The way mountains fool you


Thing is, you forget.

You forget that when you first met this delicious child so full of cunning and whimsy, it was a pair of shining eyes on a body not much larger than your foot staring at you from an incubator. You forget the tubes in its nostrils, throat and veins that ensure its most basic functions. You forget the clamp that was passed through a slit on his back, down a vein, and up to his heart to plug the hole from which his life flowed.

You forget all of that… until you put your arms around him at the airport and feel his now 5-year-old heart pounding through his t-shirt as you hold him. Then you remember. And thank you.

Forgetting is probably a good thing. Without it, we would be stuck in the past or walking inches forward, limping with suspicion or sadness. But remembering is important too. When you leave too much behind in the past, complacency or cockiness fills the space where humble gratitude should be.

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I want to leave this year’s Montana election in the past. The losses go too far and too deep, and we haven’t just lost seats. Openness, compassion and idealism – not only in politicians but also in ourselves – are becoming increasingly difficult to restore after the election campaign.

And the future looks bleak. The dominance of money in and out of the campaign cycle is only trumped by the acceleration of a wealth-driven agenda that bodes ill for the Montana we love. Our public education system is being hollowed out. Next is our constitution.

But this week I’m remembering something most of you can’t. Fifty-nine years ago, my teacher drove our lunch breaks into a circle and taught us a new word: “murdered.” For days, a kaleidoscope of sad and shocking images enchanted the world: the dazed first lady in a blood-stained suit, the little girl’s hand slipping under the flag on her father’s coffin, the little boy’s salute, the killer’s murder, the riderless horse .

Under the spell of that darkness, a statesman held up a beautiful light. He perfectly captured everything that can be lost in an inexplicable moment, but then reminded us of all the gifts a leader can leave – love, laughter, courage, wisdom. That statesman was Mike Mansfield, a man of the humblest of origins who rose to the highest seat in the Senate. A Montanan – one of us.

I love that sense of connection in Montana. When you live in a historic glen with just a handful of neighbors and the nearest town is 16 miles away, don’t let differences separate you. When your child’s sun rises and sets on the girls they play soccer with, you love them too. When you join your husband for breakfast with his high school classmates every Wednesday, you warm at the hearth of their enduring bond, the essence of community.

When your car breaks down on the freeway and the middle school principal pulls over to pick you up on the way home from fishing…when someone you worked with a long time ago in a faraway town flops down next to you at a choir concert and the years go by as you pass Wonder your grandchildren are singing together now… you are almost mystically reminded of how intertwined life is in Montana.

And when that delicious, bright-eyed child complains that we still haven’t reached the mountains that seemed so close an hour ago, remember that your grandmother had the same complaint as a girl did a long time ago , a long time driving to Gold Butte in a spring wagon . Gold Butte is gone now. Grandma is too. But there’s something almost mystical about repeating her words to her great-great-grandson: “That’s how the mountains deceive you.”

Mountains actually fool you. Sometimes a mountain is just a molehill; sometimes it’s Mike Mansfield. Right now, somewhere in Montana, the next Mike Mansfield is staring bright-eyed at a seemingly hopeless world. We – as individuals and as a country – can be that tube, that clamp, that teacher named Maureen who saw the mountain in the molehill. Remember it. At best, we are.

Mary Sheehy Moe is a retired educator and former Great Falls State Senator, School Superintendent and City Councilwoman. She now lives in Missoula and writes a weekly column for the Lee Newspapers.

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