Unprecedented

That is the word that I keep hearing and reading: unprecedented. We all knew there was a possibility that something like this could happen, but we hoped it wouldn’t. Now we are forced to cope with a new set of rules.

At first, I thought everyone was getting just a little too excited. I’ve been a teacher for most of my adult life. I’ve seen the annual outbreaks of the flu, and I have fought off more colds than I can count. I even took a weekend trip to the Seattle area just nine days ago to see my elderly mother. I was using the usual precautions like frequent washing and hand sanitizer, but I didn’t think the virus was a big deal. The fact that I have pretty much been on a news blackout for two years may have something to do with my temporary denial or disbelief.

Then things started to progress last week. We saw the governor shut down schools in the three counties surrounding Seattle. When that happened, I felt for my friends and former colleagues. I was grateful to be up here in the northeastern corner of Washington where still, even today, no cases have been reported.

Last Thursday, it got real. The thing that struck me was the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. Man, I have grown to love March Madness! It is a highlight for my son, a Gonzaga grad, and me. When the kids at school broke the news to me, I knew this was serious stuff. I felt a heaviness overcome me. How soon would schools be closed statewide?

The announcement came the next day, not long before school was out. At first, we thought school would be open today, March 16, but over the weekend, our leadership decided against it. That’s it. We don’t know when we will see our students again. I have to hand it to our governor, though. He is stepping up and taking the right precautions. (And yes, my news blackout is over.)

Things seem to evolve by the hour. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Most people appear to be taking it seriously and practicing social distancing. But weren’t we already doing that? I mean, think of what smartphones have done to people socially. They have distanced us in so many ways. People are feeling more stressed and isolated because of our use of technology.

My hope is that when this all settles down, and we adjust to our new normal, we will find a new appreciation for each other. Will we cherish face-to-face interactions? Will we visit in person more often? Will we call more frequently rather than text and use social media to communicate?

We often say things happen for a reason. We all have something to learn from this experience. We are all going to grow in some way. And hopefully, we are all going to take care of each other just a little more.

Gratitude Renewal

Winter arrived in full force last Friday. The snow started falling just before I left for work that morning, and it just didn’t stop. I asked the school attendance secretary if she thought we might have an early release that day. She responded kindly yet doubtfully, telling me that it had only happened once in her tenure at the school. Clearly, these northeastern Washington folks are much heartier than the people in the Seattle area. We seemed to close schools as soon as two flakes fell. (There are two understandable reasons for that though: lack of snow plows and numerous hills.)

School did indeed remain open until 2:50, and I walked out to see several inches of snow piled up on my car. Thankfully, a year in Montana prepared me well for these occasions. I no longer cringe at the idea of driving in the snow, and I now keep one of those long-handled snow brush/ice scraper devices in my car, along with emergency supplies. All-wheel drive and snow tires are confidence boosters, too. The 2018 version of me would have been a nervous wreck anticipating the drive home, but the calm and confident 2020 version was worry free.

The snow was forecasted to continue over the weekend, which was just fine with me. I had been anxiously awaiting an opportunity to practice one of my favorite winter hobbies: creating my own cross-country ski course. Last year, I did it on the golf course behind my house. This year, I am living on an orchard. When I signed the lease in September, I asked the landlady if I could make a ski course when enough snow fell. I think she thought I was a little goofy, but she smiled and said, “Of course!”

After arriving home Friday afternoon, I hurriedly strapped on my snowshoes to pat down a route. I needed to get a path started before dark. Quite a bit of grass was poking through, but a couple more inches would be plenty to create some smooth tracks. I guess it just comes from my need to create and my love of pure, white snow. Then there is that sweet swoosh of cross-country skis. It really is my Zen time. Being out on the snow is absolute bliss for me.

I had been recovering from a cold, but I got out on my private course for an hour or so on both Saturday and Sunday. I had thought about heading up to the mountain for the other kind of skiing on Sunday, but there was yet another winter weather advisory for Sunday afternoon. I figured I might regret the two-hour roundtrip drive if I got stuck in a blizzard. I think I made the right decision.

At some point on Sunday night the temperature rose to around freezing, and heavy flakes began to fall. Then I heard a loud “crack” around nine. I looked outside and didn’t see anything, but it was probably one of the trees in the orchard, or at least a very big branch. I took at look out at my porch. I had shoveled at five, and it was time to do it again.

I went to bed around ten, happily thinking about sleeping in, glad that I was inside in my cozy bed. I had a couple of doctor appointments scheduled for Monday which meant a glorious planned sick day.

I woke up in the morning around 7:30, walked in the bathroom to turn on the lights, and nothing! The power was out. Ugh. So much for my leisurely morning at home. This house is all-electric. That means the pump for the well doesn’t even work when the power’s out. Yup. Just a dribble of water came out of the tap. Flush the toilet, and not much comes back. A shower was out of the question. There is no fireplace; no gas or propane stove. Do I have a generator? Of course not. Fortunately, the house was only cool, and not unreasonably cold yet.

That began to change as the morning progressed. I left the chilly house in time to get a warm beverage before my first appointment. Then, after my second appointment, I went to the Mexican restaurant in town for a late lunch. At least I could enjoy the warmth and satisfaction of a hot meal.

I checked the electric company site on my phone and saw that my power was still out. I couldn’t quite fend off the anxiety that was stirring inside with the thought of entering the cold and almost dark house.

When I opened the door, the familiar whoosh of warm air was absent. It was a particularly cold day; I think we hit a low of nine degrees, and it was a bit windy to boot. I checked my phone again. The online report said that they expected to restore power in my area by 11:00 PM; I wasn’t going to be able to handle that. These are the times when it is particularly hard to be away from family and close friends. I initially thought that maybe I should tough it out.

Fortunately, I do have friends here, though. And without hesitation, they invited me to stay the night. When I arrived at their house, I was surprised that the day had completely exhausted me. Just the thought of sleeping in the cold had caused me more stress than I had realized. As we sat and watched a program on Netflix, I was continually yawning. I could have gone to bed by eight.

Thankfully, my power was restored late this morning. The whole incident was just a tiny disruption in my life, but it was an invaluable lesson in gratitude. For the past several weeks, I have been consciously practicing gratitude every morning, stopping to think about those things, big and small, for which I am grateful. It’s funny that hot water is often one of them, and so is hot food. The past couple of days have made me stop and think of those living in poverty who don’t have their basic needs met on a daily basis. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be homeless in the winter. I’m able to go outside and play in the snow, knowing that I can come inside for a hot shower, bath, or cup of tea. And if I am feeling alone in the cold, friends will be there, graciously offering some help. I guess we all need reminders to keep it in perspective.

Deadlines Don’t Always Matter

Tonight while I was out enjoying some incredibly talented local musicians, I became acquainted with a family of British tourists. They are going to be making their way over to Seattle from here, so I gave them some travel tips for the journey. When I handed them my business card, which has my Montana Shan web address on the back, I realized that it had been about three months since I have blogged. I’m sure you all thought I had packed it up and moved back to Seattle by now.

Nope. I’m still here. Honestly, I can’t give a good excuse for the hiatus from writing. Maybe I felt like the Montana Magic was wearing off. I did feel the pressure of my first Montana anniversary coming up and was disappointed about some things that haven’t quite worked out as I had dreamed. Now that a year has passed, I’m over it. I’m still trying new things, and I still love the beauty of the Flathead Valley.

Making a living has been a challenge. At the end of February, I took a part-time job waiting tables. That’s what all artists do, right? I thought it would be perfect since I would be working nights and have days free to enjoy outdoor activities and work on writing and editing projects.

After about three months, I realized that restaurant work didn’t suit me. Working evenings was also killing my social life. On many Saturdays, I was too exhausted from work to get up and enjoy activities with friends like bike rides. Then, one night at work, I had an “I’m too old for this shit” moment and decided to look for a different job.

I’ve been working a nine-to-five job for more than a month now. I have to admit, I appreciate the predictability of the schedule, and it’s the kind of job that I can just leave every day. It’s not like teaching where I took stacks paperwork home, often accompanied by a load of stress. My evenings are free, I get all of the holidays, and I never have to work weekends. Not so bad. In true Montana form, my coworkers have been friendly and welcoming. They’ve all been showing me the ropes, and there is a strong sense of teamwork.

The ironic thing is that I was contracted to edit a novel just after I began working full-time. Talk about timing! It was the end of June; the 4th of July was just around the corner, followed by a visit from one of my sons. Somehow, I managed to squeeze in the editing work and reached my July 21st deadline. Now I feel like I have an abundance of free time.

It hasn’t been all work, though. I have been enjoying some mountain biking and hiking with friends. I experienced my first substantial day hike in Glacier National Park (11 miles), which included a grizzly sighting. The visit with my son was too short, but at least we had one full day of exploration together, and we got out to a couple of my favorite haunts. I continue to enjoy another summer of live outdoor music, usually three or four nights a week.

My first Montana anniversary passed a couple of weeks ago. I’m grateful for the numerous new experiences of the past year and the many friendships that have enriched my life. They have been even better than I could have imagined. Last year, I arrived with an open mind, ready for a new life and a lower stress level. As I sit and reflect tonight, I realize that I have found the most important things that I was seeking.

April Ups and Downs

Last year when I first moved to Montana, several people suggested that I plan a vacation in March or April. They would say things like, “You’re going to be ready for a getaway by then. March can be brutal.” As the calendar rolls into the second half of April, I now understand what they were getting at.

The snow began to diminish from my yard in late March, and the sight of my lawn reappearing was certainly welcome. Then came the first rain of 2019, and I was instantly longing for more of that fluffy white stuff. After all, I had escaped the Seattle area and those miserable gray days. I was also mourning the fact that I had probably enjoyed my last day of cross-country skiing for the season.

I had experienced the effect of the thaw and freeze on the roads as the snow was melting, too. There were several days where I was driving through the frozen ruts. That was a bit treacherous. The temperature swings were from freezing to the 50s.

A week ago, we experienced some snow flurries here. I had been pleasantly surprised with one last day of downhill skiing two weekends ago, but I thought we were done here in the lowlands. There were no accumulations, though. It was just Mother Nature reminding me that I do indeed live in Montana.

Now we seem to be into the kind of spring weather that I had expected. Many days are a combination of sun and rain, but I can’t complain. Flowers are beginning to bloom, and we’re seeing temperatures as high as the sixties. On Easter Sunday as I was preparing for dinner guests, I swear that every time I looked out the window, my yard was turning greener. I’ll be mowing any day now.

I came to Montana to experience all four seasons, and I’m not disappointed by any means. Maybe next March I’ll plan that escape, but for now, I still feel like I’m living in Vacationland.

Adventure Skiing

The best kinds of friends are those who both support you and get you to stretch your comfort zone. My move to Montana was all about getting a fresh start and seeking new experiences. New friends have been an integral part of those new experiences.

Thanks to Meetup groups, I have met many new friends who have enriched my life in so many ways. One friend graciously offered me downhill ski lessons to help me get back on the slopes after more than thirty years away. Another friend shares my love of cross-country skiing and has introduced me to some new adventures.

A few weeks ago, three of us went adventure skiing up to the Mission Lookout in the Flathead National Forest. The first part was pretty easy. We skied along a road that had been traveled by snowmobiles, and it was mostly flat.

The real adventure began when we started our ascent to the lookout tower. We were then skiing through about a foot of virgin powder, making our way uphill. The work was worth it, and there was a true sense of accomplishment when we arrived. The best part was that since it wasn’t a groomed course, my friend was able to bring his dog. Watching her romp around in the deep powder chasing snowballs was the perfect lunchtime entertainment!

Yesterday, my friend led us on another ski adventure on the Beaver Lake Trails. It was a little more exciting than I had envisioned since the words “trail” and “lake” were in the description he had posted. I envisioned a leisurely day of skiing around a beautiful lake. Well, it was beautiful, but not exactly leisurely.

The trail began with an uphill climb on a rather narrow, icy, snowshoe path. It was by far the most challenging path I had attempted on skis. I will admit that I even took my skis off in a couple of spots where it was just too steep or curvy for me. Fortunately, the first part was the worst, and after that there was no heading back anyway. Oh, and did I mention that I was the only woman among a group of five men? Wimping out wasn’t an option.

We arrived at a road, and I asked if we were skiing that next. Nope. More trail. The next section didn’t seem so bad. Maybe I was getting used to this crazy narrow trail skiing; maybe I was okay with taking a few falls, too.

Later, we skied a road that brought us near the lake. My friend turned to me and said, “Now, you are in your zone,” or something like that.

That initial steep climb was worth it when we arrived at the lake. And we didn’t ski around it; we skied across it! Yet another first for me. There was something so satisfying about the sensation of my pole tips hitting the ice of the frozen lake as we glided across. The sun was shining down on us by then, and we had all shed our jackets. Such a nice change after a stretch of sub-zero and single digit days! It was my first taste of spring-like skiing in Montana.

When we arrived back at our cars, my friend told me that he didn’t post ski outings at places like golf courses. “It’s going to be an adventure when you ski with me.”

I’m so grateful for my new friend and his sense of adventure. These are the experiences that I was seeking when I moved here. Alone, I wouldn’t have taken on adventures like these; friends make all the difference.

Making My Own Tracks

It’s been snowing steadily for more than twenty-four hours, and there was already more than a foot of snow on the ground before it started. As I write this afternoon, the winds are picking up, and tonight the temperatures are going to drop below zero. So this is what people were talking about when they questioned whether I could handle a Montana winter.

Can I handle it? You mean, do I love it? I moved to Montana to experience real winters like this. After a lifetime as a Seattle-area resident, I longed for an end to the rain-soaked days and gray skies. For years, I had dreamed of living in a place where I could cross-country ski all winter long. And today, I checked one more thing off my Montana wish list. I skied from my front door.

I have to admit, I do love the arrival of my snowplow guy, but today I was hoping he wouldn’t make it, or maybe he could just delay his arrival. There is something so satisfying about watching his truck push aside all that snow in minutes. I love how all that pure white powder piles up along the sides of my driveway and near my porch. But today, I really wanted to make a cross-country ski course around the house. My neighbor was amused by my idea and welcomed me to expand the course into her yard, too. By one this afternoon, there was no sign of him. It was time to get the skis.

First, I had to make a run to the mailbox. Since the neighborhood hadn’t been plowed either, I popped on the skis and made the quarter-mile trek without incident. Okay, that was a good warm-up. Then I decided to go beyond my yard. I trudged through a foot of powder, down the thin strip of common area behind the neighbors’ houses. Next, I went around the corner to the golf course. How could I possibly resist all of that pristine, wide-open space?

It was hard work, but worth it, and the trip back over my tracks proved a bit easier. To finish off my adventure, I made the ski course I had envisioned in our two adjoining yards. I have to say it was much more fun than building a snowman!

So, can I handle a Montana winter? Yes, and I can handle so much more. I am adventurous, resilient, and more of a risk-taker at this stage of my life than I ever have been before. I have experienced more “living” in the past six months than in any other six-month period of my life. Have I made mistakes? Yes. Has everything worked out according to plan? No. Do I have regrets? Absolutely not. Did my snowplow guy ever make it? Nope.

January Isn’t So Bad

I used to hate January. There was just no way around it. Once Christmas and that sweet, long break were over, I had to drag myself back to work and attempt to inspire my students to get back into the learning groove. For many years, January had mostly been a month to trudge through and count the days until it was over.

But now, that’s all changed. First, I’m no longer in the classroom. I did take a long trip to visit family and friends over the holidays, but I was anxiously anticipating the return to my new life in Montana. I couldn’t wait to get back to my new friends and neighbors here, and, of course, get some skiing in.

When I arrived home two weeks ago, there still wasn’t much snow. It was rather warm, dry, and disappointing. At least there was enough snow up north and in the mountains, so I wasn’t entirely out of luck. I did get a few ski outings in and even went downhill skiing for the first time in, well, literally decades.

Then yesterday the magic happened. I had been putting in some hours at my friend’s shop to help with inventory over the past week or so. It was lightly snowing when I woke up, and it really started coming down by midday when I drove to the shop.

After only three hours of work, I had to brush what appeared to be a couple of inches off my car. The winter wonderland had arrived! I made the short drive home without any mishaps, but it kept snowing so hard that I decided to cancel my evening plans with a friend. It seemed too risky to venture out when I could stay safe and warm at home.

This morning I looked out my window to see that my driveway had been plowed, which meant we got more than three inches. The internet reports that it was between 4.5-6 inches. That seems about right.

The very best thing, though, was that there was finally enough snow on my local ski trails to go try them out! I have been waiting since November for enough accumulation to make this happen. Last summer when I was house-hunting, I had dreamed of the day that I could take that short drive, pop on my skis, and go swishing around. I know you probably don’t understand, especially if you aren’t a cross-country skier, but it just made me so happy! There’s something magical about the pristine, freshly groomed trails. It’s actually better than Christmas in my world.

Now January feels more like a welcome friend than a dreaded enemy. I’m looking forward to more time on my skis, and I’m grateful that my friend convinced me to buy snow tires.

It’s Good to be Home

After twelve days of trotting coast-to-coast visiting family and friends, I have to say I’m delighted to be back in my Montana home. It’s not that I really needed a reminder of why I absolutely love it here, but the trip back to the Seattle area confirmed that I made the right decision when I decided to call this place home. As I experienced many places that had been so familiar for much of my life, I unexpectedly felt like a stranger. I didn’t have any feelings of regret for having moved, just memories of places I had gone and things I had done.

Now don’t get me wrong; I did enjoy spending time with old friends. And the best Christmas gift a mom can receive is to see her adult children. But I had only been away from Montana for a couple of days when I became terribly homesick. My next-door neighbor wasn’t much help either when she sent me a photo of my snow-covered house one morning.

A few days ago, right before landing in Kalispell, the woman next to me on the plane started saying things that described how I felt. She too was a fellow transplant from Washington State and had missed the warm, friendly people of the Flathead Valley. She was happy to see a dusting of snow, but not too much to make driving difficult. We soon realized that we had a mutual friend and exchanged phone numbers. By the time we got to baggage claim, we were chatting like old buddies.

Over the next couple of days, I started reconnecting with friends and catching up on what I had missed during my nearly two weeks away. Then I actually did feel a little regret having missed out on some of the holiday festivities here in Montana.

Today I feel like I’m back to my old, comfortable surroundings. It’s funny to think that I moved here just short of six months ago. I haven’t felt the need to make any resolutions for 2019; I’m just going to continue to see where that Montana Magic takes me.

Family Feelings

The holidays are a time when we gather with family and friends. Sometimes those gatherings bring up feelings of pain and regret rather than delight in seeing our loved ones. We are reminded of the loss of loved ones as well as the disappointments and disagreements of the past. Thus, the holidays are often more painful than joyful for some.

No family is perfectly happy. When we reflect on relations with extended family, some baggage is bound to have developed over time which makes those family gatherings a bit strained. It’s kind of hard to avoid, isn’t it? Over a lifetime, there are so many interactions that some are certainly negative. There are those arguments and misunderstandings that just can’t seem to be resolved because we are too stubborn to let go. Or maybe the pain is too profound to release just yet. And it’s a two-way street: Perhaps one person is ready to forgive and move on while the other is hanging on to that grudge and hurt.

Sometimes, we have essentially taken separate paths and no longer have much in common. We’re left with nothing to talk about but the good old days. Then there is that competition that can grow between us. Jealousy can rear its ugly head when we see how a family member has reached success while we may be struggling in some way.

On the flip side, we have those close friends who are really more like family. We aren’t bound by blood, but we have a lifelong bond that seems inseverable. We get along so well that we wish we were related.

So, this year and every year, it’s really a mix. I’ve had time to visit with blood relatives as well as old friends who are like family to me. I’m grateful for them all, good, not-so-good, and in between. They all make up part of who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. And there’s always hope that the argument will be resolved, the misunderstanding will become clarified, and the pain will diminish the next time we see each other.

‘Tis the Season to Be Busy

Oh my, have I been busy! I can’t believe that December is more than halfway over, and I am just now getting to my first post of the month.

The Christmas magic in my cozy new hometown continues. December first was the night of the Christmas parade. Fortunately, a friend had asked me if I wanted to go, or I may have missed all of the fun. The variety of floats was charming; I do believe my favorite was the sled dogs—yes, real barking dogs. It was definitely a community event with a constant sprinkling of candy for the kids from almost every float. I think nearly everyone in town was either on a float or watching along the street.

The next day I attended a Christmas party that was held at a local recording studio. Besides a lively variety of music, the white elephant gift exchange was a highlight. There were about forty gifts in all, and the hostess managed the whole affair with great skill, taking control of the mic from the musicians. Afterward, musicians took turns singing and playing their instruments, rotating in and out, and sharing the stage. I’ve decided that being a groupie is pretty cool. You know, I’m doing my part to support the arts.

The following week, I took a field trip to Missoula to check out a business opportunity. It was a perfectly clear winter day, so the scenery alone made the drive worthwhile. My companion for the day was a spirited character who shared his compelling life story all the way there and back, over an hour each way. In the end, I decided against the business opportunity, but I’m trying to convince him that I should ghostwrite his memoir. We’re in touch; it still may happen.

Throughout December, I’ve been covering extra shifts at my friend’s shop here in town. She is active in the community and was coordinating “Twelve Days of Christmas” baskets for a silent auction in support of the local arts and culture center. I jumped in to help set up some of the baskets and typed up some of the descriptions. It was a hectic couple of days before the event. I then actually attended the gala, rather than volunteering, which was a pleasant change of pace. I ended up with the winning bid on one of the baskets, too!

The following morning, I was a volunteer judge at the local high school speech and debate tournament. It was my first return to a school-related event since leaving my teaching position last June. I have to say it was an absolute joy to see so many hard working kids giving their all in such valuable activities. As an added bonus, they were incredibly polite and grateful for my volunteer service. Their coaches had indeed trained them well.

That afternoon, my neighbors hosted an open house style Christmas party. There was an unbelievable number of people crammed into their home, and all were enjoying themselves. Everyone was engaged in conversation, and I have never seen so many people squeezed onto a sofa before. I met some new people, and chatted with neighbors and acquaintances along with a couple of people who seem to appear everywhere in this town!

I had to leave the party early because I had plans to meet a couple of friends for eggnog at the local distillery before catching a favorite local band at one of my hangouts in town. Once again, there were some of those friendly, familiar faces at both the distillery and the bar. My community continues to grow.

Last week I added party preparations into the mix. On Friday, I hosted my first Montana house party which was a huge success. After feeling a little anxious about the mix of neighbors and friends that I had invited, everything went smoothly. It was heartwarming to realize that I had made so many new friends in the few months that I have lived here. Everyone arrived with wine or food to share, and a few people even brought me gifts. My house was full of joyful chatter throughout the evening. This week, I keep running into friends and neighbors who rave about the party and the interesting people they met that night. That is a gift in itself.

The next day, Saturday, I got out for my first cross country ski outing of the season—finally! One of the main reasons that I moved to Montana was to experience the four seasons and winters full of snow rather than Seattle rain. Cross-country skiing is by far my favorite outdoor activity. Sometimes I think it must be because it is a limited activity that I don’t get to experience more than a dozen or so times each year. I just love the smooth swishing of my skis over the pristine white snow; it’s a sort of mediation for me. I can best describe it as my version of a runner’s high. Along our nearly ten-mile course on Whitefish Mountain, we took in some stunning views of the valley, all the way down to Flathead Lake and Blacktail Ski Resort. This is one of the many reasons why I came to Montana!

My friend, the shop owner, was out of town for a few days, so that evening her husband and I went out for a burger at a local bar (well-earned after a day of skiing) and the children’s musical production of A Christmas Carol. Now don’t think quaint little small-town children’s production. This was a professional level performance complete with choreography. Yet another gem in my new hometown! How was I so fortunate to find this place?

I rounded out the weekend on Sunday with a few hours of work, ice skating with a new friend, and a glass of wine with a group of friends afterward. I’m still nursing my bruised knee from my one and only fall on the ice, though. As I said, skiing is more my thing—softer landings!

Today marked the arrival of my “bestie” who is in town for a couple of days. If you’ve been following my story, he’s a friend of a friend who’s been my biggest supporter and ally through my transition. Sadly, he moved to another part of the state back in October. We had a get together this evening with several friends at our favorite local brewery. It was so good to see him in person again and share some holiday joy.

Along with everything else, I’m still trying to get the rest of my Christmas cards sent, have some writing and editing work to complete, and my house is not entirely cleaned up from the party. But those loose ends don’t matter. My life is richly blessed with new friends, new experiences, and a little Montana magic.