In Bozeman there is a lot of snow. It’s been snowing every day.
It is so quiet here you can hear your thoughts.
You can hear the sounds of your dreams.
You can hear what it means to be human.
Here in Montana.

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You must go to Three Forks, Montana. The headwaters of the Missouri is there, which is terrific and important. The Missouri is the longest river in North America and it begins in a truly nondescript spot.

Not surprisingly, there is more than one reason to go to Three Forks, population approximately 2000. Another is Jim Phillips’ Horn House, visitors by appointment. Jim currently has 16,171 antlers. And at least as many stories. Words fail me here. This is something you just have to see for yourself.

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Day at the university. In which the engineering student proudly shows off the new engineering building which is stunning and inspiring. And then we eat in the dining hall and may I say that dining halls have come a long way since SLU ‘87. All good. Hard to believe he’s only got one more year here in this very cool, infinitely hospitable place, even at twenty below.

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3D printing lab: “It’s basically a glorified hot glue gun.” 

3D printing lab: “It’s basically a glorified hot glue gun.” 


When I first started writing here, at this website, about eight years ago, I wrote a story about my Dopp kit. I wrote about the history of the thing: Charles Doppelt, the US Army, toiletries for the troops, etc. I wrote about what I carried in it and about what was happening in Alaska at the time (an epic snowstorm).

The contents were basic: toothbrush, some hair thingies, a Swiss Army knife—pre-TSA bullshit, of course. I don’t need much; I didn’t wear lipstick then, still don’t. I’ll confess to some age spot cream now, the ravages of time and the vanity of aging. There was never any sunscreen in my Dopp and there should have been, of course. Mostly I was writing about my love of travel and that I was pleased to recognize that I don’t need much. And also that I am a scatterbrain who usually forgets the toothpaste.

I’m in Montana today and there is an epic snowstorm happening outside this cozy room at the Lark. That’s a local talking, calling it epic, so I’m guessing it’s a pretty big deal. It sure is beautiful. Nothing like a funky ski town in the grips of lots and lots of snow.

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I felt something great this morning. Which was exactly what happened to me all those years ago when I walked into the bathroom at the Alyeska ski resort and noticed my Dopp. This morning I looked at my Dopp and Coco’s Dopp and I was gobsmacked with joy: two Dopps; my girl and I are a traveling team now. She’s an incredible kid: easy to travel with, very funny, as curious as I about this world and the people in it. She’s the very best thing: game.

Give me game any day, over regularity and static and predictability and safety. This life is short, this world is gorgeous. I mean, my god, who would want to miss any of this?


Brace yourself, I have a lot of questions today.

I am wondering ... what is it about all these things that I have loved? Taking pictures, arranging flowers, writing stories. Taking the pieces and particles of this world and putting them in a kind of order, trying to make sense, trying to make beauty. I did it with plates and napkins and curtains when I was young. I tried to make beautiful homes. I wasn’t very good at it. I needed more freedom. I wasn’t able to reconcile that with any kind of homesteading that lasted any length of time. I went to the woods, I was runner, literally. I ran in the woods and on the dirt roads. I went back to school. Trying to figure it all out; it gave me structure, deadlines. Those were the places I went to get lost and then found again.

This world is so overwhelming, with beauty and sorrow. Both, deeply interwoven. What are we doing as we walk through all of this? Parceling together ideas and plans, creating things we hope people will like or need or maybe both.

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Does it really matter if anyone else likes what we create with our lives? Why have we become so weirdly attached to a need for a steady diet of adulation? Why can’t we just do and create and be, experience things and find contentment there? I am wondering how much of our sense of inner satisfaction is lost in this absurd new world of likes and hearts and happy faces. Not to mention how much real, meaningful human interaction is lost as we share and react to everything in the disconnected realms of our computers and cell phones.

Why have we allowed this for ourselves? We are people—tactile, emotional, relational.

Do our souls come here with a plan? And if so why is it so hard to sort that out? If you watch the fabulous film about the chef, Flynn McGarry, you will see what a person can become when they are given the time and space and support to roam free with their curiosities. That, I think, is what the soul needs most. Not desks in rows or standardized tests; freedom.

Why does it always feel like the world is pressing against us? Why is it so hard to find the space and time, the freedom to create what our hearts so desperately want us to create?

I have found there to be one great motivator and that is love. Love in the hundred million different ways love presents. I’m not sure I knew what it was until Sam was born and I began to experience the agony and the ecstasy of being a mother. Breastfeeding, nuzzling, snuggling, the smells, the exhaustion. A body no longer mine alone, now shared with a tiny body, all day and all night. What a strange revelation.

The babies taught me love.

My siblings, tenacity in love. The I’m stuck with you forever love. Fortunately I am mad for them, in awe of each one of them. I miss them all the time.

Friends, women, have taught me layers and layers of love. Deep, penetrating, all the way through to the other side of the soul love.

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I could talk about God and love but I think they are one and the same. I believe that God manifests in every nook and cranny of our lives, coaxing us, relentlessly, to love. To love more. To love in spite of. God and love are the same thing.

Men; romantic love. Sigh. Bah, I can barely write about this. I do not know why it has been so hard. Have I made it hard? Do I continually don the suit of armor, still holding the fear of every boy and man who took me for granted, betrayed me, lied to me until I learned how to play their game? I seem to always need the upper hand, always be ready to go first, sooner, faster. You. Will. Not. Hurt. Me. Which, of course, translates in real time to You will not love me, either.

That kind of love ... I’m forever learning, find it hard to find peace. I keep coming back around to the original one. There is a picture of us somewhere sitting next to each other in fifth grade. Was the deal sealed then? Here it is now, forty-two years later. We wander off, wander back. Like ships on the sea, always returning to the homeport. The familiar sights and sounds and smells. Safety.

Maybe that’s what feeds and fuels us, some kind of never-ending search for the familiar. Why is it flowers and words and images for me and food or piano keys or paint for another? Everyone makes sense of the world differently.

I think I’m always, in one way or another, talking about freedom and beauty and love. I call them by different names and have found them in the most unlikely of places and faces and I really have no idea what any of it means. But it’s beginning to feel, for me, that my whole life has been a quest for those three things: freedom and beauty and love.
Amen, I think.

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I have a friend named Marc. He’s an actor and you’ll see him in a show on HBO this fall, with Jason Bateman. Last year he was on Ozark as a character named Russ.

I met Marc on an airplane several years ago when he was heading from Boston to Martha’s Vineyard to see his girlfriend and I was going to pick up my kids. We stayed in touch in a very modern way: we send each other voice memos on a fairly regular basis—it’s pen pal-ing, with a phone instead of paper.

Marc will send me a memo from South Africa about all the people he’s meeting and all the funny things he’s doing while he’s shooting an episode of Black Mirror with Miley Cyrus and I’ll send him a memo about going to visit one of my boys. He’ll send me a memo about being in LA and shooting a thing for Gibson guitars (he also happens to be a gifted singer and songwriter) and I’ll send him a memo about visiting with someone who is dying; every voice memo I get has him in some far-away place doing something really cool. And I respond with the stories of my little life here in Vermont. We have a fun overlap: his girlfriend, Victoria’s, family has a house in Lake Tahoe and every once in a while they’re there eating at the places we go when I’m there visiting Sam, looking at the lake I look at when I’m there. We have yet to be there at the same time, but we love sharing stories of a delicious visit to the Char-Pit, the smell of the pines there, the way the air is so crisp.

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MM, MO, NYC

We saw each other in December when I went to New York with Nate to see the Lone Bellow at the Bowery Ballroom. The band members are his friends, of course, so we got to meet them, hang a bit; we got the total VIP treatment. It was so much fun. I think, besides the great music and getting to spend time with Marc and Victoria, my favorite part was when the band circled up before the show and I said a prayer about warmth and song and sweetness. Totally awesome pastor moment.

You have to admit, what Marc and I have is unusual. In a world of fly-by-night encounters, short-lived relationships and nanosecond attention spans, Marc and I have managed to cultivate a friendship of meaning and lasting worth, even with lots of space and usually a couple of time zones between us. And we know this and so we continue to honor it but putting time and energy into our friendship.

When I first met Marc he was a classic struggling actor, living in New York and barely getting by. I’ve watched as he’s made his way, persevered. I sense that’s it’s a combination of talent, tenacity and genuine kindness that have propelled him forward to where he is now, with his first recurring role in a major TV series. I couldn’t be more proud, nor less surprised. Marc is one of the good ones and I like to believe that the good ones eventually have their day.

I’ve been helping Marc work his way through a challenging situation at the moment and yesterday we were sending messages back and forth, processing that. He paid to me what I consider a great compliment. He said, “thank you so much, Melissa, for all of your help. You say things that make sense.”

It was a kind of relief, actually, to hear that I may actually be spewing some gibberjab that is helpful, that somehow my life experience is paying off for someone else … you say things that make sense. Phew!

This is a hard world we live in and we’re all trying to figure it out as we go. It often feels like it’s getting weirder, more complicated. It feels like people are struggling more and more with mental, physical and spiritual issues. It often seems like the things that befall people are truly profound: the cancer is stage four, the mother and the father have died, the loss of not one but two sons; the daughter is starving herself to death. The needs of the humans I encounter have great depth while at the same time it feels like people are alienating themselves from each other, more and more.

I adore Marc Menchaca. I adore his lovely partner, Victoria, and I am incredibly honored to be along for the ride, to be part of his story, to bear witness. He feels the same about me and we tell each other this all the time. We have a plan for our memorial services, by the way, so you’ll get to meet him when I die.

The night we went to see the Lone Bellow, Nate and I walked home, back to the hotel, very late. It had been such a fun evening, one of those classic New York nights. Nate said, “Mom, I can’t believe you get to have experiences like that just because you’re kind to people.”

Take the just out and what you have is a map for your life: be kind, care, pay attention, be helpful, let the right people in and keep them in.

When I wrote about V Smiley and her miraculous preserves yesterday, she countered by writing a little Instagram blurb about me: Melissa has been an utterly warm and inspiring force of support, notes, jam buying and general cheerleading. So much so that I’ve re-focused my energy on writing and have started these weekly meetings with my sister where we share work back and forth.

I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to hear that I have inspired in someone a reborn desire to write!

This is what we want for ourselves and each other in this life: to lift each other up, to care about each other’s dreams, to share in our stories and to bear witness to each other’s triumphs and sufferings.

One of the things I loved about V’s post was that there was no @ or # in front of my name — it was just Melissa O’Brien, stand alone me. I’m not hashtagable anymore and I will tell you that the world is a very different place when you’re no longer concerned with likes and hearts. You’re just … in it. It’s really nice.

But that’s another story for another day. Thanks for coming, reader. Thank you for your eyes, your heart, your time and attention. Believe me, I can feel the love and I am deeply, infinitely grateful.
Amen.

 

OK so just a couple of quick things I want to tell you about today, a couple of things you should know about.

A few weeks ago my friend, Dennis Welsh, and I got together to do a story about a really interesting person named V Smiley. I know. I know. That’s a name-and-a-half. It gets better. She makes the most delicious preserves you will ever put in your mouth. Using honey as sweetener; no sugar. With flavors like raspberry redcurrant geranium and pear sage lemon marmalade, I promise, you will never again return to the dullards on the supermarket shelf.

DW is a super-talented photographer; I’ve known him since our St. Lawrence days, and now he and I are collaborating for State 14. We also have a fun idea brewing for a podcast about people creating things in Vermont and why they’re creating things in Vermont; more on that later.

So Dennis came over from Maine and we met up in Bristol where we got to watch V making marmalade in a lovely space called Tandem. It was intoxicating, in the good way: the copper pots; the steam; the marmaldey goo rolling into the jars. That safe and satisfied feeling you get when you see shelves lined with jars full of fresh preserves. I wish I could go back and do it all over again!

Maybe I will.

Maybe that will be my new thing: jam apprentice.

Order it online, track it down in a shop and ask your local favorite store to start carrying it. Just get V’s stuff, now.

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And the other thing I really want you to know about today is this: Writers for Recovery. This is so good. This is so so so good. Everything about it, but especially that it’s about people reclaiming their dignity as sober humans through written word and shared stories. Vermont Public Radio has partnered with them to air a six-part podcast series called My Heart Still Beats. Don’t miss it.

Blessings in abundance, dear friends. As many as the snowflakes.



It has been a rather long winter, cold and icy and filled with many unexpected challenges.

That’s one story.

It has been a beautiful winter, sparkly and white; quiet and enchanting and life has brought new and interesting people and opportunities to me.

That’s a story, too.

Both are true.

Both of those are parts of the story of the way my life has been this winter. I have encountered many obstacles in my days and I have found solace in the expertise, wisdom, kindness and love of others. Things have been lost or come to a close and new things have arrived to fill the empty space.

I could keep going, but I think you get what I’m talking about.

I’ve had the opportunity to be alone, in quiet and prayerful contemplation, a lot this winter. Perched in a beautiful place high on a hill with a long-range view of God’s creation. There are many moments in the day when there is no sound at all. The stars fill the sky at night, the snow falls gently; the sun makes all kinds of interesting shapes and patterns with shadows here; the moon right now! The claw foot tub is positioned just so: I can bathe by the light of the moon at night.

Quite often it’s just me and my thoughts here and I am well aware of how difficult it can be to alone with one’s thoughts. Also, how fortifying, how necessary and important. I have shuttered extraneous online presences I once had, I have been writing a lot, and thinking and praying and walking and petting Daisy. In the hopes, with the intention that when spring arrives I will be ready for whatever comes next. Because something is coming, I can feel it. Something is on its way to being born, I trust. And I understand the importance of a time of readiness, the value in the void. The necessity of down time, away from the maddening crowd, alone with my thoughts and feelings.

It ain’t easy, people, believe me.

Our brains seem to enjoy a default to negativity. It’s too convenient for me to offer up a plate full of lamentations whenever someone asks, “How are you doing?” Instead, I am teaching myself to knock it off. Yes, it’s cold outside and yes, this has been a long winter and yes, there are significant challenges in my days.

And yes, I am loved. Yes, I am well; I’m not sick! I am gifted with an embarrassment of riches; I have everything that I need, and more. Soon Coco and I will be heading to Montana to see Nate and to meet his lovely Gretta. We’re going to go to Yellowstone to see about that new geyser, the Steamboat. It sprays water three times higher than Old Faithful! We’re going to eat pie and play pond hockey and make sure everyone’s OK. If that’s not a good life I don’t know what is.

The trials that I face in regards to other people are largely a result of my own ways of seeing things, my expectations. I have learned that my superpowers are limited to my ability to manage my own existence; I will not be re-writing the narrative of anyone else’s path through this life. Though we pair up and make babies and friends and partnerships; though we have family and lovers, we truly walk alone on this strange journey. The best I can do, indeed all I should do, is show up and write the good story of me while I’m here. Not the sad, downtrodden, riddled with hurdles and u-turns and losses, why the fuck is this happening version, either. The it is what it is version; the one in which the snow sparkles and the dog curls up beside me and the friend reminds me of my strength and the dad gives me a lift and the mechanic fixes everything and the tea with honey tastes so good and the moon shines bright and the son says I can’t wait to see you and and and and and.

That one. Amen.

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I sense there is a lag time in our understanding of the circumstances of our lives. That it isn’t until now becomes then that we begin to have a clear grasp of what’s happened. In the moment we’re too busy processing all the information that’s coming at us. Sometimes the lag time is hours, sometimes months. Maybe even years. By then the setting and the characters from the story may be long gone from our lives. Still, the sense of what it was, how it felt, lingers and takes shape. Comes into focus.

This is the problem with this idea that we’re all supposed to be seeking happiness. Happiness travels much more slowly than words and actions. We’re in a moment, living it, but it’s usually not until we get further down the line and turn around and look back that we recognize happiness as having been present in the story.

I used to see this a lot with people nearing end of life. When our days are numbered and we know for certain we’re leaving soon a lot of us wish we had been more willing or able to recognize happiness when it was sitting beside us, in the moment. Happiness has this quiet patience, often ignored but tenacious, watching as we default to pessimism, frustration, fatigue and blame; as we quit things and move on, unwilling to stop long enough to look at the plain girl standing on the sidelines, Happiness. Usually shaking her head, I’m sure.

“I don’t know why I made my life so hard,” a woman told me once. She was dying and she wasn’t old. She had never been married, never had kids. She had worked hard for a long time to save lots of money so she could retire young and travel and see things. But right before the time she planned to retire she was diagnosed with a terrible and fast-moving cancer. She was so angry, she felt she had been gypped out of her chance to have some fun, to not work so hard for a change, to chase happiness down in Europe and the Caribbean. She was one of those people who did everything she thought she was supposed to do, but she didn’t get the payoff she felt entitled to. She got death instead.

I don’t really know what the moral of the story is. I wonder if that woman had had a glimpse into the future if she would have lived differently. If, instead of putting everything off with the mindset that when everything is right and the stars are all aligned and everyone is nicer and I have piles of money then I will do all the things I want to do and I will be happy she had simply woven that thinking into every day she was alive. An understanding that this is enough, what I’m doing brings me satisfaction, I should go to Anguilla this year. Would she have died at peace, I’ve often wondered, if she had stopped putting everything off and taken a look around and seen how good it was and lived in it all, right then and there? Because she didn’t; she died mad as hell.

I wonder that about all of us, actually. Why it’s so hard for us to see the treasure in what we have when we have it.

The combination of memory and time is a funny thing. Certainly it can screw with us, we forget a lot of things, details become hazy; two people who had the same experience have two different stories. But I think it’s different with happiness. I think it’s really hard for us humans to recognize it when we have it and all too tragically easy to identify it later, after the fact.

I think we all would live differently if we understood better one of the most basic truths of life: someday you won’t have this anymore. There will come a day when you won’t have the luxury of relegating Happiness to the sidelines while you set the stage, duke it out, primp and prep. Someday you are going to run out of lag time.

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