Maggie Neal Doherty

How Many Snowflakes Heal a Heart?

In Stories that make up a life on December 16, 2013 at 12:40 am

105 could make it lighten, rise up and out from the heavy body, flutter above the gray clouds and believe that while November may be the cruelest month, winter is on its way.

3 landing on a nose, then melted with cupped hands and a full breath.

2007: enough to call it powder? Enough to slide on skis?

Or just enough to make it a weak layer on the mountain side?

And slide, there goes the snow.

It happens so quickly.

Like death. Like a heart shattering, splintering and fracturing (does ice come to mind? a spiderweb of frozen water? Yes, that’s what I see, after the glacier has bulldozed me to the ground).


Or, now for something kinder, like a snowman. 1.2 billion flakes, rolled and packed and punched and shaped. Three roundish globes to make a body, smoothed by hands damp in their woolen mittens. Don’t forget the eyes. Or the carrot for a nose.

Perhaps to some, like me, we lose count after the thousands and lose sight of each individual flake, lacy and intricate and well, frankly, magical. I see snow as the accumulation – much like the accumulation of life (or death, which seems to be happening a lot lately. Either suddenly or the “six months to live” rigmarole) but it’s all too convenient for someone like me, a skier, a worshiper of mountains, to make such metaphors from snow. Is it true or is it a myth that the Eskimos have many words for snow and we, and who are “we” exactly, have so few?

Do we need those many words? Yes, I know there are types of snow, names for a particular kind or shape or form. But do we really need to dig deep and unearth all these terms for snow?

Or could it be that snow is a word I’m using in place for pain?

Pain will do, won’t it?

When life is either suffering or not, does it matter what kind of snow or what kind of pain it is? What good does it do to find the different meanings, to take up the microscope and look deeper, closer?

It’s either cold.

Or it hurts.

Yet, it only takes one. Flake that is.

To make me smile when the world turns dark and closes in (almost pain, but not quite. I try to not let it sink into my bones. Let me be shaped by mittens, rolled and packed. The snowman has no heart, just a nose made from a carrot.).

Hope, is what I feel. One flake is all it takes.

No Internet Here: Ben Rover

In Stories that make up a life on November 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm
Ben Rover Cabin, Polebridge, Montana

Ben Rover Cabin, Polebridge, Montana

I went to the cabin and I wrote.

That’s the simplest way to explain my four day retreat to the Ben Rover cabin near Polebridge. Of course, there’s more to it than that. But stripped of conveniences and crutches of ‘modern’ living like electricity, the Internet and regular work duties and responsibilities, simple works.

Is it easy, this simplicity? Hardly.

Stripped is essentially what it is: layers pealed off, nerves exposed, vulnerability.

And, essentially, good for writing. Not easy, but good. Exhausting and exhilarating.

A break in the clouds! Zee mountains!

A break in the clouds! Zee mountains!

Certainly not easy on the hands either–who knows how long, or if ever, it’s been since I’ve written that much by hand? My hands would cramp and I must have gripped the pen a bit too hard because purple bruises bloomed beneath my fingernails. Writing with pen and paper became physical. No longer would I drift off, thoughts rushing fast and aimlessly cast on a blinking computer screen. Without the computer and keyboard, I was more careful with my thoughts, with language. The engagement of my whole body was a new experience–I was no longer filtering my words through the screen of a computer, distracted by the scores of possibilities presented when connected to the Internet. Can’t remember the name of a channel in the Les Cheneaux Islands? Well, Google’s your friend. Looking for a better word or need clarity on nautical history of the Great Lakes? Your answer is one click away, or maybe two after you chase the rabbit down the next hole,  taking a brief pause to check status updates on Facebook.

Can’t let life pass you by, that’s what the Internet promises.

North Fork of the Flathead River

North Fork of the Flathead River

I went into the woods carrying bags and bags of self-doubt. Would I be able to write? Would I be able to keep the fire going (literally and metaphorically)? Would the loneliness build and I’d bury myself under the covers and weep away my retreat?

Self doubt be damned in the North Fork of the Flathead. Without the buzz of incoming text messages, the noise of the Internet, whatever baggage of uncertainty I carried dissipated. I reacquainted myself with the page. Alone with my thoughts, the only music I heard was the crack and pop of the woodstove. Clarity emerged through the darkness. I interrogated my assumptions, and devoted time to previously written work, examining it with such concentrated effort I couldn’t believe hours would pass and I was thinking and writing, writing and thinking. One night, I said aloud, much to my surprise, “I even like editing.” Who was this woman, clad in her flannel shirt flecked with bits of bark from hauling firewood from the shed into the cabin? Who was this woman who rose at 7, made too strong of coffee (didn’t think that was even possible) and opened to a blank page in her notebook and wrote through lunchtime?

While I know this to my core, but tend to forget: when we disconnect from the ‘world’, we connect with something greater. I went into the woods looking for the surly, down trodden writer who let herself interfere with her stories. There among the lined pages of a notebook, between the messy handwriting and margin notes, I found her.

No Google search needed.

A Remote Retreat for an Out Of Sorts Writer

In Stories that make up a life on November 9, 2013 at 4:38 pm

To a cabin I go.

Tomorrow I leave for the Ben Rover Cabin in Polebridge, an outpost along Glacier’s remote western boundary. Ben Rover is a Forest Service cabin on the western banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River, and I will spend four days in the cabin, challenged with two direct tasks: reading and writing.

The indirect tasks are many, including rediscovering the writer within I’ve recently banished to the corner while the many duties of starting a business take up all the rooms, even hiding in the attic, scurrying around the beams . But this is the point of the Outside Experience, a requirement for the second year of my graduate program. The Outside Experience is something, with a tally of 100 hours, that either enhances current work, like say a research project, encourages concentrated writing time, like a writer’s retreat, or explores new possibilities in writing, publishing and or teaching. True to my program’s independent style, there are really no strict boundaries on the experience, with the exception that it’s tailored to an individual’s needs and will be something different than the every day rituals of writing (and living and doing laundry). For some, it’s attending a writing conference or residency. Others have traveled across the globe for research or taken on solo wilderness treks.

For me, I’m breaking my Outside Experience into two parts. The first part is my upcoming solo retreat in a remote cabin in a place that leaves the trappings of civilization, like electricity and cellphone coverage, at the other end of a very long dusty and pothole-ridden road. The North Fork of the Flathead is a place I hold very near to my heart. I used to live a dozen or so miles south of Polebridge when I worked for the Big Creek Outdoor Education Center and the region has been home to some of my many adventures on foot and on water. I also need a bit of time away from my computer, the Internet and other responsibilities (like laundry) to refocus my creative efforts.

I hate to report it, but in the last month or so, I haven’t wanted much to do with school or writing. I’ve even contemplated quitting my MFA program but I know that I’m one who changes her mind often and know that although the brewery has garnered all of my attention, my graduate work and my writing is important, even if I never publish a book. Or even a damn essay, but that’s another story. Pun intended, even!

To fulfill the requirements of the Outside Experience, I plan to complete the required hours by attending the Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference in Homer, Alaska in June. I believe dividing my experience into two parts will serve the part of me that needs a solo, focused retreat coupled with a conference to meet and learn from and with other writers. Ever since Cole and I returned from our ski vacation to Alaska in 2012, I’ve wanted to return and this conference gives me every bit of incentive and authorization to do so since it’s for school.

However, as I draft my shopping list and plan my menu, having to take into consideration the only refrigerator at the cabin is the cooler I bring along with me, I’m uneasy with the prospect of my solo retreat. I have much work to accomplish with an upcoming deadline for school and have little to show for it. Also, I’m challenging myself to not bring my laptop: without the ability to recharge its battery after its died, what is the point? I will write by hand.  I need this shake up of routine, a routine that inevitably becomes distracted and disjointed when checking Facebook and tending to emails. The Outside Experience is designed to give a writer an opportunity and authorization to do something they don’t normally do. While it may not seem as bold as say traveling to Italy to research Venice’s canals for a novel or teaching poetry to prison inmates, I’m hoping that the small act of connecting pen to paper will help release me from whatever rut I’m in. It will hold me accountable. I have to write. I have to read. I can’t waste the solitude.

As someone who’s possessed by landscapes, I knew the only place (besides my family’s cabin on Marquette Island in Michigan where absolutely no work would be accomplished because I’d be surrounded, gladly, by family) to spend part of my Outside Experience is the North Fork. It is a landscape that challenged me mightily when I attempted to stay through the winter with only the company of my dog and cat, hunkered in my work cabin. At that time, which, unbelievably, was over five years ago, I believed-or tried to convince myself-that I was some hermit woodswoman badass who needed little company to carry her through the darkness of winter. I learned otherwise. And yet, the North Fork is a place of unparalleled beauty: a mighty river snakes through the prairie, bordered by the staggering peaks of Glacier to the east and the burned over mountains to the west. It’s easy to wax romantically about the inspiration the area around Polebridge commands and I know better now. But I also know something very true, when I’m stuck or feeling drained or even gasp, hating writing, I go to a place where rivers flow and mountains commune with the sky.

In many ways, this first part of my Outside Experience, is very much outside.


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