Tag Archives: philosophy

Roll Call– What’s in a Name

botticelli_birth_venus_2In preparation for a writer’s lockdown for the next month, I’m reading some of my early Montana musings and learning from myself. This woman was being schooled by her need to see things from the inside out, coming into her intuition. Pour a cup of tea, take a quiet moment, and see if you remember this time in your life.  Maybe it’s right now…

The naming of things. I’ve never been very good at it. Seems so formal. Restrictive.
Babies don’t enter this world with the need to name everything in it. In their estimation, the world is not made up of nouns that must be pointed at; possessed. The world is merely an extension of their little selves, still more soul than flesh. The naming of things, then, becomes a social convenience. But every baby knows that it is not a matter of survival. We forget that, I think, once we discover that our index fingers have power.

It was the Renaissance that brought me around. I was living for a year in Florence, Italy as a student of Art History. The naming of names was not just a practice reserved for museums and classrooms in that boisterous city. Florence sang with names in a full crescendo Verdi. In the dome of the Duomo…Michelangelo… Brunelleschi… the bronzed doors of the Baptistry…Ghiberti…in the cornflower and squash blossom porcelain Madonnas and cherubini in vertical rounds throughout the city…Della Robbia…in the stone walls of the countryside…Etruscans…fig picking in the hills of Chianti…Gallileo… the great Palazzo Medici keeping watch, the spirit of Dante burning for a woman in a small church, the quiet river Arno reminding the Florentines that it can rise and destroy even a Leonardo, but not his name. The names that made their city great are in the hearts and mouths of every Florentine—child, teenager, middle-aged and old; you cannot get through a dinner without being reminded of the Renaissance and the events that led up to it.
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After a while, the novelty of hearing a place in fortissimo twenty-four-seven, became jaded– sinister almost. It was what I imagine the early stages of madness to sound like: a roll call in my mind’s ear– Machiavelli, Raphael, Tiziano, Donatello, Giotto, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca… A simple walk through the city became deafening: San Lorenzo, Santa Croce, Santa Trinita`, Orsanmichele, San Marco, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito—with always this maniac coloratura: Michelangelo…Michelangelo. One foot into the Uffizi museum and the brain throbbed with it. Like a horror film shooting from every angle—there: the famous angel playing the lute up in a corner almost lost in the red dark velvet. There: the reds and blues of Raphael…there: the fair pinks and periwinkles of Fra Angelico…there: the structure and hulk of the Michelangelos, the red crayon of the de Vincis pulsing three dimensional on a sheet of paper. And always those eyes of the Botticelli divas.
There was no relief, no sanctuary. How could I sit in a café drinking espresso when The David was within walking distance? How many times should a girl spending a year in Florence visit the David before she really knows the David? Once a day? Twice a week. Twice a day? And what about the Slaves? Don’t forget them in their eternal half-emergence from their Carraran marble tombs. What about the unending palazzos, piazzas, chiesas, ponte? The tapestries and frescoes, the nunneries and the catacombs, and the gardens—the gardens? Every moment of looking down was a promise of missing the name that would surely be there should I look up.
But what about the tomatoes? The long stemmed artichokes and blood oranges, the walnuts and purple figs and hot chocolate so thick it hangs at the end of your spoon? What about the little forgotten churches, cold and wet, with a quartet practicing Vivaldi in the apse?
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One day, I folded under the aural heft of it. I turned from the gallery of the Uffizi I had been skimming, and I ran—past Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Michelangelos’ Holy Family, Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino– past postcard vendors and character artists’ easels—past whizzing Vespas and women walking arm in arm– down to the Arno, where in a full sweat, I vomited. And I watched the voices drown in the steady slow stink until they were gone.
“You’re one of the lucky dozen,” said an old Italian man pointing at me with his cane as if he had been sent from the Renaissance to rub salt in my country’s artistic wound.
“Scusi?” I said.
“Il Stendhalismo. Stendhal’s Disease. Dizzy in the head and the stomach from all the art of Firenze. At least a dozen tourists get it every year.”
“But I live here,” I managed to say in my borderline Italian.
He smiled and shrugged and walked off as quickly as he had appeared.
I made a pact then. I would leave one museum unseen. Unheard. Its faces un-named. The other famous Florentine museum: The Bargello. I would save it. And instead, I would go slowly through the halls of the Uffizi for one year until the voices simmered to a whisper, or better, became woven into my heartbeat like a monk’s prayer.
It worked. Months later, I made my usual pass along the wall which holds the Birth of Venus, and stopped dead center. Not because I wanted to name her, but because I needed to forget a lost love– stare at something so beautiful, it would flush the hurt away. I stared into her wise eyes and her figure started to tunnel out of the painting toward me with a promise: she would clean away my heartbreak if I would not close my eyes. So I stood there, my eyes fixed on hers until they stung, museum patrons coming and going, reading the plaque beside her, saying the word Botticelli and leaving, and I stayed until there were sea-cleaned tears falling down my cheeks. Now, when I look into the eyes of the Venus on the half shell, I do not need to say Botticelli in order to believe in her perfect flaxen place in land, sea and sky.
I spent my last day in Florence making a café latte last four hours in my favorite outdoor café, around the corner from the Uffizi, one piazza away from the Bargello. I needed to return to the States with the taste of espresso in my mouth and the stink of the Arno in my nose and the perfume of squashed tomatoes fallen from street vendors, the sound of the horses’ hoofs and high-heeled shoes on the cobblestones. I did not hear Puccini or Verdi, not even in a pianissimo.
Instead, I overheard some tourists talking on the street corner, clad in money belts and brand new Nike sneakers. “Yeah, it’s been an awesome two weeks,” one said to the other similarly vested American, introducing herself. “First we did Paris, and then we did Madrid, then we did Milan, today and tomorrow we’re doing Florence, and then we’re doing Rome for a few days and flying back.”
That sealed it. I did not do Florence. I learned that year that a place cannot be done. Whether you have one minute in it, or an entire lifetime. The ultimate difference between doing a place and being in a place, I suppose, has to do with an openness, but too, the privilege of time. I will never know Florence like the Florentines do. But I understand the place past the name. And I understand that a name is just a name perhaps, until you have sat for many hours, and sipped a cup of coffee knowing it is there, around the corner. Having surrendered a lover in its midst. Trusting that it can clean you the next time you look it in the eye.
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***
It took three years of living in Montana before it dawned on me that all cone-bearing trees are not called Pine trees. It took me five years of living in Montana before I could see that the structure of the distant hills was different from hill to hill. Six, before I could see what the hills were made of. Seven before I would stop and stare at a Hemlock and wonder why there were not, then, Cedars or Subalpine Fir dwelling nearby. Eight before I could tell when the Larch were just about to go as flaxen as the Botticelli Venus, before they went bare and asleep. And I got stuck there at eight for a while because I decided it was time for field guides and the naming of names—and suddenly my pack became heavy with books on wildflowers, trees, scat and track identification, and binoculars, and my walks in the woods were half spent with my nose in a topographical map. Suddenly my walks in the woods were like my early walks through the galleries of the Uffizi, with a running commentary of names: Fir, Larch, Subalpine Fir, Grand Fir, Cedar, Hemlock, Lodgepole, Ponderosa. And I was not seeing the forest anymore.
So I backed off. Lost the field guides and maps. Started riding horses and not carrying anything but a bottle of water and a piece of fruit. I cantered through the woods so that the trees were in constant blur, hoping that with my new vantage point, I might not see a Larch and think: Larch. And that brought me through to nine. My ninth year. Now. Today. When the forest started to sing.
I was sitting at a glacial lake, ten or so miles from home, not remembering that it was late September and that the ten o’clock sunsets are a thing of summer past. I had come to the woods not in the pursuit of trees, and not to forget a lost love, but to forget a potential one.
My husband announced that morning that he wanted to be scientifically done with our life “as breeders.” No more kids. I heard bits and pieces of it—one of each…enough for both sets of arms…we fit just right in a canoe…airplanes trips still affordable…college tuition possibly manageable if we start saving now…no shared bedrooms…we can take that trip back to Italy you’ve been talking about since I met you—show the kids all those paintings you love so much.
“I’m done,” he said. I heard that loud and clear. He wanted to know that I was okay with that.
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So I lost light tonight at the lake, thinking about the fact that we humans have one miracle left that we can at least court, if not perform. An outward and visible sign, I think the Sunday school quote goes. Still, left up to Mystery, but perhaps, if all goes well, possible. One last stroke at genius—one last connection to the Creator. One last place of true breathlessness. Surrender.
And he wanted to cut off that line to Divinity in a matter of a few minutes in a fluorescent-lit doctor’s office, all for a small fee. “I think insurance pays for most of it,” he said.
I lost light watching the last of the bug hatches, and the fish rising and the clouds going crimson, breathing shallow little strikes at feeling okay about the last of my motherhood. No more would my belly swell with life kicking and swimming inside me like that mountain lake. I tried to force a cavalier alliance to population control. But it seemed all wrong, no matter how I tried to wrap my mind around it.
And then it didn’t matter, because it was dark. And I was far from home. And I wasn’t sure I knew my way. I’d always heard that horses did, but there were steep cliffs my horse was willing to go down in the dark that I wasn’t, and so I needed to be her guide. And I didn’t feel like I could be anyone’s guide just then.
I mounted and, loose-reined, she led me to the trail. The moon was a thin crescent—not much for lighting paths through thick stands of Fir and Larch. I turned her one way and she hesitated, ever-loyal, and I made my mind blank. Putting take me home…make my decision for me…into a parcel of intention she might be able to translate; horses are the most intuitive animals I have ever shared dark or light with. She stepped forward and I went with her into the dark woods. And I went like that for what seemed like miles and miles, not being able to see the trail, not really caring all that much, mourning my unborn children, trusting.
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And then I thought about the Venus. How she asked me to stare into her, believe in her until my eyes stung with her cleansing power. I let out a sigh then. And my horse stopped. We were at an old granddaddy of a Douglas Fir that I recognized; it was the one that stood alone in the clear-cut, like some logger had just been too taken by it to cut it down. My horse was still; dormant. I looked up into its branches; they were full and architectural. Second growth. Maybe third. But statuesque and mighty in a way trees aren’t allowed to be around here much anymore.
I let my head fall back against my shoulders and sighed and let my breath rise up into its branches the way I had let the Venus pull out of her painting. And I held and it stung, only not in my eyes, but in my ears this time. And I did not say, Douglas Fir. I said, “Thank you.”
And we went then, through the next few undulations of forest until we were climbing the steep hill home. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it for all its silence. And I could smell it, for all its running sap. Rotting stumps. Dusty bottom.
I leaned forward on my mare’s neck, holding her mane. And we crested the ridge. Then back I leaned, holding firm with my knees, letting my hips go loose in her rhythm. Hearing the scuttle of scrim and glacial tilth, grinding under-hoof. The rustling of scrubby brush and nocturnal beasts, not the sort to trust daylight at all.
On the flat ground, we cantered. I held on to her mane, breathless in the dark. And I did the reverse. I closed my eyes.
I felt it: clean.
And the forest sang us home.

To plug into your intuition through the power of words and Montana…come to a Haven Writing Retreat this Fall 2017

September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8 (FULL)
October 18-22

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Quiet


In the video I posted over the weekend, David Foster Wallace talks about how our society doesn’t value the art of being quiet. He says we don’t take an hour to look at a painting; we don’t sit all day with a book. We are uncomfortable with mind challenges in complex music and writing. I agree with him. For some reason, long ago, I smelled this rat and decided to devote a lot of my time to stepping into the discomfort. I sought musicians who were pushing the aesthetic like Stravinsky, Nico and the Velvet Underground, Micheal Nyman…and on the page, Kundera, Calvino, Brautigan. I’d stand in museums and watch installation art-– watched a woman suck her toe for longer than anyone wants to watch another person suck their toe. I loved that Duchamp put a urinal in a museum and called it art. I loved German Expressionism. I liked the grotesque. I sat through the eight hours of Warhol’s Chrysler building movie, Empire–- one continuous shot. I loved Ingmar Berman movies. People called my taste in art and music “weird,” my taste in movies “boring.” I took it as a compliment, denouncing the saccharin pastels of Monet’s water lilies and the living room art people chose to match the upholstery on their couches. I wanted to know what it felt like to step outside the cradle of mainstream society and be in a place of shock, wonder, ugliness, confusion, boredom and thusly, to be wide awake in those places. That’s what I wanted most: to be wide awake.

Along the way, I wrote books and got married and had children and that was extreme enough. I didn’t need to force the issue. Life became full. Self-propelled. And I stopped taking time to look into my awe. Never mind my discomfort. The washboards of life bumped me along and I got used to it. It wasn’t that I was in the cradle, as much as it was that I was going too fast, not pausing enough when wonder struck. I didn’t like that about myself. I wanted that to change.

That’s when I started paying attention to things like breathing, mental pollution, emotional choice, horses, birds. I had these practices ripe and alive in my life for a nice long time.

But in the last few years since the moment I signed a book contract, my life went full throttle. The deliberate act of taking pause seemed like extravagance. Saved for a future rainy day. It felt ornamental. Decadent. Even juvenile. I had a BIG JOB to do. I had planes to catch. I had people to see. I’d leave breathing and birds for later when things calmed down. But that was just a story I was telling myself, because the truth of it is when you kick into high gear like that, there’s a strong possibility that you are afraid of low gear. You’re afraid of that frequency. Who would you be in it? What would the map of your mind look like? Sound like? And dear God, what would you do without any buttons to push? Without your email and messages to check? Without those planes to catch. Uh-oh. You have it bad. How on earth did this happen to you? Two seconds ago, you were happily and hornily watching an eight hour shot of the Chrysler building.

Something had to be done. So, I decided to dare the discomfort again. It looked a lot different than it did in my twenties, however. Here’s what it looked like:

I found a place where my cell phone wouldn’t work, where there was no place to plug in a computer, where there were as few people as possible. I didn’t need it to be gritty or edgy for it to be uncomfortable at this stage of life. In fact, I needed it to be beautiful– as beautiful as yes, Monet’s Giverny. I needed it to play out in the fields of embarrassing riches, in fact. You see, I was so full throttle, that I’d stopped seeing beauty. Worse, I’d stopped stopping for it. It’s one thing to recognize the discomfort in ugliness, but quite another to recognize it in beauty. And to sit quietly with it.

I’ll present this as a question: When was the last time you spent the better part of a day just sitting on a bench? Not in a city, but in a garden? An empty garden? Not talking. Not messing with your cell phone or laptop? Not taking photographs. Not writing in a journal or reading a book or a newspaper. Nothing blaring in your ears. Just sitting there? Watching. Breathing. It’s hard damn work is what it is. Whatever has become of our society that it’s hard damn work? I want to do that work.

Selfish, you say? Glut. No Pilgrim’s Progress there. Must produce. Must succeed. Must conquer. Must push buttons. That’s the cradle of society really needing you to go back to sleep. Get back on the conveyor belt. Sit on a bench in an empty garden all day? That’s for cats in windowsills. Old people in rocking chairs. But…if you think about it…we do sit in one place for long amounts of time. Watching. Just not flowers blowing in the wind. Not dragonflies. Not a robin with a worm. That story is…well, boring. Isn’t it? We’d rather someone had a gun in their hand or a hand on an ass or an ass in a fast car. And I won’t even get into our current obsession with reality TV. I mean…watching people living? Can we not even bear to watch ourselves live? We’d rather be able to turn the channel. It’s so uncomfortable to not be able to turn the channel–- or get up and walk to a different bench and see how the flowers blow there and if there are different bugs and birds. I’m talking about the art of staying.

Well I did it. I sat on a bench in an empty garden for hours. And I’m telling you: it was one of the hardest things I’ve done in years. I went back the next day and took this photo. I am both proud and haunted by it. Only because I know that there is no bench in my garden. And I’m not sure I’m brave enough to put one there.

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Advice From the Now Writer Me…to the Then Writer Me.

By Laura Munson (in several incarnations)

Published in Author Magazine

Okay.  You know those words that you fling into the ocean and the sinking sun every time you’re standing on an eastern facing beach?  Those sometimes spoken, sometimes thought words that come out like a beggar’s prayer?  I know you’re kind of embarrassed by them, but let’s just fess up.  As an exercise.  Please help me be published to wide acclaim.

Well guess what?  After 20 years and 14 books…it happens.  And I’m here to tell you…it’s not the story you think it is.  Your writer friend was right when he said “The only difference between being published and not being published is being published.”

Really?

Really.

But don’t I feel magnetic and energized and fabulous?  Isn’t it the most fun of my entire life?  Don’t I jump up and down? Doesn’t it feel like Christmas?

I’m a bit afraid to tell you.  But I feel that I must.  It was fun.  For one entire second, when your agent called and told you there was an offer on your book.  You were on your treadmill, and you took your feet off the conveyor belt and you stood quiet and said, “Hang on.  I just need a moment.”  And she waited.  And you cried.  And that was it.  You went back to your fast walk and your agent went back to business.  The fun moment wasn’t so fun.  You took it and you wept.

What about all the readings and the fans, and the media and the limos, and seeing all my old friends?  What about going to all those cities and speaking in all those beautiful rooms and meeting all those amazingly inspiring people?  Wasn’t that fun?

Wasn’t I happy?

Not exactly.  You felt like you’d ditched the part of you that you knew and trusted and loved and had worked so hard to build inside yourself.  The writer.  You felt out of balance and you missed writing.  You missed the work.  There wasn’t time for the work.  You were so set on the idea that you had one shot at it.  One shot at putting yourself on the map as a published, successful author.  And if it meant that you packed on 10 pounds and went loose in the gut, and didn’t eat breakfast, or even lunch sometimes, or play with your kids, or if you lost out on weekends and sleep and social engagements…it was a small price to pay for being a country on that map.  Plus you needed the money.  But it was always about more than the money.  It was about living a myth.  Keeping it alive.  Because surely the myth would somehow save you.

That’s really fucking sad.

Ah…but here’s the secret, and it’s good news if you look at it properly:  Ready?

I’m not so sure.

Tough.  Repeat after me:  There is no such thing as success.  I’m here to tell you.  It’s a lie.  An illusion.  An interpretation of events that feels mostly like total shit, because the self behind the ego knows the truth.

I feel like throwing up.  If this is true…how on earth did I finally understand it?

Glad you asked.

One day you were lying in bed on a Saturday morning, at home, before the family woke up. You hadn’t been awake more than three minutes when you realized you had a grimace on your face like you were being pinched, and your shoulders were up by your ears, tight and braced.  You were worrying about a reading in Connecticut that was at a private club where 150 women had pre-paid $75.00 which included a signed copy of your book, and lunch.  You were worrying that they’d be disappointed that they spent all that money just to see you.  You were worrying about the ten pounds you’d gained and what you’d wear—what looked authorly and had success written all over it.  You were sure that you’d be the worst dressed woman there.  And what if you found one of your books in the Ladies room afterwards on the back of a toilet like someone had decided they didn’t want it after all, after seeing you speak in that horrible outfit?  And geez—don’t published authors have enough money to hire a personal trainer? What a let down you were.  Who did you think you were?

And then you started to smile.  And to laugh.  That event already happened!  Almost a year ago!!!  People loved you.  They told you so.  They bought extra books for friends and family and their book groups.  And yes, you did find a book on the back of a toilet in the Ladies room, but you gave it to the woman at the front desk and she wept she was so thankful.  She’d heard about your book and wanted desperately to read it but couldn’t afford a $24.95 hardback.  So there.  You were worrying about something that was not only ancient history, but was also a smashing success.  And you realized you were holding all those speaking engagements in you still.  Hoarding them like you’d need them for later should the end of the world come, aka the end of your career, and you needed ammo, fuel, cover, proof.

And so you decided to re-live each one of your readings.  Starting right at the beginning.  All 50 some odd of them.  You needed to go through them and remember what there was to remember, without judgment, but with a seeking mind and an open heart—yeah, I probably shouldn’t wear a long sleeve shirt and a long skirt if it’s going to be 94 degrees with 100% humidity and the reading is outside under a tent!   Ya live and learn.  Maybe it’s okay to omit the swear word in your book the next time your reading is in a CHURCH, but oh well.  I’m pretty sure God’s heard it before. You needed to unpack that suitcase you’d been hauling around with you all over creation, hot little roller wheels and all, and put it to rest.  Even if it took you all morning.  And it nearly did.

And for the first time in a long time, you breathed a fresh free unencumbered sigh of relief.

Wow.  That sounds exhausting.

Maybe so.  But you’re at the beginning of this adventure.  You have time to change your story.  You don’t have to spend years tormenting yourself, unpublished or published, telling yourself that you need to prove yourself.  Because you proved what you thought there was to prove, and it didn’t solve anything.  It didn’t heal anything.  It didn’t erase anything.  It didn’t change anything about how you feel and how you fear and how you love.  All that proving—yes, that is exhausting.  And you need energy to live your life the way you want to live it.

All that happened is this:  you wrote something.  Somebody liked it enough to put cardboard on each side of it and let a lot of people know about it.  And you got paid for it.  And you are known for it.  Otherwise, it’s just the same as ever:  getting back to work on what you know and trust best.  The writing.

A hearty  p.s.

I am about to go back out on the road for the better part of April and May (schedule is here–come say hi!)…and I have decided that the real reason it’s not all the fun the child in you had hoped for, is because of the attachment to having it be that mythic success.  So it is in letting go, that I journey out on the road this time.  The same philosophy and practice that I write about in my book, but have only recently understood how to put to practice in my post-published life.  And something tells me…IT’S GONNA BE A BLAST!!!)

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Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, My book: This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, My Posts

The River


Paperback of THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS coming in April to a bookstore near you!

As many of you may know from reading my book, I am keenly aware of my inner critic.  I didn’t used to be, but through years of feeling really bad about myself for not having career success and the subsequent pain and suffering from that way of relating with myself and the world…and then a few solid years in therapy and in other fields of self-work, I learned how to hear that inner critic, and I learned how to deal with her.

First, I named her.  I called her Sheila, and I don’t know why.  That’s just the name I chose.  And then I opened my ears and listened for her.  Shelia was LOUD.  And I realized that she was running my life, megaphone to my brain.  I heard her every time I looked into the mirror.  I heard her in most every one of my in-between times—driving to pick up the kids from school, lying in bed in the early morning, trying to get to sleep at night, working out, walking the dogs.  She was remarkably quiet, however, when I was in the act of creation.  When I was cooking, for instance, or gardening, or writing, or playing the guitar, or playing with my kids.  That was a place no one could touch, not even Sheila.  That was my sacred space.

I started to think about the power of the created moment, and I started to work with the idea that all our moments are created.  It’s not about just being occupied—lost in the pressures and obligations of the day.  It’s about being aware of the energy which drives us in the first place, deep within us, that must begin in self-love.  And it’s about powerfully choosing our thoughts and emotions rather than living into the lie that they control us.  We create them, after all.

For a while I wanted to exile Sheila.  Nail her into a pine box and send her off to Timbuktu never to be seen again.  If she died a violent death by shark, I didn’t care.  Good riddance.  But that didn’t work.  Not at all.  Because I had created her.  Sheila is me.  In wanting to exile her, I was declaring war against myself.  So I started to let her talk, the way you do a scared little girl.  And I realized she wasn’t even all that mean.  I had misunderstood her.  Kinda the way people misjudge a shy girl in high school for a mean girl.  I like to think that I was someone who knew the difference, then and now, and behaved accordingly.  So I gave Sheila that same gift of understanding.  I started to love her with maternal comfort.  And she got quiet.  I guess in a way, I loved her into submission.

Lately, she’s come back and she’s loud and she’s mean—doesn’t seem so shy, after all and she doesn’t seem to want a hug.  She wants blood this time.  It’s confusing and blind-siding.  She’s telling me all sorts of things that have to do with how wrong it is to have written a memoir and to be so vulnerable in public, and that I need to be on “my game” as if I’m playing a game in the first place.  Even now, she’s screaming at me to leave this to a journal entry, and not to post it on my blog.  Sheila is hollering:  chest your cardsYou need to be appropriateYou need to not embarrass yourself. Or anyone else for that matter. And maybe she’s right.  Who do I think I am?

A new friend sent me this today:

“Many of us feel uncomfortable revealing to others–and even to ourselves–what lies beneath the surface of our day-to-day consciousness. We get out of bed in the morning and begin again where we left off yesterday, attacking life as if we were waging a campaign of control and survival. All the while, deep within us, flows an endless river of pure energy. It sings a low and rich song that hints of joy and liberation and peace. Up on top, as we make our way through life, we may sense the presence of the river. We may feel a subtle longing to connect with it. But we are usually moving too fast, or we are distracted, or we fear disturbing the status quo of our surface thoughts and feelings. It can be unsettling to dip below the familiar and descend into the more mysterious realms of the soul.”

–Elizabeth Lesser from Broken Open

I was so thankful to read this, because it reminded me:  I have always known about that river.  I have created space for it in my life since I was a little girl and it especially fuels my writing.  I went to it and drank even when it looked strange to others.  Along the way, I learned that society does not want to consider the river.  It lies to us and tells us that the real river is experienced in occupying our minds with things we can control.  I have never had any tolerance for that, and I suppose it is no surprise that I have spent the last 17 years in Montana—a place which is all river.  Even when I try to deny the river, it pulls me to its side and asks me to drink.  To sit beside it.  To swim in it.  To swim in it on a horse and lift off its back, holding on to mane, riding it all.

I have been quiet for a long time in those waters.  Alone and yes, sometimes lonely.

And then one day a year or so ago, I took what I created in that sacred space of writing, and went out into the world with it.  It has been disorienting.  And it has been beautiful.  I have been afraid of what the world of a different river would have to say about my honesty.  Family.  Friends.  Institutions I’ve left.  And what I’ve found is that the human heart is hungry for truth.  It wants to be fed.  It wants to swim in its true river.  It needs to be reminded, wants to be reminded about the river.  But being a messenger of that is confusing and scary and full of Sheila telling me that I have no business doing this.  At all.  That I’m an imposter.  Or in it for the wrong reasons.  Or that I will fail in all my trying.

This morning, I woke to a new early spring-spun light.  5:00.  I couldn’t go back to sleep.  My heart was racing.  I am about to go back out on the road for my paperback’s book tour, (readings will be posted soon) and speak to many people about what I have learned from a time of crisis, how I have become aware of Sheila, how I have committed to the river.  And this, from a woman who has been writing fiction for all these years, not memoir.  Not life according to me.  My characters have full rights to speak, and to speak wisely.  But not me as the main character (so sayeth Shelia).  I have been pooling my personal power for so long, learning what it feels like in quiet creation.  Now to share it…is fraught.

But this quote reminds me of the mysteries of soul.  I have always loved mystery.  I find it holy.  I love reading the work of mystics from different religions because they are in the river finding love, not fear.  Maybe my problem is in trying.  Maybe the answer that Sheila needs is simply this:  get out of the way and let the river flow.

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Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, Little Hymns to Montana, My book: This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, My Posts

Snow Fool


Last week, my husband and my kids were taking a hot tub. I was in Florida doing some readings, and my daughter sent me this photo. I honestly cannot begin to understand how this image is a piece of prestidigitation. This is my son’s face. Pressed into the snow. EXACTLY his face. Perhaps it is so correct given his hot and sweaty skin from the tub. But how is it possible that it looks as if it is in relief? As if he is from the other side, pressing his face against the surface of the snow, skyward? Sometimes, I swear that kid is magic. This morning, I was worrying about the ice on our fairly vertical driveway descent. He was in the back seat. I uttered not one word, and he said, “Don’t worry, Mom.” I didn’t even confront the fact that he’d read my mind because he does it all the time. Is it because we share the same life and his thoughts leapfrog the same events and emotions that mine do? Is it because he knows me? I can tell you that plenty of people know me, but no one consistently says outloud what I’m thinking. Sometimes he’ll actually answer questions I’m thinking but haven’t yet spoken. It’s gotten to a point where I don’t even acknowledge that he’s done it in the first place. I just continue the dialogue as if it’s been verbal all along.

I used to be a cynic about stuff like this. And lately, I find myself open in ways I never have been. What is the purpose of cynicism? Does it keep us from being called a fool? I guess I don’t care about being called a fool anymore. I am a fool. I want to be a fool. Bring it on. I want to see faces in the snow. I want to hear a robin in the too-early late winter and think I’ve been chosen. I want to enter into the language of unspoken words. I want to see shooting stars and think that wishes come true. I want to believe, not doubt. I want to say yes. Here’s what Mary Oliver has to say about it:

Morning Poem
Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

from Dream Work (1986) by Mary Oliver

© Mary Oliver

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Pilgrimage

SONG OF THE LARK by Laura Munson
When I was twenty, I had a summer internship at the Art Institute of Chicago in their Prints and Drawings department. In the afternoons, we’d assist visitors who wanted to view certain works of art in the by-appointment public gallery, and in the morning…we had the place all to ourselves. There were five of us, all wanna-be one day art historians, and about as many Phd curators who were happy to stop what they were doing and answer questions. So our days began in a vault full of stacks and stacks of boxes in alphabetical order. You name it—if there was a famous artist who put writing implement to paper, they very probably had a piece in this collection. Rembrandt. Rothko. Mary Cassatt. Matisse. Michelangelo. DaVinci. It was absolute manna, so typical of Chicago’s long line of artistic patronage. They had Cezanne’s sketchbook, for Lord’s sake. With his grocery list and his son’s drawings in the margins. I loved those mornings.

I’d spent the last school year in Florence, Italy after all, feasting on the Renaissance. I was in a place of artistic glut. Dizzied by an embarrassment of riches in the way of visual art and inspiration. So it was no small mistake that in that year, I decided to write a novel. Just as an experiment. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t consider myself a writer. I considered myself an artistic person who wasn’t good enough to be an actual artist, so I’d be a champion of artists. It seemed more practical. More the sort of thing my North Shore parents and friends could relate to. More the sort of thing I’d been raised for. Maybe I’d work at Sotheby’s. Maybe I’d own an art gallery. Maybe I’d go back to school and get my Phd and become a museum curator. The only thing was…none of those prospects really appealed to me. Not when I was sitting in that vault deciding between Mary Cassatt’s aquatints and Matisse’s Jazz book.

Sometimes, I’d bring my journal in there and just write, feeling the hearts and passion play of those artists throbbing in my body. I was writing more and more, all about this girl who was a painter, living on an island in Greece, who had fled her life of higher education and societal expectation. The first line of that first book was “Claire sat on her patio wondering what to paint.” I was sitting in that vault, twenty, wondering who I really wanted to be. Who I really was. I felt trapped by my future. I was angry. And lucky for me, I was restless.

Each day at lunch, I would shove down a sandwich and head up to the main galleries of the museum, and I would wander them, memorizing their placement so that my emotions would surge in anticipation around each corner. I knew those galleries. I loved those galleries. But there was one painting that took my breath away, quite literally, every time. The Song of the Lark by Jules Breton.

The image is of a peasant girl, barefoot on a dirt road, holding a sickle in her hand, looking skyward as a bird flies by, the sun low in the sky. I was that girl. My true self was stuck in the wheel society had carved for me. Only mine was in no way the life of the peasant. Quite the opposite. Somehow though, I related with this girl. I was made of dreams that quite possibly would never come true too. And, like the girl, I was going to do something about it. There was no way that girl would be on that road in that peasant’s skirt and bare feet much longer, holding that sickle in that fist. She was going places. Probably that very night she was going to run away from home and hop on a horse going west. I’d follow her. What kind of lie was I telling myself? I wasn’t the person behind the art. I was the artist. I had things I wanted to put down on paper. Only they were words. So I spent that summer writing that novel in every free speck of time I had. And I haven’t stopped since.

Whenever I return to Chicago, I make a point, like a pilgrimage, of going to the Art Institute and standing before The Song of the Lark. It still takes my breath away; it still gives me chills. But the way I have come to look at it surprises me. Now I see something different in the girl. She did not leave. She’s still there. Another day in the field. She is not free. But the bird…the bird is free. And she’s raising that sickle, not against her lot in life, but against that bird. Against that freedom she will not know. Her fingers are drawn up like a fighter in both hands. Her mouth is slack like she’s been sucker punched. She is bound by that painting to which Jules Breton committed her. Where she once was my heroine, she now smacks as a willful slave. I am sorry for her, and I am sort of ashamed of her.

That’s what art does when it’s true. It’s alive in the heart. And we make it our own. At least I do, with this painting of this girl. I have needed to. I have needed to see that I have grown out of rebellion and into freedom. She is my reminder. The last time I went, in fact, I could barely look her in the eye, for all her victimhood. She couldn’t leave. You can always leave, I wanted to shout. No matter what your lot is in life. You can. And coming from privilege doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. So much to lose… But in the end, I learned that I am not bound by the painting that was painted for me. I am only bound by myself. I left that bondage, and I wrote and I am not that girl in the painting. I am, dare I say, the lark.

The beauty of it is that I’m sure there is a twenty year old girl somewhere, probably in Chicago, who comes to this painting and sees her fight and sees her flight and realizes it, in part, because of this girl’s raised fist and sickle. And maybe she will get on the horse and get out of town. Or maybe she will stay and paint her own painting of herself right where she lives, because that is possible too. That is perhaps more than I had the guts for.

And yes, maybe she will return one day, the fight out of her, and relate more to the bird in the sky. I hope that for her. I hope that we grow in the seasons of our life and that in the deliberate act of moving through them, we find ourselves with new pilgrimages to take and new ways to see.


Noah Riskin is a new friend of mine. He’s a writer and a photographer, a former national and international champion gymnast, an MIT teacher, and much more. He too knows what it is to take a stand for himself and to throw himself, in his case, truly out in the wilderness to find his way. And he too knows this very painting. Please enjoy his beautiful story and images. And may you be inspired to take your own pilgrimages. Maybe you already have, and maybe you want to help inspire others to do the same. I’d love to hear about them at THESE HERE HILLS. Yrs. Laura

PILGRIMAGE By Noah Riskin

“Pilgrimage to the place of the wise is to find escape from the flame of separateness.”
–Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

I remember writing down the dream; the thrill and fear of what it meant as I sat inside the glow of a candle, 3AM. Somewhere on one of these shelves sits that journal. And, closing my eyes, I can still see the dream–at least the heart of it: I’m on a mountaintop. Not a snowcapped peak but a jagged outcropping of rock bordered by snow, high above tree line and domed by a pale blue sky. She is next to me; a young, ruddy-faced woman with fire-red hair and cerulean eyes. She is showing me how to make art straight from the earth.

I sat with this the rest of the night.
And, finally, after freefalling in my life for many months, I knew exactly what to do.

~

Now, twenty years forward, and for all of the work, travel and teaching positions
–to be honest,
I’ve lost my way.

~

At that time, life was relatively simple and so I doubled up on work (some welding and bread baking) and saved my pennies. I bought a sky-blue ‘78 VW minibus with camper top and a richly illustrated mechanics guide. In the weeks that followed I overhauled the engine and worked the interior into a living space/studio on wheels. The day before I left, I filled Mason jars with millet, red beans and rice and slipped them into compartments I’d built beneath the seat that folded-out as my bed. I filed painting canvases into a slotted carrier lashed atop the bus and filled the riggings inside with all of my gear. Early September I rolled out of the driveway, picked up the Mass. Pike and headed west.

Cocksure, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

That first night I made it as far as upstate New York. And, sometime after dark and a long fumbling with the camp stove, I lay curled-up in the bus on the edge of a Walgreens parking lot, cold and slowly losing it to a growing terror. The howl of a distant train, big rig thunder from the highway, a sickly cast of orange light that edged the lot and bus–what had I done? So, I sat there in the dark behind the wheel and pulled a pack of Camels as I decided what to do. I wasn’t going back to sleep. And, somehow, I wasn’t going back to Boston. With Store 24 coffee between my legs, I drove on into the predawn chill.

From here things moved faster:

Picture sky-blue minibus running long stretch of highway across western plains…
See sky-blue bus scampering distant mountain ridge,
zigzagging switchbacks,
winding river valley,
wandering lost roads…

Three weeks in and I still had no idea what I was doing. But, I knew how I might find out. It went like this: I’d choose some faraway place on the map and drive there on roads that feathered away, dirt to brush. I’d pick a place to park, make camp and then spend the evening planning hikes. Backpack loaded and a little nervous, I’d head out early morning hoping for some spot that would speak to me, a place to make the work like in the dream. Sometimes I’d leave the bus for a few days and camp on-site. Other times I’d hike to and fro, dawn and dusk, as if going to work. At night I’d sit in my union suit, boots and hat with a shot of whiskey, book and bowl of rice, the curtained camper lit round by a candle lantern. What I learned was that the places did, in fact, tell me what to do. And soon, I was making the work.

Using a heavy string I floated stones over a glacial lake. I climbed trees and suspended quartz pieces in a wave marking sunrise. I painted straight from the desert floor and walked spiral meditations in Colorado sand dunes. I made such pieces over two or three days, photographed them and then left things as found. So unfolded a collection of extraordinary moments, some inspired and some an insult to the species as I plummeted from a treetop, careened down a snow covered pass in a bus without brakes and jumped out of the camper into a stand of bison just the morning after seriously pissing-off a rattlesnake. The list goes on.

A few months later, while wandering through some small town, Wyoming after weeks in the bush, I rounded a corner and came face to face with a wild-haired and grisly version of me in a shop window so feral it scared me. But, I saw something else too; something she’d taught me. I was doing it. I was stepping into the world–into the present, naked as could be and, somehow, making myself whole. I could feel it.

Months later still, after looping the north and southwest chasing the warmer weather, I was in Chicago. I remember slipping into the bathroom for a shot of minibus-trip whiskey before the Art Institute interview. There I sat in a small office showing the Department Head slide after slide of my fieldwork. When he tired of me talking the cryptic nonsense I thought necessary to make it into graduate school, he stopped me with a simple question: Why? We both sat there in the silence until I muttered the only thing I could mutter: I told him about the dream and how “…it’s what I had to do.”

Weeks later, back in Boston, I was scrubbing around a toilet when my mother called. An envelope had arrived from the Art Institute. Should (could) they open it? And so, we listened together to hear that I’d won a full scholarship.

The trip continued on.

It was during my initial few weeks at the Institute, walking the stone-dense halls of the museum that I first stood before the painting. In The Song of the Lark by Jules Breton a peasant girl stands barefoot in a field at sunrise. She’s clutching a sickle and is utterly seized by the bird’s call. And, there I stood, clutching a sketchbook and utterly seized by the sight of her.

It was then that I understood a little something about the work I’d done; a little something about the work we all must do…

Now, cloistered atop a brownstone with pen and paper upon a mountain of past, I feel like I’ve lost my way. Everyday I get up at dawn and work the fields. But, the lark;
I think she’s flown away.

It’s not about going back. It’s not about finding another minibus and tracing the same route. Life doesn’t work that way. Besides, there’s something wrong if you’re not tearing it up a little wild in the world at 25. And, there’s something wrong if you’re still doing it at 45.

It’s more complicated now.

Or, perhaps,
it’s really very simple.

Later, walking to the store in search of some dinner, I watched, listened a little more closely to the world for some small hint of my future self.

BIO: Artist, educator and writer; identical twin and former national and international champion gymnast, Noah Riskin lives and works in Brookline, MA and is currently finishing his first book, The Art of Falling: Coming Back to Earth in Search of One’s Self.

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Filed under Haven Newsletter, My Posts

Two Kinds of People

This piece was inspired by Susan Bearman’s fab blog called Two Kinds of People.  She is holding a contest and for the writers out there, take a whirl.  It’s a lot of fun and you may learn something about yourself.  Here’s my attempt:

I’ve been thinking about the Two Kinds of People thing for a long long time; struggling with it, actually.  I’m not sure I like this philosophy—its duality, its divisiveness.  I consider myself an equal opportunity sort of gal.  I try not to stereotype or generalize or boil things down to this or that.  Yet…quite often…I find myself right in the middle of thinking it…and well, saying it.  “There are two kinds of people:” I’ll spout off, and then I’ll pause, sort of wishing I wasn’t at that colon once again.

But I feel an inner tingle.  A know-it-all buzz.  It’s that little bomb that goes off before you say something clever—like you have the finger on the pulse of humanity more than the other guy.  And let’s face it:  it’s usually light and it’s usually fun.  It’s a societal tick that we came up with because given all the pressure of adulthood, we’re still kids who like to play.  I think, in fact, it grows from the childhood playground question/obsession:  what’s your favorite number or what’s your favorite color.  I was the wise ass who said, infinity and a rainbow.  TO that end:

Here’s my favorite Two Kinds of People, and I use it like a trump card:  “There are two kinds of people:  The ones who save the buttons that come with new clothes, and those who don’t.”  I like to watch the light bulbs ignite.  The heads nodding.  I love the way people immediately glom on to one or the other, even if they’ve never thought of it before.  They like the affiliation.  They like to know they’re a part of a club.  And because I’m the one who drew the lines, I get to be the president of the club.  I like being the president of the club, for the two seconds that the club exists.  Because the truth is, it’s a forgettable club.  No one’s sitting in traffic the next day thinking, “I feel so important being inducted into the Button Keeper club.”  Or “Laura’s such an elegant thinker, coming up with that button remark.”  Still, it’s a momentary thrill.  A cheap stab at wisdom, even.  And one I like to play around with.

Just letting the mind flutter around the concept of there being two kinds of people feels chummy and clubby.  Try it.  It’s not about making anybody wrong.  It’s about preference and operating mechanisms and the collective We.  And heck—maybe it lends itself to important insights into humanity.  Maybe its staying power has to do with the fact that sometimes we need to simplify in order to see clearly.

There are two kinds of people:  the ones who look around on an airplane to see where the exit doors are, and the ones who don’t.

People who drive white cars and people who drive black cars.

Women who dress as cats for Halloween, and women who dress like hobos.

You don’t even have to say the pre-amble.  You can just say the club names and people’s eyes will track back and forth betwixt them and land on one or the other.  There’s a checkout guy at the corner grocery store who likes to bust these out when he’s bored.  It gets people patriotic the way sports fans are.  Like they’d fight to the death for their team for those two seconds.

Beatles or Rolling Stones.

Pink or orange.

Today Show or GMA.

And you can get poetic too:

Ocean or lake.

Snow or sand.

Or smarty pants:

Freud or Einstein.

Or even religious:

Jesus or Moses.

…but let’s not go there, okay?  (Same goes for political)  We’re playing, remember?

Or literary:

Hemingway or Fitzgerald.

Or newspapery:

Crossword or Sudoku.

Doonesbury or Peanuts.

Fascinating, really, this game we play and why it’s so much a part of the collective We.  It lives on because people like to take sides and they like to take things personally—especially things that don’t hurt.  There’s an “I would NEVER be on that other team” feel to this game.  “I would never keep that little Ziploc bag full of buttons.  What kind of an anal retentive loser does that?”

Or:

“I would NEVER dress like a cat for Halloween.  Only dumb sluts dress like cats.  Smart chicks dress like hobos.”

But I think we should be careful with the word never or always.  And therein lies my issue.  I like to think that sometimes I would dress like a cat.  Or sometimes I might just keep those buttons.  I like to think that I have range.  And that I’m not that predictable.  And still…I find myself at that colon, with that wee thrill in my solar plexus.

Maybe that’s how I can frame the Two Kinds of People thing and feel good about it.  There are two kinds of people:  those of us who think about it, and those of us that don’t.

p.s.

Buttons:  no

Exit door:  yes

Hobo:  yes

Orange.

Beatles.

Sand.

Peanuts

Crossword.

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Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, My Posts

What Does it Mean to Let Go?

I have a piece in the Huffington Post today which is in response to the question I get asked the most when I’m out on book tour: what does it mean to let go? How do you do it? Well, I don’t profess to have the answer, but I do have some strong thoughts about how to get in touch with our pain and to use it. How to reframe pain and restructure our thinking around it. I’ll include an excerpt here, and would love for you to stop by the Huffington Post today to comment. It is such a vast platform and I’d love to share my work there with its wide audience. Your comments will help drive interest to this piece and future pieces I write on my Huffington Post blog. Thanks and may this day feel new and light. yrs. Laura
Read my essay here

Excerpt:
In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, I’ve asked myself a question lately about the human relationship with emotional pain: at what point do we acknowledge the pain in our life and decide to end it?

Is it only when we’ve endured great agony that we see its perils and decide that we don’t want to feel that way anymore? Is it only then that we change our perspective and start to choose happiness?

Or can we arrive at a commitment not to suffer simply by relating with life and its low-grade hardships as part of the whole? As not bad or good. Right or wrong. Just what is.

It saddens me to think that the latter is the exception and not the rule.

For me, it took 14 unpublished books, my father’s death and a near divorce to finally see that happiness is a choice. And one I was hell-bent on making. But it meant that I had to let go of suffering once and for all. And suffering had become my “normal.”

How is this possible — this letting go?

I believe the answer lies in the present moment.

We hear the phrase: live in the moment. But what does this really mean in its practical application? How do we achieve the freedom of choosing to let go of the future and the past and commit to the present moment, when life throws us curveballs and even grenades? How do we not worry or rage or micromanage? (read more)

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Filed under "Those Aren't Fighting Words, Dear", Huffington Post Blog Pieces, My book: This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, My Posts

Wise Words about Vulnerability from Brene Brown

Writer and blogger Pam Stucky shared this with me today and I love what Brene Brown has to say on TED. Take a half an hour and treat yourself. I love that it ends in “I am enough.” I’ve had that on a post-it near my writing desk for as long as I can remember. Until recently. This was a great reminder. Enjoy.
yrs.
Laura
p.s. Thank you all for your lovely comments this week. I’m taking a breather in my cyber life to play with the family in the snow, but I’m reading them all and appreciating you and learning from you as always… See you in 2011!

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Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, My Posts

Interview with Inspire Me Today Radio– one of my very favorites!

I had the pleasure of meeting an incredibly inspiring woman recently: Gail Goodwin. She is one of those people who is day by day changing the world. Today she is featuring me on her website Inspire Me Today. I’d love for you to check this website out because it is such an excellent example of how we can make the deliberate choice to better the world simply by shining a light on the positive. I am proud of this interview and I’m honored to share it with you here. I love Gail’s high road questions and maybe my answers will help with some of the questions you ask me at THESE HERE HILLS. Come join me at Inspire Me Today where you’ll find a short piece I wrote for them and a link to the radio interview mid-page. Please share with your friends. I really want this interview to help people. yrs. Laura

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