Tag Archives: nostalgia

Memory Lane Monday

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Now booking 2017 Haven Writing Retreats!

February 22-26 (only a few spots left)
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September 20-24
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October 18-22

To schedule a phone call to learn more about the retreat, go to the Contact Us button here.

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As you might have noticed, I resist the formulaic Top Ten lists that are all over the internet, as much as I resist the sound bytes that have become our attention span.  My blog posts are too long and likely too reflective.  But when I started this blog, it was with the express intention of making easy, informal connections with people, without the publishing world as carrier pigeon.  My true love is long form writing– the novel/the memoir, and I am hard at work on three books as I write this post.  That said, when you fall off your horse and bust a few ribs, life reduces itself to the nitty gritty, and it’s worth noting:  It literally goes step by step, and we better be grateful for each one, even though they hurt like hell-fire in our thoracic cavity.  Suddenly, I am finding gratitude for two inches to the left at night in just the right painfree position.  Dodging a sneeze with deep sniffing.  The smell of lavendar oil.  And very ungrateful when the toilet paper roll slips out of my hands and rolls…rolls…rolls…to the other end of the bathroom.  What was last week “another damn trip into town to do errands” when all I wanted was to be in my bed reading and writing during this hiatus between leading writing retreats, maybe taking a little walk…is now something I long for, just like my golden retriever when he’d see our busy purposeful steps to the truck, sure of some sort of adventure that the front porch couldn’t provide.

While these ribs heal, a few minutes on the front porch is all the adventure this body can take, never mind the potholes and washboards of a country road.  And so it brings me back to a Top Ten list I wrote, sort of mocking Top Ten lists, last year that sums up why I love living in my town– this town I can’t wait to re-visit hopefully next week, grateful for the wind in my hair, and a list of errands to do, and even a good old fashioned sneeze.

First, however, perhaps it might be useful to list the top ten possible reasons I fell off my horse and am in this pickle:

To stop working so hard

To feel grateful for tiny things

To stop multi-tasking

To stop letting unfinished projects bother me

To let the piles go

To leave the unpicked up things unpicked up

To make friends with the dust bunnies

To appreciate a firm pillow

To be grateful for a window with a view

To be grateful for people who bring me soup and make me tea

And now…Drum roll….

Ten+ reasons why I live in Whitefish, Montana

September 4, 2015

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(*note:  You’d think it has to do with skiing and golfing…but it doesn’t.)

Because I can go outside to get something out of my car naked.

Because if the UPS guy drove up while I was getting something out of my car naked, he wouldn’t make a big deal out of it.

Because I can go into town in the same outfit I slept in and no one would even notice and if they did notice they’d say, “Good for you.”

Because we have old fashioned streetlights with hanging flower baskets on them, an ice cream parlor, a toy store, a hardware store, and a brewery (and a whole lot of other cool locally owned stores and restaurants).

Because when you go to the Post Office, people ask you about your kids by name.

Because the health food store owners know more about my digestive tract than I do.  And they hold my babies when we load the car.  (I love you Rick and Dawn.)

Because we have a Winter Carnival where grown-ups dress up like Vikings and Yetis and Queens and Kings and ride floats and jump into a frozen lake.  And lots of people come to watch and think it’s fun.

Because it doesn’t matter how much money you have.  And nobody really cares, if they do know.

Because we’re all the same in a snow storm.

Because we’re all the same in a forest fire.

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Because we’re all the same when there’s a grizzly bear or a mountain lion on the trail.

Because the Great Northern Railroad comes right through town and I can feel connected to my hometown Chicago, and another favorite old haunt, Seattle.

Because Glacier National Park is on a lot of people’s bucket list and for us, it’s an easy answer to the question, “So what do you want to do today?”

Because we believe in our wandering rights and have 26 miles of non-motorized trail meandering through our greenbelt, with more to come. (The Whitefish Trail)

Because we have lakes and rivers all around us.

Because it serves up things to write about daily.

Because we have a Farmer’s Market that everybody goes to, even if it’s hailing.

Because people care about the Arts here, (not just about skiing and golfing).

Because on school field trips, my kids go snow-shoeing, ice-fishing, and skiing.

Because they broadcast the local high school football game at the grocery store.

Because people read the local paper.  That’s all we’ve got, anyway.

Because at Christmas-time, we string the same vintage bells across the street as they used in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Is that ten reasons?  I need to drive my kid to school in my pajamas now.  Oh, and I need eggs.  But maybe I’ll just get those from the neighbor’s chickens.

See more about Whitefish, Montana

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Long Ago: Community Entry #9

Taking a break from the writing. Reading an old time favorite. "Live the questions." --Rilke

For those of you who have been submitting to and following this “Long Ago:  Community” writing series/contest…I want to thank you.  Your supportive comments and vulnerable stories represent the staples of true community:  support, bravery, creativity, generosity, and the willingness to share. 

As I enter into the next part of my solo writing retreat to work on my novel, it brings me great joy to know that you all are here, holding These Here Hills in my absence.  My Haven Writing Retreat season will soon begin, and I have learned that if we are going to nurture and inspire other people in their self-expression, we have to begin by doing just that for ourselves.  If you are interested in joining me for a retreat, email me at Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com.  June is fast filling.  And August, and September are now booking.  Contest winner for Haven scholarship will be announced soon…  Submissions are closed…  For more info click here.

Please enjoy this nostalgic piece about neighborhood magic by Betsy Nelson!

yrs.

Laura

The House at the End of Belvedere Road, by Betsy Nelson

 

When I was a girl growing up in the 1970’s living in a Texas town near the Louisiana border, I often visited my friend Molly’s house at the end of Belvedere Road.  Most houses on Belvedere were roomy, two-story brick traditional, enveloped by the deep green leaves of sprawling Live Oak trees and angular pine trees. But the very last house on this small-town street was not like the rest.

To begin with, it didn’t look like any of the other houses. The exterior was rough stucco, the color of French Vanilla ice cream.  It was topped off with an aged slate roof that looked like small, uniform waves, or like the curly, hard Christmas candy I found in my stocking each year.

The house was U-shaped, built around a central courtyard, shadowed by the iron balconies that lunged overhead, from the second-story bedrooms.  In the middle of the pebbled courtyard was a trickling fountain with a quirky bronze statue of an owl perched above it.  The image of this mysterious owl at his post, haunted and sometimes comforted me, as I caught glimpses of him on restless nights when I would sleep over.

Upon entering the house through the side door, into the kitchen, I would glance at the simple chalkboard hung on the wall next to the telephone, which was usually ringing or occupied.  Scribbled on the board were chalky messages or funny hand-drawn pictures, chronicling the various comings and goings of a lively family of seven children and their Mom and Dad.  If I was lucky and it was close to dinner when I visited, the kitchen would be filled with the pungent aroma of garlic and onions sautéing in preparation for some fabulous, exotic Southern dish.

Walking through the house on my way to the backyard, I would feel the warm sunlight streaming in through a wall of tall windows, as I passed the pine dining table, where twelve whitewashed, ladder back chairs stood neatly aligned, until the family would arrive and disrupt all order bringing vibrant life to the abandoned scene.

Sliding open the heavy glass doors that led to the expanse of sweet-smelling, green grass and billowy clover with bees hovering above their fragile stalks, I was met by a familiar chorus of gleeful, Southern voices and raucous laughter.  There, a throng of athletic-looking, tow-headed children of various sizes, ages and abilities, encircled a mammoth, jet-black canvas trampoline.  Calling, “Hi!” and “Come On!”, the family and a mélange of neighborhood children, jostled to make room for me there beside them.

Spindly, suntanned arms stretched out to rest on the cushioned rim careful not to get fingers caught in the coiled springs. All heads looked up at the glorified kid of the moment, the one taking his turn jumping on the trampoline.  Some could bounce high and touch their outstretched toes while suspended for a moment in the air.  Some could do flips, bounce up, land cross-legged on the canvas and bounce up again.  Others could do little more than jump shyly and roll onto the ground, holding their sides, aching from too much laughter.  Oblivious to all this, were Queenie and Greta, two silky, steel-gray and snow white, German Shepherd dogs, stretched out grandly on the cool ground in the sphere of shade beneath the mighty trampoline.

When we finished, a few of us might sneak off and clamber up the bare wooden stairs to the steaming, windowless attic of the house, to dig through the Magic Box, a deep, Chinese-red trunk, filled to overflowing with velvety and satin costumes, smelling of old perfume.  Or perhaps, with the late-evening sun beating down, we would climb onto our bikes and take off for the dusty “hills”, a bank of hard-packed dirt, nothing more than the result of a bayou that had been dug alongside the house.  Wheels whirring, our bikes glided up one side and coasted down the other until sunset streaked the sky coral pink and mustard yellow.  Then, reluctantly, we would all say bye to each other, as we would leave to return to our own homes, and anticipate the next time we would be lucky enough to visit this enchanted place on Belvedere Road.

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Long Ago: Community Entry #5

The only buttons I’m pushing are on the keyboard. Ahhhh…haven.

Accepting entries through Feb. 1st.  Winner announced mid-February…

As you may know, I am spending the month of January in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments.

The “Long Ago: Community” series is also a contest. The winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana. So breathe deeply into a cherished memory of yesterday and today and share with us here. We all seek community somehow. Let us know how community finds its way back to you. Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject. Please enjoy this lovely piece by Jody Casella who blogs here. yrs. Laura

Someone’s Golden Boy, by Jody Casella

When I was seven years old my mother dragged me along on an errand to the bank downtown. In the lobby there was a display of what seemed like hundreds of dolls, each dressed in a different, lovely (to my seven-year-old eyes) outfit. A lacy ball gown. A hula skirt. Flowery nightshirt and bathrobe. It took a long inspection for me to realize it was the same doll wearing different clothes. I stared at the display longingly while my mother went about her banking business and when we left I pestered her for one of the dolls.

“Sorry,” she told me. “Those are for needy kids.”

I’m not sure I understood what that meant except that I couldn’t have a doll. And I didn’t understand it later when that Christmas, I DID get one of the dolls, the one dressed like Little Red Riding Hood. That was the year my father died and my mother was instantly a young single mother with three kids under the age of seven.

I really liked my Red Riding Hood doll. It was clear to me when I opened it that Christmas that it was the best doll from the bank lobby display. I don’t know who donated it, who sewed the darling jumper and cape and hood. It was a small thing but it meant something to me, a needy kid who didn’t know she was needy.

I’ve been thinking about that anonymous sewer lately, now that I am a million miles away from the little girl I was. Today I’m not wealthy, but certainly comfortable, living a privileged and blessed life by most people’s standards, in a small, privileged, blessed community in Ohio. I’ve got a wonderful husband and two beautiful and brilliant children. I take this life for granted, going about my day to day activities, rarely coming into contact with “needy” people and, truthfully, rarely thinking about them, unless you count writing a few donation checks to worthy charities and my yearly volunteer gig at a Christmas party for under-privileged children.

Last spring my husband and I drove our son up to the college of his dreams for a pre-orientation. We attended a few of the parent activities, mentally patted ourselves on the back for our son’s accomplishments, then left him to do his thing and took a train into New York City for a couple of days to do OUR thing. We had a blast, walking around, seeing the sites, and reconnecting with each other–parents of a soon-to-be-off-to-college boy.

One of the sites on our list was the new Ground Zero Memorial. We walked there on the last day of our trip, taking our time, hitting the neighborhoods along the way, eating a nice lunch, stopping at Starbucks, and finally arriving at the church at the edge of the site, the church that somehow was left standing after the towers fell. My husband went off to find tickets, but I lingered around the church. There was a person on the curb, leaned up against the iron gate, obviously a vagrant. He held a sign and something made me step closer.

“Please help me get home to Ohio,” said the sign.

The person holding it was a teenaged boy. He was half-asleep. Or maybe he was on drugs or drunk. That was what the cynical part of me was thinking. The mother part of me, who had just dropped off a Golden Boy son at college, teared up. Oh my God. What had happened to this boy? How had he come to be on a street corner in New York City with swarms of tourists literally stepping over him? Who was waiting for him back in Ohio? Could I help him? Should I?

Here’s the thing about my husband and me. We NEVER have any cash on us. It’s almost a joke. We are the people who have to write a check at a toll booth. That moment in front of the clearly in need boy, I had eleven dollars in my pocket. My husband had nothing. We knew we needed ten dollars for the train ride back. I looked over my shoulder at the Starbucks. Could I buy the kid a cup of coffee and a Cranberry Bliss Bar? But it was hot outside and we had just walked like, fifty blocks to get there. We were tired. We had our tickets to go into the memorial site. We needed to move on. No one else was even paying attention to this kid, this vagrant.

I am ashamed to say that I bent down and put one crumpled dollar bill in the boy’s hand. We looked at each other, and I said, “I’m sorry I can’t give you more.”

On the long drive home to Ohio my son chattered about all the cool things going on at the college, the awesome people he met, the interesting classes he would take. My husband and I were thrilled for him. Our son’s dreams were coming true! But I couldn’t stop thinking about somebody else’s son back at the church. I should’ve given him the eleven dollars at least. My husband and I could’ve hit an ATM on the way to the train station. I should’ve gone over to Starbucks. The Cranberry Bliss Bar would’ve been better than nothing. Forget that. I should’ve gone to an ATM and taken out enough money to buy him a plane ticket back to Ohio. We could’ve freaking DRIVEN him back to Ohio.

Why didn’t we help him when we had the chance? What was wrong with us?

I asked my husband this question. We lamented our actions but then started to rationalize. Maybe the boy wasn’t a needy Ohio kid. He was probably a scammer, a thief, plunked out on the sidewalk purposely manipulating out-of-town tourists.

But we can’t know that. And does it even matter?

I know we live in a country that likes to divide people into groups, label others as takers. It’s true there are takers. But I think that labeling helps us, the blessed ones, the lucky ones, feel better about ignoring those who are genuinely in need. Not only that, we mock them, show disdain for them, assume the worst. Or maybe it’s just that there is so much need that we don’t even know where to start, whom to help. We’re paralyzed. Easier to look away, to step over the kid on the street corner. There are so many of those needy people, and he’s not even the worst off.

A few hours from Ohio, some guy stopped us at a rest area and said he needed just a few dollars for gas to make it to his destination. Obvious scam, my husband and I thought, but we dug around for change and gave it to him. A few weeks later we found out that someone we went to school with died, leaving a daughter in college and in need of money for books. We wrote a check immediately and sent it to her. This Christmas we spent more time buying presents for kids we picked for our volunteer gig than we did buying for our own kids. When I heard that an acquaintance’s home was damaged by the recent hurricane, I mailed her a Home Depot gift card.

It’s not enough. It will never be enough. But once upon a time I was a needy girl who received a donated doll for Christmas, a little thing that meant a lot, and I will never step over someone else’s Golden Boy again.

—————————————————–
Jody Casella

YA Writer on the Verge

http://www.jodycasella.com/

THIN SPACE– Sept. 10, 2013
Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster

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Long Ago: Community Entry #4

The wildnerness of writing. The wilderness of January in rural Montana. Haven.

As you may know, I am spending the month of January in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments.

The “Long Ago: Community” series is also a contest. The winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana. So breathe deeply into a cherished memory of yesterday and today and share with us here. We all seek community somehow. Let us know how community finds its way back to you. Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject. Please enjoy this lovely piece by Peggy Welsh. yrs. Laura

Summer Camp, by Peggy Welsh

My dad died a few months before I started first grade, leaving my mom with four young kids under the age of 10.   The first couple of years I didn’t realize how poor we were because I was young, we lived in a decent house and we had food to eat but as the years went by I realized there wasn’t much cash around our house.

When I was in the fifth grade I joined 4-H because it was something I could walk to and it didn’t cost much money.  I always learned new things and it was a fun way to spend time with my friends.  The one thing that did cost money was the summer camp in Jamestown, Virginia.  We all talked about it but I knew it was something I couldn’t ask for.  It seemed like the best adventure ever, getting on a bus with friends and being away from home for a whole week.   As summer drew close my friends kept asking if I could go and I kept telling them I wasn’t sure, I was embarrassed to tell them I didn’t have the money.  While they were making plans to go I became more and more envious.

And then it happened.  Someone sponsored my week at camp and the day before everyone was to leave, our housekeeper told me I was going.  I couldn’t believe it, I had been crying and moping around the house for days and maybe she just couldn’t stand it any longer and called someone at the  4-H office but however this particular miracle happened – I was stunned and grateful and I believe Mrs. Poe was happy to have me out of her hair for a week.  I quickly packed a bag and pulled myself together, I don’t remember how I got to the bus but I do remember how fun it was to be on a bus for 6 hours with a group of laughing, joking, silly girls.  I had one dollar to last me for the whole week of camp and I was a little nervous about that, but I figured I would just be very careful.

4-H camp was the best thing that had ever happened to me. We did crafts, went hiking, sat at camp fires and even sang Kumbaya.   At night, in the bunk house we were in no hurry to go to sleep.   I kept the girls in stitches with funny stories until the camp counselor would threaten to duct tape my mouth if I didn’t go to sleep.   One night we had a candlelight service where we put small candles on paper plates, waded out into the James river, lit our candles and sent our floating points of light out into the water – it was beautiful and magic.   We went to Jamestown on a day trip and saw the replicas of the three ships that first sailed into the new world.  Everyone was excited about going to a play called the Common Glory.   I started to worry about the cost and if I  would I be the only one left in camp if I didn’t have enough money, and I wondered what I would do.   I decided to take my one dollar and put it in the little bank at the camp store so it wouldn’t get lost and see how much it would cost to go to the play.  Now this might not seem like a big deal to anyone else but I was a worrier and even though it was a miracle that I even got to go to camp I was worried about that play.

The next day, when all the girls were going to the store to buy candy and treats I went to the little bank window and told the lady I wanted to put my dollar bill in the bank where it would be safe, to my surprise when she pulled up my name she said I already had five dollars in the account. Again, I was stunned, relieved and excited that whoever paid for my trip to camp had gone the extra mile and provided spending money, something they knew would be in short supply.   I almost burst into tears with relief as I said a silent prayer of thanks.   I knew that someone was looking out for me upstairs and thus began a lifelong practice of recognizing the hand of the Lord in my life.    I know that God answers prayers and he usually uses his angels or saints here on earth to help us along our journey.   That one special week at a little camp on the James River in southern Virginia helped build a foundation of faith that would see me though the many tough times ahead and it helped motivate me to look for opportunities to perform random acts of kindness for others – little miracles where the giver was never known.

That summer adventure that some stranger or neighbor paid for was one of the best memories of my brief childhood.

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Long Ago: Community Entry #3

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

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

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

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

yrs. Laura

The Christmas Tree, by Lynn Trudell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Long Ago: Community Entry #2

“There are certainly times when my own everyday life seems to retreat so the life of the story can take me over. That is why a writer often needs space and time, so that he or she can abandon ordinary life and “live” with the characters.” –Margaret Mahy

The solace of the Montana woods fuels the muse...

As you may know, I am spending the month of January in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments.

The “Long Ago: Community” series is also a contest. The winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana. So breathe deeply into a cherished memory of yesterday and today and share with us here. We all seek community somehow. Let us know how community finds its way back to you. Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject. Please enjoy this lovely piece by Donna Jones Koppelman who blogs here. yrs. Laura

LONG AGO: COMMUNITY on the Outer Banks, by Donna Jones Koppelman

As a child, our family spent a great deal of time on the Outer Banks.  The house was in Buxton, near the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and we spent glorious summer days exploring the beach.  At that time, the area had only a small number of vacationers, and we would often go days without seeing others on the beach.  We had each other and the sea for companionship, and it was splendid.

For excitement, my siblings and I would walk up to the local tackle shop and admire the fishing lures.  Every so often, the man at the register would say the magic words, “Tell your daddy there’s action at the pier.”  We would run back to the cottage, give Dad the news, and then beg to come along.

Some days, we could see schools of fish, thick and dark in the water, and we’d pull the fish in one after another. Other days, a school of particularly large fish hung out by the pier to tempt us.  Often, one lucky fisherman or woman had caught something particularly large or unique.

Yes, sir, if there was action forty years ago on the Outer Banks, it was most likely on a pier.  Even if the fish weren’t biting, the pier acted as a gathering spot, a news center, and a social hub.

I don’t know if elderly people liked this particular pier or the population drifted toward the older and wiser set, but I remember my dad was always the young whippersnapper.  All the fishermen knew him by name, and he knew theirs.  But more importantly, they knew each other by their catches.  “Big Fred here caught the biggest shark anybody’s ever landed,” “One time Walter caught a marlin with a Rolex watch in his belly” and “Your daddy can clean a bluefish quicker and cleaner than a man twice his age.”  I knew which old woman had been hungry enough to stew an octopus, which men fished from their boats when the wind changed, who fed his cat fresh fish every night,  and where all their children had moved off to.

I learned a lot about life from these folks.  When I asked to pet a particularly charming  fish swimming around in a cooler, I was told, “Back off my supper, kid, this ain’t no damn aquarium.”   For the first time, I saw people who fished to eat, not for the sport of it.  And they all seemed pretty happy and content with that life.   I learned about sun damage long before anyone else talked about it.  These folks looked way older than their actual ages due to the lines and patterns of wrinkles that covered their faces and the backs of their hands,but I liked how it showed the world all they had seen and done.

These salty old men taught me how to read the sky for storms, how the wind direction affected the tide and the odds of catching certain kinds of fish.  They recalled in vivid detail the damages of every major hurricane of their lives, and described the year they got the ‘light lines’.    I learned that on a pier on the Outer Banks, a girl was treated no differently than a boy.

Back in my traditional southern hometown, I would have been told to stand back at a safe distance.  But here amongst these men and women, I baited slippery hooks and grabbed wriggly fish off a line because I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know how.

But that community also valued safety.  They scolded my dad when they heard he had gone flounder gigging alone.  “Son, respect the water.”   They reminded him to “Straighten up those kids while you can”  and  “Make sure your kids know how to work.  If a man knows how to work, he can do anything.”   Old Fred used to say to me, “Do your sums and master that primer.”  I always agreed, but I had no idea he spoke of math and reading.

Every time we came to the pier, there was big news of some kind.  Mostly, it had to do with who had caught what in our absence, but often local politics and gossip crept into the conversations.  I realized that tourism had another side to it. Houses were springing up all over the place.  “Bigger than any fool needs,” they said.  I came to appreciate the simplicity of their living.  They might fish for hours, but when it came time to go home, they took what they needed for their dinner.  Then they shared the rest. That’s how they approached the picturesque coastlines of the Outer Banks, too.  “They can come and look all they want,” one woman used to say, “but don’t cover up our pretty beach with a house that sits empty most of the year.”

Once, after a hurricane, the piergoers stood around quietly until the regular crowd had gathered.  No one so much as opened a tackle box until they saw that everyone was okay.   Then they finally relaxed and resumed the usual joking and chatter.  They all agreed they had much to clean up and repair after the storm, but they had to eat, didn’t they?  But I knew they just needed to lay their eyes on their friends.  Even as a youngster, I saw how much they meant to each other.

One day I watched a woman give away some fresh fish.  “Go ahead,” she had insisted. “I have what I need for tonight.”

Even though I only saw them in the summertime, that community set the standard for me.  As an adult, when my husband and I searched for a place to raise our children,  we looked for a community like that pier on the Outer Banks, and we found it.  When my fourth baby was born, neighbors and friends brought us dinner for forty-four nights in a row.  And you know, I have brought them all dinner, too. Never have I caught that dinner on a hook, but I learned from those people on the pier the importance of sharing with my community.

Recently, I visited the pier closest to our home on the Outer Banks.  It is our favorite summer hang-out. The ten cent boiled shrimp, the cold beer specials, and the nightly beach band make it the perfect evening destination.   We sit at tables and eat together, catching up on the local politics and news that another house is coming up “bigger than any fool needs”.  Most of us don’t fish for our supper, we nod at the waitress to bring us the special.  Some of us know each other by name, and some of us know each other by the beer we drink, the food we favor, or the band that brings us out.  But it’s still a community.  We scans the crowd after a big storm to make sure all the familiar faces are there.  We still teach each other’s children things as they scamper around the deck.  “Don’t eat the tail of the shrimp. Pinch it off, like that.”  And “Respect the water, son.”   We talk about Hurricane Isabel and more recently, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

“We take care of each other around here,” someone always says.  “We look in on our neighbors.”

Because that’s what a good community does, and I am extraordinarily blessed to be a part of it.

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Journal a life.

I have always had a journal– back to 4th grade (see the pink patent leather with the lock and the word PRIVATE). The early ones are about boys and best friends. The middle ones are about being afraid to die and being afraid to live and being afraid in general– mostly of myself. Oh, and also about boys. And God. And the more recent ones are all written from the hot cramped cabins of airplanes. I’m a claustrophobe who hates to fly– the one pretending she’s blithely involved in the NYT crossword puzzle, but who is in reality, sitting there begging the heavens for smooth skies and a safe landing. To the tune of: Please don’t let anything scary happen. Please don’t let anything scary happen. And I travel a lot. So if anyone ever reads my journals from the last ten or so years of my life, they will put me in the annals of crazytown. Each entry is written as if the plane’s going down and I need to say just…one…last…thing about life and what it is to be human and mortal.

I’ve kept them all. But I’ve never re-read them. I’m too afraid to see that I haven’t changed or learned anything. Or am still complaining about THAT thing which I should have figured out how to get over years ago. I’m too afraid to see the broken record that is me. Or too sad to see big dreams unrealized. Or remember all the years I spent suffering for something that actually DOES come my way– good, bad, or indifferent.

I’m not sure what purpose the journal serves. I just know that it is my lover, best friend, confidant, safe house. I can feel them in the box in my writing room closet, sitting there with all my history and hysteria; I can hear the many voices of me and feel the pulse that drives them to want to write my story in those private pages. I love them. Even when I don’t love myself.

The other day, for some reason…I missed them. So I braved it and took them out, spread them on the staircase and ran my hands over them. Each of them like long lost loved ones with whom, upon first sight, you pick up exactly where you left off. I was suddenly hungry for my earlier selves, and dared myself to dig in. A summer in Spain looked like a good place to start. I took that Asian silk wrapped journal from a head shop in my childhood town (back when there were head shops), and opened it in the middle. Read the words, “If God is so good then…” and slammed the book closed. Couldn’t do it. Italy–that was a good year. I opened that journal, covered in marbleized Italian paper. “I hate Americans. All they care about is…” Slammed that one shut too. Maybe one from sixth grade instead. “I’m in my treehouse hiding.” Nope. Instead I decided to just lay my hands on them and thank the words that I needed to spring…knowing that they somehow needed to spring and believing they helped…and took a picture.

In that moment, I have never been more certain that the past is the past, and is meant to be left behind. It was a powerful exercise. It reminded me that I have spent a lot of my life in deep thought, moving around a pen to the tune of my emotions in a little book that lives somewhere close. Until it is full. And then it goes into a box in a closet for safe keeping. I’m proud of that. That’s where all those words belong. In a box.

I think someday, if and when I’m an old woman, maybe I might be brave enough to go back and see who I’ve been all these years. Until then, I write in my journals where I am free to be exactly who I am without anyone’s judgement but my own. Maybe that nails it: when I am writing in my journal, I am not a self-critic. I am not crafting story. I can be my most despicable and dreamy self. And who wants to re-visit that? Not me. Not yet.

I invite you to do the same. Collect all your journals and spread them out. Bask in them for a bit. Read some if you must. And put them back from whence they came. Send me the photo.

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Circling the Heart of Community


Take a quick mind stroll down your top five favorite buildings from childhood.

Now take away any of them that were closed to the public.

What’s left? Church? The library? The post office? The hardware store? The local theater or community center or both?

I wouldn’t be surprised. These were the places your mom bumped into friends on the way in and out the door, and you stood there with them in the parking lot, a little bored, but feeling the comfort of safety because you knew you belonged somewhere in the world. You were home.

Have you ever been to Greece? Have you ever been to Ephesus, where the biblical book of Ephesians took place? If you have, you get a pretty strong sense of how civilization hasn’t changed much. What’s left is a temple, a library, a theater, a road. Lone columns and marble shrapnel from a time of greatness long gone. It makes you look at your town differently when you stand among those ruins. It makes you think about what lasts. Where the spirit of the place lives.

This morning, I heard that the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest, my hometown, may have to shut its doors. If it doesn’t meet with an immediate $250,000 it may meet instead with the wrecking ball. Turns out that its community relevance is in question. It took my breath away. How could this be so? Since 1901 this building has meant so much to so many.

Memories flickered fiercely through my head as I sat staring at this email bearing this impossible news. My sister went to kindergarten there. I spent my summers doing Group For children’s theater there. I heard my first live “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on that stage, flung from a seven year old’s mouth and thought it was as good as Judy Garland herself. I remember crying and thinking, “One day, I’m going to stand on a stage and be somebody.” We bought our Christmas tree in that lot—an annual hockey league fund-raiser, my mom and dad looking for just the right Balsam fir. My grandmother took art classes there in her 80s when it served as a senior citizen center. My mother wraps presents there at Christmas-time—a service for local children who can’t yet wrap, and as a young woman, she attended bridge and dress-smocking classes at Gorton. Over the years my parents attended jazz concerts and plays and author readings there.

When I was in Lake Forest on my book tour this April, I was sad to miss the full circle opportunity to have my reading at Gorton, as it was booked that day. It would have been so personally meaningful to stand on that stage in my little girl’s footprints– a forty year old reading from her memoir where her third grade self said, “I’ll get you Dorothy, and your little dog too!” Still, I smiled as I passed Gorton on the way to my reading at the college, which was lovely, thanks to the Lake Forest Bookstore for putting together the event, and all who attended. It was my favorite of the tour. Because, I was “home.” Home begins inside a person, and spreads out to the people we know and love and to the places that contain those memories and beyond. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to have that place be Gorton. To look into that audience and see not just the many friends sitting there in support, but the ghosts of my childhood, smiling and clapping too. Call me a sentimental hometown girl. And it would be true.

A lot of what makes a community building matter is that full circle experience. From young to old, sitting in that space, feeding the senses with your community around you. Applauding great performances. Feeling pride in what your town can do to marry heart to mind to talent. Who it can inspire to stop on their way through your geographic area, connecting you to other audiences in other community centers in other towns across America. How it stitches us together.

I wish I had the money to personally come up with that $250,000. But what I do have is a love of the arts and community gathering spaces, and a belief that Lake Forest can honor the ancient and universal need for just this—community sacred space. That my hometown can advocate for community and especially for the arts, and for the future Lake Foresters who will bring that inspiration out into the world. And come home, full circle one day, proud.

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