Chelsi, let’s start with a fun little exercise. Imagine we are just meeting for the first time over coffee at our favorite place. How would you introduce yourself?
I am a transplant from Oregon. I know that Montanans typically hate transplants, but like many people who move here, I followed love. My spouse grew up in Helena and came back to take a teaching position. I studied creative writing with a focus in nonfiction at University of Idaho and worked with so many people who are anchored to Montana in different ways – Poet Robert Wrigley who studied under Richard Hugo, his spouse and nonfiction writer Kim Barnes whom he met at University of Montana, and Mary Clearman Blew who is from Judith Basin. Before all of that was a rich life in Oregon where I faced many challenges growing up near Portland. I played in dangerous communities as a teenager and dropped out of high school, went to college in my mid-20s, met my incredible spouse who challenged me to become more educated than I thought I needed to be, and here I am in this lovely community who has been so kind and welcoming. We just can’t leave.
You have a history of organizing such cool events for the Helena community. The first time I saw you in action was a few years ago as you led a storytelling evening for women through your organization – Helena Area Literary Arts. It was incredible, and I now look forward to it each year. Where does that drive and desire for gathering people together come from?
I really do love the diversity of people that we interact with throughout a day and during our lives. I believe that people are inherently good, though all humans have flaws. I’ve enjoyed and have learned so much talking to strangers during my travels and everyday encounters, and that has encouraged my drive to bring people together. There are so many reasons we can come together instead of divide.
Sharing our stories is something we both care about. Why is there so much power in the act of writing and speaking our own stories?
Our personal stories are so unique and powerful, and I think everyone has an important story/experience. Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Beyond connecting the community through literature, gathering with others is a powerful way for uniting people. Listening, I think, is one of the most powerful ways that we can mend our current divides.
When I heard you were the new owner of the Montana Book Company, it all made sense. Your love of books. Of writing. Of serving our community. Tell us about making the leap into owning a business.
This endeavor was part dream, part intention, and part kismet. But no matter how it all came together, it was a lot of research and studying up front and will continue to be a lot of learning. Speaking of bringing people together, there were a lot of players that made this a reality. A dear friend took a leap to help me financially, female (and one male – Hi, Aaron!) small business owners up and down the gulch helped me look over the numbers, make design decisions, and encouraged me to “jump off the high dive” and join others in the pool who were just waiting for me. With so much compassion and guidance, I felt like I’d done all I could do to prepare. Even in the month prior to the transition, I couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s actually a thing, even today. It’s incredibly hard to be a small businesses owner – there as so many facets that have to be considered. Sometimes I don’t do it as best as I would like to, but that’s learning. I’ll rectify it and learn from it. Speaking of which, I need to get in touch with my posse in the pool.
For obvious reasons, I couldn’t leave this question out. Tell us about a book we all need to go and buy.
Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman, a National Book Award finalist, is a quick and intense read that traces the intersection of three lives: Eden Malcom, a combat veteran who is unable to move or to speak, and is imprisoned in his own mind; his wife who spends every day on the sofa in his hospital room; and his friend and fellow soldier who didn’t make it back home–and who narrates the novel. On Christmas, the one day that Mary is not at Eden’s bedside, Eden regains a sort of consciousness. It’s described by the publisher as “A piercingly insightful, deeply felt meditation on loyalty and betrayal, love and fear.” I consumed it in two days (it’s pretty small, though) and then my spouse did. We both loved it.
When you’re not at the store, what can we find you doing?
I spend every Tuesday night at the Holter working with at-risk youth through the Art for Survival program. It’s such an important part of my life and I’m so honored to work with and bond with young people as they work through their young lives with very adult issues. And my colleague – Sondra – couldn’t be a better friend and person to work with on this project.
I might also binge watch something at home like a zombie because I’m so damn tired.
Quickly, off the top of your head, list three items on your bucket list.
A vacation to British Columbia, specifically the inlet between Washington and Canada, to watch the ocean, eat a shit ton of seafood, see the birds and whales, and sit by a warm fire in the rain forest.
Travel abroad. At this point, I don’t care where.
Write a memoir (or two).
Is there a woman in this state who you look up to? Tell us about her.
That’s an extraordinarily hard question for me because I like to channel the personalities of women I admire when I am making decisions, so there are quite a few. When making a difficult professional decision, I think about how Lindsey at the General Mercantile or Adrienne at Spruce would a do it. When working in advocacy environments, I think about how Jenny Eck or Laurie Bishop would approach the matter. When I need to be assertive, I think about how my spouse would approach the matter, even though they are gender non-binary.
You have chosen to put down roots here in this community. What is it about Montana that keeps you around?
The pace of our community is a relief, and the kindness that was shown to me by strangers when I was first here and diagnosed with cancer absolutely blew my mind. Colleagues at Carroll and Helena College – where I was teaching as an adjunct – brought me food and gifts and their company. The hospital and its staff helped me heal and live longer through their excellent care and consideration. And that’s not a plug necessarily, those people really did save my life and my soul. We once went to a celebration for the LGBTQ community while I was ill, and we were given a coffee can full of money they’d been collecting all night without us knowing. A stranger gave it to me at some point during the night and when I asked why she said, “that’s what we do for each other here. Someone did it for me, and you will do it for someone else when it’s time.”
That’s the kind of community I want to live in. Forever.
When do you feel the most yourself?
Dancing and roller skating are almost a mystical experience for me. I love to move with rhythm and glide. It’s one of the only places I don’t feel like an outsider.
How do you handle life’s difficulties? Do you have any advice for us of something you’ve learned, or, are in the process of learning?
Regulation of your first reaction is quintessential to approaching a difficulty, but I’m not sure that this is something that can be learned easily without having grown up in an environment where fear is a daily part of your existence. You see, I had a parent with severe mental illness and drug addiction and the consequences of making her angry were catastrophic. When she’d have an episode, I learned very well how to regulate my emotions not only to prevent violence in my childhood home, but to deescalate her.
Physically, I breathe through my nose into my stomach, I envision anchoring myself to the seat or floor, I let my stomach extend and try to relax my arms to my side. I listen more, speak less.
When it comes to people with which I disagree, I do the same and also speak in even tones, use some skillful discussion techniques like asking questions and finding common ground. I take things slowly and exercise patience.
Summed up: don’t turn away from the difficult thing. Invite it closer, investigate, become acquainted with it and it will be less difficult.
Your answer can be silly or serious, but what is saving your life right now?
Art. Writing has lost its catharsis for me at the moment, but doodling and experimenting with different mediums has helped see me through a lot of discomfort.