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Thank God!

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Long Ago: Community Entry #27

 

Amazing how a wheelbarrow full of wood can mean the difference between life and death, never mind comfort. Mindful living beats button pushing any time.

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

Contest submissions closed. Winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana, announced mid-February…

Now I am further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing. If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June, August, and September retreats are now booking and filling fast.  Email me for more info:  Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

It’s amazing how the simple things bring happiness when we’re brave enough to stop and pay attention.  Please enjoy this lovely piece by Katie Andraski.  yrs. Laura

 

How the Teacher Introduced Herself to her Class on The Joy Diet Or The Teacher Writes About The Happiest Time of Her Life , by Katie Andraski

 

This happy time I’m in now, started with a pot of soup three years ago. It’s been the longest, most consistent time I’ve been happy. My husband, Bruce, and I had just driven five hours from Albany to Bath, Maine. We’d almost bought it three times when semis merged into our lane with us in it. Our nerves were shot. And we were headed for our second family, the Proctors.

I’ve known them since I could think. Gene has told the story that she met my mother when my brother started kindergarten and met her son Bruce. I had to be two, so I’m not kidding about how long I’ve known them.

There are all kinds of stories I could tell you about the Proctors. Martha Beck’s descriptions about how doing nothing can be a frightening exercise because “if you have suffered greatly and not yet resolved your pain, you may find it literally unbearable to become physically still, the moment you really quiet your body, you’ll feel the monsters of unprocessed grief, rage, or fear yammering at the dungeon doors of your unconscious mind” reminds me of my own resistance to taking up Buddhism. Bruce Proctor had challenged me to look into it, but the weird visions a person might see while sitting seemed too close to the demons I didn’t want to welcome into my life. Bruce Proctor literally did nothing for hours on end, days at a time. Sitting practice. I saw him move from a jiggly would-be rock star who couldn’t keep his legs or his eyes still to a man with a calm presence. It was as profound a conversion as I ever saw. Though to be truthful I saw him blast right past that to seeing auras on trees and gremlins hopping in branches and hearing Jesus’ voice. It was creepy how he’d sit on the love seat and weave like a cobra. He’d walked from Paris, Maine to Albany, New York by himself, following old rail beds. He had hooked up with the outfit in Boulder that became known for its excesses and sexual abuse during those years. Eventually he found his way to the Zen Center of New York. Now he photographs his visions using the light and shadow of desert landscapes and junkyards.

I could tell you about Ron Proctor sitting behind me in eighth grade because Proctor came right after Pauley, and he’d kick my chair and call me The Beast. But I was vindicated when I saw what he wrote in Donna Wright’s yearbook how she should be more like me. He is drop dead gorgeous and never been married. One year we were visiting his parents, and he took us to Pemaquid Point, the site of a well-photographed lighthouse where I imagined riding a brown horse along the rocks and into the sea.

He borrowed a skiff and took us to the Kennebec River fishing. The Bath Ironworks are awesome anytime you see them, but we were down in the river looking at sparks bright enough to blind us. Cranes big enough to tower over a naval frigate frightened me; they were so big. Hell, all that iron swept up like cliff faces frightened me. Somehow a hull that is halfway made is more awesome than a finished one. Is it the emptiness that makes it so big? My husband pulled a striped bass as big as he was out of the river. And the water was alive with chop and the amber colors of sunset.

These are men who I fell in love with as a young girl. Bruce Proctor as much as anyone inspired me to write and to think. Ron was my gorgeous classmate. I tried to convert them both to evangelical Christianity in these wonderful arguments about faith and atheism, Buddhism and Christian mysticism. My prayers and Bible readings around them shaped me into the kind of Christian I am, someone not so sure the hellfire preachers of my childhood told the truth. Oh I’d cry they’d come to know Jesus because hell was real as the gravel road and night I walked into. Then the Bible started to speak mysterious things about God not willing anyone should perish, about how praying in God’s will would make it so. So if I prayed for Bruce and Ron, even their whole family to know Jesus, than it was in God’s will, and they’d come to know him. They’d be saved. Don’t ask me how free will plays into this. I don’t know.

The apostle Paul himself talks about the Judeo-Christian mythology—Adam bringing death into the world–universal death that none of us escapes. Then the mystery—Jesus brings life and resurrection to the world, more so than Adam. None of us escapes. As far as I know neither one knows the Lord in the traditional evangelical sense I was thinking of as a kid.

Even after my father tried to talk Bruce into Christ, he’d lean back and say, “I don’t know about that. but you’re my second family,” which flipped when my parents and brother died and suddenly the Pauleys weren’t a family and the Proctors became my second family. It was Bob and Gene who took in my husband, Bruce, and I, giving us a second shot at the kind of love parents give—the pot of soup waiting at the end of a long day kind of love.

The wind had caught the sea at Birch Point, and the water was amber and the wind caught us as we got out of the car, whipping our shirts with enough chill that I didn’t want to walk out to the point. But my beloved Bruce settled himself as the wind and the waves blustered around him as joyously as a barking golden retriever.

Bob and Gene weren’t going to be home when we arrived because they had a wedding to attend. There was a slow cooker of vegetable soup and a pan of chocolate cake, and a Post It note telling us to eat up and enjoy. Which is what Bruce and I did. We took our bowls to the table and looked out their window at the amber light and point jutting across the way with a dock floating at high tide. Opposite us was a lobster boat tied to a buoy. We stared out the window hoping to see the funnels of the Scotia Princess below the horizon as the ship plied her way from Portland to Halifax. On the window ledge was a carved wooden fisherman, a wire hanging down, a line into the air, a line into water.

Part of hospitality is the home a family sets around themselves. That empty space where people live and move and have their being. The Proctors’ house is bigger than it looks even though it’s built on the foundation of a cabin, Maine’s rules for building on the coast, holding the Proctors to that space. It’s full of nooks and crannies with little things Gene has found at garage sales and flea markets here and there. When I’m there, I delight in looking at the dish full of sea glass, delight in the glass frog I sent one Christmas. I sit in the covered easy chairs, staring at the wooden ships and grandfather clock standing straight like a tall person who doesn’t have to stoop, standing tall under the cathedral ceiling, the moon in its face.

Part of hospitality is the home a family sets around their guests—two bathrobes hung on hooks in the bedroom, and orange juice on the front porch, the ocean as glassy and quiet as it was chopped the night before, the air balmy.  Gene has stepped into a mother’s role, taking me shopping at Renys, a Maine department store or buying me a necklace and earrings because that’s what moms do for daughters. Bob has told stories of when he worked as a civil engineer in Alaska and New York, family stories that don’t belong to me because I didn’t grow up with them, but stories that welcomed us to the hearth. They have welcomed us into a solitary space and listened when we’ve needed counsel for our lives. And they have delighted in the gifts we’ve sent, the bulb garden that bloomed in January adding color to the front window, and the black raspberry jam Bruce made from wild bushes in the field across the street.

There’s something about simple loving hospitality that helped put me in my skin after a hard, hard winter that was as close to a dark night of the soul as I’ve come, that began with a sentence small as a lemon twist from relatives I wanted to visit, saying in essence, you’re family, but not for Christmas, not even the Christmas right after September 11, when I wanted to touch my own blood. Amazing how a sentence can twist open a whole bottle of loneliness.

It didn’t help to be reading the classic by St. John of the Cross, wishing I wouldn’t go through a dark night of the soul. But sure enough I did. The details aren’t important—my beloved cousin died, my students didn’t come to my classes, my writing turned me inside out so much so that I felt like an emotional burn patient thinking nobody wanted to be my friend I was so dark–but what is important is how one seems to go with the other—mourning shall last for the night, but a shout of joy will come in the morning.

And somehow that pot of soup and cake and wind tossed evening changed everything. Somehow Gene and Bob throwing their arms around us, saying, “It’s so good to see you” stopped the rule of darkness in my life. Stopped it dead in its tracks. Everything flipped, and I found joy and light and quiet in the simplest of things. And the people I felt were far away suddenly drew near on their own, without me doing anything. Maybe that’s why Jesus says it all hinges on a cup of water or should I say a pot of soup.

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Filed under Blog series-- Long Ago: Community, My Posts

Long Ago: Community Entry #10

North Fork of the Flathead River along Glacier National Park. Not a bad evening stroll...

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

Contest submissions closed. Winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana, announced mid-February…

Now I am further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing. If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June, August, and September retreats are now booking and filling fast.  Email me for more info:  Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

This powerful piece has been submitted anonymously.  Please feel free to comment.  The author will be responding through me.  I continue to thank you all for creating this on-line mini community of love and support and sharing.  My grand-mother used to sing a song to me at bedtime that ended in:  In this world of darkness, we must shine…you in your small corner and I in mine.  That’s what we are doing here this winter.  I continue to send gratitude from my snowy writing retreat.  Thank you for holding up These Here Hills.

yrs. Laura

Silent Community, by Anonymous

“We are in community each time we find a place where we belong.”

–Peter F. Block

I am known as a cradle Episcopalian. My Southern Baptist family lost hope in their pastor and religion when word spread he had had an affair with one of his devout congregants. A few blocks away loomed an Episcopal church. Out of sheer convenience and at the urgings of my grandmother’s Episcopal friend, a change was made. A seed was planted.

At the same time, my birth family became uprooted. My parents struggled with their marriage from the beginning. After surviving medical school and residency, my dad left. Even my birth did not keep them together. I was four months old when he called it quits. A radiological technologist had caught his eye.

Mom kept returning to her new faith, even when her parents rebounded to their Baptist church. The pastor had been redeemed of his affair. Hope, perhaps, bloomed inside my mom. She remarried when I finished first grade. She and her new husband faithfully dropped my brother and me off for Sunday school each week. My brother and I were regulars.

My Anglican roots took hold. When I heard that the Bishop had come to confirm folks and that my stepfather and step-uncle were to be confirmed, my 12- year-old self begged to join in. My enthusiasm was met with a resounding “Yes” and I knelt at the altar and felt the weight of the Bishop’s hands on my head. I knew I needed all the help I could get.

Oddly, my original dad appeared that same year. He asked my parents if he could meet my brother and me. This mythological man was about to marry his third wife. I was not gracious and clung to my stepfather for comfort. It was easier for me to believe that this biological dad did not exist, but there he was. My involvement in church picked up. I needed stability somewhere. I was an acolyte, a member of the youth group, and did not miss Sunday school. I felt a deep need to belong.

Every week I felt part of a larger family. From the priests to the parishioners, I basked in the love given my way. Meanwhile, I sensed strife between my parents. I did not trust their relationship. I longed for normalcy in my life. Attending Catholic schools did nothing for my confidence. My friends at school had intact families and loads of siblings. I knew their parents. My biological father remained a mystery to me.

Just before I got my driver’s license, my home life dramatically changed. Again. One night we had our family meal as usual and the next day my stepfather was gone. No discussions. No preparations. Nothing but a tearful mother picking me up from school with the news. My mom found refuge in her bedroom and alcohol. Inside my anger burned deeply. My pain lost itself in sports, school activities, and youth events at church as well as drugs and alcohol. I lived a dual life. My coaches, youth leaders, and priests became my surrogate parents.

When considering what career path I should take as an adult, I chose nursing. I knew I would always have a job as a nurse and that I could remain independent. I pushed through life with my church family by my side. Instead of leaving the church, I became more grounded.

Through steady and personal struggles, I became a nurse, bought a house, kept drinking, and lived alone. While planning an eight month trip around the world, I met my amazing future spouse. He came gift-wrapped from God. Mike was a great listener, a beautiful, gentle soul, and a handsome man. We shared a faith life that added to our marriage. He joined my childhood church. Roots stretched deep beneath the soil.

After his residency, we moved to a rural town in Northeast Georgia. The first place we visited was the small Episcopal church. We had discussed visiting different denominations but never got that far. Filled within her walls were friendly, loving people. Our new church family. Our two boys grew up in that church. They have been loved and supported all through their childhood and teenage years. It was an easy transplant to our new church home.

As an adolescent, our younger son told us he was gay. Even though we had suspected he was, we did not know for sure until he claimed his sexuality. Until he was ready to tell his story, we were asked by him to keep his secret. Mike and I honored his wishes.

One night, after a meeting at church, grief overwhelmed me. I was dealing with my expectations for my baby boy. I had not yet grown to understand how love for him trumps those expectations. After all the committee members left, I stayed behind and entered the sacred space in our sanctuary. I wanted to be alone in my sadness. But God had other plans. There sat our quiet, talented choir director. She began playing music in preparation for Sunday. At first I wanted to leave, but then her presence and music comforted me. My tears flowed unbridled. My grief spilled out. She continued to practice all the while. I felt safe. She never interrupted her practice or my bereavement. I felt her silent comfort through the notes she played.

This quiet, soft spoken musician has never inquired about that night. We have a deep affection for each other that words surpass. I have gained a true sense of family from this community of everyday people. We show up, do our best, and keep coming back. The seed planted at my birth now stands as a tree, deeply rooted. The branches are not perfect, nor is the shape of the trunk; what matters for me is that I belong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Blog series-- Long Ago: Community, My Posts

Long Ago: Community Entry #8

Step by step. Word by word. Page by page.

“When I am writing I am far away and when I come back I have already left”

– Pablo Neruda

I am further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing this week.  I feel so held in this haven of the blank page and snow.  If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June, August, and September retreats are now booking and filling fast.

Please enjoy this lovely entry to my “Long Ago:  Community” series/contest.  It brought me right back to the feeling of a Sunday morning in church– my first haven. 

Submissions are closed.  Winner announced mid-Feb.  Thank you to all who are sharing and reading and commenting.  We can build community from far and wide.  yrs. Laura

An Echo from the Bronx, by Alison Bolshoi

I learned about a long ago community from a very old woman, my great grandmother, although it would be decades before I understood anything she said about it.

Molly, or “Mom” as we all called her, was a tiny person who never stopped moving.  She lived every day to do things for other people, and is the only person I’ve ever met who was truly happy serving others.  You meet people who say they are, but you can still see some resentment at the corners of their mouth or the angle of their neck.  Mom was filled with joy and light.  When I showed up at her apartment, she would turn from her sewing machine with an expression of happiness on her face that told me there was no one else in the world she would rather see, at that moment, than me.  Yet everyone in my family describes the same experience when they would go see her.

Mom was a seamstress and made all my clothes until I was in high school; everything from my nightgowns to my winter coats and hats.  While she sewed, and I helped, she told me stories I didn’t understand about church and community.  She was born in 1888 and raised Roman Catholic in the Bronx, when it was still “the country” and had dirt roads and horse drawn carriages.  She described the church as an amazing place.  She met her best friend Anna there when she was a child.   She and Anna did lots of things together, including working at the church office and washing their families’ laundry in the East River.  They were poor but they didn’t seem to know it.  When they were 15, Anna made Molly an incredibly beautiful scarf, crocheted out of raw silk, which was rare material back then.

Mom also told me about dances, bake sales, fundraisers, parties for people’s anniversaries and christenings, and even wakes and funerals, which all centered around their church.  The whole church community would visit the family of the deceased throughout the three-day waking period, and bring food.  Mom told detailed stories about so many different occasions, like one night when she and my great grandfather Jim were dating, and walked to a dance at church.  Jim didn’t like that Molly wouldn’t kiss him, so he picked her up and put her inside an open garbage can.  She screamed, but as long as she didn’t move, her dress didn’t touch the sides and stayed clean.  When she finally relented and kissed him, he lifted her out and they went on to the church dance.  The theme that night was “Old Italian Love Songs” and he said, “See?  Even God said you were supposed to kiss me.”

Her stories seemed so alien to me.  We went to church, three of them, in fact, in our area, but we never talked to anyone and there were never events going on in any of them.  This was Westchester County, NY; stuffy, and for me, very fake.  The closest we got to “community” was at the sign of peace, where you turn to the person nearest you and shake their hand, muttering “Peace be with you.”  Then we’d go home and never speak to them again.

Mom’s stories stayed with me, though I didn’t understand them.  When my son was seven and announced one day, as I picked him up, that he was Christian and wanted to wear a cross and go to a church, I nearly drove my car off the road.  I hadn’t been to church in so many years, though I still felt Christian.  I was terrified.

After talking with a friend and explaining my aversion to Roman Catholicism, he suggested St. Luke’s Church, right in town, in Montclair.  I asked why that place.  He said, “They’re Episcopal, and they’re a very happy group of people.”   I said, “You mean ‘Jesus Freaks.’”  “No,” he laughed.  “It’s hard to explain.  They’re just really happy to see you.”  Hmm.

So I went.  And an amazing thing happened.  People talked to me.  Not in a pushy, nosy sort of way, but in a welcoming, interested way.  I went back.  I realized that every Sunday after services, there was a coffee hour, where people talked to each other about their everyday lives.  I saw that gay people sat with each other in pews, held hands, and even kissed at the sign of peace.  Homeless people sat next to wealthy people.  The church had a soup kitchen; a pretty famous one.  And a “Second Time Around Shop,” a thrift shop run by the old ladies in the church, who organized it.  People had parties for their anniversaries and christenings in the Assembly Hall.

Over time I saw what a real community this is, where wonderful, sad, magical, real things happen — like after two of my friends had a fire gut their apartment, and everyone came together and gave them furniture, dishes, clothes, money, and food.  Or when my friend Tim’s son Maurice died suddenly at age 20, and even his horse was welcome inside the church, at his funeral.  Or this year, when my best friend Monique renewed her vows with her husband Louis.  I sang the service and we all went to a wonderful party in the Assembly Hall, singing opera karaoke, and left after midnight.  It is my understanding that not all Episcopal churches are like this one.  So I feel lucky.

These are not people who shake your hand and then forget your face by the time they get to the door.  I found a Long Ago Community that’s alive right now.  And I’m in it.  I even wore Mom’s raw silk scarf, now 110 years old now, to the ceremony where I was ‘received’ by the Bishop.

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Empty Boat

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Empty Boat by Laura A. Munson

I live for passion. But I oppose fanaticism, fanatically speaking. My mouth lashes against it with venom. Hot tears come catapult. My head swirls, tempestuous. It’s fight or flight. I usually flee, hot and wet, knowing that I have given yet another zealot power they don’t deserve, but require. From fools like me.
I live for passion, because without it, we denounce the gift of life. Some call it the gift from God. And bash you bloody with the singularity of their Almighty. When I read the words of Jesus in the Bible, I don’t see all their no’s for all his yeses.
Those who call their god, The Universe, seem to have a broader way, but usually not one I can peg down too well. I get lost in their crystals and moons and stars having some hold over the was’s and will be’s of my life. Truly, what is there to say to someone who believes there is only one way, and they are there to prove it to you?
The Chinese poet and sage Chuang-tzu speaks of a man crossing a river on a boat. As he navigates the waters, he sees another boat coming toward him. “Steer aside!” he yells to the person he thinks he sees, swearing and gesticulating. But Chuang-tzu suggests that that same fellow could relate differently with his world. That rather than raging and fighting against the oncoming boat, he might consider imagining the boat empty.
“Even though he be a bad-tempered man, he will not become angry.”
If it is an empty boat, there is no one to fight. He is not threatened, nor is he angry. It’s merely an empty boat. As the boat approaches, he skillfully puts out his oar to steer the other boat aside without collision or damage to either vessel.
Chuang-tzu suggests that we relate to the world from that openhearted emptiness that allows us to let control of the world go by not opposing the flow of what is. Through this sort of surrender, he suggests that we will come fully into being.
There have been two times I have truly emptied my boat. When my first child was born and when I watched my father die.
There, the option of opposition seemed impossible. My daughter was being pushed through the waters of my womb with forces I could not have stopped for all my might. My father’s chest, full of poison, rose and fell through the wind of a machine; unplugged, it simply fell and stayed there, as dead as my daughter was alive. Water. Wind. Empty boat.
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***
People fight a lot in the rural West, mostly about land.
The fight over land is an age-old battle. Just look at the Middle East. The quest for land is more than blood-sport; it’s what we can see of “god,” of “The Universe,” of the gift of life. Without land, we’re not fastened to our lives. We have no tangible roots. We have no place to do our loving. We have no place from which to gaze at our stars and feel as small as we know we are. No place for awe. No place for the awesome.
I don’t understand the Fundamentalist Christian Right who seem to forget that they were supposedly made from “the dust of the ground,” never mind “the breath of God,” and that in Genesis 2:15 the “Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” But I don’t understand the idea of praying for parking places, either.
I don’t understand the environmental activists who steal forth in the night with spikes and hammers to give trees the bite that will take out logger’s eyes, never mind the probable fact that that logger has a family and food to put on the table.
I’ve lived in Montana for twelve years now. I’ve sat at the bar with all sorts, listening to all fires, and not making much of an effort to put any of them out. Around here, it seems that one person’s fire is another person’s water. I have made it my work—my passion to understand “the dust” and “the breath” I was created by. To receive creation and my created self in it—that has been my journey. To be as open-boated as possible.
It has been a journey of open space. Of “wandering rights,” as Terry Tempest Williams puts it in her “Open Space of Democracy.” Of “stewardship,” as Wendell Berry puts it over and over again. It has been a journey of falling in love, with my “own back yard,” yes. But it must begin somewhere.
My backyard has been vast, surrounded by state lands on three sides. I’ve ridden my horse in the woods on trails blazed by the Flathead Indians hundreds of years ago, connecting their tobacco fields to their lodges down on the Flathead Lake—over a fifty mile trek, and galloped alongside of a migrating herd of elk along the way. I’ve roamed through Glacier National Park breathing in my lesser rank on the food chain deeply, with the very real chance of running into a grizzly bear, and I’ve returned home, my head screwed on as straight as it’s ever been. I’ve sat sequestered in my living room watching ash fall from the sky as forest fires rage ten miles to the west, and easterly winds blow thirty miles per hour straight toward us, missing us by a ridge. I’ve known people who have been trampled by avalanche, river rapids, rockslides, fallen trees. I’ve grown to understand these things—to empty my boat when they come.
But how am I to have an empty boat– a surrender between the brackets of birth and death– when the very thing that has taught me open-boatedness, is in full frontal attack?
Land.
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Thirteen thousand acres of state-run school trust land—lands surrounding Whitefish, Montana which have become our green belt, our Commons as Gary Snyder puts it– the place where we take our walks, let our dogs run, cross-country ski, snow shoe, ride horses, mountain bikes, show our children their first spiderwebs covered in morning dew—it’s all up for grabs to private developers. I thought we lived in a state which prized open space. Turns out the almighty dollar reigns after all, even out here, in what the developers call: “God’s country.”
I have been to meetings. People scream at each other. “Not in my backyard!” or shake their heads and come away saying, “Development happens. We can’t win.” It’s been years of Us and Them and I know people on both sides. All of them like to wander. You’d be hard-pressed to find any one of them, on either side, who wouldn’t stop and gasp at the sight of a buck rising from a field at dawn.
I’ve been quiet, trying to empty my boat. I don’t know how to do this without fighting. And I’ve been told, you don’t have to fight to win.
But there are gates. At the end of every trail, there are gates now. My boat is getting fuller and fuller every time my horse puts his nose toward our old trails and I have to steer him somewhere else, where there isn’t a gate. Soon we’ll be riding along the highway, dodging logging trucks and ousted deer.
One day a man chases me down with a pack of dogs and a gun—tells me that he’s just bought this land from the timber company. I tell him that the private land owner is protected from law suits by a governmental statute—that horse people are excellent stewards of the land, can help protect trails, keep high school partiers away, report vandalism.
He shakes his head and tells me I am not to trespass again or else. I eye his shot gun and choose not to tell him about the mountain lion den just over the ridge, the two black bear cubs that like to hang out in the stand of Grand Fir, and the sow who patrols the area with fierce pride.
The time for fanaticism has come. My boat is full. And so is the one approaching. I am hollering at the people, raising my fists, wishing their bow to hit ground and split open to bits. I cannot surrender my wandering rights.
At the local Farmer’s Market I am approached by our representative in House District 4. “You ride your horse on the state land trails, don’t you, Laura?”
I stop in my tracks, practically run to his side, stare him far too close in the face.
“We have a twenty-four month window to create a hundred mile long recreation trail system that would put the private and public sectors into a partnership. This sort of precedent has national importance. If we can do it, it could serve as a model for other communities poised for massive development.”
The private and public sectors shaking hands to a hundred mile trail system that will last forever. Gates flung open. Open space re-made holy for generations to come. “What can I do? Sign me up.”
“You can apply to be on the stakeholders committee which will work with the city of Whitefish and the DNRC (Department of Natural Resources and Conservation), representing as many user groups as possible. The user groups that don’t step up, won’t have a voice.”
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I have stepped up. I have submitted my application and I am waiting. Trying not to imagine the opposing boat at all, but to believe that such an Us/Us partnership is possible.
In my deepest open-hearted-ness, open-boated-ness place, I believe there is one way when it comes to land: it must somehow be open to the creatures that love it. Somehow. We must preserve our right to make contact with our kindred “dust.”
I see the opposing boat now. I only hope that when we are upon each other, we can shake hands.

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Roaming in the Groaning

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Roaming in the Groaning by Laura A. Munson

My friend gave me a trout that she caught with her husband, ice fishing.
I asked her to tell me about ice fishing. I was new to Montana. I was bullied by other people’s peak experiences. By their permission to do things like ice fishing. I knew about art museums. Liberal Arts education. And traveling.
She said they go over to Browning where the Indian reservation is, on a lake where the wind blows so hard that when they stand up from the buckets they have been sitting on, the buckets blow away. She said that when there has been a fast freeze and lots of wind, the ice is clear and you can look through and see the reeds and fish below. She said she likes to bring her ice skates and hold her arms out and let the wind push her from behind, across the lake. She said she likes ice fishing because you can go any time of the day. Last night, they couldn’t go to sleep, so they packed up and went out on a nearby lake with their auger, poles, bait, buckets, and a few lanterns. They drilled their holes, sat on their buckets holding their poles, surrounded by lanterns on the frozen lake. They caught two fish. They gave one to me. She said she and her husband like to catch trout in the summer and then pick huckleberries and stuff them inside, wrap them in foil and cook them over their campfire.
“I’ll eat mine tonight with butter and lemon,” I confessed. (Unlike most respectable Montanans, I do not have huckleberries fresh, canned, or even stored in my freezer, because for me, the invitation to go huckleberry picking in the summer conjures up the image of a resounding dinner bell and the phrase Come and get it! In other words, I am afraid of coming face to face with a very hungry, 300 pound, uris horibiles.)
Then I proceeded to tell her that the mere act of getting out of bed to fetch a glass of water in the middle of the night is hard enough for me, much less trekking out into the cold with a fishing pole and an auger.
She smiled at me. She’s heard of people like me. Her mother warned her against people like me. Still, she gave me a trout.
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I know. I know. Too bad for me. Trust me when I tell you that from the minute I laid eyes on this magnificent corner of Montana, I wanted to be the kind of woman who considers herself open to the wild-wonders-that-be. When my friend talked, for instance, I saw the lantern light flickering in her eyes. I saw the wind still at her back. I felt the tug on her pole. The stillness of the night and just her husband and this fish.
But I was not that person. I am still not that person.

I can see it in my child– the wonder of her. The tiny hands arranging colored pencils in a row and telling them a story about bees and skunks. I see it in art. The wonder—the risk– the abandon, played out in dances and canvases, words, songs. I see it in the majestic cathedrals of Europe—the catacombs—the flying buttresses—the stained glass. And true, when I have the courage, I feel it sitting on a rock by a river. I feel it on a sunny day, floating in salty waters just offshore. I feel it walking the dog in the meadow with patches of rain mottled with patches of sun. Looking for full-arch rainbows. Sleeping by the ocean. And still it’s hard for me to get myself out there, even to those quiet places. Sometimes all I have the courage for in Montana, is my own warm bed.

There is a sound here in the Northwest that I hadn’t heard before. It is reminiscent of a bird sound. Or a train whistle. But it is neither. It is the whoop. People whoop. There is pressure here to whoop. To skate the second the lakes freeze, to sleep in your car in the ski mountain parking lot to be sure you get the first run on a powder day, to land the biggest lunker, to bag the biggest buck, to kayak the most rapid rapids, to float the mightiest rivers, to sleep with bears and wolverines and mountain lions and lynx and to call them all Friend. I’d rather be eaten by a grizzly than die in a car accident on the freeway, so sayeth the soothsayers at the local bar, apre-whoop.
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Another friend—a long-time Montanan– gave me an Atlas for a Christmas present one year because he asked me what I wanted and I told him– an Atlas. “I like to travel. I can’t imagine I’ll live here for very long.” He’s that kind of friend—gives me what I want, even when he doesn’t understand.
I held its heft in my lap and looked at him churlishly: “If you could go anywhere, where would you go?” I said.
He looked unimpressed. He said he wasn’t sure that staying right here in Montana was any different in the long run than traveling every page of those pink and green pastel countries and squiggly rivers. And he’s not one of these smug bumper-sticker Montana Native sorts either. And I’ll tell you one more thing about him– he’s in to the long run. Gets his oil checked regularly. Tires rotated. Always has extra gallons of gas in his garage. He said he lives in the most beautiful place he can imagine, and that’s okay by him. No need to travel. Plenty to do right here in his own valley. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, he said, watching me wilt. Although he’s not the kind to overly-measure a mood.
“I don’t get it,” I admitted. “How can you live here and not ski and not feel guilty about it? You don’t fish. You don’t hunt. You don’t even have a horse! Heck—you don’t even have a dog! Your idea of a perfect Sunday is a day spent with a history book about Queen Victoria. Maybe a little walk in the meadow. See a bird or two.”
He said this: “Montana has been here a lot longer than skiing. Fishing. Hunting. Horses—well maybe not horses…Heh-eh…but dogs, anyway.” He said that, and it changed my life. For a day. And a glorious day it was. I called three friends, and like an alcoholic at an AA meeting said, I hate skiing. I’m Laura Munson, and I hate skiing. It felt like I’d shed a tumor or something. I sat on the couch and read a book about Tuscan cooking and watched the snow fall without thinking for one second that the whole of it was only as good as the numb of my cheeks and my whooping ability to nail an Aspen tree with a bull’s eye of perfectly packed snow. What’s wrong with snow angels?, I said to myself. What’s wrong with catching snow on your tongue and calling it good? What’s wrong with watching snow fall from your window seat, with the cat curled on your lap? (This kind of deductive reasoning and ten bucks can get you a cup of coffee in New York.)
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I have another friend. He is a fishing guide all summer in Alaska, and then comes down here to Whitefish to ski in the winter. In the fall, he hunts deer. Not all deer. One deer in particular. He goes out in the morning alone, and walks the woods, looking for one specific buck. It’s been four years of this. Other deer present themselves, but he doesn’t take them. He knows his buck now. He knows where he sleeps, where he roams. He’s learned a lot about squirrels and weather, stalking this buck. This is what he can tell me of hunting.

My first year living in Montana, a childhood friend came to visit from New York City where he is a trader of bonds. He had a ten month old and his wife was expecting a baby in four weeks. He wanted to come to Montana and do anything but change diapers, get his wife pickles…no potato chips…no pickles, and yell at people on the phone about money. The first day he sat and stared out the window, content. (I was thrilled.) The second day he looked at the ski mountain and said, “I gotta go up there.” (Okay. When in Rome…) The next day he saw a dogsledder and said, “I gotta try that.” (Had to see a guy about a dog—humor. Okay, whatever.) That afternoon he saw the local casino and said, “I gotta try my hand at cards.” (I gave him the number of the local taxi service, which is, incidentally, a guy in a mid-70’s pick-up truck, probably occupying the seat next to him at the bar, albeit a fine driver.) The next morning he said, “I’ve got a hangover and my leg muscles are killing me. It’s exhausting here. I feel like I’m back in New York. Let’s just lay low today.”
I told him not to worry. Montana seems to have that effect on people. Something about getting out there and conquering it that nobody can resist. (Unless you’re me. Or my Atlas-less friend.) “It’s exhausting just considering the myriad ways in which one can keep oneself dry, warm, and in motion in the state of Montana,” I told him. “Relax. I give you permission. We’ll listen to the opera at the Met on NPR.”
This took care of his hangover, fast. “We could at least drive into Glacier National Park today, I suppose,” he said, nervously. “Just tell me they have Ibuprophen in Montana.”
So we drove into the Park. We got out. We stood by a river. I thought: Finally. A friend with whom I can sit on a rock, and just be. No guilt. No pressure to be in any form of aerobic, cardio-vascular frenzy. Minutes went by. He stood up. Paced. (He’s a bond trader; he can’t help it.) He found three chunky rose-colored river rocks and one by one, pummeled them into the ice, whooping, raising his hands in victory, suggesting, then, that we play a version of Boci ball in which we see how many rocks we can slide into the holes he had just made in what was otherwise, a smooth white canvas of Mother Nature. “Oh no! Not you too! Can’t we just sit here? Can’t we just be?” I objected.
He shrugged and played alone for a while.
It looked fun, but I had set a precedent– (which is another way of saying, in this instance anyway, I was scared.) I don’t recognize this. Give me something from the German Expressionist movement—let me tell you all about the mystic poets of the 14th century—how ‘bout we talk Conspiracy Theory regarding the foils of the Liberal Arts education?
But I threw in my fear towel, got up, and said, “Fine. Lemme me have a turn.”
I was rose-colored rock. He was sage green. We bowled away the afternoon on the thinly-iced banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River. There was whooping a-plenty. Even from me. I hadn’t whooped like that before. I’m not sure I had ever whooped at all.
He wrote me a week later to tell me that our afternoon on the river was the thing he’ll remember most about Montana.
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I have an elderly friend who visits from Chicago. He likes to take long walks in town. One day, he stood on the viaduct for hours, watching the freight trains change cars and tracks. “Incredible, this Montana,” he said in a hushed version of his immigrant Italian accent. “When I am tired of looking at the trains, I look up at the mountains. When I am tired of looking at the mountains, I look at the trains.” Then his eyes went a little crazed and he leaned in and said, “There is a verse in the Bible that I never understood. It is in Romans. Chapter Eight, I think. Paul is talking. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Now I understand. Groaning.” And I hadn’t even taken him into Glacier National Park yet.

Now I think of the pair of women I passed ten years or so ago, when I was living in Washington, and still so bullied by whoopers that I was attempting to climb a section of Mt. Rainier. Two women, with wooden, hand-whittled walking sticks, wool pants, old stiff leather hiking boots, bandanas around their necks…two grey-haired crow-footed older women stood rubber-necking a blanket of moss. I stopped. It was too green not to. They were too Patagonia-free not to. They were too still not to.
They smiled at me, so ogly and goofy-eyed. “Isn’t it beautiful?” they said, together.
“Yes,” I said, the way you talk to an Alzheimer’s patient.
“We take this hike every year and every year we see if we can do it slower than the last,” they traded off saying.
And I stood there for a while too, watching the green, seeing it for the green and not for the happy grey heads which nodded at it like old friends. And when I turned to go, as I recall, it was not for lack of courage, but for a genuine hunger to move on. Slowly. To maybe get to know this trail. To invite myself into a lifelong acquaintance with Mother Nature. To abuse a quote meant for Hollywood, to find the there, there.
And as I walked on, I heard the smallest little sound, from behind, like a mouse’s glee. But it was a whoop. It was. I remember it now.

It has been fifteen years that I have lived in the Northwest—almost half my life. I still haven’t done much in the middle of the night except for waking up to tend to my babies. But I know how to go down the stairs now…to pull up my robe around my neck, and step out into the night chill and stand there and see what gifts might present themselves. A deer or two. The distant glare of fox eyes. The green swirls of the Northern Lights. A Great Horned owl silhouette. A meteor shower like the sky is falling. There is always something. That is the promise. I wish I could tell that girl all those years ago that there is elegance in every kind of moment that Mother Nature presents. And you don’t need to be strong or brave or even particularly adept to know it. All you have to be is open. I wish I could have given her that permission.
“Creation is groaning,” I would have said.
“Sit a spell. Whoop if you must.”owlillustration-442x590

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