Tag Archives: parenting

How to Survive Empty Nest (AKA: Mommy Massage Money)

Processed with VSCO with m5 preset

Now Booking my Fall Haven Writing Retreats in Montana… 

September 18-22 (one spot left)

September 25-29 (a few spots left)

You do not have to be a writer to come…just someone who is deeply longing to find your voice and set it free.

Click here for more info and to contact me to set up a call… Running special discounts this week!

For those of you who are looking at the last weeks of August with dread, clinging to what last licks of summer magic you can put in your proverbial jar and hoard in your proverbial pantry all winter…and especially for those of you who are facing Empty Nest for the first time, and ESPECIALLY if you are a single mother facing Empty Nest for the first time…this is for you. But it also applies to anyone who is longing for her/his people, in the wane of these sacred summer days:

First, a word on this emotional miasma that you are likely feeling: (followed by some pretty solid advice…so stop what you’re doing. Get comfy. This is a muscular read and there’s a good chance that it will help you. A lot.)

There is so much longing in these dog days of August, especially if you are a mother of a child soon fledging the nest. Longing for things like that one moment on the porch with your college-bound son, before he goes out with his friends, AGAIN…trying to squeeze out some lovely mother moment in which you impart just a bit of wisdom, or ask that one perfect question that will evoke that one poignant answer and you’ll feel like you know your child again, or just that much more.

Maybe you have ways to inspire these moments and maybe it has to do with food. So maybe you find yourself plotting a menu that he can’t resist so that your home will be the chosen roost for his boy squad tonight, not some cabin in the woods, or some boat on a lake, or some media room with air conditioning and very lenient parents… Maybe you should be a more lenient parent? Nah.

Or maybe you are just plain longing for your child. Without all those tall smelly (albeit adorable) boys who quite likely have one thing on their mind: beer. Maybe you just want him. At home. Before he leaves for college, and you’re alone in the house. Alone. Wondering why you didn’t make summer matter more. Why you didn’t insist that he come home, miss the party, sit on the porch with you and play cards and talk all about life and love and loss and hope. Why you didn’t swim in more lakes together or establish a daily something together that when you are older you can both say, lovingly and longingly into each others’ eyes:  “Remember that summer when we used to always ________?”

And not have this as your memory instead: “Remember that summer when we used to always say, Bye. Have fun. Be smart. Be safe.” Or, “Can you mow the lawn before you leave? And weedwack?” Or “Gas money? Sure. I’ve got a twenty in my wallet. Help yourself.” Because why wouldn’t you give him a little gas money here and there. He plays baseball. He’s hard to employ. And the only spare vehicle you have for him to drive is the old gas-guzzling Suburban. You live in the country. He needs a car. Everything he wants to do is far away from home. And it’s expensive to get anywhere in that old beat up truck. And yet…as much as you wish he would stay at home, you’re glad he has places to go and people to see. And yeah…it feels good to give him a little financial relief. It’s summer. He’s a good kid. He works hard at college. You’re proud of him. And gas money is like your Bolognese sauce. Which means you love him just that much more. And no…none of it is bribery. It’s just making life for your child a little luxurious every so often. Because you’re his mother. Damn it. You’re his mother.

Since he’s been little, you’ve made it your job to teach him every lesson you can possibly think of, although you doubt he listened to you. Tick tock! Before he goes to college, you need to know where he is in life! You need to take the pulse of his heart and mind and soul! So you ply him with your Bolognese and it works: He gives you that precious time. For one splendid dinner. And you sit on the porch and see what he knows, where he is in what he knows, where he needs to know more. But then you have to go and blow it because you push just…a…little…too…hard. And he wolfs down the rest of his food and asks for gas money and is off to a cabin in the woods with his buddies and the cooler his very cool god-mother gave him for Christmas.

“Have fun. Be smart. Be safe.”  And you hold back the tears because he hates it when you cry. He feels guilty for leaving you alone and you don’t want him to. So you swallow and shake it off and holler after him, “I love you!” And then you go inside before he can peel out of the driveway, because you want him to think that you have things to do. Only you don’t. Not really. Not unless you call doing the dishes “things to do.”

For those of you who know exactly what I mean…clinging to these last weeks of summer before your child leaves for college…and especially for those of you who are doing this for the first time…take heart. I’m a year ahead of you, and I have some help for you. Wipe those tears. Make a cup of tea. Get cozy…really cozy. This is for you:

1)    First of all, don’t feel ashamed that you are in this amount of pain. Yeah yeah yeah…people will go to great lengths to remind you that you had kids to see them fledge. You don’t want them living in your basement! But we all know that this doesn’t help, any more than it did when your mother told you to finish your dinner because there are starving people in Africa. Now you just feel bad about yourself. Try this instead:

2)    Go into his room when he’s not there and take a photo of his clothes all over the floor, his un-made bed, the zillions of chords and devices that you don’t really understand or want to understand. And then take a look at whatever’s under his bed that you haven’t wanted to see all summer. Take a photo of that too. Ew. Now put those photos on your screensaver. Take a good look at them. Do these images endear themselves to you? Didn’t think so. When you pass by his room after he’s gone, and you fall to your knees weeping because it’s so clean and vacant and innocent with all those baseball trophies, and his Lego trucks still intact and GOD how you miss those days…take a look at those photos. Should do the trick.

3)    You know how when you’re at the grocery store checking out and you can choose to get some cash…and you get $20 in case he asks you for gas money? Because who carries cash these days? But cash is maternal currency and you always keep some around for that moment when he looks up at you like a starving kid in Africa, or at least a Golden Retriever, and says, “Any chance you have any cash for gas? I’m pretty low.” And you get all lit up inside because you can say, “In fact I do. Happy to help the cause.” Like you’re thrilled that he’s leaving you once again. You know that $20. I know you do.

  1. So here are your marching orders from a mommy who knows: Keep taking those twenty-dollar bills at the grocery store checkout line. Only it’s not for your kid’s gas money any more. It’s now officially, starting the week before he leaves…massage money. $20 in a secret compartment in your wallet. Watch it add up. I bet you can afford a massage every other week if you give yourself the money you would have given him to drive away from your front porch. How ‘bout that! Does that get you all lit up inside? I’m sitting here smiling at the thought of it. I’m totally going to try it! Wish I’d thought of it same time last year!

4)    So…you know all those times when you get the guts to ask, “Wanna go out for lunch?” or “Want to go to dinner and a movie?” or “Want to take a hike in the woods?” And he says, “I’m sorry, but I already have plans.” And you feel like such a sucker, loser, chump? Well when he’s gone and you feel that longing for bonding with a loved one…it’s time to text or email or call or choose one of the fifteen thousand ways that you can contact a friend these days. AND ASK THEM if they want to do any of the above. It might not be exactly what you wanted to do, and it might not hold the emotional holy grail of mother/child love that will quell that ache in your heart.  But heck—it’s better than sitting around at your shitty pity party. So there. Reach out to a friend. If they say no, reach out to another one. It’s better than being alone when you feel like that. Being alone shouldn’t be something you bully yourself to do. If you don’t want to be alone…don’t be alone. The world is a peopled place. Find your people. Just maybe not overly happy people at this juncture.

5)    To that end:  On being alone. You’ve heard this by now, I’m sure of it. “I love being alone! I’d DIE to have my house to myself. I could do anything I wanted! Damn! I’m so jealous of you. I can’t WAIT until Empty Nest. My kids are driving me crazy. And you’re not in a relationship right now? Sounds like HEAVEN! I’d crank tunes and have a naked dance party, just me!” Well here’s my advice: Stop talking to those people. They suck.

6)    If you don’t have a dog, you should probably get one. But if you start buying little sweaters for it, and custom-design a doggy bed that matches your couch, you should probably hire a shrink or a life coach or something.

7)    Now’s the time to write that book you’ve always wanted to write. I know a gal in Montana who can help you… Just sayin’. #havenwritingretreats

8)    Or take that trip you’ve always wanted to take. “Alone?” “Yeah. Alone. Just to do it and see that you won’t die. Not that it’s better than traveling with a loving partner or your loving children. These people: “I would do ANYTHING to travel alone. I LOVE traveling alone. You can do whatever you WANT TO DO!” See my above advice.

9)    To that end: Maybe just don’t hang out with people who are happily married and who are entering into Empty Nest. Not until you get used to going to bed alone, waking in the night alone, going downstairs in the morning to make tea and seeing everything exactly as it was the night before when you turned off the light. Even that piece of paper that you passed on the stairs and didn’t pick up. And then passed again on the way back up. And will keep passing until you finally get it through your head that unless you pick it up, it’s just gonna stay there. Maybe wait until you finally pick up the piece of paper before you consider hanging out with happily married Empty Nesters. Or maybe just stay away from them altogether until you can trust yourself socially.

10) Don’t trust yourself socially right now. Weird shit is going to come out of your mouth. And you can’t take it back. And it just adds to the shame. When you do the reach out to a friend thing…be very careful. You’re wide open. Like after birth. And death. This is a kind of dying, and you have to respect the grief process. Only hang out with people who understand that or who can find empathy for it.

11) Make your special Bolognese sauce, or your version of whatever is your culinary super power, and eat it. Alone. On your porch. With a really nice bottle of Cote du Rhone. Because these aren’t box wine days any more. You don’t have to pay for deli meat and bacon and a bread box full of English muffins, and bagels, and sandwich bread, a meat drawer full of big blocks of cheese, and all that protein and gluten he requires. You only really need the top shelf of the fridge these days. And it’s pretty slim. And it’s very clean. For once. Everything is very clean for once. When you do your cooking, be sure to dirty lots of pots and pans and plates. Then leave it all in the sink. When you wake up and go into the kitchen, you’ll remind yourself that there was some good old-fashioned living going on in this house of yours last night. And you have proof! Advanced homework: Leave it in the sink all day so that you can remind yourself, over and over, that Empty Nest is not turning you into a zombie. You still make (and eat) pasta Bolognese!

12) And here’s another thing. Not only are you not a zombie, but you’re actually living. So guess what? (And these are strict orders. I don’t care what’s in your bank account) You hire a HOUSE-KEEPER! At least once a month. And guess what? That one piece of paper on the stairs that you keep forgetting to pick up, or even passive aggressively LEAVE on the stairs to torture yourself with the fact that you are alone, and you’ve got the piece of paper to prove it…that piece of paper that you pass and every time your bleak mind skips to: I’m going to die alone…well guess what? Suddenly, there’s a nice woman with a vacuum cleaner in her hand, and she’s just voila sucking up that piece of paper, proving to you that you DON’T suck, (that’s the vacuum’s job haha)…and that sometimes you have to pay someone to remind you of that. (See: the therapist or life coach that you’ve hired. That massage you’re having on a regular basis in lieu of doling out gas money.) You’re going to start HIRING people. Not like you’re rolling in the dough, but all that actual dough that made all that bread that you don’t have to buy with your kid in college…well you’re going to put it to use to keep your heart from breaking.

13) Finally, and I’m a living testament to this: Your heart isn’t going to break. Not all the way. You’re going to race home from work or from wherever you are in your day, and think, “Crap. What do I have in the fridge and the pantry to make for dinner? He’s so hungry all the time!” And then you’re going to think, “Crap. It’s just me.” And you’re going to take a sigh, and slow your mind down, and slow your accelerator down, and you’re going to think… Huh. I’ve been wanting to see what this Outlander thing is all about. And I do have Netflix, after all. For him to watch whatever those scary boy shows are about the dead people. I wonder what else there is on Netflix. Maybe there’s a cooking show or something. Ah…and there you have it. You find A Chef’s Table. You find Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. And yes, you find Outlander, and you start wondering, after binge-watching the first season…if maybe you too could find a portal into another time, and find another you, and other people to love and who love you back. And you wonder…what’s possible for you in the future. Maybe this is the time of your life that you will one day look back on and think, Boy, did I ever have an easy, calm, self-centered (not in a bad way), life when I was in the throes of Empty Nest. Boy, was it uncomplicated. Boy, was I surprisingly happy. I’d do anything to have that Me-time back. In fact, I’d DIE to have all that sacred space, and everything just the way I want…

But for now, while he’s still home…you’ve got to get to the grocery store to buy more deli meat, and more bread, and get that extra $20 bill, and and and…pass by that piece of paper on the stairs and think, There’s a chance, albeit a small one, that maybe he’ll pick up that piece of paper. And if he does, or even if he doesn’t, I know that he loves this house, and all the memories it holds, and me too. And that he’ll come back. Of course he will. There’s Bolognese here. There’s a lawn and a weedwacker that he is proud to have dominion over. He loves his lawn. Our lawn. Who knows: maybe one day it’ll be his house. And maybe I’ll be living in the basement. Or in the studio over the garage. And he’ll be giving me gas money.

All I know is that I have to let August run its course. Not over-think it. Allow the moments to come naturally. Not force them. Be happy with those little in-between conversations over morning cereal. (That’s another thing you don’t have to buy anymore: cereal.) And believe that September will have its moments of grace along with its moments of despair. Please know…there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Yeah, you had kids, and you loved them with everything you had, and now you’re helping them fledge. That doesn’t make it any easier. At least not for you.

The ones who are DYING to be alone and DYING to have their kid out in the world—I suspect that they’ll collapse on their knees from time to time when they pass their child’s empty, clean, innocent room. But remember that when YOU do…just take a look at your screensaver. That room smelled bad. The kid in it did a lot of grumbling and mumbling and wasn’t always such a peach. That door was closed a lot with music thrumping on the other side that had words you couldn’t understand except for the ones you still can’t believe he knows and uses. You thought you imparted too much wisdom for him to listen to those words. Well…maybe you did. Maybe he listened, after all. You’ll find out.

It’s time to let summer go, and welcome September, despair and all. Maybe there’s a naked dance party in it for us! I promise you, as much as I can promise anything without having a crystal ball: There’s a strong likelihood that you’re going to make it. A year will go by and it will be next summer and you’ll be looking at your kid in the same way, and maybe your life too…but you will say to yourself: I lived. I somehow did this life alone, without being a daily parent. I somehow trusted my child to thrive. And he did. And I didn’t die. That’s what I’m putting my money on: That you and your child, apart, will thrive. Not just get by. But THRIVE!

So…go outside. Right now. Walk barefoot in the grass. Drink some lemonade. Watch the dragonflies mate. Feel your place in the natural order of motherhood. And be glad. You did a good job, Mama. You did a good job.

If you want to use writing to navigate your life too…come to a Haven Writing Retreat this September! I have rare spots available on the September 18-22, and 25th-29th retreats! Email me asap to set up a phone call to discuss your creative journey and the Haven experience: laura@lauramunson.com

3 Comments

Filed under My Posts

When Doing Our Best Feels Like Failure…

Baseball-player-pitching--700x386

For those of you who feel like your best falls short sometimes…here’s some permission to GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK!  (special permission for mothers of college bound seniors, in the throes of athletic recruitment!)

“Mom.  I’ve decided that I want to play baseball in college.  It’s my dream.”

This came out of my rising senior son’s mouth, early this summer, after his first few games with his new Legion baseball team.  This was not the plan.

I am a planner ahead-er.  Especially when it comes to my children.  So throughout my son’s high school career, I’ve gently teased out ideas of what college might look like for him.  What his dream would be.  The long and short of it was this:  A big school with great sports teams, near a city, with a lot of diversity and opportunity, and a strong Business School.  We knew he wasn’t D1 baseball material, and so playing ball at a large university wasn’t really on the map, even though I know how much he’s loved the game, all the way back to T-ball, buck teeth, and a scrappy little mop of blonde hair.

It was time for him to spread his wings and see what else there was out there to love.  Plus, he’s been raised in a small mountain community in NW Montana, unlike the Chicago of my youth, and the New York city of his father’s.  We were excited for him to start playing the field of life, not just the field of and around the baseball diamond.

“Just think—you’ll have a regular spring, for once.  You’ll have extra time to be able to expand academically into new terrain, and enjoy what college life has to offer.”  He seemed copacetic.  Relieved almost.  And frankly, it was a relief for me too– I’ve logged a lot of hours on those baseball bleachers, and he’s logged a lot of hours on that diamond and in those dug-outs.  It would be a good step for us all.  Because how could I pass up being in those bleachers as much as possible, even if it meant a long road trip.  Heck, in Montana, we’re used to those—all for the love of ball.  I was privately happy to put it in the rearview mirror.13325635_10153431308556266_4887280178150671123_n

And then that day in June…  “Mom, I love this sport.  I love the kids who play this sport.  I’m good at it.  I want to play in college.  I don’t care if I don’t have as much of a social life.  My team will be my social life.  I don’t care if it’s not some big university near a city.  I’ll play D3.  I just want to play baseball.”  Out of the mouths of not-so-babes.

I’m a mother.  Far be it from me to stand in the way of my child’s dreams.  And what he said was all true.  He’s a talented leftie pitcher, and a great first-baseman, and a spirited team member.  He never ever complains about any of it.  He takes it as the Hero’s Journey that baseball is:  The call to leave home, go out in the world, and come back, more the wise, despite some scrapes and losses along the way.  As of this June, he just wants “to play baseball.”  I remembered a seventeen-year old girl who just wanted “to be an artist.”  So I Googled D3 baseball colleges:  Small.  Liberal Arts.  No Business major.  Mostly rural.  And very…very expensive.  Plus, they don’t offer athletic scholarships.  Huh.

I quickly learned that on top of it all, the kids who get recruited for D3 sports, have been going to recruitment camps for years.  They’re on the coaches’ radars.  They know all about scholarships and are in touch with Financial Aid departments.  They have their lists in place and have toured campuses.  They’ve met with Admissions people.  Just when, I’m not sure.  Surely not in the summer.  They’re the Boys of Summer– they’re playing baseball every second of every day—eighty-eight games!  And if they play other sports, not then either.  AND, the cherry on top of the top:  it all has to be done Early Decision or Early Action…by…drum roll:  November 1st!  That’s in a matter of months!  And the cherry atop the cherry on top:  my son is the quarterback of the football team.  Just when are we supposed to visit campuses?  If he misses a practice, he misses the Friday game.  How does one fly from Montana to Pennsylvania, and upstate New York, and Ohio, and Minnesota, and Oregon, have a proper visit during the school week, and make everybody happy?  Never mind pay for it all?

We were late to the party.  Very late.

This is not my style.  Usually…I’m throwing the dang party.  How could this have happened?  How could I not have at least seen the potential of this coming our way and had a back-up plan in place?  How could I make my son proud, and make it through this without guilt, shame, the feeling of less-than, the feeling of failing him?  I hadn’t been able to save the marriage from ending, or keep his father from moving thousands of miles away, or his friends from moving, or his sister from taking an internship far from home this summer.  I hadn’t been able to provide a house full of action and fun like it used to be.  In fact, in the last five years, I’ve been working all the time.  Leaving him home alone.  Leaving him to cook his meals and fend for himself– the opposite of what I would ever have opted for as the mother to my son.  I was not going to fail him this time.  No way.

And so it began.  The baptism-by-fire SAT sign up and tutoring, the college essay boot camp, the virtual college advisor meetings, the recruitment videos and the camps in Long Island and Oregon, the Common Application.  I’ll save you the stress of it all, and me the blood-pressure spike, but suffice it to say that on top of my full-time job leading writing retreats in Montana, and a book deadline for a novel I’ve been working on for a few years, as a single mother, I was now scrambling to put together a schedule that would be do-able.  For all of us.  Not perfect.  But possible.  And all before November 1st.  Deep breath. 13450882_10153462757811266_6947302589785351012_n

But the breathing is shallow at best.

I am smack dab in the throes of it right now.  And here’s what I’ve learned:  You can’t be perfect.  Even with the best of intentions, as a mother…you’re just going to fall short sometimes.  Even with your heart and soul and mind as sharp and on it as possible, there are times as a mother of a college-bound child when you are going to look around and say, How did I get here?  I didn’t mean for this to happen.  I was trying so hard.  I was doing my best.  And my best…well, it just isn’t good enough.  And you’ll look around at the other mothers, and somehow, they are at the party that you didn’t even know existed.  They are seasoned party-goers, with gracious hostess gifts, and the perfect, in this case, little red-white-and-blue jersey, and ball cap, with the proverbial stadium seat sporting their son’s soon-to-be alma mater’s mascot.

And you’ll feel small, or wrong, or just plain bad.  And you’ll find yourself crying in bed in the early hours, or lying in the dark with heart palpitations, and the feeling of true hopelessness, desperation even.  You were the one that dropped him off on his first day at Montessori with a backpack full of black-eyed Susans for his teacher, with a loving note.  You were the one who lay in bed with him every night reading him Ferdinand, and Mike Mulligan, and Dr. Seuss, who sang him Lullaby, and played This Little Piggy, and taught him how to make homemade ice cream.  You were the one who drove over mountain passes for any number of baseball and football games—and that one time when he missed the bus, and you drove six hours to drop him off at camp, and turned around and drove six hours back.  You were that mother, yes you were.  You promised him you’d give him the very best of you.  And here you are failing him in his, to date, biggest opportunity, his biggest dream.  Because…what if he doesn’t get that scholarship money, and what if you can’t swing it to get him to more than three of those schools so he doesn’t even know where he wants to apply early, and what if what if what if…well, what if his “dream” doesn’t come true?

I know the answer.  He’ll be okay.  We will all be okay.  First world problems.  But still…this is one of the last things we can do for our kids—shepherd them into their next chapter, and the first one far from home.  We’ll see what happens in November.  We’ll see if he’ll get that golden ticket, and he’ll open that letter and smile, and nod, and fold into my arms in happiness and relief.  We’ll see if we get that moment of, “We did this.  This dream is going to come true!”  But even if we don’t, I have to believe that regrets are never really teaching tools.  We will always fall short somehow.  We’re mothers.  There is no A+.  There is only the very best we can do.  Even if we are late to the party.  Especially…if we are late to the party.  Because here’s the bottom line:  There is no party.  It’s really, in the end, just the Hero’s Journey, after all.

If you would like to take a break in 2017 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! Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

Now Booking 2018 Haven Writing Retreats!

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

Follow me on Facebook Instagram or Twitter!
http://www.lauramunsonauthor.com/retreats/

(previously published in Grown and Flown)

Leave a Comment

Filed under My Posts

Summer Mother

Montana_road2

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

I wrote this 20 years ago one summer evening, after a day of hiking in the mountains of Montana with my brand new baby. It’s all about letting go– something I am learning all over again as she enters her senior year in college and my son, his junior year in high school.  Deep breaths to all mothers out there who are facing empty nests…

It is summer in Montana and it is past our collective bedtime, but we are driving into a sky glowing burnt orange, steel green mountains not yet silhouettes. The days are full here, too full, maybe. There is a three month panic to be scantily clothed and to wave the limbs around in hot air, in water, on a sweaty horse’s back. Suddenly there is so much sun after so much snow and grey matte sky and it’s a drug we agree to take in overdose. I don’t wear sunblock. Neither does my husband. We slather our baby in it, but let the undersides of our arms rest on the hot black paint of the car door while the tops– all the way to our fingers– in-between our fingers, bake in high-noon sun; then on our foreheads and backs at the lake in sparkling water, on hot rose rocks, on alpine trails, in meadows of lupine, Indian paintbrush, yarrow, huckleberries. With red and purple-stained skin pulsing sweet dried sweat over the throb of cooling highway, we cover our tracks back, turning off fourteen dead, fifty injured in a bombing today in an Israeli market; hold hands, try to find the moon.

Look. A star, I say, letting go of his hand, pointing. Yeah, he says. Two of them. That one’s bright. I wonder if it’s a planet. Wondering, I reach back for my baby’s hand without looking, craving a little loose bundle of fingers. There is a soft sigh from the back seat and I get my offering. Everything to her is this kind of sky. A chirping squirrel is still as full of wonder for her as the stars popping out over the blue Jewel Basin one way, the pale orange still hanging over the Canadian Rockies, the other. I close my eyes a moment; a small prayer in honor of squirrels. I want wonder.rbk-little-gitl-0513-1-mdn

There is heartbreak in all this. I fight to be there, under the gaining stars, not to consider the end of this day’s light a misfortune. It doesn’t have to be a death. It doesn’t have to make me think about tomorrow. I flirt with the story of the market bombing– picture a mother handling tomatoes, her son slipping an orange into his pants– fight the image of their bleeding bodies lying splayed and still in the dirt, covered in blown-up tomato pulp. No. I hold my baby’s hand tighter and weave a few of her fingers into mine. They’re sticky with huckleberry juice. I feel the stinging of sunburn on my back, minus an X. I mouth, I am here…I am here. The wonder does not have to be scary. She’s not scared. She is singing. I peek back to see what she is doing with this closing darkness. She is fingering the window. Counting stars. Feeling glass. Drawing pictures with her saliva. She is where I want to be.

I look at my husband’s face. It is the color of the Whitefish range: the last coal. He likes the window down halfway. He likes total silence. He is driving. He is where I want to be. Earlier, in the hardware store parking lot, I wait in the car with my daughter asleep in her car-seat, checking to see that the seatbelt is not cutting off her breathing. How can she breathe slumped over like that, her head to her belly? But she does– I can see her shoulders rising and falling. In-between checks, I stare at puddle mirages in the hot pavement, at women in passenger seats on the diagonal, all lined up; babies sleeping behind them. They are checking too, staring at mirages. One by one they click into ready position, their husbands walking proud and purposeful with a new hammer, a bag of fertilizer, dandelion killer. I am waiting for bear mace– red pepper spray, as if that would do anything, a grizzly bear bounding at us, our baby in the backpack singing to the bear, a cliff behind us, my husband reaching to his belt for his pathetic weapon. Play dead…play dead…play that woman and her son with tomatoes all over them in Israel, frozen, watching paw over paw hurl toward me over lupine and Indian paintbrush and yarrow, huckleberries. But I don’t know about the market bombing yet. And there is no bear. But I don’t know that yet either, sitting in the car in the hardware store parking lot.gnp_4

The day is done. Pepper spray– check. Pants and a sweater for later– check. Teva’s for the beach– check. Sunblock for the baby, three extra diapers, wipes, baby food, sun hat, a change of clothes for her, life vest– check check check check check check check. Back pack, fanny pack, water bottles, trail mix, sunglasses, camera– all checks. Bathing suits, towels, beach-blanket, rafts– yep. A cooler full of cold beer, sandwiches and whole milk in baby bottles– done. Gas– we’ll get some. Where are my sunglasses? Have you seen my sunglasses? Oops, forgot the keys. Where the hell are my sunglasses? On top of your head. Oh. We need bear mace. That stuff costs forty bucks…you have a better chance being killed in a car wreck than by a griz, anyway. Put your seatbelt on…we’re getting bear mace– we have a kid now. All right all right all right.

The day is done. We used everything but the pepper spray. I look at my husband, still losing light at the same rate as the Whitefish range, and feel safe and in love with him for carrying the baby in the backpack, the mace on his belt, pumping the gas– little things he wouldn’t want to know I loved him for. Little things that free me up to think about breathing and seat belts and bleeding bodies covered in tomatoes, and grizzly bears. I let go of my baby’s hand and reach for his again. He is where I want to be.

It’s all stars now. They call it big sky and they’re right. What are you thinking about? I whisper. Nothing, he says. I sit there and try to think of nothing, watching headlights come at us at seventy miles per hour on my baby’s side, pull at my seatbelt quietly to see if it would really stop me, nothing…nothing… I look back to see if she’s asleep. She is. I reach my hand back and rest it on her chest. She is breathing. Nothing…nothing… I put the same hand on my shoulder and feel the hot from the sunburn. My mother has had five melanomas removed from not wearing sunblock. Nothing…IMG_0804

I am left with my breathing. Check. My heart beat. Check. A raven sky. Countless lights twinkling…God, they really do twinkle. Twinkle twinkle little star– I figure out that it’s the same tune as the alphabet song. And then I am left without songs, because one of the stars loses itself in dust and falls right in front of us, right on the highway. We pass where I think it has fallen and look for stardust and leftover glow, but there is just an old cracked double yellow linesee that? I say. The star? he says. And I look for another; pick one and stare at it, ready to see it go down. But the longer I stare at one, the more I see all around it, and none fall, and it doesn’t matter, because I’m going deeper and deeper into the biggest sky I have ever seen, and I have lived here for years now, and I’m not thinking about that either. I am lost, in star after star after star after star…after star. After star. And I am there, wherever that is.

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)

.rbk-little-gitl-0513-3-mdn

Leave a Comment

Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts, Stories

Haven Winter Blog Series #9– Announcing Winner!

IMG_0478

So proud of my Haven Writing Retreats Alums and their powerful essays. Permission to be creative, indeed!

CONGRATULATIONS TO ALEXIS PUTNAM!

This is the last of our Haven Winter Blog Series.  I hope you have enjoyed it.  I don’t believe in competition, but I do believe in supporting people for fine work.  This is the post that my Haven team has chosen as the “winner.”  Yet all the Haven alums who have bravely submitted their response to how they give themselves permission to be creative…are “winners.”  Thank you for sharing, thank you for reading, and may the rest of your winter be full of creativity.  From our muse to yours, Laura  

Now Booking 2016 Haven Writing Retreats in glorious Whitefish, Montana:

February 24-28 (full with wait list)
June 8-12
June 22-26
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

IMG_0522

It is July. I stand in the kitchen, crying.

“You say you want to write, well write something! Why do you need to go on some retreat? Seems like the first step is to just put some words down…” My husband sounds both pissy and confused.

The words are logical, but miss the point, and it ignites a fire in me. Through the window I see the sun blazing away out in the backyard, and I’m surprised by the power of my anger, and the strength of my conviction.

“I do! I try! But I need help…” More tears flow, accompanied by a recounting of my view of the past several years. And why I think I should go on the Haven Writing Retreat in Whitefish, Montana. I need space and support to discover a path forward, and to recover the substance of my writing self – my voice.

I brush crumbs off of the cold, smooth counter with my hand and struggle to explain. To convey that the only thing left of my writing dream at this point is the jewel of knowing. Knowing that I need to write. 3 kids, a near-death experience, and years of sleep-deprivation and stay-at-home mothering have just about eaten me alive. And if all I have to go on is this gift of certainty, it is absolutely imperative that I follow it.

My husband is not actually a jerk. He may not fully understand, but he can see that I’m desperate. The truth is, we can’t afford the retreat, and the timing doesn’t make sense.

But these things – bold stands to nurture our deepest selves – are rarely simple or easy. Every story is complicated. So, though it’s a stretch, we resolve to make it work.

And 3 months later, I’m on a plane to Kalispell to find my voice.

prints***

Haven is not what I expected, but it turns out to be everything I need. The four days and nights blur into one another – a circling, rhythmic process that builds and swells.

Here, I am nourished, challenged, awakened, connected, raw, open, terrified, exhilarated.

I laugh and cry and stretch and learn and sit in stillness and silence to face my loudest fears.

I find a single thread that will become my voice, and follow it as it grows stronger, truer, and more substantial. Soon it will carry all my weight.

I am given a path, and a plan to carve out time and space to write – even in the busyness and noise and engulfing nature of motherhood.

I begin to hope.

***Forward

I’m back to my real life now. And back to making that same choice – to honor, protect, and nurture my writing self – in different ways.

These days it’s not a plane ticket to Montana, it’s grabbing a notebook and earplugs, and throwing myself onto the page – ungracefully, maybe, but with certainty.

It’s 20 minutes in the morning to unload my heart and clear my cloudy brain.

It’s 3 hours on Thursdays when the kids are farmed out in 3 directions – and I’m free.

It’s negotiating on Friday night for when (not if) those 2-3 additional hours of writing time will fit into our weekend.

It’s knowing – and willing myself to feel and believe – that committing to this writing is not taking away from those I love. This commitment gives me life. It gives me hope, and makes me more myself. Which, in turn, makes me a better mother, wife, and friend.

Sometimes, making this choice looks like learning to be okay with compromises.

Perhaps it’s okay to throw all the kids in the backyard for half an hour, forbidden from entering the house?

Perhaps it’s okay to allow a few viewings of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (or worse), in this formerly TV-free house?

IMG_0544Or to serve less-healthy dinners a few nights a week to save an hour or two of cooking time?

Experimenting with alternative ways to buy time doesn’t always feel great. I’m still learning. Still haggling with myself. Testing the limits in different directions to see which sacrifices and which trade-offs feel acceptable or sustainable.

Tonight I am not writing. But since that part of me has been resurrected, it’s always running in the background, grounding me. So instead of feeling stuck, lost and echoey inside, and unsure of my direction or purpose, I can embrace all of the not-writing parts of my life more deeply.

I can feel my 2 1/2 year old resting limp against my chest without being burdened. I can breathe deep, feel his soft hair on my face, and acknowledge that he’ll never be this small again, without worrying and wondering what I’ll be left with when he’s grown and gone. Because writing is here to stay.

Alexis Putnam

***Help bring a young writer to Haven Writing Retreats and have me Skyped into your Book Group!  Secure this perk by clicking here!  Only available to five Book Groups…

2016 Haven Writing Retreat Schedule:
February 24-28 (full with wait list)
June 8-12
June 22-26
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23



5 Comments

Filed under My Posts

Laura’s Best Winter “Food for the Muse” Recipes: Pasta Bolognese

While I am taking this time of dormancy to write, and enjoying what Haven Writing Retreats alums are saying about creativity here on my blog, I am also cooking up a storm!  It’s the perfect balance to the act of writing because while characters and stories dwell and grow in my mind, with food creation, there is an immediately met trajectory.  I create it:  people eat it.  Complete creative arc!  We will finish the Haven Winter Blog series this week.  I hope you are enjoying these musings on the creative process.  In the meantime…here is one of my very favorite things to create, perfected over many years of trial and error…never before written down.  From my kitchen to yours!  May it fuel your muse! Buon appetito!

Now Booking the Haven Writing Retreats 2016 Schedule

February 24-28 (one spot left)
June 8-12
June 22-26
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23
Sunday-Pasta-Tagliatelle-alla-Bolognese-2-640

Bolognese Sauce

(with apologies to the people of Bologna– this is an American woman’s best stab at what you do, and will always do, much better than this lowly lover of your cuisine)

I have learned to make this sauce over the years from the family I lived with in Italy, to Italian friends along the way in Chicago and Montana, and by cooking it over and over and becoming its friend, as with all favorite recipes.  It is my go-to happy meal and my family’s too.  Cook it when you need inspiration, when you feel inspired, when you’re in the dumps, when you want to dance in the kitchen for half the day, when you just…need…to…remember what it is to delight in holding beautiful lovingly grown manna in your hands and turning it into a blissful creation.  Sharpen your knives, clear the cutting board and counter, turn on some great music, (perhaps a bit of vino), and let’s go!  I serve this on the first night of my Haven Writing Retreats!  …food for the muse…

Note:  This is for a gallon of sauce!  It will feed a lot of happy people.  You can also freeze it.  I use about a quart for a box of pasta.

To begin:   The Sofrito– which is the base for many Italian sauces and soups

sofrito

Sofrito Ingredients:

2 yellow onions

4 cloves of garlic → 2 tbsp minced

4 cups chopped carrots

2 cups chopped celery

1 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

 

Additional ingredients:

1 6oz can tomato paste

2 cups organic whole milk

2 cups dry white wine

3 28 oz cans of Italian whole plum tomatoes, hand crushed

 

Meat:

4 slices very thick pancetta, cubed

2 lb ground pork (no spices)

1 lb ground beef

 

Step: #1:  Meat

Add olive oil to cover bottom of pot

Let oil heat but not smoke

Add cubed pancetta

Remove pancetta when fat is rendered and brown (should take about 4 minutes) with slotted spoon so the grease stays in the pot — Don’t burn

Add ground pork

Remove with slotted spoon once brown, leave enough grease to coat bottom (note:  you don’t want the meat to stew– you want it to brown, so add each meat so that it touches the bottom of the pan)

Add ground beef

Remove with slotted spoon once brown, leave enough grease to coat bottom (ditto)

Set all meat aside and cover with foil

Step #2: Sofrito (cooking process takes about 20-30 minutes)IMG_0125

Saute onions in pot at medium heat, add large pinch of good salt, [no pepper until end-- makes it bitter]

Once onions are transparent and beginning to brown, add garlic, stir, add carrots

Once carrots begin to stick to the bottom of the pot, add celery and parsley, don’t brown

Cook sofrito until all liquid is absorbed

Step #3:  Combine meat to sofrito, and add liquidsIMG_0135

Add all browned meat and can of tomato paste, cook 10 minutes stirring occasionally to avoid burning

Add milk and wine, let cook ~15 min or until liquids are absorbed and bubbling

Add the crushed tomatoes and remaining juice (I like to do it by hand rather than buying diced tomatoes.  It’s a feel thing.)Pasta Bolognese

Let sauce gently simmer for an hour, adding salt to taste during the processIMG_0141

 

 

 

 

Step #4:  Assembly:

Bring water to a rolling boil in stock pot, add salt

Cook pasta until al dente– This pasta sauce can be served with any hearty pasta.  I like papardelle, penne, and rigatoni the best.


Strain in colander

Add sauce to stock pot and warm on low

Keeping burner on low, add pasta, grated Parmigiano Reggiano to taste (a cup or so), fresh ground pepper to taste, and stir lightly until pasta is coated (this is key, and too many Americans skip this step and pile the sauce on naked noodles.  Bad form!  The sauce never really marries with the pasta.)

Plate and garnish with fresh chopped Italian parsley

Serve additional fresh ground pepper and grated Reggiano for people to add themselves.

YOU WILL HAVE VERY HAPPY PEOPLE AT YOUR TABLE…who will all know that they are eating food made with love.

Enjoy!

yrs.

Laura (and my daughter, Ella, who cooked this with me, took the photos, and recorded the recipe which had never before been written down…and told me a long time ago that my food was “made with love.”  High compliment.)

 

pomodoroNow Booking 2016 Haven Writing Retreats

February 24-28 (one spot left)
June 8-12
June 22-26
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

Leave a Comment

Filed under My Posts

Commencement: A Mother’s Guide to the Extra Stuff

cap tossas seen on mamalode.com

I can never remember if the word “commencement” means beginning or ending. My knee jerk reaction is to think that it means ending, though my writer’s mind quickly corrects it.

That’s probably because graduation ceremonies are called Commencement, and I think of graduation day as an ending– leaving the known behind: a good reputation, dear friends at a stone’s throw, families whose refrigerators and bikes and kitchen tables are yours for the sharing… the dismantling of decorated walls soon to betray you for guests, or someone else with new photo collages, new tapestries, new blue ribbons. I have never been good at leaving the familiar, and I usually mark it with a little hidden graffiti—Laura Munson lived here, and the dates.

But it’s not my turn this upcoming Commencement. It’s my daughter’s. Now it’s she who is dismantling her room, coming down to the end of her check list, five more days of school to go, graduation invitations in the mail, college deposit in, orientation dates in stone. There is a new timber in her voice; something dire. “Mom, can you do something with my Breyer horse collection?”

“Can’t you just leave them on your shelf?” I ask, vignettes reeling by of mock horse races on the lawn and barnyard feedings with tiny plastic apples, and that one coveted palomino paint that became real one Christmas.

“I need room for my stuff.”

“What stuff?”

And then I realize that the stuff that has been strewn all over her room for the last four years of high school actually could have had a home in her bookshelves if we’d been more able (or willing) to pack up her plastic horse collection.  I’m not sure whose job this is. Please Lord, not mine.

I look into her eyes. And I see…it’s my job. Some things are just too hard.

Suddenly, I feel a desperate need to give advice in fast forward. “Have I taught you how to make hospital corners? And to never leave a wet towel on a bed? Or leave a glass directly on wood?”

“I know. Respect the wood. You’ve told me.” She’s tolerating my Mom-ness much more than usual lately. She’s in the bittersweet of Commencement while I am bursting into tears in pathetic public places, like at the bank drive thru, catching myself in the video screen looking miserable. Will her roommate know that when she needs a hug but is too shy to ask, she makes tea? Will she know that she likes to sing in harmony and that all those eye-ball rolls don’t really mean anything? Will she know that she acts street-tough sometimes, but is deeply sensitive and if she’s playing the ukulele along with Jack Johnson, something pretty rough probably happened at school that day?

“Mom, why are you crying?” she says, bringing me back to the grim task of packing up her happy childhood.

“I’m sorry. I’m just going to miss you.”

Last week was when it really hit. I was doing laundry and I heard from her room in that new dire timber, “How do stamps work?”

Stamps? Like postage stamps?”

“Yeah.” This from a 4.0 student.

I went into her room. She was sitting on her bed addressing graduation party invitations. “Really? You can program a computer, but you don’t know how stamps work???”

“My generation doesn’t really use them.”

I was sure she was playing a joke on me. Stamps? But she wasn’t. She really had no clue that you use the same stamp for a local letter that you do for one that goes all the way to New York City.

Geez– what other glaring omissions have there been in my mothering? I’ve tried so hard to fill in every blank, taking every single second possible as a teaching moment. “Maybe I should write you a survival handbook for college and beyond. Would that be helpful?”

“I know all the basic stuff. But yeah…maybe the extra stuff.”

I wracked my brain, taking inventory. The extra stuff. If stamps are “extra” this could get ugly! I decided to do it room by room, compartmentalizing life in cross-section, like the dollhouse we spent hours decorating and playing in.

Kitchen:
I started with How to boil water, tell if pasta is ready, smell a gas leak, turn off the water main…but suddenly it turned into a different kind of “extra.”
• If you’re having a bad day, leave the dishes. But do soak them, or you’ll really be in a bad mood when you get around to cleaning them.
• If you’re having a really bad day, don’t adhere to the utensil slots. Just chuck ‘em all in and let them fall where they may. Actually, if it’s a really bad day, just leave the dishes alone. They can wait.
• No matter what kind of mood you’re in, make yourself a nice meal, especially if you’re lonely.
• Always eat some fruit in the morning and some veggies at some point in the day. Keep bananas, carrots, apples, and potatoes around. They do the trick when you’re not feeling inspired.
• Keep a granola bar in your purse. (Tip: Use only small purses—lest you end up with a Mary Poppins carpet bag, coat rack and all. Read Nora Ephron’s essay on women’s purses.)
• Splurge on really good jam and really good bread.
• Always have a flower or a piece of greenery in a vase on your kitchen windowsill. It really helps.
• If you see evidence of mice, set traps immediately. This probably will not apply to 99% of the places you’ll live, (we live in Montana), so take it metaphorically: See s*** for what it is and get rid of the source before it gets out of control.
• If you use To Do lists, get rid of the word “goal” and replace it with “possibility.” You’ll be nicer to yourself that way.
• If you find yourself writing down something that you’ve already done on a To Do list, just so you can cross it off, you might want to stop making To Do lists.
• Allow yourself to grocery shop without a list, but not when you are hungry. You might surprise yourself by what ends up in your grocery cart—like rhubarb or radishes or kale or pistachios!
• Always smell fish before you buy it. If it smells like fish, it’s no good. Also, look into its eyes. They should be clear. This also applies to boyfriends.
• To cut goat cheese, use dental floss. (Unflavored! Duh. Don’t roll your eyes.)
• To make Deviled Eggs, put boiled eggs into cold water/ice bath. When cool, cut in half, shell ON, with sharp knife, then scoop egg out with spoon. Magic!
• Learn how to make homemade chicken broth. (Ask your mother)

Living room:
• Splurge on nice candles. Light them for yourself daily. Light the not-nice ones for guests. Not the other way around.
• Lie on the couch and do other things than watch TV. Like read a book or listen to classical music.
• Watch old movies. You know…back when people used stamps, and women dressed for travel. There’s a lot to learn from the “olden days.”
• Limit TV.
• Listen to NPR. Especially opera on NPR. Pretty much everything you need to know about life is in operas.
• Make sure to have musical instruments and keep them within eye-range so you’ll actually play them. Guitars and pianos welcome group jam sessions.
• Always have a drum somewhere for that person who claims they “aren’t musical.”
• Have board games and cards in a drawer or on a shelf. Play them. Especially Scrabble, backgammon, gin rummy, Farkle, and Scattagories.
• Have guide books and binoculars. It’s good to know your birds and flowers and other critters. Even in the city, there are hawks.

Bathroom:
• Have nice hand towels and nice soap in your powder room. Your guests should feel special.
• Use your powder room. You should feel special too!
• Always have an extra roll of toilet paper in each bathroom.
• And a plunger. (Replace plungers every-so-often, unless you are the type to wash and disinfect toilet plungers. Dirty secret: I’m not. That’s what the second flush is for.)
• Don’t forget to wash the toilet flusher handle when you wash your toilets. They are dearly overlooked. (Try not to think about that too much in hotel rooms.)
• Put nice art in your bathrooms. And magazines. You can learn a lot about a person from their bathroom.
• Supply room spray.

Bedroom:

Don’t be a slob.  Pick up your clothes.  If they’re not dirty, put them somewhere to wear again during the week, like in a hamper in your closet. NOT on a chair. And definitely NOT on your treadmill. Like your mother. Who then forgets she has a treadmill.
• Wash your sheets at least once a month.
• Splurge on nice sheets and feather pillows.
• If the person/people with whom you are sharing your room snore, make sure you have earplugs by your bed.
• Supply your nightstand with books that you want to read when you grow up: a book of poetry, a spiritual text of some sort, a classic novel, something on the best-seller list that is not written by a celebrity.
• If you eat breakfast in bed, use a tray. Crumbs are worse than bed-bugs in some cases, especially if you’ve listened to your mother and splurged on good bread.
• Eat breakfast in bed, but not lunch or dinner. That means you’re depressed.
• Do not let your dog sleep with you. Or your babies. They need a bed of their own, and so do you.
• Sleep in every-so-often. Like till eleven. This will get harder and harder the older you get.

Closet:
• You’re on your own on this one, but do get nice hangers if possible.
• Oh, and do accept that your “skinny” clothes are probably a thing of the past if you haven’t been able to fit into them for a few years…

Office:

Virginia Woolf was right—you need a room of your own, even it’s in an eave, or a closet under a stairway, or (if you’re lucky enough) a whole studio over your garage, or an unoccupied bedroom, or a renovated garden shed.  Claim space for yourself!

• Don’t allow people to come and go without knocking.
• If you have children, always have an available chair in it for them. It’s important to have your own space, but it’s also important that they know that your work does not take away your motherhood.
• This one is really really important: Whatever it is that you do in that office, whether it’s a vocation or avocation, make sure it’s something you love. NOT something that you are necessarily good at. If you happen to be good at what you love, then that’s a bonus, but not a rule!

Outside:
• Have a communal outdoor space that feels like a room in your house, but isn’t exactly…like: A screened porch, fire escape, hammock, hot tub, front stoop, garden or terrace. It doesn’t have to be big. Just a place where you sit at least once every few days and dream a little.

A few extra extras:
• Write handwritten notes on nice stationary to people you love. That’s where the stamp comes in…
• Try not to kill bugs. If they’re inside, put a mason jar over them and take them outside. They do elegant things like lick the wax off the peony buds so that they can bloom. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.) (Mice are a different story. If you’ve had one die in the walls, you’ll know what I mean.)
• Practice Yes and Possibility instead of No and Not Possible. Positive begets positive and negative begets negative. You don’t want the latter.
• Have fun, for crying out loud! Life is beautiful and heartbreaking any way you slice it so you might as well enjoy the ride!
• There is no such thing as cool.
• Judge not.
• Don’t mistake a full schedule for a full life. If you find yourself saying, “There’s never a dull moment,” you should probably make it a goal to have at least one “dull moment” every day.
• Take walks. (especially in the rain)
• Sing.
• Dance.
• Read poetry.
• Have dogs.
• Grow a garden.
• Travel.
• Create the sacred wherever you are.
• Be kind to old people and remember they know a lot more than you do. Ask them to tell you their stories.
• Know that there are saints everywhere. Look for them. They’re often where you least expect it.
Call your mother. Texting is a challenge since she can never find her reading glasses. Plus, she likes to hear your voice. It reminds her of lying in bed with you when you were little, reading books, singing, praying, watching the moon, dreaming. And she loves you no matter what, which is hard to find.
DRINK WATER

graduation_cap

6 Comments

Filed under Motherhood, My Posts

College Decision Day

Haven Retreat was named one of the top five Writing Retreats in the US by Open Road Media and Tumblr! The last 2014 slots are filling fast so if you want to come, email me asap: Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com!
June 18-22 (full)
September 10-14
September 24-28
October 8-12
October 22-26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Comments

Filed under My Posts

Conflict: A Love Story

images

As featured on Huffington Post 50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve got homework.”

“I’ve got basketball practice.”

“How about ten?”

“Twenty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 Comments

Filed under My Posts

Thank God!

Retreat in Big Sky Beauty!  Haven Writing Retreats

June 19th-23rd (Full)
August 7th-11th (Now Booking)
September 4th-8th (Now Booking)
September 18th-22nd (Now Booking)

I’ve noticed something lately that I wish I’d noticed a long time ago.  Maybe if I’d been listening in church as a kid I would have learned it then, but I was too starry eyed– staring at the blues in the stained glass, dreaming about all the things there were to dream about.  That’s what church was for me:  a time to dream.  And believe.  And feel tucked into community between my loving mother and father, to harmonize on good old fashioned hymns, and to take the Holy Eucharist and really believe I was having a feast with my other loving parent:  The Big Guy.  Who somehow could make himself small too, wafer and wine-sized that fit into the cup of my soft little girl fingers.  I was always so thankful for that.  It was the thing that stood out for me Sunday after Sunday:  God could be bigger than the night sky, and small enough to rest on my tongue and be swallowed down with sweet communion wine.  I learned to be grateful because of the Holy Eucharist.

Somewhere along the line, I started expecting things to happen.  And I lost much of my gratitude.  I guess they call that entitlement.  It’s a highly unattractive quality, and one to skip at all costs if you can.  I started to get easily angered when the smallest hardships would happen.  Not the big things– those I took in slowly; piece meal.  I had faith that the Big Guy would handle that stuff.  I just had to pray for grace and for God’s “will” to be done.  That was what my sister, mother, and grandmothers told me, and I listened.  It was a much easier prayer than, “Gimme gimme gimme.”  But the small things…were another ball of wax.  I’d stub my toe and fling the F word.  I’d lose my place in line and want to make “a federal case” about it, bringing in words like “justice” and “fairness” and “wrong.”

Maybe it was because my parents had been brought up during the Depression and wanted my life to be light and blithe, but I don’t remember being taught the lesson that life is not fair.  There is no such thing as “fair.”  And if you think there is, you will suffer.  When people were mean to the little guy, I’d barge in and try to come to their rescue.  Or at least sit with them at lunch if I didn’t feel so brave.  When a kid would cheat in class and get an A to my B (especially when they cheated off of ME), I would fume in my diary, and fume in the school halls, and fume in general.  Sometimes I’d take it out on my Bichon Frise during our obligatory after-school walk around the block.  I’d tie him to a tree, and climb it and hide from the world.

Somewhere in the mix, my very best friends’ lost a sister and a father to cancer, and I realized that the safety I felt standing between my mother and father at church was not the rule.  It was the exception.  I was mad at the world.  Life wasn’t fair.  I did not feel grateful at all.  I felt duped.  The Communion wafer only worked in church.  So that meant…I was mad at God.

I brought my anger to a teacher in high school.  He said, “Well if you’re angry with God, that means you believe in Him.”  That really pissed me off.  I didn’t want to believe in a Creator who would be unfair.  And I took a long break from the whole mess.  I was mad at God, period.

I travelled around, studied other religions and spiritual texts, asked a lot of questions, and started writing books as a way to sort things through.  And somewhere after the birth of my first child, when everything was so pure and full of wonder and mystery and total surrender, gazing into the miracle of birth and new life, I realized…I wasn’t really mad at God.  I was mad at institutions:  school, family, church, society.  I felt like I’d been lied to.  Things didn’t all add up if you showed up a certain way in life.  They just didn’t.  There are no promises, no matter how good of a person you are, or how bad of a person you are.  Life happens.  Life is daily.  And life is painful.  And beautiful too.

And the only thing that made any sense at all was something that glimmered and winked at me from my past.  The Love message.  The Final Commandment.  So I took it and ran.  I wanted to forget about unfairness and suffering.  I just wanted to know what it was to live that final commandment.  I wanted to Love God, and my Neighbor, and maybe even in-so-doing…I’d learn that last little piece:  I’d learn to love Myself.

By and by, I had another child, and both of them grew, and I started to see them raging against a stubbed toe, or a mean girl comment to the underdog, or an injustice in the classroom, or a bad call on the soccer field,  or any number of “unfair” things life dished up.  And I sat them down and said, “I wish I’d have learned this a long time ago:  Life is neither fair.  Nor unfair.  Life is just life.”

They looked at me like I was an anarchist.  And maybe living into the Final Commandment renders a person just that.

“Stop expecting things to go a certain way.  Just love.  Be love.  Forgive.  And love some more,”  I said with the fervor of an Evangelical.  Maybe not the best way to sell a teen on something.

It fell flat.  In a kid’s mind, there’s no muscle in that way of thinking.  Because school teaches us that life is structured and the structure keeps us safe.  We get rewarded for certain behavior, and punished for others.  If we work hard, there are rewards.  If we look the part, we will be rewarded.  If we have certain types of friends and excel at certain types of activities, we are rewarded.  There is no Worst Student award.  There is no So You Had a Bad Year award.  There is no You Sat on the Bench award.  There is no You Eat Lunch Alone award.  You Didn’t Get Into Any of the Colleges You Applied To and Yer Going to the Community College award.  And yeah.  That sucks.  And the very best mothers, and teachers, and aunties will tell you:  When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

But I want to teach something different.  I want to say that there aren’t lemons and there isn’t lemonade.  It’s all in your perspective.  That’s all.  For that I can breathe deep.  Feels good, doesn’t it.

So what does that look like in daily life?  Here’s how it played out last week and why I’m driven to write this post this Saturday morning in Montana, with the kids still asleep and no one rushing yet to get anywhere, on time, in uniform, to perform, to “battle,” to win…  Even when I say that it’s not about winning.  They hear Blah blah blah.  For now they are just quiet, and breathing, and warm in their beds and I’m on my second cup of tea, in my pajamas, with nowhere to go.  These are the moments to really receive what the week may have taught in the way of lessons.  And I got served up a good one.

I was having lunch with a friend and she was telling me about her divorce settlement.  She’d just finished her last mediation and she said it was the bravest she’d ever been.  They didn’t have the money to hire lawyers, so they negotiated the Parenting Plan, and all the division of assets, including the house, stock, back taxes…all of it…without any real legal counsel.  Just the mediator making sure they didn’t decapitate one another in the process, making minor suggestions based on who was crossing their arms in front of them and sneering.  “It was terrifying,” she said.  “But I got everything I wanted.  With the exception of my marriage.  But I guess that’s been over a long time.  It’s like a death, though.  You have to grieve.  You can’t skip steps.”  She sighed.  “But I think I came out okay in the settlement.  The mediator seemed to think so, anyway.  And my mother.”

“Thank God,” I caught myself saying.

She looked up at me with a sharpness in her exhausted, cried-out eyes.   “You know…why do we only thank God when things work out the way we want them to?  You know what I’ve learned in this whole divorce experience– watching my kids lose their core family, watching them have to accept another woman into their lives, watching them feel embarrassed in front of their friends, watching the break down of what was for years such a strong foundation…like trying to hold water.  Impossible.  You know what I’ve learned watching that water drain through my fingers no matter what I do to be a better vessel?  We don’t learn from the good times.  I didn’t learn anything from nice vacations to the tropics or years of perfect Christmas card photographs, or theme birthday parties all recorded for posterity’s sake to show what?  That we had something precious and beautiful and powerful and unshakeable?  No.  It didn’t end that way.  And what does that mean?  That we’re all fucked now?  That nothing from the past was real?  And that nothing in the future matters because the water fell through our hands and we couldn’t do a damn thing about it?  No.  No.  No.”

Her face was red and her breath shallow and I wanted to hug her, but I was sort of scared of her.  I’d never seen her so strong and present.  So I just sat there, waiting.  I knew I was about to learn something big if only I had my mind open and my heart wide.

“I’ve learned that the best Thank God we can utter is when things DON’T go the way we want them to.  When life serves up total and utter SHIT!  That’s the time to drop to our knees and say, Thank you, Lord.  Thank you.  Because that’s where the lessons are.  That’s when we grow.  That’s when we can really understand what it is to love in its most pure and simple way.”

I could feel myself resisting it.  Why don’t we want this to be true?  What are we so scared of?  I remembered the last night’s sunset and how it yielded to star after star popping into sight like, “hey– I was here the whole time, you just couldn’t see me.  Maybe you could remember a thing or two about holy mystery and all that dreaming at church you used to do.”  I had felt gratitude that night sitting there, parked by the meadow, watching night come.  But being grateful for divorce?  Or cancer?  Or death?  That takes a master.  Doesn’t it?

I gave it a whirl.  All week when things came up that I didn’t like or that felt uncomfortable or dangerous or just all wrong…I mouthed, “Thank God.”  When the toilet, dishwasher, and hot tub all broke in the same day, I mouthed, through clenched teeth, but still:   “Thank God.”  When I found a pack rat nest under the hood of my truck and black smoke billowed through the tail pipe, I screamed, “Thank God,” but it kind of sounded like a swear word.  Still.  When my kid threw up at school, I said, “Thank God,” and stocked up on chicken broth.  When I tried to release a mouse into my yard rather than snapping its neck with a conventional trap, and my dog attacked it…I whispered…”Thank God,” but with a question mark.  I decided there is no right Thank God.  It’s just an openness to the flow of life being exactly as it is, and even exactly as it should be, if you believe in should.  Or design.  But even if you don’t, gratitude busts through suffering, and I think we could all use a dose of that.

I’ve decided to try to get back to that little girl in church who didn’t necessarily need things to go a certain way.  In those days,  I had the safety of my mother and father and this Creator called God that the minister promised existed and on top of that, loved me.  That was all I needed.  That kind of blind faith is what I want back.  I don’t know who or what God is.  I’ve had hundreds of ideas about this subject for years.  When I was little I used to say, “But who is God’s God?”  I don’t want to have questions like that any more.  I like the mystery.  I often say to my kids, “If we’re supposed to know, we would.  Just receive the message.  Just love.  That’s hard enough.”

But does it have to be so hard?  I think the way to it being easy is in the spirit of what my friend taught me this week.  If we can find gratitude for EVERYTHING and I mean EVERYTHING, and receive it as a holy gift…well, I dare say, with tears in my eyes and the tea kettle telling me there’s a third cup for me this fine Montana morning…that holy gift is the gift of freedom.  May you have thanks for everything that makes up this day.  And may you feel free in it.

 

 

 

 

18 Comments

Filed under My Posts

Certainly Uncertain

As published on the Huffington Post, and Relationship Advice Cafe

I know my way around uncertainty. Namely in the form of marital crisis. I wrote an essay and a memoir about a particular season of my life in which my husband wanted out of the marriage. I felt that he was in a deeper crisis of self, brought on by career failure. And rather than “kick him to the curb,” as so many have told me would be their reaction, I chose to hold the space for him to get through it. I had limits. I wasn’t going to go on like that forever. But I loved him and had twenty years invested in the life we’d created together—two wonderful children, a farmhouse in Montana, a life we’d so deliberately built. I privately gave him six months and stood back while he behaved in ways that challenged me to the core. I practiced living in the present moment, focusing on what I could control and what I could create, letting go of the rest and trying not to take his actions personally. My commitment was not to suffer emotionally. This was his issue, not mine, but when you are in a marriage, the actions of your spouse are likely to ultimately affect your emotional and even physical safety, especially the overall climate of the family. It was my job to keep my children’s life as normal and safe as possible, hold down the “fort,” as it were, and communicate with them throughout. We can love and respect someone, but not necessarily love and respect their choices. Life isn’t always black and white. Crisis does not have to be your undoing. These were the concepts I tried to model for them.

It was a fine line I walked…between taking a stand for myself and my own well-being, (as well as that of my children), and giving my husband the space to work through his crisis. Three years later, things are not all tied up in a pink bow. Not at all. I don’t look at marriage like that. Marriage is about ebb and flow. And some marriages are meant to end. Mine has never been a strategy to stay married. Mine has been a philosophy about how to live your life during hard times, especially when you are dealing with rejection—something I know all too well from being a writer and dealing with the publishing world. People like to use my story as an example of how to save a marriage, but to me, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about living in the grey zone and how to cope, moment by moment.

For whatever reason, I have been given the opportunity to learn much about crisis and have often asked myself: How long is too long? When is it time to move on? Even if you still hold hope that your spouse is going to heal and come back as an equal loving partner, at what point is it taking a toll on your well-being and even your health? At what point do you model graceful endings to your children? There is no rule. There is no road map. Each marriage has its complexities and mysteries that cannot be understood from the outside. Or even sometimes from the inside. It’s a fruitless pursuit to judge that which you do not understand, even though people seem to consider it a lusty sport on the internet.
I do know this for sure: life is ever-changing, ever-evolving. Ever-uncertain. When the kids were little, it felt static. My life was measured by nap times and play dates. Now with one in high school and one in middle school, each day brings last minute “surprises”: “Mom, I just remembered, I have a soccer meeting tonight at 7:00.” There goes the roast chicken/dinner around the table fantasy. “Mom, can I spend the night at Ryan’s tonight and then go skiing tomorrow with his family?” There goes the family game night/popcorn fantasy.

It turns out that a lot of what I have built is in fact, a fantasy, or in laymen’s terms: goal-driven. And while those fantasies/goals might have been sustainable when the kids were little, they aren’t now. Everybody has their own needs now and voice them boldly…and we dance together to meet them, not always well. Life has turned into more of a democracy in our home than anything else. And there is always the knowledge that you just might get voted down. What was familiar and felt “safe” not long ago, has been replaced with surprises. Some bittersweet. I have been there for my children every step of the way. Very suddenly, that changed. The last two years I’ve been travelling, promoting my memoir and doing speaking engagements. I’ve worked a long long time for career success and on top of it, we need the money. Because I live in rural Montana, that means I can’t commute into New York City to do a reading at a library while the kids are at school, or pop up to Boston to speak at a fund-raising luncheon. It means that I am on tandem-airplanes, thousands of miles away from home and usually for at least three days. The constructs upon which I co-built this family are different now. We have been through upheaval. We have learned that upheaval is the natural course of life. It doesn’t have to be “bad” or scary or resisted. There is no such thing as the perfect family. But no matter what, we know that we love each other.

Life is ever-changing, ever-evolving. I have learned that when we accept the “groundlessness” of that, as the Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chodron says, when we breathe into it and find that there is actually comfort in the not-knowing, it’s easy to hold that space. For going slowly and not projecting into the future, worrying about the turns life might take. I read a quote recently: Something to the tune of—“if you worry about something and then it actually happens, then you’ve worried twice. And if it doesn’t happen, you’ve worried in vain.” I want to live my life like that. Not in an ode to what I had envisioned. But to what’s actually happening. Right now. In this moment. Certainly uncertain.

20 Comments

Filed under Huffington Post Blog Pieces, Motherhood, My Posts