argentina.  Book after book.  Rejection after rejection.  And the postcard wasn’t working.  My muse was under renovation.  I was losing steam.  My dreams hurt, deeply, and wonder hurt worse:  Should I just give up?  Weren’t dreamers owed anything?  Were there not only no promises, but were dreams actually bad for us?  Did dreams need to die after all?  I wanted them to live!  I wanted to sing my song on the page and have it land in hearts and yes…take my bow!  Was Flashdance just another ruse?  In short, I was bereft.  But there was one moment when I felt that finger pointing at me, saying No.  Never.  Not you.6e5bfbb430043970037181278e86c52a

It was that same year in Belize, and I was in a little art gallery on Ambergris Key.  I walked around that art gallery thinking, Maybe I need a new image to put under my keyboard.  And then I looked down.  There was a print of what looked like a marble Greek goddess with wings, holding her skirts apart, revealing the words Breathe.  Believe.  Receive.  It’s all happening.  I bought the print.  Hung it on my wall by my bed, this time, so I could see it in plain light.  I looked at it every morning and every night for years, and I spoke those words aloud.  And I kept writing books.  I breathed.  I believed.  I received.  I received the joy of creating and let go of where my writing landed.  I received the breath and breathed it back and deemed that the ultimate life:  doing the work.  That was all I could control.  Whatever this “it” was that was “happening”…was a mystery, and the part I could understand was the part where I sat down and wrote.  And wrote and wrote.  But this time…surrendered.

And then…”it” all happened.  Five years later, that girl who wanted to be Annie, got her version of “it.”  But the “it” was very different than it was all those years ago.  The “it” was what I brought to my writing desk every day, even though now the publishing world brought that “it” to the hearts and minds of people around the world.  And for that “it” I will be eternally grateful.  But even if they hadn’t…I still have my “it.”  My dream is in the doing. That’s the color of wonder I paint with every day, and that’s what breathes my muse alive.

Just don’t tell that girl sitting at the Blue Mosque how long it will take.  Or she might stop.  But do tell her that she would have made a terrible Annie.  Some dreams are better left as just that.

Do you want to wander in your wonder with words?  I am now booking my fall 2017 Haven Writing Retreats!  Come to Montana and receive…

September 6-10 (still room)
September 20-24 (a few spaces left)
October 4-8 (FULL)
October 18-22 (still room)

 

 

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The Merrier Me

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When laughing didn’t hurt…

Like a lot of people this weekend
who opted to tuck in front of the fire in lieu of holiday parties, I watched Rudolph, which always stresses me out and I’m not sure why I go, “awwwwwwwwww” when I see it’s going to be on television because that abominal snowmonster still freaks me out and all those sad toys with Rankin Bass puppet mouths, and then Frosty (ditto—he melts!  A little girl cries next to the puddle once known as his former self, and there’s a cloying bad guy that he can’t shake with a weird rabbit helper—I forget what happens in the end.  I think he moves to Brooklyn.)

download (1)And then the healing began.  Mary Poppins.  Two hours of Mary and Bert and tuppence and votes for women and evening govnah and magic umbrellas and bottomless carpet bags and sidewalk chalk painting portals into barber shop penguins and carousels with real horses and hilarious helium tea on the ceiling and and and.  Even though she leaves them in the end and they all have to find their inner Mary Poppins.download

The only thing of it is:  I laughed.  And that is a physical response to emotions I haven’t let myself feel for two months.  The who what when where why how of it has to do with a horse and my tendency to act over-confident when I’m scared.  And a loose cinch.  In short, he zigged, I zagged.  Bottom line:  if you’re going to ride horses, you’re going to end up on the ground sometimes.  You just hope you don’t hear actual bones cracking.  Three of them.  Ribs.

If you’ve broken a rib, you are now making the face I make when I see the abominal snowmonster.
download (2)It suuuuuuucks.  Breaths are reduced to small sips, coughing and sneezing are a delicacy you can only succumb to if you can’t not, sighing is not recommended, sleeping in any position at all is nearly unattainable (I seriously almost bought a recliner and put it in the living room), talking with any animation is ish-y, singing is better left to a dull hum, crying—meh…and laughter?  Laughter is verboten, like the Burgermeister Meisterburger has some sort of hold on you.

You know that kind of laughter that happens at weddings and funerals and graduation speeches that you can’t control?  It has total occupation of your diaphragm?  Well, that’s one of my central goals in life.  That kind of belly-womping primordial caccination.  With snorts in-between.  If you can’t breath deeply, you can’t pull it off, not by any stretch.  So you have a choice:  Laugh your way into scar tissue that will remind you of your stupid horse tricks for the rest of your life when you climb a ladder or reach for your shoes.  Or go deadpan.  Poker face.  In short, I’ve been officially depressed.  I lead retreats.  I needed to go on one.  Just not in my bed for two months, groaning.bdd9bf5f53c4df963b2e91e3a5b2e939

And now that it’s the holidaze, the Kay jewelers people don’t help.  Or those Folgers ads.  Or all the perfect Facebook Christmas trees.  Or the families in matching sweaters on my Christmas cards.  Or the fact that I haven’t gotten a Christmas card out this year and probably won’t.  In my mind, it’s still October.  Thanksgiving hasn’t even happened.  I’m finally going out for a ride on my horse after a grueling fall work schedule.  I’m tired.  I feel sorry for myself.  And I’m going to do something nice for myself, damnit.  He jigged.  I jagged.  And I watched fall become winter from my bed for the most part of two months.

But I’m not writing this to complain.  I’m writing all of this to say that I now know what gratitude really means.  Bless you, cup of tea that took me twenty minutes to make, including the hard launch from bed– the roll, the sidle, the squirm, the shuffle, the sit, and the big one:  the stand…the walk…and the stairs…the stairs, the pick up the tea pot, the fill it with water, the ow ow ow ow ow all the way back up the stairs, back to sit, to the slow timber back into the pillows.  Oh.  And then there’s the tea.  Waaaaaaay over there on the nightstand, a century of inches away.  “Forget it.  Let it get cold.  I’ve just done the Iditorod.”  And there she lay.  Watching the sun move around the house and the moon rise, and all of her responsibilities fall like the leaves she never got to on the lawn, and the snow that’s coming, that came, and all the people she’ll have to ask to help her do simple things and all the shame around one stupid moment on a horse that she was planning on riding every day for eight straight weeks of much-needed horse therapy.  Her new craving:  Epsom salts.  And oh, that cold cup of tea.  If only someone would come in with a fresh steaming cup and fold her laundry…  Still, I have never been more grateful for just being able to get up and make the tea, never mind drink it.

That said, all that woe-is-me managed to loop itself around to a world of hurt that I’ve never experienced before.  I’ve never taken anti-depressants, and for the first time, I seriously considered it.  And then, just as I was thinking this would be my permanent world…I caught myself laughing at something on Jimmy Fallon.  And it hurt…so good.  And I realized what was really wrong.  It wasn’t the horselessness or the shame or the frustration or even the pain.  It was the lack of laughter in my life.  Without laughter, I was living in a colorless world of fair-to-middling.  I had untrained myself out of delight.  Joy.  Unabashed explosions of glee.  And it had to stop.  I am a laugher.  No matter what.  I needed to get back on that horse.  (The other one can wait.)

So on Saturday night, in my eighth week of recovery, my ribs more mended than not, with permission from Mary Poppins and her tea-time wack-wonkery, I let myself laugh.  Ecstatic laughing.  In hee hee hees and hoh hoh hohs and hah hah hahs.  It made LOL look like mere titter.  And man…did it feel good.  My whole being felt light and alive in a way it hasn’t for far too long.  I am so grateful for this simple and essential human ability.  I love to laugh, indeed.  Laughter really is the best medicine.  LOLOLOLOLOLOL!

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2017

February 22-26 (one spot left)
June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22

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***According to Mayo clinic laughter is just what the doctor ordered!

***PS.  In all that lying around, I did manage to write 150 pages of a book.  So there’s that.  #grateful

 

 

 

 

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Haven Health Series #4

“Soup is cuisine’s kindest course.”- Virginia Woolf

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We have just a few more spaces left on our 2016 Haven Writing Retreat calendar!

October 5-9 (full)

October 19-23 (a few spaces left!!!)

To schedule a phone call to learn more about the retreat, go to the Contact Us button here.

 

The days of summer are quickly coming to a close but the windows of winter fruits and vegetables are opening, especially with this gorgeous fruit. Yes, butternut squash is a FRUIT!

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With a sweet and nutty taste similar to pumpkin, butternut squash is an excellent source of fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, manganese, magnesium, and potassium. Just what a writer needs to keep the heart and mind healthy and writing, writing, writing.

This recipe comes from Michelle Berry, chef extraordinaire of the Haven Writing Retreats. In each bite, love, comfort and wellness dances on the tongue.

So, take some time out of your day and give yourself something that makes you feel good. In a big bowl!

Your belly will thank you.

 

Recipe #1: CUP O’ COMFORT aka Butternut Squash Soup

Butternut Squash Soup

 

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Haven Health Series #3

With this next delicious concoction, unlock the power and brilliance of your beautiful minds.

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We have just a few more spaces left on our 2016 Haven Writing Retreat calendar!

September 21-25 (full)
October 5-9 (full)

October 19-23 (a few spaces left!!!)

To schedule a phone call to learn more about the retreat, go to the Contact Us button here.

This may shock you:

Beethoven reportedly drank wine about as often as he wrote music.  Stephen King doesn’t remember writing Cujo.  Even Maya Angelou loved her sherry.

They all were quite likely deeply sensitive people who didn’t know how to handle all that they perceived.  So they went into F**k It mode.  I know F**k It mode well.  People don’t have a lot of tolerance for it.  They think it’s an affront on them.  They think it’s a lack of self-control.  They think that it’s weak.  When in reality, it is an inability to know what to do with all those feelings.  All that empathy.  Booze and drugs stop the empathy.  At least that’s the illusion.

And it’s not just artists.  It’s anyone who feels deeply, as a rule.

So if we’re empowering ourselves as the deeply feeling people that we are, what if we were to look at it like when we are feeling, without blocking that flow, we are strong!  We are complete!  Those feelings can’t take us down!  It’s the fear of them which is the problem.  And an altered mind doesn’t give us all the fortification we need to fight the fear.  Or, as I like to think instead, to love that fear into submission.

So how do we break old behavioral patterns, how do we train ourselves out of old thought patterns which find us in a place of suffering, woe, and even self-harm, self-loathing, or even self-violence?  My way is gentle and luxuriant.  Yes, it has to do with the awareness that we even have these patterns in the first place.  But why not meet ourselves in this place with radical self-care in the most loving and gentle way…and easy?

To read more from this essay, click here.

For two weeks Haven Blog will feature custom drinks that you can make at home.  They are designed by master mixologist, Meagan Schmoll of Whitefish, Montana, to help your state of being in the way that you so desire.  And they are alcohol free.  Enjoy!  yrs.  Laura

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Drink #3: BEAUTIFUL MIND…

*served over ice

2 oz Oolong *Strong Tea*

1.5 oz Fresh Orange Juice

0.25 oz Clover Honey

0.5 oz Genesis’ Traditional Balsamic

3 Strawberries

1 Cinnamon stick

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*Strong Tea*

3 tea bags or 9 grams of Oolong Tea

8 oz Boiling water

Let steep for 20 Minutes

Remove Tea and let cool

 

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Place Strawberries, Cinnamon Stick and Honey in a pint glass. Muddle until Strawberries are squished thoroughly and cinnamon stick crunched well.

 Add remaining ingredients.

Add ice.

 

 

 

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Place shaker tin on top of pint glass giving it a firm tap.

Turn it over so the tin is in your bottom hand and the pint glass is in your top hand.

Give it a good hearty shake.  

 

 

Strain from pint glass into an ice filled rocks glass, some refer to this as a Double Old Fashioned.

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Garnish with half of an orange wheel, cinnamon stick and strawberry in a way the makes you feel creative and take a sip delighting in your Beautiful Mind.

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Photo credits: Katy Bell

Drink credits:  Meagan Schmoll

Instagram @katybellkaty @lmschmoll #RaskolDrink #embellishpictures

 

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Haven Health Series #2

May this next recipe bring you tranquility, self-care, and a yummy elixir to inspire.

We have just a few more spaces left on our 2016 Haven Writing Retreat calendar!

September 21-25 (full)
October 5-9 (full)

October 19-23 (a few spaces left!!!)

To schedule a phone call to learn more about the retreat, go to the Contact Us button here.

It’s time to end the tortured artist paradigm.  I’m on a mission to change that into the empowered artist’s reality!  I think that art, namely writing since that’s my medium, should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of preventative wellness.  We all need healthy access to our self-expression and our artists show us the way.  We simply can’t have our artists sick and tortured any more.  We need them.  Artists are not looking at the world in ways that pit one against another.  We don’t look at the world in opposition, victory or loss.  We look at the world for what it is and depict it as truthfully as we can.  And in-so-doing, we hope to build bridges.  We hope to do as many South Africans have learned and find Umbuntu—love and compassion for all people.

Self-care:  That word scares me.  Maybe it scares you too.  It sounds hard.  It doesn’t have to be.  I invite us to start with some simple things.  Like a walk in the woods.  Like homemade bone soup that’s been simmering on the stove for twelve hours.  Like Epsom salt baths with eucalyptus and a Mexican cocoa candle.  Like essential oils of clary sage, frankincense, and wild orange by your bed.  Like Arnica salve, infused from the forest floor.  Like early mornings in bed with your journal.  And some very excellent beverages along the way that are as healing as they are delicious:  like ginger tea, like guava kombucha, like rooibos muddled with mint over ice.

Sure, maybe one day we can be Jesus in the desert, or Mandela in the prison cell, and strip ourselves of all earthly delights in order to truly swallow ourselves whole.  But for now, let’s be kind to ourselves, and meet ourselves with love, compassion, forgiveness, and little rituals that go a long way.

To read more from last week’s installment, click here:

For two weeks Haven Blog will feature custom drinks that you can make at home.  They are designed by master mixologist, Meagan Schmoll of Whitefish, Montana, to help your state of being in the way that you so desire.  And they are alcohol free.  Enjoy!  yrs.  Laura

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Drink #2: TRANQUILITY…

“The Pali Noun”  *served hot

2 oz Chamomile Lavender *Strong Tea*

1/2 a spoonful of Blackstrap Molasses

Orange Pigtail created with a channel knife or a twist expressed and curled into a tea cup.

 

Start the Kettle…

Create an orange pigtail or a twist and express it over your tea cup, allowing the oils to coat the inside.

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Add a half a spoon of Blackstrap Molasses

Place 3 chamomile lavender tea bags in.

Once the kettle is boiling pour roughly 8 oz 

Stir so the molasses blends with the tea

Sip and let the tranquility seep into your bones with the Pali Noun.

ThePauliNoun_3

Photo credits: Katy Bell

Drink credits:  Meagan Schmoll

Instagram @katybellkaty @lmschmoll #RaskolDrink #embellishpictures

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A Haven Writing Retreat Loveletter

The 2015 Haven Writing Retreat calendar is full with wait lists, and we are now booking for 2016! 

(You do NOT have to be a writer to come.  Just a seeker, wanting to dig deeper into your voice and stories and set them free under the big sky!)

February 24-29
June 8-12
June 22-25
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

6_15_collageA Day to Observe You.  (Sent to all Haven alums with my deepest heart…from Montana, where you will always find your footprints.)

You are home now.  And I am in Montana, slowly waking to the world I left before you made the journey here and shared Haven with me. 

Home.  Re-entry.

There are all the usual things to trip on:  bills, the tea mug in the sink with the almost-dry bag, the clothes that didn’t make the cut strewn on my bedroom window-seat, the still-slow leak in the downstairs bathroom toilet, expected evidence of mouse activity in the kitchen, the hornet nest on the front porch twice as big, the rose in the vase by my bed dried to a dark pink.  The people who are wondering.  Needing.  Judging.  Expecting.  Like I expected the mice.

This is the part where I can’t quite let you go but know that I have to.  This is the part where I have to pick my pen off the page and close the book and trust that you got what you needed in playing with me in those pages, in those five sacred days, with this exact group of humans, taking intention to form to words written, then spoken.  Then released. 

Wind.  Your wind. 

Your wind has wake.  I stand in it.  All day, I will stand in it and observe it and honor it and feel it all around me, and breathe it in and out, in and out, as the sun heats up the earth and the earth heats the air and turns your wind into thermals that hawks ride…all day…knowing power for power…until the sun sinks behind the ridge, and the birds sing a dusk Taps, and your wind gentles, and trees stand sentry again, and the nests are quiet again, and your wind settles at my feet and turns to dew, and feeds bugs and sleeping frogs, and stars come out to tell me it’s time to sleep.  Your deep peaceful Montana night that is of you now.  You in your small corner, and I in mine—my grandmother’s lullaby.  All tucked in until tomorrow. 

I’m not ready for tomorrow.  I still sit in our circle.  I watched your ripples embrace the pond as I sent each of you off on your journey home, lying on the dock, my face reflected back to me, saying your name.  Each of your holy names.  Every time, (and there have been many now, hundreds of names to name)…a wind comes to blow the ripples back in a loving squall that I receive as you have received Haven. 

Thank you.

Thank you from this day of observance, a place in me that is so windblown by your honesty, your courage, your words, your wild loving windful VOICES…that I can’t imagine the world without them.  Your WIND is powerful.  YOU are POWERFUL.  You know that now.  I know you do.  Use it now.  Sometimes wild.  Sometimes gentle.  Sometimes hot and sometimes cool.  Use it.  Know that when you use your voice…your unique rare gift of a voice…you are that wind.  Those hawks.  That earth.  That sky.  And everything in-between.  That’s all there is to know about writing.  You knew it.  You just had to come to Montana to find out for sure.11390215_10152771872081266_5713115019216739589_n

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Re-defining Family at Holiday Time

IMG_0007 (2)My friend and fellow seeker/Huffington Post Blogger Marina Illich and I like to untangle the hard stuff.  We call it Five Minute Manna.  This is what has our hearts and minds activated this holiday season:  Re-defining Family

Find Your People by Marina Illich

Holiday time is family time. But what exactly do we mean by family?  So many people live three times zones – or an ocean – away from their parents and siblings, turning travel “home” into a costly or time-sucking ordeal. Then there are the divorced parents left to create “family” plans on their own, while the kids spend their holidays with the ex. And elders? So many of them are repaired to an assisted living home far away, making it virtually impossible to get back to the ranch. 

Meanwhile, those who do get back to the ranch often wonder why they traveled the distance. We all know the uncanny way that holidays resurface old resentments, reactivate buried fault lines, and turn festivities of cheer into an endurance test of patience and poise.  Inside the dim welcome, one can almost hear singer/songwriter Damien Rice crooning those signature lines –  “Why do you sing hallelujah, if it means nothing to you? Why do you sing with me at all?”

Too many of us suffer enough from the predations of modernity – the divorces, job losses and job insecurity. The kids’ over scheduled lives and “underperforming” scores. The long commutes and dusty dreams. The loss of friendship and the loss of self. We don’t need the added pressure of enduring the holidays.

 So what’s the alternative? I suggest it’s time to update our idea of family. Let’s dispense with the imperatives to feel whole and happy inside a story of “family” that leaves us frail or frazzled. Let’s dislodge our commitments to stoicism and endurance that leave us walled inside towers of loneliness. And let’s disband our loyalty to conflicting demands that run us ragged when what we simply want is…to be received exactly as we are. 

Instead, let’s find our people. Let’s find those like-minded individuals who turn up in odd corners of our lives, who share some or none of our biography, who perhaps celebrate with fish when we celebrate with ham, or intone silent prayers when we devote ourselves to tracking the market or reading the Times. People who – for whatever logical or improbable reason – see, hear and feel our pulse with the gravity and gratitude that has us know we are at home. Let’s find those people and make those peoplethe family we arrive to in our stillness and frenzy, our hope and harry. And let’s make the gathering of that familythe ritual we behold – at whatever time of the year – to signal the holidays are here.

Let’s make thatfamily – geographically dispersed and culturally-spackled though it may be – the home inside which we eschew all the should’s and must’s we internalized along the way so that we can discover what we really are all about.

And let’s do all of this precisely so that when we do go back to our family with its far-flung network of third cousins, step-sisters, and in-laws, we behold them, once and for all – without indictment – exactly as they are.

Then, perhaps, we will find that whatever the season and whatever our destination, we are surrounded always and only by family – those relatives, friends, mentors, students, strangers and perhaps even adversaries – whom we recognize long, like us, for one simple thing: to be held and welcomed into our home exactly as they are.

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A Family of One  by Laura Munson

It’s the holidays, and no matter what’s in that wisdom quiver of ours…things are likely fraught.  Why is that?  Well, once-upon-a-time, we believed in something that someone told us, or preached to us, or wrote about, or filmed about, or photographed… on the meaning of family.  And we bought it.  And there’s a good chance that “family” looks very different to us now.  There’s an even better chance, that with that difference, we find pain, disappointment, and even shame.  Especially during the holiday season.

I come from a long line of documentarians.  My mother lovingly made photo albums and home-movies, featuring every first day of school, play, dance, graduation, in addition to the annual Christmas card—all of us posed just-so, sent out to hundreds of people as proof that we were a family.  A solid family.  I loved all of it, especially our Christmas card, gazing at the ones we received from other families—a community, of sorts, to tout and hold dear.  It gave me an intense sense of belonging. 

So, as an adult, I took the photo-album-video-Christmas-card-baton, and raced to the finish every year with a family Best of book.  If the house was burning down, that’s what I would take—the Best of books.

It takes me hours to make these books, reveling in what we’ve created in the last year.  Making sure I have that perfect photo of every baseball and soccer game, every award ceremony and orchestra concert, every pinnacle moment, as, yes, proof of my amazing family, but also as proof of my motherhood.  And on Christmas morning, I love sitting with my family and flipping through its pages, ooing and ahhing over the past year’s achievements, high points, adventures, folly.

A few years ago, my family-of-four turned into a family-of-three.  My husband and I needed to end our marriage.  It was sad and shocking and deeply disorienting.  People told me that we were “still a family—just different.  A modern family.”  But I didn’t sign up for a “modern family.”  I signed up for a family with a mother and father as a united force.  It rocked me to the core.

I’m often asked if we’re okay, especially if the kids are okay.  I’m not sure what okay means.  We’re still feeling joy, inspiration, pride.  We’re still on adventures.  We’re still having pinnacle photo-worthy moments.  But during the holidays, in these post-divorce years, it’s all so difficult.  My gut says, Go slowly, keep it gentle, tuck in with your little family-of-three.  Time to re-boot your whole orientation of family.  So:  No Christmas card.  No Christmas party with the half-mile of luminaria and the carols around the piano.  And no Best of book.  Instead, I’ve focused on creating magic with my children, cozy around the fire, playing games, eating soup, pressure off.  This is living time, not documenting time.

But on those dreaded days when I can’t actively practice my motherhood, or “family-hood”—when my children are with their father and not in the other room, and I am alone….my productive (Best of) mind kicks in, almost breathless:  Go to a soup kitchen, visit a nursing home, find friends who are alone too– create a new tribe of “family.”  That’s usually the way I fly—carry on, hope-springs-eternal.  But for now, I’m listening to my gut instead, because I know that my new concept of family needs to find itself out of flow, not fear…and the truth is:  I’m very very afraid of who I am alone.  I can reason my way around this with great aplomb, but reason doesn’t help.  If I am going to move forward in a truly authentic way, I need to find refuge in myself.  And those alone Christmas moments are a good place to cut my teeth.

My gut says, Become your own family. Learn to take joy in the things your hands touch and deem holy, even if there’s no one there to witness it.  Smell the paper-whites in the window and have it be enough that it’s for your nose only.  Light the expensive candle and feel grateful for the way it focuses your gaze, fills the room with the scent of amber.  Put on special clothes and don’t care if you’re photographed in them or witnessed at all.  I trust my gut.  I have to find the light in my own eyes, alone.  I have to believe, once and for all, that I am okay, alone.  It all begins there.  And perhaps ends there too. 

So tonight, alone, in a cashmere robe, candle lit, I created a Best of book of these post-divorce years.  And something magical and Christmas-kissed happened.  Scrolling through my files of photos, I didn’t look for achievements and winning moments.  I looked for light in my children’s eyes, and mine too.  I looked for sacred.  If I saw it in a baseball championship or an Honor’s Society handshake, then I chose that photo.  But only if there was light in those eyes I love so much.  Including my own. 

Which means that as we leaf through this book Christmas morning, on top of all of my children’s radiant moments, there will be photos of me leading my Haven Writing Retreats, riding my horse, growing a life that is outside of the family I’ve fostered, and perhaps…in-so-doing, finding new “family.”  Maybe we can’t really move on…until I do.  Alone.  Maybe the definition of family is really a radical acceptance of self.  And once we accept that, both my mind and my gut tell me, we will find our family community thriving, even if it looks entirely different than we ever thought it would.

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Marina Illich, Ph.D. is a Bay Area-based executive coach and leadership consultant and the co-founder and principal at Broad Ventures Leadership.  With a doctorate in Buddhist Studies, she  spent five years in Asia studying Tibetan Buddhist practices for developing self-awareness, focus and resilience. She was recently appointed to the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls by Gov. Jerry Brown. Marina can be contacted at: marina.illich@gmail.com

Laura Munson is a New York Times best-selling author and founder of the critically acclaimed Haven Writing retreats.  She lives in Montana with her family of three (and one!).

 

 

 

 

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What I Learned on Career Day…

career
as featured in Huffington Post 50

Recently, I was asked to be on a panel of professionals for Career Day at a local therapeutic prep school in the Montana woods. I had no idea what to expect. I went to a prep school, but not a “therapeutic” one. I went to one that was all about having big answers to the “what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you- grow-up” question. As a dreamy, driven teen, it was a challenge that both daunted and inspired me throughout my high school career. My dreams were always out-of-the-box — an artist of some sort — an actress, maybe a film-maker … but luckily I was someone who figured out how to be comfortably in-the-box, keeping my out-of-the-box thoughts mostly to myself. So I wrote a lot. That practice turned into an obsession which turned into a craft which turned into a career. That was the goal for this Career Day: panelists were supposed to tell our stories — talk about the arc of our careers, then and now. But we weren’t talking to in-the-box kids. It turned out, we were talking, quite frankly, to our interior adolescent selves.

Given the nature of the students at this school, I knew that my story had to be as transparent and true as possible. These weren’t kids who dance to any level of BS. They’ve been through hard stuff and they don’t want the Kool-Aid. They want the raw, the real, the impossible possible.

I practiced my 15-minute presentation in the car as I drove further and further into the woods. I speak and lead retreats about the power of using my profession (writing) as a therapeutic tool, so I figured I had this one in the bag. All I needed to add to my well-developed story was the part about how I discovered that creative self-expression on the page is an excellent way to process life, and how I’ve learned to practice this every day, against the odds. How it sustains me personally, and now financially. Lesson: find out what you love and do it with all your heart, no matter what, and eventually you will succeed, whatever that means to you. I’m living proof. Easy.

The first panelist to present was a prosecuting attorney. I prepared for a serious talk from a serious person. Instead, he talked about wandering. Living in Hawaii. Surfing. Snow-boarding. Bartending. Being misunderstood. Feeling like a loser. Worrying his parents. Wanting something different. And finding his way eventually to a profession that meets his needs. The second panelist was a successful web-developer with prominent clients all over the world. In his presentation, he talked about wandering. Living in New Zealand. Surfing. Skiing. Bartending. Turning down corporate America for mountain living. Worrying his parents. Wanting something different. Inventing things. When it was my turn, I found myself telling a very similar story, mostly the wanting-something-different component. Oh, and I bartended too. And wandered. And worried my parents.

We had three rotations of students who listened to our presentations, all with interesting questions, and a modicum of blank stares. These kids were listening. And we on the panel were listening to each other … three times. It’s one thing to wow a crowd with your best one-liners, cutting honesty, and slightly irreverent stories. But looking into the eyes of these kids who’ve travelled miles of hard road, there was zero room for schtick. I pride myself on heart language. Turning heart language into schtick is a depressing trajectory, but truth-be-told, it’s happened to me along the way, likely out of a self-preservation that grows from being constantly on the road, sharing your message. Given this Career Day format, there was no way it was happening here. Quite probably because of this fact, what I saw in myself and my co-panelists (we supposed “experts”) was a fountain of truth.

The first time around, we gave blow-by-blow plays on the journey of our careers. Fascinating details. Twists and turns. Yellow brick road of success with pitfalls you only admit when you’ve found your way to Oz. The second time, we three offered more — personal stuff, odd vignettes that ended up inspiring major life choices right down to a conversation on a plane and a pair of flip-flops. But before the third group of students came into the classroom, one panelist admitted, “I’ve been telling it wrong.” His eyes lit up and he offered to go first. He spoke about inventing things — got deep into what made him want to invent things and why. Which begat a confessional from the other panelist about how he didn’t always love his profession, but how he has learned to live by his principles, moment by moment. And when it was my turn, I got ready to tell my usual story — about wanting to follow my passion with all my might, even if it left me poor and unpopular … but instead, this voice escaped like it was pulling free from very old shackles:

“I wanted to be famous. Really famous. Meryl Streep famous. I was jealous of Julia Roberts. I wanted that career. I was jealous of the literary brat pack from the 80s. I wanted those careers. Desperately. But the voices inside my head were so loud: you’re not good enough, your dreams will never come true, who do you think you are to have those lofty dreams, you’re a show off, you’re self-centered, you’re not talented, you’re an embarrassment to your family, you’re a failure.” My heart pounded and my face heated, but I continued. “I’ve let my inner critic run me. Until very recently. Even though I give speeches and lead writing retreats about how to become aware of that voice and shed it, I’ve still allowed my inner critic to hold court. I don’t want that for you all.” And then privately, a very new thought brought me to my proverbial knees. And I added, “I never realized until this moment … that I’ve allowed her to be much freer than I am. She lives out-of-the-box. I’m the one still somehow in-the-box because she tells me the story, and I dance. I don’t want a story. I want to be rid of stories and just be.”

I looked at those kids and I realized: that’s what they wanted — to be free of their story. Of their pain, their pressure, their past. To free themselves of boxes altogether. And yes, to have permission to wander. And worry their parents.

I ended up staying for lunch. I sat with the students and answered more questions but mostly I listened to them. I commended them for being different and admitting it and wanting to understand themselves, truthfully. I commended them for being honest and outed for exactly where they are in their evolution. “Most of the stories we tell ourselves are myths,” I told them. “If there’s one thing to live by, it’s that. Find your truth, no matter how inconvenient, and live into it. And for what it’s worth, the “experts” are really grown-up high school kids, scared, just like you.”

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You Are Arriving

This is for all the brave people who have joined me at Haven Retreats, and for those who have yet to come.  The journey is everything.

There are a few poems that have kept me together in the last little while of my life as I’ve gone through the end of my marriage.  This one is at the top of the list.  Whatever end you might be coming to– the end of a relationship, the end of a job, the end of your family as you know it, empty nest…read this and know you are not alone.  The video is a wonder too.   yrs.  Laura

The Journey

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

– by David Whyte

 

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Free Boys.

I haven’t put my kids’ faces on my blog before, but I just couldn’t resist this. My son and his dear friend made up a song and they sing it all the time. May we all sing. And sing. And make up songs. And smile. And shout them. And share them. Without self-consciousness. Yes is a world that children well know. I want to live in that world. (my kid is the one on the right.)

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