Under the Big Sky

I think I am happiest when I am loping through the mountains of the American West.

This is the thought that pops into my brain as I bound down Entertainment Trail in Helena, Montana.

After a month in Europe [I’ve been terrible at updating my blog. Life update: My boyfriend finished his dissertation! I finished the school year! Then we lived in a camper van in Europe for a month! Then I came to Helena to write while he surfs! Then we go to the PNW and then home to Hawaii!], I have made my way back to Helena, Montana, and got myself to the nearest trailhead as soon as possible.

As I bound and push my way up Mt. Ascension, I finally come to a stretch of beautiful, single track trail around the mountain and through a meadow. It’s here that this thought pops into my head.

I leave the meadow, and go through a few minutes of forest before turning a corner and stumbling onto a beautiful field of wildflowers.

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It stops me in my tracks. I take a breath, and in awe at how truly beautiful it all is, and how blessed I am to be in this space.


When describing my summer plans to people, one of the first questions I inevitably got was, “Why Helena?” I admit, in a whirlwind of Europe, Colorado, and the Pacific North West, Montana is not normally perceived as “exciting” as the other places on my itinerary.

And, in some ways, that’s fair. Helena still has a small-town feel (Population: 31,179). It has an ice cream shop, a few coffee shops, and some local boutiques. It does have some excellent breweries and a wine bar, and it’s also a place where the drivers are so polite to pedestrians that it can sometimes cause a traffic jam. I wouldn’t describe it as a “party” city.

Which, to be fair, isn’t what I wanted. So, after falling in love with this place last year, Helena popped into my mind when I first realized I had the time to give to it. Still, I wasn’t sure how it would be to come back. I didn’t know if the small-town feel would make me as happy as it did last year.

Then, on my first morning, I ran these mountains, and my heart has been floating there ever since.

On my second morning, I ran a different set of trails. The trails here aren’t overcrowded (like they are at home), but you’ll pass by a handful of folks out there– which is nice since there is quite a bit of wildlife in Montana. People are generally very friendly when they’re hiking and this time proved no exception.

I was running around Mt. Helena when I stumbled on an older woman and her three adorable (and very big) dogs. As soon as they saw me, they immediately began bounding over to me, which stopped me dead in my tracks. I love dogs, but I also know they can have different reactions to a new human than you plan.

“Don’t worry,” the woman called as she ran over. “They’re friendly! They just love to be pet.”

I started scratching their heads and ears and laughed, “Don’t we all?!”

She took a second, then laughed– a sparkling sound that made her throw her head back a little. Then, she reached over and patted my shoulder. I love touch, but I rarely receive it from strangers (something I often consider a blessing). I was gross and sweaty from running. I had only been back in Helena for 36 hours.

Still, this woman, who did not know me, took the time to laugh, show me some love, and wish me a safe run. The familiarity of the gesture, the willingness treat me as a friend even in my very not-cute state, is something that stayed with me the rest of the day.

And it was another reminder of why I love this place.

I wrote, last year, that I was admittedly very nervous coming here as a woman of color. Both times I have arrived at Helena Regional Airport, I’m the only person of color there.

I also shared that I had found nothing but kindness and warmth once I was here. That remains true (and I’m seeing more diversity!). I still get some looks, but I am still consistently shown a sense of friendliness that, honestly, I have rarely found anywhere else.

And that has been very, very relieving. My newsfeed is pretty consistently filled with videos and stories of people from oppressed groups having their humanity stripped in public, or being attacked and assaulted outright. It is easy to feel on edge and have very valid concerns about one’s safety just existing in public spaces.

Still, it is nice to know that there are still parts of our country where people are just treated as… people. While I’m sure Helena is not perfect, there is still an overall culture of care that flows through its streets and in its citizens. It is an important reminder that, in a world that consistently feels more hostile, there are places where people coexist with care for the humanity of those around them.

Why is that? Where does that come from?

I was pondering that as I walked home the other day. The streets are tree-lined and quiet– just a few folks walking their dogs or in their gardens once the heat had finally settled down. I passed a woman on her porch, who greeted me, then looked over my shoulder.

I turned and was treated to another beautiful Montana sunset. Gold and orange streaks filled the sky, while the clouds were painted brilliant shades red and purple, adorning the sun as it went behind Mt. Helena.

I once had a professor who noted that “the way you treat land reflects how you treat  people.” There is something about people who grow up or spend time in nature that embodies this truth. Within them is a willingness to connect with things around them and a deeper understanding of their place in a larger world. It comes from knowing the people around you are tied to the same earth that you are and, just by existing there and holding that land in reverence, you create kinship. It goes deeper than culture– it goes to the very place of you that connects with time and physical space itself.  Perhaps the kindness and warmth I have found in Helena comes, in part, from that place.

The woman and I took a moment together to watch the sunset. We did not know each other, yet under Big Sky, we were both children from the same creator, in awe of the beautiful place we were in.

And In Each Other: Rejoice!

The warm, squishy body wriggled in my arms for a few minutes. Penny, my aunt and uncle’s dog, let me snuggle her, and then looked up at me as if to say, “Dude, it’s loud in here.”

And it was. I was home for Christmas for the first time in years, and my father’s side of the family had all come together and raucously filled my aunt and uncle’s house. The number of cousins is in the double digits, and that doesn’t include their significant others, children or my grandmother and our aunts and uncles themselves. The dining room was packed full of people who have known me since my birth or theirs.

It was, to be honest, perfect. It is kinship of the clearest kind– forged through years of laughter and heartache, built on a strong foundation of finding love and joy within each other, even when it felt impossible.

I love Christmastime for lots of reasons. Beyond the surface-level, it’s a time to remember to love as puppies and babies do— without restraint or judgement, and with a full-hearted sense of wonder and awe.

This Christmas, though, I was in mass reflecting on the nativity. I was praying with imagination and imagining myself in the stable. When I’ve done this in the past, I’ve normally seen myself in awe as one of the shepherds or wise men.

This time though, for reasons beyond my understanding, I imagined myself as Mary. Don’t get me wrong– I hold no lofty illusions about my own lack of sin or greatness in the world. I was just sitting in mass, thinking about her in that moment, and realized that Mary must’ve been so scared.

I mean, pregnancy is scary. Motherhood is scary. Doing all of those things, at a young age, when you didn’t even conceive the kid but instead because some angel showed up and said God wanted you to? Like, how even? Now, to top it all off, everyone in the neighborhood is being the worst and you have to birth this kid in a stable, one of the coldest and grossest places one could birth a tiny human? That is truly some shenanigans right there.

In all seriousness, though, I imagined how helpless I would’ve felt in a moment like that– how out of control everything would’ve seemed, how my body would’ve, perhaps no longer felt like mine.

And I got a little teary because I have certainly felt that way this year.

Then, in all that fear and helplessness and pain, I thought about how Mary looked up and saw people around her— a husband that stayed with her through the most ridiculous of circumstances, random folks from the meadows who were told that they needed to come through. And I remembered a line from Fr. Boyle’s book, Barking to the Choir: “If love is the answer, community is the context, and tenderness is the methodology.”

In the middle of the worst conditions, the birth of a child created a community of warmth and love. For one night, that stable was an enclave of joy, laughter, love, and light. In a time of struggle, tenderness rallied these people together to create something much stronger and more powerful. Much like the dining room of my aunt and uncle’s house, they found raucous, bubbling kinship in each other, even when the world outside felt less than hospitable.

In my own time of personal struggle this year, when I felt helpless and out of control, was it not my own community that made me feel like I could overcome and reminded me that I was loved? Was it not the friends consistently at my side supporting me, the people the universe conspired to bring into my life, the family who loved me unconditionally? Earlier this week, I spent time with people who I had no blood connection with, but who had known me for nearly twenty years. Some I am still very close with, some I hadn’t seen in ages, but no matter what I was welcomed with open arms and laughter.

Ultimately, what staves off fear and helplessness is connecting with and loving each other, even when it feels impossible, even when the connection may not seem visible. It may be your blood family. It may be your chosen family. It may be the dude who you were arranged to marry and some shepherds who followed a star.

You never know how and when community will emerge though. The question is, when it comes, will you be ready to accept it? Will you be ready to turn your back to the harshness of the outside world not to forget it, but to seek to improve it by turning towards each other and rejoicing in the presence and light of others?

So, as we move into 2018, I am eager to continue finding the communities of kinship, and rejoicing not simply in all things, but trying to rejoice in all people. I am hopeful to try and focus this year not just on love, but on community and tenderness too.

For a savior was born unto us for one real reason: because, above all else, we are loved.

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