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Stop Trying: The Holiday Spirit Cure

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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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Particulate Matter– a Lesson in Surrender

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I forgot about this essay until the smoke from the fires burning around the West put me on a kind of house arrest this week.  All the windows were closed, every fan was on, and I longed for the fresh Montana air that I so love.  It reminded me of a perilous fire season in the early 2000′s and I searched through my files until I found this essay.  The baby in it is now a senior in high school, the five year old, a senior in college.  It was in the early days of my motherhood and I felt raw and scared and protective.  There were forest fires raging close to our beloved Montana home, and I was beside myself with the feeling of helplessness.  I was still mostly a city transplant.  I wasn’t completely resigned to what I now accept as the natural order of things in the wilderness.  Thankfully, the man-made structures in our valley escaped destruction that summer.  And thankfully, back here in 2017, the smoke cleared out with last night’s cool winds, the windows are open, and the air is fresh.  We can all breathe deeply again.  Reading this essay brings me back to a time when anything was possible, good or bad, and I was new in the field of surrender. Seventeen years later, I am glad I know that to be in the “flow” is simply to know that there is a “flow” in the first place.  Enjoy!  

Particulate Matter   by Laura Munson  This essay is dedicated to anyone who has lost their home or business to forest fire this summer.  Or whose property is still in peril.  It was originally published in the Mars Hill Review.

Montana is burning, again.  Outside is a slur of orange and floating ash that looks like we are living on the set of a Sci-fi B-movie from the Sixties.  The green grocer says it looks like a Jehovah’s Witness church marquee come true:  the world is ending.  The world is ending and all the Hippies are walking around wearing gas masks as if they will be the chosen race.  The farmers are harvesting their alfalfa crops, lungs and all.  I guess they figure they will meet their maker first.  To me it looks like life inside an old sepia-toned photograph with no one smiling except the baby.

My baby doesn’t know not to smile either.  He is ten weeks old—as old as the fires that burn in Lolo, Werner Peak, Moose Mountain, Big Creek near Glacier National Park and on and on.  One fire burns one thousand acres and counting, just eleven miles away from our house.  Another burns 14,166 acres, northwest of a town called Wisdom.  I close the newspaper and hold my baby tight.  Please God, don’t let our valley burn.download

AM radio has political pundits spouting off against environmentalists—mad that forests have not been thinned in the name of owls and small rodents, their threatened extinction a small price to have paid in exchange for the dozens of houses that burned in last summer’s fires, and the 900 houses state-wide that wait, evacuated, their denizens on cots in high school gymnasiums.  Others think it’s Conspiracy Theory—that the feds are not fighting the fire with the man-power they could in the interest of turning a profit on salvage logging in land otherwise protected as endangered habitat.  Some say the firefighters are heroes.  Some say they are “money-grubbing opportunists” in an impossible war.  Some say that they should let the fires burn—that the only thing that will stop blazes of this magnitude is snow or days and days of heavy rain, and that the millions of dollars being spent on fire lines and air attack is not only a waste of money, but a serious threat to watersheds, and renders the forest less resilient to fire in the end.  Old timers I know who have seen fires rip through this valley before just lift their eyes unto the hills and nod the way you might if Ghandi was your commencement speaker—Ghandi, the same man who said, “Suffering is the badge of the human race.”  My baby sucks and rests and searches for his thumb and actually says “Goo.”

I find myself walking around the kitchen with a fly swatter, taking care of tiny black fates– things I can control.  And I find refuge there.  I can’t see the flames, but I see on the news that in one day the local fire– the Moose fire– has expanded from 4,700 acres to 14,000 acres, with one flame front running four miles in four hours, another cruising three-quarters of a mile in less than twelve minutes.  Even if I could see the flames, my garden hose is short.  I go out to my smoky garden and spend an hour watering a thirty-foot long by six-foot wide perennial bed, and two pots of tomatoes.  I put my faith in my still-green tomatoes.  I have to.  I cannot afford to sap my faith in tomatoes with my fear of fire.  They say they could rage until the October cool-down and it is only August.  They say that fires this big have minds of their own.images (5)

There is skittish solace in the mundane things that need to happen whether our twenty acres of Big Sky are consumed in flames or not.  The baby needs to be fed.  The toilet paper roll replaced.  The dishes washed.  The peanut butter and jelly sandwich assembled for the five year old who will play hopscotch at summer camp today, unimpressed with the ratio of particulate matter to breathable air.  I try to ignore the hot wind that bends the cat tails in the marsh behind our house that in two months has gone from canoe-able pond with mating frogs and foraging Sandhill cranes and resting loons, to a dry, cracked vestige of grasshoppers and confused snails.  I try to ignore the fire bombers that drone overhead back and forth all day, driven by what I must deem as “heroes” in a war that we can only imagine.

I hold my baby and smell his head and think of all of us, living in the mundane despite the magnitude of mortality and belief and fear and faith.  I think of the tiny things that weave us together that we don’t think to talk about, but that engage the moral majority of our minutes here on earth.  Buttons, cups of coffee, socks and shoes.  And I want to cling to these things.  I want to dwell in the community of controllable things.  And instead of feeling their burden, I want to find the blessing there.  Not just because I am scared of fire.  Not just because I look into my baby’s eyes and wonder if our future will be long together, come fire or disease or what may.  But because the flames I cannot see remind me to love what I can love.  Or at the very least, to take the funnel clouds they leave in their skyward wake—sometimes climbing 40,000 feet– as part of the mystery that implores me to be content with my little place on earth.  My humanity.  My chores.  My grocery list.  But the smoke…the unseen flames…must I love them too?  Jim Harrison writes in his Cabin Poem:  I’ve decided to make up my mind/ about nothing, to assume the water mask,/ to finish my life disguised as a creek,/ an eddy, joining at night the full,/ sweet flow, to absorb the sky,/ to swallow the heat and cold, the moon/ and the stars, to swallow myself/ in ceaseless flow.

I struggle with this flow.  I struggle with my community of seens and unseens.
images (4)Outside the wind picks up; it feels gratuitous.  Sinister.  I drop my garden hose, short as it is, and return to the cool, stale-aired house, windows shut tight for weeks now.  I pace like a caged cat, peering out the windows at the pitching and heaving lodge pole pines.  Lodge poles need the high heat of forest fire in order for their cones to drop their seeds.  If the lodge poles could pray, they would be praying for this exact wind.  Am I to accept our destruction for the sake of lodge poles?  Am I any kind of environmentalist—any kind of faithful servant of the Creator, or steward of Creation, if this is my prayer:  Please God, make the wind stop?  Am I to be bound only to the mundane by my faith?  And accept the rest as Higher Order?  The Natural Order of Things?  My own fate therein?  I am a twentieth century woman:  isn’t there something They can do about this?  Some button to push…some button to un-push?

You see, somewhere in this “flow,” I am a mother; it is my instinct to protect.  I know that for me to attempt to fight the fire is fruitless.  What is my fight, then?  My meditation?  My prayer?  Can I be like Arjuna the warrior and fight, as the Hindu God Vishnu instructs, without thoughts of “fruits,” “with spirit unattached?”  Can I find Vishnu’s “meditation centered inwardly and seeking no profit…fight?”  Is my fight to be simply in the preservation of the tiny things that have been proven win-able in the ten digits of my human hands?  Sure Job had to give it all up, but must we all?  Must we at least be willing?  I scrub, I brush, I boil and bake—little strokes of faith—little battles won.  But I am not serene.  I am not surrendered.

I struggle with surrender.

The writer Annie Dillard in her Teaching a Stone to Talk finds God in a rock.  Is my Creator one who puts a rock, a lodge pole, before me?  Before my children?  Before this bounteous 20 acres of Montana in which we play and work and garden and grieve and pray and find home?  What kind of dirty trick is this that we are to love our place on earth—nurture it with all our might, but be willing to give it all up at the same time?  Wendell Berry in his Mad Farmer’s Manifesto says, “take all that you have and be poor.”  I don’t want to be poor spiritually or otherwise, if it means my land—the place where my children fly kites and catch frogs, where my husband and I have conceived our children, seen our first Northern Lights, built a Mountain Bluebird nesting house that the same bluebird returns to every year and whom my daughter has named, Hello Friend—if all this is to be reduced to char.images (2)

The apostle Paul says, “…we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”  I am groaning.  But I have words.  I want rain.  I want windlessness.  I want.  I want.  I want.  Perhaps it is this wanting that the Spirit translates to the Divine.  The Buddhist tradition says that we will not experience release from our suffering as long as we have desires.  So am I a complete spiritual flunky if I admit that I feel deep desire to preserve my place here on earth– that I feel an entitlement to my place?  Just how much should we grin and bear?  Or groan and bear?  What can we pray for and remain faithful?

I realize that there are no finite answers to these questions.  But it helps to know that I am not alone in them.  Tell me then, Humanity, that I can pray for the wind to stop, and then after that…in my utter befuddlement, pray to the sweet and ruthless flow of Creation not only for tomatoes to grow in my pots, but for excellent tomatoes to grow in my pots!  Tell me that the Creator is both Lord of wind and tiny things.  And that we are not to be limited in the extent of our wants—our fears, our passion plays.  Please, I beseech you, Humanity, do not tell me that I am entitled only to my sense of faith and my sense of love but not to a loved thing on earth—destined to accept the burning of my house, or say, disease in my child, as if the wind is more necessary than a child.  The wind is created.  The trees are created.  A child is created.  My house is created.  Tomatoes are created.  My daily schedule of car pools and play dates and meals and laundry are created.  Is there a hierarchy to the importance of created things?  Am I at least as dear to the Creator as a lodge pole pine?  Tell me that there is a prayer for all of us.  Because all of us, on some level, matter.

My five-year old daughter comes in to show me that her first tooth has come out.  If I am to surrender to forest fire, tell me, oh Creator, oh Humanity, that this tooth matters.  I hold the tooth in my palm and smile at her and she obliterates me with three fell swoops:  “I wonder if God likes the fire.  I wonder if the fire likes itself.  I’m going to go outside to play now.”  Maybe surrender is not a letting go, but an acceptance.

A going in, even.

images (3)Tell me then, oh time-travelers in this wondrous and heartbreaking “flow,” that not only does the mundane matter, but that it is holy.  Tell me that we are in this holy pickle together—that in your ultimate helplessness on this planet, you cling to what you can help.  That you too contemplate the advantages of brushing your teeth before or after coffee, almost daily.  Before or after orange juice.  Before or after sex.  Tell me that you too keep the buttons that come in a tiny envelope, safety-pinned to your fine garments but with absolutely no intention of ever using them.  Tell me that sometimes you notice that you incorporate the use of your forehead when you are folding towels.  And that in that instant, you laugh out loud.  Tell me that you laugh out loud.  I want to know that we are both laughing.  From Peoria, Illinois, to burning Montana, to Massachusetts two hundred years ago.  It is the echo of that laughter which will save me at three in the morning, breast-feeding my boy, watching lighting striking, slicing through the smoky night.  And prayer, I suppose.  But after prayer, it is the echo of humanity, not God, I am waiting for.  I want to know that I am not the only one pacing alone in my “smoky house.”

Tell me all this, and then tell me that the Creator, to whom time must certainly not be a linear stretch as it is to we mere mortal peons, must on some level restrict himself/herself/itself enough to the created hill-of-beans of my mind, and find mercy.  Tell me that the execution of these tiny things are our greatest acts of faith.  Because they are our fight.  Our meditations.  Our prayers.  Prayers to the moment.  Prayers to our futures.  Prayers without ceasing.

Most of all, tell me that our Creator loves us for the fears we have that lead us to the clingy worship of tiny things in the first place.  Tell me that you believe the Creator gives us the minutia to help us deal with the Everything Else—to find our connection to the rest of Creation.  That the Creator designed us to need the community of tiny things.  Tell me that the Creator invites all of it, like a parent does a child’s wants for bubble gum in one breath, and the cure for cancer in the next.  And that we can both pray for the wind to stop and for the rains to come.  And the fires to end.  And our children’s lives to be long.  And then in the next breath…the next groan…pray for plump, juicy, hose-fed, sun-kissed tomatoes every summer, smoky or not.images (1)

—2000, Laura Munson, Montana

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What to say when someone dies

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No one really knows what to say to someone when their loved one dies.  You can say, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” and maybe that’s true.  Maybe you actually know what to think or pray on that person’s behalf.  Personally, I’m never sure. 

You can tell them that you’ll be there for them—that you’re their middle-of-the-night-phone-call friend, and promise to sleep with the phone near your bed.  You can write them a With Sympathy card and let Hallmark say something in lofty cursive and sign your name with love.  Or make a digital card with organ music to have a more flashy effect.  You can go to the funeral and wake and talk about all the good memories of their loved one, memorialize them with a slide show, give a toast, even ease the pain with some good jokes. 

You can bring them soup.  Bone soup, if you’ve been there.  If you know how hard it is to eat when you are in emotional triage.  It gets physical fast.  And every bite needs to hold health.

You can use social media to show support, post by post.  But do you “Like” an announcement of death?  Do you “Share” it?  Do you “Comment?”  It’s all a way of observing your friend’s loss.  But in the same place you share about what you ate for breakfast? 

You can give them books:  A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, in which the minister rages against the loss of his beloved wife, himself, his God, and Who Dies, by Stephen Levine, especially Chapter 8, where he goes deeply into Grief as an ultimate vehicle of liberation, saying, “We are dropped into the very pit of despair and longing…an initiation often encountered along the fierce journey toward freedom, spoken of in the biographies of many saints and sages.”  But most people are not open to that journey in the first place, and certainly not when their hearts are shattered into splintered shards.

The truth is, and it hurts in the worst way…that ultimately, the mourner will be alone in their grief, and who wants to say that?  Who wants to bear the news that soon…people will stop Thinking, and Praying, and Liking, and Sharing, and Commenting, and bringing soup, and sending cards and emails and books.  Even the phone calls and texts will fall away.  The unspoken reality is:  People go back to their lives and you are alone.  You are in a club that you never wanted to be in.  And that’s when you watch Renee Fleming singing “Walk On” over and over on youtube as loud as you can.  And eventually…you do.  You absorb the grief.  And you start to see the “golden sky” she’s singing about.  But you never get over your loss.  Never.222

There is the opportunity, however, to use it.  If you’re in the club, you might as well be a steady and gracious club member.  I’m in the club.  And recently, one of my dear friend’s beloved husband dropped dead out of nowhere.  She’d lost her grandparents in their old age.  No one else.  She was bereft.  She asked me to write her a list of things that would help her, based on a phone call we’d shared.  Her mind was in a triage fog, my words were helpful to her, and she wanted to remember them. 

Here is what I wrote.  I offer it to you, if you are a new member of this club.  You are not alone.  And I offer it to you if you are one of those people wondering what to Think, Pray, Say…do: 

Hello, beautiful.  I am thinking of you non-stop.  Thank you for calling on me to be in your circle at this impossible time.  I am not afraid of this, so I’m glad you called me in.  I will be there for you.  The books you asked for should be there by the end of the week.  I will write some of the points I made on the phone here, since you asked for them.  If my words on the phone were helpful, it’s only because you are open to them.  I truly hope they help.  Here is what has helped me and some of the people I know who have been through deep loss: 

  • First of all:  Breathe.  I mean it.  That’s your most important tool to stay in the present, out of fear, and to sustain yourself.  You will find yourself holding your breath.  Try to stay aware of your breath no matter what and keep breathing…in…out…in…out.  Deeply if you can.  Little sips when deep is too hard.
  • Lean into Love.  Wherever you can find it.  In your God.  In friends and family.  In yourself.  Let it hold you for now.  Call on friends and family to give you what you need.  You cannot offend anyone right now.  Let us know what you need and tell us how to give it to you.  “Bring me dinner, please.  Come sit with me.  Read to me.  Sing to me.  Rub my back.  Draw me a bath…” 
  • That said, be careful who you bring into your circle.  Stay away from people who say things like, “He’s in a better place,” or “Everything happens for a reason.”  They’re trying to help, and maybe those things are true, but right now you need people who are not afraid to hold the space for your pain.  You need to find the people who feel easy and safe and not necessarily wise.  Keep your circle small for now.  It might be that you call on people very different from the ones you habitually have in your life.
  • Make sure to eat.  Even if you want to throw up.  Please, eat.  And drink a lot of water.  You don’t want to block your natural energy flow.  Your body actually knows how to handle this immense pain.
  • Lie in bed with your feet up. 
  • Take a walk if you can, every day.  Even if it’s short.  Just get outside.
  • Take Epsom Salt baths.  Lavender oil helps.  Keep some in your purse, put a few drops on your palm, rub your hands together, then cup your hands to your nose and breathe deeply when you need grounding.
  • Write.  If you can.  Just a little bit.  If you have it in you, at some point sooner than later, it’s incredibly useful to write down your vision of what was “supposed to be.”  I heard those words come from your deepest place of sacred rage and I believe that to write that story, as fully fleshed out as possible, would be an important step in one day sending off that “supposed to be” into the sea of surrender.  So that you don’t have to hold it anymore and you can live into your future.  Letting the supposed-to-be go doesn’t mean that you do it injustice or that it no longer exists in dreams and heart.  But it’s important not to have it become armor of some sort.  It’s not time now to surrender it.  But I do believe that it would be helpful just to write it out with great details as a way to honor it.  And one day…yes, to let it go.  Writing is the most transformational and therapeutic tool I know and I think it should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of wellness.  Keep a journal by your bed.  It helps.
  • When the terrifying, claustrophobic, impossible thoughts come, do not let them multiply.  Literally put up a wall that keeps them on the other side.  They are not your friend.  There is no making sense of this loss.  Unless your thoughts are loving and forgiving and helpful, banish them.  If you have to shout “NO!” then do it.  What you let into your mind should feel and act like the very best friends and family who would never let you entertain fear, but only shower you with love.  Love yourself.  There is no thinking your way through this.  This is a time to really find what it is to just…be.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe.  In out in out.
  • There is no check list right now.  There is nowhere to get.  There is no goal other than to fully live in the present moment.  You can’t skip steps with triage, grief, or healing.  Grief attacks at will, it seems.  Be gentle with yourself if you feel graceless around it.  You have to feel it to shed it.
  • Go slowly.  Be careful.  The only real wisdom I have gleaned from Grief is this:  Grief is one of our greatest teachers because it doesn’t allow for hiding places.  When we open to our sorrow, we find truth.   Your tears then, are truth.  Honor them.

That’s enough for now.  The main thing is to be gentle with yourself.  I love you so.  And the love you two shared will never ever go away.  He is Love now and he is all around you and in you.  If you can’t feel him, feel Love and you will be feeling him.

Hope that helps.  You can do this.  I am here for you.  I promise.  If only just to listen to your tears and let you know you are not alone.

Love, 

Laura

In honor of Dr. Nick Gonzalez 

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Learning How to Ask (and receive)

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A word on learning how to ask for what you need… (as featured on Thrive Global)

You hear this message in different word arrangements from different wisdom spinners, including your grandmother:  what goes around comes around, succor life and it will succor you, practice right actionbe of service.  I come from Midwestern farm stock and I’ve been grandmothered into this message from the beginning, as stalwart and straight forward as a row of corn.  I watched my mother and father live by it, and I paid attention.  But it wasn’t until my fourth decade that I realized that it was actually driving the essence of who I am.

It happened one day, a very bad day, when my world was being met with rejection on every front—marriage, career, teens…  And I sat in my office staring at a blank screen, thinking, Why do I do this writing thing with such devotion and fervor, and for so many years?  Nobody asked me to do it.  It’s financially counter-intuitive.  And it’s damn hard!  And out of my fingers poured these words:  “I write to shine a light on a dim or otherwise pitch black corner to provide relief for myself and others.”  There it was:  Service.  Service to others.  And service to myself.  Huh.  My career started approximately 24 hours later.

You see, that one line was the defining moment when I held the mirror up to my heart, my intention, my intuition, my passion—everything that drove me…and staked my claim on it all.  This is what I’m made of, and why I can continue my writing life, regardless of promises.  That was my service to self:  getting perfectly clear about what makes me tick.  And so it makes sense that in only five years, I was not just writing out of service from my little office in Montana, but actually sharing what had held my muse with hundreds of people in my neck of the woods.  People from all over the world, coming here, to work with me, and be of service to their muses.  And yes, consequently, to others, in community, and with all laud and honor to the written word.  The ripples of have been the most life-affirming endeavor I’ve known outside of motherhood.  And this branch of my career has stabilized my life and brought with it great richness, and opportunities.  But there were a few missing pieces in my business that required help.  Big help.  Help I had no idea how to ask for.  So I didn’t.

One thing that my grandmother would never have said to me, or modeled, or urged me to sew into my modus operandi, was ask and you shall receive That one was skipped over.  You didn’t ask.  You served.  And you didn’t serve to get anything back.  You served because that was the right thing to do.  Period.  Sure, giving the shirt off your back had its perks.  Someone might do something nice for you, and you’d receive that gracefully and with the appropriate card stock and your best cursive.  But ask?  Uh-uh.

So here’s what happened:  Anyone who has a business these days knows they should have a website, and what’s the most powerful tool on that website?  A really great professional video that nails what your business is all about.  Fawning, swooning, oozing testimonials don’t hurt.  But it’s the moving, speaking, feeling humans that tell the story of what it is that you do…that really seals the deal.  Everyone told me:  “You need a video.  A really good one.  Professional.  With drones and stuff.”  The problem was:  I lead very intimate, private, gatherings of seekers who do my retreats and workshops to leave the world of moving and shaking and being on the hot seat or in the fish bowl, very deliberately behind.  And bringing a videographer into the equation felt incongruent with the safe haven I promise.  In fact, it’s called Haven Writing Retreats.  I try to be only of service to my clients.  To ask nothing of them other than to put their hearts in their hands, check whatever currency they possess outside of their ability to be honest, kind, supportive, and wildly creative…at the door.  I don’t ask them to fill out evaluations at the end.  There’s no gift shop.  No T-shirt.  No mug.  No incentivized marketing scheme.  If anything, I’m chasing them out the door with writing prompts!  But man…it was true…a video would really help me get the word out, both as a service to those whose lives  could be changed by this experience, and to me too, as a business woman.  It’s a lot of work to find the right 100 people a year to come to Montana for this deep, reflective experience, and I knew that a powerful video would be a great tool to build those bridges.  But ethically…I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

And then something happened that has changed my faith in the world.  I was sitting at the dinner table with my February 2017 Haven group.  It was my advanced Haven II program for alums of the retreat, (for which you don’t have to be a writer to attend), who are now dedicated to finishing books, soon, and with the support of my Haven method and the group.  It was the last night.  We’d dug deep, we were all as tired as we were alive with new breath and new beating hearts.  They were talking so eloquently about their experience, and about the future, a reunion, how they were going to fight for it all, especially each other’s books.  And they were saying things like “How can we help you, Laura?”  

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Even though I fought it, tears broke from my eyes and slid down my cheeks, and I hoped they wouldn’t see it in the candlelight.  But they did.  I confessed.  But I did not ask.  I spoke to my needs.  “I need Haven.  For my own writing.  And I can’t find anything like it anywhere.”  And then these words slipped out:  “And I need a way for people to know just what this program is all about.”

The next day, there came a surprise.  The women had talked.  “We’ve all agreed that you need a professional video.  We’re filming it tomorrow morning instead of you taking us out for breakfast.  We’ll eat before.  We’re giving testimonials.  You’re getting interviewed.  It’s our gift.” 

Everything in me wanted to say noI can’t.  Thank you…but…

“And we also want you to come to our reunion.  Not as the teacher.  But as one of us.  We’ll teach each other using the Haven method.  And you’ll get to receive what you’ve created!” 

I looked into each of their eyes to see if there was any reserve from any of them.  They were all beaming and nodding.  And suddenly I was too. 

Haven Writing RetreatsIn a symphony I could never have orchestrated, one of the attendees made a phone call, and the next morning she showed up with two videographers who’d driven two and a half hours in a snowstorm.  They set up professional lights and cameras on tripods.  All I had to do was straighten a few pillows and put a little make up on.  And the rest of them arrived, smiling and beaming.  I could go on and on about the blessing of that day.  The gratitude circle that one of them suggested—the way each of them honored each other, one by one, sharing words of thanks.  How they each offered testimonials and discussed what makes Haven so special.  I have never been more speechless, more touched, more grateful.

Thanks to these loving women!

Thanks to these loving women!

And here’s the thing:  I didn’t have to ask.  Instead, I watched service whip around the woods of Montana and land in the palms of my grateful hands.  Thank you to everyone who has shared their Haven experience over the years with others, and especially to these incredible angels at my table.  Ripple on! 

Please watch the video at the top of this post, and if you like what you see, please share with anyone you know who is looking for their voice, loves the written word, who has a book project in them, or simply needs to reclaim the heart of who they are…in the woods of Montana.  Sometimes…you do need to ask.  I’m trying to learn how.

Now Booking 2017 Haven Writing Retreats

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

Film credits to Thomas Kurdy and his Ndigena video production

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The Melt. Are you listening?

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As winter melts, let’s listen to its last messages of sacred stillness. For it is in silence that our voices are born, fledge, and take wing.

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2017

June 7-11 (still spaces)

June 21-25 (still spaces)

September 6-10, 20-24

October 4-8, 18-22

I feel invisible in winter.  Every year, I steep myself in the varying greys, and even with a bright orange scarf…I feel like the palest grey.  I’m speaking of my internal landscape.  It is penury and I like it that way.  Northwest Montana matches my mood– sonata after sonata of greys from October to April—sometimes panorama, sometimes stuck in treetops.  But with the exception of the here-and-there sapphire skies, the blanket of snow I sleep under is a stark white-grey against the steel-grey sky.  Where I tap my keys, solo with accompaniment:  she is always my muse.  Always.  And no, it is not depressing.  Not if you need to be very very quiet for a while, and I do, if I am going to hear what it is that I am to understand and say when the world wakes up.  Even the Netherlands for the holidays matched my winter mood, only there it was in countryside mud walks and slick streets along the canals of Amsterdam.  Still grey.

I went this winter of 2017 with purpose, and it was with this purpose that I did this parsing.  What makes a person visible?  Knowable?  Seen not for the orange scarf, but for the woman wearing it, under the frozen bedsheets?  I wanted to know what this question of voice really means.  I spend so much time talking about how writing can help you find your voice.  But what does that really mean?  Because I don’t mean soap box.  Have you ever been on a soap box?  It feels good for about two seconds.  But it also doesn’t feel good watching someone on a soap box and thinking that you’d never have the guts nor the words to ascend one.  If we don’t listen in sacred solitude, how are we to hear behind the lies that say:  I don’t have anything to say that’s important.  Even if I had something to say, someone probably already said it better than I ever could.  Who am I to take that stage anyway?  It’s self-indulgent at best.

15401066_10154263575531406_2886694505637283739_nI live in an almost mute life in Montana in winter.  Unless I am leading Haven Writing Retreats or doing a speaking engagement, I’m quiet.  Writing.  Watching snow fall in swirling fury one minute, and then flake by floating flake.  Sun peeks.  Shies.  Retreats.  Raven flies by.  Chickadee and deer and squirrel prove themselves Bad Ass.  Icicles form, drip, break.  I see it through my window—the ozure dogwood, the only red. The Doug fir and larch the only green.  Except my dirty truck.  Which I leave in the driveway unless I am out of almost everything.  There is always something in the pantry.  I want to stay invisible.  I have thinking to do.  Writing to do.  Quiet to learn.  Restlessness to remind, because stillness is a better boss.  Because…I have learned…that stillness is where the true voice lives.  Like the frogs who will soon fill the marsh with mating cacophony.  Real voice comes from quietude.  Prelude.  Sonata.

It’s over now.  The ice dams are crashing off the roof.  There is gravel showing in the tire ruts.  I heard a red-winged blackbird yesterday.  I saw a V of Canada geese too.  Today the first robin pecked at stiff stink bugs on my roof.  The deer and chickadees tell them tales of stillness and staying and yes, penury, unimpressed with stories of migration and color, juicy bugs and monkeys.  My orange scarf will soon enough become kindred and invisible, next to wild honeysuckle, poppies, climbing ragosas.

And I ask:  Did I listen well?  Was I quiet enough?  Did I sleep or sleep walk?  Will I get wooed by all the waking?  The color?  The voices of spring that aren’t my own?

Because now is the time for greening and saying.

What is it that you have to say?

Listen to what’s left of the grey, as it melts.  It is speaking to you.

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Haven Winter 2017 Blog Series #9: Finding your Voice

Being passionate for our safety first is our bottom line non-negotiable.  Maybe then, pain wouldn’t have to be gain.  And walls would become doors, and pain would become passion and possibility.  And I’d like to think that a little writing along the way helps…At Haven, I teach people to find their voice, their passion, their sustainability through writing, in whatever form they choose. I use the phrase Find Your Voice often, and people often say to me that they have finally found their Voice, but what does it really mean?

Here’s how to know if you are in that confluence of pure truth and intention:  it’s easy. It’s flowing almost effortlessly.  You are not in the way of it.  It is as natural as it can be for you to be exactly who you are from thought to the form that is self-expression. Nobody can take that away from you.  Whether in your writing, speaking, thinking, feeling.  And it is quite possibly simply waiting for you to give yourself permission to let it finally out.  Or as my college professor used to say, “Stop clearing your throat…and speak.”

Yrs. Laura

 

Essay #17: Beyond Silence by Caroline Hemphill

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After tucking us in to bed, my mother would bring a bottle of wine and a glass down to the basement, shutting the door behind her so we wouldn’t hear her sobbing. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, given six weeks to live. My brother and I would sneak down to the kitchen and press our spying ears against the basement door. If I skated across the floor in my footed pajamas, my brother waved me back. We kept vigil, knees on the chessboard linoleum.

For a year after her death, I barely spoke. My voice seemed buried with hers. I was shy of life, timid, afraid to breathe. Writing was a way to become real. Over the years, I practiced all kinds of lives on paper. I wrote stories in the voices of animals. I wrote pastoral poetry while living in a trailer. In college, I went to plays, trying to figure out how to bait a line like Tennessee Williams:

Margaret: Y’know what I feel like, Brick? I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof.

Brick: Then jump off the roof, Maggie, jump off it, cats jump off roofs and they land on their four feet uninjured!

I wrote poems where it snowed and snowed. I copied other writers, their confidence, their daring. I wanted to be a writer but it felt like pretending. I wore concrete shoes. I typed with my eyes closed.

One morning, I woke from a nightmare that my boyfriend had run off with my best friend. I told him the dream over pancakes. It was real, I said. I’m here. With you, he said, annoyed. Within six months, he had stolen my truck and driven all night to bed her. I can’t blame him—she was beautiful—and I can’t blame her—she was beautiful. It freed me, and I am glad, now, though not about the truck. That experience told me to trust my dreams so I started to write them down. Chagall painted his dreams. Mary Shelley, Stephen King. Dreams allowed me to go further into the woods than I would venture in daylight. Within a few months of writing down my dreams and working the images into lines, I published my first poems.

When I write, I try to kick that basement door open. I take an ax to it. I run down the stairs to my mother. And she is never there. In reality, the door had no lock. I tried once to turn the tarnished brass knob. My brother grabbed my wrist. Listen, he whispered, and we pressed our ears to the door.

Before I could piece together my memory, I had to hear the silence after my mother stopped crying. I had to allow it to flood and erase everything in its wake. I became driftwood, an empty bottle, a plastic bag pulled by the current. Silence wins. But there is something on the other side of silence. It’s startling and sudden and not yours to keep like a piano spilling onto the street. The whole world is a door.

 - Caroline Hemphill

 

 

Essay #18: I Will Stand Up by Lauren Dembo Menis

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Here is my promise to you. I will stand up.

As a Jewish, South African woman, I have never felt the sting of racism or hate. I have been part of the oppressor class, and I carry that with me each day as a burden of guilt. I watched through a child’s eyes as my society, empowered by the rule of law, treated an entire race of people as a different class. I am no longer that child. And I will no longer stay silent. I will stand up.

Throughout my childhood, I saw my beloved Ray-Ray, a woman whose only choice, which is no choice at all, was to work as a live-in maid, to cook and clean for my family and to raise me while seeing her own daughter only once a year. I watched as she hid under the bed while policemen banged on the door, ready to take her away if she didn’t have the right stamps in her passbook. I saw her “home” in the back of our house, a room with a concrete floor, a bed and not much more. To Ray-Ray I promise that though I did not before, I now will stand up.

To Liz Thompson, whom I know only from a Facebook post, who held her purse and her tongue on the New York city subway while a man spewed his vile racism at her, while everyone around sat mute, I say this. I will stand up.

To those of you who were there, who watched as she was berated and did not stand up, I say you are complicit. Whether you were stopped by fear or civility or just shock, whether you are still adjusting to this new world where people suddenly feel they are allowed to bring their prejudices and hatreds from the darkness within which they reside out into the light, know that there is no longer room for complacence. This is not a time for silence. We must act. We must stand up for those among us who are targeted. Never mind that it could be you next. That is not the point.

The thought of Ms. Thompson, holding her purse and her words while her tormentor was allowed to rant, will not leave me. I wish you bystanders had stood up. Because it is no longer okay not to. And so I make this pledge to you. I will not stay silent. I will not watch as anyone is threatened or treated like they don’t belong or made to otherwise feel less than. I will use my voice, my words, everything I can to speak up for you.

To my Muslim friends and those in my community, when I hear someone tell you you are not American, that you don’t belong here, that your religion is not acceptable to them, I will stand up.

Last week, when the words of anti-Muslim hate allegedly from a city employee were captured from a Facebook post, we fought together. Through emails and phone calls and research, we spoke up. And we won.

To the self-hating bottom-feeder from my home state of Georgia who posted an ad for a barbecue grill as a “Jewish baby stroller,” while you are not really worth it, hiding behind your screen, you have been outed. You are nothing. And we will not let you win.

I am not poor. I am educated. I have white skin. And while I am suddenly aware of my Judaism like no other time before, it is not something you can see on me. But I will not be silent. Passivity is no longer an option.

To the man in the East Atlanta coffee shop who took a photo of the woman in the hijab and then called her names, she stood up. She videoed him and outed him. He was identified and shamed. And this is what it takes.

And so I ask you – who are you going to be in the strange new America we now live in? No time before in my lifetime has the cliche that there is strength in numbers been more true and more of a call to action. I heed that call because numbers start with one. We have marched and we have made phone calls and we have commiserated about the madness. But we must, as individuals, fight for each other. Because each act of hatred that is faced, each time a person who feels they have permission to engage in repulsive behavior is called out, is a victory for our humanity. The small acts are as important as the larger ones. We must stand up.

 - Lauren Dembo Menis

 

 

Now booking 2017 Haven Writing Retreats!

June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22

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

 

 

 

 

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Haven Winter 2017 Blog Series #8: Finding your Voice

 

Please consider opening to the fact that YOU DO have a voice, and it is your own.  Whether in your writing, speaking, thinking, feeling.  And it is quite possibly simply waiting for you to give yourself permission to let it finally out. 

The reasons why we might feel voiceless are endless.  What I hear over and over again is this:  “Even if I did have a voice, someone else already said what I have to say, or said it better. Who am I to think my voice is unique, or even matters in the first place?”

 To this I say: Who are you not to? 

To read more from me on Voice, click here!

Yrs. Laura

 

Essay #15: Why I Write by Carol Howard-Wooton

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We arrived at a Youth Hostel somewhere between Banff and Jasper at 4 pm. I claimed my mattress in the girls’ dorm and returned to my three-speed Raleigh bike to retrieve the green spiral notebook from one of the saddlebags. Finding a quiet place with enough light, I wrote about exuberant physicality – pedaling as fast as I could downhill chased by a snorting bear cub – escaping danger by what I now call grace. Back then, it was yet a another wonder I had to write about. Equal to the first time I washed my hair in a crystal clear waterfall, or that I was fine with only the clothes that fit in two small saddlebags, or that time Eddy, the cute older trip leader and I stood beside one another on an alpine slope, right after a thundershower – our eyes riveted by the danger that did not befall us and a luminous sunset-pink sky between two distant mesas. And I got the guy! I didn’t dare tell anyone, not even my best friend. It was Private. Writing captured awe, wonder, and heart-throbbing longing, and protected me from the stinging shame that always followed even good-natured teasing. I thought I was smart to not be stupidly trusting enough to speak my truth.

That little green book is safely packed in a box in my closet. Every time I hold it I am reminded of my Dad who worked in hot NYC that summer to pay the bills, and the generous, wise parts of my Mother who let me go on that first adventure where I formed my inner self through writing “in-ventures.”

Deep Time opened up again at age 38 after a stroke knocked me off the express train to success by 40. I wrote because I had time – lots of it. And was alone more than I’d ever been. I couldn’t drive. I wrote because I could. And, I was fascinated by being this bewilderingly strange me in a new body and brain. I’d watch and feel my hand slowly move across a blank white page. I’d try one kind of pen, then another, or a different color ink. I was doing something! I’d watch the hand that still knew how to form letters and mostly how to spell words. Words that represented my inner knowing even when it was so hard to walk down and then back up 32 stairs at our San Francisco flat. I wrote because I could hardly work. I wrote to name, feel, explore, understand who I was now and what all the loss meant. I wrote because, even with all the disability and uncertainty, I felt safe – held by an abiding love. I wrote because I was amazed the stroke led me to my life’s work: leading groups for Folks with Strokes.

The first poem of my own I dared read aloud wrote itself through me. On the last morning of a retreat on a mesa above the Pacific ocea for patient-oriented holistic medical professionals, our guide invoked the spirit of service that had called us together. She invited us to write prayers for our work. Spirit, voice, mind, heart, hand and service aligned. I trembled as my shy wisdom voice read. I looked up into the shining eyes of those whose arms helped me climb up from the beach the day before. I was whole here. Our guide called a few months later to ask permission to include my poem in a book she was editing. I said yes. You can find “Group” in Wounded Healers, edited by Rachel Naomi Remen.

 - Carol Howard-Wooton

 

Essay #16: Finding Your Voice by Patricia Viscione Young

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In all honesty, I never lost my voice, how could I? I’m half Italian! To vocalize and express ourselves is one of the things we as a culture do best. That being said, in 2014 over time and under the pressures presented, I dropped to my knees, my voice hardly a whisper.

I found myself echoing other voices, but not conveying any personal impressions. My own sound and pitch became monotone. Life had thrown too many challenges at me so fast and furious that I did not even bother to get out of the way. Leaning on defeat was easier, I accepted failure, wrapping myself in pity and sadness was frightenly comfortable.

Laura Munson made it possible, in a ridiculously short amount of time, to empower my voice and turn up the volume of life. Haven is an abridged version of a writing-retreat-self-discovery-get away-reflection-sanctuary. I hardly have time to unpack and settle in before it began.

I can only share my own experience, for me it started with an unexpected emotional deluge of tears. Once the storm passed, my words revealed so much more than I anticipated. It was a cleansing of sorts, when I look back at my notes, my needs and desires were clearly articulated. Communication with myself spoke and guided me to believe I can do this – I can write and make myself heard. I can write and people enjoy reading what I’ve enjoyed creating. I can write just for myself and value what is written. My voice opened the doors into publication only a handful a weeks after I returned home from Montana. My voice was so much more than I ever thought it could be, it was the beginning of self-worth – I am worthy, I am enough. I am a writer.

Rediscovering my voice was what I needed to do, but it unexpectedly allowed me to find other voices. Once the confidence grew, I found many writers that were just as passionate, responsive and excited about their voices. We harmonized well, supported and nourished one another. It made me think of a soloist who sings beautifully. However, when you put a choir together, the richness of tone is fuller and the sound of many voices singing in unison is amazing and powerful. Thus writing took on many connotations – there is always something to learn on your own. There is always a group you can sing with and enjoy, and if you do not enjoy them – move on. Take your voice and share it until you find the right melody.

Writing is also a solitary art I love, when my muse whispers to me and the words flow.

Currently, I am a handful of pages away from the final rewrite of my first novel. My editor – author Susan Strecker has shared her voice with me, challenged me, pointed me in new directions and given me a deeper understanding of this journey. With a little luck, query letters will be sent and I will wait to hear from the powers that be at the publishing houses. Good or bad, it’s all part of the process. Yet now, after writing and rewriting, and many months of reflection, if the publishers pass me by – so be it. It it will not silence me. I will self-publish this novel, and proudly place it on a shelf in my home. It is after all, written in my voice.

- Patricia Viscione Young

 

Now booking 2017 Haven Writing Retreats!

June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22

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

 

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Haven Winter 2017 Blog Series #7: Finding your Voice

 

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Writing holds me together and always has.  I have said many times, “Don’t wait for the rug to get ripped out from underneath you to find your passions.  When I went through re-invention 101, I’m glad that my passions were in a row, even if my ducks weren’t.” 

Your job is to dig deeply with raw realness, and say what you truly have to say in the way that only you can say it.  Please enjoy and please consider opening to the fact that YOU DO have a voice, and it is your own.  

To read more from me on Voice, click here!

Yrs. Laura

 

 

Essay #13: by Pamela Price

It seems like I have always had a voice. The stage was small and dusty in my elementary school auditorium when I approached the microphone for the first time to sing. I was nine and my fellow classmate was a short, dark-haired little guy who was a wiz at the piano. I can clearly see his round face, small hands and endearing smile encouraging me even after all these years. The crowd was maybe 50 people. It felt like a thousand. We performed a stirring rendition of Moon River. When it was over, the audience clapped…very loudly. And I will never forget that feeling.

I always had my music to express myself. I sang for the next 50 years, but I always sang someone else’s words. They were great and inspiring words to be sure but someone else’s words. All the words that were in my head, my words, just stayed there churning in a washing machine cycle that never hit spin.

One day I picked up Laura Munson’s book. I read it from cover to cover and then read it again. This was a voice that spoke to me. This New York Bestselling author actually had a “voice in her head.” She gave the voice a name and listened to it….double wow. Oh my goodness, I was not the only one! I searched the internet. I found her blog. I read about the Haven retreats. I thought….and thought. Could it actually be true that everyone has a writing voice?

It took several years before I convinced myself to call Laura. I just kept thinking about the words “you don’t have to be a writer to attend a retreat, just a seeker.” I identified with the seeker and secretly was excited about the writing. I was ready for a step out of my comfort zone.

My heart was beating so fast, I thought the person sitting next to me could hear it. I thought if it didn’t slow down, it could actually turn into a medical event as I sank into that big sofa in the sunroom at the Haven retreat. I hoped the big pillows would just swallow me.

It was my turn to read what I had written. The room was dead still, no sounds except for that damned pounding in my chest. A room of faces stared at me in anticipation. I read my paragraph and heard an unfamiliar voice. Not a confident, well rehearsed singing voice but a shaky, squeaky voice. A voice that had one thing going for it…it was finally attached to my own words. Words that came from me, from my brain, from my soul and had somehow ended up on that piece of paper in front of me.

I have notebooks with endless pages of words. I have files on my computer, my iPad, my iPhone. I try to write something almost every day even if it is only an email or a note. I practice with words. I read with a highlighter. I am no longer overwhelmed by those thoughts in my head. They are my voice, and I let them tumble onto a page. I read them, throw out some of them and cherish others.

I haven’t decided what to do with all these words but the picture is coming into focus. I find my best self in them, parts of me I didn’t know existed. Some things I like, some things, not so much. I am no longer afraid to write or that  my writing is not worthy. I have found a different voice from my musical one…my own.

- Pamela Price

 

 

Essay #14: Reckoning with Janteløven by Colleen Brennan

Finding my writing voice suggests I had one to begin with. Suggests I lost it. Maybe along a washboard road somewhere. And then found it. Perhaps in the ditch, floating in the run-off after a sudden downpour.

Truth is, every time I sit down at my writing desk I’m in search of that voice. Sometimes it shows up right away, like a pack of bison in the road. Sometimes it dawdles and I have to wade out into the tallgrass prairie to look for it, hoping a rattlesnake doesn’t bite me when I bend over to pick it up.

My ancestors were Norwegian homesteaders who built houses out of buffalograss sod in the Dakotas. When the wind chill is 40 below and you’re tracing the clothesline at night with your mitten to get from the back door to the outhouse, you wanna yell for help. Or at least grumble a little. Uff-da. But you don’t. Because no one will hear you in the deafening wind. And no one will applaud your success in having made it to the “pit” and back. It’s just the way it is. It’s Janteløven, the law of Jante, the principle that you are nothing special, no smarter, no better than the rest of the folks around you. You suck it up and keep going.

With this sort of upbringing, can you see why it might be hard for me to claim a unique writing voice? We weren’t supposed to believe we had a unique anything.

But what I’ve learned from Janteløven is just how much noise there is in silence. There’s a voice there, too. My voice. I was bashful, but I noticed things. Like the tiniest arch in my mother’s left eyebrow when she disapproved. Like the Bing Crosby-ish timbre my dad’s voice took on when he won at cribbage. Or how we didn’t call Harald “Uncle” Harald even though he lived with Aunt Astrid.

I was a little kid the first time I heard my writer’s voice. Slogging up McClelland hill in my plaid sneakers to the empty lot to hunt for agates, I discovered creating dialogue in my head made the hill climbing easier, made being alone less lonely. I spoke in both voices: a brother and sister living in a boxcar. (Oh, yes, I stole those characters from Gertrude Warner’s The Box-Car Children. No doubt I’d just finished reading that story, splayed out on the grass inside a teepee – a blanket thrown over the clothesline, you know what I mean.)

I took to writing in a diary. My first one had a tiny gold lock and key and I kept it in a box in my closet. If I couldn’t talk about my fear that the Abominable Snowman would step on our house and kill all of us, or about my crush on the red-headed boy who lived across the creek, or about how I hoped my piano teacher would fall down the stairs so I didn’t have to play at the recital, at least I could write about it.

It’s tough hanging onto my writing voice. Janteløven hovers close by, whispering stuff like “Just who do you think you are?” And I have to once again wade out into the tallgrass, or grasp onto the clothesline in a blizzard, or trudge up to the empty lot (where I imagine agates lay gleaming below the gravel surface) and retrieve what I lost. But once I have it again, I can stand up to Janteløven and answer truthfully, “I’m a writer with something important to say. Listen up.”

 - Colleen Brennan…website coming soon!

 

Now booking 2017 Haven Writing Retreats!

February 22-26 (full with a waiting list)
June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22

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

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Haven Winter 2017 Blog Series #6: Finding your Voice

The truth is that it’s actually not possible for anyone to have your voice, even if they try.  At Haven Writing Retreats, we work off of the same prompts in our morning classes, and we all get to see the living proof of this fact:  no one can write like you can.  I’ve said many times:  ultimately it’s not about the words at all. It’s about what’s behind them, what’s between them, and what’s left in their wake. And here’s how to know if you are in that confluence of pure truth and intention:  it’s easy. It’s flowing almost effortlessly.  You are not in the way of it.  It is as natural as it can be for you to be exactly who you are from thought to the form that is self-expression.

Please consider opening to the fact that YOU DO have a voice, and it is your own.  Whether in your writing, speaking, thinking, feeling.  And it is quite possibly simply waiting for you to give yourself permission to let it finally out.  Or as my college professor used to say, “Stop clearing your throat…and speak.”

To read more from me on Voice, click here!

Yrs. Laura

 

 

Essay #11: How Writing Helped Me Give Words to the Voices in My Head by Kris D. W. Ferrell

I hear voices, but not the voices that spawn pea soup spewing type movies. No, I hear the voices of squirrels named Alfred, of dogs named Smooch, of Christmas trees name Dougie; I see conversations between paperweights, desks, chairs and robot clocks, I color in vowels and paint in prepositions and dangle participles all over the place to speak my truth. I could tell you more of what it is like to live in my head but it is better to show you.

My story begins with nine strangers in a Montana yoga studio. I am not sure what sort of rift in the universe brought us all to that exact moment in time and space to sit together on the floor and discuss our intentions for attending a retreat at the Haven. Nevertheless, we shared our desires for writing, our intentions for the retreat and our motivation for sitting cross legged 45 years after it went out of style. I said I came to “break the back of my inner critic” and “finish a book” I wrote during the National Novel Writing Month three years earlier. I was determined to move forward at all costs.

Like many attorneys, my novel languished in a file on my computer, the cursor blinking, always blinking, always B-L-I-N-K-I-N-G. It blinks at me even now keeping steady time like a metronome, daring me to delete what I have just written. I pump my fist and say, “damn cursors, you dainty devils delivering distraction and disappointment,” and come back to reality. In five days at the Haven outside the town of Whitefish, Montana, I broke through and found my voice. I also found my aversion to kale runs pathologically deep.

The first day of stretch writing I told myself “go with it” I heard “trust the process” so I squared my shoulders and wrote. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote because the promise was support without criticism. I read my ‘writing’ and for the first time to someone other than my dog and I heard validation, appreciation and acceptance. On the second day, I discovered my process is a lack of process, I shouted “move me, shake me, make me write bad poetry” and produced a poem that made my wife cry when I gave it to her this past Christmas. And on the third day the stone was removed and I emerged flying by the seat of my pants, my shorts hanging out and my hair on fire. I shouted to my middle school English teacher, the one who said I could not write, could not speak, had nothing to say and needed to make sure I sat more ladylike “screw you and your toenail clipped wig collection, yes I can, yes I can, yes I do and screw you and your ladylike bourbon breath, I don’t want a process or to be processed or to be processing or to be you.” I shouted to those nine kindred souls in that yoga studio on the final day, okay I didn’t shout because it is a yoga studio after all, but I did proclaim I write to misbehave!

Now the process sometimes feels stalled and forced and hard and gritty. But the best part is I write to misbehave and misbehaving is hardly ever work for me!

- Kris D.W. Ferrell

 

 

Essay #12: Becoming Reliable by Michelle Roberts

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“Come on. They won’t mind. I just want to show you my cubicle.” I ushered my friend into the building. He’d been the one who took my frantic call and offered me his couch. As if mania allowed for actual rest.

We walked in through the publications department. These were the writers and graphic artists I mingled so easily with compared to my fellow engineers. I stopped at the first desk.

“Shannon! Hi! This is my friend Paul. I lost my virginity to him in college. Funny, I never thought about that. My first middle school crush was a Paul, sex for the first time was with a Paul and then I married a Paul. Huh”, smiling at her as if she shouldn’t be surprised to see me while I was on medical leave.

I don’t remember her reaction or Paul’s. Hate to think of it even now. My memories of those months before and after my hospital stay are disjointed. Manic me is the definition of the unreliable narrator.

When I met with a new therapist years later, I had changed jobs and was managing my bipolar symptoms without medication.

She asked, “What do you do when you’re manic?”

“Well, I’m more social. I go dancing. I write. I paint. I exercise.”

“Do you think maybe mania is your binge on all the things that are missing from your everyday life?”

She was right. Even though there were early signs in high school of hypo-mania and mild depression, it wasn’t until engineering took me away from dance, creative writing and art that my symptoms became severe. When I was manic, I uncaged my creativity like an animal rights activist freeing animals. I let loose and later lived with the shame of the things I said and did. Knowing those were just the things I remembered.

After my hospital stay, I stopped talking or writing about anything personal or meaningful. I was still mortified by my unhealthy voice and didn’t trust myself with what I might say or the emails I might send.

Then, in 2012, I read a Call for Submissions for the Haven Winter Blog Series. The theme was Breaking Points and I finally put that week in the hospital into words. Ten years later, even my closest friends and family had never asked what it was like in a Behavioral Health facility. Most people hope they’ll never know.

I read my submission to my therapist at my next appointment while I was waiting to find out if it would be selected. She was sure that it would. I remember sharing it with my mother over the phone and I cried when I opened the email from Laura Munson confirming it would be posted the following day.

I’d used my most authentic voice to describe the scariest thing I’d ever experienced and it connected with others in ways I hadn’t in a long time. Mania convinced me I was too much for most people to handle. I started to accept that might be a lie.

This past October I attended Haven Writing Retreat. Sharing in a room with other writers, I realized mania was a binge for my voice almost fifteen years too soon. In my early thirties I wasn’t ready to speak from my truth, be heard or bear witness for other truth tellers. Now at forty-five, I understood that being open is healing, if also a little terrifying, and our voices are meant to be heard. This special retreat in Montana is called Haven because it’s a safe place to begin.

- Michelle Roberts

 

Now booking 2017 Haven Writing Retreats!

February 22-26 (full with wait list)
June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22

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

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Haven Winter 2017 Blog Series #5: Finding your Voice

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Every year at this time, I give my Haven Blog over to the alums of my Haven Writing Retreats both to show the support that writers need to have for one another, to give myself the sacred dormancy of winter to work on my own book projects, as well as to help parse a theme that burns bright inside me.

People often say to me that they have finally found their Voice (I especially love when that happens at Haven!)…but what does it really mean?  If we find our voice, does that mean that we have been voiceless?  Does it mean that we didn’t know we had one in the first place?  And if so, where did we learn such a destructive myth?  The reasons why we might feel voiceless are endless.  What I hear over and over again is this:  “Even if I did have a voice, someone else already said what I have to say, or said it better. Who am I to think my voice is unique, or even matters in the first place?”

 To this I say: Who are you not to? 

So for the next few weeks, I will be posting essays by Haven Alums on this theme and you will see their minds wander in this wondering of just what it means to Find Your Voice. 

To read more from me on Voice, click here!

Yrs. Laura

 

Essay #9: Hearing Voices by Christine Watkins Davies

 

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My tea steeps in my favorite mug as I glance at the chaos throughout my home.  I’m too overwhelmed by the half-deconstructed Christmas decorations to make a move toward them.  I prefer to be still, staring at my tea allowing its rich aroma to soothe my thoughts this morning.  Instead of attacking the clutter in my usual “get it done” manner, I decide to write.  There’s much on my mind.

I’ve been thinking about my voice this morning and the multitude of ways in which I’ve used my voice powerfully, and the multitude of ways I’ve used it to keep me safe.

My powerful voice stands in front of groups of people presenting new ideas and concepts to them. My wish is that they leave my presentation with a new practice or idea that could help them live happier, healthier lives.  My safe voice uses the word “spouse” in front of them in order to stay safe.  I don’t always know who is in my audience, and I do not know if they would approve of the fact that I’m married to a woman.  I need to stay safe.  My powerful voice cowers.  She lingers over insignificant details in an effort to thwart too personal a question for this lesbian, yet simultaneously allowing me to look confident.

My powerful voice sings with pride that I was born a woman.  There is nothing I cannot or should not do based on the gender with which I was born.  My safe voice often times stays silent when I hear men make degrading or shaming comments about women in their lives.  “I’m the exclusion” my safe voice tells me.  “I’m sure he wouldn’t say that about me.”  My safe voice tries to comfort me, but my powerful voice knows the truth.

My powerful voice announces to the world that I cherish and respect all religious beliefs and cultures.  “Who am I to judge someone of a differing faith?” my powerful voice projects.  My powerful voice stands with Jewish friends for a public menorah lighting ceremony even with the risk of being in harm’s way.  My safe voice stays silent about the fact that my daughter was born Muslim and that we’ve celebrated her Muslim born name and birth country since the day we adopted her.  “I need to keep her safe in these trying times,” my safe voices whispers as my stomach quivers.

I don’t like my safe voice. It hides my authenticity. It candy coats the details. It buries my pride.

I never thought about the difference in my voice until I began writing.  Writing for me is a way for my safe voice to feel more empowered.  Writing is also a way for me to begin to hear my own voice.  It’s the tool I can use to extravert my thoughts, ideas and feelings out into the world.  Finding my voice in the woods of Montana at a Haven Writing Retreat has given me the permission I needed to hear to stand boldly in my authenticity and share my voice with the world.  To model for my clients, my friends, my family, and mostly my daughter what it looks and feels like to stand in my integrity.  What it feels like to be heard.

I still listen to my safe voice.  Oftentimes, there’s wisdom in her whispers.  But, I’m learning to ask myself if her words are there to keep me safe…or simply keep me small.  There’s more wisdom in this awareness than in her conformity.

Right now, I’m listening to my powerful voice.  I better finish my tea and get these Christmas decorations packed away.

- Christine Watkins Davies  (website Coming Soon!)

 

 

Essay #10: The Voice Effect by Brenda Johnson Kame’enui

 

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“Finding your voice,” or my voice, or anyone’s voice, is a well-worn phrase, a little like “be your best self,” “on a journey,” and “impact.” Everything has a big impact, from a new puppy to your toenail polish. What happened to a big effect or consequence? And everything seems to impact everything else, from a snowstorm to a rodeo. What happened to affect? Worse yet, some things are “impactful.”

After the presidential election last November, my distraught 9-year-old granddaughter asked, on the car ride to hula class, “But what can I do?”

Her mother answered, steady at the wheel, “There might come a time when you can be the voice for someone who needs you.”

Her 6-year-old sister piped up from the back seat, “And Mama doesn’t mean a person who can’t talk. She means people who maybe can’t stand up for themselves.”

I was reminded to get my nose out of the air and think about that stifled or hushed or emerging voice that someone brave is developing. It was time to get over myself and let others be their best selves or begin a journey or find the movie impactful.

When my husband of 32 years left, I lost half of a good part of me. I lost the one I returned home to and told stories of the day. I told him about the woman on the train who asked a stranger to escort her two-year-old to Sacramento while she got off in Portland. I lost the one I told about my 7-year-old student whose father sat on her mother on Mother’s Day. “And he’s BIG,” Shayla told me. “My mom ran out of breath.”

I missed the daily exchange, and in its place, I began to email my adult daughters in distant places. “I should like to tell you about trapping four mice in the kitchen in the last week and forgetting the trap in the oven before I turned it to 350 to bake lasagna.”

My voice took hold on paper, but I knew I wasn’t “good enough” to be a real writer. I can’t compare to painting in poetry like Mary Oliver. I don’t create characters like Carol Bly or Alice Munro, and I have no idea how to build suspense like Stephen King. Who would want to read my words when they have countless rewarding authors?

My daughters were so responsive to my weekly reports, however, that I wrote successive ones. By the time I completed 15 pieces, I was signed up for Haven I.

As I prepared to leave Haven the following September, I jumped off the swing with the long arc that overlooks a pond floating in geese. I was dragging my feet at leaving this sanctuary in tamarack and pine. When my ride arrived, spitting gravel in the driveway, I turned to thank Laura again for an extraordinary experience. She responded, “You’re a very good storyteller.”

There was a smile in my voice as I said, “I’ll be back.” The next week, I signed up for Haven II.

 

- Brenda Johnson Kame’enui

Now booking 2017 Haven Writing Retreats!

February 22-26 (full with wait list)
June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22

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

 

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