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Haven Winter Blog Series: My Haven

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Come wander in your words at a Haven Writing Retreat in 2018!
You don’t have to be a writer to come. Just a seeker who dearly longs for your voice.

Now Booking Haven I Retreats for 2018. Click here for more info!

February 28-4
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year I give my blog over to my Haven Writing Retreats alums for a week or so, and ask them to write on a theme. This year it’s this question: What is your haven and how do you show up for it? 

Here is my answer.

My Haven

Helen HaileSelassie

Helen HaileSelassie

There are plenty of life occasions that entice us to go in search of a place of refuge, of a space that promises calm and safety. My haven is shared amongst many and yet unique only to me. It is within the confines of an age-old building with explicitly carved stone walls encasing stained colorful windows that capture the reflection of light and disperse it into countless angles of rays. It is a church I frequent, a corner of it I have silently claimed as my own, the small encapsulated space within the grander place that has relentlessly and benevolently heard my secrets, witnessed my tears, and shouldered my burdens. It is the place that allows me to revert into my soul and lets me touch the purest surface of my consciousness.

From the moment I open the gigantic wooden doors that require the strength of both my arms, I am welcomed by the strange yet familiar scent of incense. As smell is one of the strongest triggers of memory, I am inevitably transposed into a space that is warm, forgiving, and guiding. The echoes of my footsteps on the linoleum floor awakens me to the reality of my physical surrounding. I look around and see the wooden pews with a bible on each seat lining the length of the church. I make my way past the tired looking pews, no doubt invisibly bearing the mortal burdens of unconsoled souls. I reach the front of the church with the elaborately decorated altar before I pass the innumerable candles lighting away the sins of the worldly existence and begging to be saved for a life that is unknown. With each step I take, getting closer to the quiet corner I always kneel by, I can feel the pressure of the days and months leaving my body, the past and the future losing significance, and only being surrounded by the peace that seems to emanate from the unseen and intangible to penetrate acutely into my mind, heart and soul.

As I kneel on both knees, I am reminded of the countless things I am grateful for. This mere act of being thankful for my blessings instills in me a sense of fulfillment and calm that would normally be elusive in the daily routine of life. As my prayer continues from thankfulness to that of guidance, I feel in touch with a divine being. Some would say this is the power of the creator and others would argue that it is merely reconnecting with the God in us. I choose not to get too entangled with the intricacy that has no perceptible answer of whether there is a divine being in all of us that we can tap into through prayer and meditation. But I know only the feeling of sacredness that exists in the place I find to be my Haven, the source of which is beyond the tangible world and lies in the secrets of the divine. It is the place that has quieted down my anxieties, delivered the answers to my worries, guided me to follow the path that has been set and assured me that if I practice letting go, the answers will always manifest. So time and again, when the natural and ordinary world fails me, I show up at my haven to make peace with the unknown in return for immediate calm and eternal joy.

Haven Winter

Brenda Johnson Kame’enui

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Tall Douglas fir and cedar trees line the road, boughs bowed to the ground with the burden of snow. A breeze tosses branches and sunshine catches flakes in flight. The glitter against the sky is dazzling.

“My stars!” I say. What? My mother, widely recognized for her pithy expressions, used to say that, but I don’t remember ever saying it myself. In the few years since Mom died, my sister and I have entertained ourselves with imitations of our mother, but we haven’t called on the stars.

You’d be taller if you didn’t have so much turned under at the ankle; you look like something sent for that couldn’t come; a horse apiece; six of one, half dozen of another; don’t wish your life away.

This is a star-studded moment. The sky, icy blue between trees, above trees, and through lacy branches, features a faint star here and there. I’ve braced myself against the cold with mittens and mufflers to spare, and I point my skis down the trail. There’s nothing left but the poetry of this moment in this place. I’m lucky to spend a week in the North Cascade Mountains.

The sun’s warmth releases snow from an upper branch. “Plop.” The silly sound repeats on a sunny stretch of the path ahead. The snow is cold and dry, and the trail is fast–someone skied out ahead of me this morning. The hills are a satisfying challenge, and the rhythm is easy. Lift, glide; lift, glide.

I break new trail as I cross Railroad Creek on the footbridge, moving through fresh snow piled in a narrow wedge between railings. The creek’s riffles reflect the sun, and the water is fast but clear. I can count the rocks on the river bottom. If I stood here long enough, I imagine I would spot fish tucked under speckled rocks at the edge of an eddy.

Across the creek, I climb a tabletop hill. It’s a long, steep cut through fresh snow, but I’m not breathless as I reach the top and pick up speed. The North Cascades loom in dazzling splendor both behind me and up ahead.

At home in Oregon, the Cascade Range forms an orderly line—plink, plink, plink—of volcanic mountains, from the Crater Lake caldera, north past the Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson to Mt. Hood. I’ve skied below and between these ancient volcanoes, and there I’ve also uttered variations of awe and wonder. On a recent ski to Potato Hill, I proclaimed, over and over again, “I am so happy!” The  constant refrain didn’t annoy my skiing companion, who made the same excited exclamation. When we skied into a clearing with a view of the Three Sisters and Three-Fingered Jack, we both shrieked.

The North Cascades of Washington are different. The “Alps of the West,” these Cascades tower in magnificent clusters. Every step is a photographic moment. I ski a wide arc on the wide tabletop, taking advantage of the 360-degree view. This is the best. I am so happy.

When I leave the flat stretch to ski down through the trees, I must pay attention to navigate the trail. I hear nothing but the glide of my skis and the wind soughing in the trees. I move in and out of their shelter, careful to avoid the tree wells.

I ski from one sanctuary in the woods to the next. There is no place I would rather be. I arrive at another clearing with another imposing view. The mountains have moved even closer. My stars! Don’t wish your life away. 

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Haven Winter Blog Series: My Haven

IMG_0522Come wander in your words at a Haven Writing Retreat in 2018!
You don’t have to be a writer to come. Just a seeker who dearly longs for your voice.

Now Booking Haven I Retreats for 2018! Click here for more info.

February 28-4
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year I give my blog over to my Haven Writing Retreats alums for a week or so, and ask them to write on a theme. This year it’s this question: What is your haven and how do you show up for it? 

Here is my answer.

My Haven

Noha Al-Kadhi

My Haven

It has been a steady flood of colossal losses.

Within a window of six years, grief depleted me, starting with the tragic loss of my father, followed by that of my grandmother, only to be shortly shadowed with the sudden parting of my Basma, and ending–as it all started–tragically, with my husband passing away in my arms.

In the aftermath of those irreplaceable losses, I found myself in a position of choosing between doing what is right as opposed to what is popular. I chose the former.

And in doing so, I also lost a great deal.

In the wake of these past six years, which seemed the longest of my life, yet shortest…

Years that have been tremendously challenging, yet rewarding…

In the outcome of the immense losses, I have found great gain…

In these years, I have grown and risen from the brinks of despair only to find hope and optimism…

And in this process, I have learned how much I can endure and persevere…

How much I can continue to give, receive, and carry on, even if that meant starting from scratch and rebuilding from square one.

And as I slowly emerge from this prolonged submersion, as I finally begin to catch my breath, as I start to settle in from all the chaos, and gradually quiet the noise surrounding everything that was once a part of me but now ceases to be…

I gradually wean myself off conventional notions and comfort zones and embark on a new path, a new life, trenching foreign ground where true colors bloomed into authentic bonds, and others dissolved into nothingness.

I have come to taste, feel, and touch the motions of recovery, the liberation of detoxification, and the freedom of sacred spaces, along with the comfort of solitude and learning diverse paths towards replenishing one’s energy.

Throughout this journey, I have come to discover my haven.

It is the harbor that I cannot identify as a single place, action, person, or object.

I have always found haven in my sons’ eyes, their smiles, in their happiness and joy.

I have found haven in old friendships and new ones alike, and all of which have never ceased to show up and stand tall.

I have found haven in the abundance of love with which my family continues to fuel my soul.

I am privileged to have found haven in the support from those I never expected, the many beautiful souls and countless faces that have touched my heart and blessed my life, regardless of the element of place where continents stand distances and oceans divide spaces.

Haven in the peacefulness of my powdery blue clad bedroom, perched on my dark blue armchair that sits in the far right corner beside the tall window that faces north.

Haven upon the gold colored padded mat, embroidered in arabesque designs, placed at the perfect angle towards Mecca, on which I kneel covered in my cotton cream wrap, my forehead to the ground whilst the call for sunrise prayer sounds euphoniously in the distant background.

Haven in my father’s memory, my eternal haven, my guardian angel…the soul of my soul and the heart of my heart.

These are all my havens and the refuge from all the mayhem.

However, my real haven lives in me…and it has emerged in the process of self-discovery, as I continue to recognize the fragments of myself that got lost as I traveled through the motions of existing, as I welcome and as I begin to realize who I am indeed.

In trusting my path and allowing it to merely be…knowing I am forever held, unceasingly cradled, and eternally supported.

I have found all these havens, in which I have come to witness how a world of love can guide a person safely back home.

Studio 14

Wendy Yellin Hill

Wendy Hill

The day I sign the lease for my very first painting studio – an enormous, double-storied space with four very large, and very empty, walls — I feel so utterly unqualified that I am sure the landlord sees the word “Fraud!” written in neon letters on my forehead. I mean, sure, I talk a good game: I chatter away at cocktails parties how I worked for the late, great Irving Penn (true), that I trained as a photographer in NYC (also true if training is tantamount to wandering around the East Village with a camera), and that I have “always” painted. But by “always” what I really mean is that I take an occasional painting class when my schedule (read: family) permits. The classes are sporadic — they are often cancelled due to weather — and I lack discipline. As I push paint around, hoping for a good result or a compliment from a succession of increasingly random art teachers, I know that I am going to leave my paintings behind when the semester ends.

I soon realize that I will never become a painter, at least not a good one, by attending 3-hour art classes at the local JCC standing elbow-to-elbow with octogenarians in comfortable shoes. The classes afford me neither the space nor the time to actualize what is in my head. Thus, I want a studio of my own. But, still. What business do I have renting a studio in a building filled with real artists? Who am I kidding? When I sign the lease my palms are sweaty. I try not to flinch when the landlord hands me the key, because at this point in my head-movie she’s laughing hysterically, ripping up my lease and kicking me out the door. In reality, she just smiles and shows me to Studio 14.

The tenant before me has left two couches so I sit down and look around. Those four very large and very empty walls look back. I try not to panic. I remind myself that this is what I want: my own painting studio. I beat down the urge to flee.

And then I notice something: how quiet it is. My panic subsides as I realize that I am the only person in the room. No other painters, no teachers, no husband or kids. Just me. My studio.

I can do whatever I want.

My first paintings are acrylics on 60” x 60” canvases. In art class, I oil painted on small canvases, but in my studio something is unleashed. I buy cases of super-sized canvases and big brushes. I buy tubs of the boldest and brightest paints I can find. I fill a spray bottle with water and start to experiment. My acrylics, heavy-duty, full-bodied and lush, become drippy and wild when sprayed with water. I paint, all day, every day. I paint huge flowers and then color fields. I paint from photos and from imagination. I paint people and then abstracts. I paint using only black. While I would love to tell you that every painting is fabulous and they all sell like hot cakes, neither is true. Yet what happens is even better. I start to learn. I begin to really see. I become immersed in what had previously eluded me: the process, the actual problem solving, of painting.

It has been two years since I opened the door to Studio 14. I now paint in a way I never dreamed possible. And as my skills have improved, so have I.

In my studio, my haven, I am now, unabashedly, a painter.

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Haven Winter Blog Series: My Haven

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Come wander in your words at a Haven Writing Retreat in 2018!

You don’t have to be a writer to come. Just a seeker who dearly longs for your voice.
Now Booking Haven I Retreats 2018! Click here for more info.

February 28-4
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year I give my blog over to my Haven Writing Retreats alums for a week or so, and ask them to write on a theme. This year it’s this question: What is your haven and how do you show up for it?

Here is my answer.

My Haven

Heather Higinbotham

Heather Higinbotham

I’ve always had this dream of having a writing studio, an awesome and relaxing place where I could finally “be a writer.” It swirls around my subconscious like a familiar forgotten home: a cozy couch and fairy lights and teapot and library, a cool old writing desk and typewriter. Floor to ceiling picture windows, the snow whispering secrets outside. I’ve been daydreaming about this a lot lately, as I scramble from one life crisis to the next, scattered and stressed and having not picked up my journal in months.

I could make excuses about why I haven’t been writing, about how I don’t have the right writing spot, or the clutter on my desk hinders my mental clarity, or how life has been “soooo busy…” (eye roll). I could tell myself that someday I will be a real writer, once things settle down and I pay off my debt and start saving for my daughter’s college and can afford to spend my time on things that aren’t income generating.

I could, but I’m too tired of always operating from a place of scarcity. This has been my default for most of my life: never enough time, never enough money, never enough…anything.

This shifted for me a few years ago, when I unexpectedly found myself with an extra hour after an early morning run, before I had to get my daughter and me off to school and work. Something stopped me from my auto-pilot status quo, from doing what I should have—laundry, emails, something productive—and I made myself a cup of tea and sat on my back deck watching the sunrise. That was a luxury as a single mom working full time and attending grad school I could never afford myself.

I have started nearly every morning these past few years with my tea and mental white space. No matter the weather, no matter how early I have to wake up to gift myself this time. I don’t meditate, I don’t think about my to-do list. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I just sit. Almost without fail, by turning my brain off, my poems and words are suddenly clear and bursting to be let out into the world.

I now realize that my haven is not a physical place; it is a conscious choice. My haven is the simple act of breathing. Listening. Venting. Giving myself the space to not make my brain or body work, but to be curious and open about whatever my soul needs in this moment.

My haven is scraps of paper stashed in random places, stranded thoughts I don’t want to lose. I steal time at stoplights and stockpile words in every nook and cranny I can find. It is scribbled chicken scratch half written in dreams. My haven is fleeting at times, but always lingering in my periphery.

Most of all, my haven is learning to be gentle with myself. To know that no matter how crazy life gets, all I have to do is stop, and breathe, and remember that the time and space I need is up to me to choose.

Summoning the Owl

Michelle Roberts

Michelle Roberts

“Call on line two!” Phones still ringing.

“There’s a customer in the warehouse!” our manager announces from the doorway.

“I’m sorry. Could you repeat the credit card number? I couldn’t hear you.” Finger in my left ear.

In my twenties, I wouldn’t have believed that one day I’d be daydreaming about cubicles.

But working in an open office with three other salespeople, phones ringing and everyone talking at once, can make even half walls sound like a luxury.

As it is, two of our four walls don’t quite reach the ceiling, so the caveman intercom is our low-tech paging system.  Some days I don’t realize how noisy it is until my coworker turns off his small desk fan. The constant drone is only obvious in its absence.

A recent study found that two hours of silence led to cell recovery in the memory and emotional center of laboratory mice’s brains. There are days that I leave work needing more cell recovery than others.

Fortunately, my haven is just outside my front door. In our neighborhood, fourteen miles of walking trails wind around lakes bordered by century oaks.

I lace up my shoes with my head still buzzing like the desk fan. Blocks away and headed to Central Lake, my shoulders fall and my lower back loosens. My breath brings me back to my body as my mind clears. Instead of knots in my stomach, I feel the strength in the muscles of my hips and legs. The breeze along the lake is cotton on my skin.

Taking pictures of the same trees and bends in the trail, I capture the fading light at sunset as it glows through the Spanish Moss. No two photos are ever the same and it helps to see the beauty in the changing scenery. Reflecting on the fifteen years since we moved in, I can appreciate the differences in me. This is where I write. Each walk makes space for thoughts to come calling and the inspiration to enter. On especially magical days, the words are fully written by the time I reach my door.

By now it’s darker on the far side of the lake. Dusk is the perfect time to spot an owl, so I summon one. Over the years I’ve shared the trails with raccoons, birds, deer, a stray crawfish and a mother fox with the morning hunt still in her teeth. So often others pass without noticing their company, so I give them a special audience when they appear. These animal totems connect me to nature and the present moment, slowing my pace and my pulse.

Watching the trees, I hear him before I see him and, just as I’m passing, a Great Horned owl swoops across the trail to a branch high in the oaks. I stop. With only his silhouette visible against the sky, his head turns then faces me and I wait. Two runners with headphones speed past. My quiet deficit keeps me there. Soaking up the calm of standing still. When it’s time, in silence he flies across the lake and I continue on. In silence.

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Haven Winter Blog Series: My Haven

IMG_0007Come wander in your words at a Haven Writing Retreat in 2018!
You don’t have to be a writer to come. Just a seeker who dearly longs for your voice.

Now Booking Haven I Retreats for 2018: Click here for more info!

February 28-4
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year I give my blog over to my Haven Writing Retreats alums for a week or so, and ask them to write on a theme. This year it’s this question: What is your haven and how do you show up for it? 

Here is my answer:

I spend so much of my time in community with people who love the written word, inspiring them with guided writing prompts and the pristine wilderness that Montana offers. I love it. I love the bonds they make, I love to actually witness them finding their unique voice, I love hearing their minds stretch and grow, I love the look in their eyes as we hug goodbye, I love hearing these words, “You have no idea how much Haven just changed my life.” 

When I decided to lead writing retreats and workshops, it only made sense to call it Haven. My writing life has always been just that. It’s where I go when I’m scared or curious or proud or in love with life. I go there every day, usually in the morning, with a cup of jasmine green tea, in a small bedroom with coffee-brown walls, a pale-lavender day bed, paintings and prints hung all over the walls, the chest that my father was laid upon when he was born, a few dented file cabinets, a closet filled with unpublished books…and an armoire placed in a bay window which holds my computer, a shelf of first edition books, quotes and photos and museum postcards on the inside of the armoire doors, which I keep open, guts out, just like the way it feels to write. It’s dark and messy in that little room. I like it that way.

But it wasn’t until I started writing in community that I understood how good it feels to be inside-out with other people who are willing to expose themselves too. People who love the written word aren’t really in it to stay in shallow water. They want to take deep dives into dark, cold water and they want to come up with something in their hand that they can use back on shore. And they’re willing to go as far as they can, scrape the rocky bottoms with their knuckles and even their faces, even if they use up every last bit of breath and come up bloodied and gasping for air. But there are cautionary tales to this sort of thing: once you’ve done that a few times, or even once, you’re either a junkie and want more, or you let your better sense take over and you tell yourself that warm shallow waters with soft see-through white-sandy bottoms are much easier. Or maybe you tell yourself that the shore is where you belong. You don’t swim. Not even a toe in. What you once held in your hand wasn’t worth it. Even though it was the best thing you’ve ever held in your hand in all your life. Maybe you stop going to the beach at all.

I’m the other way. I’m a junkie for that knuckle-scraping breathless dive and gasp. I don’t really know who I am without it. I don’t want to know. I haven’t ever let myself think about it. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I don’t know what it is to feel stuck in that way. Other places in my life, you bet. But not there. Even when it feels like it might be the final dive that leaves me swimming up to that light, knowing that there might not be enough breath left to get me back for the gasp, even if it feels like I’m going to drop what’s in my hand and it’s the most rare treasure I’ll ever find…I don’t know how not to live in this way. It is my haven. And I know that it’s not always good for me. At all. Warm shallow waters would be much better for me.

That’s when a gentle voice reminds me: you don’t have to do this alone. You can bring people with you who can help you back to the surface, or support you with oxygen, or tell you when you can dive deeper or when you’ve gone too far. You can have a boat waiting for you at the surface with warm towels and cheers for your bravery and maybe a good lunch. That’s what Haven Writing Retreats and Workshops do for people. And even though I lead it, I still get the chance to do some of the prompts and stretch my mind along with the others in the circle. I get to be with word lovers and wild thinkers and it inspires me to take that deep dive every day.

If you are on the beach watching, I say, come. I have a boat for you. If you are at the bottom of the sea, running out of breath, look up and keep swimming. Reach toward that oar. You don’t have to do this alone. Because even if you’re on the beach, longing to put your toe in, your longing is real. And I promise you: Your longing is worse than running out of breath.

How are you going to find your words, if you aren’t willing to dive for them? You don’t always come up bloody and gasping. Sometimes, it’s a dive of ease, and the sea delivers them to you, shining on a ready rock. But you won’t know if you stay there on the shore, wondering, wanting, longing, waiting.

If words are your haven, I have a place for you. I have treasure for you in Montana. I have people for you. Here are some of their words about their own personal havens, and how they show up for them, whether it’s writing or painting or horses or a place they hold dear. Please enjoy, and take heart: when you’ve longed for too long…it’s time to dive in and see what’s there for you. It might just change your life.

First posts coming your way tomorrow!

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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…

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

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.

To read the rest of the post, click here!

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Stop Trying: The Holiday Spirit Cure

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thanksgiving Gravy Haven

17212146_10154113844731266_1738394229619340222_oNow Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peel and dice:

1 Turnip

1 Rutabaga

1 Parsnip

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

4 Yukon Gold Potatoes

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

2 Shallot cloves

2 Garlic cloves

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

1 yellow Onion

4 crimini Mushrooms (reserve the stems for giblet stock)

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

1 stick Butter

1 cup dry white Wine

Ingredients for final touches:

Madeira

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Liquid:

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

Lining your roasting pan:  (gravy gold)

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

Giblet Stock:

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

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

1 tbs. olive oil

Whole pepper corns

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

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

1 garlic clove– crushed

1 medium yellow onion quartered

1 Yukon gold potato quartered

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Holidays Re-invented: A Spoon Funeral

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

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

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

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

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

And then everything changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it wasn’t that way at all.

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

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

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

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

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

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

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A Summer Personal Writing Retreat: Turning your home into your sanctuary

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Say you want to write.  Say you dream of  a cabin in the woods like the one in this photo. With a little creek running through. A vegetable garden. And a writing table. No internet. No phone. A fireplace and a screened porch with a comfy bed and lots of pillows. If you looked at my Montana home, you might think my life is already pretty much like that. And if I put my house on VRBO and wrote: “Writer’s Cabin in Montana,” I would probably get some renters who are taking a break from their lives to write in just this dream I dream.

Real life houses, however, usually hold too many of our responsibilities for that kind of quiet sanctuary. There are too many plugged-in things that demand our attention. And often, too many people who need us. Bottom line for me right now: my life doesn’t lend itself to that kind of exodus. I signed up for this life and I wouldn’t wish away one drop of it. To everything there is a season, and in this season of my life I am writing three books on top of preparing my son for college, and his typical baseball rigor. Add to that the full time job of running my Haven Retreats. Enjoying a little summer in Montana on my horse and on the hiking trails would be nice too!  But how to find the time to write?

So rather than complain, or become resentful, or run myself ragged and end up flunking in every pursuit…I’ve developed a plan, and so far, it’s working. No matter what you’d do in a cabin in the woods alone this summer, regardless of what your life’s responsibilities are like…see if any of this regime could work for you in your current daily schedule (or maybe on weekends)  in the way of weaving dreams into realities, right where you are.  Some of my method might surprise you.  And what might not:  there’s a lot of writing involved. Writing grounds us, and a personal regime like this begs you to put pen to paper, and heart to words.  A personal writing retreat might just be exactly what you need, whether or not you are a writer.

Laura’s Walden 2017IMG_0014

Daily: (when possible)
1) Sleep in. And I mean late. Like til 10:00. You’ll likely wake up around 7:00, but challenge yourself to stay in bed for a few more hours in a sort of wakeful trance. Eyes closed. Mindful of your breathing. Letting the thoughts come in, but not land unless they feel natural and part of the pure flow that is your true nature. Breathe into them. It’s okay if you fall asleep. You’ll probably work with those thoughts in your dream state and wake up with a clean, whole, gumption of some sort. Take this gumption and write about it. I swear, this morning meditation is where all the good ideas are.  (Of course you may have something called a “day job” or children…but at least take a day a week if at all possible, and give this morning meditation a whirl.   Consider it an essential part of your personal retreat regime.)
2) Still in bed…once those ideas come, and don’t force them, take in a deep breath, write the first line in your mind, (but not the second—trust that it will come and you’ll want to be at your writing desk when it does), grab your bathrobe, and go directly to your desk.
3) DO NOT CHECK YOUR EMAIL. Not for one itty bitty second. Or God forbid, Facebook. Do not poison what must be pure, and what you have just hatched by your morning meditation.
4) Write the first line.
5) Then go make a smoothie. I have a Nutra-bullet, and I love it. I have on hand: frozen organic fruit like mango, blueberries, peaches, pineapples, coconut milk, flax seeds, fresh baby greens, and a banana. The banana makes it. It’s a green drink that tastes like heaven. Keep that one line working in you as you make your smoothie. I timed myself this morning: it took six minutes. No good idea will disappear in six minutes. You absolutely must nourish yourself.
6) With smoothie in hand, (and maybe tea or coffee as well), go back to your desk. Then give yourself two hours. At least. Two hours at your desk, writing. I repeat…do NOT go on the internet. Not for one nano-second. Even to research something for whatever it is you are writing. You do not want to end up buying boots when you are supposed to be working that meditation-hatched gumption into form!
7) Noon-ish. Now take a break. Make lunch. Sit somewhere and let go of the thoughts. Notice the world around you. Sit outside if you can. Watch birds. If your head is busy, start counting the birds you see to keep the thoughts from taking over. I’ve counted a lot of birds. Amazing what you notice when you break life down to winged things.
8) Now take a walk. This is the best way to let everything you have experienced today work through you. Something always happens when I take a walk. Allow something to happen. Maybe you come up with a new idea. Maybe you decide that what you wrote this morning is really just a warm up for something else that is more white hot inside you.
9) On your walk, if you really get cooking, try this: Interview yourself, as if you are on a national morning show like the Today Show. Ask yourself driving questions about the thing you wrote this morning. Things like: “What is your piece about?” “What’s at stake for your characters?” “What made you want to write it?” “What’s in it for the reader?” “What’s in it for you?”  Answer your questions using honed responses like you’d hear on TV. These are your talking points. Once you get them, go home as fast as you can and write them down. Or, in anticipation of this, bring along a notebook or a pad of paper. I don’t like to do that because it puts pressure on what could just be a perfectly good walk that doesn’t need to get all white hot. More of a processing walk. But mine usually run white hot. (Dirty secret: I have been interviewing myself for the Today Show since I was a little girl. That means I’ve been interviewed by Jane Pauley hundreds of times!)
10) Now return to what you wrote and read through it keeping those talking points in mind. They will be your guide in the progression of this piece, wherever it may go.
11) Or maybe you nailed it in two hours this morning and it’s ready to put on your blog, or pitch to a magazine or newspaper. But if you’re like 99.9% of the rest of us writers, you likely have more work to do. And that’s good news. Because you can control the work and just about nothing else about the writing life. With the exception of the last 10 ablutions.
NOW…plug in, do your laundry, pay your bills, go to the grocery store…
Bonus ablutions:
12) If you want to write more and you have the time, go for it! But set yourself up for completion by starting small with those two pure hours.
13) Print out what you wrote at the end of the day, draw a bath, and read it out loud to yourself with a good pen. Mark it up.
14) Start the next day the same way, only now you can meditate on the piece you started and take it further.
15) Begin by plugging in your edits from the night before and you…are…IN!
16) Have fun! In the words of Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

17) Rinse repeat…

Bleeding, then, can have a method to its madness. And creating a “room of your own” right where you live is entirely possible.

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

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

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Roll Call– What’s in a Name

botticelli_birth_venus_2In preparation for a writer’s lockdown for the next month, I’m reading some of my early Montana musings and learning from myself. This woman was being schooled by her need to see things from the inside out, coming into her intuition. Pour a cup of tea, take a quiet moment, and see if you remember this time in your life.  Maybe it’s right now…

The naming of things. I’ve never been very good at it. Seems so formal. Restrictive.
Babies don’t enter this world with the need to name everything in it. In their estimation, the world is not made up of nouns that must be pointed at; possessed. The world is merely an extension of their little selves, still more soul than flesh. The naming of things, then, becomes a social convenience. But every baby knows that it is not a matter of survival. We forget that, I think, once we discover that our index fingers have power.

It was the Renaissance that brought me around. I was living for a year in Florence, Italy as a student of Art History. The naming of names was not just a practice reserved for museums and classrooms in that boisterous city. Florence sang with names in a full crescendo Verdi. In the dome of the Duomo…Michelangelo… Brunelleschi… the bronzed doors of the Baptistry…Ghiberti…in the cornflower and squash blossom porcelain Madonnas and cherubini in vertical rounds throughout the city…Della Robbia…in the stone walls of the countryside…Etruscans…fig picking in the hills of Chianti…Gallileo… the great Palazzo Medici keeping watch, the spirit of Dante burning for a woman in a small church, the quiet river Arno reminding the Florentines that it can rise and destroy even a Leonardo, but not his name. The names that made their city great are in the hearts and mouths of every Florentine—child, teenager, middle-aged and old; you cannot get through a dinner without being reminded of the Renaissance and the events that led up to it.
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After a while, the novelty of hearing a place in fortissimo twenty-four-seven, became jaded– sinister almost. It was what I imagine the early stages of madness to sound like: a roll call in my mind’s ear– Machiavelli, Raphael, Tiziano, Donatello, Giotto, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca… A simple walk through the city became deafening: San Lorenzo, Santa Croce, Santa Trinita`, Orsanmichele, San Marco, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito—with always this maniac coloratura: Michelangelo…Michelangelo. One foot into the Uffizi museum and the brain throbbed with it. Like a horror film shooting from every angle—there: the famous angel playing the lute up in a corner almost lost in the red dark velvet. There: the reds and blues of Raphael…there: the fair pinks and periwinkles of Fra Angelico…there: the structure and hulk of the Michelangelos, the red crayon of the de Vincis pulsing three dimensional on a sheet of paper. And always those eyes of the Botticelli divas.
There was no relief, no sanctuary. How could I sit in a café drinking espresso when The David was within walking distance? How many times should a girl spending a year in Florence visit the David before she really knows the David? Once a day? Twice a week. Twice a day? And what about the Slaves? Don’t forget them in their eternal half-emergence from their Carraran marble tombs. What about the unending palazzos, piazzas, chiesas, ponte? The tapestries and frescoes, the nunneries and the catacombs, and the gardens—the gardens? Every moment of looking down was a promise of missing the name that would surely be there should I look up.
But what about the tomatoes? The long stemmed artichokes and blood oranges, the walnuts and purple figs and hot chocolate so thick it hangs at the end of your spoon? What about the little forgotten churches, cold and wet, with a quartet practicing Vivaldi in the apse?
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One day, I folded under the aural heft of it. I turned from the gallery of the Uffizi I had been skimming, and I ran—past Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Michelangelos’ Holy Family, Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino– past postcard vendors and character artists’ easels—past whizzing Vespas and women walking arm in arm– down to the Arno, where in a full sweat, I vomited. And I watched the voices drown in the steady slow stink until they were gone.
“You’re one of the lucky dozen,” said an old Italian man pointing at me with his cane as if he had been sent from the Renaissance to rub salt in my country’s artistic wound.
“Scusi?” I said.
“Il Stendhalismo. Stendhal’s Disease. Dizzy in the head and the stomach from all the art of Firenze. At least a dozen tourists get it every year.”
“But I live here,” I managed to say in my borderline Italian.
He smiled and shrugged and walked off as quickly as he had appeared.
I made a pact then. I would leave one museum unseen. Unheard. Its faces un-named. The other famous Florentine museum: The Bargello. I would save it. And instead, I would go slowly through the halls of the Uffizi for one year until the voices simmered to a whisper, or better, became woven into my heartbeat like a monk’s prayer.
It worked. Months later, I made my usual pass along the wall which holds the Birth of Venus, and stopped dead center. Not because I wanted to name her, but because I needed to forget a lost love– stare at something so beautiful, it would flush the hurt away. I stared into her wise eyes and her figure started to tunnel out of the painting toward me with a promise: she would clean away my heartbreak if I would not close my eyes. So I stood there, my eyes fixed on hers until they stung, museum patrons coming and going, reading the plaque beside her, saying the word Botticelli and leaving, and I stayed until there were sea-cleaned tears falling down my cheeks. Now, when I look into the eyes of the Venus on the half shell, I do not need to say Botticelli in order to believe in her perfect flaxen place in land, sea and sky.
I spent my last day in Florence making a café latte last four hours in my favorite outdoor café, around the corner from the Uffizi, one piazza away from the Bargello. I needed to return to the States with the taste of espresso in my mouth and the stink of the Arno in my nose and the perfume of squashed tomatoes fallen from street vendors, the sound of the horses’ hoofs and high-heeled shoes on the cobblestones. I did not hear Puccini or Verdi, not even in a pianissimo.
Instead, I overheard some tourists talking on the street corner, clad in money belts and brand new Nike sneakers. “Yeah, it’s been an awesome two weeks,” one said to the other similarly vested American, introducing herself. “First we did Paris, and then we did Madrid, then we did Milan, today and tomorrow we’re doing Florence, and then we’re doing Rome for a few days and flying back.”
That sealed it. I did not do Florence. I learned that year that a place cannot be done. Whether you have one minute in it, or an entire lifetime. The ultimate difference between doing a place and being in a place, I suppose, has to do with an openness, but too, the privilege of time. I will never know Florence like the Florentines do. But I understand the place past the name. And I understand that a name is just a name perhaps, until you have sat for many hours, and sipped a cup of coffee knowing it is there, around the corner. Having surrendered a lover in its midst. Trusting that it can clean you the next time you look it in the eye.
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***
It took three years of living in Montana before it dawned on me that all cone-bearing trees are not called Pine trees. It took me five years of living in Montana before I could see that the structure of the distant hills was different from hill to hill. Six, before I could see what the hills were made of. Seven before I would stop and stare at a Hemlock and wonder why there were not, then, Cedars or Subalpine Fir dwelling nearby. Eight before I could tell when the Larch were just about to go as flaxen as the Botticelli Venus, before they went bare and asleep. And I got stuck there at eight for a while because I decided it was time for field guides and the naming of names—and suddenly my pack became heavy with books on wildflowers, trees, scat and track identification, and binoculars, and my walks in the woods were half spent with my nose in a topographical map. Suddenly my walks in the woods were like my early walks through the galleries of the Uffizi, with a running commentary of names: Fir, Larch, Subalpine Fir, Grand Fir, Cedar, Hemlock, Lodgepole, Ponderosa. And I was not seeing the forest anymore.
So I backed off. Lost the field guides and maps. Started riding horses and not carrying anything but a bottle of water and a piece of fruit. I cantered through the woods so that the trees were in constant blur, hoping that with my new vantage point, I might not see a Larch and think: Larch. And that brought me through to nine. My ninth year. Now. Today. When the forest started to sing.
I was sitting at a glacial lake, ten or so miles from home, not remembering that it was late September and that the ten o’clock sunsets are a thing of summer past. I had come to the woods not in the pursuit of trees, and not to forget a lost love, but to forget a potential one.
My husband announced that morning that he wanted to be scientifically done with our life “as breeders.” No more kids. I heard bits and pieces of it—one of each…enough for both sets of arms…we fit just right in a canoe…airplanes trips still affordable…college tuition possibly manageable if we start saving now…no shared bedrooms…we can take that trip back to Italy you’ve been talking about since I met you—show the kids all those paintings you love so much.
“I’m done,” he said. I heard that loud and clear. He wanted to know that I was okay with that.
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So I lost light tonight at the lake, thinking about the fact that we humans have one miracle left that we can at least court, if not perform. An outward and visible sign, I think the Sunday school quote goes. Still, left up to Mystery, but perhaps, if all goes well, possible. One last stroke at genius—one last connection to the Creator. One last place of true breathlessness. Surrender.
And he wanted to cut off that line to Divinity in a matter of a few minutes in a fluorescent-lit doctor’s office, all for a small fee. “I think insurance pays for most of it,” he said.
I lost light watching the last of the bug hatches, and the fish rising and the clouds going crimson, breathing shallow little strikes at feeling okay about the last of my motherhood. No more would my belly swell with life kicking and swimming inside me like that mountain lake. I tried to force a cavalier alliance to population control. But it seemed all wrong, no matter how I tried to wrap my mind around it.
And then it didn’t matter, because it was dark. And I was far from home. And I wasn’t sure I knew my way. I’d always heard that horses did, but there were steep cliffs my horse was willing to go down in the dark that I wasn’t, and so I needed to be her guide. And I didn’t feel like I could be anyone’s guide just then.
I mounted and, loose-reined, she led me to the trail. The moon was a thin crescent—not much for lighting paths through thick stands of Fir and Larch. I turned her one way and she hesitated, ever-loyal, and I made my mind blank. Putting take me home…make my decision for me…into a parcel of intention she might be able to translate; horses are the most intuitive animals I have ever shared dark or light with. She stepped forward and I went with her into the dark woods. And I went like that for what seemed like miles and miles, not being able to see the trail, not really caring all that much, mourning my unborn children, trusting.
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And then I thought about the Venus. How she asked me to stare into her, believe in her until my eyes stung with her cleansing power. I let out a sigh then. And my horse stopped. We were at an old granddaddy of a Douglas Fir that I recognized; it was the one that stood alone in the clear-cut, like some logger had just been too taken by it to cut it down. My horse was still; dormant. I looked up into its branches; they were full and architectural. Second growth. Maybe third. But statuesque and mighty in a way trees aren’t allowed to be around here much anymore.
I let my head fall back against my shoulders and sighed and let my breath rise up into its branches the way I had let the Venus pull out of her painting. And I held and it stung, only not in my eyes, but in my ears this time. And I did not say, Douglas Fir. I said, “Thank you.”
And we went then, through the next few undulations of forest until we were climbing the steep hill home. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it for all its silence. And I could smell it, for all its running sap. Rotting stumps. Dusty bottom.
I leaned forward on my mare’s neck, holding her mane. And we crested the ridge. Then back I leaned, holding firm with my knees, letting my hips go loose in her rhythm. Hearing the scuttle of scrim and glacial tilth, grinding under-hoof. The rustling of scrubby brush and nocturnal beasts, not the sort to trust daylight at all.
On the flat ground, we cantered. I held on to her mane, breathless in the dark. And I did the reverse. I closed my eyes.
I felt it: clean.
And the forest sang us home.

To plug into your intuition through the power of words and Montana…come to a Haven Writing Retreat this Fall 2017

September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8 (FULL)
October 18-22

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