Tag Archives: loss

Particulate Matter– a Lesson in Surrender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I struggle with surrender.

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

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

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

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

A going in, even.

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

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

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

—2000, Laura Munson, Montana

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

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

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The rest of the 2018 schedule to be announced…

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What to say when someone dies

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Featured in Huffington Post and Thrive Global

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, 

Laura

In honor of Dr. Nick Gonzalez 

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Haven Winter Series #8

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 8.50.07 PMHappy Valentine’s Day! This is the eighth post of my winter writing series where I open up my blog to other writers to explore a theme. This year I asked my Haven alums to consider submitting a piece about what it took to get themselves to the retreat, what their blocks were, and how it has informed future decision making when it comes to creating possibilities for themselves in the field of their dreams.

The theme is: I Gave Myself the Gift of a Haven Retreat. So Now What? 

If you’d like to come on a Haven Retreat, here’s our 2015 calendar:

February 25- March 1 (only a few spaces left)
June 3-7 (filling fast)
June 17-21 (filling fast)
September 9-13
September 23-27
October 7-11
October 21-25
April 29- May 3- Haven joins the fabulous luxury guest ranch Ranch at Rock Creek for an activity-based retreat that will blow your mind!

Click here for more info.  You do not have to be a writer to come.  Just a seeker…

Haven
by Yve Sturman

I’ve always been a little bit strange. I’ll admit it. I was always that kid going the other direction on the school field trip. The kid that was a proverbial thorn in the designated chaperone’s side. If we were in the woods, I’d find my own path. If we were in a museum, I’d wander off alone into exhibits tucked away in dark corners. Back then, I was driven by curiosity and a sense of adventure. Fear was the last thing from my mind. I had this same sense driving down the long winding driveway of Walking Lightly Ranch in Whitefish, Montana in June of 2013. Recapturing that feeling made me grin like an idiot. This was a feeling I lived for, a feeling I loved.

I was there to spend a week writing with eleven strangers and one author of a book that I had picked up in a moment of personal crisis several years prior. In a moment of adventure fueled bravery, I had sent Laura Munson some samples of my sporadic writing. I had kept quiet track of Laura over the years and had read about her Haven writing retreats. They had always been “on my radar”. “Maybe I can do that one day?” I dared to wonder. Now just a few short phone calls and several plane tickets later, I was slowly rolling toward the main ranch house in the steady deluge of a Montana downpour. I was equal parts nervous and excited. “I can’t believe I’m doing this!” I thought.

Those five days spent hold up next to a roaring fire as the Montana rain softly fell outside, were to prove life altering. I rediscovered a voice within myself. My voice.  I was writing with wild abandon and I was doing so amongst the company of eleven other adventurous souls. Every single one of us grew in those five days. We could see it in each other. We grew braver and bolder within each other’s company and we became bonded in a way few will understand. I left Montana much closer to the adventurous spirit I once was.

I may have physically left Walking Lightly Ranch, but I carry Haven with me. I still write freely with wild abandon. I sit with my coffee and my laptop and again wander off into dark corners relishing what I find there. I grow and stretch myself with each keystroke and I have found my voice to the point where I have started to tell my own story in the form of a memoir. It’s a story I needed to tell and it’s proving to be quite a journey. A road paved in healing and light. A road that requires me to be brave and work hard. The “writer’s experience” Laura calls it.

I recently returned to Montana. I spent a few days indulging my inner adventurer. I got lost in Glacier national park and emerged with several new stories to write. I reunited with Laura. We talked about many things but my favorite moment was sitting across from her at a kitchen table. As we chatted, I had a moment of realization. We were talking about what it means to write and the trials and tribulations faced by writers seeking publication. In that moment I realized that my fire for writing now burned hotter than ever. I wanted this challenge. I was once again forging my own path. I had rediscovered myself and I was ready for this journey, wherever it led me.

Right Time
by Betsy Gibson

My Haven Writing Retreat came at just the right time for me, and I was certain that I would take what I’d learned and start to examine my life in exacting detail. I’d figure it all out in writing. I’d become more relaxed, more disciplined and more focused than I’d been in years. And if I got lucky, maybe I’d find something interesting in my voice. Profound, even! Yes!! Maybe I could even become the next “OH, I LOVE HER!!!” writer (notice that I am not so presumptuous as to say “author”). Stranger things have happened.

Well, a year has now come and gone, and I have failed to examine my life. I have figured out nothing—or nothing profound, I should say—and I am not one bit more relaxed, more disciplined or more focused. What happened? After all, I had thought about my Haven Retreat every day for the past year. I was still excited about the prospect of “figuring it all out” through writing. So then, How had I not acted on those thoughts? The thoughts that urged me to write. BEGGED me to write. The thoughts that said, “Come on, just pick up the legal pad and start to write!!”

Something was seriously wrong. I started to wonder how and why I had seemingly just thrown away such a wonderful, life-altering experience. I spent a good deal of time furious with myself for not fulfilling my newest “life assignment” (I view the act of writing daily as an assignment- -as a Total Type A, I love having “assignments” and tend to look forward to working on them and completing them in a way that makes me feel as though I’ve accomplished something positive). At some point, though, I realized that being furious with myself was not the most positive course. So, rather than focusing on how I had wasted an entire year on “not writing”, or on writing things that resembled what I imagined the periodic rants of a very moody teen girl might have looked like, I decided to write something real. Or to try to write, I should say. Yes, maybe that would be my ticket to understanding my dismal failures when it came to my writing life (and my failures when it came to my inability to change from a Type A, always busy, always stressed former NYC lawyer to the completely Zen-like and utterly calm and seeking soul that I had planned to become through my writing). An ironic thought, yes. But maybe it would work.

So I wrote. I started with a lengthy Facebook post. I didn’t mean to, but I just couldn’t stop myself. Yet the post, too, had all of the markings of a teen girl caught in the midst of a rambling barrage of words. It was the worst thing I had ever written, and I (wisely, I think) deleted it soon after I had posted it. Why was I writing like this? What was going on?

When I looked at the Facebook post after its completion (and deletion), I had the answer as to why I had been failing myself in my writing life. And in my “life life”. It was amazing! In my post, I saw a totally overwhelmed woman who was juggling two tremendous life changes at the same time, with other severe stressors lurking in the recesses of her mind. I saw a woman who didn’t “fail” by virtue of not having fully examined her life during the past year, and who didn’t “fail” by not writing (or by not writing like a rational adult would write). No, amazingly enough, I did not see a self who had failed at all!!! I saw a self who simply had not had the time she’d needed to fulfill her goals. Thank God for small favors. It wasn’t “me”, it was the whirlwind of life all around me that had prevented me from proceeding according to schedule.

I realized, for the first time, two things through reading my stream of consciousness, “subject/ verb tense error” filled post. I realized (or was reminded) that I am, first and foremost, human. And therefore, not in the least bit perfect. Not even close. Even more telling, I realized that I am currently, and have been for the past year, fully invested in something much bigger and much more important than myself. The subject matter of my post made it clear to me that I was wrong to bemoan my inability to fulfill my particular goals. Instead, my focus over the past year had been exactly where it should have been: on the people I love and love taking care of. My focus should never have been on myself. Or on any sort of detailed analysis of my life. And I realized, in reading the post, that I hadn’t wanted it to be. That explained it. Instead of working on myself the year after my Haven Retreat, it had been my time to step up my work in the incredibly important job of fully immersing myself in my role as mother, wife, sister, daughter, daughter in law and friend. Other people needed me during that year after Haven. More than ever before. And my focus needed to be on those other people, each of whom I love unconditionally and without hesitation and without whom I would be lost. So right now, thanks to that horribly written, now deleted Facebook post, I understand why I have not been able to reach my (overly lofty) goals. I’m no longer plagued by the daily nagging questions: Why can’t I get it together? Why can’t I get all of my various legal pads together and try to weave my story into something cohesive? It’s because it’s simply just not my time yet. But when my time comes,

I’ll get there. And in the meantime, I have decided that I will write what I can, when I can, where I can. If that writing is akin to a teenager’s (or even a preteen’s!) emotional diary entries, then so be it. If it is akin to a Trust Indenture, so be it. If it’s in the form of a Facebook post or an email to my mother or sisters, well, at least I’m writing SOMETHING. I may be working in the “Haven Lite” mode right now, but at least I now understand why. And my time will come. I know it. And Haven will be with me as I put pen to paper and finally begin my journey. Of that, I am sure.

 

 

 

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You Are Arriving

This is for all the brave people who have joined me at Haven Retreats, and for those who have yet to come.  The journey is everything.

There are a few poems that have kept me together in the last little while of my life as I’ve gone through the end of my marriage.  This one is at the top of the list.  Whatever end you might be coming to– the end of a relationship, the end of a job, the end of your family as you know it, empty nest…read this and know you are not alone.  The video is a wonder too.   yrs.  Laura

The Journey

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

– by David Whyte

 

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College Decision Day

Haven Retreat was named one of the top five Writing Retreats in the US by Open Road Media and Tumblr! The last 2014 slots are filling fast so if you want to come, email me asap: Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com!
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October 22-26

This is for all the parents out there whose child is going to college for the first time this fall…

As featured on The Huffington Post 50, and The Huffington Post College.

May 1st, 2014. It’s been a strange spring for daffodils. By this writing, they’ve usually shot up, bloomed, and wilted. This year: not one yellow head in the garden. These daffodil bulbs are loyal and old friends. I planted many of them when I built my home here in Montana, three years into my now eighteen year old daughter’s life. They have never failed me, and frankly, neither has she. And now she’s a few months shy of fledging. Going to college. Spreading the wings that she has grown in full flourish and that I have proudly procured, mostly in small moments, doing things together like planting bulbs, canning jam from the strawberry garden, collecting heart-shaped rocks on any number of Montana riverbeds to line the garden path. This garden knows this child, and especially the daffodils do. She was born in daffodil time. My hospital room was full of them. I cannot look at a daffodil without thinking of her.

I try not to anthropomorphize as a rule, but something tells me that the daffodils are in revolt. They are harbingers, after all, announcing summer after a long Montana winter when you can’t believe there will be any other color than grey, mid-grey, and white. Somehow, they prestidigitate through the last of the snow and POW—there they are, promising color again. Birth. Every year their promise feels so pure—like the kind a grandmother makes. There will be life again. In abundance. Summer. Sun on flesh on green grass and ladybugs. Lemonade on the front porch with bare, painted toes, and cricket symphonies. I love those daffodils: they are all H.O.P.E. Maybe this year they know that she’ll walk down that garden path in a few months, and not come back for a long time. Maybe they’re depressed. Or in denial, thinking that if they don’t produce blooms, she will somehow stay. Maybe they’re trying to stall spring, so that summer and fall will have to wait. Maybe they’re teasing time in hopes of keeping her around a little longer. The tulips don’t seem to care at all. They’re ready to do their thing, looking around in confusion like their warm-up band has bailed and they have to play to an un-lubed audience.

I’m envious then, of the daffodils. I want to go on strike. To not have to feel my way through this fledge. This inevitable and natural parting. I want to fold my arms across my chest and say, “I’m stepping out of the wake of all this college stuff—the financial aid forms and tax returns, the coast-to-coast-and-in-between college visits, the applications and essays and what-do-you-want-to-do-with-your-life questions. The info sessions and tours with perky student guides walking backwards and shouting fun university factoids to battle-weary Juniors and their parents. The “Beggars” meetings with advisors and teachers and admissions people and alumni. The rejections. The acceptances. The “Choosers” tour that ended just last week— the trains planes and automobiles that have taken us to all of those hallowed halls, trying them on for size, hoping to fall in love.”

I just want to spend today sitting in the garden with her, amid the daffodils, telling her about the day she was born. And drink hibiscus sun tea. And braid her hair. Can’t I, can’t we, just…plain…duck from all this for a moment? It’s over. She made her choice and she’s thrilled about it. I am too. We have a few months now to breathe. To collect the years of her youth and to pile them up somehow into a cairn that will help her find her way wherever she goes. There is this deep need in me to have it all make sense. To make one defining sculpture of her happy childhood that she can leave behind, and a duplicate for her that is portable.  I’ll put the first one in the garden and slip the other one in a box along with her comforter and favorite pillows marked:  bedding. Maybe the daffodils will come out of hiding then.

Only a mother whose child is going off to college would have these berserk thoughts. I cannot imagine what a mother whose child is going off to war thinks about to fog her fear. I’m sure it’s about way more than daffodils. I keep thinking that I am one of the lucky mothers out there who knows her child will be happy wherever she goes, and if she isn’t, she’ll change things around so that she is. She’s so comfortable in her own skin. She’s so ready to fly. I mean, what if she wasn’t? What if she wanted to live in the basement and get a minimum wage job and let her dreams, or worse her wonder, sift through her fingers? If that was the case, I’d be shoving her out of the nest with all my might. This is a good “problem” to have. But it doesn’t mean it’s easy.

The official college decision day was yesterday. We sent in the deposit. Filled out the last forms. Applied for a few more scholarships. She wore the collegeT-shirt to school, along with her other friends who wore their college-of-choice T-shirts. It was a day of celebration. For her. I made her favorite comfort food: Greek lemon chicken soup. I think tears actually landed in the broth as I stirred. I served it to her in bed because she had homework to do and sprained her ankle running track, and just needed to be in bed. I don’t blame her. It’s the end of a long academic, extra-curricular, SAT, form-filling haul. She deserves her favorite soup in her very own bed. Next year, if she’s having a day like today, she’ll be in a bunk in a dorm room, with ramen and a microwave. Hopefully she’ll call her mother.

I am not a heli-copter mother. I didn’t push her through her childhood (except to take piano lessons, I confess. But I let her finally quit when she got to high school. Now she wishes I had pushed her to keep going…so go figure!) Instead, I took her pulse. I was the wind at her back when she needed it and sometimes without her knowing. But it was always her life to live, not mine. The first thing I said to her when we were alone in the hospital room on the day of her birth, her whole body fitting between my fingertips and the crux of my elbow was, “You can be anything you want to be.” Daffodils and all. Time to fly, my dear daughter. braid_2

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Holiday Haven: Musings on Comfort and Joy

As featured on Huffington Post 50

Now booking Haven Retreats 2014…give yourself the sacred gift of creative self-expression in Montana…
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“A toast does not require a glass with which to clink.  It really doesn’t.”

The holiday season can be for many people…let’s just say:  fraught.  Maybe your life hasn’t gone the way you imagined.  Maybe you’d planned to spend Christmas Eve with a spouse, fireside, toasting to the future over your grandmother’s secret egg nog recipe.  Maybe you had dreams of children gathered around a beautifully set Thanksgiving table, drooling over the cooked beast, begging to hold hands and make sweeping statements of gratitude for another year of your endless bevy of sage advice.  Maybe you fell hook-line-and-sinker for the Holiday card photo that would be yours until death did you part—only this year, there’s only one parent in it, and you can’t find your camera anyway, and your kids refuse to pose.  Maybe you strung up your heart on the one small square box that would await you under the tree, filled with a tiny trinket with your name on it from someone called, Forever Yours.  Maybe your adult children and your grandchildren chose to go to the in-laws for Christmas and you’ve heard SHE makes better gravy than YOU, never mind her croquembouche !   My God…maybe you’re alone on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years.  Maybe your traditions never got a chance to birth.  Maybe the last time you felt that holiday cheer was when you were little and you’re far from little these days.  Maybe you want to beam yourself back to a time in your life that was more fair, simple, abundant, safe.  Or at least call someone who could remember that time with you fondly.  Only maybe, all those people are gone now.  

Don’t worry.  I’ll stop.  It’s not my goal to depress you.  But I’d like to think it’s my job to provide you some comfort and joy.  So here goes:

Whoever you are, wherever you are, the holidays are bound to leave your heart in shreds at least a little.  And before we get too far into the season, I’d like to help your heart hearth make its way to 2014 whole.  Fortified.  Happy to be beating whatever shape it’s in.

There are all sorts of ways to make the holidays sacred without focusing on what’s missing.   You can get a turkey from the grocery store (a lot of them give free birds this time of year), make soup out of it, and bring it to the local shelter.  You can invite friends you know are alone to sing carols at the local nursing home and gather for a meal afterward.  If your kids are elsewhere for a holiday, you can celebrate it with them on another day of your choosing and make it just as special.  You can make a Gratitude Tree out of branches, put it in a vase in the middle of the kitchen, and write notes of thanks on pieces of paper and hang them like ornaments—one per day until you ring in 2014.  You can read to kids at your local library some of those books your mother read to you and you read to your kids, or wanted to read to the kids you never had:  Truman Capote’s “A Thanksgiving Visitor,” “A Christmas Memory,” Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,”  Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Whales.”   You can gather up every holiday song you ever loved and blast them from the rafters of wherever you currently call home and sing your heart out. 

candleA toast does not require a glass with which to clink.  It really doesn’t.  You may tell yourself that it does.  And where will that get you?  On the Polar Express to the Holiday Blues.  Let’s step away from that train wreck and into the sacred.  Because no matter how you shake it, the truth is:  There is no shortage of sacred this time of year.  It’s everywhere.  You just have to receive it as the gift it is.  And there’s no re-gifting the sacred.  It comes to you, often when you least expect it, and it fastens you to reality like nothing else can, because it’s all yours.  No one can feel it for you.  Or take it away.  You can stand in a holiday-bedecked Lincoln Center, dripping in holly and cedar bows in the height of Handel’s Halleluiah chorus, standing next to everybody who’s ever been in your Christmas Card from the year you were born…and feel nothing.  You can hold hands around a cooked beast, candle-light dancing on the faces of generations of loved ones and generations of china, crystal, and silver…and feel empty.  You can stop in a snowy field in the middle of the night and watch steam funnel from the noses of draft horses, sweating from the sleigh ride they just took you on where you sang Jingle Bells, and drank hot-buttered-rum and someone quoted Robert Frost…and feel heartless.

So it’s time to stop bowing at those altars, especially this time of year.  If the magic happens…good for you.  As long as it’s something not nothing…full not empty…heartful not heartless.  Otherwise, let’s change the way our holiday minds think.  Let’s look truthfully at what is comfort and what is joy.  And let’s create that safe haven around us.  It begins with us.  Not who stands or sits next to us and in what hallowed hall.  Not who toasts with us.  Sings with us.  Eats with us.  Gives us gifts.  Receives ours.  We can take those Action verbs and send them up the chimney.  And we can replace them with a Being verb.  It’s possible to actually BE comfort and joy.  Not wait for it.  Of course it’s powerful (and yes, comforting and joyful) to take that Being and share it with loved ones in celebratory holiday moments.  But again, it has to start with us.  Whether or not you have a faith base, the truth is plain:  Our heads don’t bow on their own.  We bow them.  And whatever we’re bowing them to, especially at holiday time, let’s let those altars be ones that truly fill the heart hearth with comfort and joy.  Not expectation for the future or grief over the past.

This simple bowing to this simple altar is better than any tradition ever has been or will be.  Because it’s free.  It’s un-fraught.  It’s as simple as lighting a candle.  Not as a window-sill vigil for family lost or never gained.  But as an act of pure delight in the exact moment of your heart and breath.  This exact moment.  Right now.  Take a flame to that wick.  Sit quietly and watch.  Smell the wax warm and watch it pool and dare yourself to stay long enough to see it flood and drip.  Don’t clean it up.  Maybe put your finger into its stream and wonder at the fact that you can take the heat.  That it’s still friendly flame.  Just you and a lit candle.  All of a holiday winter’s night. prints

 

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9/11– The Survivor Tree

As featured on the front page of the Huffington Post 50 on 9/11/13 

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I’ll admit it: I have been afraid to go to Ground Zero. Since 9/11/01 I’ve probably been to New York City ten times. I have no excuse but just what I’ve said– Fear. Fear of what? The horror? Empathy? Sympathy? My imagination? The human heart? That there would be an element of voyeurism? That somehow it wouldn’t be memorialized in a way that felt reverent?

Then I met Christie Coombs.

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One World Trade Center– the day they put the antenna atop the building

She came to one of my Haven writing retreats in Montana. I started Haven in an effort to be of some sort of service in this beautiful and heartbreaking thing called life. Writing is the primary way I know how to process life. I write as a lifeline, as a seeker, and to understand. People who come on my retreats are made of the same heart language– kindreds who are often in a time of transition, longing to not be emotional victims in response to the pain that has come their way; longing to heal through creative self-expression. For Christie, that pain began on that fateful day when her husband, Jeff Coombs, died on Flight 11 from Boston, bound for LA, only to meet with a destiny that forever changed the world. And Christie is writing about it. We need her to. It gives us permission to see further into what we experienced that day in person, on TV, or radio, or in newspapers and magazines across the globe. We need the personal stories of the people who lost the most. To know what it was like microscopically, then and now, and she is not afraid to do just that.

She started the Jeff Coombs Foundation and works tirelessly to honor his memory through giving back to families who have suffered great loss and are rebuilding their future. She has turned pain into answering the most powerful question I know: what can I create? And she answers it every day.

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The Survivor Tree

A few months ago, I was in New York on business, and Christie invited me to come to the 9/11 Memorial. She offered to drive down from Boston, and to show me around, including the temporary museum which holds personal effects and photos salvaged from the site, as well as the church down the street which served as a community gathering place and held first responders as they did their brave and unconscionable work. And she showed me the “Survivor Tree,” a pear tree, which she explained miraculously made it through both the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, as well as 9/11.

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As we stood at the memorial, staring at the cascading waters that run down the footprints of each tower, and the bottomless, yet re-generating square hole in the middle…sending water back up and down, flanked by the names of the dead…I was breathless. I didn’t know what to feel or what to say or what to do with my hands or how to even stand there. I just went on overwhelm, watching people embrace and weep, but mostly watching Christie for cues.

She told me the stories of the people on Flight 11, whose family members she now holds dear. She humanized it– told me the way it went down from the pieces they have all put together, paired with the facts from the airlines. It’s gruesome and brave and terrifying…and it just…doesn’t…make…any sense. Not at all. I’ve never wanted to make sense of something more, standing at that memorial, looking at Jeff’s name carved in metal alongside the other fallen from Flight 11.

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I looked at her, running her hand over his name. Should I intrude upon the sacred moment between the two of them? Should I leave her alone? What was she feeling? Did I have any words that might help? Of course not.

She saved me: “There’s no sense to be made of it, so don’t try,” she said somehow smiling as I let the tears go.

“You give us permission,” I said.

When we finished our time in what I believe is the most reverent place I’ve ever been, she said, “I want to show you something cool.”

Cool, I thought? How could there be something cool in any of this? And she took me to the gift shop. There, she showed me a necklace–leaves from the Survivor Tree cast in metal. “I’d like to get this for you,” she said, bringing it to the counter.

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Christie and me in NYC

It meant the world to me in that moment. I have it over my desk as I write. We can all bloom, no matter what’s going on in our lives.

Life doesn’t make sense. But the action of paying homage to the pain, creating something that builds community and reverence out of the inevitable ashes of life, feels essential in our healing.

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Nobody wants to earn this VIP ticket, but Christie uses her “membership” to the memorial park with a sense of belonging; pride even, but always wishing she didn’t have to learn this lesson. She is a master at finding and building community in tragic loss, and the day we spent together at the 9/11 memorial changed my life. Thank you, Christie, for showing us how to survive…even in this.

To all those who lost loved ones in 9/11, I send you love from Montana.

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Jeff Coombs

The Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation:
Welcome to the Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation website. The Jeff Coombs Foundation was formed to assist families who are in financial need because of a death, illness or other situation that challenges the family budget. It also provides emotional support to families by funding special outings and fun events. Committed to education, the foundation helps fund enrichment programs in the Abington Schools, and awards scholarships to graduating college-bound seniors and students in private high schools.

The foundation was created in response to the incredible outpouring of support Jeff’s family received after he was killed on Flight 11 in the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. Christie, Jeff’s wife, and their kids, Matthew, Meaghan, and Julia, wanted a way to “pay it forward.” They began raising money to help others in November, 2001. Since then, the Foundation has raised and distributed about $50,000 a year in Jeff’s memory.

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Long Ago: Community Entry #6

A time to work...a time to listen.

“When I am writing I am far away and when I come back I have already left”

– Pablo Neruda

Further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing this week.  If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June and September retreats are now booking.

Please enjoy this powerful entry to my “Long Ago:  Community” series/contest.  Submissions close Feb. 1.  Winner announced mid-Feb.  Thank you to all who are sharing and reading and commenting.  We can build community from far and wide.  yrs. Laura

Chosen, bAnnette Baesel

I was twelve and stood in a sky blue coatdress feeling very small among somberly dressed adults at the edge of my father’s open grave. A slim silver crucifix lay on top of the simple oak casket. An only child, I stood with my small hand nestled inside my mother’s. She trembled from the cold wind that blew out of the March sky and the grief that had come from nowhere into her life descending like a twister from a Midwestern sky. I felt lonely and afraid yet at the same time comforted by the strength and love that flowed from the family and friends who gathered around my mother and me. These people stood around us like an army ready to do battle in our names. They were the promise that we would survive.  This circle of guardians was a reflection of the life my parents had created for themselves, a life filled with decent, fair-minded people who, just like them, treasured and nurtured true friendship and supportive love.

Years before that day at my father’s grave, there was a half-moon high over our rose-colored, one-story tract home.  It was a warm Californian summer night. I smelled orange blossoms from the small grove down the street, mingled with the heady aroma of gardenias from our neighbor’s well-tended yard.  I was five years old, small and skinny. Mom and I waited at the side gate while Dad drove the long, pink Oldsmobile into the garage. His teeth flashed white in the dark as he smiled and walked towards us. Mom took my hand in hers. We walked into the backyard and I heard the gate clang shut behind us.  My entire universe was within my sight, my parents, our tidy backyard with the big leafed mulberry tree, the light from the kitchen window, and the brilliant starry sky.

We walked out from under the spreading branches of the mulberry tree.  Mom sat down on the top step leading to the back porch of the house. She gathered me up into her arms and looked up to the sky. “Look at all the stars, Annie,” she said. I obediently looked up at all the twinkles. She continued, “You know, you can make wishes on stars? And sometimes they come true.” I nodded, liking the idea quite a bit. With a bit of a hug and a kiss to my forehead she said, “Your Daddy and I wanted a baby for so long.   We wished and wished for a little girl.  Finally one day, a little star was given to us…you.”

After twelve years of marriage and trying to conceive, they adopted me, a three-day-old baby girl. Mom would tell of crying tears of joy the entire seven miles from hospital to home, saying, “Oh, Jimmy, she is so beautiful.”  When they got to the house, she ran to the bedroom to undress me and to stand arm in arm with my Dad staring at the miracle of a beautiful, naked baby on their bed, their own child.  That sense of being chosen shaped much of how have I lived my life. Our close-knit family was comprised of people related by blood and people my parents chose to make family. They knew to nurture all those relationships like prized orchids. They took nothing and no one for granted. So when I stood next to my father’s grave with  my numb and bewildered mother I was a little less afraid because of the presence of all those that stood with us, stood for us.

My father’s death at age fifty-two following heart surgery was unexpected.  My mother was cast adrift.  She was suddenly without her smiling Jimmy,her anchor, her light-hearted partner. She was a single mother with only a part-time job and large medical bills. She was faced with sleeping in an empty bed for the first time in twenty-five years.  She was stunned, angry, and afraid.  Our community of family and friends supported us in ways I only fully came to appreciate later as an adult.  They sheltered me from just how badly damaged she was until I was old enough to understand.

Through gestures and actions both small and large they got my mother through the first couple of years helping her find herself and her direction. She gradually regained her smile and found a new path into the future. Our community of loved ones kept laughter in our lives, even at a time when it seemed hard to find something to laugh about. These were conscious, deliberate decisions on the part of our family and friends.  They chose to support us, to remain as close as we would allow, to help us remember the good times, and face the bad times.

Thirteen years ago, with the support of my adoptive mother, Maxine, I made the decision to search for my birth family.  Unlike some, I was not looking for the “missing piece,” as I have never felt incomplete or discarded.  Rather, it was the simple importance of family connection and community that drove me to search for my birth family at the age of forty-three.

With a few facts my mom remembered of the circumstances of my birth, I found my older half-siblings, a sister and a brother. Despite the passage of years and circumstances surrounding my adoption, our coming together was immediate, intense, and joyous.  There were long late-night phone calls, even longer emails and letters, and the sharing of many photos.  My birth mother, Betty, was relieved to find out that the daughter she had to give up was safe, loved, and happy. Yet she was not ready to meet me. I understood. I was content with the relationships that I was building with my siblings and the eight nieces and nephews that I acquired almost overnight. I believed that time would take care of the rest.

Eventually, my birth mother and her second husband made the long emotional journey to my home. We shared many secrets, shed tears together, and began to forge a relationship.  When several years later, I planned a visit to California to visit my adoptive mom, my birth mother emailed me to say she was ready to meet my mother.

A Christmas tree stood in the corner of the common area of the senior apartments where my adoptive mom made her home. Good King Wenceslas was playing on the stereo system and the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies floated through the air. Mom and I held hands while we sat nervously on the small love seat next to the fireplace.  We saw the car pull into a guest parking space.  Mom could not wait. She rose with remarkable speed given the arthritis in her knees and walked outside.  I stayed behind a few steps. Betty walked across the small palm-lined parking lot towards my mom, followed by her husband a few paces behind.  Under a big blue Southern Californian sky my two mothers embraced. They stood with their arms around each other looking into each other’s eyes. Betty said in a whisper, “Thank you for taking care of her.”  My mom gently responded with tears on her cheeks, “Thank you for letting me.” It was the intersecting of two worlds, two lives, through me. My sense of being chosen was never stronger. I had been, in fact, chosen twice. Once by my adoptive parents when they chose to make a family with me, and now a second time when my birth mother chose to reconnect completely with me, my mom, and my family.

The following years brought a sad, slow decline in my adoptive mother’s life as she battled poor health and dementia.  As heart wrenching as it was, she and I never doubted the love and connection we had with one another. Nor did we ever feel abandoned by our pieced-together family that surrounded us. We navigated the unwelcome and unchartered waters of her last few years by the light that shone from the many lanterns lit by our loved ones.  In her last days in hospice, we were surrounded by pictures of her beloved Jimmy.  I would sit holding her hand like I had so many times before. We listened to the Big Band music of her early days with dad.  Long after she could no longer speak or perhaps hear I would talk of memories, of family, and of friends. At the end, as it had been in life, it was the family we chose to create that gave us the strength and courage to fight the battle and face the unknown.

She died in the middle of the night.  When I left her for the last time, I walked out under a star-filled Florida sky not unlike the one she and I had sat under so many years ago back in California. I remembered how once upon a time she had wished upon the stars for a little girl. Now, it was me looking up to the stars in thanksgiving and grief. It was me wishing on the stars for her safe passage. It was me giving thanks to the stars for choosing to bring us together. As I walked to the car, I knew that family waited for me at home to wrap their arms around my aching heart with love and support. I knew that I would grieve. I would heal. I would grow stronger. I would remember. I would remember that I was chosen.

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Long Ago: Community Entry #3

My characters are in Mexico, but they have the souls of Fir trees, snow laden…

A space just opened up for my Feb. 27-March 3rd Haven Writing Retreat in Montana…  Maybe it has your name on it!  Contact me at Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com… 

I am loving your entries for my “Long Ago:  Community” writing series.  Thank you to all who are submitting.  Keep them coming!  The winner gets a scholarship to one of my Haven Writing Retreats here in Montana…where I am taking the dormancy of winter and turning it into prose this month.  Thank you for keeping These Here Hills warm in community.  Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject.

Please enjoy this lovely piece by Lynn Trudell who blogs here.

yrs. Laura

The Christmas Tree, by Lynn Trudell

“We’re Jews,” my father would say when I begged him each December to buy me a Christmas tree.

The truth is, we weren’t anything, really. Though my father narrowly escaped Nazi-occupied Russia at the age of 14, bribing Auschwitz bound train conductors with gold pens, he left the practice of religion behind him when he came to the United States. My mother, who he met three months after arriving at Ellis Island – also a Jew in name only — agreed to marry him before a judge at City Hall. But because they were medical interns, the only night they both had off was Christmas Eve. So they tied the knot then, and ever since, celebrated the occasion of their union on the eve of the birth of Jesus, alongside the rest of the Christian world.

As you can imagine, this celebratory nod to Christ slightly confused their three children, of which I was the youngest. Every Christmas, gifts were exchanged, flowers were delivered, all kinds of delicious food was prepared, and even a few decorations were hung with care over our grand piano. But there was never a tree.

“We can call it a Chanukah bush,” I reasoned one evening at the dinner table. I was probably eight or nine at the time and convinced that if I presented my argument in the right light, my father would concede.

“There are more practical things we can spend our money on,” he said, pointing the end of his knife at my half-eaten broiled chicken breast. “Finish up,” he added, ending our discussion. His colleague, a man I will always remember for his huge stature and his odd propensity for smothering everything he ate in catsup, happened to be eating dinner at our home that night. And though I didn’t know it at the time, he was paying close attention to the conversation.

That Christmas morning, like every other morning, I opened our front door to collect the New York Times for my parents. But instead of the usual gust of crisp winter air, I was greeted by a monster-sized blue spruce leaning up against the outer glass door of our home, its branches extended wide as if waiting for an embrace.

So began the start of a new and magical era in the home of a Jewish girl who dreamed of decorating a Christmas tree. Every year after that, like clockwork, a perfectly shaped, deliciously smelling tree would arrive on our doorstep, freshly cut and awaiting my adoration.  I’d spend hours stringing popcorn through dental floss, cutting out stars of David on yellow construction paper and tossing silver tinsel over the outer branches. One year, my parents even sprung for a few colorful iridescent balls that I hung with precision on the side of the tree that faced the room. All of this fussing over a freshly cut tree made me deliriously happy through much of my childhood.

But as I grew older and my siblings moved out, the tradition grew less magical. Until one Christmas there was no longer a tree to decorate. And I didn’t miss it because I was busy making plans with my friends or traveling to visit a college boyfriend. In fact, it wasn’t until decades later that I was reminded of how a simple tree dressed in white lights and colorful ornaments could undo so much sadness.

I was thirty-four-years old, living in a beautiful home in Northern California with my two-year-old son, wishing I was dead.  It had been over three months since my husband’s accident, and though no one at the acute rehabilitation center where he lived ever said so, I knew I had already lost the man I married to the fathomless world of traumatic brain injury.

In spite of my broken heart, Christmas came anyway. And because I had a two-year old with piercing brown eyes and a penchant for pirate costumes, the members of a small non-denominational church in the town next to mine stepped up to make his Christmas, if not mine, magical.

People I didn’t know arrived at my doorstep with food and presents wrapped in colorful paper. They came with scented candles and snowman mugs and icicle lights for the outside of my home.  Then they brought the tree.  A simple green pine they propped up on an upside down cardboard box covered in red felt. When they asked if I had any ornaments to decorate it with, I told them I didn’t because I was Jewish and Jews don’t decorate Christmas trees. So they went home that night and returned the next day, each carrying an ornament for the tree they had placed on the box the day before.

That evening, Christmas Eve, my son and I laid on our backs under our sparkling tree, breathing in its earthy, citrus smelling sap.  I watched as his eyes grew big, taking in all the colors and lights that hung above our heads, and felt for the first time in months, a twinge of joy in the remote corners of my heart. It was at that moment, I think, that I realized there’s only so much room in a person’s life for sorrow. Eventually love does find its way home.

Fifteen years later, as I jot these memories down, I find myself gazing up over my computer screen at the gigantic pine tree that sits in the corner of our living room, decorated with many of the same feathery angels and beaded snowflakes that the members of that tiny church contributed to my now abundant collection of ornaments. My son is no longer a child. He’s bigger than I am and asks for dress shirts and cologne for gifts instead of toy helicopters. This year he tried to convince his eight-year-old sister that we didn’t need a tree.

“We’d be contributing to global warming,” he argues.  “And besides,” he adds as an afterthought, “we’re Jews.”

His words are a chorus to a song I’d long since forgotten. I catch my breath, wondering if my father, several years dead, is returning from the grave to finish our battle once and for all. But before I have time to respond, my eight-year-old daughter speaks for me.

“Have you lost your mind?” she shrieks with the authority of a person three times her age. “One stinkin tree is not going to make a difference.” She’s Montessori-educated, which gives her an edge. She also knows better than to touch the comment about being Jews. I, on the other hand, am ready to explain that our being Jewish is entirely beside the point. But I resist the urge because I know that one day my son will get it. He’ll understand that a tree decorated in white lights and weighted down with feathery angels – no matter where it comes from or why it’s standing in the corner of a living room — can’t help but bring joy into this world.

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Breaking Point: #20

I am going to end this Breaking Point series with two stories of grief:  beginning in resistance, denial, anger and a final facing of the truth…and ending in Glacier National Park, a place I hold dear.  And a reminder that nature (or God if that is your belief) can hold us when we can’t hold ourselves.  “Let go and weep.  I will not leave.”  Thank you to all who have bravely contributed and to all who have bravely read and commented and shared with others.  It is Springtime now. 

yrs. Laura

 

Submitted:  by Laurie Wajda who blogs here.  You can get her ebook here.

Tribute to a Friend

It was 4pm. In all reality it was 5, but the recent time change had stolen an hour so the shadows were reaching their peak. I rolled down the sleeves of my jacket as a chill hit the air, and stood in my own eternity looking at the stone. It was 4:02.

The mist that had started to rise as I passed through the gate was growing denser with the twilight hours. It swirled up slowly, engulfing my ankles, and lulled across the grass, around and over and between each epitaph. Surely my imagination, but as the earth’s pores let out its steam, the pungent odor of decaying flesh filled the air. I stood fixated, pulling tight the coat around me as if to ward off some unseen evil.

I patted the two Michelob Lights I’d shoved into my pockets and settled myself directly in front of…it.

It was my best friend’s birthday, and I was bringing her a beer. The sad part?   I brought two, opened them both, and placed one at the foot of her headstone.  It had been two years since I’d been to this place.  I had to laugh as I looked around and said, “Well, kiddo, you haven’t changed a bit.” And then my head hit my knees and I cried like a baby.

I don’t know if I went there that day out of guilt or loyalty: Guess I never will. But nevertheless, there I sat.

“Listen… I know I haven’t been here in awhile. Well, I haven’t been here at all… A few times but … it’s not like I could forget your birthday or something.”  Phil Collins flashed throughmy head. No Reply At All. “Jesus. Listen to me talking to a rock.” I took a swig of beer and waded through my myriad of thoughts.

“Ya know – I read your name on that damn thing and I still don’t believe it. I feel psychotic sitting here but we always said the big 2-1 would be a hell of a party.  Some party…

“It’s not like I forgot you or anything…  It’s just that, well, it all feels so superficial…   I’d come here, drop off a flower and sit and cry… what’s the point?  It’s not like I’m here for a visit with some tea and a chat, right?

Listen, Kate, You were my best friend – always were, always will be. You were the person I talked to and trusted and partied with – and then you just up and died and I had no one to tell.   I can’t come here.  Just to look at a damn stone with your birth-date on it?  I can’t do it… I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”

Before any tears fell I got up to leave. Hands shoved in my pockets, I slowly backed away. I turned my back on that stone, that grave. And then I walked toward the gate, never looking back.  I knew at that moment I would never return.

I left the beer bottles there that day. One full one and one empty one, standing side by side. They stood there together like old buddies saying I’m sorry and I forgive you and Happy Birthday all at once.

When the groundskeeper swept them up the next day, I’m sure his only thought was that a local drunk had left his garbage once again. He would never know that those two bottles stood for years of friendship and laughter.  For vacations and smiles and tears and
understanding. He would never know that those two bottles were a tribute to a friend.

Submitted by: Kaye Dieter  

“The River”

Glacier National Park’s Rocky Mountain Front borders the east edge of the North Fork of the Flathead River that winds its way past my childhood home.  These mountains rise rugged over the grassy, tree-dotted valley that holds this river that has been a friend to me for over 30 years, a friend that listens, always listens.  Even before I sensed it was listening, I was drawn to the river.  Before the sadness.  Before the tear drops would not fall, then carrying the tears that could not be contained, unnoticed and without a grudge, in its welcoming mass flowing cold, clear and comforting, away from where I stood on its rocky edge.

I have come to this place since I was seven years old.  Back then it was pure joy to be a seven-year-old girl with an hour, or afternoon on a hot Montana summer day, with time to be oblivious to everything but what absorbed me from my inner-tube portal.  Tied to a log in the mainstream of the river, my rubber craft allowed for enough interruption in the current that, if I sat silent and still, was usually rewarded by a glimpse of a bull trout lying heavily on the grey-green limestone river bottom.  The inlet, where the water flowed slowly in a clock-wise direction, and the spring glacial silt settled to cover the rocks, is where I drifted facedown, delighting in the newly hatched frogs that hopped from the muddy shore, and the minnows as they zipped, zigzagging through the mesmerizingly spaced grassy reeds.  I was keenly aware of the large water beetles swimming haphazardly, and then colliding bluntly, into whatever happened to be in their paths.  Any innocuous leaf or silent stick that was unfortunate enough to bump into the last 1/3rd of my foot (it required too much effort to keep it out of the glacier-chilled water), was unfairly accused of being one of the clumsy little monsters, and was reflexively kicked at. If the water beetles were monsters, then the slimy green-black leaches were blood-sucking snakes that brought terror into my inlet water world.

From the idyllic age of seven, the dependable nature of the four seasons initiated me into early adulthood sooner, and later than I would have liked.  The river saw it all, and listened the whole time.  When I had to leave the river is when I needed it the most because that is when the sadness became my constant, demanding and meddling companion.

During the winter months of November, December and January the river struggles to flow as the slushy islands of ice glob onto its edges.  By early January it is no longer a black ribbon meandering quietly between soft snow banks, it has become just another cold, hard surface for snowflakes to settle on.  But under the deep layer of snow, on top of the thick glass ice, the subdued river is still listening.  Then, as an 18 year old, I kick and glide, kick and glide down its unobstructed path, the snow greedily snatches the tears falling from my eyes, and the water below murmurs quietly.  I listen.

The river says softly, “Let go and weep, I will not leave. Even though you must leave again, when you return I will be here, and will always listen. I know you and I also feel your sadness. I knew and miss her too. I saw her watching you from the high bank.  Making sure I wasn’t playing too rough with you, admiring my graceful form in the varied shades of light, and paying me the highest compliment by putting my likeness on canvas.  Her protective gazes over you were over me too. So please, let go, weep, collapse, remember, weep some more, and when you are able, remember and smile.”

 

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