Tag Archives: lifestyle

My Garden Grows

borderI learned to garden not as a lady of leisure, but as a writer who needed a source of income and who knew that it had to be in the realm of creative self-expression lest it suck the muse dry.  So I worked at a flower shop in Harvard Sq., and later at a nursery in Seattle, and after that, at a landscaping operation.  I learned a lot along the way, and little by little I began to play with my own garden dreams.  I’d bowed at the altar of my childhood favorite illustrator, Tasha Tudor, in deeply spiritual groans over her lush tangle of flowers and barefoot ruddy-faced children, dogs and cats– a peaceable kingdom that I longed to one day create.  I wanted to be this woman, so self-sufficient and Yankee, walking barefoot in her garden, pausing only for the rigors of afternoon tea and a sensible nap.  I wanted to set up a writing table the way she did an easel, and use it all to inspire worlds from this small postage stamp of my creation in the physical world.

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I planted small perennial gardens wherever I lived, even in rentals.  Suffice it to say that there are a lot of perennial beds across the country, and I hope that they are still alive and well.  Perennials are both good friends and traitors that way.  The second I bought my first home, I planned out the garden, pouring through all the Tasha Tudor books I could find about her garden, and locked in on my vision:  a cottage garden, dripping in structure that would over the years, take care of itself.  patio_2
Honeysuckle would grow over grapevines, clematis would vine through ragosa roses barbed to antique metal trellices.  There would be show after show, each star introducing the next from narcissus, to tulips, to forget-me-nots, to allium, to ladies mantle, to lupine, to poppies, to peonies, to roses, to delphinium, to mallow, to rudbeckia, to monarda, and the final autumn show stoppers– sunflowers, aster, sedum, done.   And so much inbetween.  It would be a fine mess of old friends that would return every year, and I would welcome them as such, praying away hail for the easily bruised poppies, high winds for the hollow-stalked delphinium, and praying for ants for the peonies.IMG_0334

We had little to choose from at our rural Montana nurseries in the way of perennials, and the catalogues were a let down– the bare root stubs that showed up in the mail nothing like what they promised in profusion on their pages that taunted you mid-February.  So whenever I travelled, be it by car, train, or airplane, I would always bring home roots from friends’ gardens, wrapped in wet newspaper, and stored in plastic bags.  To this day, old friends who have passed on, are still alive in my garden, reminding me of the power of roots.  The power of vision.  The power of creating your own postage stamp of perennial friends who for the most part, live, even through the most brutal winter.trio

My garden has been a room in our home, inspiring mudpies, bedside bud vases, Mother’s Day bouquets, teacher appreciation gifts, strawberry jam. No matter what, I try to have something from the garden in the house. Because it helps. In their exquisite and tender elegance, flowers remind us that we are all root, stalk and petal. And that we all bloom, fade, and grow again. Unless it’s time to move on like my honeysuckles decided this winter after a 20 year run, sometimes even growing in winter!070 (2)

There have been years when I was ambitious, building a dry stack wall by  myself, or binding willow trellices to support the sweet peas, or digging up day lillies and soaking them so that I could release them from the grass that bound their roots, divide them and replant.  And years when I didn’t have the time or the back power to add even one bulb in the fall, or pull weeds in the spring, and there was one year when I didn’t have the energy to water them at all.  Still, for 20 years, these friends have grown loyally and religiously.  The garden then, is the outward and visible sign of my inward invisible truth.peon

May your garden grow whatever kind of day you are having!

Take a moment and meet these good old friends of mine:


Honeysuckle: May you rest in peace…
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We bedeck you with crystals from my childhood lamp.
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Garden Haven

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Come with me on an adventure of a lifetime!

Haven Retreats in Montana: email me:  laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

August 7th-11th (just a few spots left)

September 4th-8th (now booking)

September 18th-22nd (full with wait list)

This year, a miracle occurred in my garden.  It wasn’t a great year.  Let’s just leave it at that.  And I decided that my home was my safe haven.  So I took crystals from a light fixture that belonged to my childhood room and wired them to the old honeysuckle wood that surrounds the archway beginning my garden path.  And I decided that they were protection.  That in passing under that crystal be-decked archway, I would be protected, whether I was entering my home, or exiting it.  Every time I passed under, I took a deep breath and imagined myself surrounded in a white light that nothing or no one could permeate.

Fall came, and with it, the usual garden death and dormancy.  One by one, the last asters and sedum and black-eyed Susans gave way to frost. Then rain, matted it all down, their winter cover.  I chose not to put the garden to bed as I usually do, cutting back the stems so that in the spring, the tulips and jonquils have space to send their shoots.  I just let the garden blanket itself, knowing that snow would soon come, holding that blanket firm.  I’d pull off the plant blanket in the early spring when the snow melted to make way for the bulbs.  But each day, as I passed under that arch, the crystals hanging from stark, leafless, bloomless honeysuckle wood…I noticed that there were a few small branches that weren’t yet dormant. Paler green leaves, yes, and limp less-orange blooms…but still thriving.  November, December, January, February…they held on in the driving ice and snow of a Montana winter.  I couldn’t believe it.

It was as much hopeful as it was stubborn as it was a little scary and sad.  I worried about the whole vine, not taking its winter rest.  I rely on that archway to be full of lush orange and green welcome all summer long, and I feared that the honeysuckle was somehow trying to martyr itself for me.  But there was nothing I could do but just receive this feat of nature as what it needed to be.  I wasn’t sure what that was.   But I had to let go.  I finally resolved that it was a gift.  It was promising protection, year long, and it was getting its power from the crystals of my childhood ceiling light– one which I gazed into all my foundational years for comfort.  I thanked it every time I passed through.  Which meant that I not only felt protection.  But I felt gratitude too.  Gift after gift.  Day after day.

And this summer, in its twenty year long life, I have never seen my garden in such profusion.  I let it go.  And it took care of itself.   And even thrived when it wasn’t supposed to.  The lesson in this runs as deep as those honeysuckle roots.  Sometimes when we let go, the world holds us just a little closer, a little more bravely, a little more tenderly.  And hope abounds.

Please enjoy this slideshow of my garden haven, 2013 by clicking the right arrow after each slide:

 

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Re-charge. Re-purpose. Re-dux.

Feed your creativity in Montana at one of my upcoming Haven Writing Retreats
August 7th-11th (Now Booking)
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Retreat in New York City!

I’m sitting in my bed this fine rainy May Sunday morning in Montana, listening to the robins cheer-cheer-cheerio the way they do when their eggs are about to hatch. A loon just did a drive by and let us all know it, on its way from Beaver Lake where they nest, to Spencer Lake where they hang out in the morning. It’s late for the loons. 8:46 am. Usually they are 6:00 on the dot. Maybe Sundays are casual in the way of loons too.

I got back late last night from a week in New York City.
vendorAnd I feel like I just got shot out of a cannon and finally landed in a soft field. I’m going to lie in that field today. Work on my novel. Drink tea. Process. I have a friend who has a big job in NYC and whenever I call him, he answers, “What’s up? I’ve got two seconds. I’m drinking from the fire hose.” Or “Bullet point it, baby. My hair’s on fire.” I’m usually in pjs in my office in Montana, sitting in stone silence but for birds and the sound of mice in the walls, and I try to pretend I can understand what he’s talking about. I want to be that charged and alive and pressured and important and in demand. Well, I tell myself that anyway. For a few minutes, I try it on for size. It would look like this:

Agent: Laura, where’s the novel you’ve been working on for the last year? You gotta keep the momentum up.
Editor: Laura, tick tock. Time’s a-wasting. Your fans are getting antsy.
Social Media guru: Laura, you need to build your Google Plus, chime in at Linkedin, enter the Twittersphere and respond to your mentions, re-tweet, Instagram your weekend, like your friends status updates on Facebook…
Speaking agent– Laura, what’s your brand? You need a brand. What are you an expert in? You gotta be an expert in something if I’m going to book you. I think I can get you on a six city tour but you need a brand.
Mother– Laura, you know television adds another ten pounds onto you. I hear Dr. Oz has a great diet you can upload on the internet.
Children– Mom, the SATs are tomorrow and prom is next week, and I need number two pencils and black strappy sandals.

A back yard in NYC is a bit different than a back yard in Montana!

A back yard in NYC is a bit different than a back yard in Montana!

But that’s not really the portrait of my life these days. Believe me, it was for a few years!  But things have calmed down, thank God.  No one’s really asking me for much. My kids are so suddenly independent, though I still make them their school lunches and foot the big bills. But it’s nothing like it was before when their lives required me as the master puppeteer. My career has momentum and mostly requires me sitting in my quiet Montana office, doing what I love to do, and that’s write. Novels. Personal essays for magazines. The occasional stab at a short story. And leading writing retreats ten minutes down the road. Walking in the woods for exercise. Eating meals with my kids when they’re not in the trenches of social life, sporting events, school functions. After years of hard-core pressure in every facet of my life, I’m now sort of the pilot of my drive-by. And like the loons, I’ve let myself be a little loungy on Sunday mornings. It’s a lot like being pregnant, these days. I’m going slow. In creation mode. I’ve had to. You can’t go like that year after year, drinking from the fire-hose, hair on fire…without paying the consequences. And those consequences mean half-hearted prose, half-hearted mothering, half-hearted life. Unlike most professions, mine is totally self-propelled. I don’t have a boss. I don’t have colleagues that I run into at the water cooler. I don’t have employees that I meet with in board rooms. For the most part, it’s me sitting here asking myself: what can I create? And last week the answer was: a week in New York City.stoop

It grew out of winter duldrums and an online introduction to the work of the author and blogger Aidan Donnelley Rowley. She leads a salon in her Upper West Side home called The Happier Hour where she profiles different authors and invites friends to sit informally in her gorgeous squash blossom yellow living room, indulge in wine and finger food and conversation. When she asked me to be the spotlighted author, I knew I had to go. Because here’s what Aidan is up to: she’s creating community. My community consists of my small town in Montana which, since I hole up and write most of the time, can feel a little lonely. My fault, entirely as there’s so much to do here. But I find that my appetite for social life tends to happen when I’m in travelling mode, not writing mode. I long for a room full of city people who live in the throb of humanity and are quick with opinions, questions, challenges that come from the daily cutting of teeth on asphalt. Asphalt filled with any number of things they see and filter– homeless people, lovers, street performers, street fights, sirens, bike messengers, horse and buggies, cops packing guns, doormen, honking cabs.  ball The human heart is the same everywhere, but city people seem to linger less in the field of lengthy conversation; pause less to look around or to notice the “loon.” If they didn’t, their heads would explode.  They live in a constant drum beat, percussion under their feet, foul smells, exotic aromas, cupcake and macaroon and pizza and bagel and coffee options on every street corner. They need their filters.  It’s survival.  So I was ready to go to NYC and don the filters I usually don which allow me to navigate all that throb.

I’m not very good at filters.  I consider myself a pro-noticer.  I stop and notice stuff all day long.  You don’t get called a rubber-necker in Montana.  For the most part in my life, there’s no one there to notice me noticing, so it’s all good.  It usually takes me about 24 hours to filter out the pro-noticing when I’m in the city.  So for 24 hours, I’m always sort of a wreck, especially when I’m in New York City. But a wreck I cherish and long for every spring when Montana wakes up and me along with it.  And a Broadway show, dinner at fabulous restaurants, jaunts to indie bookstores, and meetings with movers and shakers and publishing world decision makers…it’s all so electric.

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My editor’s office at Penguin

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The hallowed halls of the Met

But it was funny this last week in New York.  The filters never came.  They were never needed.  I stayed in Montana mode.   I spent a blissful afternoon at the Met with my friend the fantastic artist Nigel Van Wiek, looking at his favorite paintings, strolling through the collection learning about light and color and painter’s plights.
I had meetings with my excellent star of an editor at Putnam, Amy Einhorn, and chatted shop (publishing houses look like a dorm full of English Majors during exam week, in case you were wondering), dropped by Hearst and went up to the 36th floor which in the magazine world means one thing:  O.  (fingers crossed!), met with online bastions like the wonderful crew at Blogher…and on and on.  I stayed at the Mercer Hotel in Soho and held meetings in their lobby  for one solid day.  I met with my friend who is a 9/11 widow and she generously took me to the memorial which I’d been too scared to see.  Blog post about this deeply profound experience to come…and still…I had no filters.  Even then.  I just took it all in.  And my head did not explode.

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Happier Hour

And then there was Aidan’s Happier Hour, which was a night of sharing about the things I care about most in the way of putting heart and mind to craft, and that’s creativity, self-expression, emotional freedom.  These lovely people wanted to TALK about it all, and we had a powerful powerful evening.  Even Jesse Kornbluth, esq.  (Head Butler) thought so.  (phew…)  Aidan’s account of the evening is also glowing.  As my father used to say, “Takes one to know one.”  My final night, I was lying in my hotel room revving up to meet my producer friend who has HUGE energy, and it occurred to me that the only thing missing in my week of NYC re-dux was a Broadway play.  And do you know that with one phone call, she served up two tickets to the glittery fabulousness of Kinky Boots! kinky One stunner after the next.  No filters necessary.

And somehow, I came out alive, with more inspiration than I’ve had in years, (mountain majesty not included).  I was lit up for a week. And now I’m fried. A spent bulb. The kind you shake and hear that little jangle and know it’s done. I’m back home, in my bed, writing, listening to loons, ready for lilac-time, baby robins , and the quiet of my life under the Big Sky. Thank you, New York and all of you generous, spirited souls!!!

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With author/blogger/Happier Hour host Aidan Donnelley Rowley

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Haven Retreats and “This Is Not The Story You Think It Is” have a trip to the city!

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The Glamorous Writing Life

Kelly Corrigan and Laura Munson Books Inc. San Francisco

So I wanted to be a published author. For A LONG TIME. I used to go to bookstores and hear writers speak and put my head in my hands and pray to God that I could just have the bravery to ask that one question. In fact, I would sweat that question the whole reading. “How do you do this writing life thing?” That was really what I wanted to know. How? How? How?

I asked a few of them. Isabelle Allende. Natalie Goldberg. Anne Lamott. They told me to pray. Put inspiring messages under my keyboard. Make mango tea. And I did. And I wrote. And yeah– I got published. And here I am…still writing. And wondering. And TRIPPING OUT on the fact that people come to hear me say things at bookstores and at conferences and at my Montana Haven retreats. With that same look in their eyes, head in their hands. I so get it. And I just want to say one thing: DO THE WORK! No tea or inspiring message or prayer (well maybe prayer) can help you. The work is IT.

I just had the pleasure of doing a gig with the fab writer Kelly Corrigan in San Francisco. My daughter took this photo as we were walking in. I can promise that the two of us felt honored that people showed up to hear us have a conversation about life etc. And I can promise that we both felt a bit weird too. We happen to write. And people read what we write. And that rocks the free world, especially after writing a LOT of things that nobody has read. (see: me…not Kelly).  Still, I love that my daughter captured this moment in which we are two women, walking into a bookstore with an audience waiting, with our bags and our hopes of delivery, and our vulnerability. We even had a heckler. So there you have it. The ego really never explodes. We just keep creating. May you create something you love today. yrs. Laura

p.s.  Kelly is FREAKING hilarious!

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Filling Station

As seen on Huffington Post 50

When I was little, one of the things I most loved to do with my father was go to the gas station.  A child of the early 1900s, he called it the “filling station” and he always made sure that he had at least a half a tank of gas.  He took the filling station very seriously.  Shopped around for the best prices.  Knew the attendants and shot the breeze with them—Chicago Lake Effect weather, price of beans and corn down in central Illinois, the youth these days.  I kept my mouth shut and listened to the
soothing sound of his part scorn/part idolatry of it all.

And when we were back on the road, I memorized the lyrics and Big Band tunes on his a.m. radio station, “The Music of Your Life.”  This was safety to me.  The thought of women in white gloves, hats and heels, and smart cocktail dresses, and men in suits with slicked hair and doffed fedoras and overcoats…dancing in sync on a parquet dance floor with an orchestra and a cocktail waiting for them back at the small round table in a lowball glass.  I agreed:  what was wrong with the youth these days….sitting in ponchos and bell bottoms, smoking pot, talking about free love and war mongering?  I wanted his youth.  And I found it at the filling station.

I used to go there just to smell the gasoline, to see the rainbows of fuel in the wet pavement after a good old fashioned Midwestern thunderstorm, to see if the guy behind the counter might chat me up if I bought a Hershey’s bar or a bottle of Coke.  Over the years, I became friends with that guy.  His name was Bud.  He used to give me little plastic animals.  One time he gave me a whole tube full of Noah’s Arc plastic animals, who gladly joined my china figurines collection that I played with religiously (and now more religiously), in wooden structures I made in shop class.  I’m not sure what happened to Bud, but I do remember the look he gave me when I tried to buy beer in sixth grade.  Part scorn/part iconic.  The youth these days.

***

Now I live in a small mountain town in Montana.  I drive a big gas-guzzling truck because here…it’s justified, given the roads we travel and the creatures who travel it with us.  Thusly, I spend a lot of time at the gas station.  I go there for gas.  I go there for a carton of
milk.  I go there for elk meat.  I go there for box wine.  I go there for conversation.  Now my Bud is a guy called Murray.  For months he called me Laurie.  NOBODY calls me Laurie.  One day I got up the courage to tell this kind man with the Peace tattoo and the Jerry Garcia hair and the kind smile:  “I’m Laura.  Not Laurie.”  He looked at me in what I would come to know was mock-befuddlement, and belted out, “Hey, Munson!”

Now most every time I come into my gas station, there’s Murray saying, “Hey, Munson!”  I love this man.  Over the years, I’ve told him
jokes, we’ve shaken our heads over national tragedies playing out on the corner television.  He’s bought me a box of wine here and there.  He even gave me a glass horse figurine that he picked up at a consignment shop.  It’s clear with cobalt blue inside.  It sits next to another glass horse figurine that is almost identical, only I bought it for a lot of money at a glass-blowing factory in Venice.  The one I bought is on its knees, struggling to get up, neck craning and stretching.  The one Murray gave me…is just a little bit more on its feet.  I repeat:  I love this man.

A friend once told me, when I was new to Montana, that there are saints everywhere.  “Pay attention,” he said.  “They will stun you with their loving hearts.  Just when you least expect it.”

Well the other day, amidst all the holiday scrambling—sitting on the living room rug in a fit of wrapping paper, scissors, ribbons, and tape, my son entered the room and requested a ride to the ski resort in the town where we live.  Maybe you’ve noticed something about the kids these days:  they don’t make plans.  They text.  They walk in and demand things last minute, like your whole world revolves around their social life and their techno needs, even if it’s good clean fun like skiing.  I’ve got pretty amazing kids.  Kids who listen to NPR and write in journals and ring the Salvation Army bell.  Still…it’s different than it used to be and I’ve learned that being a mother requires some level of going with their flow, lest we be in constant conflict.  So I ditched the wrapping paper, and stuffed my night-shirt tails into my yoga pants, donned my Sorels, and with neither underwear nor bra, I grabbed my big parka and hit the road with my son.

You know that thing they say about always making sure to wear clean underwear?  Well…here’s what happened:

In the car on our way up the mountain, my son realized he had no money for his standard grilled cheese lunch at the Summit House.  I looked around for my purse, and there was no purse.  Which meant there was no money.  I always leave my purse in the car.  I was perplexed.  I said something to the tune of “Blame it on the holidaze.”  But then I realized that I had no license, and that just the other day I realized my registration had expired.  Blame it on the holidaze?  And my insurance card was expired.  And…then I looked at my gas gauge…and it was low.  Really low.  I always keep at least a half a tank of gas, just like my father.  And no cell phone to boot. This was so entirely not like me.  Holidaze?

I scanned the car for an errant twenty, or at least a five.  And there under the teacher gifts yet to be delivered on the dash, were two fives.  “Here, I’ll take one and you take the other,” my son said.

“I don’t know if I have enough gas to drive the ten miles home.  And my purse must be at home, so I have to go home in order to get money in order to get gas.”  I didn’t tell him about the part where I was driving totally illegally.  Not in unclean underwear, mind you…but in NO underwear.  Etc.  “Can’t you borrow some cash?” I said.

But there I was, teaching my child to be a mooch.  I humbly took the remaining five.  “Don’t worry, Mom.  That’s a gallon of gas.  And a gallon of gas goes fifteen miles.  We live ten miles from here and you probably have at least enough to get home and back to the gas station.”  He smiled, all faith.

For some reason, I bid him fondly adieu, feeling like a combo of Debbie Reynolds the later years, and Carrie Fisher, ditto.  What happened to me? I thought.  Two seconds ago I was in a twin set and khakis, fresh from the gym, with exfoliated skin and lunch plans. Now I am one beat-up Suburban away from bag lady with no buttons to push, and only an accelerator from which to hope for power. And then I remembered what my friend said about saints being everywhere.  And I thought of Murray.

So I pulled into my gas station on fumes, rehearsing what I could possibly say that wouldn’t be a total breach in customer privileges.  After all…what have I ever given him, except for a kiss on the cheek once when he told me that I was one of his favorite customers.  This after I’d spilled my guts about a particular glich in a particular relationship with a particular persona non-grata—also a customer of this said gas station.

Needless to say…I felt like the worst mooch ever.  Because I was about to ask him to spot me some cash.

I threw my shoulders back like my father used to do in facing an awkward situation.  Walked in.

“Hey, Munson,” he belted out.  “How’s it going?”

“Well…” I confessed, “Not so great, Murray.  I need gas.  And I don’t have any dough on me.  And I’m wondering…if I could borrow a few bucks to get home, so I can grab my purse, so I can come back and fill my tank and reimburse you.”  I looked past his Peace tattoo and into his kind eyes.  “I feel horrible, Murray.”

It’s a great experience going from the false power of button-pushing and bitching about little things like the holiday rush and the price of gas…to actually knowing that you are one step away from standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign, just to get home.  Where is our power, really?  Not in buttons.  I can tell you that.  It’s in making those connections with real live people over the course of time. It’s about looking in their eyes and past their tattoos and into their hearts.  And sometimes, it’s about asking for help.

Of course Murray spotted me that cash.  Saints are like that.

Look around.  Pay attention.  Chat with the people at your local filling station.  And be filled.

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Ira Glass on…perseverance

NPR is a constant in my house and Ira Glass is one of our favorites.  I came across this quote on the creative mind and what to do with it.  Whether or not you’re a writer, I think it helps us examine what’s behind our work– whatever it is.  Hope it helps.  yrs.  Laura

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through. – Ira Glass

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Montana Summer Moments

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The Year My Mother Hit the Road

Family bike ride in Glacier National Park (photo credit Kelly Marchetti)

If you haven’t stepped into my house during the day, you wouldn’t know what it sounds like.  There is NPR on low in the kitchen, an occasional UPS delivery and thusly, the occasional sounds of a golden retriever and a black lab barking, gravel being rolled over by truck wheels.  Sometimes there’s the sound of a sump pump in the basement throbbing like a hospital breathing machine.  Sometimes rain gushing from gutters.  Sometimes errant flies caught between the window and its screens.  And from May to August, birds.  These sounds come and go and I am their only witness. 

If you walked into my home and I didn’t know you were here, you’d also hear the popcorn of my computer keyboard, right when it’s really popping there at the end, before it burns.  You’d be my witness.  You’d hear first and then see if you walked to the sound coming from the small room at the foot of the stairs, that I write.  All day.  And have since 1994 when I stopped working fulltime and became a fulltime writer.  I’d been writing inbetween jobs since 1988, but my steady writing life really began when we moved to Montana and my husband took a well-paying job running a brewery– which meant I finally had the time to put my total energy into finding the intersection of mind and heart and craft that is writing.  And then the babies came, but I still wrote during their naps and at night after they went to bed, and then when it was time for them to go to school, I had my days wide open again to write.  From 9:00 until 3:00, more or less, once first grade began for the last child.  That happened six years ago.  Since then, I’ve written and I’ve mothered. 

I get down and dirty with the tuna fish and the mayo and the deli meat and the peanut butter at 7:00 am, slicing apples and carrots and putting them into small waxpaper bags for school lunches.  I serve up French toast with warmed real maple syrup in yoga pants and a fleece and my hair in a scrunchie, trying to take advantage of the ten minute ride into school– everything always a teaching moment.  There’s a lot of philosophy and world religion and English 101 on those drives.  And then the popcorn pops all day. And then I return to the school at 3:00 to escort my children to their music lessons and sporting practices and games.  The “how are yous” from other parents are met with “I’m fine.  How are you?”  And the conversation wanders around in the field of parenting, sharing opinions and concern for local issues from the sidelines and parking lots that house our public lives.  But privately, I have another world with no witnesses save for flies and dogs. Privately, I write.

And then my dream came true.  I got a book published. And everything changed. I got to serve the popcorn.  And people ate it and wanted more.  And I went around the country serving it up in whopping portions.  It turns out, I make good popcorn.  And people paid me for my popcorn.  And then flew me around so I could serve up more of it.  And put me up in fancy hotels and drove me around in limos.  Man, I never even knew that my popcorn would really ever be eaten, much less eaten like that!  It was really really satisfying.  I’ve been told, my popcorn even has changed people’s lives.   (OK– I beat the shit out of that one.  Sorry Strunk and White. Outside of metaphor-land, I always burn the popcorn, for what it’s worth.)

Suffice it to say, I’ve been gone a LOT for a year or so.  Sometimes for two whole months.  At one point, I couldn’t remember what grade my son was in.  At another, I found out that my daughter had started Driver’s Ed.  Who wrote that check? Who signed that permission slip? The answer is:  my husband.  And it’s not like I wrote a book about a small tribe in Africa.  I wrote about writing.  I wrote about a hard time in our marriage.  I wrote about practicing what it is to live powerfully right there at your kitchen sink when the world tells you you’re a victim.  I wrote about lifelines– canning tomatoes with my children, digging carrots from my garden, picking huckleberries, learning how to breathe deeply…rather than exploding in pain and agony.  I wrote my way through this time to help myself and to help other people.  I went public with my deepest thoughts and emotions.  And even though it’s not really a book about marriage, let’s face it:  my husband was going through a major crisis of self, and I reported on what that looked like.  Not to expose him, or my children, but to expose me.  My book is about my journey– my committment to stop basing my happiness on things outside my control.  The publishing world, my marriage, all of it.  And somehow, the world wants to hear that message.  And somehow, my husband has the grace to know that our story is helping people, even though it’s no one’s first choice to be depicted in a time of personal crisis. 

When I am out of town, and even sometimes when I’m here and things are busy in this little room at the bottom of the stairs, here’s what that grace looks like:  he wakes up, gets down and dirty with tuna fish, mayo, deli meat…well you get the picture.  He signs the permission slips and writes the checks and drives the kids to school and has those conversations and picks them up and escorts them around to their after school activities.  He has those conversations with other parents in the parking lots and sidelines.  And on top of that, he works.  His work day is compacted because of it, like mine used to be.  And when I return from my travels, I can see it.  They are in a rhythm.  And it works.  I am not part of that rhythm.  I am so grateful for what he is doing in my absence and in honor of my dream come true.  He is the reason I can publicly be my book’s messenger. 

I will admit here that it’s also a haunting experience, re-entering my house and my family life and seeing how it has worked without me in it.  It’s like I’ve died and I’m looking from the afterlife into this farmhouse in Montana.  Wow, look at that– the windows got washed. The windows haven’t been washed in ten years! Gosh that’s a big pile of laundry. Has anybody fed the dogs? I’m not at all comfortable with my son going to that kid’s slumber party.  But these are not my calls to make when I am on the road.  I have to let go.  I am not home.  You relinquish a certain level of your parenthood when you travel for business or if you work late hours.  It’s like the opposite of sending your kid off to college.  YOU are in college, as it were.

I tell you all this because it matters to me that you know, if you too have suddenly catapulted out of your daily regime as a parent and are feeling…well, a little scared of what that means to your kids and spouse.  A little guilty.  A little overcome by the new rhythms of family.  I tell you this because I have compared notes now with plenty of working mothers and fathers whose work brings them far from home.  And I’m here to say that, as long as it’s not constant, as long as there is balance and regularity and a system in place that works…you are setting a GOOD example for your children.  You can have your parenthood and your job.  You can have your dreams come true in your field of work and still be a good parent.  If it happens quite suddenly…it can be a shock at first–for everyone in your family.  And there are conversations that need to happen.  There may well be abandonment issues that need to be worked out with a therapist.  I check in with my kids about this regularly.  I want them to know that I am not choosing my work over them.  But rather that work is part of life.  Knowing them, they will work hard too, and hopefully it will be doing something they love and hopefully the world will receive them into it and hold them up to their best selves.  That’s what I’m trying to do with my life.  Be my best self.  Which means that sometimes, I have to leave my family and hit the road. 

So to my family, thank you.  Thank you thank you thank you.  And yep– your mother’s back.  Brush your teeth.  Don’t slouch.  Take off your hat at the dinner table.  And no, you can’t go to that kid’s slumber party.  And to my husband, thank you for marrying me as the woman I am, and not only the mother that I am.  But p.s. I don’t do windows. Way to raise the bar! I love you.

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The "Loaded" Dishwasher

Part of this wonderful journey of being a published author, is the generosity from other writers.  Gail Maria Forrest is a clever, quick-witted, honesty-mongering, woman who writes the wildly entertaining and insightful blog gonepausal .  It’s my great pleasure to welcome her to THESE HERE HILLS, and to share her essay with you…about when to draw the line in a relationship that just ISN’T working.  Some relationships are meant to end, and this one clearly was one of them.  Thanks for writing from the trenches, Gail.  Please feel free to comment here.  Gail will be around to respond…yrs. Laura

p.s.  If you are no longer receiving my blog posts in your email in box, try re-subscribing.  Thanks!

The Dishwasher : This was not the story it was supposed to be.
I am not a domestic diva.  My Mother always thought my inability or refusal to learn how to set the table would prevent me from getting married.  She also mentioned my messy table manners. “Mom,” I would whine, leave me alone, that has nothing to do with a man liking me or not.”  Was Mom psychic?

I had two husbands, I showed Mom.  Neither one of them ever mentioned my lack of domestic skills.  They had better things to do than monitor my household acumen; we also had a cleaning woman which took the pressure off.  For reasons other than table setting and manners those marriages fizzled into divorce.  Call them bad timing for this girl who was still seeking independence and couldn’t figure out how to combine that with marriage.  In hindsight I would marry them both again.  Don’t tell my Mom or she would never stop saying “I told you so.”

When I met Jake I had been a private art dealer for 18 years.  The first 15 were very successful and I loved the freedom of working for myself along with making lots of money.  I could afford cleaning help so I never did have to fine tune my domestic skills.  It is important to know that I never turned on my dishwasher because I never loaded it.  After my son went off to college it was just me, my take-out food, and a few dishes.  I had zillions of them after two marriages but truthfully just used a plate, a coffee mug, and a wine glass.  I ate and washed them by hand.  It was quick and easy.  I never gave a dishwasher another thought.

I swear on a stack of bibles you do not really know about someone until you live with them.   Heed this advice or forever cease bitching and moaning about how he/she changed.  No one changes. Ha!  When I moved in my business had been dropping off due to 9/11 and the demise of the economy.  I was unfortunately  in a weakened financial position so living with him was certainly going to help me out.  I could save or at least not bleed money.  This was not a good plan.  If I had thought I could make the drinks at Starbucks I would have been better off saying “Welcome to Starbucks may I take your twisted and unnecessarily complicated order?”  I had every intention of making our relationship work however.  It was time and I was ready. Nothing could stand in my way.

“Gail,” Jake said sternly as we stood side by side in front of the dishwasher one afternoon. He had summoned me to the kitchen.  He opened the door and slowly pulled out the racks.  I had no idea what was on his mind but thought  the dishes looked  clean.  He pointed to the silverware.  Oh no, oh no I hoped he wasn’t going to ask me to set the table; I was doomed. The placement of the fork, spoon, knife and napkin raced through my head and I couldn’t remember which side was for which utensil.  Curses!

“Gail, he repeated as I stood there a little antsy and bored.  Do you know there is a correct way to load the dishes and silverware?”  Huh? is the bubble over my head   “ I wasn’t going to say anything to you, but time after time I go to unload the dishes and can’t believe what you’ve done.”  I wanted to burst out laughing but saw how serious he was.   “Do you know what happens when you haphazardly put  things in it?”  Uh oh, a pop quiz.  Damn, I hated those.

“No, I don’t know exactly what happens, but  I know I put the dishes in the dishwasher to clean them.”  That had to be the right answer.

“No, there happens to be a right way to place them.  Haven’t you noticed how I do it?”  I shook my head in response to his question and in disbelief that he actually asked the question.

“YOU, put all the silverware in the front, and when you do that it doesn’t get clean.  You have to spread it to the back holders, that way the machine works more efficiently.  And the wine glasses can’t just go in anywhere.  They need to be up here.”  As he continued to re-arrange the dishwasher I stopped listening.   What was this high school home ec class?   I wanted to yell “big fucking deal” but didn’t.  He had a bad temper and I had a failing business.  Against every voice in my head I kept quiet.

There are straws that break the backs of even the strongest camels.  I always thought of myself as a big brave Dromedary yet I was weakening with every chore and appliance.  Each lecture whether in front of the dryer where I was reprimanded for not cleaning the lint filter after each load.

“Do you realize you could set the house on fire?”

To the utensil drawer,

“Why are you putting the shorter forks with the longer ones?  That’s not how they go.  Why can’t you care about this and pay attention when you put them away?”

Onward to the sink,

“There are two different  sponges to wipe off the counter Gail, you’re using the wrong one again!”

I had been re-defined and re-evaluated by appliances.  I failed “Dishwasher 101 and Intro to Chores.”  Ironically another relationship was down the drain.  He was right I didn’t care about the sponges, forks, lint filters, or ill placed wine glasses.  I’m proudly not a domestic diva and maybe Mom was prophetic- one man didn’t like me as a result.  I can’t set a table or load a dishwasher correctly but thankfully I remembered how to pack my clothes.  I am happily much more than the sum of my domestic skills.

Now where’s my plate?

About Gail:
I’m cheap, hate to shop (see above photo– that’s me being pushed into a store) and have anxiety about driving more than 100 miles alone. None of these traits are genetic; I developed them all by myself. I can’t order a $10 glass of wine without getting a small rash. Unfortunately it is becoming increasing difficult to find a nice Sauvignon Blanc for less, which makes me sad and I’m afraid I’ll have to switch to beer. I love to ride horses, except when the jumps get too big, but now in my older years I just burst into tears and beg my trainer to make them lower. I’m a runner but can’t take one step without music, so I always carry extra batteries for my walkman….no, I don’t have an iPod….remember I’m cheap. I love my beefy boy Yellow Lab “Elliot” aka “Potato” although this is slightly hard on my ego as he is far more attractive than I am and gets all the attention everywhere we go. I also complain a lot about the weather which is why every winter I leave freezing cold Chicago where I live and head for Palm Springs, CA to warm up and rip off my North Face Parka.
I started www.gonepausal.com four years ago as a way to rant and rave. I noticed all of my girlfriends were doing the same thing. We were “testy, snarky, and no longer took direction well. Our tolerance levels were dropping as fast as our hormone levels. No thoughts were sacred or private as we blurted out tales of our diminishing sex drive. Desiring sex came right after laundry, cleaning the bathroom and eating ice cream out of the container. I couldn’t resist the urge to write about our new peri and menopausal lives. I am also pleased to be a woman’s web-site that has allotted a section for men to bitch and moan about their menopausal women called “The Men’s Room.” Yes, I’m an equal opportunity pausal employer. Along with gonepausal I now am on a new internet radio show called “YAK” www.herewomentalk.com the Zeuss Radio Network. It’s a weekly show about “everything” that comes to mind which runs the gamut from stripping as exercise to my disastrous internet dates. In the end I want to thank my Mother for telling me I should write a blog when she didn’t even know what that meant. Thanks Mom for www.gonepausal.com !

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Are Stay-at-Home Dads Macho?

This is the third in a five part series of discussions by Laura Munson and Tom Matlack of “The Good Men Project.”

Laura Munson:

Last year, my husband was suddenly unemployed, and after many years, I finally got a book published. I was working insane hours and touring the country on book promotion and he was making breakfast and bag lunches, driving kids from school, to music lessons, to sporting events. He gave me the greatest gift anyone could have given me at that time in my life: He kept our family life normalized. Sure, the kids now got chips in their lunches, and he opted out of organic milk. But I saw what really mattered, and it wasn’t a potato chip or a pesticide here or there. It was security. It was the kind of love that men seem best at giving — at least my man. It didn’t mean there was a lot of “I love you when you sit in a dark room and type all day” or “You look sexy in those flannel pajamas that you’ve worn for two weeks.” It was a quiet knowing that he had a role to fill, and he did it powerfully. It was a perfect swap, but we both believed it was temporary. That was the unspoken operative word. Because if someone had told us when we were courting that I’d one day be the breadwinner, and my husband was going to be a stay-at-home dad, we would have balked. At 20-something I wanted to pursue my career and have him pursue his. I wanted to re-convene at the end of the day and share food and conversation and maybe snuggle on the couch while we watched a movie. In my 30s I wanted to have children and we did. Then I wanted to stay at home and be a mother and write books while my babies slept, and I wanted him to work, and be fulfilled — and then I wanted that end-of-the-day meal and that conversation and that snuggle. Life went like that and we felt lucky. But in our 40s, things changed for a while and we are better for it. I’m not sure I know what “macho” means. But if it has to do with power, then being given the space and time to fulfill my career dreams is one of the most powerful gifts I’ve been given.

 

Tom Matlack, stay-at-home dad:

Not only are stay-at-home dads macho, but all dads who show up for their kids are macho. You can’t be a dad and wall yourself off from your child. Perhaps that was the way in prior generations, but one of the greatest changes for men today is the opportunity we have to engage and learn about ourselves through our relationship with our kids.

I spent 18 months at home with my young children just after getting divorced. I only had the kids part time and I found it amazingly hard when they weren’t around — and amazingly rewarding when they were.

The feeling of holding a child, especially my own, in the crook of my neck is as close to God as I have ever been. When my life was completely falling apart around me — at least in part because I’d been working so hard that I had completely forgotten that I was a father — spending time with my kids reminded me what was important and gave me a purpose.

Machismo is about confidence, swagger and knowing what is important. Dirty Harry is macho, not only for what he does, but how and why he does it. He’s a badass on a mission to right the wrongs of the world. Dads, particularly stay-at-home dads, are the same way. They take care of their kids with a purpose. Mothers have something essential to give their children, but what dads have to offer is no less important. For those of us who have finally, fully internalized that fact, there is nothing in our lives more important than our children — and no one who is going to tell us otherwise. We will dive through brick walls — and endure being called “sissies” — to care for our kids in a way that makes up for time lost in prior generations.

Fifty years ago, women were trying to figure out how to get out of the home and into the workplace while still being good moms and wives. For men in 2011, our primary challenge is to figure out how to be at home with our kids while still holding down a job. To those guys who stay home to raise their kids: You are lucky, macho men. The dad at the playground or at the “Mommy and Me” playgroup doesn’t have to cower over in the corner. He can stand tall and do his thing, playing with his kid in a manly way, because it is cool to be a dad.

Laura Munson:

I totally agree. I live in a town where most of the fathers I know are able to show up at their kids’ sporting events and play performances and music recitals, and even school parties because of the close proximity to their workplace — if they have a work place. Here, many of the men are out of work, and their wives are the breadwinners. I also live in a town that is full of Montana “macho” men who strut their stuff all over the ski hill, and in the mountains, hunting, fishing, climbing — “getting after it,” as they say. I asked my son to define this “it.” He said, “It is doing what you love.” In this sense, being with your kids as much as possible is just that.

MATLACK:

I agree with you here. I agree macho means power, but power with intention for good. Macho men are heroic men, whether in Westerns or sports or at home. One of the biggest changes in the gender geography, as you describe so well and as we explored at length in The Good Men Project is the transformation of men as seeing fatherhood not as some kind of obligation in addition to their jobs but as the central role they fulfill on the planet—-one that can be done with machismo. The dad at the playground, or at the mommy and me playgroup, doesn’t have to cower over in the corner as some kind of freak. He can stand tall and do his thing, playing with his kid in a manly way, because it is cool to be a dad.

***

Tom Matlack and Laura Munson debate other questions about modern love:

How Important is physical appearance to long-term fidelity?

What’s more important to a good marriage — great sex or fighting fair?

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