Tag Archives: laura munson

Haven 4:00 a.m.– Dealing with Meanies

Haven (4)

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…

April 18-22 (full)
May 16-20 (full)
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

There’s a big difference between taking a stand for yourself, and playing hard ball.  I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I can’t stop thinking about it.  One is a fight.  One isn’t.  They both originate from someone wanting something of you that crosses a line.  And it’s usually something hard to face.  For me, it all arrives in my email inbox.

I try hard not to look at my email inbox first thing in the morning.  Or Facebook.  I try to wake slowly, to let the morning give itself to me.  Then tea, back in bed.  Some reading.  Usually poetry.  Nothing too close to the way life behaves in a typical day, unless its Sunday.  I want my early mornings to feel like all of Sunday feels.  Reflective. Paused.  Soft.  And then…the assault.

I go down to my office for it.  I sit at my mothership computer.  I often feel the urge to fasten a seatbelt across my lap.  A few times, I’ve reached for one.  I wiggle the mouse.  The screen light glares at me.  I try not to prepare for battle.  Maybe there’ll be something nice in there.  Someone will want to come on my writing retreat.  Someone else might have read something I’ve written and taken the time to thank me.  Those are always nice.  I answer every single one of them, just to honor gratitude.  Or maybe there’s a note from an editor who wants to publish something I’ve written.  Those are the best ones.  Well, except for the ones from my kids when they just want to say that they love me and there’s no mention of money.

But every day…there’s always something in there that scares me.  At the very least, triggers cause for concern.  A late bill, a compromised account, a wasband ordeal, a rejection from an editor, another octogenarian from my hometown passed, funding for the arts denied—that stuff.  And let’s not even bring up the news.  I’ve stopped watching.  But I don’t have to solve those problems.  The ones in my email inbox:  yes.

I feel myself bracing.  Conjuring steely reserve.  I think of what I’ve learned from therapists along the way:  Use “I” statements.  Write the angry note first.  Then delete it.  I take my own advice:  No need to fight.  Simply say what you need to say—the rest is not your problem.  Or consider the source.  Take responsibility where necessary.  Don’t over-apologize.  Be clear, succinct, to the point.  Tangents or too much explaining are not your friends right now.  You’re not writing a novel.  And please, calm your inner persuader.  She’s so exhausting for everyone, yourself included.

And there it all is, the good, the bad, and the ugly, along with Flash Sales for things I’d never buy and eblasts from people I’ve never heard of, and reminders to attend cultural events in cities hundreds of miles away.  Delete delete delete…answer all the goodies…until what’s left is a honed stack of bad bones. Second cup of tea.  Maybe a smoothie, though heat feels more helpful.  I get the basic bad done first.  And then it’s time for the mean ones.  For those, I think of Gandalf raising his sword.  Don’t you have at least one or two meanies in your life?  I try not to, but some of them are unavoidable.  Sometimes I’m there for hours, composing those short little to-the-point emails just so.  Stakes are high.  Pushing Send too soon could cost me in more ways than one.

My goal:  to take a stand.  I tried playing hard ball a few times.  It was the most inauthentic thing I’ve ever done.  And I suck at it.  Truth is, hard ball isn’t necessary.  Hard ball hurts the pitcher and the batter.  I’ve watched a lot of baseball games.  But here’s the thing:  in most of those mean emails…the author wants me to take a good swing.  And miss.  I’ve learned not to swing.  Yet in most cases, some sort of answer is required.  You owe them none of your emotional supply…and still, the emotions are high and sometimes as unruly as they are untethered.

So here’s my new way, and it works:

I write it like it could be published in the local newspaper.  Facts only.  Journalistic, not Op-Ed.  I take a stand for what needs to be supported.  And then I leave the game.  I know I did it right if I don’t hear back.  I know I did it right if it doesn’t wake me up at 4:00 a.m. feeling like I have to save a burning orphanage full of children—a reoccurring dream of mine.  No thanks.  Taking a stand is holding up a hand and saying, “Enough.  Solution: ______.  Here’s what I know to be the bottom line.”  And yes, sometimes, you have to ramp that stand up.  Stand really tall and draw that line in concrete.  You have to dust off that sword and say, “You shall not pass!”  But it doesn’t have to take you down with it.  Thanks, Gandalf for being willing to fall into the fiery pit.  We don’t have to follow you.  I’d rather have another cup of tea.  And go for a walk in the snow.Forward

 

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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

15401066_10154263575531406_2886694505637283739_n
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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Haven 4:00 a.m. — My Face

Haven (4)

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…

April 18-22 (full)

May 16-20 (full)

Still space:

September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

I was lying in bed last night at 4:00 a.m. thinking about my face.  I’d woken with a start from a dream inspired by the look I gave myself in the mirror before I went to bed—ghost of Christmas past.  Bruise-like circles along the insides of my eye sockets, puffy pillows underneath them, a little wobble under my chin, new slack in my jaw, random lines on my neck that cross like airplane wake outside of O’Hare, and land in the boggy décolletage that once held up pretty pert, albeit ample, bosom.  I’m not sure where those went.  I only know that when I sit in bed, they rest on my stomach.  And they sweat.  So sometimes I hike my shirt underneath them to cool off.  Nightmare material, for sure.

I lay there letting the beauty tips I never took reel through my mind. “Don’t forget about your decolletage,” I read in some magazine in my twenties.  Hah.  I’ll defy age by welcoming it, I remember thinking.  I’ll be one of those leathery salt-encrusted cranky Yankee long-grey-haired dowagers.  I’ll tout every age spot.  I’ll wear alligator skin like a Gucci purse.  Only I won’t carry a purse.  I’ll just carry a little old backpack from some place cool where I’ve just been on pilgrimage, like Santiago.  Or Honduras.  Or Botswana.

Thoughts from a girl who dabbled in modeling, and dressed intentionally like a bag to be taken seriously in her twenties.

And now it’s all gone to hell.  And I’m not so sure I want to be that leather lady, after all.

“You have to use what you’ve got, girl,” said the make-up artist on Good Morning America as she stabbed me with her mascara wand.  And she tsk-tsked the way the Korean lady at the express nail salon does when she looks at my hands.

I’ve been lucky.  I never really had acne.  I tan easily.  I didn’t really have any wrinkles until I hit fifty.  But even if I did, I truly believe that I wouldn’t see a plastic surgeon unless I was horribly disfigured.  Not that twenty-five years in cold dry Montana has been exceptionally helpful in the skin department.  Even so, I’ve always been more concerned with what’s going on inside of me, rather than on the outside.

But then it was Thanksgiving, and I was in Chicago visiting family, and I happened upon my old lover, Barneys, and the pull to the lower level found me asking an innocent question, “Can you suggest a good face crème?” to a man wearing make-up, sporting an orange silk scarf.  Before I knew it, I was sitting on a stool, obeying his “look up” “look down” like my life depended on it.  His name was Simon.  Of course it was.  He was sort of British, or maybe sort of Peoria-an.  His real name was probably Doug.  But I fell for him.  Hard.  “Dear, what have you been doing to yourself?  You have to take care of your face.  Look up.”  Before I knew it I was fully facially lubed, powdered, eye-lined, mascara-ed and lip-sticked.

“Look how gorgeous,” he said, and I’m pretty sure he meant his make-over artistry, not my actual face, but I went for it.  A girl needs a compliment from a dolled-up guy named Simon every so often.  And they don’t really make ‘em like that in Montana.

“Thank you,” I said, looking in the mirror, feeling like a woman who is just plain trying too hard to defy her age.  But maybe this was the new me.  Maybe I was going to have to start looking like this painted version of myself.  I started to drink the Kool-aid.  “But all I really need is some good lotion.”

He produced a sleek frosty glass tube and a snug little jar and said, “Face oil.  Firming lotion.  I have women buying these in droves.  These products will absolutely change your life.”

“I’ll take them both.”  I didn’t ask how much.  I just knew I needed them like I needed to have a happy Thanksgiving.  And as I signed the credit card slip, I gasped.  “Two hundred and forty dollars?!  What is it made out of?  Gold and bone marrow and stem cells?  And all of Paris?”

“It’s a fabulous product.  And you only use a little dab at a time.”  And then the old line that estheticians and sellers of multi-level-marketing love to use:  “You know…your skin is your largest organ.”  So now I’m going to go into renal failure if I don’t take out a second mortgage for it?  But it was that “medical emergency” which kept me out of the guilt doghouse as I made my way out of the store, down Michigan Avenue, through Thanksgiving, all the way back to my bed-side table, where my little $240 organ-transplant-preventer now lives.

I lay there at 4:00 a.m. this morning, getting real with myself.  A woman of a certain age, especially with the holiday blues, will do just about anything for the Simons of the world.  I mean, do you think that anyone really buys stupidly expensive skin care products because of the organ angle?  I mean, would you spend $240 on a tube of crème from France for your gall bladder?  Of course not.  That’s just what makes people feel good about all those lotions and potions in our medicine cabinet.  I think we all know that it’s not that we care about our biggest organ.  It’s because it’s the only organ you can actually SEE, and it’s the very one that you get judged for, gain power from, use to attract the potential father of your unborn children.  Saggy neck, crows feet, smile lines…  Would you spend $240 on dandelion and milk thistle tinctures that are supposed to help your liver functions?  Maybe if your liver lived on your face you would.  Let’s “face” it—we want to look young.  The world wants us to look young.  But I’m of my mother’s thinking.  Don’t wash your face with soap.  Lubriderm is just fine, thank you very much, but then again, Santa used to bring us toothpaste and dental floss in our Christmas stocking.  She’s a no frills kind of gal.  I always thought I was too.

In any case, each morning and at bed-time, I pump out a few drops of this liquid gold onto my finger tip, and dab, yes dab, it on my face organ.  And then spread a few dabs of the crème over it.  Is my face any more fabulous?  Apparently not, since it’s showing up in nightmares and waking me up at 4:00 a.m. with my heart racing.  But I think of Simon and his silk scarf and plucked eyebrows and perfect face.  He probably exfoliates.  He probably works at Barneys just so he can get a discount on the liquid gold.  And suddenly, I wish I’d bought the exfoliator too.  “Dear, you have to take care of yourself.”

I’m half way through the infusion, and a third of the way through the lotion, which I’m rationing like potable water.

And at 4:00 a.m., with a still-thick oil slick on my face, in the dark of a Montana winter, I can say, with confidence, “Mr. DeMille.  I’m ready for my close up.”  We’ll see how I feel when it runs out…  I have a feeling it’s back to Lubriderm.
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Haven 4 a.m. Christmas musing…

Haven (4)

Read the original post to this series here.

Nothing that I planned for this Christmas season happened.

And then everything that matters did.

I’m looking at empty nest this fall, and so Christmas at home with the kids, in all of our best traditions, feels especially important.  I keep saying I’m going to be fine in empty nest.  But this time of year, I cry easily anyway.  I’ve been a leaky faucet all December.  I’ve been cooking with my daughter, like I’m facing my death, teaching her every single recipe I know “for the record.”  I’ve been standing and chopping madly, so that I now have carpal tunnel and planter fasciitis.  From cooking?  Don’t athletes get that?  I’m a writer.  My carpals are used to my repetitive motion tapping keyboards.  I guess just not my knife moves.  And all this eating of all these “best of” meals has my stomach in knots.  So when we had a massive weather “event” this week, my kids took to the ski slopes, and I took to my bed, hanging my Santa cap on the Christmas traditions that would certainly carry us in these next days.

It happened, avalanche:

  • The family Christmas Eve party we’ve gone to for 25 years got cancelled.
  • The place where we’ve had Christmas Eve dinner for 25 years couldn’t fit us in.
  • My son announced that he has to work bussing tables Christmas Eve anyway.
  • Ditto the night of the family game/caroling party we always have.
  • All my daughter’s friends are home and vying for her attention.  And even if they wanted to let me hang out with them, I’m no fun at all.  Unless they want to lie on the couch and rub arnica salve into my feet and wrist, drink bone broth, and watch White Christmas and Holiday Inn over and over.  Can’t quite handle It’s a Wonderful Life.  I’ve had one too many George-Bailey-on-the-bridge moments in the last few months, and I’m sure, come Fall, there’ll be too many to count.  So…sing to me, Bing and Fred.
  • And so far none of the presents have arrived because according to the NBC Nightly News, UPS is “having a hard time,” (maybe they need Bing and Fred too).  And let’s not talk about the news.  It’s enough to make me want to curl into an egg nog coma through to New Years and beyond.  Or more like a bone broth coma.  Come to me, Clarence.

And then my friend had to cancel our annual Christmas shopping day with our friend, the Special Olympian, and all around lover-of-life and spreader-of-joy, Cedar Vance.  This is the sacred day when we shop for her mother’s gifts using a carefully planned-out, well-budgeted, Christmas list, but one that in no way can I pull off solo, especially with a limp and a stomach that sounds like it’s churning butter.  Let’s put it this way:  Cedar puts the drop in shop til’ you drop.

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She and her mom feed 30 head of horses twice a day on their Montana ranch, so she’s got…well…stamina.  It was no surprise to anyone that she took home a silver and almost a bronze from the Special Olympics World Winter games at Schladming, Austria last year in the Advanced Giant Slalom for downhill ski racing.  Cedar is a local hero in more ways than one.  She has friends everywhere, and makes them wherever she goes.  It’s like she’s in a constant parade when she’s out in the world.  The more people the better.  The more shiny glittery sugary things, the better.  And so yep– you guessed it:  she loves the big box stores.  I, on the other hand, loathe box stores.  Every year I try to convince her to support the mom and pops on Central Ave. in our little town, but she looks at me like I’m sooooo uncool, and so I give in to the box store pre-amble, and ply her with hot cocoa back in town at the end so I can decompress in our little shops and Christmas bells and boughs that hang across the street like George Bailey’s Bedford Falls, officially shop-dropped.  She humors me, after her tour of Consumption Junction in all its…glory?

But Cedar isn’t about consumerism, per se.  She’s about spreading Christmas cheer.  Singing as absolutely loud as she can in the car on the way, to her favorite:  Alvin and the Chipmunk Christmas album, which is…after the third go-around of Christmas don’t be late… you know…pretty heart-warming, actually.  She’s got her Santa hat with the red Who-ville curlie-que on the top, and she loves to walk into every store saying a brisk, “Happy Merry Christmas!” and waving the Queen’s wave, which she’s done plenty of times because she’s been in about a hundred real life parades and got a kiss on the cheek from Mr. Shriver in the Special Olympics gala tour of Washington, D.C. before launching off to Austria, and, as she’ll tell you with absolutely no ego, received a hug from the Prince of Austria.  Because that’s the thing about Cedar.  She has no ego.  She’s free like I’ve never seen free before.  She rides bareback on horses I wouldn’t dare mount.  She flies down ski hills and hugs her way through Walmart (Cedar loves her some Walmart) on a hunt for her mother’s Christmas present, mentioning that they could also use a new fridge.  And I tell her, “That’s not on the list, my dear,” and she’s off, around the corner, holding a velvet pillow to her face and saying, “my mother would love this.”  And I have to say, “I’m sure she would but she asked for a microwave.”  And people look at me like I’m a bad person.  So into the shopping cart the velvet pillow goes.  And she’s holding a rose, of course, because the woman in the floral department at Costco gave it to her, after she’s eaten triple cream brie, red pepper jelly, and crackers, cornbread, short bread, pretzels, nachos, ham, roasted chicken, and asiago squares and more crackers, and she confesses that she’s allergic to cheese and gluten.  But she’s forgotten about that, because now she’s sure her mother needs a quick-dry hair towel, and I have to break the news that her mother has very short hair and probably would rather have warm socks for all the work she does outside in the bitter cold of winter, but she insists that her mom has plenty of socks and absolutely needs a quick-dry hair towel.  And so…into the cart goes the quick-dry hair towel.  And so it goes.  “Happy Merry Christmas, everyone!” she hollers, especially to people with Christmas sweaters on, and for those people, she includes a hug.  And the whole world melts around her.  Kinda like Eloise, only we’re so everly not at the Plaza, my dear.

So…we’re in the check-out line, our cart full of bags, ready to face the parking lot mayhem. We’ve crossed off everything on the list.  And we’ve even found a few special things we know her mother will just love.  Pony-tail holders, even.  We have three dollars and seventy-three cents left and Cedar’s holding it in one mitten-ed hand, the red rose in the other, and she’s smelling it like it smells like the Garden of Eden, when we all know that Costco red roses don’t smell like anything other than hot dogs and three ply radial tires.  And she says, “I’m going to keep this rose alive forever, just like in Beauty and the Beast, because of looooove.”  And I tell her that she can also dry the petals in case it doesn’t live forever, and she looks at me like I am the Grinch who stole Love incarnate, never mind Christmas.  And then…here’s where I shop ‘til I officially drop.  Drop to my knees:

We walk through the automatic doors pushing our heavy cart, and there’s a Salvation Army man standing there, ringing his bell, and the hanging red bucket hundreds of box store be-dazed shoppers have passed all day.  And Cedar stops at the bucket.  Puts the rose stem in her mouth, of course, because where else would you put it, and carefully folds the three dollar bills in a sort of Olympic origami, and slips them, one at a time, into the bucket.  And then the seventy-three cents.IMG_2870

“Aw…Cedar, that’s so good of you,” I start to say, but then I stop.  Because that Olympian goes over to the man in the Santa hat ringing the bell, and stands on her tip toes and he leans in, and she whispers something into his ear, and hands him the rose, and they hug each other for what seems like a long time…and she waves at him as he holds up the rose, and she says to everyone coming through the automatic doors pushing heavy shopping carts, “Happy Merry Christmas!” and we sing Alvin and the Chipmunks all the way home, as absolutely loud as we can.

“Cedar, what did you whisper to the Salvation Army man?” I say, over hot cocoa on Central Ave. with the red bells and boughs over our heads.

She looks at me churlishly, elf-ishly, loving-ly, and says, “Laura Munson, what do you think I said to him?  I told him Merry Christmas!”

Of course that’s what she said.  And I think…of course, Cedar Vance.  Of course it’s a Merry Christmas.

And then…wouldn’t you know…Christmas came, avalanche:

“We have a spot for you in the dining room on Christmas Eve.”  “We’re having our party after all.”  “I got my shift off, Mom, so let’s have our caroling party.  And on Christmas Eve, I’ll be home by 10:00 after work so we can have our open-one-gift tradition then.”  “There are a bunch of UPS boxes for you over at my house.  I’ll put them in your mail box.”  And guess what?  My stomach…it stopped hurting.  And my wrist and feet too.  Maybe there’ll be egg nog in my future after all.  And maybe next year, we’ll do it all over again.  And maybe when they return to the nest, their mother will be just fine.  Better than fine.  Maybe she’ll learn how to drop to her proverbial knees all the time in wonder and gratitude for the small moments of looooove.

Thank you, Cedar.  Wink wink, Clarence.

IMG_6127Now 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… Click here for more info.

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Haven 4:00 a.m.

Haven (4)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
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October 24-28

I wake up most every night at 4:00 a.m., and have as long as I can remember.  It can be scary there, in that raw, nascent, dark of night.  It’s when I feel most alone.  As a child, I would listen for the Milwaukee Railroad in the distance, just to know there was someone else awake at that hour.  And it would lull me back to sleep.

I wake for different reasons:

Usually it’s because I’m dreaming something that I know I need to pay attention to, and somehow my conscious mind pulls me out of my unconscious concoction where the world is as weird as it is profound.  Some strand of reality calls and says, “That’s enough of that.  You wandered enough into the wilderness of your creative unconscious.  Now wake up, and stare into the moonlit room of your real world, and lie there in the soft safe pillows and see what it had to teach you.”  It’s a different kind of seeing, in the dark, when you are still more soul than flesh.  Like being born.

Maybe your heart is racing, and you brought yourself back to reality because you thought you might die, being chased like that.  Maybe you saw something you didn’t want to see, and like the hero on her journey, you needed to come back with the elixir to save something of yourself before day wakes.  Maybe you bound yourself into such an impossible situation that you beckoned yourself back into a less complicated world, but with the clear understanding that your real life is just as impossible in its own way, and it’s time to stop the madness.  In every case, what I have dreamed is so exact that I can’t help but believe in a parallel universe.  I mean, how could I have just imagined this house and every single detail of it, when I’ve never laid eyes on it before?  It doesn’t really matter.  I only know that I have.  And that there’s quite likely something to learn from it.  Sometimes I come out of a dream laughing.  Sometimes, I’m weeping.  I believe that I am working out something in my dreams that I’m not quite able to in my life.

Sometimes I wake at 4:00 a.m. dreamless, because the moon is full and it’s shining in my window and flooding my bed in shadows.  Then I just lie there and trace the silhouettes of the fir trees that tower around my house.  I’ve been told that the lungs are replenishing themselves at 4:00 in the morning, so I take deep breaths, usually like this:  in 1..2..3..4..hold 1..2..3..4..exhale 1..2..3..4…  Sometimes I repeat a line to go with the breathing—something I need.  Often it’s Julian of Norwich’s:   all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

4:00 a.m. finds me in a trance.  An in-between place.  Untethered.  Where I meet myself outside of the everything else.  I lie there in that trance, pushing back against full consciousness, and try to receive what there is to feel, know, fear, learn.  But without purchase.  This is the time to let it wash over me to the shores of the waking hour, still far away.  I lie there and let my unconscious mind give itself to my conscious one, however scary, strange, symbolic, even if I forget it by morning.  It’s okay to forget.  I know that what I experience in that trance stays with me in a woven way.  Unseen.  But sometimes there is something so powerful there, that I know I have to keep it close.  So I write it down on a notepad I keep next to my bed.  I don’t turn on the light.  I don’t want to wake fully up.  So sometimes I can’t exactly read every word the next day.  But the gist of it is there.

And every so often, in that 4:00 a.m. trance, something hatches that I know is as holy as I know holy to be.  Whether by dream or moonlight or breathing or words, that suspension between dreams and complete waking delivers a pure thought which can’t help but summon an idea.  A pretty good idea.  Whole books have come to me in that trance time.  The design for my writing retreats came to me in that between place.  Often I am delivered a sentence of truth that I know I have to use somehow, if only for my motherhood, or my own navigation of life.

So I’ve been starting my day by writing down what it feels like to wake up on those shores.  Back to reality, whatever that is.  Sometimes it’s one line.  Sometimes it’s a long riff.  It’s not a crafted piece with a beginning, middle, and end.  It doesn’t have a narrative trajectory, or a thoughtful premise or landing place.  It’s a piece of ash flying up from a fire and floating a bit on the heat thermals before it falls and joins the ground.  These trance-thoughts are ungrounded, but maybe more grounded than I know.  After decades of this 4:00 a.m. floating, I have learned not to feel so alone there, not to feel so scared.  Instead, it’s my safe haven for whatever needs to show itself, and why I love the word haven so much.  We all need one, yes in the world, but also in ourselves.  So from my 4:00 a.m. to yours…Haven (4)

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

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

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)
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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

Note:  If you are travelling to Montana this summer or fall, please enjoy our beautiful wilderness which is full of smoke-free and wide open roads and trails, valleys, rivers, and lakes!   

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!

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