Tag Archives: letting go

How to Survive Empty Nest (AKA: Mommy Massage Money)

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Now Booking my Fall Haven Writing Retreats in Montana… 

September 18-22 (one spot left)

September 25-29 (a few spots left)

You do not have to be a writer to come…just someone who is deeply longing to find your voice and set it free.

Click here for more info and to contact me to set up a call… Running special discounts this week!

For those of you who are looking at the last weeks of August with dread, clinging to what last licks of summer magic you can put in your proverbial jar and hoard in your proverbial pantry all winter…and especially for those of you who are facing Empty Nest for the first time, and ESPECIALLY if you are a single mother facing Empty Nest for the first time…this is for you. But it also applies to anyone who is longing for her/his people, in the wane of these sacred summer days:

First, a word on this emotional miasma that you are likely feeling: (followed by some pretty solid advice…so stop what you’re doing. Get comfy. This is a muscular read and there’s a good chance that it will help you. A lot.)

There is so much longing in these dog days of August, especially if you are a mother of a child soon fledging the nest. Longing for things like that one moment on the porch with your college-bound son, before he goes out with his friends, AGAIN…trying to squeeze out some lovely mother moment in which you impart just a bit of wisdom, or ask that one perfect question that will evoke that one poignant answer and you’ll feel like you know your child again, or just that much more.

Maybe you have ways to inspire these moments and maybe it has to do with food. So maybe you find yourself plotting a menu that he can’t resist so that your home will be the chosen roost for his boy squad tonight, not some cabin in the woods, or some boat on a lake, or some media room with air conditioning and very lenient parents… Maybe you should be a more lenient parent? Nah.

Or maybe you are just plain longing for your child. Without all those tall smelly (albeit adorable) boys who quite likely have one thing on their mind: beer. Maybe you just want him. At home. Before he leaves for college, and you’re alone in the house. Alone. Wondering why you didn’t make summer matter more. Why you didn’t insist that he come home, miss the party, sit on the porch with you and play cards and talk all about life and love and loss and hope. Why you didn’t swim in more lakes together or establish a daily something together that when you are older you can both say, lovingly and longingly into each others’ eyes:  “Remember that summer when we used to always ________?”

And not have this as your memory instead: “Remember that summer when we used to always say, Bye. Have fun. Be smart. Be safe.” Or, “Can you mow the lawn before you leave? And weedwack?” Or “Gas money? Sure. I’ve got a twenty in my wallet. Help yourself.” Because why wouldn’t you give him a little gas money here and there. He plays baseball. He’s hard to employ. And the only spare vehicle you have for him to drive is the old gas-guzzling Suburban. You live in the country. He needs a car. Everything he wants to do is far away from home. And it’s expensive to get anywhere in that old beat up truck. And yet…as much as you wish he would stay at home, you’re glad he has places to go and people to see. And yeah…it feels good to give him a little financial relief. It’s summer. He’s a good kid. He works hard at college. You’re proud of him. And gas money is like your Bolognese sauce. Which means you love him just that much more. And no…none of it is bribery. It’s just making life for your child a little luxurious every so often. Because you’re his mother. Damn it. You’re his mother.

Since he’s been little, you’ve made it your job to teach him every lesson you can possibly think of, although you doubt he listened to you. Tick tock! Before he goes to college, you need to know where he is in life! You need to take the pulse of his heart and mind and soul! So you ply him with your Bolognese and it works: He gives you that precious time. For one splendid dinner. And you sit on the porch and see what he knows, where he is in what he knows, where he needs to know more. But then you have to go and blow it because you push just…a…little…too…hard. And he wolfs down the rest of his food and asks for gas money and is off to a cabin in the woods with his buddies and the cooler his very cool god-mother gave him for Christmas.

“Have fun. Be smart. Be safe.”  And you hold back the tears because he hates it when you cry. He feels guilty for leaving you alone and you don’t want him to. So you swallow and shake it off and holler after him, “I love you!” And then you go inside before he can peel out of the driveway, because you want him to think that you have things to do. Only you don’t. Not really. Not unless you call doing the dishes “things to do.”

For those of you who know exactly what I mean…clinging to these last weeks of summer before your child leaves for college…and especially for those of you who are doing this for the first time…take heart. I’m a year ahead of you, and I have some help for you. Wipe those tears. Make a cup of tea. Get cozy…really cozy. This is for you:

1)    First of all, don’t feel ashamed that you are in this amount of pain. Yeah yeah yeah…people will go to great lengths to remind you that you had kids to see them fledge. You don’t want them living in your basement! But we all know that this doesn’t help, any more than it did when your mother told you to finish your dinner because there are starving people in Africa. Now you just feel bad about yourself. Try this instead:

2)    Go into his room when he’s not there and take a photo of his clothes all over the floor, his un-made bed, the zillions of chords and devices that you don’t really understand or want to understand. And then take a look at whatever’s under his bed that you haven’t wanted to see all summer. Take a photo of that too. Ew. Now put those photos on your screensaver. Take a good look at them. Do these images endear themselves to you? Didn’t think so. When you pass by his room after he’s gone, and you fall to your knees weeping because it’s so clean and vacant and innocent with all those baseball trophies, and his Lego trucks still intact and GOD how you miss those days…take a look at those photos. Should do the trick.

3)    You know how when you’re at the grocery store checking out and you can choose to get some cash…and you get $20 in case he asks you for gas money? Because who carries cash these days? But cash is maternal currency and you always keep some around for that moment when he looks up at you like a starving kid in Africa, or at least a Golden Retriever, and says, “Any chance you have any cash for gas? I’m pretty low.” And you get all lit up inside because you can say, “In fact I do. Happy to help the cause.” Like you’re thrilled that he’s leaving you once again. You know that $20. I know you do.

  1. So here are your marching orders from a mommy who knows: Keep taking those twenty-dollar bills at the grocery store checkout line. Only it’s not for your kid’s gas money any more. It’s now officially, starting the week before he leaves…massage money. $20 in a secret compartment in your wallet. Watch it add up. I bet you can afford a massage every other week if you give yourself the money you would have given him to drive away from your front porch. How ‘bout that! Does that get you all lit up inside? I’m sitting here smiling at the thought of it. I’m totally going to try it! Wish I’d thought of it same time last year!

4)    So…you know all those times when you get the guts to ask, “Wanna go out for lunch?” or “Want to go to dinner and a movie?” or “Want to take a hike in the woods?” And he says, “I’m sorry, but I already have plans.” And you feel like such a sucker, loser, chump? Well when he’s gone and you feel that longing for bonding with a loved one…it’s time to text or email or call or choose one of the fifteen thousand ways that you can contact a friend these days. AND ASK THEM if they want to do any of the above. It might not be exactly what you wanted to do, and it might not hold the emotional holy grail of mother/child love that will quell that ache in your heart.  But heck—it’s better than sitting around at your shitty pity party. So there. Reach out to a friend. If they say no, reach out to another one. It’s better than being alone when you feel like that. Being alone shouldn’t be something you bully yourself to do. If you don’t want to be alone…don’t be alone. The world is a peopled place. Find your people. Just maybe not overly happy people at this juncture.

5)    To that end:  On being alone. You’ve heard this by now, I’m sure of it. “I love being alone! I’d DIE to have my house to myself. I could do anything I wanted! Damn! I’m so jealous of you. I can’t WAIT until Empty Nest. My kids are driving me crazy. And you’re not in a relationship right now? Sounds like HEAVEN! I’d crank tunes and have a naked dance party, just me!” Well here’s my advice: Stop talking to those people. They suck.

6)    If you don’t have a dog, you should probably get one. But if you start buying little sweaters for it, and custom-design a doggy bed that matches your couch, you should probably hire a shrink or a life coach or something.

7)    Now’s the time to write that book you’ve always wanted to write. I know a gal in Montana who can help you… Just sayin’. #havenwritingretreats

8)    Or take that trip you’ve always wanted to take. “Alone?” “Yeah. Alone. Just to do it and see that you won’t die. Not that it’s better than traveling with a loving partner or your loving children. These people: “I would do ANYTHING to travel alone. I LOVE traveling alone. You can do whatever you WANT TO DO!” See my above advice.

9)    To that end: Maybe just don’t hang out with people who are happily married and who are entering into Empty Nest. Not until you get used to going to bed alone, waking in the night alone, going downstairs in the morning to make tea and seeing everything exactly as it was the night before when you turned off the light. Even that piece of paper that you passed on the stairs and didn’t pick up. And then passed again on the way back up. And will keep passing until you finally get it through your head that unless you pick it up, it’s just gonna stay there. Maybe wait until you finally pick up the piece of paper before you consider hanging out with happily married Empty Nesters. Or maybe just stay away from them altogether until you can trust yourself socially.

10) Don’t trust yourself socially right now. Weird shit is going to come out of your mouth. And you can’t take it back. And it just adds to the shame. When you do the reach out to a friend thing…be very careful. You’re wide open. Like after birth. And death. This is a kind of dying, and you have to respect the grief process. Only hang out with people who understand that or who can find empathy for it.

11) Make your special Bolognese sauce, or your version of whatever is your culinary super power, and eat it. Alone. On your porch. With a really nice bottle of Cote du Rhone. Because these aren’t box wine days any more. You don’t have to pay for deli meat and bacon and a bread box full of English muffins, and bagels, and sandwich bread, a meat drawer full of big blocks of cheese, and all that protein and gluten he requires. You only really need the top shelf of the fridge these days. And it’s pretty slim. And it’s very clean. For once. Everything is very clean for once. When you do your cooking, be sure to dirty lots of pots and pans and plates. Then leave it all in the sink. When you wake up and go into the kitchen, you’ll remind yourself that there was some good old-fashioned living going on in this house of yours last night. And you have proof! Advanced homework: Leave it in the sink all day so that you can remind yourself, over and over, that Empty Nest is not turning you into a zombie. You still make (and eat) pasta Bolognese!

12) And here’s another thing. Not only are you not a zombie, but you’re actually living. So guess what? (And these are strict orders. I don’t care what’s in your bank account) You hire a HOUSE-KEEPER! At least once a month. And guess what? That one piece of paper on the stairs that you keep forgetting to pick up, or even passive aggressively LEAVE on the stairs to torture yourself with the fact that you are alone, and you’ve got the piece of paper to prove it…that piece of paper that you pass and every time your bleak mind skips to: I’m going to die alone…well guess what? Suddenly, there’s a nice woman with a vacuum cleaner in her hand, and she’s just voila sucking up that piece of paper, proving to you that you DON’T suck, (that’s the vacuum’s job haha)…and that sometimes you have to pay someone to remind you of that. (See: the therapist or life coach that you’ve hired. That massage you’re having on a regular basis in lieu of doling out gas money.) You’re going to start HIRING people. Not like you’re rolling in the dough, but all that actual dough that made all that bread that you don’t have to buy with your kid in college…well you’re going to put it to use to keep your heart from breaking.

13) Finally, and I’m a living testament to this: Your heart isn’t going to break. Not all the way. You’re going to race home from work or from wherever you are in your day, and think, “Crap. What do I have in the fridge and the pantry to make for dinner? He’s so hungry all the time!” And then you’re going to think, “Crap. It’s just me.” And you’re going to take a sigh, and slow your mind down, and slow your accelerator down, and you’re going to think… Huh. I’ve been wanting to see what this Outlander thing is all about. And I do have Netflix, after all. For him to watch whatever those scary boy shows are about the dead people. I wonder what else there is on Netflix. Maybe there’s a cooking show or something. Ah…and there you have it. You find A Chef’s Table. You find Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. And yes, you find Outlander, and you start wondering, after binge-watching the first season…if maybe you too could find a portal into another time, and find another you, and other people to love and who love you back. And you wonder…what’s possible for you in the future. Maybe this is the time of your life that you will one day look back on and think, Boy, did I ever have an easy, calm, self-centered (not in a bad way), life when I was in the throes of Empty Nest. Boy, was it uncomplicated. Boy, was I surprisingly happy. I’d do anything to have that Me-time back. In fact, I’d DIE to have all that sacred space, and everything just the way I want…

But for now, while he’s still home…you’ve got to get to the grocery store to buy more deli meat, and more bread, and get that extra $20 bill, and and and…pass by that piece of paper on the stairs and think, There’s a chance, albeit a small one, that maybe he’ll pick up that piece of paper. And if he does, or even if he doesn’t, I know that he loves this house, and all the memories it holds, and me too. And that he’ll come back. Of course he will. There’s Bolognese here. There’s a lawn and a weedwacker that he is proud to have dominion over. He loves his lawn. Our lawn. Who knows: maybe one day it’ll be his house. And maybe I’ll be living in the basement. Or in the studio over the garage. And he’ll be giving me gas money.

All I know is that I have to let August run its course. Not over-think it. Allow the moments to come naturally. Not force them. Be happy with those little in-between conversations over morning cereal. (That’s another thing you don’t have to buy anymore: cereal.) And believe that September will have its moments of grace along with its moments of despair. Please know…there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Yeah, you had kids, and you loved them with everything you had, and now you’re helping them fledge. That doesn’t make it any easier. At least not for you.

The ones who are DYING to be alone and DYING to have their kid out in the world—I suspect that they’ll collapse on their knees from time to time when they pass their child’s empty, clean, innocent room. But remember that when YOU do…just take a look at your screensaver. That room smelled bad. The kid in it did a lot of grumbling and mumbling and wasn’t always such a peach. That door was closed a lot with music thrumping on the other side that had words you couldn’t understand except for the ones you still can’t believe he knows and uses. You thought you imparted too much wisdom for him to listen to those words. Well…maybe you did. Maybe he listened, after all. You’ll find out.

It’s time to let summer go, and welcome September, despair and all. Maybe there’s a naked dance party in it for us! I promise you, as much as I can promise anything without having a crystal ball: There’s a strong likelihood that you’re going to make it. A year will go by and it will be next summer and you’ll be looking at your kid in the same way, and maybe your life too…but you will say to yourself: I lived. I somehow did this life alone, without being a daily parent. I somehow trusted my child to thrive. And he did. And I didn’t die. That’s what I’m putting my money on: That you and your child, apart, will thrive. Not just get by. But THRIVE!

So…go outside. Right now. Walk barefoot in the grass. Drink some lemonade. Watch the dragonflies mate. Feel your place in the natural order of motherhood. And be glad. You did a good job, Mama. You did a good job.

If you want to use writing to navigate your life too…come to a Haven Writing Retreat this September! I have rare spots available on the September 18-22, and 25th-29th retreats! Email me asap to set up a phone call to discuss your creative journey and the Haven experience: laura@lauramunson.com

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How to Find YOU in Empty Nest

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You know when you run a life marathon, and it’s over? And you’re lying in your bed staring at the ceiling wondering how to stop running? That’s where I am. Right now. It started with the moon last night, like a clementine section moving from window pane to window pane. And then with the first bird, calling me out of Mother’s Day and reminding me that they’re doing the nesting now, not me. And perhaps that’s why I signed up for the marathon. To fill up my life so that I wouldn’t have to sit in my empty nest, alone.

My marathon went like this: a month in Morocco, traveling solo after consciously uncoupling with my beloved partner (sigh), leading a Haven Writing Retreat at the end, returning home, beginning the final editing process on my novel with my editor, leading a Haven Writing Retreat in Montana, preparing for Haven II– my advanced workshop for Haven Alums writing books which requires hours and hours of editing, leading Haven II, editing the final copy of my novel (coming out in March 2020—a very old dream), leading one day workshops in the homes of Haven alums in Minneapolis, leading another Haven Writing Retreat in Montana, and coming home to an empty house on Mother’s Day, Skyping with my kids, mother, and sister, and then lying in the sun listening to my Haven Muse Music list on Spotify all afternoon. And I’ll admit it, crying myself to sleep. Until I woke at 4:00 am. Then lay awake until now.

I cried because it is such an honor to be a holder of sacred space for people. I cried because I can hardly believe that this is where my life has landed, doing this work, and I can’t imagine my life without it. I cried because I am alone and miss the daily-ness of life with the people I have loved in this house, and yet I cried in gratitude knowing I am so not alone. I cried because while so much of my life is about creating temporary community now, that feeds people’s souls in ways that blow my mind every time, at the end…they leave. That’s the way it works. Just like the act of daily motherhood. It ends. I cried because I have spent six years with the four women in my novel and they have to leave too. They are real to me and I don’t want to let them go. It’s become the theme of my life: building community, and letting it go. And I need a flipside. I need a community that stays, and one that I’m not in charge of.

But where to begin?  My place in this town has always had to do with my kids and serving their pursuits and the institutions and people who serve them. Where is my place here now? I know so many of us are asking this question, especially as single mothers in empty nest. How do we do this new chapter of our lives? I know this for sure:  We shouldn’t rush it. We need to go slowly. And carefully.

So right now, it’s the Moroccan prayer rugs that bedeck the rooms of my house, the poppies, peonies, lupine, columbine, forget-me-nots, lily of the valley that are re-emerging from my garden soil, the nesting birds in their full-blown springtime purpose. The white-tailed deer in the tall grass at the edge of my lawn each morning when I open my door, that startle but that don’t run. The frogs in the marsh at dusk when I close my door to the first star. The spiders that spin in my windows and drop from my ceilings. The mice I hear in my walls, but lately don’t want to catch.

When I am not holding circles of women on retreat from their lives, full-freefalling into their beautifully unique voices, this slice of Montana is my current community now. And it’s a sacred one, though so so different from how it has been. I have to find out who I am with these empty rooms, and the same piece of lint on the laundry room floor as yesterday. The tea bag in the sink from this morning. The water bottle still on the porch from last week. Things have slowed to an almost standstill in my personal world—from not just my recent marathon, but a twenty-five-year-long marathon…to a full-stop—and I have to learn to be content with that.

That said, I need my own circle of connection. And, Steven Colbert and James Corden, as much as I adore you…you don’t count. Social media does feel like community in some generous and inspiring ways. But I need actual bodies to interact with. Causes to champion. In-between-time talks like I used to have in the parking lot with mothers and fathers after we dropped our kids off to school or after a board meeting. “Hey, want to grab a cup of tea?” “How about a walk?” That doesn’t happen sitting on your front porch listening to frogs.

Mine is a little universe that needs to expand in new ways. So, first step, and yes slowly…in a few days, after two brutal years of life without canine companions, I’m adopting two big dogs. It’s time. The dogs will bring me off the porch and into the woods, but also to the dog park, and the Whitefish Trails, full of people and animals interacting. They’ll bring new energy into the house, and since they’re adopted, it’s likely that they’ll bring with them a very special brand of gratitude, like the other adopted dogs I’ve had over the years. The last thing these dogs have to do is move on. And the one thing they both will want to feel, is safe and happy in their new pack. Like me. New chapters for all three of us.

And then, after that, it’s time to step back into my community. One foot at a time. But it can’t be just because I fear being alone, or need to feel purposeful. It has to be intentional and sustainable. It’s not about my kids any more. It’s about me and my gifts and how I can give back. And here’s the big one: how I receive. Someone asked me recently: “Do you know how to receive without giving?” It was a damn good question. “I’m not sure,” I said. “I haven’t had a lot of practice.” Maybe it’s that I haven’t created ways to practice.

But either way, giving and receiving require stepping outside of my comfort zone and consciously connecting. It means reading the local newspaper and stopping at community bulletin boards in the café and grocery store. It means showing up at fund-raisers and events and having conversations with the local movers and shakers and decision-makers and inspirers, and probably joining a non-profit board…but it means not filling my life to the gills so that I don’t keep anything for myself. Which means it’s important to create sacred space to be just me in my new life, in communion with self. Not running a marathon, but lying on the prayer rugs with two big dogs. And staring at the ceiling. But not sadly. Instead, full in the best way, having given and received and having been led…and maybe leading too.

I have no idea what my new place will be, and who will be in it. But I’m ready for it. To give to it. And to receive from it. Thank you, in advance to whatever and whoever you are. Let’s have a blast! But not a marathon, please.

Now Booking our fall Haven Writing Retreats 2019

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and longs to find your unique voice.  It’s here…in the stunning wilderness of Montana!  Click for more info. (my favorite time of year.  Still warm during the day.  Fire in the fireplace at night.)

Sept 18-22
Sept 25-29 

***note Both June retreats are full…

 

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You Need a BREAK!

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

February 28-4 (full)
April 18-22 (one spot left)
May 16-20 (one spot left)
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

You give yourself a break.  Time away.  You get to feel new ozone on your skin and wander streets that might have you fall between the cracks, and you like it that way.  Your life needs more cracks and more possibility and maybe even more danger.  Things are too plum, shored, sealed up tight.  You need to be sloppy.  Irresponsible, even.  You maybe even need to turn a heel in a crack and fall. Mostly, you need to bum around and forget about things.  You need to stop in a café and have a cappuccino just because why not.  You don’t really drink coffee but a cappuccino looks so good.  You don’t really give yourself those little gemstone pauses these days and you need to.  You need to sit at tables in public and watch the world go by.  You need to get away from your routine—all that sitting alone staring at a computer.  You need to get away from your list—that never-ending list.  You need to get away from that voice which stands behind you with a megaphone, blaring at you all the time and even when you sleep, to do it faster, better, best.  And p.s…you’ll never do it as well as you should, or could or were supposed to.  And the worst of it:  This voice is YOU.

At 4 a.m. you actually sit up in bed and shout, “ENOUGH!  STOP!  Go away!”

And that’s what you need:  you need to go away.  Maybe she’ll stay at home and make perfect grilled cheese sandwiches and remember to pay the property taxes on time, and make sure to have a dozen eggs in the fridge no matter what.  And write thank you notes and send Christmas cards before Christmas and remember everyone’s birthdays and get the driveway plowed at just the right time, before the storm, before the thaw, UNLIKE you…when you fail to consult Mother Nature, and the whole world is an ice-skating rink, and no one has control over their cars or footing.  And it’s all your fault, because you didn’t deal when you should have, could have, were supposed to.  In short, you suck.  Either way, you suck.  So you might as well leave.

Enough!  I’m out of here!  You stay here and do it all right.  I’m going to go get a little, or a lot, lost.  There’s an extra set of keys in the little drawer next to the stove.  Oh, and the propane bill is late.  Hope you have heat.  The woodstove is exceptional.  But there’s zero wood on the front porch, and the path to the woodpile isn’t shoveled, so good freaking luck!

And lo, you find yourself in Mexico.  In a little hill town.  Thin, cobble-stoned streets, full of fallen women.  Just like you.  Divorced.  Middle-aged.  Artists.  Sad.  Looking for happy.  But in the mean-time…just looking for…looking.  They are you and if that’s true, you’ve never looked more hopeless in your life.  But at least you’re not at home.  Staring at your computer.  And at the snow.  And at February.

You need to just…sit.  And let the world go blurry.  Lose time.  Have that one cup of coffee be your only goal.  And maybe you won’t even drink it.  It will just sit there getting cold.  You have no commitment to it.  You can leave it untouched and it will hold nothing against you.  Maybe you order wine instead.  At noon.  And decide you want to sit in a church after.  And then on a park bench.  And then take a nap.  There’s a weight on your back that you need to shake.  It feels like a feral dog and it’s about to grab you, jugular, all the time, unless you keep going and going and going…email by email, buttons– so many buttons, screens, phone calls, gas, bills, heat, groceries, school and sports event after event, parent by parent.  Are we all really doing this so well?  Is anyone else about to be slain by February?  If anyone asked, and if anyone answered, the whole thing might erupt and send ash for miles, across states, to the sea.  So no one does.  We slog.  And we say, “How are you?”  And we say, “I’m fine.”  Are we?

I had to leave.  I had to stop.  I had to get off the orbit and float in space.  I took a week.  I wrote for hours every day in my journal.  By day six, the dog was finally off my back.  I heard it growling around a corner, but it was growling at someone else.  Another person.  A running person.  I was sitting in a church with wine breath and it decided I wasn’t worth it.

A week of this– no 4 a.m. haunts for seven days.  And on day six, I was free.  And I was new.  For one day.  I slept until 11:00.  I sat by a pool and read Vanity Fair (my porn).  I thought about nothing but whatever was in those pages, like some kidnapped socialite who wrote a memoir, and I didn’t really even think too much about her because she looked okay in her polka-dot dress…until I fell asleep in the sun, getting my last fix of Vitamin D.

And then I got my notice from the airline that it was time to check in.  And the dog began growling at me.  Not that other person.  Me.  I warded him off all the way through a four hour wait in Mexico City and nine hours of flights.  And I came home.  And it was all still there.  The very opposite of the green green grass of my vacation.  No one shoveled and we had 20 inches.  The mail stacked up because I forgot to have it held.  The mailbox creaked a refusal when I pried it open.  No one set mouse traps and one (or a whole family) have taken up real estate in my pantry closet—seems they really like pancake mix.  My truck was dead on arrival with a low front tire, at that.  And my homeowner’s insurance is a month late.  Oh, the satellite got turned off too.  I must have had what Holly Go-lightly calls The Mean Reds.  And I don’t feel so new anymore.

I’m up at 4 a.m. again.  Sleeping with the dog.

I have a few more months of this, before the birds come back and promise that the world will melt to color again and myself too.  I look out at the still-snow, deer paths labyrinthine from my blanketed garden to my blanketed front door, as if they too are sick of it and want to come in by the fire.  And I know:  I have a choice.  I can welcome this last rash of dormancy.  I can accept and allow this no thing-ness, this negative space of winter.  I can try to take small sips of that getting lost feeling even with my stacked-up responsibilities.  I can even try to take the dog off my back and let him run around in my Montana field and get all his growling and barking out of his system, at least for a few hours.

And if that’s not true, if the cruelty that is February this year, is not shakable in my own neck of the woods…then I have learned nothing in my life.  And I know for certain that’s not true.  I wrote a whole book about happiness being a choice.  Thank you, February, for giving me practice.  Lots and lots of practice.  I don’t know if practice makes perfect, but I do know that the next time someone asks me how I am, I’m going to suggest that we both answer what is really true.  And I give us both permission to say, “Not so great.  Want to go have a cappuccino?  Or maybe a glass of wine?”

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An Empty House: This I dread


Haven-4-1024x1024“I’m going to be fine in empty nest.  Don’t worry about me out here in Montana in my farmhouse.  I’ve got my writing.  I’ve got my writing retreats.  I’ve got my horses.  I love my land.  I’m going to travel the world.  It’s time for me again.”

That’s what I tell people.

That’s what I tell myself.

Inside, I’m terrified.  It seeps in at 4:00 a.m. when I wake most nights, when the fears are immune to my internal motherly “hush now.”  My mind isn’t just racing, it’s hauling ass down every dark alley I am able to avoid in daylight.  It’s trapped in this labyrinth of panic by Fear incarnate and it wants OUT.  And it’s not bills and health and aging and the other usuals.  It’s this dwindling last flame on the last wick of my motherhood.  And it’s the last light out of this Fear-mongered labyrinthine haunt.

How am I going to do this ‘being alone’ thing?  How am I going to feel secure without that last child’s room full?  That boy who wakes up in the morning and wants an egg sandwich, and a lovingly filled lunchbox– his sandwich cut in half and a Honeycrisp apple, not a Gala. A little bag of carrots and that note that I sometimes write, but not usually anymore, because I don’t want to embarrass him around his friends. Or make them feel sad that they don’t have a mother who does that for them.  I’m letting my motherhood go. I feel it.  Some mornings I make his lunch the night before, and put out cereal on the kitchen table with a note:  Have a nice day.  And I peek my head into his room in the glow of computer and cell screens and say, “I’m going to sleep in tomorrow.  I have a long day of work and I need my sleep.”  But what I’m really saying is, “This thing is crushing me.  I need to prepare.  I can’t go cold turkey.  I need to know that you can do this on your own.  I need to know that I can do this alone.”073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24

And he can.  Of course he can.  I always said I was raising adults.  Flexible, adaptable, adults.  I let them use knives early.  I literally touched their fingers to the hot stove so that they would learn.  On my terms, I guess.  I wanted to get it over with.  But what about me?  Am I going to take to my bed?  Am I going to have long dark nights of the soul like I did after my father died? I can’t bear those.  Will I feel unexplained joy, the way you do when your motherhood gets served to you in surprise heaping plates—when they crawl into bed with you on a Sunday morning, all six feet of them, and want to just “hang out?”  When they come into your office and sit down in the same chair they used to when they were little, and start talking about their day, on and on, knowing that you care, that you’ll listen, that you are their only and forever mother?  Are those moments all over now?  Will I have to manufacture them on the phone or on vacations?  The mundane, the holy mundane, of my motherhood is going in five…four…three…two…

You know when you are about to leave a relationship or a place, and you start to look at all the things you can’t stand about it?  How you’re going to be better off without it?  “Never liked that neighbor.  I’ll be better off without all that ridiculous traffic.  Can’t stand the way he eats.  Never wanted a cat anyway.”

I’m doing that with my motherhood.

And I think my son is doing it with his childhood.

We’re butting heads where we usually can find humor.  We’re finding fault where we normally make spaciousness for each other.  I’m getting rip-shit-mad over dishes in the sink.  I don’t get rip-shit-mad as a rule.  I am a Talker-through-er.  A Let’s-sit-down-and-have-a-heart-to-heart-er, kind of mother.  Some would say too lenient.  But I have always set my sites on trust and not blame.  Trust is what will bring my relationship with my children into the future, fortified and stalwart.  My go-to line:  “We all screw up.  It’s how we act around it that matters.”  I know that when people get rip-shit-mad it’s because they’re afraid.  So here I am…being afraid.  Apparently dishes are as scary as that dark 4:00 a.m. Fear monster.

I remember my daughter acting this way her senior year. Nothing I did was right.  And when your offenses are small, it’s like, “I can’t believe we have to have lamb chops again.  And why are they always medium rare? And why do you have to have that stupid jazz on in the background?  And why do we have to go to Belize for Spring Break when all my friends are going to Cabo?”  And now, neither of us can barely remember that blip in our relationship. Now it’s all humor and love and forgiveness and open-heartedness. I have every faith that it will be that way with my son.  He’s ready to fly.  I know.  I know.  But still…

073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24Last night, I lay there at 4:00 a.m., the Fear chasing me down those dark alleys:  no more boy in the house.  No more impromptu dance moves around the kitchen—and he can finally dip me!  No more “Let’s meet in town and have a special dinner, just you and me.”  No more “Mom, I have an orchestra concert. You should come.”  No more baseball.  So much baseball.  I’ve measured my life in innings every spring/summer for the past twelve years.  I love it and I loathe it.  My life is already so sedentary as a writer.  All that sitting.  My back is already a wreck.

And my eyes blinked open wide.  No more baseball.  Hmmm….

What else is there going to be no more of?

Well heck— might as well.

And I grabbed my journal from my bed-side table and went for it.  It’s raw, but I’m sharing it with you.  Maybe it will help you.  Don’t judge.

No more mayonnaise at 7:00 a.m.

No more moldy lunchboxes showing up on the counter.

No more “Sign this form. It’s already late. Hurry.”

No more fifteen pairs of sneakers strewn in the breezeway.

No more being ignored for the glow of screens.

No more “Why don’t we have any food?” when there’s an entire freezer and pantry full of it. (#malepatternblindness)

No more “I forgot my cleats.  They’re under my bed.  Can you drop them off at the office?  Like…in ten minutes?”

No more “Can I stay out until 1:00 am?”

No more “No way. Midnight, latest.”

No more “Calm down.  Everyone else is allowed to stay out until 1:00.”

No more “Will the parents be there?”

No more “I think so.”

No more “Midnight.  Drive carefully, please. The roads are icy.”

No more “I’m okay, but the car isn’t.”

No more teenaged lumps lying on couches until noon on a Saturday, eating pancakes with hooded sweatshirts on and sometimes a thank you.  Sticky plates in the sink.

Who am I kidding.

I’m going to miss those sticky plates.  I’m going to miss those thank you’s when they come.  I’m going to miss driving in to school to save the day.  And yes…I’m going to miss baseball.  I’m going to roam around those stands when he’s gone, and wish I could sit all day in the blazing sun hearing all that “Go kiiiiiid” and “You got this, kiiiiiiid,” and “Bring ‘er home, kiiiiiiid.”  Who am I kiiiiiding.

It’s morning.  It’s Sunday.  He’s on a bus going to an Orchestra showcase in Bozeman, Montana.  Probably with his sweatshirt hood over his head, drooling on his baseball pillowcase, headphones on.

So I call him.  And he answers.

“How are the roads?”

“Not bad. But it’s snowing pretty hard.”

Quick prayer to the bus driver. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to sleep. Listening to tunes.”

“I hope not Rap.  And not too loud.  You’re going to ruin your ears.”

“Calm down, Mom.  I’m listening to the Brahms song that we’re playing.”

Gulp.  “Brahms wrote the lullaby I used to sing to you every night.”

Silence.

Not gonna cry.  Not gonna cry.  “I’m really going to miss you next year, you know.”

“I know.  I’m going to miss you too.”

“We going to be okay.  We’re going to be better than okay.  Onward!”

“Yeah.  Onward.”

“Text when you get there.”

“I will.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

So now what?  A Sunday morning in early February.  I’m alone.  In bed.  Propped up in old smelly pillows.  What’s left of my tea is cold.  The snow is gently falling.  Do I sob?  Because you can bet, I’m crying writing this.  I could sing that Brahms lullaby and spend hours bawling my eyes out.  But I don’t think I will.  Not today.  I have a book to write.  And a quiet house.  All day.

A quiet house.

So I go downstairs to make my second cup of Earl Grey tea, sending a whisper to myself next February.  You’re going to be okay.  This isn’t going to hurt as much as you think.  Go cup of tea by cup of tea, page by page, word by word, gentle (and yes motherly) thought by gentle thought.  It’s time to mother yourself now.  

But for now…I’m scared.  And I’m taking all the advice I can get from those who have been here.  Comments appreciated!

Love, Laura

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

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The Junk Drawer Cleanse

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

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

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

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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…

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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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When Doing Our Best Feels Like Failure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were late to the party.  Very late.

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

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

But the breathing is shallow at best.

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

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

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

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

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(previously published in Grown and Flown)

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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!   

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Letting Go of Your Stuff: the Closet Cleanse

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Okay.  I’ll admit it.  I cling to things.  I’ve been working on it.  Hard.  And I’ve gotten pretty good at letting go.  Of places…and in some cases, of people.  That’s the hardest one.  I’ll leave it at that for now.  But for some reason, the stuff you’d think would be the easiest to let go of…is for me, the hardest.  And that’s:  old clothes.

Maybe it’s because they can hang in a closet, or lie in a box in an eave, unopened for years.  They don’t require attention or interaction.  And they don’t leave unless I make them leave.  Maybe I keep the small stuff in my life because when I’m lying in bed working with letting go of the big stuff, I can at least believe in the lie that those silly things in those closets and boxes are still there to save me a little…should I really need it…one difficult day.  Like today.

Because what does a full closet of old clothes mean?  Resourcefulness?  Gratitude?  Personal history?  And what would an empty closet, an empty box, say about my life?  Who would I be without the proof of an old wardrobe of the people I’ve been on this planet?  Would I be such an empty shell?

Of course not.  And I know damn well what fills a human soul.  It ain’t clothes, that’s for sure.  I know this.  And yet…I mean my Guess skinny jeans from the 80s?  My Police Synchronicity tour sleeveless T-shirt?  Jeez.  Get over it, girlfriend.  Sure, a baptism gown or a wedding dress—that’s one thing.  (And let’s not even get into the clothes I kept from my father’s drawers and closets after he died.  I can’t even unpack those suitcases.  That requires nerve I just…don’t…have yet.)  But my wrap-around corduroy skirt with the emerald green whales on it?  My old argyle knee socks?  Come on.clothesdrive_imgerotat

I respect those people who go through their closets every season, and are honest with themselves.  Haven’t worn that in two months.  Too fat for that.  Too skinny for that (like that ever happens, but I’m just saying…it could).  Sayonara.

I’m the child of Depression era parents.  I think in terms of darned socks and three minute phone calls.  I think of Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors that her mama gave to her.  Made up of the fabric of old clothes.  The fabric of old life.  When I’m giving myself a break for such hoarderly qualities, I say:  it’s because I love story.  Those clothes, that fabric– the stories they could tell.  But isn’t my brain the ultimate container for those stories?  And my journals?  And the people I love who lived through those times too?  So why do I need a Laura Ashley dress circa 1980?  My old Frye boots, the first time they were in vogue—70s style.  My kilts and Fair Isle sweaters from my impossibly preppy days.  My wedding shoes that no longer fit me because somehow my feet and ears are still growing, just like they say of old men.  My hippie skirts and even that tweed Ann Taylor suit with the shoulder pads and big wool covered buttons that I wore to all my temp jobs while I was writing my first novel in Boston.clothesdrive_imgerotat

And let’s remember that these aren’t just old clothes hanging in my childhood bedroom in a suburb of Chicago.  My parents got rid of their home of 45 years long ago.  No, I opted to pack these items into boxes.  I opted to have them shipped to Montana.  To not just one house, but to the next house we moved into—this one.  I have worked hard to preserve this legacy of old beloved materialistic crap.

Yesterday, a kind voice, not prone to bullying as I’ve procured the voices in my head to be now in my 50s, told me:  Laura, it’s time.

I dreaded it.  It took all day and a string of daytime talk shows all the way through Martha, who would probably do something industrious with all that fabric, like line bulletin boards or sew wine gift bags, or make chicken coop cozies…but let’s face it, I don’t sew.  I use duct tape when I rip a hem.

But I did it.  And you know what?  It was easy.

I guess if you hang on to something long enough, and it haunts you enough, and it’s benign enough…it loses its luster.  My grandmother’s silver and china are still shiny, for instance.  No haunt there.  But yesterday, it was like I was exfoliating my brain.  Opening up space in my house (and the house of my brain) that was full of grumpy ghosts who wanted out.  To move on and torture some other woman reckoning with the loss of her maidenhood, in some other bedroom in America.  They flew out of here so fast, they didn’t even stir the dust they’d been stashed in for so many years.  Didn’t even say goodbye.  And why would they?  They have been dormant—lording over fickle charms; thin talismen.  Ghosts don’t like to be dormant.  They like megaphones and chains.  I’ve left those for the other ghosts of the Big Stuff.  These ghosts were so outta here.clothesdrive_imgerotat

And what I was left with was a pile of clothes and dust and the remains of long dead flies and stink bugs.  Clothes I’d once beheld lovingly and thought—Oh, my daughter might want that pair of vintage riding breeches some day—we’ll get the leatherwork re-done, and the elastic too.  Or, my grandmother’s ultra suede suit might come in handy if there’s ever a dress-like-Barbara Bush Day in my imminent future—suddenly lay limp and dethroned on my bedroom rug.  And I wanted them out of there.

So I fetched five lawn bags, and shoved it all in.  Dragged them outside, and launched them in to the back of the old Ford pick-up to take to the Salvation Army.

For a flicker of a moment I thought, with a lunatic’s altruism and over-blinking eyes, “Well somebody in rural Montana is surely going to feel lucky to stumble upon such finery.”  After all, I’m the one who remembers walking through the streets of Chicago once, seeing a homeless person wearing the exact same bridesmaid’s dress I’d worn in a recent wedding and thinking how lovely it must be to wear a gown of peau de soie silk whilst rummaging through  garbage for soda cans—but also thinking how rude and unromantic and socially irresponsible even not to at least have the decency to keep the dread thing hanging in a closet somewhere.  To promise to wear again with those same over-blinking eyes.  Of course I was that girl.  I bet whichever of the other six women who got real and ditched that dress at the local Goodwill doesn’t have a pick-up full of clothes sitting in bags from the last 30 years of her life.  I bet she has a very dust-free brain.  As a rule.  Never mind her closet.

clothesdrive_imgerotatAnd then I laugh-snorted and got over myself.  Was I kidding myself?  No one with any level of dignity whatsoever would find any of this stuff wearable in 2017.  Sometimes one person’s trash is NOT another person’s treasure.  But then again, if I see someone walking down the street in a patchwork coat, made up of the fabrics of my life, I decided right then…I’d be pleased.  Because one thing seemed true in that grey on rust on plastic on textile moment:  one person’s clinging could certainly be made into another person’s winter coat.  That was for sure.  Fancy could indeed become function.

In a month, ask me if I can remember the clothes I gave away for adoption yesterday.  In a month, ask me if I care.

So many little stitches in freedom.

 

 

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Breaking Point: #11

We are rounding the bend toward Spring.  Each year at this time, I remember what gratitude is…in tiny things like being able to see the driveway again.  The call of the red-winged blackbird in the marsh behind my house that tells me we’re still worth returning to.  Open windows that blow out my Winter dormancy and wake me up with a wind that feels balmy, even at 45 degrees.  Each year at this time, I  feel myself losing that Winter brace against the cold.  And I re-learn that gratitude can’t be felt without a willingness to receive.  As we finish this Winter, I invite us all to actively receive the newness and hope of Spring.  We have another week or so of this Breaking Point series.  I am so grateful to all of you who have participated.  I’ve closed submissions due to time constraints, as with the first day of Spring (March 20th) I would like us to move out of whatever pain we’re in, and step into healing.  Or, you could look at it like this:  we can choose to use our pain to create emotional freedom by breathing deeper into it past fear and ideas of wrong and bad…and in-so-doing…let it go.  However we choose to view pain– teacher, guide, enemy…I want us to feel the power of the present moment with all its promise and abundance.  In other words, I want us to dance in the rain.  Thank you for sharing your stories and thank you for reading them.  We are all in this together.  yrs. Laura  

Today’s Breaking Point is from: Kat Holland at thebreakupguide.com.  (This link goes to a guest blog piece I wrote for them.) 

To go to their main page click here.

The “M” Visions

Intuition is the one thing we are blessed with – never ignore what you know inside.

My belongings are packed in a 10×10 storage unit and I’ve left my job and my community behind. As I wait for my plane to take off, I wonder what happened to my life. I had it all – a cabin in the mountains, a husband, a dream PR job and loyal friends. Why didn’t I see my life crashing…or did I?

I married a New Zealand man with disheveled sandy blond hair and a slender athletic build. He looked like Jude Law, only hotter. He was a great cook, charming and smart…or more like…a smart ass. He was a lawyer turned bartender because he wanted to live out every man’s dream of being a ski bum. You know…the kind of guy who wakes up, smokes a bowl, hits the powder in the winter, frequents the golf course in the summer, then attends his very part-time job. His profession didn’t bother me, as long as we were both happy. I loved and supported him and looked forward to growing old with him. I accepted his drug habits and his carefree lifestyle. He was my husband, the man I chose to spend the rest of my life with – I adored him and he adored me.

We had been together for 10 years, but in February 2006, my life suddenly spun out of control. I thought I had vertigo– my head whirled as if caught in a tornado’s vortex. It was my first anxiety attack. I was 38. Then, insomnia interrupted my shut eye, and when I did sleep, my pleasant dreams turned into nightmares. They were vivid and sexual. I questioned whether or not I was getting enough sex, which I wasn’t.  I witnessed my husband kissing and then thrusting himself into another woman and it became a re-occurring dream. It was never the same woman – she was faceless, and the sex appeared methodical and meaningless.

Hanging from above a cloud, I watched them in disbelief. When he saw me, he continued thrusting into her with a shit-eating grin on his face. Then I lunged forward like a tiger and bit his cheeks. My teeth sunk into his flesh and I chomped down as if gnawing on a rubber band. I hoped that I had caused him great pain but soon realized that the opposite was happening – he was mocking me. What I thought would hurt him, gave him immense pleasure. He looked me straight in the eye and laughed. The more he laughed, the harder I chewed, until I woke up.

When I emerged from the dream, I saw visions of an “M, but the name was never clear. The “M” appeared in all my dreams. It was an unusual “M” name, almost like a Mona, or Monique, though I never grasped the name completely. The dreams of my husband having sex with another woman were frequent, at least once a month. I began wondering whether or not I was losing my mind. In my heart, I couldn’t fathom that he was having an affair. He wouldn’t be unfaithful, would he? He confirmed that he loved me daily and boasted “I was his Heidi Klum.”

One day I woke up from the nightmare and confronted him. “Are you having an affair?” I explained all the details.

“No, of course not,” he said calmly.

“But, I keep having these dreams that seem so real. Are you sure you’re not having an affair?”

“Absolutely not,” he said adamantly. “You probably miss Marley.”

Marley was our 18 year-old black cat who had died a few months before. I adopted her from my best friend. She was a feisty cat and if you blew air near her face, she would jump up and bite you. We weren’t exactly sure why, but we believe smoke was blown into her face as a dorm kitty.

“You’re right, I miss Marley.”

Eight months later, my husband announced that he had been having an affair since February. I was furious because he betrayed our trust and I didn’t follow my intuition. The dreams now made sense, because the “M” was the first letter of the name of his mistress.

At the time, I knew my spirit guide (which I like to think was my cat), was yelling at me to wake the hell up and live a more conscious life. I was so caught up in being an overachiever, that nothing about me was awake. Not my spirit. Nor my soul. Nor my mind. And my identity had disappeared.

Now, as I sit here on the plane, I’m grateful to embark on a solo adventure around the world and discover a new ME. After months of being buried in the rubble and crying my eyes out, I’m in gratitude and I have found a new sense of balance. Life has thrown me a twist of fate, a new beginning. It’s a daunting journey because the “we” has vanished, but I’m about to discover who I am, what I love, and why I’m here.

After Kat’s travels, she created TheBreakupGuide.com, a blog that enriches, empowers and restores people’s lives after a break-up.

 

 

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