What was that Steinbeck quote?
“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”
I used to have this quote thumb-tacked to my dorm room wall in South Carolina after I’d lived in Montana and wanted desperately to come back.
And it’s still true. I am in love.
And, yes, it’s hard to analyze it when you’re in it.
But let’s try.
This week, Eliza turned four and we had a “Spiderman makes me feel good” birthday party. Our house was filled, and I mean filled, with all the people we love. There was a party on the front porch, a party in the backyard and one in between, in the kitchen.
We celebrated our little curly-haired, head-strong, tie-dye-wearing four-year-old. She celebrated her new skateboards and a chocolate on chocolate cake.
As I walked through our packed house from one end to the other Wednesday night I realized again and for the thousandth time, that having my family surrounded by and my house full of smart, creative people in a place I love is what I’ve always wanted.
Missoula is not my hometown.
It’s a place that I chose a while back. I suppose, as they say, it chose me. When I came here I was 19, having never really been too far from where I grew up. Somehow, from a description in a newsprint booklet, I ended up here.
I remember thinking when I first came here that the place was crawling with writers. And I wanted to be one of them. It was also full of people who knew each other. They’d say hello on the street, stop and ask each other how they’d been. I wanted to know these people too.
I lived here for a few short months in the winter of 1996. Then I went home to South Carolina. I graduated college. I lived for two years in another mountain town that almost snagged me. I moved to another coast. I somehow got really, really lucky and ended up back in Missoula.
Or, near Missoula.
When I first came back to Montana in the late fall of 2001 Seth and I lived 30 miles east of town in a vacation rental on Rock Creek. A few months later we bought a house on five acres of tall grass with broken down fences 25 miles north of Missoula in Arlee. Though our work and most of our friends were in Missoula, it wasn’t until last summer that we actually moved here.
I always thought there was no difference in living a little ways outside of town and living in the heart of it.
There is, I’ve found. But what’s more important, though, is who we surround ourselves with.
On Eliza’s birthday our house was filled with people who create. There were two filmmakers, a least one potter, one carpenter who could build a house from top to bottom in record time, one who could trim it out beautifully while spouting economic theory and another who could make pretty much anything in it out of concrete. There were four nonfiction writers, one poet, a photographer, a painter who should probably quit his day job and do nothing but put his brushes to canvas, and a woman who turns everything she touches into art.
These are our people. These are our neighbors – a concept that has taken on a new and powerful meaning for me in the last year. These are the faces my daughters will remember from their childhood. My children will fall asleep to the whispers of their conversations.
Missoula is not a place to settle if you are looking to strike it rich. It’s not a place to come if you want to become famous, although, I suppose, that’s not entirely true. But it is a place where people will walk your grocery cart back to the store for you, a place where people will bring your four-year-old handmade shirts, wooden yo-yos and basket ballin’ shorts. They’ll sling Spiderman webs with her and sing her happy birthday.
I’m pretty sure all of us that have lived here (or near here) for a while have questioned whether living here is worth the low wages, the constant ducking and weaving of financial curve balls, the long gray winters, the limited professional opportunities. But when I see my community perched on my front porch, leaning in my kitchen, laughing in my backyard, I know, again, that it is.
It reminds me of print my friend Jess has hanging in her kitchen. It says: “There are things you do because they feel right & they may make no sense & they may make no money & it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other & to eat each other’s cooking & say it was good.”
Whoever wrote that must have spent a little time in Missoula.