Tag Archives: mindfulness

Haven Spring Blog Series – Part 2

Haven Spring Blog Series

Stephanie Rumold

I walked out of the bunkhouse and felt the smile move through my body.  I love this place, I thought, inhaling the cool, crisp air, its healing tendrils stretching through me.  It wasn’t just the air, or the sunlight peeking through the trees, or the mist left from the rain that morning which gave the air its heaviness, or even the tender care of the Dancing Spirit Ranch team.  It was the writing. I had all the space I needed to write at this writing retreat.

I feel more me, than I remember being.  The thought jumped into my mind, making my smile widen and my brow furrow at the same time.

Looking back, I see both the truth of this statement and the strangeness of it.  How can I be less me?

Well, thank you for asking.

Apparently, I can be less me by turning pieces of me off, which is what I did many years ago.  Had you asked me in my teens and even into my early 20’s what I really, really, really wanted to be, I would have told you:  I want to be a writer.  And, looking back with the perspective of a woman in her 40’s, I will admit, I wanted it a lot.

As a very practical person by nature, this was not the career path I pursued.  In fact, I didn’t even let myself write for fun after college. Journaling, sure, but making stories up in my head?  Creating dialogue? Letting my imagination out on paper? ‘To what end?’ my logical mind asked.

So, here I sit, in a posture abandoned in my 20’s, as well, my knees tucked under my butt, leaning over the table and writing about a time I left a piece of me behind and my journey to reclaim it.  That journey started seven months prior, as I was sitting with 200+ strangers at a creativity workshop led by two writers that I admire.

We were halfway through the second day of the workshop when I scrawled a question into my journal, “Are you a writer or not?”  The letters were small and illegible, as if I worried that someone would pick up the journal and read the question later and scoff.  Moments earlier, it had dawned on one of the leaders of the workshop to pose the following of her audience, “This was billed as a creativity workshop.  And, all we’ve had you do is write. I’m wondering, how many of you are not writers?”  She paused for a quick tally and observed, “Ok, about half.”

Since I did not raise my hand, I was feeling rather proud of myself.  I did not identify as “not a writer.” Maybe, in some deep dark place in my soul, I knew I am a writer!  The chills hadn’t even made their way from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes before she followed her question up with, “Ok, how many of you are writers?”

It was here that the bitchy side of myself mentally shouted at her, Hello?  Half! I know you are an artist, but come on, lady!  This is easy math. If there are two choices and half of the group is one thing, the other half is clearly the other!!

And, yet, I didn’t raise my hand here, either.  So, maybe it wasn’t such a stupid question after all.

It’s funny how life can change based on a stranger asking a question to 200 people that seems to be meant just for you.  Are you a writer or not, Stephanie? So, here I find myself a year later still trying to own this orphaned piece. Still trying to say “yes” when someone asks me, are you a writer?  I’m getting better at it. That piece is growing and getting stronger. Maybe at one time it was like that little plant growing in the fridge in the movie, Wall-E. But now, it’s more like a small garden, growing in an atrium.  One day, if I continue to care for it, it might turn into something mesmerizing and powerful like a rain forest.

Because going on a writing retreat helped it grow and reintroduced me to the feeling of knowing myself.  Going on a writing retreat gave me permission. Permission to use writing to process grief. Permission to escape into the world of my book.  Permission to write poetry. Permission to try and fail. Permission to try and succeed. Permission to be a writer, and, thus, permission to take back this piece that makes me feel more me…than I remembered being.

More Me:

Writing Daily.

Working through grief.

Brainstorming, creating.

An extraordinary relief.

Giddiness, my story.

Crackling energy.

More me than ever

I remember being

Nicole A Grant – Writing Truth

“I’m home!”

I make my way to the living room. He has planted himself in the same usual corner of the crimson L-shaped sofa. The television, to my left, would under usual circumstances be tuned into some political talk show, but now stands eerily silent; his cellphone lies face down on the glass-topped coffee table in front of him, an island between us. His attention is single-pointedly affixed in this moment to the screen of his laptop, perched on his knees, a physical blockade; and he holds in his right hand his glass of Pinot noir, an accomplice. My senses heightened, I can almost taste the sweet, oak-wood smell from the way he is swirling his wine, the rest of him moored, immovable as a mountain.

There is a studied perfection to his whole demeanor that makes my hair stand on end. “What is it? What?” I demand. The nervous energy is like a zone of high-tension voltage wires. He says nothing. He doesn’t even look up from the screen on his lap. This lack of basic courtesy irritates me to no end, the way he just ignores me like that, no acknowledgment. The swirling wine and silence are deafening and I so want to say something to mitigate my own discomfort (and irritation), but remain statue-like and dumb. The way he has barricaded himself into a corner with his strategic placement of technological and alcoholic defenses says everything I need to know really, and I know this beyond the level of platitudes at which we have been surviving for far too long now.

I will him to say something, but still he baits me with his silence. My hoarse indignation mounts. For too long I have been striving for answers to questions I don’t know to ask; I have thought myself a fool or crazy for all the confusion I have felt; and the worst of it, I have become this person I don’t want to be because of him, prying, snooping, spying. STOP! I scream inside. I…Just… Want…To…Know. The only certainty I have is that my mind misleads me and cannot be trusted. He looks over at the dark television screen, and I can almost perceive his ruby-red thoughts swirling in synergy with his wine.

Here’s the thing: Alone night-after-night in the queen-sized bed meant for two, the discontent, and more recently, the sheer torment I feel in my relationship to him flow onto the pages of my spiral-bound notebook—I have more than one which tells you something right there. In the dark hours of so many pre-dawn mornings, I take refuge in the all-encompassing silence and the fragrant comfort of coffee and, instead of my allotted meditation practice, allow a waterfall of words to pour from my pen.  While my heart splinters, my soul speaks to the page of the very things my eyes cannot see and my mind cannot explain. These words that I have written know the empirical truth, but my mind cannot separate fact from fiction. The brain is always lying it seems, or just plain wrong, but I have an overarching awareness of the truth and, conversely, of my complacency behind not wanting it.

The lack of peaceful coexistence between my wise intuition and my naïve ignorance alerts me to this inner conflict that has the texture of sandpaper and the astringent taste of unsweetened black tea. The fact of the matter is that knowing-for-sure means I’d have to make a decision about what to do, about what comes next. I don’t want to be charged with these decisions; there are children involved, and doing something other than everything else I have already tried means tearing their world (and mine) apart at the seams. What I want is for all of this to go away.

He is speaking now, but my mind cannot process fast enough what my soul already knows. Everything I had construed to be real and true and solid falls away. Yet, in the midst of this, there is absurd relief in knowing that I was led astray by his concoction of mistruths, intentional omissions and unscrupulous deflections, and that I am in fact not crazy or insane; there is absurd relief in not having to participate any longer in this sham of falsehoods and fiction this so-called marriage has become; and there is absurd relief in the fierceness of the fury I feel at having been sucked into this deception and run around in circles like a horse on a tether. I beg for just the smallest of excuses to unleash this smoldering Me-ness that would burn holes through my pages.

And realize, Here I am. I’ve come home.

Come to Montana and see why Haven Writing Retreats and Workshops is ranked in the best writing programs  in the US by The Writer magazine, and by Open Road media…and has changed over 700 people’s lives…
You don’t have to be a writer to come to Haven.  Just a seeker who loves the written word, and who finally wants to find your unique voice!
*special spring discounts…
June 12-16 (two more spots)
June 26-30 (one more spot)
Now booking the September Haven Writing Retreats–  A gorgeous time to be in Montana!)
September 18-22
September 25-29
With love,
Laura and the Haven Alums

If you are on the fence…read these lovely testimonials from recent

Haven Writing Retreat alums!

Laura’s gifts are many. She has a way of pulling the story from the writer. She begins with a warming of the hive and by the end of Haven, she has drawn each person’s sweet honey out for all to taste! All good things come to those who wait. It took me years of watching Laura’s Haven retreats from a distance to get to a yes for myself. Thank God I got to a yes!  This was by far the best money I have ever spent on a workshop for my career and I’m deeply grateful. The writing instruction was epic and I left with a renewed love for the craft of writing. The thing that surprised me was the high level of skill Laura has as a facilitator for both the individual and the group. I have been facilitating groups for years and it is something that takes often hard earned skill, insight, passion and a touch of magic. Laura has an abundance of each and made a full-day, learning- packed workshop truly feel like a retreat! Brava Laura! 10,000 Thank you’s for sending me home better at everything I do, especially writing!
I can’t wait to come back for Haven II!”
–Kathleen, San Luis Obispo, CA  (Occupational Therapist)
If you are reading this testimonial, you were like I was: desperately searching for evidence that I should or shouldn’t go, trying to decide if I was or wasn’t a writer. If you are that person in that place, I would like to speak directly to you: go to Haven. If you have found Haven, if you have found this page, life is giving you a gift.  It is up to you to take it. Haven changed my life and my writing in all of the ways it needed to change. Laura is brilliant in a way that is difficult to put into words, but she has a superpower: she helps you shed all of the writers that you are not, and helps you leap into the beautiful writer that you are. If you aren’t sure of your voice, Laura will help you find it, and BELIEVE in it. She’s the writing fairy-godmother that I always wanted and now have. Get there. Jump the hurdles, bypass the doubt, walk through the fear, and get there.”
— Amy, Missoula, MT (Singer-songwriter)

This is the power of Haven: For one year, I hadn’t written a word. Not a one. I was stuck in a place in my manuscript, couldn’t figure my way out, and signed up for Haven in a last ditch effort to find the problem before I threw out the whole thing. But on Day 3 of Haven, after working one on one with Laura, I went out into the Montana wilderness with my computer and typed out 600 new words that unlocked the problem in my book. I’ve been back home for four days now, and am 10,000 words into a new draft with no sign of slowing down.” 

– Brooke, Vancouver, BC  (Speaker. Writer. Coach. Chef.)

 

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Haven Spring Blog Series – Part 1

Haven Spring Blog Series

Patricia Young - A Scene

Writing may have brought me to Haven, but I wasn’t a writer until I left.

When people ask how long I’ve been writing, it makes me smile because, to be honest, I can’t remember when writing wasn’t a part of my life. From little diaries with tiny locks and keys to copying lyrics from songs to sing alone. Nature journaling, short stories to poetry. It never occurred to me that writing would become something more than a personal place of comfort, musing, or heartache about the boy in school who never looked at me, but I loved him nonetheless.

There were comments from teachers who saw that there was more in the weaving of my words then a homework assignment. But I never felt worthy to even consider revealing my work to the public or undertake writing a book. Seriously? A book? You must be kidding.

It wasn’t until a lonely night in 2013 that the realization of the trouble we were in held me tight, that I automatically turned to writing for help, guidance or a pearl of wisdom. My husband and I had lost our jobs within three months of one another. Our bank lost paperwork, had us re-do documents more than a half dozen times as we desperately fought to keep our home. Numb hope sat beside me as I aimless searched for remedies on the Internet. From stretching a dime to preparing recipes that would stretch the groceries.

When I look back, I’m not sure what I entered that brought up Haven. My now favorite photo of Laura, wrapped in a shawl leaning on a door frame, a silent welcoming to come inside gently written in her smile. She spoke of being a seeker. Well that was exactly what I was at that moment. I didn’t take time to read the entire page but sent a message and explained, in a nutshell, that I wasn’t asking for a handout. But things were pretty bleak right now, and a direction, a beacon, a pearl of wisdom would be very much appreciated. Who was I kidding? There was little chance of a response, but I pressed send, closed my laptop and went to bed to stare at the ceiling until morning.

The next day I logged on to find a letter from Laura. Not once did she ask for anything, not to buy her book or purchase tea grown in Montana to promote proper grammar, she just connected. She had actually read my thoughts, and the pearl she gave me has become a mantra. Do the work. If you want something if you have a goal if you are in darkness and need to find the light. Do the work it takes to get there.

Two months later I was at the Walking Lightly Ranch. I had never traveled that far alone before. It was scary and exciting all at the same time. It was also the day a deluge of rain took aim at the US Open literally flooding the streets at LaGuardia! Flights were canceled, and the airport was packed with soggy passengers. My morning flight did not board until midnight. I was diverted to Minneapolis and spent the night in a luxury hotel on Delta’s dime. It was a glorious, a sign, if not an exhausting way to start an adventure.

Once home I started my monthly blog Touched By Words. It is my tiny platform. My work was published in local magazines. But it was not until the following year I attempted NaNoWriMo. That is where my book was born. From that point on, I took the bones of my manuscript and built a novel. There were workshops, DVDs, writing circles, courses at the Writing Institute, connections with other writers, authors, and editors. There were some awful, terrible experiences, there were more wonderful, positive ones as I began to really understand the craft of writing. The process of writing. The art of writing.

Now, several years, many drafts, along with a multitude of people who support and encourage me. I finished my first novel. Publication requriers a completely different set of rules and skill set. Developing the query letter was harder for me than writing fifteen chapters. There are many, many people for a fee who will promise you they can help you write. And some can, but then they are silent when it comes to promising you publication. You are on your own. You have no choice but to do the work.

As for me, I have a burn now to take the traditional path and see it through. If it doesn’t happen, I’ve lost nothing but gained knowledge. Either way that is something to celebrate. Which will be another scene I will write about.

Rebecca Deslauriers - Writing as Living

I was suddenly panic stricken, my breath shallow, hands sweating as I stood in line to check out of the Bellagio Hotel where my corporation had just completed its annual meeting. Too much pressure, too many deadlines, the anvil was waiting to fall and my immediate thought was, escape.

I truly do not recall the flight home, or the ride from the airport to my front door. It’s as though that day was dragging me to the depths of an ugly place and I had a choice to climb out of the sink hole or be swallowed, never to return to be the wife, mother, friend I had been.

Months passed from that fateful day, the brink of my demise. As the anxiety and depression began to lift, I felt a new fear. Who am I now? I’m not a corporate physician/hospital administrator, I can’t go back to working in the clinical setting either. What will I do? How do I define myself now? Questions whirred in my brain for weeks.

The month was July, a beautifully new ordinary one. No time commitments, meetings, emails or being on call at the whim of my CEO. My corporate slave days were blessedly behind me. My husband and I wrote a new set of daily rules. First was to make time for myself, which I gratefully did everyday by sleeping in, often sitting outside to enjoy my coffee, read or putter in the yard. I allowed myself to go to lunch with friends, happily enjoying the freeness to nap or ride my bike. The stress had taken a hike. Emptying my soul and ravaged mind was like taking out the garbage and filling the body-can with only goodness and joy.  Those experiences filled my tank, however my gut felt empty. I didn’t miss the cloak of anxiety on my back, but I missed using my brain. What could I do? Find a new career, take a language course, volunteer at the local food bank? Yes, I tried a brief foray into improving my French and spent time helping my church fill boxes for needy children. I couldn’t put my finger on the missing puzzle piece.

July 5th, I decided I would finally clean out my home office. Opening the door, taking a breath, I walked in and began to box the endless papers and pamphlets that were strewn across the weathered white desk that sat below the photos of turtles in the South Pacific, swimming in the clear blue water. Those pictures were my daydream visuals knowing I would someday spend time snorkeling aside these amazing creatures.  Glancing to the right of my desk top computer sat my long dormant lap top. It drew me to its dusty sliver top as if an unseen hand took my arm moving it like a marionette. I blew off the dust, plugged it in to charge, completed a brief cleaning and walked out to the living room to the oversized Pottery Barn chair, threw on the blanket for the pups and plopped down with the lap top. I opened the lid, pulled up a blank page and began to write. I had written multiple papers for my education but this was different, this was heart pouring words, spilling like a cascading waterfall onto the pages. Words of grief, joy, hate and revenge. They flew across my fingers as fast as I could type. Words that were feelings, desires, needing to tell a story, a dark story but I frantically wrote for hours. I didn’t stop from that moment, except to eat, shower and perform the essentials. It became a compulsion to finish my story. So I wrote for several months and finished the book. I was elated, relieved, nervous and felt like I had discovered a newly flavored candy.  This was it, my gut relaxed and I realized I am new someone, a writer.

That initial burning need to write has never left me over these last four years. I have a hope, a relief valve, all within myself that I can release and let fly. If my words are never shared then so be it, but my purpose is filled, there is life after a career in medicine and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

Come to Montana and see why Haven Writing Retreats and Workshops is ranked in the best writing programs  in the US by The Writer magazine, and by Open Road media…and has changed over 700 people’s lives…
You don’t have to be a writer to come to Haven.  Just a seeker who loves the written word, and who finally wants to find your unique voice!
*special spring discounts…
June 12-16 (two more spots)
June 26-30 (one more spot)
Now booking the September Haven Writing Retreats–  A gorgeous time to be in Montana!)
September 18-22
September 25-29
With love,
Laura and the Haven Alums

If you are on the fence…read these lovely testimonials from recent

Haven Writing Retreat alums!

Laura’s gifts are many. She has a way of pulling the story from the writer. She begins with a warming of the hive and by the end of Haven, she has drawn each person’s sweet honey out for all to taste! All good things come to those who wait. It took me years of watching Laura’s Haven retreats from a distance to get to a yes for myself. Thank God I got to a yes!  This was by far the best money I have ever spent on a workshop for my career and I’m deeply grateful. The writing instruction was epic and I left with a renewed love for the craft of writing. The thing that surprised me was the high level of skill Laura has as a facilitator for both the individual and the group. I have been facilitating groups for years and it is something that takes often hard earned skill, insight, passion and a touch of magic. Laura has an abundance of each and made a full-day, learning- packed workshop truly feel like a retreat! Brava Laura! 10,000 Thank you’s for sending me home better at everything I do, especially writing!
I can’t wait to come back for Haven II!”
–Kathleen, San Luis Obispo, CA  (Occupational Therapist)
If you are reading this testimonial, you were like I was: desperately searching for evidence that I should or shouldn’t go, trying to decide if I was or wasn’t a writer. If you are that person in that place, I would like to speak directly to you: go to Haven. If you have found Haven, if you have found this page, life is giving you a gift.  It is up to you to take it. Haven changed my life and my writing in all of the ways it needed to change. Laura is brilliant in a way that is difficult to put into words, but she has a superpower: she helps you shed all of the writers that you are not, and helps you leap into the beautiful writer that you are. If you aren’t sure of your voice, Laura will help you find it, and BELIEVE in it. She’s the writing fairy-godmother that I always wanted and now have. Get there. Jump the hurdles, bypass the doubt, walk through the fear, and get there.”
— Amy, Missoula, MT (Singer-songwriter)
 
This is the power of Haven: For one year, I hadn’t written a word. Not a one. I was stuck in a place in my manuscript, couldn’t figure my way out, and signed up for Haven in a last ditch effort to find the problem before I threw out the whole thing. But on Day 3 of Haven, after working one on one with Laura, I went out into the Montana wilderness with my computer and typed out 600 new words that unlocked the problem in my book. I’ve been back home for four days now, and am 10,000 words into a new draft with no sign of slowing down.” 
– Brooke, Vancouver, BC  (Speaker. Writer. Coach. Chef.)
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Writing as Living

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I heard the first red-winged blackbird in the marsh today, currently under four feet of snow, and worried even as my heart soared.  I love this sound, but it feels too perilous for the birds to be back when we’ve had such late winter snowfall.  But the birds trust that the dormancy is nearly over and that the greening will begin.  I hope that you feel the same way as we let spring into our hearts.
I am entering into my spring Haven Writing Retreat and Workshops schedule and can’t wait to work with these dozens of new voices and stories coming from all over the world to awaken in beautiful Montana.  While we write, reflect, inspire, and learn, I would like to share the work of Haven alums in our spring Haven Alum Blog Series.  For the next weeks, while I’m holding Haven, these alums’ words will light up my blog.  The topic this year:

Writing as Living

Sit down with a cup of tea and muse upon how they have used writing to navigate life on this beautiful and heartbreaking planet…and take a moment to write down your own reflections on where you are in this time of transition from winter to spring.  What is it that you really need to say to yourself?  What would you really like to leave behind?  What would you really like to move toward?  Here’s a chance to be real and raw, and let the power of the written word, much like the the “snows” of winter, melt away what you no longer need, so that new life can begin.

The blog series starts on Wednesday, April 3rd! 

Please enjoy!

If you would like to take an even bigger stand for your self-expression…

Come to Montana and see why Haven Writing Retreats and Workshops is ranked in the best writing programs  in the US by The Writer magazine, and by Open Road media…and has changed over 700 people’s lives…
You don’t have to be a writer to come to Haven.  Just a seeker who loves the written word, and who finally wants to find your unique voice!
*special spring discounts…
June 12-16 (two more spots)
June 26-30 (one more spot)
Now booking the September Haven Writing Retreats–  A gorgeous time to be in Montana!)
September 18-22
September 25-29
With love,
Laura and the Haven Alums

If you are on the fence…read these lovely testimonials from recent

Haven Writing Retreat alums!

Laura’s gifts are many. She has a way of pulling the story from the writer. She begins with a warming of the hive and by the end of Haven, she has drawn each person’s sweet honey out for all to taste! All good things come to those who wait. It took me years of watching Laura’s Haven retreats from a distance to get to a yes for myself. Thank God I got to a yes!  This was by far the best money I have ever spent on a workshop for my career and I’m deeply grateful. The writing instruction was epic and I left with a renewed love for the craft of writing. The thing that surprised me was the high level of skill Laura has as a facilitator for both the individual and the group. I have been facilitating groups for years and it is something that takes often hard earned skill, insight, passion and a touch of magic. Laura has an abundance of each and made a full-day, learning- packed workshop truly feel like a retreat! Brava Laura! 10,000 Thank you’s for sending me home better at everything I do, especially writing!
I can’t wait to come back for Haven II!”
–Kathleen, San Luis Obispo, CA  (Occupational Therapist)
If you are reading this testimonial, you were like I was: desperately searching for evidence that I should or shouldn’t go, trying to decide if I was or wasn’t a writer. If you are that person in that place, I would like to speak directly to you: go to Haven. If you have found Haven, if you have found this page, life is giving you a gift.  It is up to you to take it. Haven changed my life and my writing in all of the ways it needed to change. Laura is brilliant in a way that is difficult to put into words, but she has a superpower: she helps you shed all of the writers that you are not, and helps you leap into the beautiful writer that you are. If you aren’t sure of your voice, Laura will help you find it, and BELIEVE in it. She’s the writing fairy-godmother that I always wanted and now have. Get there. Jump the hurdles, bypass the doubt, walk through the fear, and get there.”
— Amy, Missoula, MT (Singer-songwriter)
This is the power of Haven: For one year, I hadn’t written a word. Not a one. I was stuck in a place in my manuscript, couldn’t figure my way out, and signed up for Haven in a last ditch effort to find the problem before I threw out the whole thing. But on Day 3 of Haven, after working one on one with Laura, I went out into the Montana wilderness with my computer and typed out 600 new words that unlocked the problem in my book. I’ve been back home for four days now, and am 10,000 words into a new draft with no sign of slowing down.” 
– Brooke, Vancouver, BC  (Speaker. Writer. Coach. Chef.)
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The Art of Being Led

 

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I went to Morocco alone for a month to find “that girl” again. I’d grieved my Empty Nest for the six months I gave myself.  A grief “gift,” I called it. I observed the end of this stage of my full-time motherhood in committed vigil.  And I realized that I can live with dinners for one and a very quiet house, (even if it’s been heavy on Mrs. Maisel, Chef’s Table, and Anthony Bourdain re-runs. Okay, and Modern Family too). I’m glad I’m not driving carpool or slinging mayo and peanut-butter at 7:00am or racing to a lesson or a school meeting or a game, too often borrowing from my kids for my work, or vice the verse, and usually coming out feeling “less than” somewhere, no matter how hard I try to be all things for everyone. Except maybe…me.

I haven’t felt that way in six months. There’s been elbow room. My blood pressure is down. I’m taking long baths again. I’m reading poetry again. I’ve grown accustomed to waking and going directly to my writing and reading in that soft trance of dawn before the day steels/steals the muse. I have much more than a room of my own. I’m writing a new book or two. I’m getting a novel published in a year and I have the intuitive space to give it the finishing touches it deserves. My Haven Writing Retreats and Workshops are filling fast. The future feels bright. And Morocco was my deep bow for what I feel was the most important work of my life:  raising two stunning young humans.  I am so proud of them both…  But mothers don’t get diplomas, and Morocco was mine, so it was much more than a trip.  It was a pilgrimage to find out who I am now.

But just before I left for the airport in Minneapolis, on a quick layover to visit my son in college, I dissolved into his arms and wept. It was the last place I wanted to come undone. I wanted to be his kick-ass mama going off to see the world, head high, energetic and ready.

He looked at me somewhere between stunned and horrified and said, “Mom. Out of all the people I know, you are the most capable of pulling this off! Why are you crying???”

I bit my lip and swiped away my tears. “I’m just…a little…scared.  It’s not that I’m afraid of traveling alone. I can’t wait for that. It’s that…I’m afraid I won’t find my joy again. My wonder. My smile. I’m afraid I won’t know what to want without being the mother or the teacher or the caretaker of something besides myself.” I cracked a fake smile. “I’ll be fine. It’s probably just the lack of Vitamin D and the excitement. Stay in touch on our What’s App family group, promise?”

He nodded, but slowly.

What I didn’t tell him was that I was actually afraid of holing up in a hotel room and not having the courage to join in the throng of the world out there beyond my Montana bubble. This aroused righteous refusal from my inner critter, ranging from good to bad to ugly.

Don’t be so dramatic. When have you ever been that person? You’re a throw the window open and leap out into the streets kind of person. You just haven’t done it on your own for a long long time. Like…since you were nineteen, traveling in Europe, Turkey, Greece, the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. You can find her! She’s in you!

And then she’d morph into a posse of people in my life—the loudest and least helpful: Why are you going to Morocco of all places? And why are you going alone? Why don’t you go to Paris like most women your age?

The Paris card ruffles my temerity feathers. “I said it when I was nineteen and I’ll say it now: I love Paris. Who doesn’t? But Paris is easy. I need to go someplace hard. Where my habits and world view and thought patterns get all stirred up and spit out and even forgotten, to make room for new ones that don’t sabotage me. That serve me. I am doing what the poet Emma Mellon suggests. I am going to allow myself to be spelled differently!”

Blank stare. “Well, I think Paris is fabulous.”

You just have to let go, or as I’ve said for many years: allow yourself to be misunderstood. Even though you want to say, At least I’m not going to Syria alone. Or certain parts of suburbia. Wink.

I just smiled in those moments…so seemingly stalwart on the outside, but so puny and scared on the inside. And even worse, the fear wasn’t about the usual things people are afraid of when they travel. I was scared of not being able to spell myself any other way than what I’m used to. Which for the last six months, with the exception of my retreat work which I adore, has been pretty emotionally…well– low. And that is far more terrifying to me than the prospect of a terrorist attack. (And p.s., party-pooper posse: There have been way more terrorist attacks in Paris, than in Morocco!)

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I arrived in Morocco at night. I chose the oldest city, Fes, known for its authenticity and “rawness.” I’d done my homework and knew that the Fes medinas are labyrinthine, thin corridors where you get lost lost lost and have to ask for help, but only from shop keepers and women. Not because it’s dangerous, but because you might be brought to a dead end, and asked for money before you’re guided to your destination. I wasn’t afraid of that. I think what I was scared of most was asking for help at all. Even if I ended up in a dead end and I needed to pay for it. I’m just not good at asking for help.

So I’d arranged to be dropped off in a parking lot and met by the small hotel (riad), as cars don’t drive in the medinas. Donkeys, yes. And bicycles. The driver had kind eyes. I’d soon learn that Moroccans have kind eyes as a rule. A man appeared with a cart, piled my luggage into it, and without a word, walked into the dark medina, winding past cats and closed doors until we arrived at a wooden door with a knocker in the shape of a hamza (hand of God). The owners were out of town.  The manager spoke enough English to tell me so, but that was about it. It helped that he had a terrific smile and a girlish cackle for a laugh. He showed me quickly to my room with huge ceilings and a tile floor covered by one long Berber rug and stately antiques, no heat, and quickly took me up to a small dark room where my place was set in a corner of what looked like a professor’s study. There were books everywhere and a low table with a brass candlestick holding a flickering candle.  He motioned for me to sit on the pillow-covered bench, and I did.  And he left.  No other people in sight.  Dead quiet.  Dead dark.  I reminded myself:  this was the sort of moment that I’d longed for.  To be far away and out of control and having to trust in the central goodness of people.

He came back with a huge tray filled with what I soon learned were Moroccan salads—vegetable dishes full of spices like cumin, ginger, turmeric, sweet paprika, saffron, cardamom, cinnamon. Dishes of olives and a basket of bread. I thought it was dinner and that was just fine by me– it was delicious! But then he came back with a lamb tagine with apricots and almonds and couscous and the most musky heady sauce. I devoured all of it, like I hadn’t eaten a meal in days. And I started to feel a coming alive with this food in this dark room, alone by candlelight.  I slept in sweaters with a hat, since there wasn’t any heat.  I felt a little kick-ass.  A little puny.  But I wasn’t scared.  And I wasn’t sad.  I felt far away from my life and like the happiness pump was being properly primed.

Then it was morning, and I heard what I’d in-part come to Morocco to observe. Adhan: the Call to Prayer, an hour before dawn. I sat in bed, and then folded over into Child’s Pose and listened to this voice, stirring the dark cold and the waking faithful, and I felt it stirring what had felt so dark inside me.

I lay there like that for a long time, and then tucked back under the covers, keeping my mind as empty as possible.  If I was going to find my joy, I needed to keep the regular noise OUT.  As dawn slowly emerged, red, blue, amber, and green shapes cast themselves across my room, moving with the sun. Then there was a loud knock on my door. “Madame! Breakfast is now!”

I’m not really a breakfast person. But I could hear this man standing outside my door, and I quickly put on some clothes and stepped out into what was a gorgeous courtyard, open to the sky, with stained glass windows casting the same colors all over the two stories with intricate green and mustard yellow and black tiled floors and walls, and a fountain in the middle with orange trees and light! Song birds! And a little table set just for me looking over the 1500 year old medina of Fes. Fresh squeezed orange juice, Moroccan tea with a lovely silver teapot and a velvet cozy over its handle. Palm dates. Yoghurt, goat cheese, thick dark honey. Sweet potato jam. Three kinds of bread: flat, crepe, pancake. I smeared the goat cheese on the pancake, and drizzled honey on it and ate it and I felt it again: a shade of happy.

“Come, Madame,” said the smiling man, and he led me down to the courtyard where an elegant, tall man in a traditional hooded djellaba robe and striped scarf waited. My guide. The riad had suggested it in our email correspondence. I’d resisted it. Getting lost was a good thing, yes? “I like to do things on my own.  I’m a good traveler.”  But they had insisted, “Not in the Fes medina.”  So I’d succumbed, but I wasn’t happy about it.

“I am your guide for the day,” he said in a sort of British accent, smiling with his kind eyes and salt and pepper well-groomed beard.

I looked into his eyes.  This was not a typical tour guide.  There would be no selfie-stick.  This man’s eyes had centuries in them.  Immediately, I gave myself to his care, with a relief I didn’t know I needed.

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There began this coming alive that never arrived in one big rush. But in small moments when I would catch myself smiling, and usually following someone who had been designated to help me find my way. I followed this man for two days, eight hours each, all around the bustling sardine-peopled medina and outside its walls too, learning about artisanal arts, still so alive and well in this country– the hammering of copper pots, grandfather to son to son, in a small square, the ancient tannery, still operating as it had from the start, with pigeon droppings as the key ingredient, holding a bundle of mint to my nose. Following his long and stalwart steps to the oldest university in the world, University of Karueein, founded in 859 AD. Showing me the signs of Muslim tolerance in the mosaic designs—an observance of the line of Abraham, from Moses, to Jesus, to Mohammed and the eight gates of Paradise. I caught myself smiling as I skipped forward to keep up with him, weaving around fast-walking women in hijabs and kaftans buying butchered lambs hanging from hooks, and chickens from cages, and spices in pyramids on stands next to a mind-blowing variety of olives and preserved lemons. Dodging bicyclists and donkey dung. And so many many cats. He was the first of a host of guides/teachers/sages who led me through Morocco.  I will never forget him.

IMG_888738e6e069-467d-4547-ad70-620b04d96547And I got used to it– this being led. I’ve never hired a guide in my life. Not for anything. “I can do it alone.” Why? How does doing it alone make you more powerful?  I never could have possibly learned all that I did without these guides, yes about Morocco and culture and humanity, but these guides also brought my smile back.

The man who drove me to and from the Blue City of Chefchauen in the Rif mountains and stopped at groves of olive trees and orchards of oranges because I lifted my camera to the window and he wanted me to stop and soak it in. His country. Where they till the fields with donkeys and horses. “No tractors,” he smiled proudly.

The woman in Marrakech who taught me to cook tagine and pigeon pastilla, and who when I said, “I don’t have anyone to cook for anymore,” excused herself to run to the market and buy me a small red clay tagine to take home. “For one,” she smiled, also a single woman.

And the man who walked me through the thin alleyways of Marrakech by night to eat like a local in spirited hole-in-the-wall places that I would never have had the guts or know-how to navigate, to eat sheep’s head tangia, (I did not eat the eyeball, but the cheek was heavenly), snails, prickly pear, street food that I would never have dared to try, unless Bourdain himself popped it into my mouth. (Turns out he was a fan of these same dark alleys and nighttime haunts).

And the woman who bathed me. Who lay me on a hot marble slab in a hamaam fired by olive branches in an24a62db0-f1c5-4f49-a075-cfa74751034f oven below, covered my skin in a black soap mask, and scrubbed me with a kessa glove…almost everywhere, noting the layers of dead skin that I didn’t know I needed to shed. It hurt. And it healed. I walked out feeling new. “Every week,” she said, smiling, and gave me the cleaned glove to bring home.

And my GOD…the horse guide on the beach whose only English word was gallop, and I did. On a Barb Arabian stallion, at low tide, not a rock anywhere, just hard wet sand for miles.  And he filmed it, galloping alongside me, and gave it to me as a gift.  I’ve watched it probably a hundred times.  I look as free and as happy as I’ve been for a long long time.  And I felt that way too.

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There were so many other people who guided me, taught me, showed me. And I so happily followed. Most of them took my phone out of my hands and said, “Good place for photo,” and took several of them. “Beautiful,” they said. “Look.” Normally I don’t look at photos of myself. They pain me. But they were insistent. “Look!” I looked. With each photo, from each guide, there was a new width and depth to my smile. Lit from within like the hamaam.

I also heard it from people when I had wifi and checked in online along the way. “Your smile! You look so happy! You look so different!”  And yes…some of them were the naysayers!

I hadn’t known I’d let my six months of sadness show. And as I was saying goodbye to Morocco…the fear washed in again.  I was scared again.  What if it comes back when I go home?

Answer:  I’m not going to let it.  That’s all.  I am the gatekeeper, and yes the guide, to my joy.  But…in going home, I’m going to remember to ask for help, find masters and teachers and guides, and open myself to being a joyful follower.

I made these photo collages as a reminder.  Every shot, taken by my guides: (and when I say “guides”…that means all of the kind people who met me lovingly along the way.)Image-1-1

If you are longing to radically rearrange yourself, whether or not you have the ability to go away somewhere bright and new for a month, I highly recommend that you do things way out of your comfort zone. And that you find a kind guide that can show you the way. You don’t have to do it alone.

***I will be writing an extensive piece about my month in Morocco with helpful links and tips for a publication near you, so stay tuned…

One of the best ways I know to be spelled differently, is to come to a Haven Writing Retreat in Montana!

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Sent from my iPhone by Laura Munson

IMG_7407I haven’t lived in a city since cell phones or emails or the internet infiltrated our civilization.  So as much as I long for my inner-child Chicago city fix, especially in the deep midwinter dormancy of Montana, when I get that fix, I’m always stunned, disoriented, and frankly worried for our world. The romance of the city, the beat and brash and bravado, the sensory glut, the shiny slick, and the glorious edge…all come at me catapult.  I want to feel every bit of it.  So I fight to keep my Montana filter-less-ness.  I want to do a daring dance with empathy, staring it all down…knowing that I will have to turn away sooner than later, blur my eyes, hold my breath past remarkable stench and heart break.  Still, I ask my heart to pound in pace with city vibrato, until I have to ask my better-sense to grab the back of my neck and force it forward. Downward. Observing only my boots and the sidewalk.  You can’t take it all in, in the end, but I like to try for a wide-eyed aperture for as long as I can stand it.

I try to make that filter-less-ness last as long as I can because I want to see who we’ve become.  I want to see that screens and satellite beams criss-crossing invisibly around us haven’t wound us so tight that we won’t be able to find our way out of this world wide web, if need be.  (I sense that there will be a Need Be.)  I want to believe that these buttons we push without a click or a feel to them, are making our lives easier and our propensity to wonder about the person crossing the street, greater. I want to believe that because it is possible to know so much now with those buttons and those screens and satellite strings…that we’re using that knowledge to linger in our longing to know each other.  Yes?  To sit longer at a meal and ask an extra question of our colleague or daughter or friend. To smile on the subway, especially at sad eyes, or to meet them with our own sad eyes. To step out of the sidewalk sea and sit on a bench for no other reason than:  all of this knowledge has turned us into supreme seeking beings and it begs us to stop.  Watch.  Feel.  See.  Know. I want to believe all of that.  But sitting there on a bench, watching the sidewalk sea…I don’t.  I see people walking faster and faster and the beat driving them harder and harder.  So serious and so purpose-driven and so confident about what’s around the bend.

Last week in San Francisco, after leading Haven Writing Workshops, helping people to figure out how to write a book and how to find their voices and figure out what they have to say…I sat there on a bench and I asked myself:  How purposefully and confidently can we really walk when we depend on a small rectangle of light and its buttons and arrows to tell us where to go right and left, and when to walk straight or take a slight turn…or re-calculate. Or push in a few numbers and have a car appear that takes us where we want to go so that we don’t have to look at all.  We seem so cock-sure.  But my Montana-ness knows that it’s such a thin veneer and I wanted to cry out, “Don’t you all know how incapacitated we have all become???  How reliant?  How clueless?  Don’t you realize how fickle our power is if it depends on a cord or a battery or a plug???”  Where oh where is our true power?

Because if and when the beams stop beaming and we are released from the satellite string…nay, rope….will we look up and at each other and say, “Woah. That was a weird dream.  I dreamed I was fine.  Great, even.  But I’m not fine.  Or great.  At all.  And you don’t look much better.  Let’s not even ask each other how we are.  Let’s just be with one another.  That looks like a nice park bench. Come, let’s sit for a while and tell each other our stories. Without looking at that little rectangle of light thingy, whatever it is. Let me see your hand.  It looks tired from holding that flat ‘smart’ thing. Remember when your hand used to hold reins and gallop to the river? Or hold the plow? Or palm the seed by the light of the full moon? Was that better then? Did we look at each other more? Did we not know where we were going but for news from the next town over from a wayward traveler? Or from the way cottonwoods flank river beds across a valley? Or that the shape of a nine-month pregnant belly meant that the world around that woman needed to ready itself for another miracle?  Get the hot water boiling.  Sterilized rags.  Call the midwife?

Is our midwife named Siri now?  (At least mine has a British accent, so I feel “smart” to have a chum like her when I wander around at her discretion, muttering to myself, this is not the zombie apocalypse.  This is not the zombie apocalypse.)

Because that’s the thing:  I have to be careful not to pretend like I am above any of it just because I don’t live in the thick of it.  If Montana has taught me anything, it’s that I know I’m not above anything.  In fact, being so removed from our city civilization for twenty-seven years, often has me in a state of less-than, full-FOMO, feeling like an underconfident and yes, under-competent Rip VanWinkle.  Like when I’m in the city, I’ve been jolted awake from my own deep sleep, the opposite dream, in which I’ve been too long nestled in the cleavage of Mother Nature, going days without speaking to anyone, my only witness, the white-tailed deer.  My cell phone doesn’t even work at my house.  My wifi is fickle and so is my power.  The fireplace is not decorative.  It’s a hearth that would burn if all else failed in the way of technology, and there have been plenty of winter nights when it’s the keeper of my hope too.  And I lie there staring at its flickering coals and feeling its heat, thinking that fire is where it all started.  Fire was the initial step that humans took to what has become our giant step into our current state of things.  How different was that first spark from what happens in Microsoft think-tanks in Palo Alto?

So I wonder:

Have we always been like we are now, just with different gizmos and the same ambition?  So cock-sure in our questions and so hungry for answers? Did we claw our way up the invention ladder to this world of technology that has become our norm, yes even in Montana, (though my best friend still has dial-up and doesn’t have a cell phone at all), and has our technology really made life easier? Has it really connected us? How do we really feel…alone in the dark with our little rectangular screens giving us answers about where to go and what to do and how someone else is feeling and what they are doing?

All week long, walking the city streets, I saw despair, is what I saw.  Emptiness.  A lot of people in comfortable, yet chic, shoes, a yoga mat slung over their shoulder, ears full of headphones, Bluetooth, earbuds, talking into the ozone.  Loudly.  I saw people looking into screens for answers, not into each others’ eyes. The conversations that came easily were with– get this: Uber and Lyft drivers…most of them new to this country and trying to figure it out too.  And thus, also looking at screens for answers—shortest route, traffic, construction.  But still, into the rearview mirror, asking me how my day was going. I didn’t tell them any of this. I told them “Great!” Like everyone else. I guess a filter can only last so long, unless you want your heart to break.

So before it did, with two more days in the city, I promised to linger longer at each table with my little rectangular notebook instead of my phone. Pen to paper I wrote what I could see and recognize about our city civilization that lasts, regardless of how we have, and will continue to, develop as a species. I asked myself:  what’s been here from the beginning and what will be with us always, besides the fact that none of us is getting out of here alive.

It was the stuff you’d think it was.  I wrote:

I believe in people’s central goodness.  Just look at the way that man helped that older woman with the cane get to her seat, and waited with her until she was settled.

I believe in our need for community.  Just look at the way this restaurant has a communal table and that it’s fuller than the bar.

I believe in our fear.  Everyone’s talking about the earthquake last night and recalling 1989.  And no one is cavalier.  “Isn’t there a way for them to know when they’re coming?” I asked.  No.  Not even Siri can tell us that.

I believe in the collective.  Otherwise, why wouldn’t we all do as my literary hero, and perhaps me too:

“The world that used to nurse us
now keeps shouting inane instructions.
That’s why I ran to the woods.”
― Jim Harrison

I believe in our ability to stay.  Hold vigil.  Keep the hearth warm, whatever that means for each of us.  The tenacity of the homeless who brave the nights in doorways with one blanket and maybe some cardboard.

I also believe in our hope.  When it’s time to take a new step in a new direction.  And it might be a surprise step.  I believe in our ability to believe that there’s something around the bend that might change everything, and it might change everything for the better.  Better being a relative term.

And I think all of these core beliefs apply to any sort of living—country, city, suburban.  But it does require us stopping from time to time, moment to moment, and removing the filter to check in on where our civilization is and isn’t.  So find a bench.  A stoop.  Some steps.  And stop.  Take pause.

I’m about to go to Morocco for a month of it.  Alone.  This is my deep bow after all these years of day-to-day hands-on mothering.  It’s also my call to action for what’s ahead—to live into it bravely and whole-heartedly.  And who knows if my cell phone or my GPS will help me navigate the labyrinthine medinas and markets and if I’ll find my way effectively across the desert.  I don’t speak Arabic, or even French.  I’m going to get by on these core beliefs.  I’ll be writing about it along the way.  I think we all need to take a giant step out of our lives and see who we really are, alone in the world, without technology.  Become disoriented and wobbly and look our fear in the eye and each others’ fear too.  I found some good walking shoes.  My daughter gave me a beautiful blank-paged journal for Christmas.  I have a good book.  I have my beliefs and I have my central goodness, which I have to believe is greater than my fear.  Just like love.  Just…like…you.

Bon Voyage.

Love,

Laura

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2019

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and longs to find your unique voice.  It’s here…in the stunning wilderness of Montana!  Click for more info.

March 20-24 (full with wait list)
May 8-12 (ah, the sweet month of May in Montana…darling buds and all.)
June 12-16 (great time of year for teachers. Time to fill YOUR cup!)
June 26-30 (ditto)
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Sept 25-29 (ditto)

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***Haven Wander:  Morocco (February 2019) is full

 

 

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The Complete Puzzle

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My kids and I spent hours and hours of our holiday this year, doing jigsaw puzzles.  It was their idea.  I couldn’t really get them to do puzzles when they were little, but suddenly it’s “Mom, can we do a puzzle?” and I’m thrilled.  No screens.  No polite or forced let’s-make-this-moment-count conversations.  Just hanging out, focused on putting something together…together.  Laughs.  Loose language.  Thoughts that spilled out as words when we weren’t looking.  I loved every minute of it.  No “can you set the table” or “get dressed–the guests are coming in half an hour!” or “you need a haircut” or “hurry—we only have ten minutes to get to our gate.”  Just blah-blah-blahing in a way we haven’t really blah-blah-blahed in a long time.  And a lot of it was because I didn’t put the puzzle off on a side table in a side room.  I put it front and center on the kitchen table.  At meal time, we just threw down placemats and ate with the growing assemblage of little pieces below us.  I felt those puzzle pieces’ hope for wholeness.  And maybe mine too.

I loved puzzles as a child, knowing that there was a complete story that had been “whole” once and had deliberately been parsed into pieces for me to arrange and put back together. Maybe I was co-dependent that way, or a “fixer,” or just wanted to have faith that life had pieces that were part of a whole that made sense.  A world I could count on and maybe even control.  I would sit there for hours, doing puzzles.  My parents used to marvel at how “good” I was at it.  How “patient” I was.  How much of a “stick-to-it-er” I was.  I got such satisfaction at being called “good” at putting things together, especially when it was hard.

I also loved my china animals and played with them in the woods, tucking them into the forest floor and having trillium and fairy slipper parties with pine needle upside-down-cake and stone soup.  Inherently, they broke.  So I spent a lot of time with Super Glue as a child too, priding myself on how you could barely tell that my little china wonders had broken in the first place.  Later, I got into mosaics—saving every single broken piece of china in my life in a box that travelled with me through my 20s and 30s until I finally had a home that I could count on, and started making mosaics for my garden steps.  In short, I’ve been the assembler of broken bits.

I won’t say that my family is broken.  I’ve never been able to tolerate the phrase “broken home” even when I was married and had my little family pack intact.  Nothing is broken when there is love involved.  And there is so much love at this table of mine with these two kids.  BUT…they don’t live here anymore.

So what do I put back together?  The likely answer is:  me.  I need to fix…me.

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What pieces do I need to fix?  If I’m that little girl at the puzzle table…and I get very very real…well, I need to fix my fear.  My fear of, now what.  My fear of Who am I just sitting alone in my house with all these pieces everywhere?  My fear of all these stacks and piles that have accumulated over the years when my motherhood had to trump everything else.  And yes, my fear of table-for-one.  My fear of just me and so many pieces to put together all on my own.  All through the holidays, I felt this overwhelming sense of, “It’s all on my shoulders.  And shit man—I have really sturdy shoulders.  Maybe this is what I was meant to be:  A master puzzler.  (If Will Shortz is reading this, will you marry me?  Or at least come over for the Sunday morning puzzle over some really great Earl Grey?)

A master puzzler.  Because I can tell you:  I am not afraid of the pieces.  At all.  I expect them, in fact.  Don’t you?  I mean, life comes in puzzle pieces.  So…maybe it’s the whole, that I’m actually afraid of.  Huh.  Maybe I’m afraid to trust that I will feel whole again, just me.  That really scares me.

But why wouldn’t we believe in our wholeness?  Why is it so much easier to believe in our brokenness?  Some of us don’t believe there’s a whole, complete picture.  But I do.  I’m just trying to live into it, knowing that it changes as it grows, if I’m living it with any faith.  That’s where I need to put my energy:  on faith in the future.  Not fear of it.

So…the kids gone.  Me alone.  Do I keep cooking elaborate meals like I have all Christmas and New Years– table for one in my own home?  Do I do puzzles by myself?  I can’t imagine that.  Do I sit in the silence and write and write and write and take walks in the snowy woods and remember to take my cell phone because what if I need help out there?  Mountain lions et al.  Do I furiously fill up my house with friends and other people seeking community?  Book group on Mondays, friend pot luc on Wednesdays, movie night on Fridays?

puzzzleOr do I just let the pieces fall where they may and NOT pick them up anymore?  What if I just let someone else pick them up?  Or no one at all.  I’m not talking about my bills and my taxes and my job and the pieces of my children’s lives that are still not totally independent.  I’m talking about my heart.  For all the times I judged women who came undone after their children left home, I’m now having a “sit down” with myself, as my grandmother used to say.  I have not come undone.  Not in the way that has people worried, myself included.  It’s more in a way of finding what felt like a complete puzzle in an old drawer and breaking it apart so that I can do it all over again.  Not cheating—but taking the chunks of whole sections and breaking them apart…so that they can become more whole.  Starting from scratch.  Only now, it’s not my little girl fingers.  Or my mother fingers.  It’s these fingers.  They’re wrinkly and veiny and worn.  I like these fingers.  Now to like this puzzle of my life.

Here’s my solution:  I’m taking off.  For a month.  Leave it all behind.  Let the memories sort themselves out, let the well argue with the sceptic tank, and the pipes fight to stay warm all on their own.  (please God).  I’m going somewhere vastly different from where I live.  I’m going to Morocco for the first time and I’m going solo.  The more I plan it, the more I imagine myself in serious disorientation.  Puzzle pieces on a table I’ve never seen before, and I’ve lost the box with the picture on top.  Buses through foreign soil, small riads run by families and who knows if I’m their only guest– so it’s just me sitting there alone in courtyards in Fez, and Marrakech, Chefchaouen, and Essaouira, and gosh.  Who knows who I will be.

images (1)I do know what I can count on, and that feels good.  I know I’ll be hungry for delicious food.  I’ll want to wander in nooks and crannies where not a lot of people go.  I’ll want to sit at cafes and write.  I’ll want to go to little artisanal shops and please don’t let me buy any more rugs.  Well…maybe just…one.  (I have a rug problem. c. Istanbul, 1986).  I’ll want to ride a Barb-Arabian horse if I can find one.  Preferably on a beach.  I truly believe this trip is the antidote to my fear of what comes next in my life.  Because I’ll be focusing on what I want, instead of what everybody else wants.  And it won’t be considered selfish.  I won’t let it be considered selfish.  I’ll know, in my deepest heart of hearts, that it is absolutely mandatory for the next stage of my life.  This is ME TIME, ladies and gentlemen of the unusually cruel jury that lives in my head.  I’m going to go do what I want.  Damnit.

If I back up to when I didn’t have children, I can say that I had more confidence in the complete puzzle.  I saw it.  I had the guy, the dreams, the house, the will.  And BOY did I have the confidence.

Maybe that’s what I’m after:  the confidence.  Or maybe just the blind belief in it all.  The complete puzzle.images

Anthony Bourdain said he felt lonely a lot of the time, traveling around the world, having these incredible meals in these incredible places and not having anyone to share it with at the end of the day.  Tony, maybe you absorbed our pain so that we can have a brighter future.  (We miss you.  I’m not sure that I’d marry you, though.  In case you asked.)  I want light now.  Delight!  What the holidays beg for:  comfort and joy!  I had it this holiday.  Now to move into 2019 with more of the same.  Just…me!

Yesterday, we shoved the Christmas tree out the French doors and put all the ornaments in the attic for next year.  We finished the last puzzle.  The first one was of doors.  #symbolic.  The last one was of a grizzly bear with a whole world of Montana, and of its tribe, in its body like it swallowed itself whole.  And after they were all in bed, late night, I looked at it.  Whole.  And I thought, this is what I am now. This bear.  I have swallowed my life whole, and now it’s time to swallow myself whole.IMG_7209

I felt lit from within.  And I said it out loud.  “That’s what I’m going to do.  What my literary hero, Jim Harrison, declared for himself.”

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 the cold, the moon
and the stars, to swallow myself
in ceaseless flow.

To swallow myself in ceaseless flow.  Whatever that means.  If I find it in Morocco…I’ll let you know.  I’ll hold the torch, in case you need it.  In case you need to know that open doors await you if you just walk through.  You are not alone in your fear or in your life.  And really…I’m not either.  We are in this together.  We just have to get ourselves out into the world of puzzle pieces and try to put it all together best we can.

So happy New Year, everyone.  May we step out of our fear and into our next…best…us.

Love,

Laura

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2019

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and longs to find your unique voice.  It’s here…in the stunning wilderness of Montana!  Click for more info.

March 20-24 (full with wait list)
May 8-12 (ah, the sweet month of May in Montana…darling buds and all.)
June 12-16 (great time of year for teachers. Time to fill YOUR cup!)
June 26-30 (ditto)
Sept 18-22 (my favorite time of year.  Still warm during the day.  Fire in the fireplace at night.)
Sept 25-29 (ditto)

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***Haven Wander:  Morocco (February 2019) is full

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Come Together…Right Now.

community linking hands_136056599There have been two events in the last week that have brought deep calm and hope to me where I didn’t know hope was missing.  I hadn’t realized how much the news had been weighing on me. I’ve felt a responsibility to watch it, read it, try to understand it– but I think that the current state of this country has been breaking me down from the inside out.  Hard.  And I now know I’m not alone.

For the most part, I keep my political orientation to myself, but I realized this week, that the breakdown I’ve been feeling transcends partisan opinions or beliefs.  It is a deep wound of disorientation.  Of assault on what I believe is the basic goodness of people in general and leaders in specific.  And I see now that our collective is feeling it to the bone.  Bone on bone.  Late night TV isn’t even that funny.  I watch it as a nightly relief, and yes I laugh…but lately, I sort of want to cry at the jokes too.  I feel…despair.

I’m a bucker-upper.  A glass-half-full kinda gal.  A this-too-shall-pass person.  So this despair thing is something new and I dearly and desperately don’t want it to become my new normalIn this last week of hope, I’ve realized that I want to/need to feel like I belong to something that is a firmament of integrity and goodness.  I need to trust-fall into that firmament and know it will catch me and hold me and let me give it my faith.

That happened to me this week.  Twice.  I want to share a bit of it with you so that you know, in case you’ve forgotten, that it’s possible.  But it doesn’t happen by accident.

Hope #1 (not in this order)

I spent the morning of December 5th like many of us did:  watching the George H. W. Bush memorial service.  Politics aside, the sum of its parts blind-sided me with overwhelming sobbing.  Reverie.  A deep internal bowing.

I couldn’t stop it.  I didn’t want to stop it.  There was a fierce intuitive understanding that I needed to cry those tears.  Watching that grief-struck family in that hallowed American hall, with those old hymns and military overtures, those speeches and the appropriate laude and honor…it was clear to me that we were mourning a good man.  The man that was being mourned and honored represents something that I hold dear, and that is the importance of a strong, good, leader who loved his wife, his family, his country, and who believed in kindness and even gentleness.  Who came from an era of loyal patriots that didn’t whine or blame or boast or spew morass.

It brought me back to the rooting of my childhood when I stood in church next to my father and harmonized on hymns and held his liver-spotted hand and played with his soft blue veins and looked at his high white thumb moons and knew that he was the gentleman he was because of his hard work, his WW II pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps way of showing up, his values, his ethics, his common decency, his dedication to his family, his job, his community, his fellow human.  I hear his “Shoulders back, Munson” every day, especially when I need courage.

I believed in those things because of him and the other class-act gentlemen I was raised with from that era.  I cried because I miss them.  They’re dying off.  And in this daily incineration of our hearts by the nightly news…I just want to believe in our country and feel like I can trust-fall into it like I did even then, again, politics aside.  Watching that funeral, I realized that I have never felt more vulnerable and heart- sick as an American, than I do right now.  I long for unity.  I have never seen such division and while I try not to focus on it, how can you not feel its corrosion of the collective?  It’s everywhere.  Remember Hands Across America?  I want to link arms, whatever is your politics, and be good together.  I believe in our central goodness.  My father did too.  He raised me to believe in it, to look for it, to be it.

As I watched those speeches and listened to the Episcopal liturgy of my youth, the bible verses and hymns, I wept.  Sobbed.  Smiled through tears.  One of my very favorites:  O God, our help in ages past.  I sang/hummed along to every verse of it.  I cried at the soprano descants.  The altos grounding it.  But mostly I cried because I saw a family there, grieving their legendary patriarch.  And giving us our own grief to mourn as patriots.  Not divided.  For a few hours, I forgot who our president is, what crazed gun-slinging madman or natural disaster has just devastated a community.  We were crying good tears.  Together.  And I believe that we were grieving not just a man, but our unity.

Tom Brokaw said it so well, holding back tears, just after the service:

“I’ve never seen one that had such an important message that was so far reaching. It was an Episcopalian ceremony with an ecumenical message.  And the message was about faith and hope, but family and values.  About dedication to, not just your family, but your country as well.  And to know WHEN you have to cross the aisle and pull together.

…I think for a lot of people this was a distillation of a message that we all need to hear.  …We ought to be thinking about the message that we heard here today.”

Hope #2

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I also felt that trust-fall into hope in a home in Palm Springs, CA last week, in celebration of two wildly talented women:  an author, and a musician, brought together by an Emmy award winning journalist.  They were having dinner one night, and they decided to celebrate with an intentional gathering of kindreds.  We came from all over—fifty women.  We came with our hearts in our hands, and we came without wanting things from one another, other than community, inspiration, and loving connection.

We were welcomed with the invitation to put down our phones and connect with one another, have those conversations that we all need to be having, in person, looking into each others’ eyes.  We were promised that each person was specially chosen to be at this celebration and that as a result, we were with kindred sisters.

I put any residual adolescent PTSD aside and spent the day trust-falling into each circle of women, and like-wise, holding them as they trust-fell into my circles.  It was an Us Us.  All day.  Hiking through Indian Canyon, eating delicious food, hanging by the pool and hot tub, and all the way through to dress-up evening clothes, and Happy Birthday, and for some of us, late night shenanigans.

Every single one of these women felt like an immediate sister to me.  We all knew that we are highly sensitive people, prone to high-octane empathy and sometimes overwhelm, and we did it anyway.  We trusted each other and we told each other our stories and we tried to find meaning and hope in what feels so painful in our national collective– though we spoke less about that pain, and more about the hope.  And we freaking laughed and played like fifty of the best playmates you may or may not have had as a child.  Or in high school.  Or college.  Or even with your current friends.  But we didn’t talk about what we didn’t have.  We talked about how we wanted more of this!

At one point, I turned to a writer friend who has done my Haven Writing Retreat in Montana, our toes wiggling in the warm pool like little girls, and I said, “We are all fluent in this language.  And yet we so rarely speak it.”  She nodded, smiling, and said, “Write that down.”  Which is what I am constantly saying at Haven.  It was so nice to be told it!   So I did, and here it is.  Let’s memorize it.  We are all fluent in this language of connection, and yet we so rarely speak it.  It really is…our Mother tongue.

By the end of the evening, all of us sitting on the floor, eating, laughing, throwing out our arms or putting our palms together as we shared our truth, sometimes touching without meaning to and not apologizing for it, like one organism, moving our appendages in an alchemistic equilibrium, our hostess stood up and called out:  “Shall we meet again next year?!”  And we all hooted and hollered, “YES!”

I kept finding myself saying, “I’m so happy.  I haven’t been happy like this in a long long time.”  It was a surprise because I’m happily with groups of women all the time.  But ‘tis true that we need to receive as much as we give, to make a whole, effective person, and a whole effective heart.

So there it is:  we’re STARVED for connection.  LOVING, supportive, raw and real…connection.  I know this as the author of a memoir, and as the leader of retreats because I hear over and over again messages of gratitude for helping people know that they’re not alone.  But I didn’t realize that I’ve forgotten this as a woman, away from a leadership position.  Everyone in that room is in a leadership role in her life.  And everyone in that room was happy to leave it for the day.  I was so happy not to lead.  To listen and take it all in, and say things in a way that doesn’t have to be quotable or learnable or teachable.  Just to truly…let it all hang out.  Let it all fall back.  Not lean in.  Fall back…in trust and true connection with no agenda except for the hope of feeling known and knowing with our empathy as our guide.

So what I know of hope right now, is the feeling of falling into it and trusting that there are people who can hold you, just as you promise to hold them.  In total health and harmony, heart, and yes hope.  A more kind and more gentle nation…indeed.

I want to thank the women for taking their dinner trio think tank/love-fest, fifty-fold.  I want to thank the nation for stopping this week for a few hours to feel unified.  I want to thank you for reading this and for picking up your lone hand and placing it in the palm of another’s.  We can do this…together.  We have to.  No choice.  We are the UNITED States of America, after all.

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2019

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and longs to find your unique voice.  It’s here…in the stunning wilderness of Montana!  Click for more info.

March 20-24 (only one spot left)
May 8-12 (ah, the sweet month of May in Montana…darling buds and all.)
June 12-16 (great time of year for teachers. Time to fill YOUR cup!)
June 26-30 (ditto)
Sept 18-22 (my favorite time of year.  Still warm during the day.  Fire in the fireplace at night.)
Sept 25-29 (ditto)

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***Haven Wander:  Morocco (February 2019) may have a spot. Email me for more info:  laura@lauramunson.com

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The “Me Time” Medal: a week of wellness

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What does it take, I wonder, to just…stop?  To stop the madness of pushing buttons and swiping, clicking, scrolling from one screen to the next, taking trains, planes, and automobiles here and there and everywhere, booking that appointment up against the one before it and the one after it…instead of taking that hour to…eat?  Take a walk?  Stretch?  Or not do anything at all except…breathe?

I never thought of myself as a multi-tasker.  I left the rat race before I ever fully joined it.  I moved to a place that people yearn for, but only after they’ve lived in the “real world,” building careers and relationships and families in cities and suburbs– the Montana prize at the end of it, not the beginning of it.  Still, my kids make fun of me now during our Facetime calls.  “Let me guess, Mom.  You’re doing twenty-five thousand things at once.”

“Me?  No.  I am not.  I’m just…you know…running my business.  And writing two books.  And getting ready for my next retreat.  And paying my bills.  And booking my ticket for the Morocco Haven writing retreat.  And finding an Air B&B in Marrakech.  And researching the best and cheapest snow blower because I’m not going through another Montana winter without a snow blower.  And…”

They roll their eyes and laugh at me from my laptop on the kitchen counter, so it’s almost like they’re here again, doing the same thing.

“Huh.  Am I really that person?”

“Uh…what do you think?” my daughter says.

“You’re a chronic multi-tasker, Mom.  Admit it,” my son says.  “And it’s getting worse.”

“We’re worried about you,” she adds.

“Oh don’t be worried about me!  I love my work.  I love all of it.  And now that you’ve all fledged the nest, I’m told that there’s this thing called Me Time.  I think I could get used to that idea.  Oh, and don’t let me forget– I made Bolognese sauce and froze it last night.  For Christmas.  Oh, and I need to book your flights.”

“Mom.  We’re old enough to book our own flights.  And are you really taking care of yourself?  I mean, are you sick?  You sound sick.”

“Oh, it’s just a little cold.”  I’ve been holding it back, but I let out a bone rattling hack.  “Sorry.  What were you saying?  Oh yeah.  Flights.  Well, I’ll pay for them.  I’ll give you my credit card.”

“That cough sounds nasty.  You need to take a day off.  Have you even eaten today?”

“I had a smoothie this morning.”  The tides have turned, I guess.  I tell them that I’m fine.  I’m just run down.  I’ve just finished a seven week work marathon, leading four five day retreats and traveling to Minneapolis to do events, and I have a cold.  “My energy level is fine.  It sounds worse than it is.”

I.       Am.         Lying.

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The truth is, I’m sick as a dog.  I got back from my last business trip, and hit the wall.  I’ve been lying in bed for three days with a roll of toilet paper, (ran out of Kleenex), various and random tinctures and likely-expired remedies (my eyes are too goopy to see the fine print), Mason jars of water and Emergen-C, Tiger Balm, and something called Gypsy Cream that my friend made and which my raw nose really likes.  My eyes ache so I can’t effectively look at my computer.  I’m too tired to drive into town for supplies.  I haven’t been this flat-out ill in years.  It reminds me of being sick as a child—all set up in my parents’ bed watching The Price is Right and All My Children and General HospitalOnly there are no parents to take care of me now.

I make that thought go away and try to think light, un-pathetic things, like:  Do people even watch soap operas and game shows these days?

In the last three days, I’ve tried to find out—to make myself succumb to brain mush.  To let this cold be a gift of…Me Time.

I last about three minutes.  All those commercials with the women in creased khakis and pressed linen button-downs, happily scouring their white bathroom floors with one errant strand of hair fallen across their line-less foreheads.  Bleck.  Those women don’t exist and if any woman on earth thinks they do…they are in for abject and relentless PAIN when they wake up from the dream.

I turn the TV off so quickly, so allergically, that I wonder:  Was I in some sort of a motherhood dream?  Have I suddenly woken up, now that the last child is gone?  Because I’m in a lot of pain, and not just in my lungs.  It’s in my heart.  Not the one that beats.  The one that wants it all back, just for one day.  Those little babies climbing all over me so that there’s no time to do anything other than just blissfully be with them.  The ones who are telling me now that I’m a serial multi-tasker.  The ones who are worried about me.

IMG_3782I stare at the snow.  I really can’t let that snow stack up.  And I really need to get those airplane tickets.  And I have three business calls that I really need to take this afternoon.  I’ll just push Mute when I have to cough.  How hard is it to take calls in bed?  They won’t know, anyway.  They’ll think I’m in some sort of writerly Montana She Shack.  With distressed barn wood and black and white photos of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Anais Nin.  Instead of balled-up toilet paper all around me, and pillows which have lost their cases in the mayhem of all this tossing and turning and coughing and blowing.  And self-pity.

But this cold won’t let me lie to myself.  It only lets me lie in bed.  Just like my children have prescribed.

When I have the energy to move, I make bone broth and tea and slog up to bed again.  I’ve lost my sense of taste.  Even my lover, Earl Grey, tastes like mucus.  Everything tastes like mucus.  My head feels like it weighs twenty pounds.  I should probably cave and take cold medicine, which I hate.  But I don’t even have cold medicine in the house.  I’ve always told my kids that we should feel our symptoms so that we are true to them.  “We need to honor our bodies, not pretend we’re fine, when we’re not.”  When did I become such a hypocrite?  Was it the minute I dropped my second child off at college and came home to Empty Nest?

My kids text me later.  “You okay?”

This is new.

“I’m fine,” I repeat.  “I’m about to take a nap.”

Which I don’t.  Instead I stare at the snow melting on the roof, trying to think Me Time Empty Nest thoughts:  I need to search ebay for a cheap snow blower.  Does that count?IMG_3782

And then, in the way back of my mucus-y mind, in my grandmother’s southern drawl, I hear:  “Dear.  I’m worried about your mother.  She works too hard.  She needs to take a rest.”  I remember thinking as a child that, based on the sternness in my grandmother’s brow, we had a real problem on our hands:  that my mother might even die from hard work.  That maybe there was no medal at the end of all her achievements, even though it seemed like she was going after one.  She always seemed like she was medal-worthy to me.  But my grandmother’s worry felt more important than any work—even change-the-world work.

My God.  Are they worried about me the way I was worried about my mother?  Am I passing the baton to my kids and are they insisting that this incessant hard-work-to-the-point-of-self-violence gene needs to end?

Because, just like her, I’m always throat-high in a project.  Or three.  Or yes, maybe even twenty-five thousand.  Always more blue blocks on my Google calendar than white ones.  I heard Joan Rivers say on a talk show once something to the tune of, “When I have an empty calendar, I’ll know my life is over.”  Am I like that? I wonder, watching the gutters do their job.  Frankly, they look tired too.

I don’t think of myself as a workaholic.  I mean, I live in Montana.  I work in my pajamas a lot of the time– don’t even own a business suit.  I drive a totaled truck and stop it often, on the side of the road, to take in the unabashed beauty of big sky country.  I spent years playing with my kids on the floor, reading with them and singing with them and snuggling with them.  Yes, I worked out of the home, but I was always just a few steps away if they needed me, and once they went to school, I worked on my career, yes, but I never missed a recital or a school program, and hardly missed a game.  I was that mom.

IMG_3782But now that they’re gone…have I put the pedal to the floor instead of allowing myself to be in neutral for a while?  And…if I’m being brutally honest…do I really want to get to know myself again, outside of my motherhood and my work?  And while I’m at it…since I can no longer bury myself in my motherhood, have I now buried myself in work so that I don’t have to be in this thing called Empty Nest, the memories lurking in every surface of this home?  Most of them so joyous.  Some of them, so not.  Am I going to be a total disaster at Me Time?

What would it take for me to actually…enjoy this Empty Nest?  This Me Time.  People tell me that it’s time to be selfish.  I have a friend who said, just before my son left for college, “I’m going to check on you every week and see if you’re doing something just for you.  Something new and different, to get to know yourself outside of your motherhood and your career.”

“I’m planning on having more time to write and publish books.  And travel.”

“I don’t mean writing.  Or traveling.  I mean at home.  Something you haven’t tried before, right where you live.”

“Like what?” I asked her, truly blank.

She smiled.  “Like…tango lessons.  Like…fly-fishing.  Something just for you.”

Huh.

“I take a bath every night.  Does that count?  I can’t get enough of Modern Family and Anthony Bourdain (may he rest in peace) re-runs.  There are stacks of books on my bedside table.  Which I read hungrily.  I write every morning.  These are all ways of taking care of myself.  Aren’t they?”

“Mmmmm.  You need to do something…new.”  She knows.  She believed in newness so much that she left her job in Chicago and moved, solo, to Montana.  I’ve never seen her so happy.

IMG_3782Lying here, blowing my nose and feeling so inert, so unproductive and blob-ish– I wonder if I thought that there would be a medal at the end of motherhood.  Like graduation.  Like people would stand up for you and clap and give you a fancy scroll that you can frame and hang on the wall to prove your hard work.  And I wonder, since that doesn’t exist, if I have just succeeded in transferring all of that gumption, all of those hours that I’m no longer parenting day to day, into my career.  Sure looks like it, I think, staring at the snow melting.  And it also sure looks like my body’s not having it.  At all.

So I give in and just allow the last seven weeks to flicker by like a home movie on the snowy roof:  I dropped my son off at college, came back, and two days later began my work marathon.  I worked intimately with over fifty women in my five day and one day retreats and workshops.  I gave them everything I possibly could give.  I loved it like I loved…well, my motherhood.  I always do.

But in planning my fall schedule last year, I must have been absolutely terrified of Empty Nest because from September to December, there were pretty much only blue blocks on my Google calendar.  No white ones– not after 6:00 am or before 8:00 pm.  And no green ones at all– the places where my motherhood used to live.  I colored everything blue with Work.  I don’t remember doing it.  But I must have looked at those white spaces and gone Marsha Brady, filling it all in to the brim.  Never a moment to stop.

And now…surprise:  I’m sick.  It’s such a beautiful sunny snow day.  I could be out playing in it instead of lying here feeling miserable.

I breathe in and let out a long emphysema-sounding sigh.  What if I use this illness to practice on?  What if, just for this week, I cleared those blue blocks to white space, and didn’t fill them with anything?  I mean really…nothing.  Not even the Food Network.  Or Netflix.  Or even a bath.  My retreat season is over.  All of the blue blocks are things that can wait, at least a week.  What if I allowed myself to just lie here and watch the snow melting off the roof and felt my infected lungs rising and falling and let myself feel grateful for each breath that doesn’t erupt in a hack.

For one solid week…what if I didn’t write anything or read anything or do anything or try to be anything, outside of well?  What if this white-spaced nothing…is the medal?  The Me Time Medal.  What did Winnie the Pooh say?  “Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.”  And then, after I’m over this cold…what if I kept it going—this commitment to the white blocks of nothing?  Sure, there’ll be blue blocks.  I like it that way and my bank account requires it too.  But what if I learned to value the white just as much?

IMG_3782I ask us all, because I’ll just bet that you can relate:  Do we have to get sick to stop?  Or can we just stop for no reason other than:  we know we need to.  We know it’s good for us.  We want to be good to ourselves.  And if we are…maybe the “medal” is wellness.  Happiness.  Peace.  We can at least try.

So for just this moment: 

Just…let your chest rise and fall. 

Feel your heart beating. 

Let your heavy head fall back. 

You don’t have to hold it up right now. 

Something can hold you.

I’ll try it too.  Today, all day, right after I do this writing thing that I know is good for me, but that I also know is still a way of doing not being…I’m going to let my head fall into pillows, close my eyes.  Breathe.  Be.  And let my body heal.

Maybe tango lessons next week.  Who knows.

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Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats Montana  2019!  (special holiday discounts!!!!)

Come join me in Montana and find your voice! Write your book! Court your muse…all under the big sky.  You do not have to be a writer to come to Haven.  Just a seeker…longing for community, inspiration, support, and YOUR unique form of self-expression using your love of the written word!

March 20-24
May 8-12
June 12-16
June 26-30
Sept 18-22
Sept 25-29

Go here for more info and to set up a call with Laura! 

***Haven Wander:  Morocco is full.

 

 

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10 Year Anniversary of My Season of Unlikely Happiness…

…Sometimes you need a dose of your own medicine…

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One of the blessings of writing my memoir, “This Is Not The Story You Think It Is:  A Season of Unlikely Happiness,” and the essay version of it, “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear,” are the notes you get from people.  I have been lucky enough to hear from a LOT of people, from all over the world, because the New York Times “Modern Love” column is mighty, and so is Amy Einhorn and Penguin/Putnam.  The essay went viral (#2 “Modern Love” essay in the history of the column), and the book was published in nine countries!  I never dreamed any of that would happen when I wrote it.  I was just writing my way through a challenging summer of rejection from my then husband, and I was fiercely committed to non-suffering in a time when most would call me an emotional victim.  I’d suffered enough in my life because of my sensitivity to other people’s actions, and I wanted to look this suffering beast in the eyes and shout Gandalf’s “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”  I wanted to finally find emotional liberation from my reactions to the things people say and do to me.  I wanted to be even…happy.  Which meant I had to become acutely aware of the way my mind works, how it gets in its way, and how it finds its way out of the dark forest.  During that six month time of my life, I practiced this self-awareness moment by moment.  Sometimes I failed.  Sometimes I was even good at it.  And always, I learned.

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This was new news to many people—that you could find your way out of suffering at a time when your beloved utters these dread words:  “I don’t love you anymore.”  The responses to the book and the essay were a brilliant reflection of what is at the core of humanity and it drove home something that I have always believed:  people everywhere want the same things.  To love.  To be loved. To feel of value. To be happy.  And there are a lot of people out there who are in pain and don’t know what to do with it.  They’ve given themselves to a relationship, and their partners are rejecting them.  They think that their well-being is contingent upon someone else’s treatment of them.  And it’s…just…not.  Happiness is in you.  It doesn’t get bestowed upon you.  Even from the ones who are supposed to love you most. writing

One of the things I loved dearly about the whole experience (and it still goes on nine years after the book’s publication), were the notes I got over and over, so often saying these words:  “Thank you for helping me know I’m not alone.”  Because as memoir writers know…writing your heart out starring you as the main character ain’t for sissies.  And to know that your transparency truly helped someone out there…makes it a little less hard to write past the fear of self-exposure.  It helps give us the courage to be honest, and sometimes brutally so.  If you can think, “I am going to let myself bleed in these pages in hopes that it might be of service to myself and others,” it makes it a lot easier to open that vein.  The key is to do it from a place of service, and not venom.  To be self-responsible the whole way through, with your eye on the service piece.  Even so, there are the haters out there.  The people who enjoy kicking you when you’re down.  It’s easy to have big cojones behind a computer screen.  I always just think:  I’m glad I don’t have to live in that person’s mind, making people wrong all the time instead of trying to find the light in what it is that they have to say.

This person found the light.  And asked a good question.  My birthday was this week, and this fan, whom I’ve never met, sent me a lovely birthday blessing on Facebook.  I looked back at our message feed to remember who he was, and found his note from 2009 when the essay came out in the New York Times, prior to the book.  And then I read my response to it.  Boy, did I need those words.  Sometimes it’s as if we hold our wisdom in words…so that later…when we’ve forgotten or really need a re-fresher, it’s there for us.  This is what reading my own words, sparked by his kindness, did for me, as I bring my son to college in a few days, and come home to my Empty Nest.

IMG_0061Looking back now, I know that the time depicted in my memoir/essay was one of the most powerful times of my life.  A true awakening.  But we go back to sleep sometimes.  Or take little naps.  I’ve been so focused on the dread of Empty Nest, that I have perhaps forgotten the blessings.  May my response to him, then, help all of us.

Here are our notes to one another:

Dear Laura,
I was re-reading your wonderful essay last night, and had a very practical question: at one point you talked about “I’d committed to the ‘End of Suffering.’” I see what you mean by not looking to outward success as a measure of personal happiness, which is very wise.

Were there particular techniques or strategies that you found helpful? In my own life, I find it easy to disengage from material success or career success as a measure of happiness, but I still do find myself often defining my happiness through the success of my marriage, which is struggling at this point.

Not looking for any marriage guru advice here! Just was intrigued about the “End of Suffering” idea, and wondering if you had found something that helped. Thank you for the gift of your time.

Just lovely.  Right?  The kind of letter an author cherishes. 3d-notthestory (1)

My response:

Thanks for reaching out. I’m sorry you’re having a rough time in your marriage. And thank you for your good question. Here is my attempt to answer it– before breakfast—with my tea beside me: When I think of suffering, I think of the years in my life when I didn’t know I was in pain. Most of that had to do with being a writer and not understanding how I could feel so deeply called to daily arrive at this intersection of heart and craft and mind and intuition on the page…and yet not have that trajectory met. I just couldn’t understand how to bear that pain. What was the point?

Well…finally I realized that I was plagued with some pretty faulty thinking. The act of creation simply had to be enough. So I dedicated myself to that. And immediately– the pain was gone. It was so liberating. I didn’t have to be a victim of something. I never wanted to be a victim– it’s not my true nature. I think of myself as a joyful, powerful person. But I saw how I had been playing that victim role as a writer, and as a woman… for quite some time. Basing my happiness on things outside my control. It truly is insanity and a wise woman helped me to see that.

So when my husband had his own crisis of self…I recognized it. I had been in that place. But even still…I had to let go of him getting through it. It was a moment by moment act of surrender. Returning to the present moment. And being creative in it. I could control what I could create and there was a lot of joy there if only I tapped into it. And joy sure beats pain. “What can I create?” is the most powerful question I know.

But here’s the thing: pain has become our normal in so many cases, and most of us, even those of us who are seekers and aware and practice being so…sometimes can’t see where we’re in pain. And we re-choose it over and over out of habit. You may already know all this. I guess I did too, at that time in my life. I just had never gotten the chance to practice it like I did in that season of my marriage. Sure, I had a large dose of pain after my father died…but meeting with dis-affection is different. It wants to creep into you and tell you that you are somehow bad. Wrong. And the worst: unlovable. But that is simply a lie. And one that we often live into and make true.

So I guess I would say to you on this spring Montana morning with the first red-winged blackbird singing in the marsh, that you don’t have to be defined by your marriage or your spouse. You can be free and even joyful in this time. Regardless of how it ends up. It’s such a wonderful way to live, and dare I say, you become rather magnetic when you live like that. And yes, maybe even quick to love.  But that never made anybody a fool, even though our reactionary society will try to tell us this. Not everybody wants to receive our love, but WE can receive our love. In that act of creation. Even this tea that sits steaming next to me on my desk– I created that. And it feels good. So I wish for you creation today. Hope that helps.

Yours,

Laura

10 years later from this season of my life, I send love to us all,

ED46FE53-9630-4CDB-B72983E21C67D306

Laura

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For more information about Haven Writing Retreats, Montana click here!  Now booking 2019!

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What Does Self-Care Really Mean?

IMG_4873

 

I’m glad that Self-Care is finally a “thing.”  I’m glad that when we hear that phrase now, it’s not considered selfish so much as it is believed to be self-preservational.  But I hail from the former way of thinking and it’s taken me a lot to arrive at the latter.  I think I’m officially…finally…sorta-kinda-maybe-please-God…there.

But first…let’s dip back into the 1960s.  And 70s.  And 80s.  People didn’t “work out” when I was growing up.  Handsome men had bodies like Rock Hudson and Cary Grant—with soft middles and borderline man-boobs, skinny legs and gentlemen bi-ceps.  Women had “love handle” hips, and god-forbid muscle mass.  Hell, Marilyn Monroe was a size 14.  Super models were a size 6.  I was a size 6 and people told me I was too skinny.  When I became a size 8, people told me I was “just right.”  No one belonged to a gym.  The only mainstream Yoga was with Lillian on PBS– strictly spiritual, not for sculpting an attract-a-Hedge-fund-manager ass.  Frozen yoghurt was a sexy craze, especially with carob chips on top.  Woo-woo!  Health food was for Hippies.  Milk came from cows, and you were supposed to drink a lot of it.  Plenty of the population smoked and boozed and not a lot of people felt guilty about it.  When Jane Fonda hit the scene in make-it-burn leg warmers and striped leotards, we all were a bit confused.  When Richard Simmons introduced this thing called jogging, my grandmother said, “how unattractive, jiggling yourself all over the road like that.”  She and her Marshall Fields girdle.  She was also known to say, “Why stand when you can sit, and why sit when you can lie down” and made a mean southern fried chicken.  She lived to be 98.

I’m not saying that these were better times.  I’m just saying…that people had a very different relationship with their bodies then…compared to now.  Some people joined the fitness craze.  I didn’t.  I was lucky.  My body was just naturally healthy and fit.  Fit enough, anyway, so that I didn’t think too much about it.  As I moved into the “real world” from college, I walked and rode my bike as much as I could, but more because I didn’t have a car.  I ate healthy food, because healthy food was everywhere.  I lived in Seattle, after all.  Organic food was the norm.  Farm to table was the standard.  Foraging was a good afternoon in the forest with friends.IMG_4873

My mid-western father would scoff:  “Why do you have to go and spend all that money on fancy food.”

“Because when you were young, all food was organic, Dad!  They weren’t poisoning it!”

He never bought it.  He ate the same old same old.  He walked the Chicago Loop every day to work.  Played a little tennis.  A little golf.  Raked a lot of leaves.  He lived to be 86.  Worked happily until he died.  Healthy to his final good-byes.

“You come from good farm stock,” he’d always say.  And I believed him.  All the way through my 30s.

But little by little, as I moved into my late 30s, I started to feel like I was missing out on this fitness craze.  My friends’ bodies were looking sculpted and better in bathing suits, (bikinis, mind you)…than we all did in our 20s!  They were, in their words, “Getting after it.”

I wasn’t sure what the “it” was, but I figured I’d better give it a whirl.  My body hadn’t really recovered from having two children, and I hadn’t worn a pair of jeans, never mind a bikini, in years.  And in my subconscious I knew…(I just didn’t want to admit)…that I had honored my mind all my life.  My writing was the outward sign of that.  In it all…there was always writing.  Writing doesn’t make your ass look great in jeans, but it feeds the soul.  Writing has always been the constant, all my life.  I still hold:  that writing should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of preventative wellness.  Key word:  exercise.IMG_4873

Exercise meant moving my body.  I knew how to move my mind.  My body was secondary and always had been.  I knew that it was supposed to be my temple, but I didn’t need it to be a fancy one.  I’d watched plenty of women attempt that.  It had always seemed so frivolous.  Like such a vacuous pursuit.  The columns of my temple had seemed well-enough fortified to hold up more important affairs—that of the mind and soul and spirit.

But now it seemed like those columns were starting to become a little bit shaky.  (Side note:  No one was calling this “it” Self-Care.  Yet.)  And it occurred to me that without my body…my mind wasn’t worth much.

So I went after this version of “it.”  Hard.  I joined the gym, got a personal trainer, and worked out every day, rode horses three times a week, got a nutritionist, and heck, while I was at it…a therapist to see how to connect my mind to my body once and for all.

Those happened to be days when there was some money in the bank, but even still, I felt guilty and self-indulgent.  What was I trying to prove to myself, anyway?  That I was strong?  That I had willpower?  That I could be skinny and fit like the rest of the women out there who seemed to agelessly fit into designer jeans?  I was never that woman to begin with.  I had energy.  I felt healthy.  But this pursuit did not make me feel happy.  I started to dread the gym.  All those people going nowhere fast on all those machines.  And here we lived in Montana!  What was wrong with taking a good old-fashioned walk?

Then one day, I walked into the gym and this woman came out of the yoga room with a towel over her shoulder.  “You just missed yoga,” she said like the worst mean girl in high school.  Was this some sort of competition?  Were people trying to win some sort of medal?  It brought up all of my early childhood I’m bad at sports S***.  And I turned around and didn’t come back.  Aggressive gym people weren’t my peeps.  Especially aggressive yoga gym people.  I stuck to my horse.  And walks in the woods.IMG_4873

But I’m a writer.  I sit for a living.  My back was a mess.  My stomach was slack like it had never been before in my life.  And then I fell off my horse (but at least it’s a helluva good story—other day, other blog post) and spent three months in bed.  I felt weak.  And frustrated.  I was in my mid-40s then, and my body was changing.  Fast.

And then the damn steps thing had to come out.  And suddenly everyone was bragging about how many frigging steps they took.  At my kids’ soccer games.  At the grocery store.  So then it wasn’t enough to lift some weights in my living room and get my heart rate up on my treadmill or up the ridge for half an hour.  Now I had to have 10,000 steps a day if I wanted to live to see my grandchildren.  Oh, and p.s. suddenly milk came from nuts.  So coffee could never taste good again.  And you couldn’t eat a good loaf of bread.  And butter was absolutely positively out.  And so basically, I couldn’t eat anything except for avocados.  And almond butter.  And bananas.  But only before noon.  And freaking kale.  And brussel sprouts.  And BEETS.  Couldn’t a girl get a good steak in this world of “getting after it?”  I was depressed.  I’m sure of it.  My temple, including my mind, was crumbling.

So…I just gave up.  On the whole thing.  Ate as much butter and toast as I damn well pleased.  Felt guilty about each bite.  Turned my treadmill into a clothes rack.  Felt guilty about it.  Took walks when I wanted to.  And felt guilty when I didn’t.  Basically I guilted myself into a place of not eating.  And not moving.  Just sitting and writing.  And that doesn’t work either.  Menopause really doesn’t like not eating and not moving.  So suddenly…no clothes fit.  And I noticed one day that I was starting to get that thing under my chin that my grandmother had.  The one who said, “Why stand when you can sit and why sit when you can lie down.”  I’d blown my thyroid.  And my blood pressure, in my doctor’s words, “sucked.”  I was moving rapidly into my 50s.  My face, and a lot of my skin, had fallen.  And it couldn’t get up.

Things needed to change.  Really change.  I needed to rip up my relationship with my body and my mind…and start all over again.  I needed to ease out of all of this mania.  Find a new way.  A way that would work for me.  Because I realized that somehow, after everything I had tried…I was still separating my mind from my body.  I wasn’t caring for my whole self.IMG_4873

And then this thing called Self-Care came along.  People were talking about it and it didn’t have anything to do with a gym.  Or kale.  It had to do with something that met me in a place I had been longing for all my life.  A place that I only knew on the page with a pen in my hand, or tapping a keyboard.  I wanted to learn just what Self-Care really meant.  Not as an action verb.  But as a way of being.

So I hired a therapist.  Again.  Fifteen years later.  Maybe this one would help me in a new way.  In a way that would feed my soul.  A way that would be about my whole self.

One day, in her bright little office by the river, she gave me a little frame with the word:  gentleness in it.  “Keep it for as long as you need it,” she said.

“What am I supposed to do with it?  Anything specific?”

She smiled.  “Just…whatever you want.”

So I put it on my bedside table.  I’m in my bed a lot.  My office has become overrun with too many stacks of too much grown-up left brain stuff.  My bed is soft and safe and holds my muse well, especially in these weeks before my house empties, my son goes to college, and it’s just me.

At first I wasn’t so sure about it.  I have plenty on my bedside table already.  Stacks of books of poetry and spiritual texts, fiction, and non-fiction.  Essential oils and candles and journals and so many really good pens.IMG_4873

And now this little frame.  Gentleness.  In lower case loopy script.  I figured it would get lost in the shuffle.

Instead…my eyes caught on it over and over.  Probably five-ten times before I even finished my morning writing.  Probably another ten times during the second cup of tea.  Again later folding laundry.  Talking to my daughter, away in California on her first post-collegiate job.  I miss her like crazy.

Gentleness.

Talking to my son, as he comes in with baseball news and plans for the night and the ever-present-request of gas money.  He drives the old Suburban after all and there’s no way to work when you’re playing Legion ball.  Still.  I am not made of money.  But man, am I going to miss that kid.

Gentleness.

Each time my eyes meet this little word in this little frame, I realize that my shoulders are tight.  My jaw is clenched.  And it does something to me.  I take in a breath and sigh.  Loosen whatever is tight.  It feels so nice.  So…gentle.IMG_4873

Gentleness.

My mother is moving.  She wants to know if I want my father’s WWII Army blanket and duffle bag.  If I want her old record player.  If I’m going to show up at my son’s Parent’s Weekend in Minnesota, even though I lead a retreat a week prior, and a week after.  And if she can come.

Gentleness.

And I’ve realized…that I have lived so much of my life bracing against it all.  I don’t have to.  Anymore.  Gentleness can be the most powerful way I have ever lived.

In the last few weeks with this new little frame as my companion, I’ve learned to be gentle about the way I care for myself.  It doesn’t come easily to me.  At all.  Taking care of others comes easily to me.  Taking care of myself…that still feels like a tall order.  But being gentle with myself?  I can do that.  In little moments.  Baby steps.  And I know…babies fall hard.  But they get up.  I was that baby once.  We all were.

I’ve found that the first place to start is with this gentleness.  To give myself permission to find my way to Self-Care, and not judge myself if it looks very different from how others might approach theirs.  Like you’ll probably never find me in a gym.  Or in an ISO floating tank.  Or running a marathon.  Or counting my steps with a watch on my wrist.

On a good week it looks like this:  riding horses.  Doing daily yoga in my living room.  And writing.

On a normal week it looks more like this:  taking walks.  Doing a few yoga poses here and there.  And writing.IMG_4873

I try to be kind to myself.  To go slowly.  To realize that to sit and be and notice and stop the madness of this cyber “cult of the personality” * which has become our civilization…is a powerful way of caring for ourselves.  We don’t have to be in constant motion.

Maybe I’ll be soft around the belly.  Maybe my heart rate won’t be monitored by a machine.  I’ll know it’s working by the way it carries me up the ridge behind my house.  I’ll know I’ve honored my body when I wake up the next day and feel that I moved it well.  I’ll know by the look in my eyes:  that my grandmother was right that carrots make them bright.  I’ll eat my carrots.  But not because I’m supposed to.  But because I delight in how they give themselves to me so that I can keep on going.

Gentleness.

There is a prayer that I use, not just for food, but for all that I do for my body and soul.  May it help you feel gentleness and gratitude.

This food is a gift from the whole universe.

The earth, the sky, and much hard work.

May we be mindful of our deeds as we receive this food.

May it transfer hatred, anger, and greed.

May it prevent illness and keep us well.

In gratitude, we receive this nourishment, that we may seek the path of love, compassion, and wisdom.

(A variation on the prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh)

Gentleness then, to us all.

Love,

Laura

* Braided Creek

For information about the February Haven Wander:  Morocco, click here!

For more information about Haven Writing Retreats, Montana click here!  We have few spots available for the 2018 fall schedule! 

To arrange for a phone call with the Haven team, email:  Laura@lauramunson.com

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