Seven Months

Excel The Greyt was diagnosed with bone cancer on July 31, 2015. His prognosis: three months.

At the time, I didn’t believe he had three weeks. The cancer moved so fast. It seemed to consume him. But I also didn’t believe the only thing I could do was wait for him to die.

I wanted him to reach his 9th birthday, on Sept. 1.

So I fought furiously. I battled cancer with food. I responded to death with love. I surrounded us with the very best adventure of life: friendship and true love.

We took to the mountains and laid in the creek. We played in the park and slept in the grass. We gardened. We held babies. We held hands. We had parties, backyard barbecues and around the block adventures. We slept in, and we snuggled.

Excel responded miraculously to the love and food he received, and I in turn grew braver because of our time. I learned how to feed with love, how to live presently in a very momentary life, and how to more fully trust myself.

Yet, I didn’t believe I’d know when our time was up. I worried that he would be in pain and I would not know, or that when it came time to say goodbye, I wouldn’t be sure. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be strong enough to take him to the end.

The evening of Saturday, March 12, the cancer overtook his lungs. All the comfort I gave Excel was gone, and he asked me to help him. My room reverberated in his pain. I felt his anguish as if it were my own. With the clarity that intense love brings, I knew I would not keep him here to suffer. It was time to release him from all the pain of his body.

That Sunday, March 13, we said goodbye. I surrounded myself with the biggest love I knew, the love of strong women and best friends. They held me, and they comforted him. Then they left us alone. I placed him in my bed, his favorite spot to be. His breath was gaspingly shallow. He would stop breathing for moments, as if he were trying out the other side. A trusted friend and vet came to my home and took him to the end. I held his head, placed my forehead to his and sent him into death with the reassurance that he was the strongest, kindest, most admirable soul I’d ever met.

I felt him leave his body. I heard him leave the room. The world shook on his exit. Of all the souls in all the world, to have known this one is staggering. To have found him across so many lives and to be able to take him to the very end was a most honorable act.

There’s vastness left in me, an expanse that is not empty but rather wide open to all the beauty and pain that death to life brings.

Time, with a soul this big, doesn’t exist. Love is the only way I know to measure of such a life’s span.


Excel The Greyt’s Adventures
July 31, 2015 – March 13, 2016

Terpsichore’s Turn of Phrase Dance Company of Montana gracefully nails 2016 performance

Terpsichore Dance Company of Montana is made of grit and iron,of passing bodies and bare feet, of chills and electricity, of heartbeats, tears and of tributes.

This amazing collective of dancers perform just once a year, a show that takes more than six months to prepare. Founder and main choreographer Ricki Feeley estimated Terpsichore’s annual show, which took place March 5 at the Babcock Theatre, was a culmination of more than 700 hours of rehearsal time.

The enormity of scale that these dancers undertake is phenomenal. In each dance phrase, they encapsulate grace with backbone. They are resolute in their movements, a feeling I was hardly able to capture in photo, but none-the-less, here are some images from the performance.

For more on Terpsichore and their process, check out my interview with Feeley: Trust on Display

Trust on display Terpsichore dancers tell the story of connection

For Ricki Feeley, dance is personal. She groups movement into phrases the way a writer tells a story. “Most of movement I create is based on how I am feeling,” she said. “It’s a sympathetic response.”

An advanced modern technical dancer and founder of Terpsichore Dance Company of Montana, Feeley makes it easy to get lost in dance. She immerses her audience in the story that body can create, inspired by her own life experiences.

Feeley creates solitude and a sense of aloneness in her work, but it’s never long-lived. Brought to life by Terpsichore dancers, her dances erupt in mass movement, telling the story of connection that is required of dancers moving together and falling completely into one another.

This Saturday (March 5), members of Terpsichore take to the Babcock stage to perform Feeley’s vision, a series of choreographed pieces on loss and grief, of celebration and joy, and of fantasy and dreams that took more than six months to perfect. Audiences have two chances to catch the show at the Babcock Theatre during a 1 p.m. matinee and an evening performance at 7:30 p.m.

For many members, they’ve been working on these movements since last summer, meeting weekly and as often as many as five days a week leading up to the annual performance.

“It looks a little frantic right now,” Feeley commented during one of their final rehearsals. “It seems to fall apart before it comes together.” Rhythmically, the dancers rehearse, counting their steps out loud. Each movement is a number among the whirl of churning feet, flicking ankles, and nude legs.

Observing as dancers continue to run the routine, Feeley can see what happens as a whole. She follows each gesture, witnessing what the dancers can’t see when they’re in the midst—the collective whole of the piece, the audience’s view.

Whenever possible, dancers look to the large mirror that runs the entirety of the studio’s back wall. Watching the synchronicity of their lines, it’s as though they’re looking out to an imagined audience.

A dancer in the front, Maribel Schaff, reaches to another dancer, Morgan Shaw, and rolls her into a spin as though Shaw were weightless. Turning her like a floating wheel, Schaff seems to be completely unaware of gravity.

To have such connection and the ability to manipulate another person, Schaff said it comes down to trust. “You have to completely support your weight and give up to the other person. You have to trust each other a lot.”

Kate Blakeslee, who joined Terpischore in 2012, said she’s driven to participate because of what she’s able to create with her fellow dancers.

“I think creating something with a group of people is one of the most powerful things we can do with our lives, and this is my opportunity to do that,” Blakeslee said.

Terpsichore’s eighth production in six years will feature 12 dancers, including Feeley. Many are original members. What was once just a hobby for these women has grown into a nonprofit dance company staging elaborate, extensive dances that take half the year to finalize.

There are no paychecks. These dancers come together to create without financial compensation. Though their time is donated, each dancer signs a yearly contract committing to the process.

“I didn’t foresee any of this,” said Feeley, who founded Terpsichore in Missoula while studying dance at Montana State University. She obtained a BFA in dance with choreography and performance as her emphasis.

In Missoula, Feeley staged many shows as part of her dance major. When she relocated to Billings, she started an adult dance class. This collective of like-minded dancers were interested in performing for an audience, so Feeley thought, “Let’s do a little show.”

Terpsichore members practice at Montana Dance Center located on Daniel Street. The center, which opened in January after relocating from Moore Lane, was once an old garage. Garage walls and cement floors were converted to dancing studios with sprung flooring and a “marley” dance covering flown in from California, which gives the floor its spring.

Many of Terpsichore’s members teach at the center and get together after lessons to run through their pieces. The space is provided for Terpsichore to rehearse at no charge. Here, dancers have the room they need to prep for the stage.

Such space is necessary for Terpsichore pieces, constructed with expansiveness and a freedom of movement.

“I want it to be real,” Feeley said. “I have a huge appreciation for ballet, but it was all smoke in mirrors. You couldn’t move the way you felt, but instead had to do it same way as the person next to you.”

Feeley’s choreography has flow. It’s not rigid and formulaic; rather it is raw and real. Like water, it’s smooth and glossy, yet it contains great power. From movement to movement, there’s a sense that chaos could happen at any moment, yet each position creates a peaceful calm before the next.

When choreographing this year’s show, Feeley wanted to convey the way bodies move and feel. She improvised many of the pieces, evolving movement with fellow dancers to construct dance with authentic movement.

“When you try to chorographic (a dance) on your own, and set it on your own, and then come in and teach it, you put such a constriction on your expression,” Feeley said. “With Terpsichore, I can create movement on the spot without having to think too much about it. It’s been a beautiful evolvement.”

Directing 11 women in such expansive, impactful dances isn’t easy, and as the main chorographer, Feeley is in a constant leadership role. “I’m sure it gets tiring, me critiquing people all the time,” she said. “But I always treat people with kindness and respect, and the girls have such good attitudes.” There’s trust behind each movement, a sense that each dancer is looking out for the next.

“Dancers have to trust each other implicitly,” said Krista Pasini, one of the original members of the company. “As dancers, you are paint on a canvas. You are (the choreographer’s) artwork. You are going to get molded or lifted, or have an armpit in your face.”

Armpits included, the many shapes and bends of Terpsichore dancers portray beauty and strength in the female form. Each dancer’s body is a skyscraper of graceful power, from richly thick thighs to slender legs, from stout or long torsos to the limbs long.

Watching rehearsal, it feels as though the dancers could levitate. Their arms descend—timed to music—and rise again as a bird flapping. Melting, each dancer drops to the ground, and upon rising, their heads the last to arrive, they appear like warriors. Dropping their thighs parallel to the ground, they hover their arms skyward.

Moving with impactful music is a fundamental part of Terpsichore’s performances, yet some of the most compelling parts of a Terpsichore piece is created in silence, where the only sounds in the theater are of breath and body—the inhale and exhale of movement, the sound of joints and the give of the floor.

“I love to hear dancer’s breath,” Feeley said. “I tell my dancer’s not to worry about hiding it. Let me hear how the lungs get dispersed. Everyone appreciates it.”

It’s common when watching a Feeley creation to hold your own breath. There’s a feeling of anxiousness following each gesture. In movement, you sense your own longing and loss, but also a collective joy and exuberance when watching the dancers interact.

In each turn of the dance, you’re part of a greater adventure. Trust is on display. As each phrase of dance passes, you’ll find yourself silently cheering on the dancers. You’ll celebrate with them, imagining yourself in the story.

International Guitar Night

Brian Gore, founder of International Guitar Night (IGN), is the pied piper of guitar. In the 20+ years he’s been curating IGN, he’s brought together some of the most enchanting acoustic guitarists in the business to exchange musical ideas and perform their original compositions around the world.

Gore (third from the left) began the international touring act in a converted laundromat in San Francisco in 1995. At the time, he was performing in underground venues, coffee houses, and playing guitar with beatniks in the Bay Area.

As IGN grew in popularity, he decided to take the show on the road and grew the event in small communities and local theaters. He spent 15 years building IGN before taking it to New York or larger markets.

“We go to these places that some people might think are a bit out of the way, but you are going to meet just as many interesting, unique and sophisticated people,” Gore said. “You can build an audience and build a good base there.”

Billings’ Alberta Bair Theater was one of the first stops on IGN’s tour when they started booking larger venues and theaters. They first played the Alberta Bair in 2002.

Gore, with guitarists Lulo Reinhardt, Mike Dawes and Andre Krengel (pictured above) are in Billings tonight, performing at the ABT. “I’m just amazed at the enthusiastic responses,” Gore said. “The people in the arts community in Montana are very dedicated and idealistic, and that is great to be around.”

The success of IGN is due in part to Gore’s curation and the constant evolution of the group. Each year the show is different. “I’ve been pretty lucky in what I do,” Gore said. “I don’t make any compromises when it comes to quality.” Gore describes IGN as providing some of the finest musical experiences, bringing arts and cultural opportunities to areas that may not have as much access.

Art—even if you never become a professional—is a staple. It’s like food. Once you get the bug, you realize it’s something that we all need in our lives at some level. Brian Gore

Gore derives motivation to continue IGN from the players he collaborates with and the audiences that enjoy their sound.

“It’s a really wonderful balance of being able to play and develop my music, being able to be in the best theaters, and also being able to support other people in my show,” Gore said. “These guys are hard-working people who have made a lot of sacrifices for their music, and they deserve this.”

Gore describes the solo guitar atmosphere when he first started as highly competitive. He decided to create a different atmosphere with IGN, one that is more collaborative.

“My philosophy has always been to try to find a way to help people connect with one another and create and more supportive environment,” Gore said. “If you want to have more audiences for guitar, you need to break through these competitive attitudes. That is what we’ve done with the show and whey we’ve been successful.”

International Guitar Night, returns to Alberta Bair Theater on Saturday, February 20 at 7:30 p.m. On this tour guitar poet Gore teams up with Lulo Reinhardt, Mike Dawes and Andre Krengel.

Material Girl

I’m a recovering maximalist.

A comfort-seeker at heart who fantasizes of minimalism, I’m a material girl.

I’m a classy hoarder, a furniture junkie, a closet-runneth-over capitalist.

I’m the shopped-till-I-maxed-out fashionista, a wanderer of malls, reader of the Sunday paper advertisements.

I dream of the Target good life.

I’ve entered Targets without intent, just for the smell and the comfortable consistency of well-lit isles stocked with life-altering things.

Oh, how retail feeds my shopaholic soul.

I’ve once been comfortable in Bed Bath and Beyond, climbing shelves, reaching for pristinely bent plastic, perfectly puffed pillows, and piffles of problem-solving poppycock.

I’m a credit report-carrying member of the I-once-had-a TJ Maxx, Pier One, Home Depot, Furniture Row, AND Sears credit card.

I’m a former member of the never-ending debt cycle, the girl with the perfect paring of Amexs, MasterCards and Visas.

I held in tandem an American Express Blue AND an American Express Delta SkyMiles. I had a CitiBank rich with rewards AND an Edward Jones MasterCard that earned me points for retirement.

I never made it to the promise land of reward-laced kickbacks and compounding points.

Instead, I cashed in my retirement fund to pay my debts.

Oh, plastic.

I’ve frozen those magic cards in Ziplocs filled with water. I’ve also discovered that the numbers are still readable if you freeze the cards just right.

I’ve chopped them in two, only to find that online shopping is still just as simple to complete with a severed credit card.

I’ve ground those babies, shredded them to unrecognizable bits, only to find a new ones in the mail, shiny with promises of more things.

I’m interest barren.

I’m a debt-saddled homeowner with a shed I’m still paying for.

I hold garage sales so I can park in my garage.

I nearly buried myself in my things.

Nothing in my home was empty, nothing was spacious, nothing was free.

I couldn’t quiet the need to transact.

So I changed how I transacted.

I sold the furniture I collected, replaced it with my father’s childhood writing desk, my favorite family’s vintage dining table they sold when downsizing, and a 1930s shipping trunk for a dresser.

I hauled garbage bags of clothing to second-hand shops, gave armfuls of linens and kitchen gadgets to thrift stores, and took down any art that wasn’t made by a friend or didn’t have an experience attached to it.

I got rid of my second and third set of dishes and unpacked my “special” collection for daily use. I took the blankets my grandma knit out of storage.

I stopped applying for credit cards. I asked credit card companies to stop sending me offers. I closed every account I’d ever opened.

Today. For the first time in my apply-now-no-interest-for-six-months-eligible life, I am credit card debt-free.

I may live in a material girls’ world.

But I am a credit-card-debt-free girl.

I Believe in Love

I believe in dresses, just short enough
Or long, so long you step on them
I believe in making your own shorts
And in shoes you love so much they fall apart before you say goodbye

I believe in surrounding yourself with flowers
Just because
I believe dog snuggles make days less lonely
As does hand holding

I believe Sundays are good days for self-love
Saturdays for self-care
Fridays?
Re: The Cure
Thursdays, let’s love again
Wednesdays for the fight
Tuesdays are for brightness
And Mondays are for new light

Though it may seem elusive,
I believe love is in windy days
In early spring and in salt air
I believe love is in alone time and in overwhelming crowds

Love is movement. Love is shared time
Love is the time we take to know us and the time we take to avoid us
Love strikes the unsighted
Surrounds the wanderer in veils
And brings beauty her cloudless shine

Love stitches our distance, shouts our differences, and quiets our fear
Love is an uncomfortable curiosity
No matter how much we feel it, we want more

We’re taught to seek love, yet love lives in us
We are never without love
We are never alone

I believe in love

{Painting by Jenna Lee Gallery}
JennaLeePainting_IBelieveInLove_uncropped

Kronos Quartet Founder David Harrington discusses music's role in healing after loss, Montana roots, and the stage life

On the morning of Dec. 3, David Harrington was hailing a cab in San Francisco to take him to the recording studio. His quartet was to finish a 75-minute arrangement for strings. They spent the entirety of the previous day in the studio, and upon leaving late that night were hit with the news that 14 people had died and 22 others were wounded in a mass shooting in San Bernardino.

On the morning that followed, the collective trauma of Americans was thick, coating every aspect of interaction. There wasn’t a quiet news outlet in the country—and not a bit of understanding why this happened. Why this keeps happening. The shock and trauma of the incident had yet to be used to sharpen political battle axes. We didn’t know who. We didn’t know why. There wasn’t a way to grieve this loss. It was just real, raw, and vivid.

As Harrington went along his morning commute, we spoke of his music with Kronos Quartet and how that incident in San Bernardino affected the music he was about to make.

“What we need to do this morning is the most tender, gentle, incredibly beautiful music,” he told me. “I’m sure that the effect, the waves that occur from a tragedy like that—I’m sure that will enter the performance and the music and what we’re trying to find to communicate. I’m sure that will be a part.”

Harrington channels the energy and occurrences around him into music. In 1973, when he founded Kronos Quartet, he did so in part because of “Black Angels,” the Vietnam War–inspired work by George Crumb.

“I was looking for the right music to play—music that felt like it belonged within the context of what I was feeling, what seemed to be going on in our society and what I was seeing in the news.”

This piece continues to provide Harrington and Kronos inspiration. In late 2015, the group performed “Black Angels” on the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier that served three tours of duty in the Vietnam War.

“It was an astonishing experience to take that music to that place,” Harrington said. In the silence of “Black Angels” the boat—decommissioned in the Hudson River in Manhattan—creaked, its walls echoing the sound of strings.

Music has the ability to connect people through a language of sorrow, of growth, and of connection. Its universality comes from the collective sum of what we’ve learned and what we’ve experienced.

“Every note that we get to play is another opportunity,” Harrington said. “I think all of us in Kronos feel that very strongly. I know that our composers do. Every composer that has ever written for us is trying to make something that they’ve never done before. They are tying to find a new alignment, something to share that maybe they didn’t know existed within them before.”

Harrington started playing violin in public school when he was 9-years-old. At age 12, he stared his first string quartet group.

“As a kid, that’s all I wanted to do,” he said. “I’m still the same kid I was at 12.”

Harrington founded Kronos in Seattle in 1973 and moved the quartet to San Francisco in 1977. The group is composed of Harrington on violin, John Sherba (also violin), Hank Dutt on viola, and cellist Sunny Yang. The group has produced more than 50 recordings and have commissioned 800+ works.

Looking back at 43 years of making music, Harrington said the energy that he gets from music and the creative situations he’s in makes that aspect seem very natural. “Time just seems to be flying by,” he said. “It may seem like it takes a lot of energy, but I feel I get more energy than what I’m putting out. I’m the recipient of so much from other people,” he said.

Kronos is synonymous with collaboration. Working with various composers, they’re able to learn new things about music and performance. “It’s really wonderful how one thing leads to another in music,” Harrington said. “We just try to keep our imaginations free and open and ready for the next adventure.”

The quartet spends five months of each year on tour, and makes a stop in Billings tonight (Feb. 11), Big Sky tomorrow (Feb. 12), and stops in Hamilton on Sunday (Feb. 14).

“Looking over the programs that we’ve planned, it’s some of our very favorite music,” Harrington said of the Montana performances. Harrington plans to opening the programs in Montana with music by Aleksandra Vrebalov, from the Sea Ranch Songs. Vrebalov is one of the first 10 composers for Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, a series of fifty works commissioned by Kronos that will be made available to young and early-career professional string quartets.

Each of the fifty works will be a brief yet artistically complete composition. Digital versions of the scores and parts, recordings, and other materials will be offered to the public for free.

“I can’t wait to play Fodé Lassana Diabaté in Montana,” Harrington said. His piece, Sunjata’s Time, was one of the first received for Fifty for the Future project. They recorded the piece in late December, and by the time it debuts to Montana artists, it will be available to every string quartet in the world.

Among other selected works, Kronos will be performing a composition by Bryce Dessner, the Brooklyn-based composer and guitarist of The National.

“He is one of our favorites,” Harrington said. Kronos released an album on Dessner’s compositions, and is hoping to do an album of quintets with him.

Harrington is extraordinarily passionate about taking his music to the stage. “We spend a lot of our time rehearsing music and recording—things that are private,” he said, “but when you get to take the music out there for family and friends and the audience…For me the audience becomes like another instrument that basically pulls the sound out of us. The audience is absolutely essential to the music we play.”

Harrington has personal ties to Montana. His family homesteaded in Ridge, Montana. During Harrington’s last trip to Montana, he visited the family homestead and spent time in the various areas where his father grew up. As a teen in the 1930s, his father moved to Billings to attend the Billings Polytechnic Institute (today’s Rocky Mountain College campus), and in the latter part of the depression moved to Portland, where Harrington was born.

Catch them in performance tonight at Albert Bair Theater in Billings.

Blocked The downside of keeping our dogs, our dreams, and our exes at a distance

“It’s just a dog.”

I have considered that line more that I care to admit. When I began writing about loss and the ways in which dogs show us trust and connection, I felt almost guilty giving so much weight to my relationship with a dog.

After all, it’s just a dog.

Though fido is closer to family these days, downplaying the human relationship with animals has a lengthy history. Keeping animals out of our closest circle makes it easier to use them for sport or entertainment, or to place them in the category of property, not family. Diminishing the relationship can also make it seem easier to accept the finite life of a pet.

Beyond animals, relationships of all types can be reduced to an afterthought.

“It’s just another day.”

“It’s just a pipe dream.”

“It’s just a job.”

“It’s just an ex.”

When we say, “just a [ ],” we diminish the relationship and remove its power to affect us. Keeping our past lives, our current frustrations, and our dreams for the future at a distance also helps keep such thoughts from impacting and shaping our lives.

With technology, our ability to diminish relationships is now even easier. We’re able to block out the bad.

I’m a fan of the mute button, especially after a series of unexpected texts from a number I hadn’t seen it in nearly 10 years, though I recognized it immediately. It was my ex-husband’s.

I panicked. I handed my phone to a friend, asking for help. Without question, she turned on iPhone’s handy “Block this Caller” feature.

“There,” she says. “Taken care of.”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve turned over my phone. Like an addict finally admitting defeat, I’ve asked for help to block people from my life. An ex boyfriend’s streaming assaults on Facebook…BLOCKED. The man I ended things with on poor terms…DELETED. I’ve had friends dig deep into the bowels of my phone, pulling out missed calls and text threads, removing any recognizable bit of that person from my digital life so I can avoid the temptation of reaching out to them.

Too bad you can’t do that with brains.

Even though my ex-husband was successfully blocked, he was still in my head, as loud and as vivid as the day he left. What, though, did I expect, when I decided to use the Internet as my publisher? He’s summarized in my latest writing as “the alcoholic I married and divorced.”

I’d be pissed, too.

Actually, every relationship I acknowledged in a recent piece about detoxing from dating was summarized in one line or less. In glorifying my sabbatical from men, I diminished each of them to a few words.

The writer in me wants to defend my statements, to let the reader know this was intentional. It was written specifically to take the focus away from men and place it on my process and what I learned.

The human in me wants to say that it’s unfair to treat people who greatly impacted my life in this way. Each one of those men evolved my heart.

The “high school boyfriend I bailed out of jail” was the first boyfriend I truly loved. He remains one of my longest relationships and the first person I tried to date long-distance, making it quite obvious that I was terrible at being far away from someone I loved so much. We learned about heartwreck together, and I measured every relationship after him against the love I felt I lost.

I remember nearly every moment with the “Texas punk rock vegetarian who had a girlfriend,” especially the guilt that kept me awake in the early mornings. Keeping that relationship going for as long as I did was a blind and dishonorable way for me to live, and a choice I am not proud of.

The “cover band rocker I took to small claims court” taught me about forgiveness. I found my strength after he left, and I found enough documentation to prove he owed me a good deal of money. I thought getting that verdict was the most rewarding part of our time together, but forgiving him was even more powerful.

The “Jack Mormon” gave me more love than I felt I deserved. After my dog was struck and killed by a car, he read me “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and held me while I cried myself to sleep. He tried to carry all my heartbreak, and I didn’t allow it. I became that pair of ragged claws T.S. Eliot described, “scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” I locked him out. I locked everyone out after that.

“The crier” taught me about the cruelty I contain. “The older man” taught me about energy and how it’s possible to move an entire room with it. The “ski-bum heartbreaker with the broken legs” taught me about total, utter, wild love and my tendencies to be overwhelming IN. The “grass-is-always-greener-architect” helped me heal after being very broken. He taught me how to end a relationship with kindness. When I finally called it, I did so knowing I wanted to still see him and hug him and tell him about my life. That was the first time I considered not burning the whole fucking thing down.

And the “overzealous writer,” well, I’ve been that person too. In the last message I received from him, I did not acknowledge his pain. I only felt my own, and I just deleted him.

Digital life continues on after being blocked. What happens on the other lines is something we may never know, and if we shut it out, we certainly won’t be able to understand how we behave in the process. But we also have the right to block people who choose to use technology to harass us. I’m not interested in being a punching bag for someone’s unprocessed emotions.

It’s more difficult to block pain. It’s not just a dog. It’s not just an ex. These are parts of our lives, for better or worse, which live within the folds of memory and affect who we are right now.

I’ve tried a lot of mute buttons. The acute and immediate nature of our digital lives does fade with distance. There’s nothing, though, that can quiet the memories of lost love. By turning my exes into my own punching bag, I just created more pain.

My new rule for texting exes: If you can’t say something nice…don’t commit it to the electronic sea.

Writing about them? Well…the poet Anne Sexton said it best.

“A woman who writes feels too much,
those trances and portents!
As if cycles and children and islands
weren’t enough; as if mourners and gossips
and vegetables were never enough.
She thinks she can warn the stars.
A writer is essentially a spy.
Dear love, I am that girl.”

Dating Detox Reflections on a one-year dating hiatus

Midnight, January 1, 2016: The ball drops, the champagne pops, and so many kisses! Arms around each other, once-a-year pronouncing: “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne. We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

Farewell, 2015.

“I love New Year’s,” someone says. “You get to start all over. Again.”

A clean slate.

My clean slate started a year ago. Being unable to make suitable decisions when it came to men, I decided to stop. It seemed logical. If I can’t make a good choice in a romantic partner, I won’t make a choice at all. One year. No dating. No sex. Nothing.

“Really? You made it a whole year, no nothing?” My friend raises a skeptical eyebrow.

Well…

“I had sex with my ex-boyfriend.”

More eyebrow.

“Twice.”

“I see.”

“I was bored. It doesn’t count if you’re bored.”

Besides, it was incredibly eye opening. It was the first time I felt oxytocin—that magical little brain chemical responsible for feelings of intimacy and bonding after sex—in all its glory and did not think I was in love.

I was so very pleased at my discovery. “I love oxytocin, but now I don’t have to think I’m falling in love every time!” I told this to a girlfriend. “It’s just brain chemistry!”

“Well, it’s a bit more than that,” she replied. “You don’t want to close yourself off to love, or reduce it to just brain chemistry.”

Shit.

Turns out, love is a lot more complicated than brain chemistry.

My decision to stop dating wasn’t rash, but it was necessary. And it wasn’t understood by most of my friends.

“I worry that you’re shutting yourself off.”

“But what if you meet someone?!”

“I just want you to be open to whatever comes your way.”

Problem: I’ve been open to whatever comes my way for a long time. Explaining my dating roster to my therapist was like opening a clown car’s door. They all came spilling out: the high school boyfriend I bailed out of jail, the Texas punk rock vegetarian who had a girlfriend, the alcoholic I married and divorced, the cover band rocker I took to small claims court, the crier, the older man, the jack Mormon, the ski-bum heartbreaker with broken legs, the grass-is-always-greener architect, the overzealous writer who said I left him, “as empty as a cardboard box.”

The final text I received from a man with whom I’d been romantically involved, when I asked if we could talk: “Fuck no. Fuck no with a cherry on top. Goodbye forever.”

Okay. I must be doing this wrong. So I’m going to stop doing it. It’s as simple as that.

Strangely, giving up men wasn’t hard. It was relieving. It removed the pressure I felt interacting with them. I stopped checking for wedding rings. I stopped marrying men I’d just met in my head. I stopped thinking that any day now, I’d meet Mr. Right.

I was uncomfortable being alone. So I went out alone. I ate at restaurants alone, went to parties alone, attended concerts alone. I tried to become comfortable being alone.

I also stayed home a lot. I wrote and I read. I drank. Sometimes too much. I watched Sex in the City re-runs and drank whole bottles of champagne alone. (Yep, it was awesome).

At work, I became distinctly aware that my job and my soul were misaligned, so I quit and started my freelance writing business back up. I started writing more poetry, mostly bad, but some gems.

I stopped wearing uncomfortable clothing. I donated or sold garbage bags of clothes that didn’t make me happy. I stopped shaving. I stopped wearing makeup. I stopped wearing a bra. I began to wash my hair every three days or so. I decided deodorant was a scam. I changed my chemical soaps to castile and traded in my 27 body products for coconut oil in an effort to detox my “beauty” routine.

I smelled, sometimes, but once away from harsh chemicals and makeup, my body found its rhythm. I started using essential oils for perfume. I wore “Balance.” “Elevation.” “Love.” They did not bring me balance, elevation, or love, but I was often told that I smelled nice.

I began to read labels. I cooked more food. I grew food. I bought more organic food. I changed how I shopped and where I shopped so that my money would stay local. I tried not to look at the higher price and instead think of the value. I began to treat my body more kindly. I went on a juice cleanse. I quit after day 3. I went on a tea cleanse (this is how I learned that some herbs can induce sudden vomiting).

I did cold yoga. I did hot yoga. I rode bikes. I crashed on bikes. I walked my dog more. My dog got cancer. I fought his cancer fiercely, and in the process I learned to love so much more intensely than I thought I could. I learned about my sorrow, and how the end of life can be the most beautiful, tender time we have with our animals. I started being more present and alert to the moment we’re in, because it’s the only one we get.

I found new ways to obtain oxtyocin: A hug you hold longer, holding hands with friends, looking someone in the eye when talking to them. I got massages (oxytocin jolts without the sex!). I tried cupping. I tried cranial sacral. I had my brain’s chemistry analyzed and found out why I wasn’t sleeping so well. I tried a natural remedy for stress called “Tranquility,” which made me feel like a tranquilized lion. I switched to “Calm.” I practiced meditation. I studied Buddhism.

I got big tattoos. I wore wigs. I traveled. I went home more. I set up my parents new computer and taught them how to use an iPod. I became an aunt (to a magic angel baby!). I had an I’m-35-years-old-without-children-or-a-husband crisis. I began mourning that life I though I’d have by now, then I decided I wasn’t going to think about that until I was on the other side of 35.

I practiced kindness. I practiced boundaries with unhealthy friendships. I strengthened healthy friendships. I volunteered. I made new friends.

I began to think about the kind of person I would want to date. I would want to date someone who knows me, knows the best and worst of me. Someone who loves me, who props me up when I fall, who carries me on their shoulders like a champion when I succeed. Someone I would want to live with and love with.

Yes. I want to date someone I would consider my friend.

Because, really, how can we possibly imagine a life with someone if we don’t know them? Know how they behave when they’re scared, or broke, or angry, or drunk? Know what their weaknesses are, know their beautiful strengths and also know the places they fear the most?

Shit.

I need to make more friends.

I ran this past my girlfriends when I still had six months on my sentence.

“You know, you don’t have to do this for a whole year. I worry you won’t be open to it, if it comes to you.”

“Okay,” I assured them. “If I meet Mr. Right, I’ll be open.”

But I wasn’t. My energy was bound up in me, in building a more self-aware, self-confident, self-controlled human.

That’s okay, one friend said. “He’s doing exactly what you’re doing. He’s getting clear. He’s got his head down. He’s focused on him.”

January 1, 2016. One year ago I gave up dating. Do I feel clear? Nah, but I’m closer. Do I know how to pick Mr. Right? Nope. But I do believe that we don’t pick. We’re just colliding molecules. We’re big brains with animal instincts.

But we do get to choose who gets close to us, what we share, how we share, and when we share. We contain the ability to open ourselves up for the right kind of connection.

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Every person that leaves an imprint on our heart brings us that much closer to the right connection. Every day presents us with a moment for renewal and a clean slate—not just on New Year’s eve. It takes deliberate self-work, and it’s not easy. It’s wildly uncomfortable but completely worth the investment, because no one will ever take better care of you than you.

The rest, well, it’s up to the universe’s twisted sense of humor. It’s a bit oxtytocin, a bit chance, a dose of timing, and a whole lotta self-love.

The Business of Art Billings creative class propels local art trade

Billings has a new claim to fame. The city is now home to the largest Artwalk in the state, featuring nearly 40 participating galleries.

“Artwalk has reached critical mass and people want to be a part of it,” said Virginia Bryan, president of Billings Artwalk, which is heading into its its 22nd season. Indeed, for Billings, the arts scene has never been more vibrant.

Part of this growth is simply economics. There’s an audience and a market. But the part that is less tangible is the enthuastic support of a diverse and vibrant artist culture and the grassroots beginnings of Artwalk.

Parties centered on creativity, with art on display, live music, bites of food, and splashes of wine, Artwalk has grown into a vital Billings event, though its beginnings are quite humble as a member-run organization with a handful of participating galleries. The first galleries to consistently hold events helped grow five attendees to a thousand plus people mingling across downtown Billings for the event.

“We only have Artwalks this good because we have been building on them for 21 years,” said Mark Sanderson, who co-owns Toucan Gallery with Allison O’Donnell. They purchased Toucan nine years ago, but the business has been in operation nearly 30 years.

Before owning Toucan, O’Donnell was an employee. She recalls the early years of Artwalk, when they would serve wine in glassware that they hand-washed. Now on average 500 people come through Toucan during an Artwalk evening.

“It’s such an open event,” O’Donnell said. “People can come and go as they please. Downtown feels so vibrant on those evenings.”

This year, Artwalk Billings merged with the Downtown Billings Association. Being under the DBA umbrella has given Artwalk much-needed administrative support, an office presence downtown, and though it was an integral part of downtown in the past, it’s now officially part of Downtown Billings.

Part of Artwalk’s success is the density of art galleries in the downtown core. Artwalkers can park and walk to a majority of galleries on the tour. Gallery presence is strong along Second Avenue, North Broadway, and Montana Avenue, and a bus takes patrons to outlying stops as far west as Crooked Line on Division and east to the edge of MetraPark.

“Billings is embracing its art community,” Bryan said. “People are genuinely excited about art and excited about the artists that live here.” She refutes a long-standing notion that there’s no culture east of the Rockies. “We are taking that outdated notion, and we are refusing to accept it. When I look at the number of artists who have either come out of Billings or who live and work in this area, or have national recognition, it’s astounding to me.”

Indeed, the walls of Billings are lined with Theodore Waddell, Sheila Miles, Kevin Red Star, Harry Koyama, Carol Hagan, Kira Fercho, Jon Lodge, and many others who choose to make Billings and the surrounding area their home and workplace.

“There are fabulous artists that choose to live and work here,” Bryan said.

Hardin-based artist Harry Koyama has run his gallery on Montana Avenue for nine years. Koyama looked at other places around town in which to open his gallery, but Montana Avenue made the most sense. “Montana Avenue is the hub of the arts district,” Koyama said. “The minute I moved to Billings things changed dramatically. Having access to large numbers of people—Here success multiplies.”

Koyama’s cultural investment in Billings has proved to be a fruitful one, but it was patiently nurtured. “It takes a community effort,” he said. “As long as the people want to see more art, there will be more.”

Indeed, you won’t find more art per square foot anywhere else in Billings. Montana Avenue is the hottest strip arts and dining real estate in town. Walking into Koyama’s gallery, a narrow building sandwiched between other galleries, restaurants, and retail shops, one is struck with a palette of vibrancy. His impressionist style allows imagination to run, placing familiar subjects as you’ve never quite seen before.

A few doors down at Toucan, the entire store is filled with handmade and regionally sourced art. From Carol Spielman’s distinct stick-legged horses to glass artist Kathy Burk to folkloric pottery artists Theresa Gong and Sue Tirrell, the range of work on display spans paintings, pottery, glass, metal, turned wood, and more.

“Small business is defined by adaptation, and that is why this place has survived,” Sanderson said. “We wanted to offer a broader selection of art with the idea that everything is handmade by an artist. Nothing in here is made in China.”

Further west, on 14th and Grand, The Frame Hut owner Helen Tolliver has artwork for sale from nearly 70 artists—many from Billings and the surrounding area.

“We have a fabulous client base that supports the local artist that we carry,” said Tolliver, who purchased the gallery and frame shop in April. Her decision to invest in the arts was a pivotal moment in her life.

“I did not want to have any regrets, and I jumped.” Tolliver was no stranger to the gallery life, having worked at The Frame Hut for 14 years prior to purchasing the business.

The Frame Hut is rich with textures and mediums of all kinds, from jewelry to the massive towering paintings. Tana Patterson’s hand-built ceramics, the fused glass creations of Mary Knapp, frescos and cleaned gourds of Sharon Fred, A M Stockhill’s paintings atop old pages of books, chunky, brightly painted originals by Kira Fercho and giclées of her 12 Tribes of Montana—it’s in each piece that Montana comes alive.

Originally published in Magic City Magazine, Dec. 2015