Tag Archives: Stories

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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A Robin in the Woodstove

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A Robin in the Woodstove by Laura A. Munson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all

–Emily Dickinson

March 18, 2003
I was standing in front of the television this morning, watching the footage of last night: 48 hours for Saddam and his sons to get out of Iraq…or we’re coming in…when my daughter started screaming. I ran into the kitchen. “What? What’s wrong?”
“There’s a robin stuck in the woodstove!”
“Finish your cereal or you’ll be late for school.”
“Aren’t you going to get it out of there?”
“No. It can find its way back up.”
She looked at me like she did not know me. “But they only came back just last week.”
Countdown Iraq. Fabric softening commercial. A police stand-off in Washington: some guy on a tractor swearing he has explosives. Ari Fleisher condescending to Campbell Brown— I can’t help but think: CJ, on ‘West Wing,’ is better. Breaking news: High alert: orange. No fly zone over Disneyworld. Why does that one anchorman always look like he’s smiling?
I switch to Martha Stewart. A homemade lemon honey pot: it’s a good thing. Back to CNN. I feel it is my duty to watch CNN.
The robin flutters in the ashes.
I’ve done this before. Twice. Just get a sheet and open the woodstove, hope that he flies in. But he’ll fight me. His heart will rapid-fire into my grip. I might hurt him. I might shy and let go too soon and then what will we do with a bird in the house?
He flings himself against the window of the woodstove.
“Mommy, do something!”
“He’ll be okay in there until Daddy comes home. It’s cold out today. It’s like his own private birdcage.”
Driving to school. NPR. Toni Blair calling for unity. The French saying they might be willing to help in the case of biological warfare. Kiss the kids. Get a glare from my daughter.
At the grocery store, I buy three bags of lentils. I am not necessarily a lentil person. But they keep. I run into a forest ranger friend and ask him to tell me, once and for all, why the Douglas fir is not a true fir.
“Because their cones point down. For the squirrels. Subalpine and Grand point up. For the birds.”
I put on my best Naturalist nod. I do not tell him I am holding a robin hostage in my woodstove.
“Are you going over to Freezeout Lake to see the Snow Geese migration like you always do?” he says.
I remember the 200,000 white birds I long for all winter, and forget to answer him.
When I get back, I realize I have left CNN on.
So, what do you think, Bird? Did you make a mistake? Having so much hope in us?
He flings himself into the glass, falls sideways in the ashes, then stands still in the grey cloud.
I run through the living room despite the drumming of breaking news, despite the ice cream in the bag, go to my office and shut the door.
He might die. I can’t handle it if he dies.
I go back to the kitchen, blare NPR so that it’s dueling CNN and I can’t hear anything except for drumming and British accents, and I quick, put away the groceries.
What the world needs now, is love sweet love…call your travel agent. I think it’s a cruise commercial, but I don’t look.
I make a b-line for my office again, but I catch the bird out of the corner of my eye and I see that its feathers are askew.
So I sit on the hearth: please go back up the pipe. Please.
He throws himself against the glass. He is all black. Maybe it’s a grackle, not a robin. Like that would be somehow more forgivable.
I can do this. I should do this. I can’t. I can’t hold all that hope in my hands.
With NPR and CNN booming, muffling the flutter of tiny wings, I run up to my bed. I pull up the covers. I will wait here until my husband comes home.
Maybe I am this much of a coward. Or maybe it’s that I can’t bear to watch those blackened footprints hopping off into the melting snow.

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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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Break Me In, Montana

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Break Me in, Montana by Laura A. Munson
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I begged for this. This house. This land. This time. This husband and these children. I begged to know a place season for season. To use last summer’s spent perennials as winter mulch. To rake it off when the Lenten roses poke through. To know, finally, which one is the North Star, and use it to find my way home. I begged to feel my heart sink with the leaving V’s of geese. And become buoyant again with their return.
I did not know I was begging. All those years in cities. Chicago, New York, Boston, Florence, London, Seattle. I would catch myself in storefront windows and say yes, I am alive. I see myself here in the crowd. In that great outfit. Those fantastic shoes. And return to the apartment with the cockroaches and the blinking answering machine, ready to make my home in some glittering concert hall, some stark white art opening, some hushed mocha-toned new restaurant. I did not know I was begging for this when I dropped to my knees one night at the side of my bed like my grandmother used to, and said, please, please, bring me home.
Three weeks later my husband walked into our brand new Seattle house and said, “I just got a job in Montana. You would be able to write full time. We could have our kids there, and you wouldn’t have to work outside the home.”
So we left.
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I watched the Cascades until they were little harmless divots in the horizon, and
I cried all through the dry nothing of Eastern Washington and over the pass that brought me, for the first time, to the Flathead Valley.
Over a hill, and there it was: Flathead Lake to the south, the ski mountain in Whitefish to the North, the Jewel Basin in front of us drifting off into the Swan and the Mission ranges. The canyon leading to Glacier National Park off to the east. Twin bald eagles riding a thermal over us.
“It feels like a set up,” I said.
I could not receive this place at first. It felt like it had power over me like one of those guru types posing to know you better than you know yourself. More so, it felt like my enemy. The answer to a prayer I never meant to pray. Like it would break me in half if I slacked off for one second. Grizzly bears. Forest fires. Avalanches. Mountain lions. Angry loggers. Angry environmentalists. People dying for and from what I could only perceive as folly—kayaking, mountain climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, back country skiing, downhill skiing, horseback riding, ice climbing, river rafting…and on and on.
“Let go of the city,” the lovers of this country would say. “Stay. Sit a spell.”
No, I secretly schemed. Letting go would mean a betrayal. Of that girl in the shop window.
Instead, I spent many years letting go of Montana. Taking hits off the city in drug-dose proportions. Looking down from my returning flight into our little valley, seeing the outline of the mountains, the five or six farm lights still on, landing, thinking I can do it this time. I can stay. Three months later, I would be up in the sky again, panting over the grid of lights below and the skyscrapers on the horizon beckoning me back.
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Until I had my first child. And the subway so suddenly went villain. The honking cars and heaving bus exhaust and hissing sewers…like land mines. I clung to my baby. I ended up in parks. Grant Park. The Presidio. The Boston Garden. Central Park. The Arboretum. Leaving the city windows to another girl’s self-fascination. Then I would hover over our little valley with the landing gear descending, see the half-dozen little lights below, the moonlit ranges, and begin to find thanks.
It occurred to me then, that letting go was not a leaving. But a climbing in. A yes.
I proclaimed that yes. At first quietly. Ashamed. Then louder. Then so I didn’t know the difference between yes, and living.
Fifteen years. Dog sled racers, endurance riders, snowcat operators, medicine women, stunt pilots. Grizzly trackers, loggers, bowhunters. Helicopter nurses, heart surgeons, brewers and preschool teachers. Electric company cherry pickers, and Flathead cherry growers. Pizza parlor proprietors and organic farmers. Cowboys. Rodeo queens. Horse whisperers. Blacksmiths. Piano tuners. Cross dressers. Quilters. DJ’s, hot dog vendors, mule packers. Vietnam Vets. Ski bums. Fly-fishing guides, bartenders, computer programmers, train conductors. Double Phds that live in their car and grift at the pool hall for food money. Wives who live to hunt. Husbands who live to cook their wives’ kill.
I still have not been mauled by a grizzly bear. Still have not even seen a mountain lion. Have only come upon the aftermath of forest fire…and found a bounty of mushrooms there. Montana never broke me in– like a cowboy who thinks it needs to break the mare’s spirit to gain respect. I was never that mare. It was never that cowboy.
Instead, it was there all that time– in purple Alpine glow and sparkling wide rivers, in the sight of my child’s fingers on a trout belly, the safe back of an old horse lakeside in August, dipping its neck down and drinking slow sips of glacial run-off, in soft rains and misting meadows, anthills and golden Larch, in the little white farm lights and moonlit snowy peaks– it was there, all that long sweet time…welcoming me home.northern lights

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Stories

My Lover, LA

chicken

My Lover, LA
by Laura A. Munson

I love my children. I love my husband. I love my mother and deceased father. Sister and brother. Every person on my Christmas card list. Two dogs, two horses, cat, and pet rat—love ‘em all. I love Montana too—my twenty acres and the hills around our house, the miles I log in them on my trusty horse, the tracks I make on my cross-country skis, the birds and trees and insects and frogs and wildflowers and mushrooms I recognize as they do their seasonal dances. I love the peaks of Glacier National Park, and I’ve even grown to love the fact that here, I’m on the food chain; grizzly bear sushi. It builds character. But what I love a lot more than perhaps I should or would dare to openly admit in a small Montana town where it’s popular to hate all things urban, and Californians as well…what I yearn for, especially in mid-January, is what I can’t get here and that’s excellence in the following: art, dining, shopping, sunshine, surf. So every so often, I sneak off to LA.
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I have two great friends there. Best friends. God-mothers to my children. They don’t know each other, and maybe it’s better that way because I can divide my four-day get-away between them, and basically act as gluttonous and selfish as possible. And they forgive me for it every time. Gluttony and selfishness are forgivable in two-day stints/binges, turns out—especially if you’re from Montana.
So I am picked up at LAX in a Mercedes station wagon, by one dear friend, and delivered back four days later in a Volvo station wagon, by the other– my suitcase doubled in bulk, my intestinal tract processing things it hasn’t known in a long while like foie gras and uni and cassoulet, my face a little tanned, my skin a little bare, my toes feeling sad covered in shoes again, but my hands happily around a new, fabulous purse. I take my seat on the plane wearing even huger sunglasses than last time, with a smug movie-star feeling inside—like I’ve had an affair. The flight attendants notice it. I might be famous. I’m glowing. I’ve bloomed.
Friendship is an interesting creature, especially when it’s long distance. It’s alive, but it doesn’t necessarily need your tending. It goes about life without you changing its diapers or helping it with its homework, or remembering its birthday. But then it suddenly shows up and you feel like, without it, you can’t live– you’ll have no oxygen. And then it goes, and you’re breathing along again just fine. You’ve heard people say, it’s like we just pick up from where we left off every time. That’s the kind of friends these two women are to me.
They listen to me sob and bitch about the impossible rejections of the writing life and how my husband likes skiing more than he does me, and that my kids are ungrateful, how I should have gone to Yale, should have stayed in Seattle, or Boston, or Chicago, or New York, and whenever will I get back to Firenze… These are two women who’ve loved me, combined, for longer than I have lived and probably will live. And I love them. They show up at weddings and funerals and they answer my calls; granted each of them spends a lot of time bored on the freeway.
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Here’s what we usually do when we’re together—and this extends past LA, to all the afore-mentioned cities, including Firenze and Paris too: We go directly to the best restaurant we can think of, order wine, and eat a long, multi-course meal. Then we go walk around somewhere edgy or gritty or shiny, but with lots of people to look at. In LA, we go to Venice Beach and mix with the Carnies, or to Rodeo Drive and try on dresses at Prada in the best dressing rooms ever (you can watch yourself in a Prada dress on a virtual runway video), or to Montana Ave. in Santa Monica (so far away from my Montana), or to Abbot Kinney or Melrose, or just simply to Mecca: Fred Segal. Once, on Venice Beach, we saw a two-headed turtle and a two-headed raccoon at the same time, and once, we saw Glen Close (who looks like George Washington in person) and Rick Ocasek (who looks like Ichabod Crane in person)—not at the same time and not on Venice Beach.
Then we go back to their houses and lie around on their outdoor futons and read Vogue or do The LA Times crossword puzzle together— because even though we’ve been New York Times crossword puzzle snobs all our east coast spawned lives—hey—we’re in Cali. This crossword puzzle is way more fun. Then we make a pitcher of mojitos and get into the hot tub nude, and talk about mutual friends—their divorces and dalliances or suburban woes. We feel pretty good about ourselves then. So we get dressed up and go out and flirt. Maybe go to a bar cantilevered over Malibu Beach (Moonshadows) or to a museum cantilevered over the hills of Brentwood (The Getty). The last trip, I went to Moonshadows and The Getty twice—once with each friend. The last time I visited LA, both of them had coi ponds.
Well this most recent trip to LA, let’s just say, there were no coi ponds. No Moonshadows and no Getty and no flirting. Why? Because these women are mothers, just like me, in their Januarys, with their kids’ science fairs looming, their constant state of chauffeur-dom, and too much goddamn sun sun sun all the time…and besides, LA is so ridiculously expensive and with the way the economy is going, who can afford a place with a coi pond. In particular, one of them is a new mother—eight weeks. And for the other, this was her weekend with her kids. Which was great. I love these kids. But I had huge sunglasses to buy!
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Somewhere between gathering water samples from eight beaches and NOT getting to put my toe in the water due to impending traffic constraints, and wiping up that old familiar French’s mustard-colored diaper goo, I realized that this trip was not going to be about buying sunglasses. At all. Here’s how it went down, present tense so you can feel my pain (keep in mind that in my valley in Montana, we get on average, seventy-five days of sunshine a year, and you can’t get a New York Times—except the Sunday—on Wednesday), and you can’t get an LA Times at all:

Part I
I awake to bamboo and the sounds of exotic birds. It’s pitch black and twenty-two below in Montana, but blue sky winks at me through the blinds and I think I’m at the Hotel Bel-Air—my fantasy hotel, with my non-existent but very real to me, Italian lover, Giovanni.
I burrow into my pillows and dream about my lox and bagels and my crossword puzzle. And the amore Giovanni and I will make… More important, it’s Monday—the easiest day for the crossword puzzle; like David Sedaris, I base my personal worth on the completion of major urban crossword puzzles, and today I won’t have to do it online—just good old fashioned ball point pen (yep) to newsprint!
I sit up and stretch, anticipating the walk I’m going to take later on the beach, alone, because I will be done with Giovanni by then and he’ll be off shopping for me on Rodeo Drive. Then I hear the cries of a newborn and remember that I’m in a child’s cot, in an office in Long Beach, and that I’m staying in the home of exhausted people who “miss the seasons.”
That’s okay—this is their little miracle bundle of joy and I’ve come here to visit it. Help them. Give them their much-needed break. Yeah, right.
I put on my Nike Frees, instead of my lug-soled Sorels, and try to sneak out for a walk to the beach just three blocks away—terra firma. No snow. But they see me. And I am so helpful. I am so good and kind. And loving. What a friend am I. Watch me hold this baby so “you can get some rest.”
I forget why I needed so much chiropractic during my children’s infant years. Four hours later, we go out. We’re walking to the beach. I am ecstatic. Baby starts to cry. We decide to drive. My friend has to do some banking. No, of course I don’t mind sitting in the car with the baby. I end up standing in the parking lot for a half an hour, the baby asleep, leaning against the car, face in the sun. This isn’t so bad. I’m in LA! There’s a tree with flowers on it…right here in this…parking lot…where I’m so lucky to be…standing…in the sun! A deliveryman makes fun of me. I flirt with him, but he’s unimpressed.
We get to the beach. I forget that my friend has moved from Santa Monica, and let me just say this about the Long Beach beach: It’s got a great view of some of the largest oil refineries in the world.
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Part II
I meet my next friend in Santa Monica, and I’m thrilled because I love Santa Monica—barefoot, wet-suit clad surfers jaywalking with their boards, the Farmer’s Market, Shutters on the Beach… We experience a movie-star sighting—a movie star I can’t stand—fingers on the chalkboard. Why do they have to wear those stupid baseball hats that say, I’m a movie star—look at me so that I can say, ‘no thanks—I’m not giving out autographs right now.’
We wait in line a half an hour to order a panini, and slowly…I begin to realize that there’s no wine list. But we’re close to my friend’s kids’ school, plus we have a parking place, so this is it. Slowly too, I begin to realize that it’s a vegetarian restaurant. So there’ll be no fancy meat in my panini. Ah….Firenze. For a quick moment, I think of Giovanni—wonder how he’s doing on Rodeo Drive.
We spend the afternoon taking water samples from beaches that we don’t walk on more than to get to the water and walk back to the car. Then we get stuck in traffic. It’s sunny, but it’s sixty-four degrees, and in LA this is freezing. It’s parka weather. My friend’s actually wearing a parka. And huge Prada sunglasses. I’m sweating in a tank top with the windows down, sporting the knock-off Gucci sunglasses I bought the last time I was in LA. At least I get to see the Malibu fire damage. In Montana when we have fire damage, it doesn’t look like you could make it go away if only you had a crane, a really good landscape architect, and a truckload of Mexicans.
That night, we have an early dinner because the water samples need to incubate.
We spend a lot of time cutting holes in a Styrofoam cooler—again, nails on chalkboard, and go to bed early.
Phone rings at 8:00 am. It’s a professor friend from UCLA who’s a famous writer/friend of my friend’s (I would be her non-famous writer/friend) and what I hear from my end is something like this: Oh, hi. Yes, my son would LOVE to accompany your son to the pre-party for David Sedaris tonight. Yep. Uh-huh. Back stage passes? Great. We’ll just drop him off at your house, and then my friend who’s visiting from Montana (that would be not Montana Ave. See: hick) and I are going to take my daughter to a pizza party in Beverly Hills. We’ll just drum up all his David Sedaris books so David can write charming meaningful notes of inspiration in them, and we’ll see you tonight.
It is everything I can do to remain cool and not brown-nose my friend’s thirteen-year-old son. I’ll probably meet David Sedaris in Whitefish, Montana—right? Isn’t he, like, really into skiing?
I can’t go into the rest of this aspect of my trip because it’s just too heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that I met the writer/friend of my friend’s on the front porch of her home in Pacific Palisades, and said something really mature like: “Hi. I’m the un-published novelist friend.”
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Then we dropped off the girl at a pizza party which was behind big gates that I didn’t attempt to penetrate as the un-published-novelist-friend-from-not-Montana-Avenue, and went to Shutters and had a drink or ten and the rest of the night, to tell the honest truth, was kind of a blur. Fine, base your entire self-worth on the completion of a daily crossword puzzle. Jerk. Loser. You missed out. I’m so friggin fabulous. You could water-ski behind my fabulous career someday if I’d let ya. Sedaris. Did I tell you I coulda gotten into Yale! That’s a different story. But I coulda. Just didn’t wanta.
So, it’s my last chance for huge sunglasses, and I wake up hung-over, with an airplane to catch and the little girl, who is my god-daughter, (and exceptional I may add), climbs in bed with me– not as much to cuddle, but to get to the laptop I’ve smuggled away in a drunken stupor to watch re-runs of Brothers and Sisters. She wants to do Webkinz together. I don’t even stay in the same room with my kids when they’re doing Webkinz. I feel about Webkinz the way I felt about Teletubbies and Cabbage Patch Dolls. But I lounge around with her and help her choose furniture for her weird consumerist Webkinz world. Hey, I figure, I’m shopping in LA. The tambourine table actually feels like something you might be able to pick up on Abbot Kinney.
I decide then to make a varsity decision: I’m not leaving. I’m going to have my Hotel Bel-Air fantasy. Damnit.
So I book it—change my ticket and book a room at the Hotel Bel-Air. Spend an extra hundred dollars for a room with a courtyard. Book a dinner reservation and everything. My friend is thrilled. We’re all going to be sprawled poolside for the day, sucking on lavender Popsicles, our faces spritzed with Evian water by guys in pink polo shirts and white shorts. We’ll eat dinner in their fabulous vine-covered outdoor dining room with a fire going. We’ll eat foie gras! And what’s more, her kids will love me forever—maybe even enough to introduce me to Davis Sedaris!
But the incubator was too hot and the bacteria fried, and she and her thirteen-year-old have to go back to All Eight Beaches and take NEW samples.
Uh-uh.
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So I spend my day at the Bel-Air, with my adorable but still EIGHT-year-old, god-daughter. She’s wearing a scarf, Jackie-O style, and her mother’s yes, HUGE, (real) Gucci sunglasses, a dress she got in yes, Paris, and Uggs (I’m wearing flip-flops because I wear Uggs every day of my life—for function!)…and we sit by the pool while she eats a nine dollar hot dog and tells me about her trip on safari in the Serengeti. Wait ‘til I tell my own kids about my trip to LA. Absolutely no elephants. Or famous authors. Or even my dear dear friend, Fred Segal. But at the Hotel Bel-Air, they do have pads of butter in the shape of swans. I have a photograph of one.
I eat dinner alone, and have drinks at the bar afterward and hang out with the piano player and request Laura, which is one of my all time most disgusting personal habits. In fact, I have a vague memory of doing the same thing the night before at Shutters.
This story ends like this: I wake up. Five hours to spend in LA, alone, on my one hundred dollar terrace. Five lovely, languishing hours on my sunny terazza…and it’s fucking raining. So I lie in my bed, surf between the Today show, Good Morning America, and the Food Network, get bored, and decide, for the first time in my life, to order porn—see what all the fuss is about. That’s right, porn, at the Hotel Bel-Air. Maybe I can find one with an Italian guy in it.
The whole experience is so utterly tacky that I turn off the television after about five seconds and decide to add porn to the Webkinz, Teletubbies, Cabbage Patch Doll list. Then I pay twenty-five dollars for it at check out, where they give me a look which I’m not going to base my entire self-worth on, but I’m not going to not either. I tip them about as much as I would have dropped on huge, non-knock-off, sunglasses because I want to be invited back.
Sometimes I wish my friends lived in Montana. And I lived in LA. And I could complain about sun sun sun. And then maybe I’d take graceful joy in dirty diapers and fried science projects in a dark, culturally barren, January place, thickly coated in snow—far away from traffic and the horrible torpor of sun and shopping and surf and fine dining. Maybe I wouldn’t be so selfish and gluttonous…and horny.
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When I board the plane, I do not look like I’ve seen my lover. I look like I need a vacation. Maybe in a ski town.
As we’re hovering over our white valley, the square claims of farmland, feminine S-ing rivers, masculine mountains, I have a very real attack of not wanting to return to this place. Not because of anything to do with sunglasses; not really. But because of how hard Montana is. How tough you have to be. How brave and humble and honest.
As the wheels hit the runway, the flight attendant announces, “Welcome to the beautiful Flathead Valley, Montana. If you’re here on business or pleasure, we do hope you enjoy your stay. If you live here, welcome home.” And I join the part of me that never went to LA, and never wanted to in the first place.
When it comes down to it, there’s really not much room for the silliness of the “excellent.” Not when it comes to towing your neighbor’s truck out of a snow bank, or feeding your shivering herd in twenty-two below temperatures, digging your buddy out from an avalanche, saying a friendly, “Hey, Bear” as you come around a switchback on a mountain trail, or finding Mountain Lion scat in your back yard where your children play. Whatever Bacchanalian indulgence I might crave, is just that. A craving. And when it’s met, it doesn’t last very long. And I can’t say I’m really better for it. Not really.
What I am better for, I realize, as I turn the key in the ignition and wait while the engine moans and squeaks and finally turns over, is the good coffee I had with my friend at six am, her baby at her breast; the way my god-daughter’s hair smelled as we cuddled in bed, and the way her eyes looked when she told me about the wildebeests, the way my friend leaned down at the water’s edge with her son and collected water samples. For the indulgence of friendship that picks up where it lets off every time.
And it occurs to me as I pull out to the white stark highway, with the logging trucks whizzing by, and the dilapidated old barns and abandoned businesses with permanent Closed signs, that there is power in displacement. Everyone should try living just where they least expect to find themselves. Because it reminds you where home is.
When I get to my house, I am greeted by four feet of new snow, my two dogs, and the neighbor’s dead, frozen, and half-eaten, chicken placed, sacrificial, on my front stoop.
Do you feel sorry for me? Probably not. Either way, please don’t tell anyone in the City of Angels…that way down deep, it is precisely in this mangled but beautiful offering of this exact chicken, that I find my self-worth.

prada

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Raven

Heart_Shaped_Rock

Raven
by Laura A. Munson

I know a woman who frequently finds hearts. In rocks, in the dish suds, in the shape of manure clods. She’ll say, “Laura! Come here.” And I’ll know that I am about to see some mystical arrangement of two curves, cleavage, and a point.
I know another woman who claims that whenever she begins a trip—in her car, on horseback, by foot, a hawk flies right across her path. “That’s how I know we are going to be safe,” she says.
I know a man who says that when he was a boy, his father told him that there was a magic place in the forest where there was a circle of trees. And if he could find it, and stand in the very center of the circle, he would get any wish he could dream up. So he was always walking around in the woods behind his house in northern California, in search of the Circle of Trees. He never found it. But now, as a man, in northwest Montana, he says that he cannot take a walk in the woods without coming upon a perfect circle of trees.
“Do your wishes come true?” I asked him.
“I’ve never made a wish there, actually. I just figure that the circle is, in itself, the proof that wishes can come true.”
I knew a girl when I was young, who was on the lookout for stones with perfect rings around them. “They’re good luck,” she’d say, squatting on the banks of Trout Lake in northern Wisconsin. She would pick them up faster than it took for me to imagine how a ring in a rock could have power; never mind believe in it. I wanted to believe—her bucket filling up with all that luck.
For a while it was blue sea glass. On the beaches of Lake Michigan. Green, white, and amber were abundant. Blue was hard to find. But not for me. Red was almost impossible, but I’d find red too. Then someone said, “Do you know what that is? It’s broken glass. It’s litter. Pollution. How can you find that beautiful?” So I stopped looking. Still, on beaches, I find blue sea glass. Put it in my pocket. Don’t tell anybody.
My daughter finds X’s in the sky. From airplanes. “Look, Mama. Another X. Isn’t it beeuuuuuuuuuutiful?” I don’t tell her that it’s exhaust from an airplane. She can find beauty wherever she wants.
Now, for me, it is the raven. Always a raven with audible winging, coming out of nowhere as if it is the same one, following me, flushing at my presence, performing its fly-by. It halts me. Reminds me to breathe deeply; say thanks.
My husband finds faces in coals. Usually late-night, around a campfire, when the fire has burned down and everyone else has gone to bed, and it’s just us. He is silent, staring. I know what he is doing. I leave him to his faces. I have never seen them. He says I look too hard.
I apologize to the coals. I assume I have not looked hard enough. I assume I should be the sort to see every design in all of Creation.
But I hear the winging; the raven being released into the night. So close I could reach up and let it skim my fingertips.
Breathe. Thank you.
I take a stick and poke into the coals, collapsing the faces I haven’t seen for whatever reason. I do not need to see faces, I say in my mind. I am the fire. The faces are me. I am not Narcissus of the fire ring. Nor an interpreter of Nature’s art. I do not need to see the designs as much as receive them when they come.
And still, there is the raven. And I wonder: are these things offered? Or are they beckoned.

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Motherhood, My Posts, Stories