Tag Archives: Montana

Haven Winter Blog Series: My Haven

IMG_0522Come wander in your words at a Haven Writing Retreat in 2018!
You don’t have to be a writer to come. Just a seeker who dearly longs for your voice.

Now Booking Haven I Retreats for 2018! Click here for more info.

February 28-4
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year I give my blog over to my Haven Writing Retreats alums for a week or so, and ask them to write on a theme. This year it’s this question: What is your haven and how do you show up for it? 

Here is my answer.

My Haven

Noha Al-Kadhi

My Haven

It has been a steady flood of colossal losses.

Within a window of six years, grief depleted me, starting with the tragic loss of my father, followed by that of my grandmother, only to be shortly shadowed with the sudden parting of my Basma, and ending–as it all started–tragically, with my husband passing away in my arms.

In the aftermath of those irreplaceable losses, I found myself in a position of choosing between doing what is right as opposed to what is popular. I chose the former.

And in doing so, I also lost a great deal.

In the wake of these past six years, which seemed the longest of my life, yet shortest…

Years that have been tremendously challenging, yet rewarding…

In the outcome of the immense losses, I have found great gain…

In these years, I have grown and risen from the brinks of despair only to find hope and optimism…

And in this process, I have learned how much I can endure and persevere…

How much I can continue to give, receive, and carry on, even if that meant starting from scratch and rebuilding from square one.

And as I slowly emerge from this prolonged submersion, as I finally begin to catch my breath, as I start to settle in from all the chaos, and gradually quiet the noise surrounding everything that was once a part of me but now ceases to be…

I gradually wean myself off conventional notions and comfort zones and embark on a new path, a new life, trenching foreign ground where true colors bloomed into authentic bonds, and others dissolved into nothingness.

I have come to taste, feel, and touch the motions of recovery, the liberation of detoxification, and the freedom of sacred spaces, along with the comfort of solitude and learning diverse paths towards replenishing one’s energy.

Throughout this journey, I have come to discover my haven.

It is the harbor that I cannot identify as a single place, action, person, or object.

I have always found haven in my sons’ eyes, their smiles, in their happiness and joy.

I have found haven in old friendships and new ones alike, and all of which have never ceased to show up and stand tall.

I have found haven in the abundance of love with which my family continues to fuel my soul.

I am privileged to have found haven in the support from those I never expected, the many beautiful souls and countless faces that have touched my heart and blessed my life, regardless of the element of place where continents stand distances and oceans divide spaces.

Haven in the peacefulness of my powdery blue clad bedroom, perched on my dark blue armchair that sits in the far right corner beside the tall window that faces north.

Haven upon the gold colored padded mat, embroidered in arabesque designs, placed at the perfect angle towards Mecca, on which I kneel covered in my cotton cream wrap, my forehead to the ground whilst the call for sunrise prayer sounds euphoniously in the distant background.

Haven in my father’s memory, my eternal haven, my guardian angel…the soul of my soul and the heart of my heart.

These are all my havens and the refuge from all the mayhem.

However, my real haven lives in me…and it has emerged in the process of self-discovery, as I continue to recognize the fragments of myself that got lost as I traveled through the motions of existing, as I welcome and as I begin to realize who I am indeed.

In trusting my path and allowing it to merely be…knowing I am forever held, unceasingly cradled, and eternally supported.

I have found all these havens, in which I have come to witness how a world of love can guide a person safely back home.

Studio 14

Wendy Yellin Hill

Wendy Hill

The day I sign the lease for my very first painting studio – an enormous, double-storied space with four very large, and very empty, walls — I feel so utterly unqualified that I am sure the landlord sees the word “Fraud!” written in neon letters on my forehead. I mean, sure, I talk a good game: I chatter away at cocktails parties how I worked for the late, great Irving Penn (true), that I trained as a photographer in NYC (also true if training is tantamount to wandering around the East Village with a camera), and that I have “always” painted. But by “always” what I really mean is that I take an occasional painting class when my schedule (read: family) permits. The classes are sporadic — they are often cancelled due to weather — and I lack discipline. As I push paint around, hoping for a good result or a compliment from a succession of increasingly random art teachers, I know that I am going to leave my paintings behind when the semester ends.

I soon realize that I will never become a painter, at least not a good one, by attending 3-hour art classes at the local JCC standing elbow-to-elbow with octogenarians in comfortable shoes. The classes afford me neither the space nor the time to actualize what is in my head. Thus, I want a studio of my own. But, still. What business do I have renting a studio in a building filled with real artists? Who am I kidding? When I sign the lease my palms are sweaty. I try not to flinch when the landlord hands me the key, because at this point in my head-movie she’s laughing hysterically, ripping up my lease and kicking me out the door. In reality, she just smiles and shows me to Studio 14.

The tenant before me has left two couches so I sit down and look around. Those four very large and very empty walls look back. I try not to panic. I remind myself that this is what I want: my own painting studio. I beat down the urge to flee.

And then I notice something: how quiet it is. My panic subsides as I realize that I am the only person in the room. No other painters, no teachers, no husband or kids. Just me. My studio.

I can do whatever I want.

My first paintings are acrylics on 60” x 60” canvases. In art class, I oil painted on small canvases, but in my studio something is unleashed. I buy cases of super-sized canvases and big brushes. I buy tubs of the boldest and brightest paints I can find. I fill a spray bottle with water and start to experiment. My acrylics, heavy-duty, full-bodied and lush, become drippy and wild when sprayed with water. I paint, all day, every day. I paint huge flowers and then color fields. I paint from photos and from imagination. I paint people and then abstracts. I paint using only black. While I would love to tell you that every painting is fabulous and they all sell like hot cakes, neither is true. Yet what happens is even better. I start to learn. I begin to really see. I become immersed in what had previously eluded me: the process, the actual problem solving, of painting.

It has been two years since I opened the door to Studio 14. I now paint in a way I never dreamed possible. And as my skills have improved, so have I.

In my studio, my haven, I am now, unabashedly, a painter.

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Haven Winter Blog Series: My Haven

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

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

February 28-4
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year I give my blog over to my Haven Writing Retreats alums for a week or so, and ask them to write on a theme. This year it’s this question: What is your haven and how do you show up for it?

Here is my answer.

My Haven

Heather Higinbotham

Heather Higinbotham

I’ve always had this dream of having a writing studio, an awesome and relaxing place where I could finally “be a writer.” It swirls around my subconscious like a familiar forgotten home: a cozy couch and fairy lights and teapot and library, a cool old writing desk and typewriter. Floor to ceiling picture windows, the snow whispering secrets outside. I’ve been daydreaming about this a lot lately, as I scramble from one life crisis to the next, scattered and stressed and having not picked up my journal in months.

I could make excuses about why I haven’t been writing, about how I don’t have the right writing spot, or the clutter on my desk hinders my mental clarity, or how life has been “soooo busy…” (eye roll). I could tell myself that someday I will be a real writer, once things settle down and I pay off my debt and start saving for my daughter’s college and can afford to spend my time on things that aren’t income generating.

I could, but I’m too tired of always operating from a place of scarcity. This has been my default for most of my life: never enough time, never enough money, never enough…anything.

This shifted for me a few years ago, when I unexpectedly found myself with an extra hour after an early morning run, before I had to get my daughter and me off to school and work. Something stopped me from my auto-pilot status quo, from doing what I should have—laundry, emails, something productive—and I made myself a cup of tea and sat on my back deck watching the sunrise. That was a luxury as a single mom working full time and attending grad school I could never afford myself.

I have started nearly every morning these past few years with my tea and mental white space. No matter the weather, no matter how early I have to wake up to gift myself this time. I don’t meditate, I don’t think about my to-do list. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I just sit. Almost without fail, by turning my brain off, my poems and words are suddenly clear and bursting to be let out into the world.

I now realize that my haven is not a physical place; it is a conscious choice. My haven is the simple act of breathing. Listening. Venting. Giving myself the space to not make my brain or body work, but to be curious and open about whatever my soul needs in this moment.

My haven is scraps of paper stashed in random places, stranded thoughts I don’t want to lose. I steal time at stoplights and stockpile words in every nook and cranny I can find. It is scribbled chicken scratch half written in dreams. My haven is fleeting at times, but always lingering in my periphery.

Most of all, my haven is learning to be gentle with myself. To know that no matter how crazy life gets, all I have to do is stop, and breathe, and remember that the time and space I need is up to me to choose.

Summoning the Owl

Michelle Roberts

Michelle Roberts

“Call on line two!” Phones still ringing.

“There’s a customer in the warehouse!” our manager announces from the doorway.

“I’m sorry. Could you repeat the credit card number? I couldn’t hear you.” Finger in my left ear.

In my twenties, I wouldn’t have believed that one day I’d be daydreaming about cubicles.

But working in an open office with three other salespeople, phones ringing and everyone talking at once, can make even half walls sound like a luxury.

As it is, two of our four walls don’t quite reach the ceiling, so the caveman intercom is our low-tech paging system.  Some days I don’t realize how noisy it is until my coworker turns off his small desk fan. The constant drone is only obvious in its absence.

A recent study found that two hours of silence led to cell recovery in the memory and emotional center of laboratory mice’s brains. There are days that I leave work needing more cell recovery than others.

Fortunately, my haven is just outside my front door. In our neighborhood, fourteen miles of walking trails wind around lakes bordered by century oaks.

I lace up my shoes with my head still buzzing like the desk fan. Blocks away and headed to Central Lake, my shoulders fall and my lower back loosens. My breath brings me back to my body as my mind clears. Instead of knots in my stomach, I feel the strength in the muscles of my hips and legs. The breeze along the lake is cotton on my skin.

Taking pictures of the same trees and bends in the trail, I capture the fading light at sunset as it glows through the Spanish Moss. No two photos are ever the same and it helps to see the beauty in the changing scenery. Reflecting on the fifteen years since we moved in, I can appreciate the differences in me. This is where I write. Each walk makes space for thoughts to come calling and the inspiration to enter. On especially magical days, the words are fully written by the time I reach my door.

By now it’s darker on the far side of the lake. Dusk is the perfect time to spot an owl, so I summon one. Over the years I’ve shared the trails with raccoons, birds, deer, a stray crawfish and a mother fox with the morning hunt still in her teeth. So often others pass without noticing their company, so I give them a special audience when they appear. These animal totems connect me to nature and the present moment, slowing my pace and my pulse.

Watching the trees, I hear him before I see him and, just as I’m passing, a Great Horned owl swoops across the trail to a branch high in the oaks. I stop. With only his silhouette visible against the sky, his head turns then faces me and I wait. Two runners with headphones speed past. My quiet deficit keeps me there. Soaking up the calm of standing still. When it’s time, in silence he flies across the lake and I continue on. In silence.

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Haven Winter Blog Series: My Haven

IMG_0007Come wander in your words at a Haven Writing Retreat in 2018!
You don’t have to be a writer to come. Just a seeker who dearly longs for your voice.

Now Booking Haven I Retreats for 2018: Click here for more info!

February 28-4
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year I give my blog over to my Haven Writing Retreats alums for a week or so, and ask them to write on a theme. This year it’s this question: What is your haven and how do you show up for it? 

Here is my answer:

I spend so much of my time in community with people who love the written word, inspiring them with guided writing prompts and the pristine wilderness that Montana offers. I love it. I love the bonds they make, I love to actually witness them finding their unique voice, I love hearing their minds stretch and grow, I love the look in their eyes as we hug goodbye, I love hearing these words, “You have no idea how much Haven just changed my life.” 

When I decided to lead writing retreats and workshops, it only made sense to call it Haven. My writing life has always been just that. It’s where I go when I’m scared or curious or proud or in love with life. I go there every day, usually in the morning, with a cup of jasmine green tea, in a small bedroom with coffee-brown walls, a pale-lavender day bed, paintings and prints hung all over the walls, the chest that my father was laid upon when he was born, a few dented file cabinets, a closet filled with unpublished books…and an armoire placed in a bay window which holds my computer, a shelf of first edition books, quotes and photos and museum postcards on the inside of the armoire doors, which I keep open, guts out, just like the way it feels to write. It’s dark and messy in that little room. I like it that way.

But it wasn’t until I started writing in community that I understood how good it feels to be inside-out with other people who are willing to expose themselves too. People who love the written word aren’t really in it to stay in shallow water. They want to take deep dives into dark, cold water and they want to come up with something in their hand that they can use back on shore. And they’re willing to go as far as they can, scrape the rocky bottoms with their knuckles and even their faces, even if they use up every last bit of breath and come up bloodied and gasping for air. But there are cautionary tales to this sort of thing: once you’ve done that a few times, or even once, you’re either a junkie and want more, or you let your better sense take over and you tell yourself that warm shallow waters with soft see-through white-sandy bottoms are much easier. Or maybe you tell yourself that the shore is where you belong. You don’t swim. Not even a toe in. What you once held in your hand wasn’t worth it. Even though it was the best thing you’ve ever held in your hand in all your life. Maybe you stop going to the beach at all.

I’m the other way. I’m a junkie for that knuckle-scraping breathless dive and gasp. I don’t really know who I am without it. I don’t want to know. I haven’t ever let myself think about it. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I don’t know what it is to feel stuck in that way. Other places in my life, you bet. But not there. Even when it feels like it might be the final dive that leaves me swimming up to that light, knowing that there might not be enough breath left to get me back for the gasp, even if it feels like I’m going to drop what’s in my hand and it’s the most rare treasure I’ll ever find…I don’t know how not to live in this way. It is my haven. And I know that it’s not always good for me. At all. Warm shallow waters would be much better for me.

That’s when a gentle voice reminds me: you don’t have to do this alone. You can bring people with you who can help you back to the surface, or support you with oxygen, or tell you when you can dive deeper or when you’ve gone too far. You can have a boat waiting for you at the surface with warm towels and cheers for your bravery and maybe a good lunch. That’s what Haven Writing Retreats and Workshops do for people. And even though I lead it, I still get the chance to do some of the prompts and stretch my mind along with the others in the circle. I get to be with word lovers and wild thinkers and it inspires me to take that deep dive every day.

If you are on the beach watching, I say, come. I have a boat for you. If you are at the bottom of the sea, running out of breath, look up and keep swimming. Reach toward that oar. You don’t have to do this alone. Because even if you’re on the beach, longing to put your toe in, your longing is real. And I promise you: Your longing is worse than running out of breath.

How are you going to find your words, if you aren’t willing to dive for them? You don’t always come up bloody and gasping. Sometimes, it’s a dive of ease, and the sea delivers them to you, shining on a ready rock. But you won’t know if you stay there on the shore, wondering, wanting, longing, waiting.

If words are your haven, I have a place for you. I have treasure for you in Montana. I have people for you. Here are some of their words about their own personal havens, and how they show up for them, whether it’s writing or painting or horses or a place they hold dear. Please enjoy, and take heart: when you’ve longed for too long…it’s time to dive in and see what’s there for you. It might just change your life.

First posts coming your way tomorrow!

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Haven 4:00 a.m.

Haven (4)Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

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

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

I wake up most every night at 4:00 a.m., and have as long as I can remember.  It can be scary there, in that raw, nascent, dark of night.  It’s when I feel most alone.  As a child, I would listen for the Milwaukee Railroad in the distance, just to know there was someone else awake at that hour.  And it would lull me back to sleep.

I wake for different reasons:

Usually it’s because I’m dreaming something that I know I need to pay attention to, and somehow my conscious mind pulls me out of my unconscious concoction where the world is as weird as it is profound.  Some strand of reality calls and says, “That’s enough of that.  You wandered enough into the wilderness of your creative unconscious.  Now wake up, and stare into the moonlit room of your real world, and lie there in the soft safe pillows and see what it had to teach you.”  It’s a different kind of seeing, in the dark, when you are still more soul than flesh.  Like being born.

Maybe your heart is racing, and you brought yourself back to reality because you thought you might die, being chased like that.  Maybe you saw something you didn’t want to see, and like the hero on her journey, you needed to come back with the elixir to save something of yourself before day wakes.  Maybe you bound yourself into such an impossible situation that you beckoned yourself back into a less complicated world, but with the clear understanding that your real life is just as impossible in its own way, and it’s time to stop the madness.  In every case, what I have dreamed is so exact that I can’t help but believe in a parallel universe.  I mean, how could I have just imagined this house and every single detail of it, when I’ve never laid eyes on it before?  It doesn’t really matter.  I only know that I have.  And that there’s quite likely something to learn from it.  Sometimes I come out of a dream laughing.  Sometimes, I’m weeping.  I believe that I am working out something in my dreams that I’m not quite able to in my life.

Sometimes I wake at 4:00 a.m. dreamless, because the moon is full and it’s shining in my window and flooding my bed in shadows.  Then I just lie there and trace the silhouettes of the fir trees that tower around my house.  I’ve been told that the lungs are replenishing themselves at 4:00 in the morning, so I take deep breaths, usually like this:  in 1..2..3..4..hold 1..2..3..4..exhale 1..2..3..4…  Sometimes I repeat a line to go with the breathing—something I need.  Often it’s Julian of Norwich’s:   all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

4:00 a.m. finds me in a trance.  An in-between place.  Untethered.  Where I meet myself outside of the everything else.  I lie there in that trance, pushing back against full consciousness, and try to receive what there is to feel, know, fear, learn.  But without purchase.  This is the time to let it wash over me to the shores of the waking hour, still far away.  I lie there and let my unconscious mind give itself to my conscious one, however scary, strange, symbolic, even if I forget it by morning.  It’s okay to forget.  I know that what I experience in that trance stays with me in a woven way.  Unseen.  But sometimes there is something so powerful there, that I know I have to keep it close.  So I write it down on a notepad I keep next to my bed.  I don’t turn on the light.  I don’t want to wake fully up.  So sometimes I can’t exactly read every word the next day.  But the gist of it is there.

And every so often, in that 4:00 a.m. trance, something hatches that I know is as holy as I know holy to be.  Whether by dream or moonlight or breathing or words, that suspension between dreams and complete waking delivers a pure thought which can’t help but summon an idea.  A pretty good idea.  Whole books have come to me in that trance time.  The design for my writing retreats came to me in that between place.  Often I am delivered a sentence of truth that I know I have to use somehow, if only for my motherhood, or my own navigation of life.

So I’ve been starting my day by writing down what it feels like to wake up on those shores.  Back to reality, whatever that is.  Sometimes it’s one line.  Sometimes it’s a long riff.  It’s not a crafted piece with a beginning, middle, and end.  It doesn’t have a narrative trajectory, or a thoughtful premise or landing place.  It’s a piece of ash flying up from a fire and floating a bit on the heat thermals before it falls and joins the ground.  These trance-thoughts are ungrounded, but maybe more grounded than I know.  After decades of this 4:00 a.m. floating, I have learned not to feel so alone there, not to feel so scared.  Instead, it’s my safe haven for whatever needs to show itself, and why I love the word haven so much.  We all need one, yes in the world, but also in ourselves.  So from my 4:00 a.m. to yours…Haven (4)

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The Junk Drawer Cleanse

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Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

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

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

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

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

To read the rest of the post, click here!

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Stop Trying: The Holiday Spirit Cure

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

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

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

Every year at this time I start to surge with mild panic.  It’s not about the presents.  I buy and make gifts for people throughout the year so that my pocketbook can weather the inherent extra spending of the season. No, the panic is about this thing called Holiday Spirit.  I want to feel it in my bones.  I want to feel it in the way I smile at a stranger in the street and the way that stranger smiles back.  We know something:  we still believe in Wonder.  The proverbial “they” say that it’s in the little things, the in-between moments, the pauses.  The snowy walk.  The lit candle.  The Christmas cookies you place in your neighbor’s mailbox.  When I wrote this blog post six years ago, I wasn’t so sure about this being true.  I was still in the height of my fulltime house-and-child-keeping, traditional-torch-bearing motherhood.  Things have quieted down in that regard, with a daughter in college and my son on his way next fall.  I’ve given up a lot.  I’ve taken the heat off the high burner in more ways than one.  I’ve let go of so many things I used to think were mandatory in order to have a meaningful holiday season.  I read the words of this woman from six years ago, and want to say to her, “You’ve got the right idea.  Keep going.  Keep practicing.  It’s all going to be okay.  You’re going to learn how to feel that holiday spirit in your bones without even having to try.  You’re going to learn in these next years how to allow the season to give itself to you.  You’re going to learn how to not try.  In fact, not trying is exactly how it happens.  You can not try all the way through writing holiday cards, getting the tree and decorating it, wrapping gifts, cooking the roast beast, and gathering friends fireside.  So to the woman I was six years ago, and to all of you, and to myself still, I say:  have a Wonder-ful Holiday season.

I have had my share of Christmas trees fall down in my forty-five years. Lost balloons. Fallen souffles. Cancelled flights. Burnt toast. Tough meat. Lemon cars. I wouldn’t call myself unlucky. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I can say that the butterflies of Christmases past have sort of flown the coop. In the last few years, I’ve mildly dreaded the Holiday season for all its glut and Amazon boxes and blow-up Costco snowmen and braggadocio holiday cards with “perfect” families in matching white linen on a beach…only for it all to end in a hemorrhage of ribbons and bows and tape and wrapping paper, kicked into the mudroom and eventually burned.

I miss the little girl in me that used to sit in her window seat and gaze at the moonlit snow– who knew a holy night when she saw one. I’ve become resentful somehow of Christmas. In other words, I’d like to punch the Kay Jewelers people in the throat. It begins with the manic Black Friday and ends in buyers’ remorse and an overheated living room full of things you thought for a few weeks you couldn’t live without and turns out…you could. For a holiday that is supposed to be about love and wonder incarnate and stopping to honor it, I’m with Charlie Brown–Christmas has gone berserk. Mostly what I’ve come to resent is the expectation.

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This year I’ve decided to rethink Christmas altogether. I don’t need to bully myself into feeling “the Christmas spirit.” It doesn’t need to be a season that erases pain and promises much of anything. It can be whatever it needs to be this year. I want to go lightly and untraditionally. I want to see if Christmas comes without ribbons and bows, Grinch-style. I got It’s A Wonderful Life over with last week. It’s just not going to be like that. We’ll fight over the Christmas tree. Ornaments will break. Somebody won’t get the latest in technology they’ve been begging for. Somebody will forget a God-child’s gift. In fact, this year, so far, I’ve done it all “wrong.” It’s the 12th and I haven’t bought one gift. I didn’t plan a Christmas photo shoot– in fact, our card shows the four of us with greasy hair standing on a marginally frozen lake, taken by a complete stranger. I didn’t get my paper whites forced so we’ll have those beloved white blooms in time for Valentine’s day. We’re not having our sledding party– we can’t afford it. There’s no snow on the ground anyway. And yesterday, the tree fell over.

I used to do it all so well. Year after year. A Dickens-worthy Christmas party with a half mile of luminaria lovingly leading our guests up our snowy driveway. Live music and caroling and roast beasts laid out in my grandmother’s best china and silver on the diningroom table. Handmade cedar garlands splayed on the mantle, the olive wood creche placed lovingly in its branches. Pepper berries dripping from the crystal chandelier. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters cued up for the kids’ race down the stairs, all filmed with a fully charged movie camera. Santa had special wrapping paper. My father’s 1925 Lionel train ran around the dining room while we read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Visitor. Gingerbread houses. Cookies from scratch with marbled icing. Neighborhood gifts (usually homemade jam) delivered by Flexible Flyer and smiling children in hand knit hats. Sing-along Messiah. It all sounds exhausting to me this year. Maybe those butterflies will come anyway. But I’m not forcing them to.

I’m just going to let Christmas carry me this year. Quietly. Little moments in pjs. A walk in the woods with the dogs, even if no one wants to come with me. I’m making CDs for people. That’s about it. Sorry if you’re on my list. In fact yesterday when my son and I were making Christmas cookies, we got so giddy we started using the spare dough around the cookie cutters and baking those random shapes too. So along with our Santas and stars and gingerbread men, we made cookies that look a lot like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and alligators. We almost wet our pants we were laughing so hard.

That’s what I want this Christmas to be. That’s my expectation: to expect nothing. And to trust that grace happens when we least expect it.

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How Do We Move Forward When Life Pushes Us Back

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IMG_0039“I am shedding old patterns and moving forward in my life.”  That has been my mantra during hard times– when I feel powerless and afraid and alone.  It’s a call to action and it works.  But there was a day when I could barely imagine making this claim.  I felt like I was going to lose everything—my kids’ and my stability, in house, finances, and emotional security. I lay in bed, trying to find my mantra.  It felt like a ruse.  How was I going to move forward in my life?  How?

What do I know how to do that can help us stay secure? What do I know how to do, no matter what?  Write.  How have I made it through crisis?  By writing. What is the most powerful tool I know to utilize during hard times:  writing.  Who needs this?  Everybody. Who feels confident in this?  Hardly anyone.

So I put it on Facebook.  “Anybody want to come on a writing retreat with me in Montana?” In two hours, 24 people signed up, and Haven Writing Retreats was born. Did I keep my house?  Yes.  Did my kids maintain their security in home and mother?  Yes.  Do I feel proud…well…yes.  I do.  I feel like life kicked my ass and I kicked back, in the words of my new friend Amy Scher.

IMG_0043 I was recently asked to connect with a Millennial by the Fierce Fifty Revolution group to Bridge the Gap between my generation and theirs. It made me smile. I am a connector, a bridge builder, and have rarely seen age as an obstacle in my life. I certainly don’t now.  I’m a writer and a retreat leader.  I don’t have to deal with image or wrinkles, or techno abilities getting in the way of what I do for a living. The older I get, the better I am at what I do, because I’ve lived through more obstacles, and stretched myself to grow as a result of treading their waters.  Sometimes well. Sometimes not.  So when I was paired with Amy Scher, I was thrilled.  This is a woman who shares the same philosophy.  She takes life’s challenges, and becomes wiser for having lived them.  She turns that wisdom into service to others through her books, online classes and much more.  We got on the phone as strangers and a few hours later, were in a major love fest.  If we’d recorded our conversation, it would have been podcast-worthy.  So we decided to ask each other four powerful questions about our relationship with moving through obstacles—when life almost halted us.  I came up with four which she answered here, and she came up with four that I answered over on her blog. Please enjoy!  There is sure to be something in both of our questions and answers that goes straight to your heart.IMG_0044

Here is her wisdom:  (Head on over to her blog to see my answers to her questions)

Amy’s inspirational story, down-to-earth approach to self-healing, and accessible teaching style has been well received by a variety of audiences including the Department of Psychiatry at Stanford University. She teaches her approach through her How To Heal Yourself online course and speaks at conferences and healing retreats nationwide. Most importantly, Amy lives by her self-created motto: “When life kicks your ass, kick-back.”
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1- What does a meltdown feel like for you when you’re in it? Is there calm in the eye of it, or is it always chaos? Do you think that it’s possible to learn from it while we’re in it? Or only in hindsight?

What does a meltdown feel like to me? Oh boy. Well, I’ve looked in the mirror a time or two and can definitely tell you what it looks like: like a complete mess of snot and mascara. Hmm, I’ve never thought much about what it feels like, but I think it’s comparable to a drunken stupor; where everything that’s going wrong in life suddenly becomes disproportionately magnified and dramatic. And while I’m not a frequent drinker, I can definitely still attest to what that feels like. Ha. Everything is kind of spinning and I know that I’m making this big dramatic scene, even if just in front of myself, yet the part of me that’s keenly aware of it can still do nothing to tame it.

I do think it’s possible to learn from a meltdown while we’re in it, but maybe only as much as to learn that we have to surrender to it in order to survive it. For me, the real learning and growing comes once I’ve moved even just a few inches beyond it and my sanity has started to flow back. But I actually think the meltdown phase is always part of the expanding process. Meltdowns need to happen for new perspective and energy to be born in order to help us move forward. Looking back, the times in my life that I was most emotionally stoic was when I was most stuck.


2- To get unstuck, I often say: “I am shedding old patterns and moving forward in my life.” You are a master at moving forward in yours. How, specifically, have you shed old patterns in thought, heart, and action in your life so that you have become the woman you are today?

I feel like my brain has always gotten me into more messes than out of them. So for me, I’ve needed to dive really deep to clear old ingrained patterns. I usually can’t talk myself into much sense. And I’d been to years of therapy by the time I was an adult, which didn’t seem to be what I needed either. Beginning in my early 20s, I became chronically ill with Lyme disease, which lasted an entire decade. It was the hardest time in my life, but it taught me a lot about myself, including how I was holding onto so much emotional baggage. Letting go of the old turned out to be the key to my physical healing. What worked for me was accessing my emotions and releasing them through energy work. First, I discovered and used Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which was a big shifter for me. Over time, I also created some of my own techniques. One of my favorites is called The Sweep, which is basically a script that you repeat to “sweep” away old beliefs from the subconscious mind (examples: “I’m not good enough” and “nothing ever works out for me”). I even wrote a book on my approach, which includes everything I did to heal myself when nothing else worked. (link here)
3- How do you know you have moved forward in your life? Can you walk us through what it looks like to be in a healthy, functioning place in your life?

I know I’ve moved forward because I’m nicer to myself. I sometimes eat too much pizza and lose complete zen-like perspective. And I’m fine with that. I’m more myself than I ever allowed myself to be, and for me, that’s the ultimate sweet spot in life. There is an ease that comes with finally giving up the pattern of fighting with yourself. I mean, I’m a Virgo, so I’ll always probably lean toward unrealistic perfectionist tendencies (like keeping a very orderly house and writing impeccable first drafts of my books). But becoming the true me was the crux of my healing. Still now, having been completely health for almost ten years, I try my best just to stay out of my own way and let myself live freely.

4- How would you define “okay?” Eating, exercising, a calm mind? Or is “okay” an illusion? In other words, is the Meltdown always with us, teaching us (or maybe haunting us), or are we every truly liberated from it?

My favorite quote is Pema Chödrön’s, “None of us is okay and all of us are fine.” This says it all for me. I think being okay means accepting that sometimes we’re just not okay. Not at all. But that it’s all fine anyway. Trying to manage every aspect and emotion of our lives is what gets us in trouble. Every hard time in life or meltdown is just a season that will pass. Except for when we hold on so tight to the emotions and expectations that it can’t go anywhere. That’s when we know that there’s more work to do to get to the “okay.” It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.

BIO: Amy B. Scher is an L.A-based author, energy therapist, and leading voice in mind-body healing.
Amy uses energy therapy techniques to help those experiencing emotional or physical challenges to heal permanently and completely. After years of struggling from a life-threatening illness herself, she discovered answers to the important question: Why do some people heal from emotional and physical issues, while others don’t? After healing herself when no one else could, Amy is now an internationally sought-after practitioner helping others turn inward for healing.

She has been featured in major publications including CNN, The Huffington Post, Curve magazine, Elephant Journal, OM Times, Cosmopolitan magazine, Psych Central, the San Francisco Book Review, and was named one of Advocate’s “40 Under 40″ for 2013.

Amy’s most recent book, How To Heal Yourself When No One Else Can (Llewellyn Worldwide January 2016), is a step-by-step total approach to mind, body and spirit healing. Her work has also been featured in Elizabeth Gilbert’s anthology, Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It (Riverhead Books March 29, 2016). To learn more about Amy, go to Amy Scher.  To read her book go here!

 

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What If You Stopped Giving?

 

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If you read me…you’re going to have to sit a spell.  Pour a cup of something and pause.  I refuse to go into sound bytes…  With love, here is what I share with you today:

Somebody asked me the other day if I know how to receive without giving.

Huh.  I’d never really thought about that before.

I proceeded to tell her how I’ve been trying to receive the beauty of Montana this summer, as a writer and seeker and feeler– just being, rather than always running to the next thing.  Just being in my creativity before my writing retreat season begins in a few weeks.  And then I started to tell her about the book I’m writing and how I think it will help a lot of people and and and–

She cut me off.  “You were talking about receiving.  Then you switched gears.  And now you’re talking about giving.  I asked you if you can receive…without giving.”

Ok, fine.  She might have been a therapist I recently hired to help me get out of a period of life overwhelm with a kid in the throes of college recruitment, and wearing just too many damn hats in general.

I had no plain answer to offer her.  “It’s not like I think of myself as some sort of Florence Nightingale or anything.  I’m a gal who likes to take long baths and long walks and ride my horse.  I try to grab moments for myself as much as my life will allow.  And what’s wrong with a symbiosis of giving and receiving, anyway?”

She cut me off again.  “What do you do now that is just about receiving?  Especially from people?”

I thought about it.  “Well, I love what I do for a living.  I love what it feels like to help people fall in love with their words, their voice, their self-expression, Montana.  When I see those lights go on and their faces soften and open to their truth…it’s the greatest gift I’ve known.”

Her face was deadpan and now with a dash of severity.  “I’m talking about receiving from people without giving.  Do you have an example of that in your current life?”

I scrolled through my daily life for the purely receiving peopled moments.  I couldn’t think of any—not any I was exceptionally proud of.

“I have a great chiropractor,” I said.

“People you don’t pay,” she said.

“Well I have a lot of good friends,” I said.  “A couple of them did nothing but listen to me when I was going through a rough patch a few years ago.”

“What about now?  Now that you’ve gotten into the business of being of service.”

92631D5A-0404-471D-89A2-F4BD8D260510“Uh…”  I thought of all the remarkable people in my life.  And I thought about how when they give to me, I almost always feel the immediate compulsion to give back.  Or feel guilty for not giving back.  “Just plain ol’ receiving, huh.  Did I say I take a lot of long baths?”  I paused.  ”But I mean, the truth is, even when I take a bath, I feel a little guilty about it.  Like I’m stealing the moment from something or someone.  Guilty pleasure, I guess.”

She stared at me, holding her pen to her paper.

“I wasn’t brought up to feel pleasure.  I was raised by World War II people.  My mother’s famous line is:  What do you think I do all day—sit around and eat bon bons???!!!  We are not bon bon people.”

She stared at me.

Oh God—was I paying someone $150 to have them tell me I have to eat bon bons?  I cut her to the chase, “I eat chocolate, you know.  I enjoy good wine.  I love to go out for dinner.  I took my kids to Europe for Christmas last year.  It’s not like I’m some kind of a deprivation-ist.  It’s not like I get off on penury!”

She said, “Is receiving always about pleasure?  What if it was about support?

Huh.  Time was up.  Thankfully.

So I went for both—pleasure and support:  I went out for lunch with a friend who gives the best advice, who eats cheeseburgers and fries like they’re an entire food group, and who prides herself on day-drinking.  I once told her that her porn star name would be Guilt-less Pleasure.

We sat in a dark pub on a sunny day.  “Do you think it’s possible for you to receive without giving?” I asked her. 92631D5A-0404-471D-89A2-F4BD8D260510

She didn’t skip a beat, dipping her French fry into a ketchup puddle, her gel-polished nails shining with the same color.  “Of course.  I love receiving gifts.  I don’t just have a birthday week, I have a birthday month!”  She guzzled her beer.

“A birthday month, huh,” I said, doing the same, pretending I like beer.

“Oh come on.  You know how to have fun.  You had a kick ass 30th, and 40th, and 50th birthday party.  I was at all of them.  I’ll never forget that lobster you flew in from Maine.  Or that marimba band you hired in your back yard.  And that Christmas party you used to throw.  Straight up Dickens.  With the lumineria all the way up the hill?  Magic.”

I thought about it.  “I do like to throw a good party.  But this therapist I’m seeing would tell me that I’m doing it for my guests as much as I am for me.  I don’t know how to throw a party for just me, I guess.  Doesn’t sound like much fun, frankly.”  Then I added, because I didn’t want to be pathetic, “I take a lot of baths, you know.”

She gave me the same deadpan look, but this time it was for free.  Bonus!

“What’s wrong with me these days?” I said, staring at my cheeseburger.  “Once upon a time, some would say that I was a hella good hedonist.”

She’s one of those friends who takes a question like that seriously.  This time she pointed at me with her bloody French fry and her bloody fingernail.  “You’re terrified of being called selfish.  Aren’t you.”

Shit.  The Call of the Bluff.

I stared at my hamburger, suddenly un-hungry.

She moved into her cheeseburger with vigor.  “I bet someone called you selfish when you were a little girl, and you’ve been running from it ever since.  That’s what I think.”  Juice ran down her chin, and she wiped it and licked her finger.  “But what do I know.  I’m not a therapist.  I’m just a single mother.”  She winked at me.

I didn’t wink back.  “I know I know.  Selfishness is out.  Self-preservation is in.  Self-care is an industry.  That’s why I finally hired a therapist.  I need to figure out this Self-care thing.”

“I think she’s on the right track.  I dare you to spend a week asking for help.  Without giving a thing back to the people you ask.”  The final French fry: “And not feeling guilty about it.”

The waiter came.  “Can I get a To Go box?” I said.

So I spent the week not asking anyone for help.  And feeling guilty about it.  And even worse about how sorry I felt for myself that no one offered me help on their own.  And how lame I feel with this new awareness that I don’t ask for it.  And so instead, I hired a Self-care coach, just to practice.  And then I felt pathetic for having a Self-care coach, and a therapist, when I’ve been such a glutton for the fact that I haven’t had a therapist for ten years.  I’m so “evolved.”  I can do life so “alone.”  I “help” people for a living.  I am of “service.”  I take a lot of baths.

Shit.

92631D5A-0404-471D-89A2-F4BD8D260510Okay, so as it goes when you are wandering around with a blender head full of new awareness and longing and confusion…my car broke down in a parking lot.  Dead battery.  As I was coming out of a consultation, feeling very wonderful about helping someone construct their book project.  Turned the key.  Nuthin’.  Turned it again.  Shit.  And me without my jumper cables.

I got out of my car and asked a few people if they could give me a jump, feeling very not wonderful about bothering them in the middle of their day.  Neither of them had jumper cables.  So I called Triple A.  Tipped the guy $20, I felt so grateful.  This receiving without giving thing wasn’t going so well.

And then today happened.

I drove the Going-to-the-Sun road through Glacier National Park to take a hike up at Logan Pass.  I decided that it’s easier to receive from nature, and what better place to receive than this glorious part of the world—this definition of mountain majesty.  The wildflowers were out in profusion—the rose and blue gentian, the lavender aster, the spiking fuchsia fireweed.  The sky was blue, the clouds plump, the air pristine, the subalpine fir scenting it all with a heady elegance.  Receive receive receive.

Human being walking by with nice smile.

Me, taking shameless selfie.

“Would you like me to take a picture of you standing on that rock?  You look so happy!”

“Absolutely!  Thank you!”

Click.

I started to ask if she’d like a photo of herself in return.  But I stopped myself.

If she wants one, she’ll ask.  Selfish of me?  Nah. 

I decided to lie down on the rock and just be– feel the sun baking me into the earth.  So far so good.  Nature, humans, all abundant.  Receive receive receive.  And this feeling of great wholeness overtook me.  Was it pleasure I was feeling?  Maybe not.  It was more like support, like the therapist said.  This rock, this warm rock on this mountain top, held me.  I had everything I needed in that moment—warmth, water, space, time.  People around if I needed help.  Beauty resplendent in 360.  Receive receive receive.IMG_7506

And I thought, I feel relief right now.  I feel detonated.  Deactivated.  Benign.  Neutral.  I need to lie on more rocks in a place that is neutral.  Yes, neutral is what I’ll go for.  Not accelerate.  Not brake.  Not give.  And maybe not receive.  Just find this place of neutral at least once a day.  Maybe when I wake.  Or when I feel spent.  If there’s something to receive, it’s this.  This is the gift.  I’ve been trying too hard.  Maybe receiving happens when we stop giving.

So, wouldn’t you know…when I got back to my car, in this mountain-top parking lot, my battery was dead again.  And I’d forgotten my jumper cables again.  In my defense, I’m loaning out my sturdy Suburban with all the bells and whistles to my son, and am driving the “kid car,” and apparently haven’t learned one thing about life in Montana after twenty-five years.

The day was waning.  It wasn’t quite an emergency, but I knew that I would absolutely have to go Blanche DuBois, whether I liked it or not.  So with the dependence on the kindness of strangers bannered across my forehead, I bothered car after car, asking for a jump.  All tourists.  No luck.  The Visitor’s Center didn’t have cables either.  “I promise you, someone out there will give you a jump.  You just have to ask,” the ranger told me.

Shit.

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetI liked neutral much better than ye olde ask and…

So I went back into the parking lot, hating to bug all of those nice travelers, fresh off their mountain high, to dig into their trunks, and my engine.

I asked two guys fitting fishing poles into backpacks.  “Hey, do you have jumper cables?”

They looked at each other.  “Yeah.  But we can’t give you a jump or we’ll lose our parking place.”

My hamburger friend’s line blared at me with bloody shiny fingertips:  God, I’m so selfish for forgetting my jumper cables.  God, I’m so selfish for not getting my battery looked at.  God, I’m so selfish for working so hard that I don’t have my priorities straight.  God, I’m so selfish for taking the day off to play in the mountains and lie on rocks and be in neutral when I have a list a mile long of things that need to get done for my kids, and my career, and my house, and duh—my car.  I’m so selfish.

And frankly, I don’t know how it happened.  But apparently God responds to self-loathing mind rants.  Because suddenly, there was a gang of smiley people all gathered around me, with a petite woman with long black hair taking charge like we were on Survivor.  She pointed at people and things and my car and me, and I took her orders.

“Get in your car,” she said.  “Put it in neutral.”

Yep.  Neutral.

IMG_7502And four strapping men stood at my hood and one of them shouted, “Push!”

Another strapping guy was at my window saying, “Crank the wheel,” and I said, “which way?” and he reached in and grabbed the steering wheel and cranked it for me.  “Now brake,” he said.  And I braked.

“Pop the hood,” another one said.

“Uh…this is my daughter’s car.  Not sure I…” like I’d never driven a car in my life, and never dealt with one crisis moment in my life, and believe me…normally I am the woman with the long black hair.  Two weeks ago I was galloping through a Montana meadow while a horse bled out, to get help.  (The horse is fine.)

But I was just…frozen with all this help.

And this guy reached in to my car and pulled a lever and the hood popped, and there was a truck, a bright blue truck, hood to hood with my car, and people were “operating” on my engine, and I was just out-of-body, cable to cable, charge to charge, until one of them shouted, “Turn your key.”  And I obeyed.

The car started.  Everybody clapped.  Surgery successful.  The girl with the black hair hollered, “God Bless America!”

I wanted to jump out of my car and hug them all and ask them where they were from and offer them local’s advice about where to go in Glacier, and in the Flathead Valley, and to take down their names and send them thank you notes, and heck, invite them all over for dinner.  But I didn’t.  I just said, “Thank you.  May someone do something nice for you today.”

And I drove off.

And yeah…I felt a little stupid.  But more than that, I felt supported.  And what I didn’t feel…was selfish.  Not in the least.

And when I came home and told my story to my hamburger friend, she said, “Has the Universe ever not supported you, Laura?”

And as much as I wanted to say, There have been times when it hasn’t…the truth is that no.  Never.  I’ve always had support.

I just have to live in a way that lets me find it.  And that might mean that I have to ask.  But mostly, that means that I have to receive the support that is all around me.

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

September 6-10 (FULL)
September 20-24 (FULL)
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October 18-22 (one spot left)

February 21-25 (now booking)

The rest of the 2018 schedule to be announced…

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Summer Rules: Stop. Sit. Watch.

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I sent my son off to baseball recruitment camp yesterday morning.  In a matter of months, I’ll know where he’s going to be spending the next four years.  In one year I’ll be attending two graduations:  My daughter from college, my son from high school, both of them onto the next giant step of their lives.  And me too.  I suspect I’ll be this woman that I wrote about in 2014, on park benches everywhere.  That’s my goal.  May this inspire you to “let the parade pass you by.” 

When is the last time you sat on a bench in your home town?  It’s summertime here in Whitefish, Montana, so that means there are tourists enjoying the view from our town benches everywhere I look—taking a break from the overwhelm of our nearby Glacier National Park, our stunning lakes and rivers, and miles of pristine wilderness.  I’ve lived in Whitefish for twenty years and with our long, dark Montana winters, summer is my biggest bully, beckoning me to get on my horse, put on my hiking shoes, pack up the camping gear, grab the huckleberry bucket, paddleboard, canoe…and get after it, as we say around here.  And “it” is a high calling with vast reward.  I have been good at “it.”  Not this summer. 

This summer everyone in my family is running in a different direction.  Perhaps you can relate.  My daughter is leaving for her first year in college in a matter of weeks, baby-sitting 24/7 to help pay for her expenses (we should all be $baby-sitters$ these days!)  My high-school bound son has been up to his ears in baseball— his 13 year old All Star team not only winning State, but last weekend, Regionals!  (They went up against teams from all over the Pacific Northwest who had hundreds try out for those coveted spots.  They had twelve.  Small town miracles do happen!)  Personally, when I’m not watching baseball games or filling out college forms, I have been under a deadline for a novel I’ve spent the last few years writing.  (Deadline was yesterday.  Made it—phew!)   In other words, I haven’t stopped to enjoy summer.  Haven’t seen my horse.  Haven’t taken one hike.  Went out on Whitefish Lake once thanks to a friend with a boat who took “pity” on me when she saw my pasty skin.  Got some fresh huckleberries from a friend and her secret huckleberry patch, which I guiltily used in our pancakes the next morning.  It felt like cheating.  Most of all, I haven’t felt part of my community.  And I miss it.  I need to sit in it and just be.WF

So yesterday, when our town threw a parade for our Whitefish All Star champs, I got there early to make sure I captured it all on camera and cheered alongside the fire truck holding those glowing young men.  I was all ready to go, expecting the fire truck to round the bend at exactly 5:00 as scheduled in our town newspaper, but there was no parade to be seen.  I waited, checking my camera to make sure I had remembered the memory card and a charged battery—(I have an uncommon knack for forgetting both in the most photogenic moments), texting my son to find out what was going on.  Whitefish loves its parades.  I got a text back.  Schedule change.  Not til 6:00.  I had an hour.

Normally, I would think, “Ok— what can I check off my list?  What mail needs to be sent?  What errand can I run?  Do I have anything at the dry-cleaners?  But the stores were closed and my car was parked far away…and there was the nicest empty bench on the street corner in the shade.  And I thought—what the heck.  Why don’t you just sit down.  Take a load off.  People watch.  And BE.  See what other people see when they sit on our town benches.  The Burlington Northern railroad running through, the azure skies and popcorn clouds.  The emerald green ski runs on the forest green mountain.  The children skipping alongside their carefree vacation-minded parents.  The older people licking ice cream cones and gazing into shop windows I race past every day, really taking it all in– commenting on the western art.  “Oh, that’s lovely.”  And moving on, slowly, on the shady side of the street. 

Summer can be slow.  The “it” can be something quiet.  Meditative.  Simple, with no proof– not even a photograph.  I decided yesterday, sitting on that bench, that I’m going to become a bench dweller.  I’m going to make a practice of sitting on benches, especially in my home town.  I want to see the wonder of what Whitefish looks like to people who are seeing it for the first time.  I want to say, “Hello” to strangers, and locals too, and give benign smiles that have nothing to do with team sports or college entrance or work or who are the best teachers, or who are you going to vote for, or even what’s in the local paper.  I just want to Be in my town.  Take a load off.  Sit a spell. 

When those fire trucks came around the bend, I grabbed my camera, ready to shoot in rapid fire, to share on Facebook and with the paper and everybody else for that matter.  But instead, I stood up, and waved, smiling to my son and his team, took one picture, jogging alongside them for a few steps to show my support.  But then I stopped and watched, smiling and proud, as the truck made its way down Central Ave.  And I sat back down on the bench.  Being a parade chaser is too exhausting.  Sometimes it’s better to let the parade pass by.  There will be more parades.  Most of life is about all the stuff that lives between our heightened moments.  That’s the “it” I’m going to start getting after.  On little benches everywhere.  I invite you to do the same in our last weeks of summer.

champs

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

September 6-10 (FULL)
September 20-24 (a few spaces left)
October 4-8 (FULL)
October 18-22 (a few spaces left)

February 21-25 (now booking)

The rest of the 2018 schedule to be announced…

Follow me on Facebook for more news, community, and inspiration!  

 

***We reached our goal and our baseball family is leaving for the Babe Ruth U-13 World Series in Virginia today!  Thanks to all of you who helped make it possible!

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Particulate Matter– a Lesson in Surrender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I struggle with surrender.

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

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

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

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

A going in, even.

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

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

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

—2000, Laura Munson, Montana

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

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

September 6-10 (FULL)
September 20-24 (a few spaces left)
October 4-8 (FULL)
October 18-22 (a few spaces left)

February 21-25 (now booking)

The rest of the 2018 schedule to be announced…

Follow me on Facebook for more news, community, and inspiration!  

 

 

 

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