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Haven 4 a.m. Christmas musing…

Haven (4)

Read the original post to this series here.

Nothing that I planned for this Christmas season happened.

And then everything that matters did.

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

It happened, avalanche:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Cedar.  Wink wink, Clarence.

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What to say when someone dies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, 

Laura

In honor of Dr. Nick Gonzalez 

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Mother’s Day

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The other day I was wondering about my great-grandmother and the land she came to Illinois to Homestead with her husband and eight kids.  I have a photograph of the family in my office, all seated in their finest clothes around a buffalo hide rug.  Mid 1800s.  She looks like she could kick your ass if you were good enough for an ass kicking.  If not, she’d just turn her boney Yankee shoulder to you and you would understand for the first time what it is to be on the receiving end of disdain.  I wanted to know about my mothers. Especially this one.  I wanted to know what she was like outside this photo.  If she had a soft side.  I was wondering about the farm she’d left in Manchester, Vermont.  If she ever looked back.  And I was wondering about the china tea set that somehow made it to my china cabinet in Montana a hundred and fifty plus years later, along with a caned birds-eye maple chair…and if she’d like me to use them more often, or take care of them differently, or better yet, I wanted to know the story about them.  How she chose what she chose to make her covered wagon crossing from Vermont to Illinois.  I was wondering how I can serve her memory.  Mostly, I was wondering if I have her in me.  If I can look at my life like chapters instead of a tower of blocks that add up to some sort of art in the end.

So I called my mother.

My father is dead. This was his side of the family.  But my mother is the sort of person to marry it all—not just the man.  I’ve traipsed through cemeteries all over New England and Illinois with my mother in search of my ancestors’ resting places on both sides of the family.  She calls us “cemetery people.”  I never knew what that meant.  Now, in middle age, I think I do.  It means that we hold our deceased in story and artifacts and we don’t let them go.  We firmly believe that we need them.  We believe that they are in our lives holding us from a mystic zone that might be called Heaven.  (We are also Heaven people.)  My mother actually prays for our deceased ones.  And asks them to protect us.  Like we go God both ways.

“They left in a covered wagon for central Illinois because the land was rich and they didn’t rotate their crops in Vermont so the soil wasn’t any good,” she rattles off like a memorized soliloquy from the phone between bridge and altar guild.  “I have some of their letters if you want me to Xerox them and send them to you.”

And suddenly I am in a panic.  She’s in her 80s.  She’s vibrant and frankly looks better than I do after a rough Montana winter…but like she says, “Nobody cares about you quite like your mother.”

She’s always telling me how sad it is for her, an only child, to accomplish or experience or suffer something, and not be able to call her parents anymore.

“They thought I could do no wrong.”

Suddenly, I am imagining that day for myself and I dread it.  It will be a claustrophobic feeling:  I need my mother.  She’s not here.  There is quite possibly no one who has the answer to my question left on earth.  There is quite possibly no one who cares about my little story or my little panic or my little woe.  Who do I call?  A friend?  It would sound too needy or too braggadocio.  A child?  Children shouldn’t bear your emotional burdens.  After your parents pass…who is strong for you?

I called her the other day to find out about my great-grandmother, and ended up learning all about my mother.  I asked her questions instead of just monologuing about my life and my victories and problems.

She talked about the view from her bedroom window in Chicago’s Whitehall hotel.  “The Water Tower.  I believed it was my fairy princess castle.”  There is a newspaper clipping I’ve seen of her as a white-gowned debutante with Buckingham fountain behind her and the Chicago skyline.  “Virginia Aldrich has the City of Chicago in the palm of her hand.”  I always loved that my mother was such a beauty.  I haven’t told her that.  There is so much I haven’t told her.  (And I have to add here that when I asked her to send me a photo of her as a young woman…without letting her know what it was for…on top of the fact that she was packing to go to a fundrasier in Washington, she sent me this LOVELY photo of herself.  She is so loyal that she took the time in her nightie which you can see reflected, to do this for me, having no idea what I’m up to.  You can see it in the reflection and that is such a metaphor for who she is to me.  May we all have mothers like this.  Busy, in our nighties, who pull through in the eleventh hour for our daughters and sons…)

So, in honor of my mothers, and Mother’s Day, I’d like to tell her now.

Mom, I love the way you like to dance with abandon.

I love that you are a flirt.

I love that you have a big laugh.

I love that you love to skip.  I am sorry I stopped skipping with you when I was a teenager.

That’s Mom in the bottom left!

I love that you love Gran Marnier soufflé.

I love that you give things up for Lent and stick to it.

I love that you never missed one of my school plays, and even drove the station wagon from Illinois to Connecticut to see me in Guys and Dolls and The Fantastiks.  That would
not have happened without you.  Dad wouldn’t have made that effort.

I love that you always make the effort.

I love that you know what time my flights leave and track them until they land.

I love that you read every single thing I write and I love knowing that you will read this.

I love that you told me to go to Italy for my junior year in college instead of Vienna.  I loved that you cried about it, knowing what cloth I am cut from.

I love that you go to church.  That you value community service and volunteer endlessly.

I love that you have your own business and are good at what you do.

I love that you gave me a solid foundation and did not make crazy in my life.

I love that you don’t watch a lot of TV.

I love that you are a good friend to many.

I love that you aren’t wasteful.

I love that every single time I call you, and ask what you are doing, you give an exhilarated sigh and say what you are doing.  Which is always a lot.

I love that you don’t “sit around and eat bon bons all day” and never would.

I love that you made us read aloud a Bible passage every night at dinner.

I love that you made us say Grace.

I love that you made us wear shoes at the table and learn where all the utensils are supposed to go and to say, “are you finished” instead of “are you done” and taught us to Remove from the right and Serve to the left.

I love that you made us take piano lessons.

I love that you were never late.  Never.  I am usually five minutes late.

I love that you sang to me and read me stories when I was little.

Where all the snapdragons and pansies and pink roses grew.

I love that you had me take horse-back riding lessons but told me that it would be too pressured a life if I got into competing in the horse world.  You were right.  I was not cut out for that kind of pressure.

I love that you framed my childhood art.

I love that you love pink roses and snapdragons and yellow pansies.  I love that you made little arrangements of them and put them on my bedside table.

I love that for someone who sure does know a lot of influential people, you aren’t a snob.

I love that you wear the same sweaters in 2017 that you wore in 1950.

I love that you love yourself.

I love that you love me.

At my hometown book signing– look how happy we are. Wow.

What a class act.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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We Gather Together: or How to Have a Happy Thanksgiving 2016

IMG_0091Thanksgiving is here and families are assembling from all corners of the country.  And unless you come from a family I didn’t know existed, this year brings with it a new challenge, on top of the usual political, religious, sexual, gender, racial, and on and on differences.  This year all of us…ALL of us…experienced something that let’s be honest:  blew us away.  A business man is going to be the 45th president of the United States of America…and it has a lot of people…well, feeling pretty un-united.  This is problematic in too many ways to opine about now, plus I’m probably not smart enough to make any fetching points that haven’t already been made by people like David Remnick and Noam Chomsky.  (Now you know who I voted for.  And why my teenager says, I shouldn’t post this because when you talk about politics, you get “butt hurt” for it.)  I don’t even want to know what that means.  But I am sure:  we all need to find our Thanksgiving gratitude.  So…

I’m not here to talk about politics today.   I’m here to write about something I’m truly worried about for us as a nation:  How to make Thanksgiving work this year.  Really work.  Uh oh…I smell a top ten list coming on.  As you might have noticed, I loathe top ten lists.  But this year…we need to boil some sh** down.  So here goes.  No hate mail please.  I’m trying to help:

1)    Maybe don’t bring up politics or religion AT ALL, and I mean a total moratorium on both of them.  Like even in the family Grace and in the What I’m Grateful For thing.  Talk about the weather.  Talk about the gravy.  Talk about why you love the person sitting next to you.  Talk about the walk you’re going to take after the meal, and on the walk after the meal, don’t talk about anything other than the weather and why you love the person you’re walking with and what you’re going to buy on Black Friday, especially if it’s at your local independantly owned mom and pop shop.  Wait– stay off the homogenization of America theme.  Maybe go back to why you love the person walking next to you and call it good.

2)    Maybe, unless you’re from Cleveland, talk about the Cubs winning the World Series.  And if you are from Cleveland, talk about what a super bitching game it was all the way to the end.

3)    Maybe…be the artsy token weird aunt and say, “Why don’t we take a vow of silence during our meal, in honor of the Pilgrims and how they felt silenced enough to leave their country and fight for their religious freedom.”  Oops.  Axe that.  We’re not bringing up religion or politics, remember.  Or race relations.  Maybe just take a vow of silence.

4)    Maybe ask the host to give you a play by play break down of how she/he cooked the turkey.  If she/he brined…FABULOUS.  This will take up at least ½ an hour of the meal and the pride which he/she deserves will gush.  Gushing joy and pride is a good thing in the way of feeding loved ones.  Let’s raise the rafters on that!  (True to the holiday, we’re going for gratitude.)  If he/she deep fried the bird, you can compliment them on their rogue courage.  If she/he basted every half an hour and made their own giblet gravy, you can take deep bows and call them Martha Stewart.  If you need more content, you can ask them about their position on to stuff or not to stuff.IMG_0097

5)    Maybe play an after meal family game.  Like Pictionary.  Or Scattegories.  Just stay away from Celebrity Apprentice the Board Game, and Bridge.

6)    Maybe decide that this is the year where you truly will put your unconditional love barometer to the test.  Love them all.  Love them especially because they voted for someone you couldn’t stand.  Love them for their differences.  Love them for the conversation that is behind it all:  I need to believe in something.  Everyone is scared.  Voting shows hope.  And that’s what we want in the end:  a hopeful nation.

7)    If you are in grief over the election, find someone who is too and talk to them.  Do it privately in hushed tones.  Is stirring the pot, or even raging at a friend or family member (or some random innocent who was invited last minute) going to help anyone, especially you?

8)    If you are in victory over the election, see #7 and do the same.

9)    Maybe sing Kum-bah-yah and mean it.  It just means Come by Here, which is what you did in trusting sacred traditions and the community of family and friends.  Sing it loud.  Sing it proud.  Sing it because you have the freedom to sing in the first place, no matter who you did or didn’t vote for.  Maybe dust off your old Free to Be You and Me album and sing along!  (maybe skip William Has a Doll)

10) And ten…maybe have a dry Thanksgiving to keep the fight, the right, the wrong, the very ugly out of it.  Or heck, if you’re in MA, CA, OR, WA, NV, or CO, pass a joint around.  Oh wait.  Don’t talk about that either.  Stick to the “this is what I love about you” theme.

May we all enjoy peace this holiday season.  Let love and gratitude show us the way.


IMG_0093Peace and love, (and some humor for crying out loud)

Laura

Are you longing to say what you want to say?  Find your voice?  Haven Writing Retreats is now booking for 2018.  The gift of voice awaits you in the woods of Montana.

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

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

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 3-7 & October 24-28

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Free Fall– An Encounter With an Owl Today

IMG_0039I saw this owl today in our meadow. I’ve lived in Montana for 25 years on this meadow. We don’t see owls during the day. We don’t see owls unless we are very lucky and unless we are paying attention.

I needed to pay attention today.

I was butting up against some things that had me blocked and I needed to stop. And learn. I’ve learned that the art of stopping has great balm. No screens. No talking. No finish line.

So I stopped.

And the owl stayed a long time.

I think it killed something in the field and was having dinner. I didn’t need to know much about it. I just needed to stop.

I didn’t realize that until I did. And a calm washed over me that I really needed. And that I really needed to remember.

I went home and wrote a few words. You don’t have to write all of it. A few words can unbreak your heart. Write. Please. It will help.

Here are a few of mine. Simple.

Journal:
What do we want?
How can we find our wholeness?
Our true purpose?
Our true nature?
Where is our fracture, and where are we in our own way?
How can we create our whole self?

Here’s how. We walk in the woods. Virtual or imagined or both. We go outside our comfort zone. That’s where life begins.

We jump

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We freefall

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We trust that we will land

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We meet with ground, connection, love. Never alone.

I want to meet you there with your words and stories. I have a beautiful retreat for you. I want to help you with that freefall and landing.

2016 (NOW BOOKING)
Haven Writing Retreats
February 24-28
June 8-12
June 22-25
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

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Dreams Can Come True

“We are not who we are when we’re born, but who we are when we live…”  Brian Donovan
900-0634-KELLYc_F3smThis film went straight to my core from the first frame.  Its creator, Brian Donovan, says it so perfectly:  “We’re all more than what we might be labeled or branded and I want people to see my sister for all that she was: passionate, loving, complex, emotional, talented and even the diva she portrays in the documentary.”  If you can own this sentence in any way shape or form, this film and this Q&A with actor/film-maker Brian Donovan is for you:

Q:         I loved this film so much, Brian.  As a writer (and a film major in college), I’m curious to know what your writing/editing process was like? 

A:         Ha. Well, in the beginning if you came into my office and saw the giant mural I had created of characters, stories, conflict, etc…you probably would have sent me to therapy. My friend said it looked like a giant Rorschach Inkblot Test! It was dense with black Sharpie. I liken the whole process to what I imagine shaping clay for sculptors is like. You start with a mass and then shape and shape, and for awhile it still looks like a big lump of clay. But gradually (and for me ‘gradually’ meant years) it starts to look like something. And then you start to fine tune…everything! For filmmakers, it often means ‘killing your babies,’ which basically means a lot of wonderful footage, and even scenes that you’ve ‘shaped and shaped’ end up on the cutting room floor. It’s a brutal process, but all part of finding the true essence of what you’re trying to say in the leanest and most effective way possible. 

Q:         You ‘shaped’ for a while–seven years.  Why was it so important for you to see it through and tell this story?

A:         I didn’t know it was going to take seven years when I started! Haha. I was compelled to tell my sister’s story because I still feel like there’s lingering prejudice and misconceptions about the disabled. If you had seen my sister from afar or across the room, most would just label her disabled, or “Oh, she has Downs.” We’re all more than what we might be labeled or branded and I want people to see my sister for all that she was: passionate, loving, complex, emotional, talented and even the diva she portrays in the documentary.

Q:         Boundaries, or lack thereof, are a big theme in the doc. Your relationship with your sister strained your other relationships, especially your romantic relationships.  In hindsight would you have done anything differently?

A:         I’d like to think I wouldn’t change a thing and don’t really believe in regret. Maybe I could have been more sensitive to my girlfriend’s needs, but at the time and throughout Kelly’s life, my sister was my priority. It was a sacred relationship cemented at childhood, and it never made sense for me to compromise that for a new relationship. It was a tricky thing to be sure, and finding the balance was nearly impossible until I met my now wife. 

Q:         What do you want people to take away from the film?

A:         We are not who we are when we’re born, but who we are when we live. And that dreams are important and should be honored and pursued with every fiber of your being. It not only gives our lives purpose, but it also creates a vibration in the world that is attractive and infectious if it’s pursued with good intention. And finally, to remember that our attitude is the only thing we can control in different circumstances–my mom’s attitude to bring my sister home from the hospital when the doctors advised her to institutionalize Kelly, my sister’s attitude that she was more than her disability, and my attitude that love is the greatest gift we have to give no matter what. Brian and Kelly

 NPR interview:

http://www.scpr.org/programs/take-two/2015/07/30/43906/kelly-s-hollywood-a-dream-come-true-for-a-woman-wi/

 Link to stream movie (also via the doc website below):

https://vimeo.com/ondemand/kellyshollywood

BIO:

Brian Donovan has been a professional actor for over twenty-five years in film, television and radio. He’s worked on-screen with such luminaries as Angelina Jolie, Jim Carrey and Jim Belushi. He’s been the voice of countless animated heroes — currently as Rock Lee from the juggernaut hit, Naruto. Next year, he can be seen in the indie film, Secrets of an Unborn Child.

In addition, Brian has been the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Repertory Theatre since 1994, producing and directing over 50 inner-city high school workshops and live shows. He is also the creator, writer and producer of the Mighty Me Training Camp, a top ranking children’s self empowerment program streamed by Discovery Education. 

Brian lives in Los Angeles with his family and dog, Cosmo.

 

 

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Heart Language

heart_houseHappy Valentines Day to you all from the heart of my home to yours.

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Conflict: A Love Story

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As featured on Huffington Post 50

As some of you know, I’m spending the winter working on a novel I’ve wanted to write for many years.  It’s a love story.  Usually I write the “one woman’s search for _________________” kind of book.  But this time there are two protagonists, a man and a woman, and the story spans over fifty years of their lives.  It’s a made-up jaunt in the fields of abundant love, and who wouldn’t want to play around in those fields?  The bummer is…turns out, a love story is hard to write.  Go figure.  I thought it would be a breeze.

Here’s why:  in the story of every important relationship, real or imagined…there is a conflict.  It’s not about avoiding the conflict, or denying it, or being afraid to meet it head on—it’s about accepting the conflict and learning how to navigate it with all your heart.  That’s not easy when you factor in the origin and foundation of each player’s sense of self, future, safety, risk.  A love story can be blood-sport, and it often is.  It’s how you play the game that matters.  (Not that it’s a game—I’m just using a metaphor.  At least I didn’t use “s***-storm.”)

Most of us do not want to accept this universal truth.  We want our relationships to come easily, without bumps and hiccoughs, never mind gutting pain or bottomless challenges or high-altitude hopelessness.

In fact, you may be one of the people out there who blithely claims that there is no conflict in your relationships.  But I’m not sure I would believe you.  I have a Golden Retriever, known to be one of the most docile, uncomplicated, forgiving, accepting creatures on earth.  And believe me, we are in conflict every single day, and for a large part of it.

It goes something like this:  “No, I can’t pet you—you rolled in deer guts in the woods and you reek and I don’t have time to give you a bath.  Don’t give me those eyes again.  I can’t handle the guilt!  I have a deadline and I’m late to pick up the kids!  And no you can’t come in the car because you rolled in deer guts in the woods!  That’s what you get for being a Montana dog!  Maybe you’d rather live in a three story walk up in lower Manhattan and regularly go to a dog groomer, and enjoy Chinese take-out at the dog park!  I apologize for your 20 acres!  I know—I’m a horrible horrible person.  All you want is a little love.  I love you.  Does that work?  Do you speak English?  Can I write you a love poem instead of touching you right now?  Ugh.  I promise, I’ll get one of the kids to wash you later today.  I just don’t have time right now!  At least I let you in the house with the deer guts all over you!  Can you throw me a bone here?  Ok, that’s twisted.  I know.  Especially when I haven’t given you a bone in a long long time.  It’s probably my fault that you went out foraging for animal bones.  You’re probably lacking in calcium or something.”

And that’s just my relationship with my Golden Retriever.  You should hear my conversations with my teens!

This afternoon it sounded something like:  “I’ll give you five bucks to give the dog a bath.”

“I’ve got homework.”

“I’ve got basketball practice.”

“How about ten?”

“Twenty.”

“Fifteen.  Do you want me to show you the C-section scar again???”

“Fine.  I’ll do it for fifteen.  But I’m still mad at you for not teaching me how to do a somersault.”

I offered my best glare.  I should never have taught them how to negotiate so well.  Mother of the Year.

And so the dog, the dog I love, does not get rubbed behind the ears for the better part of the day.  But at least he gets to stay in the house.  (I don’t profess to have the cleanest house.  We choose our battles.)  And the teens, they get their homework done, and the dog gets washed eventually, and we sit at the table on that rare night when everybody’s home and we talk.  What do we talk about usually?  Relationships.  About them being hard.  With teachers, and friends, and family members, and bosses.  That’s the stuff of life:  conflict.  Otherwise there’s no story.  Otherwise we talk about the things you talk about when you’re trying to help your kid not have nightmares.   And strawberry shortcake and fields of daisies only go so far.  Strawberries mold, and daisies wilt, and fields get hit by thunderstorms and blight.

Think about it.  Even jokes have conflict.  They wouldn’t be jokes without them.  Here’s our family favorite:  ”So  there’re two muffins in an oven.  One muffin says to the other:  It sure is hot in here.  And the other muffin says, Wow.  A talking muffin.”  Conflict:  Muffin vs.  Nature.  Muffin vs.  Muffin.   Muffin vs. Itself.

The fun of it all is in Conflict Resolution.  After the dog gets his bath and you are snuggling with him, rubbing him behind the ears and down his back, after the kids forgive you for not teaching them to do a somersault, fifteen dollars richer, after the house is quiet and the I love yous get whispered…that’s when I’m thankful for the love story and its inherent conflicts.

There is an arc to love.  It doesn’t just hatch and bloom and self-groom.  It comes, double-helix sometimes, like the Northern Lights.  But one thing is sure:  it comes.  Maybe not in the way you’d like to write it—as a beautiful, sweeping, epic love story.  Maybe it just wants you to scratch behind its ears.  And take it for a drive with the window down.

…Or maybe you want to love yourself, and give yourself a Haven Retreat!

The next Haven is from April 2-6 at the fab El Ganzo in Los Cabos, Mexico– considered one of the most romantic places in the world.  It all begins with self-love:

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Maybe I Understand Grace Now

Haven Retreat in Montana:

August 7th-11th (now booking)

September 4th-8th (now booking)

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

 swirl

Well, another Haven retreat has passed and I am in that zone again. It’s somewhere between having watched a miracle and wanting more. It’s the place where lofty words like grace and awe and wonder and purity come from. We played. We became more aware of our best selves. And maybe our worst selves. We honored and supported each other. We broke through. We belly-laughed. We are home now. Me included.
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Back to bills and emails and kids not really caring that we just found transformation because they need new shoes, and bosses who are kinda like: yeah…great. Did you join a cult or something? You have a look in your eye that I’m not exactly sure will go over well at our next annual meeting. Whatever.

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After breakfast on the last day, we say goodbye to people that just four days ago were total strangers, and Them, and Better than, or Afraid of, or Worse than…and are now family. It happens every time. We become community. We have been through something together and we are better for it. Maybe healed. Definitely inspired. Braver for sure.

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And after everybody leaves, I lie on my stomach on the dock and swirl my finger in the water, sending out ripples for each person, naming them, one by one, sending them off to their lives from the ranch in Montana to wherever they will land. Watching as the ripples go out and out until they become lake and settle into the world of nature, purpose, intention, mindfulness, reverberation of heart language.

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This time, I told the group that I would be doing this ritual on their behalf. And I got a note the last morning from one of the retreaters. She said, “Read this before you go to the dock.” And I did. They all went off and I heaved a deep breath, fighting tears, feeling joy…and read her note. It thanked me and Haven and Montana and the ranch and the group. And it gave me this challenge: when I swirled out my God-speed, I was to feel it coming back to me. I wondered if I would be able to do that. I readied myself, and I went to the dock. Lay on my stomach. Put my finger in. Swirled and sent for each of these dear, brave, creative sisters.
dock

And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, on an otherwise still day, a breeze came through, across the lake. And just as the first ripple touched the other side of the lake, launching…the ripples came back to me. Until they squalled over and disappeared. And a loon flew over. And I felt perhaps one of the most complete acts of love I’ve known. Thank you to you all. I love you.

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Five Nice Things

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It’s 3:00 in the morning and for some reason I can’t sleep.  That never happens to me.  There is so much going on in my mind that I just have to write it out and then hopefully get back to bed.  My dear friend Jennifer Schelter said something to me yesterday that has my mind spinning.  She said, “Why do people resist joy?”  She’s the founder of Mindful Strategies for Living and a fabulous yoga instructor and life coach.  In her daily work she sees people striving for happiness, but stuck.  “Everybody takes everything so seriously.  What’s wrong with sitting down and eating a big piece of chocolate cake?” she said.  “Where’s the joy?”

It’s a good question.  So I took her question on a field trip as I went through my day.  At a baseball game, in the local café, at the ranch where I hold my writing retreats, at the grocery store, out for dinner…I listened to people with this central question in mind:  where is the joy?  Specifically I listened to the answer to the question:  “how are you?”  I didn’t hear, “Great!”  I heard, “Oh, hanging in there.”  “Okay.”  I even heard, “Still alive.”  A few times I heard groans, and once I heard no reply at all.  I’ve decided the question “How are you” has been infected.  And it’s messing with our joy.

I have a foreign exchange student here from Sweden this year, and the first week, as she was processing our cultural ticks, she asked me, in all honesty, “Laura, in this country, when you get asked How are you are you supposed to answer?  Because it doesn’t really feel like people are asking a question.  They say  it like a statement.”

And I thought about it and started paying attention.  She was dead on.  Almost half the time, people ask “How are you” as a greeting, not as a real question.  It made me self-conscious, because I usually answer truthfully and at length.  Which probably makes me a pain in the rear end in the grocery check-out line.  Oh well.  All the world’s a stage, right?   But how am I contributing to this “resistance to joy” that my life coach friend talked about yesterday by swirling around in the longer version of, “still alive?” by giving examples of what’s hard in my life– rather than what’s wonderful in my life?  Our answers to “how are you” help influence the general pulse of the human heart and our society at large.  I want to start saying, “Great” even on a crappy day.  Because there is something great about even a crappy day and why not think about that!  It just plain feels better.  I want to feel better.  I need to remind myself to see what’s “great” in my life and spread that around town.  (And sure– at length because that’s the way I fly.  Sorry, grocery line.)  It’s almost a social responsibility, really.  Community service.  Spreading the joy.

Here’s another question we get asked in passing that has turned into a joy suck:  “What do you do?” which we usually translate into “what do you do for work” and answer accordingly.  “I’m a writer.”  Or “I’m a stay at home mom.”  Or “I’m in the technology field.”  We take the verb to do and assign it the meaning of job occupation.  Which is our societal currency.  We’re used to filling in that slot like robots.  Sometimes it hatches a conversation.  But often, it doesn’t.  We hear crickets.  Or get a glazed-over nod.  And we walk away feeling pinned like a bug in a science project. I met somebody recently who calls herself a loveologist.  I think the next time somebody asks me what I do…I might just reply with that and see what happens.

I’ve never been a fan of that question, probably because for a long time, the answer to it was:  “a writer” and for a long time I didn’t get paid for being a writer, so as far as society went…I wasn’t really “allowed” to call myself a writer.  I was supposed to answer what I did to make money.  And so the answer was anything from “a nanny,” to “a barista,” to “a bartender,” to “a flower delivery girl.”  (I ALWAYS said “writer” anyway, by the way, for those writers out there!  You must!)  So I changed the question. I ask people a different question, upon meeting them.  I ask, “What do you like to do?”  Every time their eyes brighten up and they tell me their joy.  Sometimes, yes, it has to do with their occupation.  But usually it doesn’t, which is a sad statement about our society in its own right.  Around here, in Montana, the answer is often, “ski,” or “ride horses,” or “hike in the mountains.”  Try it sometime.  It’s much more fun than “what do you do?”  I want to see the light in people and I know it’s in there.  Don’t you?

I want to see the joy.  And I want to find mine, even in the most mundane moments.  I know it’s in the way I think.  And if the last hour lying in bed, thought after thought whipping through my mind, weed-whacking my joy into shredded bits of tax, and bills, and teens, and mortgage, and career compost all over the otherwise lovely prospect of my sweet dreams…I simply know there is another way.  So I stopped my thoughts.  I actually sat up in bed and said, “stop.”  And then I gave myself a challenge:  think of five things you like about yourself.  It was hard.  It spun another half an hour or so of self-flagellation.  Because every time I thought of something, I weed-whacked it.  “You’re a good mother” quickly turned to “I haven’t taken my daughter to visit enough colleges yet and she’s going to be a senior this fall” and “you didn’t read enough with your son when he was little and now he watches too much TV.”  Ugh.  Five things you like about yourself, Laura.  Finally, I got three and called it good.  Three positive, thoughts about myself to stabilize and soak in, without whacking them.  And interestingly, in order to do it, I had to think of myself from the perspective of the little girl I once was.  She told me:  You’re a good cook.  You’re funny.  You eat chocolate cake without apology. 

We have to re-train ourselves back to that child in us who joyfully woke up to the possibility of the day.  Who loved herself.  Whose goal was to play.  And be joyful in it.  When you wake up tomorrow and see this blog post, take a moment and try it.  Think of five things you like about yourself.  Or maybe three.  But please…at least one.  And hold it close all day, saying it over and over to yourself.  And when you’re in that grocery line, and someone asks you, “How are you,” think about that thing…and say, “I’m great.”  Because you are.

I’m going back to bed now for what I hope will be sweet dreams.

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