Jen Certa

Strangers unite to save lives in Missoula in the aftermath of an avalanche, a kind act leads to housing an unhoused person and closure for a family, 9/11 witness finds hope in unity, and shared grief fosters empathy and beauty in life's poignant moments.

Transcript : The Kindness of Strangers - Part 2

Welcome to the Tell Us Something podcast, I’m Marc Moss.

We are currently looking for storytellers for the next Tell Us Something storytelling event. The theme is “Close to the Edge” If you’d like to pitch your story for consideration, please call 406-203-4683. You have 3 minutes to leave your pitch. Our friends from the Deaf community are welcome to pitch by emailing [email protected].

The pitch deadline is February 17th. I look forward to hearing from you.

This week on the podcast… “”I immediately get off of the exam table, and I get to the ground.” “Sometimes, a small act of kindness and compassion, as simple as buying a stranger a sandwich, can change someone’s life, and maybe even their death.” “Never forget. On 9/11, we leaned into each other, recognizing our shared humanity.” “Death. It’s final, it’s in your face, it’s unforgiving.”

…four storytellers share their true personal story on the theme “The Kindness of Strangers”. Their stories were recorded live in-person in front of a sold-out crowd on December 06, 2023 at The Wilma in Missoula, MT.

Winter is traditionally a time when we slow down. Our indigenous friends, during winter, share stories that they don’t share at other times of the year. Tell Us Something acknowledges that we are gathered on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Ponder eh, Salish, and Kootenai peoples.

Traditionally, storytelling is reserved for the winter months for many tribes. This was a practical choice given the fact that during the other seasons, people were busy growing, gathering, and hunting food. It is in the winter, with the long dark evenings, the snow and wind blowing outside, that telling stories is used to entertain — and teach the children. Another reason for winter storytelling, is that many traditional stories contain animal characters. To be respectful, people wait until the winter when animals hibernate or become less active so they cannot hear themselves being talked about.

We take this moment to honor the land and its Native people and the stories that they share with us.

Thank you to our Title sponsor – Blackfoot Communications.

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Sensitive listeners be aware that Tell Us Something stories sometimes have adult themes and storytellers sometimes use adult language and profanity.

Our first storyteller is Erin Scoles, a mother, who, watrches in shock as a terrifying avalanche burries her young son. Strangers and community come together in Missoula to save lives in the midst of chaos. Erin calls her story “Found”. Thanks for listening.

Erin Scoles: It’s short enough.

Um, I’m not a huge fan of winter, and it’s partly due to the fact that I can’t feel some of my toes. I permanently damaged them years ago while searching for my missing son. It was February 28th, 2014, and Missoula had declared it a snow day. All schools were closed, um, and I was a college student at the time, so I was at home.

with my 8 and my 10 year old. It was around 4 o’clock in the afternoon when they come into my bedroom and ask if they can go outside and play. I of course said yes. Um, I could hear them in their shared room next to mine getting ready and I hear my 10 year old daughter Coral telling my 8 year old son Phoenix to put on an extra layer of clothes because of how cold it was outside.

He of course listened to his big sister. Um, at this time, my partner at the time, Casey, just got home from work. He was able to ski to work that day because of the large amount of snow that had fallen. The kids finish getting ready, and they go outside to play, and I’m in my bed, and I’m watching a show.

And to the right of me is a huge window, and I can see my entire backyard, and I can see my kiddos playing. Um, about ten minutes passed, and I actually start to feel my house shake and I didn’t register what it was. Um, I knew Missoula had earthquakes before. I had, like, have, I have felt them before. And I knew this was not an earthquake.

I then heard it and then I look out. That huge window, and I saw it. And, I don’t know why my brain did this, but it did. And it was two screens, so it was like a split screen. And one screen was this huge white wave. And it was cascading into my backyard. And I couldn’t see my garage anymore. It wasn’t there.

And my neighbor’s house wasn’t there either. On the other split screen, I see Coral and Phoenix. And they’re turned around. They’re looking at this white wave coming towards them. The avalanche. And they start running. I see it hit Phoenix. And I see the avalanche pick him up. And Phoenix gets tossed around a bit.

I remember seeing his orange coat and his black boots. And then I see nothing because the avalanche hits my house. And it knocks me off my bed. And all of a sudden I’m, I’m on my floor and it’s dark and it’s silent and I still can’t register what just happened. I get off the ground and I, I run out of my bedroom in the kitchen and Casey runs right in front of me and we don’t make eye contact.

We don’t even, we don’t even say, we don’t say anything to each other. And I later learned he knew exactly what it was and he went downstairs to grab his avalanche probe and his avalanche shovel. Um, I continued to go through the kitchen to the side door, which is the quickest way to my backyard, and I can’t open it.

There is so much snow, and there’s a canoe in the way, and there’s part of someone’s roof. Um, I turn around and I make my way out to my front door, and I run down the front steps, and I go to open the gate to my backyard, but there’s no gate. And there’s no 12 foot fence either that surrounds my house usually.

At this moment I start screaming, My babies, my babies. And I enter my backyard and Coral runs up to me. She was in the runoff of the avalanche and was able to free herself pretty easily. She was pretty shooken up though, of course. I asked her where her brother was and she had no idea. I started screaming again, and I’m screaming my baby.

My baby, I go more into my backyard and I don’t see Phoenix and all of a sudden there’s like a dozen people, strangers, neighbors in my yard. And they’re asking me, who is Phoenix? And where did you last see him? And I explain these things to these people and they just know what to do. They start digging.

And some of these people have Avalanche shovels. We’re in Missoula, right? Um, and some people have normal snow shovels and I don’t know how much time has passed, maybe five minutes, maybe eight, and a neighbor comes up to me and makes me go inside my house, and I hadn’t realized at this time, but the entire time I was outside, the only thing I had on was a very flimsy, thin, cotton robe with no tie, because that had been lost in the chaos, and it was just flapping in the wind, And so I was completely naked.

Um, You’re welcome Missoula.

Sorry Coral. Um,

Sorry, I couldn’t help it. Um, So I was completely naked, I had no shoes on, nothing. Um, thankfully she makes me go inside and helps me get dressed. She tells me to stay inside, and I don’t listen. I go back outside and And somebody hands me a shovel, and I start digging. That’s what everybody is doing. I, I look around and there’s like 75 plus people in or around my yard.

And at this time, it’s also learned there’s two missing people, more missing people, Michael and Fred, my neighbors who live behind me, whose house I saw that was missing. So we’re digging for three people at this time. And I look around more, and I, I see people with shovels, and the Avalanche shovels, and normal shovels, and people are using parts of my broken fence, and people are using, like, garbage can lids, like, really anything they can find.

And I start to panic, because I realize I could be standing over Phoenix, or Michael, or Fred, and I wouldn’t be able to get to them soon enough. So I drop my shovel, and I start screaming. Uh, that same neighbor comes over to me, and now a firefighter comes over to me, and they tell me I have to leave the scene, that there’s an ambulance waiting for me down the road, and it has Coral and Casey, and we all have to get checked out at the hospital.

Um, they each put an arm around me, because it’s really hard for me to walk. My feet really hurt. So we’re walking down the road to the waiting ambulance, and at this exact moment is when a photographer takes a photo of me, and The very next morning, it’s on the front page of the Missoulian. We get to the ambulance and there’s three EMTs and there’s Coral and Casey and we start making our way to St.

Pat’s Hospital. Coral’s checked out. She’s got bumps and bruises. They’re warming up my feet and the the EMT that is warming up my feet. I remember he had really soft blue gray eyes and long gray hair and He was really trying to comfort and reassure me that there were so many people looking for my son.

And, it wasn’t helpful at that moment. Um, and I looked at him very seriously and I said, If they do not find Phoenix, or if they do not find him alive, Do not let me out of your sight. He knew exactly what I meant when I said that. What he didn’t know was that 11 years prior, I had lost a child. And I knew I could not live through losing another.

We get to the hospital, they put us in a room, they check out my feet more in Quarrel, and in that hospital room are two police detectives. Quarrel, Casey, a friend, a doctor, a nurse, that same EMT. Um, a few minutes pass and that EMT comes up to me and I’m sitting on the exam table and he puts his hand on me and he says, They found Phoenix.

He’s alive. He’s not awake. I immediately get off of the exam table, and I get to the ground. And I get as low as I can get. And I don’t know why I did this. I am not a religious person. At all. Sorry.

And, While I’m doing this, I am explaining it. I need to be in the most humble position possible. That’s all I knew I had to do in that moment. I get to the ground. I’m explaining that. Everybody in that room does the exact same thing. Even the two police detectives. Which I kind of laugh about, which is like really great, but I don’t think I’ll ever experience that again.

We stay in this position until someone comes into that room and says that Phoenix is in the hospital. And he’s receiving fluids, and he’s getting warmed up, and he’s getting looked at, and we can see him really soon. It’s also explained that, when he was found, his body temperature was so dangerously low, that they have to slowly warm him up, as to not cause any more shock to his system.

So they warn us of all the heating pads and blankets that will be surrounding his little body, all of the tubes and the wires, and the neck brace. Coral, Casey, and I walk into the room where Phoenix is at, and we start approaching the bed, and I’m not ready to see it. I’m not ready to see Phoenix like this, because his cheeks and his lips are still slightly bluish.

And that was probably the hardest thing for me to see. I scan his face more, and I, I see dried blood, and I see a black eye, and I see a really long cut. Where the black guy is, and that’s where the avalanche probe found him.

Coral, um, approaches the bed even closer and she grabs his hand and she won’t let go. And she starts saying his name over and over again. Phoenix. Phoenix. And I shit you not, it is just like the movies, you guys. Phoenix opens up his eyes and he looks at his sister. And then he looks at us. Uh, a few minutes later, they’re able to take off the neck brace and the tubes out of his mouth, and he’s, he’s having a little bit of a hard time talking, but he can talk to us, and he remembers everything.

Um, Phoenix was hit by an avalanche just plain in his backyard at almost 120 miles per hour. He walked away with a lacerated spleen, a bruised lung. Nasty concussion, a black eye, and one hell of a story that he now tells ladies in college because he’s doing great. Um, we, it happened ten years ago and we knew this day was coming and he’s, yeah.

Sorry Phoenix. Um, so we stay in the hospital for two more days and we had a lot of visitors at this time. Um, and. One of the visitors was the man who found Phoenix. He actually happened to live across the street from us. We didn’t live in that house for more than five months when it was hit by the avalanche, so we didn’t know our neighbors too well.

He had a son, Phoenix’s age, and when he heard the avalanche, he looked out his window, saw what happened, grabbed his tools, and just ran out there. He put himself in so much danger to search for three people. Those 75 plus other people put themselves in so much danger. That is amazing. That’s Missoula, right?

Um, unfortunately I can’t remember this man’s name. Trauma fucks with your head in a lot of different ways. Um, but I will forever be grateful to him. And not just for saving Phoenix’s life, but for saving mine. Thanks.

Thanks, Erin.
Erin Scoles is grateful to have lived such a full life. She’s given birth to 5 children, hitchhiked across the country, lived in a school bus before it was cool, endured huge loss and loved big. She’s most proud of her Irish heritage and how badass & compassionate her kids are. Erin looks forward to the day where she can focus on just one project at a time and for her kids to finally and truly admit she’s the funniest person that they know. For a link to the Missoulian article and to see the photograph of Erin from the front page that day, visit

Next up is Jen Certa

Jen shares her story about how a simple act of kindness helped eventually house an unhoused person, led to closure for a family, and reaffirmed her hope in humanity. Jen calls her story “Life, Death, and Teaspoons of water”. Thanks for listening.

Jen Certa: Sometimes, a small act of kindness and compassion, as simple as buying a stranger a sandwich, can change someone’s life, and maybe even their death. I know that sounds kind of strange, but I can tell you that it’s true. It was a crisp fall afternoon several years ago and my favorite co worker, Rebecca, and I were in the middle of our Friday afternoon ritual, what we refer to as get shit done time, and we were getting ready to kind of start wrapping up for the day when we were interrupted by three strangers who had just walked in the door of our office.

The strangers were a retired couple in their late 70s named Gingy and Pete, and a gruff, middle aged man named Michael, whom they had just met on their weekly lunch date. Gingy and Pete had noticed Michael sitting alone, not eating. He appeared to be carrying all of his worldly possessions in his backpack.

And so, um, They decided to invite Michael to join them for lunch, struck up a conversation, and learned that Michael was currently living in a tent in Greeno Park. He’d been having a really difficult time finding a job, getting a job, because he didn’t have an ID. And in order to get an ID, he needed a copy of his birth certificate, which he also didn’t have.

He had explained that recently he’d actually been scammed by someone in town who had claimed they could help him get his birth certificate for a fee, and then disappeared with Michael’s money. So, Gingy and Pete thought maybe we could help. And I’ll be honest with you. For a minute, I did consider passing the buck.

Sending Michael to somebody else that could help him. Because, technically, it wasn’t actually my job to help a random stranger get a birth certificate from another state. And I did have other slightly more urgent shit to do. But the expression on Michael’s face told me everything that I needed to know.

I could see that he didn’t really trust other people. And he definitely didn’t have much faith that I would be any different than anybody else who had already tried to help him with his predicament. Now, something you need to know about me is that I am pretty competitive and definitely stubborn, and I was not willing to be another person that let Michael down.

And besides that, if someone even so much as hints that they think I can’t do something, then to that I say, challenge accepted. Hold my pile of work I’m supposed to be doing instead, and watch this. I quickly found the number for the Minnesota office of vital records, and dialed, hoping not everyone had gone home for the weekend already.

And miraculously, Debbie answered. Hi, Debbie. My name is Jen, and I’m a social worker in Missoula, Montana. I’m here with Michael, and he has been having a heck of a time trying to get his birth certificate. He really needs it so he can get a job. And Debbie, he has just been given the runaround. Gosh, I just know, Debbie, there has to be something that you and I can do together to work this out today.

I’m really hoping you’re gonna be our gal. Now, Debbie did deliver. She directed us to a form that Michael needed to fill out, and some other bureaucratic hoops to jump through, since Michael didn’t have a permanent address. And it was all hands on deck that afternoon in the office. Anyone who was still there was running around, scrambling, trying to help Michael compile everything that he needed, get it notarized, get it to Debbie before it was 5 p.

m. in Minnesota. And finally, Debbie did let us know that Michael’s birth certificate would be arriving in about a week or so. I took the form that Michael had filled out with his information and tucked it away into a folder, just in case he needed it again, and we parted ways. Shortly after that, Michael did get his birth certificate, and then finally that ID.

And over the next several months, his life began to look a little bit like the opposite of a country music song. He got a job, he got a bank account, saved some money, he made some friends with coworkers, he kept in touch with Gingy and Pete, and eventually, he did move out of his tent in Greeno Park into more permanent housing.

And I wish that I could tell you that that is where the story ends. But on another Friday afternoon, almost about a year later, get shit done time was again interrupted. But this time, it was St. Pat’s Hospital, and they were calling to tell us that Michael was in the ICU on life support. When My co workers and I arrived at the hospital, confused, a short time later, the doctors told us that Michael had gone into cardiac arrest and collapsed, and that there really was little hope that he would ever recover brain function or wake up.

They had found Rebecca’s business card in his wallet, along with his ID, which is why they had called us. And they wanted to know if we had any idea how to contact Michael’s next of kin. Because someone was going to need to make some decisions about end of life care for Michael. And soon. Outside the hospital, buckets of rain poured over my windshield, pounded on the roof of my car.

As Rebecca and I sat inside it. We were absolutely gutted by the thought that Michael could die alone without anyone in his family having any idea what had happened. But he had never really said much to any of us about his past. We didn’t know anything about his family. Except, I still had that form that I had tucked away.

And on it, were his partents’ names and birthplaces. So, armed only with that information, and our phones, we started Googling.

We found his mother’s obituary, which did tell us that Michael had four sisters. Pam, Sue, Jane, and Michelle. And judging by the order of the names in the obituary, it was safe probably to assume that Michael was the youngest and all of them were older than him. That was the good news. The bad news was that it appeared that all four sisters were married.

No Last names were mentioned anywhere in the obituary, nor were any locations of where they might have lived. So, to recap, we’re now looking for four middle aged women from the Midwest with the names Pam, Sue, Jane, and Michelle, who may or may not still be living somewhere in the state of Minnesota.

Didn’t really narrow it down a whole lot. But somehow we found a phone, a list of phone numbers with people with those first names and we just started calling down the list. I left dozens of the same message over and over again. Hi, my name is Jen. I’m a social worker in Missoula, Montana. I’m looking for the sibling of Michael Smith.

If, if you know Michael, please give me a call back as soon as possible. Now. Um, honestly, I don’t know if either Rebecca or I truly thought that we would actually find any of them that way. But the next morning, I answered a phone call from a Minnesota area code. And on the phone, on the other end of the line, was Michael’s twin sister, Michelle.

She hadn’t seen her brother in 20 years, and she told me she’d been waiting for him. A long time, dreading getting a phone call like this. Michael’s four sisters all found last minute flights to Missoula, and arrived at the hospital the next day. They spent a long time with Michael, talked to his doctors, and made some really difficult decisions.

And the next afternoon, Michael died, with all four sisters of his sisters by his side. The day after that, Pam, Sue, Jane, and Michelle met us for breakfast. Though we had been strangers just a few days before, we now gathered together for a meal to celebrate Michael’s life. Gingy, Pete, my co workers, and I shared what we knew of Michael’s last year of his life in Missoula with them, and they shared stories with us about the brother that they had known.

And though it was clear there had definitely been some hurt and relationship rupture over the years between Michael and his sisters, there was also very clearly a lot of love. The sisters expressed their gratitude that they got to have some closure, that they knew with certainty what had happened to their brother, that they had had time to say goodbye and anything else left unsaid.

And that they knew Michael was not alone at the end of his life. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. In this particular moment of our collective history, when we are all witnessing, experiencing, enormous amounts of pain and suffering as human beings on this planet. And I don’t know about you, but I have been finding it really hard to not feel like I’m losing my faith in humanity right now.

To Not fall into despair or wonder if anything that I do actually matters in the grand scheme of things. Or if it’s basically the equivalent of trying to put out the massive raging dumpster fire that is the world right now with a teaspoon of water. And maybe it is, I don’t know. But then I also think about how it’s also true that Gingy and Pete saw a man sitting alone offered to buy him a sandwich.

And because of that That stranger didn’t die alone. In the story of Michael’s life and his death, Gingy and Pete, for me, really embody the words of humanitarian Albert Schweitzer when he says, Each of us can always do a little to bring some portion of misery to an end. They remind me that Even a small act of kindness can have vast ripple effects that expand outward further than we can even imagine.

And that, that’s what gives me some amount of hope for the rest of us and our teaspoons of water too. Thank you.

Marc Moss:

Thanks, Jen.
Jen Certa is originally from New York, and accidentally began a love affair with Montana in 2009. She is a social worker and currently works as a therapist with kids and families, which basically means she’ll help you process your feelings after she beats you at Uno. When not at work, Jen can most often be found traversing the trails around Missoula with human and dog friends, guessing people’s Enneagram numbers, and/or running late for something.

Coming up after the break: “Never forget. On 9/11, we leaned into each other, recognizing our shared humanity.” “Death. It’s final, it’s in your face, it’s unforgiving.”

Stay with us.

Remember that we are currently looking for storytellers for the next Tell Us Something storytelling event. The theme is “Close to the Edge”. If you’d like to pitch your story for consideration, please call 406-203-4683. You have 3 minutes to leave your pitch. Our friends from the Deaf community are welcome to pitch by emailing [email protected].

The pitch deadline is February 17th. I look forward to hearing from you.Thank you to our Title Sponsor Blackfoot Communications. Learn more about them at Thank you to our Story Sponsors who help us to pay our storytellers. Missoula Electric Coop , a member-owned rural electric cooperative that serves electricity to members in parts of Montana and Idaho. You can learn more at Thanks to our second story sponsor, The Kettlehouse who strives to match the quality of their beers to the quality of the Montana outdoor experience. Learn more about them at Thank you to our Accessibility Sponsor, Reep Bell and Jasper allowing us to hire American Sign Language interpreters at this event in order to be a more inclusive experience. Learn more about them at

Thanks to our media sponsors,, and Missoula Broadcasting Company learn more about Missoula Broadcasting Company and listen online at

Thanks to our in-kind sponsors: Float Missoula – learn more at and Joyce of Tile – learn about Joyce and the work that she does at Joyce of

Alright, let’s get back to the stories. You are listening to the Tell Us Something podcast, I’m Marc Moss.

Next up is Jennifer Robohm. Jennifer recounts her 9/11 experience, witnessing the tragedy, offering help, and cherishing acts of unity amidst chaos and despair in NYC. Jennifer calls her story “As the Dust Settled”.

Thanks for listening.

Jennifer Robham: It was a beautiful Tuesday morning, and I soaked in the sun and the clear blue sky on my way into work. I was already at my desk by a quarter to nine, drinking coffee and chatting with a colleague when we heard a truck backfire really loudly outside. It was so loud that it made us both jump. And then we laughed at ourselves like you do.

We thought nothing of it. Until we noticed the sirens. I called a friend who worked in finance because she had a news feed at her desk. Hey, what’s going on by City Hall? She told me a Cessna had just crashed into the World Trade Center.

My office building was three blocks from where the tower stood. I sat at a cubicle on the 11th floor, but I’d go to a small office to make private phone calls. I loved that part of my job because I’d lean back in my chair and I’d look out the window at those unbelievably tall buildings. They were incredible.

But on the morning of 9 11, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The North Tower was in flames, cut in half by the jetliner. Dark plumes of smoke billowed up into the sky and reams of office paper fluttered downward like falling leaves.

I called my parents and we were just trying to make sense of what was happening when the South Tower was hit. By then, my dad was watching on TV, but I couldn’t see the plane. I thought a fireball had exploded from the first building to the second. My father was six foot four, but his voice sounded small when he begged me to find safety.

But daddy, I don’t know where to go. So I stayed, bearing witness. I was still at my post close to an hour later. No, no, no, no, no, no. Fucking God. Fucking God! Fucking God.

There was a low rumbling, and then the South Tower collapsed under its own weight, pancaking to the street below. A huge cloud of dust and debris engulfed the pedestrians who scattered like ants. The, the cloud overtook them one by one, and then slammed in my window and shook our building. And then everything went dark.

I turned to run and nearly tripped over a Latina woman who was watching over my shoulder. She was now crumpled on the ground, being consoled by a friend. Her boyfriend worked in that tower. We all thought we just watched him and thousands of people die.

A garbled voice over the PA system evacuated us to the basement. We were down there for several hours in shock. I was so rattled, I actually asked if we were going to have our staff meeting.

There were no windows, but that’s where we learned that the North Tower had collapsed. We also heard that the Washington Monument in Las Vegas had been destroyed. I guess imaginations run wild when they’ve seen the unimaginable.

An African American woman burst in through the door from the street. She was covered in dust, her hair, her face, every inch of her clothing. And she was absolutely hysterical. I remember thinking, Jen, you’re a psychologist, do something. So I walked her to a quiet corner and helped her lie down and try to slow her panicked breathing.

Her eyes were wide, but sometimes she’d clench them shut. The images that must have been seared there. She grabbed my hand as she told me about being evacuated from her building and then having to run when the second tower collapsed. And then she collapsed into sobbing.

An older woman knelt beside us. She stroked the traumatized woman’s hair. She whispered as she cleaned the dust from her face. It’s okay, baby. Everything’s gonna be okay.

Eventually, they told us we could leave. But the dust covered woman was too afraid. I was desperate to get out of there. The phones were down and I wanted to go and find my partner. But we stayed until we could convince her it would be safe. And then a police officer escorted the woman back out to the street, where it now looked like several inches of dirty snow had fallen.

Um, the older woman and I. We were complete strangers, but we kissed on the lips and we hugged for several seconds before going outside. We were the last ones to leave and I never saw either of those women again.

Back outside, it was chaos. The air was acrid and smoky and the sirens were relentless. The police, uh, sent us toward the Brooklyn Bridge. I changed into volleyball sneakers and ran. I was terrified that another plane would come at any second to take out the bridge or the thousands of people who were streaming across it with me.

Some of them were walking, slowly. They stared straight ahead toward Brooklyn, where the sky was still that gorgeous blue. But others stopped, like I did, and looked back over their shoulders. Where the towers used to be, there was nothing but dust and smoke and debris.

If there is a hell, I know what it looks like. It’s been over

20 years now. I’m getting old.

What I remember most vividly about that fall morning are small gestures of kindness and courage. The man who carried my co worker down the stairs to the basement because she was too grief stricken to walk. My companion who comforted the dust covered woman lying in tears on the floor. The teenagers who sheepishly offered us water on the far side of the Brooklyn Bridge.

And neighbors who lined up late into the night to donate blood, none of which was needed. My first responders were ordinary people. No special training or equipment, just the impulse to do something, anything to make a shitty day just a little bit better for someone else.

After 9 11, I couldn’t cry for days. Not until our sonogram on the 14th made me weep with conflicted joy. We were gonna have a son. I love you, Jack.

It was several weeks before we could return to our office building, and many months before the piles stopped burning and the subways were restored. It was well over a year before we weren’t evacuated constantly due to bomb threats and anthrax scares. And maybe two years before I could hear a low flying airplane without flinching.

Whenever I’d leave New York City, I was surprised to discover that everyone else had moved on. I guess because it was no longer happening to them.

But New Yorkers continued to be kinder to each other. We hugged more. We made more eye contact. We gave up our seats on the train. And when we asked other people how they were doing, we actually slowed down to hear the answer. Honestly, those are some of my fondest memories of the city.

They say, never forget. I wear a subway token around my neck to remind me. I think about that day every September, of course. But I also thought about it a lot during the pandemic, and I think about it now when I despair about climate change and war and the existential threats we’re facing. I can’t help but wonder which version of us is going to show up.

If you’re looking for hope, maybe I can offer you this. On 9 11, we leaned into each other, recognizing our shared humanity. We worked together despite our differences because we needed each other to survive. We understood that looking out for ourselves meant looking out for other people. And we rose to the occasion, even when really hard things were happening.

In my darkest moments, that’s what I choose to remember. About that horrible, and yet beautiful, Tuesday morning. Thank you.

Marc Moss:
Thanks, Jennifer.
Jennifer Robohm moved to Montana from the East Coast to be closer to her twin sister and to have an adventure. That adventure turned into a life! Jen is a clinical psychologist who’s been teaching at the University of Montana for close to 20 years. She lives in Missoula with her partner, Nadia; her son, Jack, is a UM senior. Jen loves the Missoula community and the Montana outdoors.

Closing out this episode of the Tell Us Something, podcast, Linds Sanders recounts a series of encounters in which strangers share their deep grief with her, painting profound connections amid loss, teaching empathy, and illuminating the beauty in life’s small, poignant details.

Linds calls her story “Peanut Butter & Peonies”

Thanks for listening.

Linds Sanders: Okay.

Eat the mic. That was from our storyteller workshop.

When I was 18, I worked at the KOA call center. People would call in asking for directions to campsites, change their campsite reservation, But most often, they call to get their password changed for their online account. Back then, you couldn’t get a password reset email, you had to call the 1 800 number, and that was me.

I took dozens of these calls a day, and I assured people, I will not remember your password. One afternoon, a man called in, he must have been in his 70s or 80s, to change his password. Took about two minutes, I don’t remember his password. I asked him, is there anything else I can help you with? And almost in response to that question, he let me know this was the first time he was traveling since his wife died.

They started traveling when they had kids. But then their kids grew up and became adults and had families of their own, but they just kept traveling because they loved it so much. She would make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their road trips, and she’d kiss him on the cheek when they crossed state lines.

He’s trying to make those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It should be pretty simple, he says, but they just don’t taste the same. And that’s everything since she’s been gone. Maybe it should be straightforward, but he just can’t seem to do it. He laments that he should probably let me go now, and he hangs up the phone.

There’s this flat screen television above my head, listing my name and my co workers names, tracking the duration of our phone calls. My name is in red, highlighting inefficiency. The 38 minutes.

Fast forward a couple years and I’m a student at the University of Montana. I’m doing an art assignment drawing outside under the shade of a cedar tree. And, uh, there’s a football game apparently. It has concluded. Someone won. And now there’s this ocean of people dressed in maroon and gray leeching out of the stadium in all directions.

I am feeling so grateful that I chose this, like, meandering path that is off of the main arterial sidewalks that leads to the parking lots. Still, a woman straggles from the crowd, comes down my pathway. I don’t look up from my drawing, I figure she’ll just keep walking by. But then I feel her presence next to me.

She says to me, do you know what this building is? Now, there are a lot of beautiful buildings on campus. This is not one of them. It is this anonymous brick rectangle. I tell her, I don’t. She says, this is where my husband worked for 18 years. He was a botanist studying ferns and he died recently. I’m paying attention now.

This building is important. She says to me, my whole garden is ferns now. I tore up all the flowers, it’s all ferns. And when they erupt from the ground and spring and unfurl their leaves, I think of him and I miss him every day. And she’s starting to cry now. And just as abruptly as she’s come into my life, she turns and she leaves, walking down the path, rejoining that ocean of maroon and gray.

Now, maybe this would be strange if it weren’t for this reoccurring phenomenon in my life of strangers telling me their grief stories. Sometimes they last for 38 minutes, sometimes for 2 minutes, sometimes for 2 hours, like it did last summer. I just finished hiking Mount Sentinel, the mountain behind our campus.

Um, I live nearby, so the trailhead is walking distance from home. When I was on the top, there had been a summer thunderstorm that rolled in, and I had to bolt down and gain cover under trees. But now, the thunder had moved on, the rain had subsided, the clouds were still hanging in the air. I came down the trailhead, trekking poles in hand, my headphones in, I’m listening to my audio book, I pass by a man chatting, and he’s talking to me.

I, uh, put on my headphones, what? He asked me, have you seen the peony garden? The man, he’s in his 60s, dark wash, denim jeans. buttoned shirt. Baseball cap on. And the peony garden he’s referring to is the memorial peony garden, with over a hundred varieties of peonies. And they are in bloom and their flowers are the size of ice cream scoops, and they are white, and pink, and yellow, and, I tell him, in fact I have, and it’s one of my favorite places of Missoula.

He says to me, Peony are my wife’s favorite flower, and today is our 40th wedding anniversary. She died two years ago. And this is always how the conversations start, with this blunt admission of death. And that’s death. It’s final, it’s in your face, it’s unforgiving. And he’s seeing how I’m going to respond.

Am I going to ignore what he said? Oh, yeah, you know, there’s a western peony in this garden? Am I gonna put up a wall of sympathy? Oh, I am so sorry for your loss, that’s terrible. Or will I lean in? Which is what I try to always do. I learn not only were peony her favorite flower, but turtles were her favorite animal, and he would call her my little turtle.

I learned about the life that they built together, that she was a teacher, that she fought cancer, and I learned of how she died when the cancer returned, and that their back porch was her favorite place to watch sunsets, and how his friends and family rallied behind him when the grief first happened, but now that it’s been a couple of years, he feels embarrassed and like he can’t really lean into their support anymore.

Now, I want to keep talking, but my legs are really tired. I just hiked that mountain. But these transitions are tricky. We can transition deeper, and it’s also a chance to transition out. So I kind of edge towards a bench, and I invite him to sit down, and he does. And there’s this mutual trust between us that we both are enjoying this conversation, and we both want to continue.

And so we do, we keep talking as the clouds turn yellow and orange and underline in pink, leading us to another transition. It will be dark soon. So I offer to walk him back to his hotel. He’s just passing through. This area of town, everything is nearby, and it’s cleaved in half at the Clark Fork River, along which is the bike path.

And so we walk along it together, and we’re talking about poetry and travel and the West Coast, and it might sound like we’re not talking about grief anymore, but that’s the thing about grief. It’s like the central nervous system of a body. If you take away the skin, the bones, the muscle, and leave behind just the nervous system, you will still see a perfect outline of the human body down to the intricacies of a fingertip.

That’s grief. It holds us all together, and some days it threatens to tear us apart. But tonight, I like to believe it held us together and bound us to one another. I say goodbye to him in the parking lot of his hotel and begin my walk home alone, trekking poles in hand, headphones around my neck. And it might sound like I’m the kind stranger in these stories, but I disagree.

It is them who have taught me the importance of buildings that some people just walk on by. How complicated a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be. And the real beauty of a peony flower. They have taken the time to introduce me to the most beloved people in their life. This world could not afford to lose, but lost anyways.

The thing is, I have my own grief. A grief that has me with one foot firmly planted on this stage and another foot in the land of what if. A grief that has me looking for something I lost and I just can’t seem to find it. A grief that has me against all odds wishing that there was one person in this audience sitting next to one of you.

And I know that she’s not.

That grief can be pretty isolating sometimes.

But as I walk home in the dark, streetlights coming on, I feel a glow. I feel gratitude. And thanks to the kindness of these strangers, I don’t feel so alone.

Thanks, Linds.
Linds Sanders is a Montanan who has a habit of saying “yes” to experiences that scare her such as saving house spiders, learning to rock climb, working with preteens, and–most recently–sharing a story at Tell Us Something. It’s much easier for her to pursue the passions she loves such as poetry, art, traveling, and spending time with friends and strangers alike. Currently, she is in graduate school pursuing a degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with an interest in grief work. She works as a counseling intern at Tamarack Grief Resource Center where she has the honor of holding close the stories of others. Learn more about Linds at

Remember that the next Tell Us Something event is March 266th. You can learn about how to pitch your story and get tickets at

Stories of the difficulty of being gluten intolerant while traveling in China, being reminded of the magic in life, the complex feelings of a new mother, learning to ride the bus in a new country, and the journey to fix a botched tattoo. Note that the quality of the sound is not as perfect as we would like it to be. These stories are really worthwhile and we want you to hear them. Thank you.

Transcript : Forward to Better - Part 1

Marc Moss: Welcome to the Tell Us Something podcast, I’m Marc Moss.

Sasha Vermel: With a package on the way we get on a 30 hour bus ride from lumper bond vows to convene China, where you muck around and coming in Hiller package arrives, we get it. We bring it back to our hospital and it is like Christmas morning.

Marc Moss: This week on the podcast, five storytellers share their true personal story on the theme “Forward to Better”.

Sara Close: Talking about kids, about love…

Marc Moss: Their stories were recorded live in-person in front of a sold-out crowd on August 10, 2021 at Bonner Park Bandshell Missoula, MT.

Paul Mwingwa: I saw the bus number two, live in the stations. Where does the bus come from?

Jen Certa: And I just felt this pressure, like it was now or never.

Marc Moss: Next week, we’ll hear the final story of the night, told in tandem by two storytellers. More on that later.

Marc Moss: We wouldn’t have been able to produce this event without the help of our title sponsor, Blackfoot Communications. We are so grateful to the team at Blackfoot for their support not only financially, but also for providing volunteers to help staff the event. Volunteers screened guests for COVID, verified ticket-holders and welcomed guests as they arrived at the performance space. Thank you so much to everyone over at Blackfoot Communications for their support. Learn more about Blackfoot over at

Marc Moss: Our first story comes to us from Sasha Vermel. Sasha calls her story “Pieces of Home in Far Off Lands”.

Marc Moss: Thanks for listening.

Sasha Vermel: So I’m walking into a post office, including China. It’s a sleepy little college town of 6.6 million people that you’ve probably never heard of. And with my husband in between the two of us, we know about five words of Mandarin. So we are armed only with a first-generation iPhone and a determination to walk out of here with our package.

Sasha Vermel: So we load up the beta version of Google translate. Do you have our package? The words show on the screen, the woman reads them and she speaks into the screen and we wait as the words come up and it says. Where is the chamber of secrets?

Sasha Vermel: I don’t know is that where our packages we’re able to work it out. And she arrived out in the warehouse with our great big package and we legally take it back to our hostel. Now I have always had a strong sense of wanderlust. I was the kind of insufferable 17 year old would sit at the back of break espresso with my best friend, Kendra and Friday at 4:00 PM.

Sasha Vermel: We would read the independent and talk about how much we wish we were growing up in Paris or Tokyo or Seattle. Cause it was the nineties. Now I come by this honestly, there’s these stories that we get from our parents. And this is the story that I got from my mother. Sh e thought that getting married men liberation from her father’s house, she thought it meant travel.

Sasha Vermel: Seeing some places, maybe move into Boulder. But the truth of the matter is they were 20 and 21 years old and they didn’t have any money to travel. And then by the time they did, she was so debilitated by chronic migraines and depression that she didn’t get out of bed two days a week. So the idea of traveling and of going anywhere just really stressed her out.

Sasha Vermel: So when I came into my own, my form of rebellion was to say that I was not going to live my mother’s life. I was going to do all the traveling and all the adventuring that she wasn’t able to do. So now I’m 22, I’m at the iron horse, having a beer with my aunties. I am explaining to them that I have no interest in white picket fences or literally gangs.

Sasha Vermel: They looked at me like, what, what, what, what do you want? I looked at them and said, I want the world. Fast forward. I’m 30 years old and I’m newly married. My husband run that’s, it’s run like DMC. Some of you’re old enough to get that reference. Um, so he’s sort of a six foot, one Israeli J Gillen hall. And he looks at me and he says, I’m ready to have babies only.

Sasha Vermel: I’m still grieving. My mother committed suicide two years before this. And all I wanted was to run away. So I look at him and I say, I’ve never been to India or Thailand. Now the man I married is not one to back away from a challenge. So he says, no, no, no, no, no. You’re thinking too small. What if we just put everything we have into storage and just go traveling and to help, we don’t want to travel anymore.

Sasha Vermel: So a couple of months. We are off. We go to Israel, Jordan Egypt, we live in a beach in India and do yoga for a month. We go to Northern Thailand on motor scooters and travel across it. We attend a rocket festival in Laos. After six months of this, we get to a crossroads where we can’t go on the path that I was planning and run really wants to go to China.

Sasha Vermel: Now, China was the one place that actually scared me. This felt like a little bit far off the backpackers trail that we were on. I mean, we didn’t speak Mandarin and I didn’t really expect people in China to speak English. Um, and then on top of that, I’m gluten intolerant. This means that I can eat anything that has wheat in it, including soy cells.

Sasha Vermel: So if I lose, I get sharp stabbing pains for about two days. And then for the next two weeks, I just feel bloated and constantly hungry. It’s a big deal for my body. So I’m just thinking, how on earth do we go to China where I can’t eat. Or sauce. So I’m not going to back down from this challenge though. So we agreed to contact my dad and Missoula, and he puts together a package of gluten-free food from the good crackers and tasty bites and, uh, some instant oatmeal and a jar of peanut butter, along with a couple of pairs of hiking boots to supplement the flip flops we’ve been traveling in and new underwear.

Sasha Vermel: So we can replace the four pairs that we have been rotating through for the past six months with a package on the way we get on a 30 hour bus ride from long Cavon vows to convenience. Where you muck around in coming until her package arrives, we get it. We bring it back to our hospital and it is like Christmas morning.

Sasha Vermel: We pull out the things I try on the shoes they fit. I leave, leave, throw away the old Fred bear underwear. And I hold a lock, my jar of peanut butter that represents freedom insecurity. And the next day we’re off to our next adventure. We head towards the intersection of Tibet and Shangri-La, which in this case is an actual city.

Sasha Vermel: We’re going to do something called the tiger. Leaping Gorge Trek. We arrive at tiger leaping Gorge at 8:00 AM on a Misty morning in may. Um, it is sort of heavy gray clouds against the blue sky. As we start our ascent below us is a big river, just heavy with spring rock and along the path we see these houses.

Sasha Vermel: And they have shutters and flower window boxes like a Swiss chalet, but they also have the sort of curved Chinese roots, you know, it’s it’s rice patties and this was else it’s sort of disorienting. And I think, oh my God, I can’t wait to tell my mom about this. And then there’s that, that green that comes up when you have a thought that you really want to show with someone who, who isn’t there to receive that anymore.

Sasha Vermel: We, we continue on the trail. We do the 29 switchbacks to get to a place called the knock seat guest house. We’re doing this hike, nicest load. So it’s early afternoon and we’re going to call it quits from the day and just stay there overnight. And so I sit down at a chair, overlooking the courtyard. I hope that my backpack, I pulled out the jar of peanut butter.

Sasha Vermel: I opened the lid, locked the seal cause I haven’t had any yet. And I grabbed my spoon and I take them. And it’s smooth and again, a little, a little crunchy and it’s sweet and salty, and it tastes like comfort. It tastes like home. And as they go to take another bite, we hear that. It sounds because there’s construction going on.

Sasha Vermel: Now. My husband is really up for adventure, but he is not up for construction noises. So he comes over to me and he’s like, let’s go, I’m hungry. And I’m tired. Obviously I’m really bloated for being Chinese food, but it’s not rich having a fund. So I grabbed my backpack. He grabbed the bag of peanut butter and it’s an, a paper bags as he lifted up that glass jar of organic peanut butter shoots out the bottom and splats on the flagstones below is just the butter. Right. But we continue on 10 feet apart in silence because I’m not ready to talk to him.

Sasha Vermel: Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that

Sasha Vermel: softening, but I’m not quite ready to let it go. So as we were almost getting to the next guest house and another sensation comes up in my body because I really have to be, and on one side of me is the mountain. And on the other side of me is a sheer cliff. So this isn’t actually like a real great place to just go.

Sasha Vermel: So we hustle up the last little bit until we get to the halfway guest out, which is at the summit of this particular trip we walk in and it kind of looks like bizarro world, like McDonald lodge right there. And I follow the infographic signs down through the hallways, out to the edge. And then there’s this bathroom stall.

Sasha Vermel: I opened the door and looked down and there’s the two ceramic footpads and the hole in the ground and a squat toilet. There’s a wall on this side of the. At a wall on this side of me and in front of me, where there would usually be a wall. There’s nothing like sky and mountains where the apex of this hike.

Sasha Vermel: And as I undo my button and like go to squat, like I feel kind of dizzy. The view looks like I’m at an elevator right in front of the mission mountain. And if you’ve ever been on a really good hike, you get to the top of the mountain. And there’s this moment where the mountains across from you seem so close.

Sasha Vermel: It’s like, you can touch them. It’s like communing with the divine was AP. I started to laugh. I did it. I felt the most beautiful squat toilet you in the world. I’ve traveled 10,000 miles. And now that I’ve gotten here, it kind of looks like Montana.

Sasha Vermel: So I think to myself, what are you still trying to prove? You’ve been running all the way around the room all the way around the world, and running’s not going to bring your mom back. Maybe, maybe you just have to make peace with the fact that she chose her own ending. Maybe, maybe it’s okay to not try to rewrite the story anymore or just continue to live hero. Thank you.

Marc: Thanks, Sasha.

Sasha Vermel passionately believes that we all have a basic need to hear and tell stories. By day, she is a real estate agent with a sewing and design habit. Born and raised in Missoula, MT she earned a BFA from U of M. In her former life she worked in theater costume shops across the West and frequently performed on stage at Bona Fide and Bawdy Storytelling events in San Francisco.

Marc Moss: Our next story comes to us from Sara Close.

Marc Moss: Sensitive listeners please be aware that Sara’s story mentions suicidal thoughts.

Marc Moss: Sara calls her story “A Lesson in Magic”

Marc Moss: Thanks for listening.

Sarah Close: Okay. So this whole story starts on my bedroom floor. Years ago, I was sitting in my room with my back against my dad, basically my dresser, our house was yellow and the walls in cyber yellow. And so the light was coming in from the south and kind of like bouncing off the walls. And it was really beautiful.

Sarah Close: Um, my two-year-old was feeding across the house soundly and it was just really quiet, maybe big car passing by outside. So for all intents and purposes is beautiful fall day. And then sitting there and I looked down at my hand and I’m holding my phone and shaky and I feel a little panicky. And I’m not really totally sure where to begin just suicide hotline.

Sarah Close: So obviously like I’m up here on stage. This is not a sad story. Like this whole thing turns out. Okay. Um, and so not still the punchline before we get there, but I won’t tell you about a couple of years prior to that there was a phone with a woman that I really respected. I was interviewing her to be a speaker at a conference that I helped to create to this bigger score.

Sarah Close: And she’s a professional storyteller. And so I’m, I’m interviewing her and asking her about all these different, amazing things with it, for work. She’d also just become a mom. So we worked, we kind of sidetracked into more like life land and not work land and was asking me because I’d known her for a really long time.

Sarah Close: And she finally said this to her, like, do you ever, like, have you ever thought about telling your story? And I. Honestly in thinking back on this limit, like, I don’t really remember what came out of my mouth. I just remember that my hand had been through scribbling notes through this whole thing. And I looked down at, at what I was writing and I wrote the words I believe in magic.

Sarah Close: And I do the hot thing, not the kind of like pull quarter out of your ear magic, which my daughter would be super stoked about. And I still haven’t figured it out, but, but like synchronicity, you know, and those, those moments about goosebumps and those sort of like moments of connection in the work in the world is sort of like universal whacked upside the head.

Sarah Close: Not because those things happen to me all the time, but because when they do, I kind of know that I’m on the right path and honest to God magic has helped me turn some of the hardest moments in my life into moments of beauty. And so just to give an example of what I mean by that years ago, um, I lost my partner in an avalanche.

Sarah Close: It’s definitely the hardest, probably most significant moment I’d had with grief to date. I was 24 years old. And for some reason, I, at 24 years old, got tasked with buying and earn, I don’t know, like how many 24 year olds have to go through the process of buying a Fern. But because I knew that was going to be hard.

Sarah Close: I enlisted the friend, didn’t come with me to make sure that I didn’t end up in some sort of like sad person puddle on the floor. Like whatever kind of store sells earns, because I didn’t know what that was at that time. So we’re in the car and we’re driving and he turns to me and he was like, Sarah, like, what do you think the Aaron’s going to look like?

Sarah Close: I was like, well, Johnny, or is that his spirit animal is a tiger. So I bet it’s going to have a tire on it. I was like, kind of joking about, but kind of also like, felt serious about it. We pull into the parking lot, get out of the car and we’d go into the store and we open the doors and walk in, literally there’s the shelf right in the center of the store.

Sarah Close: And you guys have not even joking. There is like one wooden box on the shelf with the tire on it. And I was like, okay, that feels kind of magical. And about six months later from that, uh, I went home with my parents for the holiday. It was my first holiday I had spent without my partner in a really long time.

Sarah Close: And I was so thankful obviously for the parents, for taking me in, um, beyond like, I didn’t really want to be there. You know, like I just, I didn’t want to be there. Like I wanted to with this person and put in, um, and my parents were so amazing. My mom at one point went downstairs to the basement, she friends back on the shoe box and it’s full of those.

Sarah Close: Um, like CPS heathered old photos, and then we start going through them. They’re all these pictures of beds. Is there a way I can go grab a pen? Like you just never know when one of us, isn’t going to be around to tell you who’s in these photos, like, I’ll tell you, you write the names on the back, like, great.

Sarah Close: So we did, this is perfect whole beautiful complete evening. And my dad has to be like, no, I didn’t know. And that was hard, you know, but still it was magical. It was like the universe. This is setting me up to have this experience that I needed to have. I know, like, even though I didn’t know it at the time, so anyways, before I like moved the heck out on you guys, to going back to that moment on my floor, in my bedroom, like there was not a lot of magic happening in that moment.

Sarah Close: I. I just, I was so profoundly sad that it actually physically hurts. Um, and like mark said, I teach yoga. So like any good yoga teacher does, you’re like how you can grab it to be my way out of this. So I’m like trying to pull all these moments of like the things that I was thankful for all these pieces that I was thankful for, because maybe one of them would help me pull myself out of this and it just wasn’t happening.

Sarah Close: So I closed my eyes and I found the number at the top of the Google search and I hit call and the phone rang, and then this message hotlines was closed. I mean, right. Like suicide hotline. Anyway, that’s like a whole different conversation, but the hotline. So I am sitting in there like, holy hell, this was like a really big move.

Sarah Close: And now you’re, and I didn’t know what to do. And this little voice comes on and it’s like, if you’d like to be transferred to our sister hotline press, and I’m like, well, why the hell not like bunches, Crestline? So we’re here. So I press one and it transfers me. And then I kept this God awful, whole music, like the kind of like really annoyingly, upbeat, even if you’re not like a suicidal, depressed person calling for help, it was like the worst.

Sarah Close: And I’m waiting and waiting and waiting. And then this worst picks up at the end of the line. I’m like, oh, thank goodness somebody is here. Somebody is going to help. And she has the thickest. Yes. Jamaican accent. I have ever heard in my entire life. And I literally was like, oh my gosh, customer service.

Sarah Close: Feel like I’m all sure you even know what to do with this. I was so frustrated. But she started talking and she had this like warm speak tone. And so I kind of hung on and she started asking me all these questions, like the right ones that you’d expect somebody to ask, like, do you have a plan? No. Are you in immediate danger? No.

Sarah Close: Is there anybody else in the house to hang up the phone? Cause there was somebody in the house and it was the very person that I took every breath for that. I take everybody for that. I never want to leave this world ever. And for was. So decently across the house with zero idea what was happening first of all, and if I said, yeah, my daughter’s here like a bad mom.

Sarah Close: I could give a reason the child, if she can hold tight services. And for, I would like in this whole thought process in my head and the words came out, yes, my daughter’s here and Jamaican woman transformed an instant into Jamaican mama. I will spare you guys, my Jamaican accent, as I’m going through all these things with her, she was like, oh my gosh, how old is she?

Sarah Close: What’s her name? And we spent the next, like 20 minutes talking about kids about love, about how hard those early childhood years are about our philosophies on everything, being a fades about motherhood, about our moms. And I swear, I could’ve just hung out in that space with her in my room. Forever. It felt like sitting with my mom until eventually we had to both realize like, okay, like I called you and you’re the person.

Sarah Close: And I like, this is a suicide hotline. So she’s like, Hey, it’s holiday weekends, everything’s closed, everything’s closed. And let’s just like, steer you in efficient, getting help. Where are you? And I’m like, where I’m in Missoula. She’s like, well, where’s that? How do you spell it? Cause like everybody asked that, when did you say this word to everybody?

Sarah Close: It’s not here. So I’m like, oh, am I like, I’m in Montana? Where are you? She’s like, oh, I’m in Washington DC. And I said, well, what side? Cause there’s two for anybody that has been there, there’s a marijuana number. Then you decide, she said, I’m on the Maryland side. And I was like, okay, well where in their lens?

Sarah Close: Oh, our county, do you know it? And I literally started to feel the hair come up on the back of my neck because he didn’t know it. And I kind of knew where this was going. And I said, where in Harvard. She said I’m in Columbia. And I’m like, where I’m at Howard county, general hospital. You guys like to make an mama, Jamaican lady, whatever you want to call her was not in Jamaica.

Sarah Close: She was literally working in the hospital where I was born, like on the other side of the country. And she could have probably like my mom’s house was across the street and I was probably in the house we were talking. She probably could have hugged the rock out the window, my parents’ house. And I didn’t know anything else to say other than I, I think you’re my angel, you know, it was just, uh, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more held in my entire life and I, would’ve never connected with.

Sarah Close: Jamaican mama angel, which she doesn’t know that I called her this, it might make a mama angel, had I not Googled or pressed one or waited through that awful holding music or like resisting the shame storm or any of those cases, you know, like there was so many moments along the way to let your stigma and shame and should took the wheel and just lost.

Sarah Close: Um, and then coming out of that experience, I think about my daughter was talking about this earlier today, which she always tells me you’re a calm things can be sad and happy. And I think I was just stuck in this dichotomy of being lost and that really had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t about being lost or about being found, but remembering that we’re always, and in all the ways, connecting to each other, you know, in sometimes.

Sarah Close: Universal hotline.

Marc Moss: Thanks, Sara. Remember, You are not alone. Reach out. | Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255 | | “text MT” to 741-741

Marc Moss: Sara Close is a strategist and convener of good ideas and good people. Director by day, yoga teacher by night, but a mom all the time, she’s happiest on the water, on trails, or on the trampoline… but definitely not on snow and is still trying to figure out how to do winter in Montana right.

Marc Moss: Lauren Gonzalez is up next, with a story that she calls “No Girls Allowed”.

Marc Moss: Thanks for listening.

Lauren Gonzalez: All right. Um, where did I start? Do I start now? Okay. All right. Where to begin? Um, I had never wished so hard in my life. To see a penis. Wait, let me back up. Let me back up a little bit. I didn’t always want kids, but when I finally decided my clock is ticking down at the time, my husband and I went ahead and had one and we were delighted, not just because it was a healthy baby, but because it was a moment he got the boy that he could name after his brother who had passed several years previously.

Lauren Gonzalez: And I got the boy that I wanted because girls are mean, and they’re manipulative. I’ve lived the experience. And I know, but also because when I was about eight years old, I got my first babysitting gig and I was tasked with babysitting this girl named Hannah, who was about three years old and somehow our activities together devolved into her throwing toys at me and blocks and like hard matchbox cars like toys hurt when they hit.

Lauren Gonzalez: If you didn’t know. Um, and so I just ended up not knowing what to do. I so desperately wanted to do a good job. Um, and I didn’t want to admit that I needed any help. So I ended up just cowering in the corner and crying tears, streaming down my face and accrues to me. Now I could have left the room, but you don’t, you do what you do in the moment.

Lauren Gonzalez: Um, and it, it was traumatic. And I knew from then on, you know, if I ever have kids one day, no girls. Thanks. Um, so this was my life plan and I knew that it would work out because I just, I couldn’t envision myself mothering girls. So obviously I wouldn’t have any that’s how life works. Right. Um, so we had this baby, Joey, our first born, super mellow, easy baby.

Lauren Gonzalez: So I’m like, man, we’re good parents. Let’s go ahead and have like three to seven more right away. So we get pregnant right away, um, with the second and right away. Off, like I know evil is growing inside. Experience was like a cush Cadillac ride, like very comfortable. Very cool. The second experience was like a bumper car ride at the fair.

Lauren Gonzalez: I just felt like jostled and uncomfortable and nauseous and sick, but still I thought, you know, I held out, I was like my life plan, my life plan. It’s going to work out. We get to the gender reveal party in Demond, M spill out of the cake. And I’m still like food doctor’s practice, which means they can make mistakes.

Lauren Gonzalez: They’re practicing. So, you know, baby penises are cartoonishly small. It could just be, you can’t find it on that little screen. So every ultrasound I’m going and I’m staring at that little screen and I wishing for a penis I’m just wishing so hard and it just never materializes. And then finally the day of the birth comes and out, she comes June Pearl, and I stare into her little base and I just think.

Lauren Gonzalez: How are you and what do you want for me? Because honestly, I didn’t have a whole lot to give. I, I didn’t know how to mother, a girl, honestly, I don’t think I was strong enough. I thought you needed to be a strong woman to mother, a strong woman, and I didn’t have what it took. So I, um, I, we moved forward together.

Lauren Gonzalez: Obviously I took her home, my baby fed her. She still lives with me in case. Um, but I didn’t know what to do. I just felt so much, um, there was no passion, there was no joy in it. It was more like obligation. And I felt very resentful that she was taking my attention away from my first born, my boy. Um, and I felt super guilty because what mom feels this way about their kid.

Lauren Gonzalez: Um, wasn’t an experience I’d expected to have, and it wasn’t my life plan. Um, and so. We move forward. She keeps getting older. She keeps needing from me. She needs love. She needs attention. She needs affection, all these things. And she gets to age to age three, age four. Um, and I turned into this person. I don’t even recognize, um, I, this tyrant I’m yelling, I’m screaming.

Lauren Gonzalez: I don’t know how to control her. Um, she’s very, strong-willed some of you met her then, you know, um, she’s quite the reputation, but I am, I just turned into this tyrant and I it’s the only way I know how to get back control because I don’t want to be that girl cowering in the corner anymore. So I try being the, the, the bullying instead.

Lauren Gonzalez: And I ended up, you know, just trying to take control by being over the top. And I do, you know what it feels like to scream it until your oldest feels terrible? I would slam doors. I would run into my room and just cry out of my bed and think what have I become? I don’t even recognize. I was afraid to be alone with her really.

Lauren Gonzalez: And I’m sure my husband was afraid to leave me alone with her. I just was so angry. I’d never seen that level of anger come out of me before, but I had seen it before because as parents, we only know how to parent the way that we have been parented and in my house, any loss of control. I mean, my dad was known to throw staplers objects, slam doors, yell, and scream.

Lauren Gonzalez: Um, and it’s all I knew how to do. And so I just learned to live in this little box. I learned to be with the adults around me needed and, um, to live really small. And so that’s how I grew up and that’s how I live my life. And then June came around and man, she was born with a strong spirit. And I can tell you is this legacy of anger was my family story for generations, but it’s not our story because June came out with this fighting.

Lauren Gonzalez: And she would not live inside this little box, man. She just, she wouldn’t be controlled. I, I couldn’t get control. Um, and so at some point around age four or five, she and I together kind of learned to live in this strength that exists between the girl crying in the corner and between the bully, throwing the blocks, there’s the strength right in the middle.

Lauren Gonzalez: And she taught me that she taught me how to live there and how to be, to get, I don’t have to get control. I don’t have control over anything. And that, I don’t think I ever realized that, um, until she came along, um, and she has just grown into this amazing girl who wears a backward slip as a dress to the daddy daughter, dams at the Y and is a total creative.

Lauren Gonzalez: I mean, she just sees the whole world in color and learning to see it. Her way has been such an amazing. And then, um, you know, she squirrels away little pieces of trash in her room and this insane filing system that like, she knows if I’ve touched it, but she also, like, she knows where everything is. I’m getting on board, you know?

Lauren Gonzalez: And like, this is the experience that we’re having, we’re doing it together. So, um, you know, I went back when I brought her home from the hospital for the first time. I didn’t know how to process my feelings. And so as a writer, I just blogged about it because why would you not just write about it for millions of people to read on the internet?

Lauren Gonzalez: You know, they put all your feelings out there. Um, and so I did that and I remember my mom telling me, you’re probably going to regret this is how will she feel when she grows up and she reads, you know, your experience and everything that, how it happened. Um, and I can’t say for sure how she was. But I hope that if she has kids, if she has kids, she will know that you don’t have to be a perfect parent.

Lauren Gonzalez: When you start out, you just learn to be the parents that your kid needs. Um, and you make room, you just learned to make group. Um, and you, a lot of times, your healing is found in that process and on that jury. Um, and I hope she sees that as a mother, the experience doesn’t have to look in a certain way.

Lauren Gonzalez: It doesn’t have to feel the way it feels for everyone else. It doesn’t have to be Pinterest worthy. Um, just follow the journey. I mean, you just, everybody gets there in their own way. Sometimes it’s fucked up, but you get there. And then if she doesn’t have kids, I hope that she sees that she was the beauty, that Tam cookies that I was when she first came home.

Lauren Gonzalez: And, um, I couldn’t be more grateful. Um, and she, because of that, she’s capable of. And I can’t wait to see what comes out of her and where we go together.

Marc Moss: Thanks, Lauren.

Marc Moss: Lauren Gonzalez is a Southern-born thirty-something who writes/edits, climbs, (pretends to learn the) drums, sings, homeschools, and mothers two plucky kids (alongside her partner of 10 years) here in beautiful Missoula. Also seen in: the Good Food Store, being overly indecisive in the coffee aisle; the library, labeling it “me time” while the kids play completely unsupervised in the Spectrum area.

Marc Moss: Our next storyteller, Paul Mwingwa, is a refugee from Congo by way of Rwanda.

Marc Moss: We call Paul’s story “Riding the Bus”. Thanks for listening.

Paul Mwingwa: Hello? I wasn’t, they do something about

Paul Mwingwa: But before that, I will tell you how was writing in my country. maybe a city entrance to the big city, which is like low, low, and right.

Paul Mwingwa: The bus to get placed in that the bus. And for some people need to go through the windows to get to the bus and for the money. Then I crossed the border because look, the one I come in, the one down where I spent 18 years as a refugee. In one night, it’s kind of, pick the bus. And when we get up the pass station, they have to make light. He’s the first person to arrive at the bathtub, get in the bus. Then when we arrived here in Missoula, in November, yeah.

Paul Mwingwa: The organization will come refugees here. Tell us how to ride the bus. And this was in need to go to those or Walmart, the one office in stuff, one or two kids at school. And one of my son who was at the Sentinel high school and they tell us we was living close to Franklin elementary school. And from there we should take the bus number two.

Paul Mwingwa: Then the first day Volusia took my son out of school. And the second day I decided to take myself, my son and see where he picking class. Then we take the bus from Franklin elementary school. We were at downtown, all the people in the past to get out, you can drive, also get out. And we decided also to get out, when do we get the other day?

Paul Mwingwa: I asked him, I asked my son, how many buses did you take to come to school? We didn’t want to one bus.

Paul Mwingwa: No.

Paul Mwingwa: I you said, okay. I can ask someone. I ask someone for help. It’s okay to go, to get to certain the last school you missed the bus.

Paul Mwingwa: Number one, then you show the bus number one, getting the bus. Number one, I go to the office every day for my son, then all my way, go back at, at home.

Paul Mwingwa: I was thinking how it guy I boil for 16 years. Can we get you into the bus and they can attend the bus without knowing, and he get out of school. That was a finger about that. And we arrive at the Suffolk. Good for my, for my idea. I was supposed to get out of the dead bus, wait for the bus. Number two can take me to my place.

Paul Mwingwa: Then I get down to the bus and I see him that day. Getting my hand like this, I saw the advice. Number two, live in the session.

Paul Mwingwa: Where does it come from?

Paul Mwingwa: No, it said make it go. I pulled an interpreter. I explained him how the bus, I missed the bus. Oh, Paul, you many mistakes by school, the number and not from your house.

Paul Mwingwa: Don’t tell them the bus number to 10. The number from one from two. And from there, if I got stuff more, if I, the number from one to two, now that my son knows, right. Because when he

Paul Mwingwa: I just said, okay,

Paul Mwingwa: I get the lessons with the lady. I went there for 15 minutes, then another master I saw he’s always number one. Then they saw it and he said, he jumped the gun. Number two, I waited to get to the bus and they can I take, I get my job and the fourth day I was supposed to go work. And when we arrived, You know, a country didn’t have this normal.

Paul Mwingwa: And I felt that it was seeing my kids blend is blue. I did feel that is very cold.

Paul Mwingwa: Now I wake up in the morning. I go to south Suffolk it’s month, wait for the bus. I didn’t wear clothes, which skin protecting me. And I arrived there. I went to. What was it? 15 minutes.

Paul Mwingwa: And I was called, they’ve called the tenant from Corning, this filing my hands.

Paul Mwingwa: All the ears was binding. I assumed the bus number seven, but then I didn’t do that bus faster by sending me out to downtown. I was waiting for the bus number two or bus number one,

Paul Mwingwa: the bicycle riding. I was suffering myself. I was praying while your friends who I put my hands on my issue, they, I lose how it can be one, but they didn’t to get that.

Paul Mwingwa: I get in the bus quickly and they go to the bottom, crying in myself who can, how it can feel better. And finally, on my hand, my. We got, I didn’t know how we get the downtown and it was under the tone means I want to go my way.

Paul Mwingwa: And I explained to my supervisor what’s happened to me, so I miss it by and I knew

Paul Mwingwa: I very cool. We didn’t know that this, but I forget I’ve started to get them all. I said, then my sixth or eighth, I got my lesson from that. I learned how to let the all new you come. I threatened them. Right. Because I would get my gun every time I saw someone outside this door, I went in and when I I’m with him,

Paul Mwingwa: I tried, I have friends. Don’t play with this known by him.

Paul Mwingwa: Thank you for that.

Marc: Thanks, Paul.

Paul Mwingwa is the Refugee Congress Delegate for Montana. He is a resettled refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and came to the U.S. in November 2018. Mwingwa is studying Computer Network Design, Configuration and Administration Modules at Missoula College. Today, he works as a Swahili language instructor and private contractor at the Lifelong Learning Center and a food service worker at Providence St. Patrick Hospital. In his free time, he enjoys hiking and walking along the river.

Marc Moss: Jen Certa originally shared this story in 2020 during one of the Tell Us Something live-streamed events. It is such an important story that we thought she deserved a live in-person audience to hear it. Jen agreed.

Marc Moss: Sensitive listeners be aware that Jen’s story mentions sexual assault.

Marc Moss: Jen calls her story “How to Love This World”. Thanks for listening.

Jen Certa: So there’s this thing that used to happen to me every year when the weather would get bummed 45 and it was settled. Sandal weather in Missoula, standing in line at the grocery store, hang out in front of backyard, floating the river and of leaves. Someone would look down at my feet and they would ask me the question.

Jen Certa: I read it. Hey, what’s your tattoo? I hated this question and I hated it because every time someone would ask them this, I was just flooded inside with shame. 10 years ago, I was 24 leaving Montana. And what I thought would be a permanent move. And I was just heartbroken about leaving for the previous few years.

Jen Certa: Montana had been misplaced where I had felt the most alive, most fully myself that I had felt ever in my life. I was so afraid to lose that feeling. And I was just desperate to take with me some kind of a reminder of what this place had meant to me. So I made an appointment at a local tattoo shop like you do when you’re 24 and having a quarter-life crisis.

Jen Certa: And since this was going to be my first tattoo, I was more than a little nervous about how it was going to turn out. So I asked the artist who was going to be doing my tattoo, and you wouldn’t mind doing drawing part of the appointment for me to just kind of help ease my anxiety that I did, what I wanted it to be.

Jen Certa: And he said that he would. So for the six weeks prior to the appointment, I checked in diligently every week with him to see if the drawing that he had promised me was ready. And each week he kind of blew me off. He’d say you’ve been really busy that week and you’d get to it the next day. And that happened over and over again.

Jen Certa: I was starting to feel a little uneasy about it, but he had come really highly recommended by a friend. So I stuck with him finally, the day of the appointment arrived and I still hadn’t seen a drawing. I got there and he asked me to remind him what it was that I wanted. And talk to me. I told him pretty clear disinterest for a few minutes, and then he disappeared in the back somewhere.

Jen Certa: And like, I swear, five minutes later, he comes back out and he hands me this piece of paper and it has a clip art picture on it. And sometimes in a font, but I would say was like a Microsoft word, scripty sort of font. And I didn’t love it. So I asked him if he would be willing to make a few. And he basically told me with the air of someone who’s being incredibly convenience, that it would just be a lot of trouble for him to make some changes to this divine right now.

Jen Certa: And if I wanted to get a tattoo that day, it was pretty much, it was too late. I had waited six weeks for this appointment and I was leaving Montana and another two weeks, and I just felt this pressure, like it was now or never. I don’t remember. It was a warm day and still the vinyl chairs sticking to the back of my leg.

Jen Certa: The air was just fit with this metallic by thing and a tall, pretty intimidating, somewhat annoyed man, towered over me and asked, ready. Uh, yeah, yeah. Ready?

Jen Certa: I said that even though I didn’t feel ready or good about this at all, second, the needle touched my skin. I knew, I knew this. Wasn’t what I wanted for my body.

Jen Certa: In this moment. I knew I was abandoning my intuition, my inner knowing.

Jen Certa: And I said, yes,

Jen Certa: There have been other times in my life where I felt intimidated powerless, where I’ve had a man do things to my body that I did not want. And a 24, no one was forcing me to get this tattoo. I was choosing this. I had power in this situation and I, the way I stayed frozen inside.

Jen Certa: I mean because of that, the hummingbird didn’t come out as soft and elegant. And as I was hoping that it would, and sort of the sort of rough looking like it’s feathers, it kind of in blown around in a wind storm and it was positioned in this sort of aggressive way. Like it was ready to dive on something at any moment.

Jen Certa: And then there was the line from the Mary Oliver poem that I love. There was only one question how to let this. And that Microsoft word fond. Yeah. How’s it turns out the side of your foot is in a great place for a tattoo. So over time, the words faded in such a way that eventually it just read one question.

Jen Certa: I used to tell people what they had asked me what the one question was, question tattoos,

Jen Certa: but the truth is what it looks, what it looked like is not. So you’ll reason why I. I felt so much shame when someone would notice it and why I tried so hard to hide it it’s because this tattoo was a literal physical reminder of psychological scars ones that I didn’t ask for that I profoundly disliked about myself for a long time.

Jen Certa: And that like-mind my, to, I fight really hard to avoid looking at things. Went on like that for about a decade until March 20. The pandemic happened and suddenly, like a lot of people, I was spending a ton of time alone without much distraction. And as the lockdown days turned into weeks and months, I was finding it harder and harder to avoid my own thoughts and to avoid looking at the things I had tried so hard to avoid.

Jen Certa: And of course it was also hard to avoid looking at my tattoo because I wasn’t leaving my house. So I didn’t have reason to wear shoes. And during that time I realized something. I realized that it was not a matter of if I would look at the stars, but a matter of how. I could continue to look at them with self-hatred and God as I have, or I can choose to look at them with some compassion for myself.

Jen Certa: I can’t change the experience that I had of getting that tattoo or of any of the other experiences that it reminds me of. But what I can do is take small steps to reclaim them. So earlier this year I made an appointment at a different local tattoo shop. The artist that I met with. Who I researched thoroughly beforehand, this time was kind.

Jen Certa: And she asked me thoughtful question. As I tried to explain the design that I was picturing in my head fire weed has a somewhat on parent name, but I think it’s beautiful. And it is one of my favorite and become one of my favorite wild flowers in my time as a Montana and even more important to me than that fire, we get 16 from sensibility to grow in burn areas, landscapes that have been traumatized by wildfires.

Jen Certa: It’s the first flower to bloom to reclaim a landscape after a fire scars. And now fire blues from one of my scars too. It’s a reminder that new road and fans forum, you’re going to play some terrible distraction. And also an answer to that one question of my original tattoo, how to love this world like this, including the joy and everything in between, and including me too.

Marc Moss: Thanks, Jen. Jen Certa is originally from New York, but accidentally began a love affair with Montana in 2009 and is grateful to have called Missoula home since. Jen works as a mental health therapist at an elementary school, where she spends her days debating the finer points of making fart noises with your slime and playing “the floor is lava.” When not at work, Jen can most often be found hiking with her dogs and running late for something.

Initially, I had hoped that they would each share a story individually. When they pitched the idea of sharing their story in tandem, I was skeptical. I thought, well, this isn’t a normal year. Why not?

Teresa Waldorf: March 22nd, and I’m not flying to be I’m in a long distance relationship with a man who I think is going to be the next great love of my life. But we’ve been having an argument on the phone. I’m saying I have to cancel my flight. My mom is crying and he’s saying things like, well, at our age, I don’t think we do what our moms tell us.

Rosie Ayers: I had stopped all theater productions, all classes. I had no answers for anything.

On the next Tell Us Something podcast, tune in to listen to them share their experience of a pandemic reckoning that they call “March 22”.

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