Tag Archives: Helena

I Should Have Passed a Note

Writers see a blank piece of paper or computer screen as an emptiness waiting to be filled.  It’s not alive until our words cover the area in a literary dance. The blankness beckons something deep within that needs to be released.

Artists must feel the same way about when beholding a blank canvas, seeing an exciting possibility for their creative  explosion of paint,  inspiration, and talent.

Children prefer  natural expressions, with less structure and rules.  A blanket of fresh fallen snow is often their favorite medium awaiting creation.

They shuffle, build, and tunnel, forming caves, towers, snowmen, paths, and messages.  Snow can become anything and take them anywhere in their imagination.


Playing in the snow is no longer a playtime activity for kids, it’s now a recognized art form.


The snow artist, Simon Beck, sees a field of newly fallen snow as an emptiness to be filled.


He shuffles to create stunning images, nearly Geometrically perfect.


Each design takes about 10 hours to make, using snowshoes, a handheld orienteering compass, and pace counting. 


Then, he posts the images and allows anybody to use them for free. 


I was  fascinated by his talent and his generosity with his pictures. But  when I saw to this picture, it reminded me of a time when my shuffling in the snow produced a very different result.

I was a 7th grader at the Helena Junior High, a time of angst and crushes. Those same feelings had accompanied most of us through elementary school, too, but  in junior high there were dances and dates, and we keenly felt the expectation that it was time to act on those crushes.  We advanced from kicking or chasing the boys we liked on the playground, to more mature behaviors, like passing notes in the hallway.

By late fall, I had a crush on a kid named Kevin.  Because we both had long, blonde hair, hey, it was the 70’s,  I thought we needed to be a couple.  My last  name ended with a B and his with a C and since our teachers were obsessed with alphabetical order seating charts, several times a day he was very near. 

But, he was very, very shy, and I couldn’t eke out a smile or a blink from him, despite soulful stares down the aisle of Mr. Beveridge’s classroom.

One morning I was trouncing across town to get to school, ya’ know back in those days when you walked everywhere regardless of traffic or weather, and  my heart was too obsessed with my crush to notice the white snow that had covered the  world overnight.

Until I got to the little hill above the junior high football field. There was a beautiful, white rectangle of sparkling snow awaiting my artistry. The vast blankness needed to come alive with a literary dance.

Inspired, I eagerly plotted my course and made my way to the canvas, where I began shuffling my feet to form block letters.

I thought I would leave an innocent message of love in the football field. Since it was at ground level, I didn’t think anybody would be able to read it.  Only me.  People walked by and asked what I was doing, but  I refused to answer. I wanted to keep my crush a secret.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle…… “I L-O-V-E”

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle….”K-E-V-I-N”

Artwork completed, I  headed to my locker across from my first floor homeroom class.  I was surprised to hear kids teasing me about Kevin as soon as I entered the building.

Duh. Duh. DUH!  Kevin’s homeroom was on the second floor.  While shuffling in my black snowmobile boots with the fur-lined hood of my parka pulled up around my face,  I hadn’t noticed classmates gathered in the second-story windows, laughing and pointing.

My secret message wasn’t so secret.

The public declaration so humiliated him, he was still red during our English class  a few hours later.  It took a few days for the snow to melt my embarrassment  and the junior high chatter to focus on someone else. He never did  talk to me.

One good thing about those dumb junior high moments in my day that today’s kids don’t experience – nobody took a picture.  Nobody revealed my angst on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest.  I wasn’t publically humiliated for more than a few days, then it died down.

Do You Like Me 001

After that, I gave up snow artistry and let the blankness of notebook paper beckon any messages that begged to be released.



CLICK TO TWEET: If you would like to share my story of junior high angst with this ready-made Tweet, feel free.


My literary dance left my heart in the snow.Tweet


Home Isn’t Always Where Your Heart Is

flashback friday


I had the privilege of growing up in Montana, a state of rugged land and rugged people. 

It’s a state where you watch for rattlesnakes and prickly pear cactus, neither bother you and you know both are edible.

The average person never dresses completely in style, or completely out of style, and cowboy is always an accepted style.

A four-wheel drive pickup has always been the vehicle of choice, and not because of the flashy commercials and current buying trends,  but because you can help your friends move, transport your building materials, and haul home the gutted deer that’s food for the winter.

Montanans have been slow to adapt drinking good coffee, but are quick to offer you a cup if you stop by.

When I visit Montana, my soul is invigorated,  I am alive and at home.  I write and photograph like a mad woman, knowing the visit will soon be a vaporous memory.

In 2005 I received my first digital camera and immediately forged the  habit of shooting pictures through the car windows.  We had driven to Montana for Thanksgiving with the relatives, and I was reluctant to leave.

Montana Shack
On my way home, I shot frantically out the water-spotted windows, capturing those last fleeting images that would be my final souvenirs of a too-short visit.

Picture 382
I wondered if these ranchers were content with their simple lives and their land, or if they dreamed about the city lights and all that existed beyond their mountains.

Hearty sagebrush kissed by early winter’s frost, brought a lacy, softening touch to the landscape.

Picture 393
A peak into a valley I imagined Lewis and Clark traveling.  I can almost see Native Americans on their horses watching the process below. Shadows of past buffalo herds highlight the base of the mountains.  I long for the rocks to speak, to tell me the stories I have missed.

Picture 403
The winter beauty of Montana isn’t the flashy floral beauty and white sandy beaches of warmer climates. But, if you look closely, you will see so many shades of brown, gray, and green, your heart marvel at the Creator’s palette.

The foothills of the Rockies aren’t the towering peaks that demand to be scaled, they’re the mountains of quiet strength and constant presence.

Picture 438
Even the rocks cry out majestically in their diluvian formations. There is gold in those hills, and silver, sapphires, copper…it’s the Treasure State, but the treasure it gave me  wasn’t monetary.

Picture 417

I shot through the valley and into the mountains.  I shot horses, trees, and the Yellowstone River that  kept us company for part of the trip.

And then, I put my camera down.  There was no prolonging it any more.  I had to go home, and my home isn’t in Montana.

But my heart is.

Making your home sing Mondays

It Was All About the Jeans in 6th Grade

Back in the Olden Days, as my kids call my childhood, I lived on the north side of Helena, Montana, in a neighbor with small ramblers filled with kids, lotsa kids.

In my neighborhood, we were nearly all the same.  We had moms and dads living in our homes.  Our moms sewed and gardened and made homemade cookies. We kids rode bikes, built forts, went swimming at the Municipal Pool,  and played baseball for hours in the old cemetery.

My life changed in 6th grade.  Our elementary school only went up to 5th grade, so we all trudged up Lamborn Ave. to another elementary school on the hill.

It was a newer building, with new playground equipment and unblemished sidewalks without weeds in the cracks. The building didn’t have crumbling stucco painted  institutional light green, but had new bricks with clean mortar.

More than the building was different in this new world. The kids on the hill wore new clothes. They went on vacations with their families. They skied. They had hair styles, not hair cuts, because their moms didn’t cut their hair. They had cool shoes and even cool tube socks.

Suddenly, my world had division -  THEM and US.

In my view, the biggest division came with the jeans. 


The kids in my old world wore jeans without name, the fancy stitching, or the pocket décor.


In my new world, the coolest girls wore HASH jeans.  They were $50.  I couldn’t fathom having or spending that much on one pair of jeans. At $.75 per hour, I would have had to babysit for 67 hours for one pair of jeans.  Wasn’t going to happen.


But a girl could dream how good she’d look in these jeans.

And it wasn’t only what was on the back pockets, it was what was in the front pockets.

I had lint, change and an occasional note from a friend, they had money.  Not change, bills.  When we shopped at Terry’s Convenience Store at lunch time or after school, they could buy  from any shelf in the store, while my friends and I hovered around the bottom shelf of the first aisle with the penny candy and the Ferrara Pan boxes that cost $.10.

On a Fall sunny Saturday, I  walked my little sister up to my new school on the hill and let her play on the playground. Another kid was already there, but he wasn’t in a friend-making mood.  From Terry’s, he had purchased an entire box of ice-cream sandwiches, something we’d rarely had. To keep our  ice-cream loving family of eight satisfied, my mom purchased a big bucket of vanilla and Neapolitan ice-cream weekly. It lasted a lot longer than a box of specialty treats.

He sat on the swing and ate and ate and ate.  My sister and I must have glanced his way more than once, and he knew we were mentally counting the number of ice-cream bars in the box, the number he could reasonably eat, and the number of people on the playground. I expected sharing to be a universal language.

He stood up, pulled out the last two ice-cream sandwiches, held them out towards us with a sick grin, then mashed them between his fingers, smiling the whole time.  I can still see vanilla ice cream and bits of mangled chocolate cookie dripping between his fingers.

I was filled with shame because he had noticed our desire and took joy in crushing our expectation of kindness.

During the year I was also educated on what else those allowances could buy. Another unfaded memory is one of the Snob Knob (the hill with expensive houses)  kids explaining to me what pot was, why they would want to smoke it and how beer tasted.

As the year progressed and I experienced THEM and US morphing together into the 6th grade class, I learned a lot of important life lessons.

  • There were nice kids and mean kids from the top and the bottom of the hill.
  • Having money didn’t mean you’d be happy, nor did the lack of money mean you’d be unhappy.
  • How much or how little you spent on your clothing wasn’t as important as how you behaved in your clothing.
  • Anybody could achieve success in academics or athletics.
  • Differences don’t have to divide.  They can just be differences.
  • There were labels you bought and labels you earned, and the latter couldn’t be easily changed.
  • Girls in HASH jeans and girls in Plain Pocket jeans could  be friends.
  • Being content with what you had was easier than longing for the impossible.
  • I saw that families could cause pain. It made me extremely thankful for my big, happy family and being raised with the wealth of love and laughter.

Walking up that hill in my JC Penney jeans into a new world was a great experience, because in 6th grade, my life was changed.

It wasn’t about the jeans, after all.


Replace Tired Clichés with the Art of Surprise


In October 2005 I was in the HYPER HELL stage of  thyroid cancer treatment.  My  thyroid gland and about 30 lymph nodes had been scalpeled  into medical waste. I had been a science-fiction freak in the hospital, undergoing radioactive iodine treatment.  I was kept in the hospital for three days until the Geiger counter read less than 4mc of radioactivity. The final stage is six months of taking the highest amount of thyroid hormone as you can without hurting anybody.

I took the three kids I was homeschooling and drove to Montana.At 40 years old, I still needed my Mommy and Daddy. 

While reading the Helena Independent Record,  I found this ad.



I wasn’t just recuperating from my present cancer, I was instant replaying my past and adjusting to the reality of my future.  I loved the hubby and the six kids.  I loved the rest of my life, minus the part about puking my guts out in the hospital and wearing a scar that looked like I almost got decapitated.

The only thing unfulfilled in my life was writing, and the Festival of the Book was offering me a chance to change that.

The first workshop I attended  was the “Art of Surprise” with  Deirdre McNamer, novelist.

I think I stared with my mouth wide opening, absorbing her wisdom.  I also know I wiped away more than one tear.  How could I begin to express the way the Lord led me to that time and that place? 

cool tools 008

So, my free Cool Tool today is the “Art of Surprise” as introduced by McNamer so many years ago.

She described our imaginary  cliché’ drawer, an inexpressive place we  reach in and grab what’s quick and easy, but she begged the room full of novelist-wannabes not to use tired and predictable language.

It’s easy to spot cliché phrases. I even knew that as a beginning writer, but she dove deeper than I’d been challenged before with personal anecdotes and advice,  quotations from writers and examples in writing.


Metaphors are  small surprises in a reader’s experience.


metaphor 298

“When writing is successful, the reader senses that the climax is coming and feels a strong urge to skip to it directly, but cannot quite tear himself from the paragraph he’s on.  Ideally, every element in the lead-in passage should be a relevant distraction that heightens the reader’s anticipation and at the same time holds, itself, such interest – through richness of literal or metaphoric language, through startling accuracy of perception, or through the deepening thematic and emotional effect of significant earlier moments recalled – that the reader is reluctant to dash one.”       John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.

She illustrated with  Bryan Di Salvatore’s description of Merle Haggard’s walk, “…and as he swings his arms and bends his legs the effect is of an almost fluid lurch, as if he were forever taking his first step off an escalator.”

The Unpredictable Word:

When you use a surprising word, especially at the beginning, it signals more surprises and keeps the readers at a higher level of attention.

“Chloe had red-gold hair, hazel eyes, an illegible smile, face like a doll…” Chronicles by Bob Dylan.

“Carry a notebook and write down all the details and description as you see them,” said McNamer. I haven’t been without a journal and a pen since then.


The Unpredictable Character:

McNamer encouraged writers to break assumptions people might have about our characters. “A kind woman with an obnoxious voice surprises you and creates tension, a sweet voice doesn’t always indicate kindness.”

Points of Surprise in a  Plot:

She used  Penelope Fitzgerald’s description of a good plot as one that “makes you want to interfere.”

McNamer said, “If the plot is too plain or clichéd you lose people, if it’s too wild you lose people.”

Other great quotes I scribbled on my college ruled notebook paper:

“In the end the reader should feel the world has opened up.”

“Even the writer should be uneasy (creatively).”

“Don’t storm around about how YOU feel – bring them there.”

I drove Montana for relief and help at the end of my healthy life and found the beginning of my writing life.

I’d say the Lord practices the Art of Surprise even better than McNamer.



Do Ya’ Wanna’ Free Monkey?

cool tools 008

Once upon a time there was a little, white-haired girl named Melinda.  She was very, very little and her hair was very, very white.  It was sometimes hard to be very small in such a big world.  She had to learn to have a big voice and big ideas to make sure both were  broadcast upwards towards all the Big People. 

First grade was a challenging time for this little girl who had a very big teacher.  She was taught to be polite, so tried not to stare, but Miss Forgey was very large and very stern.  That is the perfect writer’s word to describe the woman who could stare little children into learning their alphabets and spelling “mother” and “father” and “said” correctly.  Stern. She had iron gray curls, like old women, but she wasn’t large and happy and squishy like my Gramma.  She was just large and solid and stern.

No matter how nicely Melinda colored in the lines or how perfectly she could read, “See Dick run.  Run, Dick, run” Miss Forgey rarely smiled. 

Mindy in 1st grade

One day, Miss Forgey went around the room and had  each student tell about their pet or a pet they would like to own.  Little Melinda wriggled in her too-big seat with excitement and unstuck her sweaty legs from the varnished seat.  She knew exactly what she was going to say.  Surely, this would make Miss Forgey smile, maybe even show her teeth.

When her turn came, she dared to look Miss Forgey right in the hole-boring eyes and said, “I want a monkey.”

The rebuttal was a slap.  “You don’t want to own a monkey.  Monkeys stink and they are hard to take care of. It would probably die.”

When the little girl tried to break in and assure her she could take care of a monkey the teacher continued, “They need to stay warm and they need special food…..blah, blah, blah.” (Insert Charlie Brown teacher’s voice with anger.)

Even though the words were meant to douse the flames of ambition, they only fueled them. I can still feel my resentment at her harsh rebuttal grow into resolve.  As an adult, I always wondered why she didn’t patronize me and say, “Oh, that’s nice”  or “That’s an unusual request.” 

Cuz’ ya’ know what?  I still don’t want a dog or a cat, I want a monkey.

So, not too long ago I found a free monkey on the internet and I adopted it. 


(click on pic)

It’s free photo editing program that’s so easy to use, even someone dumb enough to want to own a monkey can figure it out. Yep, it is a Cool Tool, for sure.

It can’t take away the sting of misplaced, angry words, but it improves my life today.


Click “Edit a photo.”   It brings up your photo storage, just like when uploading in other social media environments.

I had used it before and it was fine.  Today it made me install Adobe and Google Chrome.   Sneaky, sneaky.


See?  Easy Peasy.  Even a monkey could do it.

Then, you just start reading the words and clicking the buttons.


This is the special effect DUSK and  TEXT. 

This is my best friend from high school, Janet, a photographer who needs to write for her business.  I am a writer who needs to photograph for my business.  See why we are such good friends?  I don’t pick on her dangling modifiers and she doesn’t pick on my over-exposed pictures.

If you don’t live in North Dakota so can’t hire her, you can visit her Facebook page.

Scott Hey Girl

I sharpened the pic, added some contrast, saturation, and my words. Creative, I know.

Better late than never with the “Hey Girl” craze, but I think my hubby is way better looking than that other guy…

Mindy and Honey Bucket

…even though he has this annoying habit of taking pics of me coming out of these things.

That’s what I get for saying, “Here, hold my camera.  I hafta’ go poddy.”

BTW, that’s hand sanitizer in my hand.  Just to keep things real here.

Under the FRAMES, this is the Polaroid frame option.

Banana Slugs

I’ve learned the hard way, if you accidentally step on a slug, you could almost throw your back out. So, when we saw this while hiking Boulder Creek, I was very cautious.  Boulder Creek is the home of the beautiful waterfall I used to teach you how to make a panorama. 

This Simple Edge Frame gave room to put the text below.  I had tried every color and every font and couldn’t get my words to show up directly on the pic.  A few more clicks and I found  this border, rounded the corners and moved my text down.



And, when something doesn’t work quite right,


their little dialogue boxes are actually fun to read.


I felt like clicking the wrong things on purpose, just to see what the box would say.


Other than being free and easy to use, PicMonkey will help you produce the graphics you need to make your photos stand out no matter where you use them.  I look back to my blog photos from when I started blogging, and I cringe.

PicMonkey Free Features:

  • Basic Edits (crop, rotate, exposure, colors, sharpen, resize)
  • Effects
  • Touch Up (Wrinkle remover only comes with the upgrade package for $33 a year.  Rats!)
  • Text
  • Overlays
  • Frames
  • Textures
  • Themes

And if you really get into their coolness, you can follow their blog.

It took me 40 years, but guess what Miss Forgey?  I now have my own monkey – PicMonkey!


Being a Jingle Bell Rocks!

Being a Gym Wallflower – the last one picked for a sports team – can be the most scarring childhood memory.

The Helena Junior High School had organized an intra-mural volleyball season so the 7th grade girls were gathered in the gym to make their own teams. We all knew the drill. The girls sat in the bleachers while the captains lined up in front to choose. 

A co-captain with my friend, Shanna, we stood together with a competitive spirit. We could taste victory with the team we’d mentally assembled in whispered hallway conversations the previous days. We were disappointed to be on the end of the line, therefore, the last ones to choose.  We complained all the “good” girls would be taken.

The drama unfolded as the captains began choosing. As one team announced the name of a “good” player, girls would cheer, and the other captains would huff in disappointment. The chosen girl would swagger to her huddle and began contributing her opinions about who was good and who wasn’t.

The quick study in human behavior wasn’t lost on two girls who had already survived six years of elementary playground torment. In slo-mo, we vividly saw pride and shame taking sides and didn’t like it. We didn’t see the ugly until someone else wore it.

After the first round, we changed our minds about our team’s purpose. We would not choose to win. We would choose our friends and the girls that needed to be chosen. Our conversation was continued in a louder decibel, and we threw out a few casual compliments for the girls sweating in the bleachers to overhear.

Even when it was down to the last girls, we said their names with confidence and enthusiasm, to show we wanted  them on our team.  Other captains were disappointed to have to settle for the wallflowers, and let it be shown.

Helena Junior High 7th grade Basketball Team

(My 7th grade basketball team.  Different girls, same bleachers.Yep, I’m number 13.)

When the last girl straggled down from the bleachers, each team was assigned a place in the gym to practice. We huddled together and tried to become a team.  We couldn’t agree on a name, and all the cool names, like Tigers and Panthers, were quickly taken. We opted for unique humor and agreed to name ourselves Jingle Bells and tie little silver craft bells on our gym shoes.  We would mark our territory with the jingle of a different drum.

As our team  began practicing together, Shanna and I noticed once again pride and shame rearing their ugly heads in the gym as we watched some of the “good” girls on each team berate the “bad” girls.

Another huddle was called. I gave a pep talk with the passion and vocabulary of a 12 year old who desperately wanted a team different than the others.

  • We would NOT call out each others’  mistakes, but  would always say “Good try!” Humiliation makes someone play worse, not better.
  • We would NOT name call.
  • We would practice and try to improve our skills.  If you needed to correct or instruct someone, be nice.

In the brutal world of Junior High, we determined to be different. We might not win a lot of games, but we were going to try hard, have fun, and show our spirit. Our unity would be announced with jingle bells. We wanted the other junior highers to hear our message.

I’ve never forgotten my 12 year old amazement.

It worked. 

During the short volleyball season, the Jingle Bells chattered and encouraged through the games, giving back pats and smiles.  We were noticed, and it wasn’t just the jingle bells tied to our shoes.  The girls improved because they weren’t  shamed by humiliation. Other girls wished they could play on our team because they were tired of being  yelled at when they made a mistake.

We won some games. We lost some games. But, we had a great season because we became a real team.

I have no idea if any of my former volleyball teammates even remember this time in Junior High when we marked our territory with the silvery jingles of acceptance and encouragement.

But I will never forget what it means to be a Jingle Bell.

Being a Jingle Bell rocks!


I’ve Eaten Rattlesnake

In 1977, my seventh grade homeroom teacher was a Vietnam Vet.  Mr. Jewell was enthusiastic and encouraging, and  seemed too young to have the few streaks of gray hair that kept the girls from obsessing about him. But when he shared the rare stories of being in the jungles, we knew he’d earned his silver.

He tried to make Science fun.  For a bunch of teenagers more concerned if they could afford HASH jeans or if they were going to get asked to slow dance during the first Helena Junior High school dance, it was a challenge.

On a Saturday in September, he foraged into the Montana wilderness with a friend, a snake pole and a cage.  He came back with our new classroom pet, a rattlesnake.  The snake lived in the corner of the room where he was constantly watched by kids who absorbed his identity.


Having the only teacher with a rattlesnake in their homeroom, made you cool.

Snake was fed various creatures, but usually not during class time.

Growing up in Montana, you learned to watch for rattlesnakes, the original settlers.  You watched the sunny rocks while hiking, you listened for the rattle noise in the bushes. In the olden days, we were told to cut an X over an accidental  bite to suck the blood and venom and spit it out. We were taught to identify snake head and pattern shapes to know friend or foe.

Mr. Jewell taught us the foe could also be a friend.

Then, after a year of being the cool kids with the rattlesnake in their classroom, we took one step further into the adventure.

We ate our pet snake.

I know this sounds like a scene from Lord of the Flies, but there wasn’t anything ritualistic or sadistic about it.  He cooked the snake at home and brought it in, still snake shaped, in aluminum foil.

Mr. Jewell, the coolest teacher in the world, presented it to us in a way we couldn’t resist. It was our chance to do something unusual.  It was our chance to push ourselves to do something we were afraid of.

He told us, “You can brag about this the rest of your life.”

I listened to his urgings and like the majority of the other kids in the homeroom, timidly took a bite.  It tasted like chicken.

That summer, I moved from Montana to North Dakota. In trying to impress the flat-landers, on more than one occasion I was able to work into the conversation, “I ate rattlesnake one time.”

In college, when much bragging was done inside and outside of classrooms, I was able to casually mention, “Well, I’ve eaten rattlesnake.”

Moving to the the west coast where people love all kinds of exotic and ethnic foods, I’m still able to assert, “I’ve eaten rattlesnake.”

It wasn’t just about the snake, I know now.  It was about confidence and conquering.  It was about taking chances. It was about having no regrets.  (I’ve never been offered rattlesnake again.)  Overcoming fear.  Listening to an adult who knew more than you.  It was a life-changing experience.

Cuz’, you know what?

I’ve eaten rattlesnake.