“A Nurse and a Writer Walk Into a Bar in Montana…”


Here’s where I’ll pause while you look up Missoula, Montana, to get an idea of where I currently live before I give you a little backstory. Got it? Okay.

Back in 1981 when I was eight years old, I made the mistake of telling my father that I was going to be a writer when I grew up. It seemed a reasonable aspiration at the time. No one had ever told me that ordinary people from Brainerd, Minnesota, couldn’t become writers, but judging by my father’s reaction, that seemed to be the case. I might as well have told him I wanted to be a leprechaun when I grew up, or a unicorn. 

Later in life as an unmoored college freshman, I took a career aptitude test that told me I was best suited for a job as an Emergency Room Nurse. My academic advisor, keen to my capricious attention span, shook his head and said, “You’ll never make it through the nursing program.” My mother offered encouragement by telling me that any ordinary person could become a nurse, and reminded me that I was creative, that I was a good writer. 

I interpreted these mixed messages from adults in my life as permission to drop out of college, and spent the next ten years as a farmhand, bartender, receptionist, pet sitter, ranch hand, fence builder, housekeeper, trail builder, river guide, and mule skinner, to name a few. In 2002, I landed a coveted job on a fire lookout tower in the middle of Idaho, where over the course of six summers, I filled 36 notebooks with mountaintop observations, and the backlog of stories from the previous ten years. Eventually, I came down from the mountain with those notebooks and went back to school, earning my Bachelors in Nursing in 2009. I am making this all sound much easier, and perhaps more interesting, than it actually was, but I’m a storyteller after all. That’s what I was hired to do.

But back to the present tense, and the Lifestyle Columnist job. After some jumping up and down, giddy with excitement over my first real writing job, the sparkle began to fade, and I felt certain a mistake had been made. Lifestyle Columnist? What kind of lifestyle was I supposed to write about? What style was my life, anyway? I must have missed something. They must have missed something. I frantically read through my application materials to decipher how I had misrepresented myself. I mean, do these people know I am not on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook? Do they realize I’m too old for TikTok? Does it matter that my lifestyle does not include Alexa, eyelash extensions, or even cable television, and despite all my best efforts, I still don’t understand Bitcoin?

I pulled out of my tailspin a few days later when, on a Zoom call with the fabulous Strong Towns team, I was informed that the job title had been revised from “Lifestyle Columnist” to “Neighborhood Storyteller.” Hallelujah. The lights came back on, and I could breathe again. A Neighborhood Storyteller was something I could see myself as, something I could get my hands around. Neighborhoods are something I understand. If I count up every place I’ve called home in the last three decades, I’ve had more addresses than birthdays. As for storytelling? Remember the 36 notebooks? More than almost anything else in life, I absolutely love to tell stories. And this year, I can’t wait to tell them to you.

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