Sunday, August 24, 2014

New Blog

Note:  I just began a new blog--hopefully this will be the last entry on The Ground Underneath my Feet and the first entry on Spices and Old Fables.

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves…I learned that, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.-Thoreau, Walden

 For two years, I lived in a retreat center called Holden Village, a mountain community nestled between Cascade cliffs.

 I left three months ago.

I emptied and swept the room where I’d slept for two years, hugged friends and former students goodbye, and rode a yellow school bus down ten miles of switchbacks to Lake Chelan, a mountain fjord so clear and deep that poet William Stafford called “the deepest place we have.” I ate a final picnic lunch with dear friends on Lake Chelan’s shore then ferried back down-lake to the place where I'd left my car parked when I moved to the wilderness two years before.

There’s something both very dramatic about leaving a place like Holden Village–dramatic because Holden Village takes three hours to get to from the nearest town and has no cell service–dramatic because for two years I lived and ate and worked with a tangle of like-minded people many of whom I saw almost hourly during my waking hours, some of which I’m unlikely to see again in the near future–dramatic because of the way our lives all wove together for the time we shared. But it’s also commonplace, because any trip out of Holden entails a bus and a boat, travel plans and packed bags–so we become accustomed to transition, travel, change, and turnover.

When I left Holden Village, I didn’t know where I’d land next. I had a car packed with wool sweaters and poetry books, a pile of maps and atlases, friends scattered from one the west coast to the east, a handful of job prospects, and visions of the places my partner Peter and I could imagine landing: Central Washington, Moscow, Idaho, Missoula, Montana, Boulder, Colorado, Duluth, Minnesota. Among the places we’d dreamed of was Maine, a state I’d never been but always imagined as pretty: littered with rocky beaches and evergreen trees, a place where Peter had family, and I had an interview. We would move to Maine next, but when we left Holden, Peter and I hadn't learned that yet. We had to take the summer one slow step at a time. We had to immerse ourselves in each moment, while reserving enough energy and insight to move forward to our next decision, job, contract, or lease.
 Some members of my family like to begin their stories "Once Upon a Time." It was a tradition we started over fifteen years ago. We use it as a way of framing of our mythologies, nestling our experiences in the stuff of legend. It's a phrase I've found on the tip of my own tongue lately:

Once upon a time, I lived in a tiny mountain village.

Once upon a time, I left my Cascade home with a sandy-haired boy named Peter who I'd grown to love during my time in the mountains.

Once upon a time, I drove almost sixty hours--across Washington, Montana and North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine--to interview at a school where the students climb trees and spend half their day outside.

Once upon a time, I sat with the grandparents of one of my former Holden Village students, native Mainers who bought me a lobster roll and brought me to the ocean while I absorbed every detail and wondered if I wanted to reshape my life on a parcel of land surrounded by farms, forest, and sea-shore.

Once upon a time, Peter and I moved to Maine and spent our first week visiting farmers markets every day, eating vegetables, having picnics, and talking to strangers. We stayed with his aunt and uncle in Camden where we ate breakfast on the back porch, ran winding roads with french names, kayaked Lake Megunticook, and jumped off-rocks into sun-warmed water.

Once upon a time, I rented a tiny bungalow on the property of two glassblowers--a cabin with wood floors, exposed beams, and a sleeping loft--a cabin with a composting toilet and no running water, on a property where I'm able see stars every night when I walk to the studio to wash my dinner dishes. 

Once upon a time, I bought a CSA share from my neighbors who use horses instead of fossil fuel and sell milk in big glass mason jars.

Once upon a time, Peter got a job at a tiny bistro in a town called Bath, where he prepped salads, baked focaccia, and torched Creme Brûlée.

Once upon a time, I set up a classroom for first and second graders in a yurt, dubbed the “roots” class.

Once upon a time I wondered about spreading my own roots in a region laced by rivers and estuaries on the north east corner of the country.
I began a blog titled “The Ground Underneath my Feet” when I moved to Holden because I wanted to use writing as a way to connect to the silhouettes of peaks above my head and the shuffle of mountain-soil beneath my soles. For two years, I wrote essays and poems, sermons and graduation speeches, reflections and lists and posted them once or twice a month as I wrestled with questions of faith and work, environment and community. I lived on a slice of land in a village less than half a mile long where I could watch the way land and sky change shape as seasons passed. I planted an indoor garden in the school library, watched the sun rise and set, sat on my front porch with dozens of different people discussing life and faith, books and music, I danced barefoot, drank beer, brewed kombucha, and walked hundreds and hundreds of miles up mountain passes so beautiful that occasionally, when I was by myself, I'd drop to my knees in wonder-struck giddiness.

There's a blessing often sung by Holden Village when villagers leave to begin the next chapter of their lives. In Chalet 4, where I lived for two years, we the words posted on our front door: O God, you have called us to ventures where we cannot see the end, by paths never yet taken, through perils unknown. Give us good courage, not knowing where we go, to know that your hand is leading us, wherever we might go. Amen. It's a prayer I love because it acknowledges the unknown: the path we haven't taken, and the unknown perils that await us. It's a plea for courage for our friends' new beginnings and for our own--a blessing to take someone, or an entire community into an unknown future. It reminds me of the section in Walden where Thoreau explains his process of leaving the cabin, I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. He writes about simplifying his life, about changing his values, about the things he's learned and the things he hopes to learn before closing, If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. For me, the blessing I gave to Holden Villagers who were leaving and the blessing I received as I left was a prayer for the lives we have yet to led, for the invisible boundaries we have to cross, for the foundations we must begin to construct under the castles we built in the air.

Peter and I often talk about the parts of Holden we hope to carry close to us: the emphasis on simplicity and community, the spirit that led us to spend long hours spend hiking or writing, reading on the porch, or sitting by a bonfire, the blur between church and life that made so many ordinary moments spiritual and sacred: sunrises and late night walks, first snowfalls and sunlit winter days. But we're also eager to engage in ways we couldn't living in such an isolated and homogenous community, we're excited to listen to NPR in our cars and volunteer in our community, excited to plant gardens, buy food from our neighbor- farmers, and begin living our lives in a place less separated by mountains, lakes, and wilderness boundaries.

There's a band I love called the Photographers. Their folk songs sound almost elfin with their whimsical lyrics, highlighted by xylophone notes and airy harmonies. The Photographers sing a song called "Brush your Teeth" which ends with the words: the red house on the hill smells like spices and old fables, we'll live like foxes in it lighting candles on the table,--lines I love because they emphasize a playful kind of peace, a life that's both settled and open, the kind of life I would love to lead. My hope for this blog, for this upcoming year, is to write and photograph and share as I begin to build foundations under my air-castles. I no longer live in the mountains. Instead, I rent a house with cedar-shake siding that sits beside a pond. I'm still learning to live in it--but my hope is to stay open and big and full of wonder while ending my days small: sitting cross-legged on the floor with a novel or a notebook or a pad of watercolor paper, pondering and planning and listening to the bull frogs croak.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Remnants of an essay I'm still struggling to write

June 25th, 2011, Yosemite National Park: 

I tell Keith I want a pen. 

“Why?” He asks, striding out in front of me. 

“There’s always a detail you can record to make something real.”  Here, I point, “Pine cones scattered across lichen crusted rocks, lizards skittering at the sound of our feet crunching trail, the changes in the texture of the mountain.”

When Keith walked out onto Half Dome’s first saddle, I’d stood back.  Although my brother is three years younger than me, he’s more sure-footed, good at balancing, and muscular in a wiry way.  Even his face looks strong: angular and bearded, freckled from miles running outside.  That day I waited for him to find a path. I watched his shape disappear as he moved beyond the Ponderosas, weaving up steep slope.

“Holy buckets,” he said, “Rach you gotta get up here.”

I followed Keith noting details aloud: cones and lizards, the sound of my feet and the feel of the ground because I had no words to describe the bigger scene before us: the snow, the stone, the sea of gray peaks that scraped the sky and the sun that shadowed their faces. 

We didn’t summit Half Dome that day.  The fixed ropes hikers use to climb to the top still lay flat, surrounded by late spring snow, not yet set up for visitors.  Instead we scrambled till we no longer felt steady.  Then we slid back in the snow down the side of the mountain, dragging our palms to control our speed.  We perched on a boulder and had lunch.  We ate apples, let sun freckle our faces, and talked about our top five songs to listen to in each season.  We recounted the beginnings and ends of relationships we’d recently had, and sketched plans for our grown-up lives: climbing rocks, living without televisions, sleeping outside every day we could, and filling our weekends with hiking, camping, and canoeing trips.  Keith had just finished an undergraduate degree in engineering; I’d just completed my MFA.  We were in transition, sitting in the sun on a mountain, trying to imagine the shapes our lives would take.  That summer Keith would take up rock climbing and get good at guitar.  That summer, I would visit Holden Village for the first time and then move cross-country to take a job teaching outdoor science on the coast of the Puget Sound.  Keith and I would, for the first time in our lives, go months without seeing each other then find each other changed each time we reunited.  We’d meet again more grown-up, chiseled by experiences we hadn’t shared, things that had happened while we’d been on separate sides of the country.  But at that moment in Yosemite, we were together--witnessing something I had no pen to record, sharing a snippet of time when we both were so slack-jawed with awe for our surroundings that the future felt expansive and brimmed with possibility.


I recorded the details of my time in Yosemite with Keith in a composition notebook and in the years since I’ve tried at least half a dozen times to write an essay about that day.  I’ve tried to write about graduating during a recession and the fierce brand of closeness I share with my brother but I can’t find the question in the essay or the conflict in the narrative.  The reality is there might not be much of a story in that scene that means so much to me.  My brother and I both graduated the same spring then went hiking and talked about our feelings in a place big enough to hold our questions about and ambitions for the future.

I’ve had hikes like that in Holden as well: walks which meant the world to me for reasons I still don’t understand.  Some days I wonder if the people I walked with felt it too: if they also shape their stories around days spent on picking blueberries on Hilgard Pass and camping trips to Hart Lake.  I know that walking in the mountains does nothing to solve the problems that drove me to them--we live in a broken world, plagued by poverty and inequity, pollution, greed, and indifference--but when I hear a pika or watch the moon rise I can still gather enough hope to believe in something beyond the bleakness.  I feel less lonely when I’m walking and listening in the shadow of a landscape that humbles me down to footsteps, deep breaths, and heartbeats.

There’s a section from Contents May Have Shifted, a Pam Houston book that I love, where Houston describes the feeling I'm constantly writing around.  In the scene she's summiting a 12,000 foot mountain with a group of six women who share a love for the world is “so fierce it makes [them edgy.]” The women talk about wind-pants and Italian food, stepchildren and sex while they eat raspberry Fig Newmans and the season’s first clementines, then stay on the mountain all night.  When Houston looks up at the moon, she reflects, “If I die tonight it will be with every single thing unfinished (like, I suppose, any other night), and yet, what a gift to die on the verge of tears. I have spent my life trying to understand the way this rock and this ache go together, why a granite peak is more dramatic half dressed in clouds...,why sunlight under fog is better than the sum of its parts, why my best days and my worst days are always the same days, why (often) leaving seems like the only solution to the predicament of loving.”


Today is the last day of school: my twenty-third last day of school.  I’m leaving Holden Village Saturday morning, after almost two years of working here, almost two years of living in this sliver of space between Buckskin Mountain and Martin Ridge, two years of watching Dumbbell Mountain from Chalet 4’s porch swing, walking back and forth from the dining hall, making toast as a late night snack, going to nightly vespers, and being called to meals with a bell.  During the past two years, I’ve left this valley less than twenty times and each trip has felt like an ordeal: packing suitcases, bottles of water, and a bagged lunch, riding the bus, remembering boats tickets and car keys.   I’ve corresponded with Chelan cross country coaches, arranged overnight booking plane tickets, and reserved hostel rooms.  There’s no easy way to leave Holden Village: no running out to pick up a dozen eggs or a bottle of contact solution.  So now that I’m leaving for real, it feels strangely normal to be e-mailing friends about places to stay, strangely normal to be piling the corner of my bedroom with packed bags to take down lake. I have to keep reminding myself I’m not coming back this time.  

Holden Village is not a place anyone lives or owns, it's a transient community and a shared place.  No one stays here.  Right now it’s my turn to leave.  Often, it feels lonely: this process of staying conscious of what I’m seeing and doing for the last time--my last dish-team, my last Saturday vespers, my last weekend, my last Holden style-passing the peace at Eucharist, my last day of school.  I’m leaving with a lot of questions:  questions about mine remediation, about Holden, about my own future, where I’ll go and what I’ll do next.  

There’s a lot of fear and a lot of lasts--and some days, there's a lot of skepticism.  But what I want right now is to rekindle wonder and, for me, that often means going for walks and remembering walks I've already taken.  Someone once said that if you're just here to hike, construction season is the wrong time to come to Holden.  I came to Holden to serve and to work, to share books, poems, hikes, conversations, games, and stories with a two-room school house full of some of the most amazing students I've ever met.  I came to live in close community, to continue to try to describe the kind of God I believe in, to talk about faith, to struggle with church in the most active way I could.  But I also came because I love sauntering, skipping, scrambling, and hiking through woods and up mountains, particularly when I'm lucky enough to hike with someone who will share his or her stories--and when I'm on the trail every switchback and clump of lichen and patch of trillium reminds me to hope and to grieve, to breathe and listen, to see the world and name it as a gift I could never own but feel lucky enough to walk in for a while.

When I leave Holden Village, I want to tell stories about a tiny blonde 5-year old who skipped ten miles to a mountain lake and a man whose calves would sneak up on unsuspecting hikers on the 10 Mile switchbacks.  I want to recall waking early to sit in the third level snow and watch the sunrise with Sally and stargazing on the second level with Peter.  I want to remember the day Terry and I made it up to Upper Big Creek and how we spent the afternoon howling like wolves and making echoes against the stone walls of that hanging valley.  I want to remember picnicking on beet pickled eggs on the side of Martin Ridge with Peter, skinny dipping in Hart Lake with Claire, eating wild blueberries and a Stehekin cinnamon roll at the top of Hilgard Pass with Lori and Becky, calling to grouse from the top of the Holden switchbacks with Aubrey, and sledding down Copper Basin with Micah and Micaela.  I want to remember that when I got an e-mail saying that I didn't get a job I'd interviewed for three times, Alex and Graham took me on a camping trip and kept me laughing so hard that when I woke the next morning to make a breakfast bonfire, some of the ache of rejection had faded from my gut.  I want to remember the evening John stayed home with the kids instead of going to school to work so Becky could sit with me beside Railroad Creek, eating chocolate and telling stories about her twenties till the sky blackened and the crescent moon hung high above the valley.  I want to leave this community with throat full of hope and the image of a tiny village blessed by mountains burnt in my head.  Holy Buckets.  I’ll say, You gotta get up there.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


I led a vespers tonight--here is my reflection:

In her book The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day writes about the sacrament of reconciliation: the Catholic practice of confessing sins to a priest.  Day recalls the smell of burning wax and incense smoke, the narrow ledges of kneelers, the thick darkness that seemed to pulse with her heart.  “’Going to confession is hard--‘she writes, ‘hard when you have sins to confess and hard when you haven't…I have sinned. These are my sins.’ That is all you are sup­posed to tell; not the sins of others, or your own virtues, but only your ugly, gray, drab, monotonous sins.”

I grew up going to confession, receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, and although I’ve only gone to mass a couple times in the past six years, I still believe in speaking aloud the ways I’ve fallen short.  I believe in peeling back skin to reveal brittle bone, in confessing, in the most difficult kinds of honesty, in the strength of laying myself bare before another person.

During my time at Holden Village I’ve hiked under a full moon and eaten oysters from Pike’s Place Market in the dining hall at one in the morning, I’ve toasted string-cheese over a campfire in Copper Basin, gone running around the second level loop after school with the sixth grade students I teach, and stared at stars so beautiful that I fell down in clumsy ice-crusted wonder.  I’ve learned about the Palestinian non-violent resistance, written poems about veterans in Detroit, sworn about the oil boom in North Dakota while drinking bourbon with a dear friend, gotten pummeled in the face by sprout balls during PE class, and laughed till my belly cramped.  Some days, I’ve used this place as a way to lean into the world, to live deeply, to envelope myself in everything and everyone this valley offers.  Some days--but not always. 

Some days I haven’t.  Some days I’ve been boring, disengaged, judgmental, thoughtless, entitled, and fearful.  This is not a Catholic church and I’m not kneeling in a confessional but if I were I would tell you it’s been nearly a decade since my last confession.  I would say some mornings I walk to breakfast without looking up to note the way the sun strikes Buckskin Mountain, that often I struggle to sit next to strangers in the dining hall, and that although one of the things I love most about Holden is the life guests bring to our village, watching people leave this valley over and over again makes my heart hurt and some days, it’s easier to keep distance.  I would tell you that some days I’d rather watch My So-Called Life reruns on DVD than stare at a blank screen, trying to write an essay or poem.  I would concede my embarrassing lack of correspondence with friends and family outside Washington and voice my shame for the dozens of times I’ve seen somebody struggling and continued my own plod instead of pausing to extend empathy.  I would confess that I fear the future, that despite the fact that so many of the people I admire most live with little, fail often, and risk much, some days what I long for is a kind of packaged life, a career that comes with a sense of purpose, an excellent benefits package, and enough salary to buy land to garden and a house with a porch where my books and I could live.  I struggle to shed the sense of entitlement that can comes with education, to slough away the desire to move into a spot already made for someone like me: a teacher and a writer, who wants to facilitate community connections and spend her days outside. 

I learned from Lisa that during Holy Week at Holden Village, we don’t get dismissed from church on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.  The service ends without anyone telling us to “remember the poor,” “go in peace,” or “serve the living God.”  Instead we file out without ceremony, after several minutes of staring at our neighbors, searching for permission to leave.  Lisa explained that liturgically we don’t leave church between Thursday and Saturday of Holy Week, that’s why we all feel so tired.  For those three days, we wait.  We slog through spiritual transition.  We strip the altar and wait for tulips and alleluias, for members of our community to transform our worship space, and for someone to finally tell us to leave church, to go forth into the world with hope in our hearts and mud on our shoes.

After living at Holden for almost two years, I’m in transition.  One month from my departure date I’m waiting for responses from cover letters, waiting to hear back from job interviews, waiting to find out where my next home will be, to be sent forth in peace, to be blessed and dismissed by a community I love.  During the winter on Thursdays we worship at the table and talk about hunger.  I’m here, stripped down to my worries, confessing to you the ways I’ve fallen short, because I’m hungry for courage.  I’m bound together by my desire to get to work re-creating my place in the world because I believe in the transformation that comes with living bravely and leaning in.  I want the relentless engine in my chest to drive me forward with my eyes raised toward the mountains, my heart stored on my sleeve, and feet solid on sacred ground.  I want to go in peace, stepping out into a risky, rugged, world that swallows me whole with each footfall.

(My first autumn here, a woman named Alex led a vespers where she had community members write down the things that stopped them from shining.  We then threw them in a bonfire that the Mavericks had built in the BBQ pit on the loading dock.  She did this at the end of the autumn season before the first snow fell.  For me, it marked a change: an acknowledgment of self, a shift to winter.  Today, what I’m asking you to do is to take a moment to reflect on something you want to grow inside of you as the snow continues to melt.  If you feel compelled, you can come forward and press a seed into one of the pots of dirt around the fire-ring.  After about few moments, we will close with the hymn “Be Thou My Vision” on page 793)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

PCT hiking with Peter: a belated essay about last summer

In a photograph I took last summer, Peter and I flex our feet.  We’d been hiking for six days without a shower.  Dirt frames our toenails and sunburn borders our sock-lines.  Our veins protrude, beating with the blood that laced our toes whenever we freed our feet from the trail running shoes and damp socks we spent ten hours walking in each day.

I’m twenty-eight years old and the 170 mile Pacific Crest Trail backpacking trip I took with Peter might be the most intimate things I’ve done.  It wasn't a date or a vacation or a road-trip.  I marooned myself in a hundred mile stretch of wilderness with a person I trusted enough to stake my safety in.

Peter and I started from Stehekin, the North Cascades National Park hub at the Northern edge of Lake Chelan.  For nine days, I pitched the tent and Peter cooked meals.  For nine days, I hung bear bags and Peter helped me hoist my backpack onto my shoulders.  Our arches pulsed, our hips stiffened, our backs crumpled under the weight of our packs.  We woke early and budgeted time the best we could.  We needed to average nineteen miles a day to make it to the border and back to Stehekin before we depleted our food supply.  If we hiked half our miles by noon, we took off our shoes and rinsed our feet in a river at lunch.  If we arrived at camp before dusk, we made chai tea to go with our dinners of curry or pasta or soup we’d spent the summer cooking, dehydrating, and bagging.


I started dating Peter seven months before we backpacked to Canada and back.  We met at Holden Village--the wilderness retreat center where I work as the assistant teacher in a two-room public school.  Peter took me by surprise: a slim biologist from Iowa with curly hair and freckled lips who loved porch-sitting, picnicking, cross-country running, and waking before dawn to hike as much as I did.  We kissed for the first time in an avalanche chute on a yellow picnic blanket.  I associate that kiss with snow-powdered ankles, the sound of a river running, and the taste of chili chocolate.  I also associate it with a sweetness that allowed me to be vulnerable when I thought I couldn’t.

We’d been going for walks for weeks before Peter kissed me.  We’d eaten lunch together every day.  We’d even gone winter camping, spending the night in an orange tent set up the snow beside Railroad Creek.  But we’d done these things as friends.  I felt hesitant to couple in our remote community--far easier to stay single, to keep drifting, untethered, in such a wild place.  I’d had two break-ups the year before I moved to the mountains, one involving a bearded grad student who spent his most of his time researching a nineteenth century agronomist, one involving a YMCA science camp co-worker who cheated on me.  The co-worker was fierce in a way that excited me at first and revolted me later.  Part of what appealed to me about living somewhere so remote was the distance from him and the drifty confusion I’d felt while we dated.

The summer between leaving my job as a naturalist and beginning my new position at Holden Village, I read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild.  Her account of hiking the Pacific Crest trail left me puffy-eyed.  I knew how it feels to want to shed the past and start clean.  My first full-day living in Holden Village I walked twenty-miles.  When the trees started to thin into subalpine meadows I fell to my knees in gratitude, drawing deep breaths of cool Cascade air.


My backpacking trip started as a whim, on a walk with my friend Scott.

Darkness cloaked mountains, stars smattered sky, moon beamed off snow.  Scott and I shivered.  You could walk to Canada from here.  He told me, it’s less than 100 miles away.  I studied Green Trail Maps Holden keeps posted in the dining hall and realized he was right.  I asked a friend who’d hiked the entire distance from Mexico to Canada.  She told me she preferred the last ninety miles to any other section of trail.  Other people like the High Sierras best she said, but I love the North Cascades.

Holden Village swims in a sea of mountains too sheer to summit without crampons and ice axes.  I’d spent my first autumn in Holden walking as far as I could every weekend--twenty-five miles day hikes across alpine ridges and solo climbs up glacial fields. I’d picnicked in subalpine meadows and napped among the pasque flowers.  I’d whistled at marmots, slept under the stars, and been sniffed by a bear.  But I still felt like a newcomer, a Midwestern transplant living in an extended state of vacation.  Immersing myself in the Pasayten Wilderness, walking days with my belongings on my back felt like the next step in getting to know the North Cascades.


I don’t remember when I invited Peter to join me on the PCT, only that he agreed without hesitation and it became our hike.  Together, we researched distances and backpacking gear.  Together, we planned meals. I brought a tent, Peter brought a stove.  We both packed water filters, headlamps, and first aid gear.  Late in the trip when Peter’s spoon got lost in his pack, we shared mine, passing it back and forth between bites, hunching over our pot of noodles.

It rained our first night.  We huddled in the tent, soaked and shivering, eating avocados and rain-drenched cinnamon rolls from the bakery in Stehekin.  We didn’t cook and when we woke up the next day, we didn’t boil water for oatmeal or coffee.  We rolled-up the wet tent, ate another avocado, and started walking.  The wet grass licked our legs.  I had to stop every twenty to thirty minutes to adjust my pack.  When we reached Rainy Pass, we crossed the first and only major road of our hike.  I dawdled, hesitant to keep walking, fighting stop hiking and hitchhike to Mozama.  My legs felt like a boneless bundle of flesh, ready to collapse under weight and stress.

Later, I wondered what shape the trip would have taken without Peter, who prodded me along with promises of hot meals and mountain views.  Alone I may have submitted to exhaustion.  I may not have made it to Cutthroat Pass that night.  I may not have seen the sun stretch red across the rocky peaks or found a spot to sleep where streams rushed through patches of tiny subalpine flowers.  I may not have had the energy to make pesto with walnuts for dinner or to boil water for chai tea for dessert.


It’s normally solitude that invigorates me but walking with Peter gave me energy I didn’t know I had.  With my back sore and my socks wet, I only knew how to be strong for someone else.  My own desire to reach the Canadian border wasn’t enough to propel me forward.  I didn’t want to be a burden.  I walked, faster and further each day, gaining strength on the switchbacks and steadiness on river crossings.  I couldn’t call my mom.  I couldn’t get off the trail.  In the middle of the wilderness, Peter and I only had each other and the companionship that comes with miles and miles of walking drifting in and out of conversations, telling stories, taking water breaks, picking berries, sharing chocolate and nuts, and sitting side-by-side barefoot on a log, soaking in the warmth of mid-day sun in the mountains.

My friend Melissa once said that she knew she was ready to be married when she met someone who was moving in the same direction.  I like that.  It makes a relationship feel like a hike that you’re choosing to take with someone who wants to go the same place.  Sometimes I imagine a life with Peter: moving to a farm like the one he grew up on, growing vegetables, raising animals, and writing stories, but my ideas about the future change daily--and in all honesty, right now, I don’t know my destination.


Peter and I wanted to walk to the Canadian border because it felt like a milestone: the northern boundary of the United States, the southern edge of Canada.  It took us five days to get there, and four to get back.  The trail descends from the crest of the mountains into woods and brush several miles from the terminus.  It’s just a line shaved into the woods: cut grass and no trees, with a medal monument that reads “78” and a wooden steak that says “Pacific Crest Trail Northern Terminus.”  I took pictures of Peter and me posing beside it.  Then I sat in the damp grass and ate my lunch of almonds and fruit.   Peter and I didn’t know what to feel, resting on the imaginary line that we’d walked for almost a week to reach.  We stayed for less than an hour, than started back toward Stehekin.

During our nine days on the trail I lost twelve pounds.  I learned to set up my tent in just a couple minutes and developed a rhythm for filtering water.  My legs got taut from the uphill and my back became used to the weight of my bag.  My body changed.  So did my relationship with Peter.  I’ve never used the word “partner” to refer to a boyfriend until Peter, and it wasn’t until after backpacking that I could get the word to feel smooth on my tongue.  Peter:  my partner--my companion and love, the one who I hike beside.


There are 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the foot--we need each one to function, each one to move forward.   Our feet link us to the ground beneath us while they carry us on our journey.  Last summer, I took the photo of my feet beside Peter’s: sunburnt, and dirt-smeared.  It wasn’t the scenery I wanted to capture but my relationship --the person I’ve decided to link fates with, to share a tent with, the person I’ve decided to reveal myself to, un-showered and exhausted--the person I’ve chosen to walk with.  I can think of nothing more beautiful than our bare-feet in the grass.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Matins, 3/27

(Holden Village has someone in the community volunteer daily to do matins--a morning reflection we listen to during breakfast.)

In 7th grade, I started going to my friend Bethany’s youth group.  Wednesday evenings we gathered with dozens of other tweens in a gym with polished floors and padded walls to listen to Christian rock music and do icebreakers where we brushed bodies with other adolescents: wheelbarrow races, human knots, and relays where we passed eggs between plastic spoons that we held in our mouths.   At the end of the night we sat in front of a stage and a youth group leader with frosted blonde hair told us stories about God.  He spoke slowly, pacing the spot-lit floor.  He asked us to close our eyes.  Raise your hand if you would like to accept God, if you would like to say yes to Jesus, right here, right now, in this room.

The first time I raised my hand a pony-tailed girl in blue jeans ushered me into a back corner where she prayed for me, in a kind of frantic and repetitive way, repeating Jesus’ name in fast blessings with her hand on my shoulder before giving me a paper-bound teen bible.  The second, third, fourth time I raised my hand, no one pulled me aside.  But I kept going to church with Bethany on Wednesday nights, kept “saying yes to Jesus” at the end of the service. 

I did not grow up with that kind of church.  My Mom was Irish Italian Catholic, one of ten kids.  She grew up in a Detroit neighborhood where the houses had built-in fonts for holy water beside the front doors.  My family went to church at Our Lady of Sorrows where sat in a pew near the back and only funneled forward toward the altar for communion.  We crossed ourselves with holy water when we entered the building and genuflected before we sat down. We grounded worship in ritual, in rhythm, in the strain of staying straight-backed on a kneeler and the smell of incense on Easter. There was no rock music.  No teenagers sitting cross-legged in front of a spot-lit stage.  My experience at Bethany’s raise-your-hand-and-give-your-life-to Christ brand of church lasted less two years.  By the end of middle school the hubbub of praise music and testimonials began to make me feel out of place.  I was too quiet, too bookish, annoyed at what I’d started to perceive as a manipulative strategy of ministry: a way of gathering members rather than a means of being Christ’s church.  I got older and the religious leaders I admired most seemed to view faith as less of a “yes or no” question and more of a practice of being at home with the poor, the outcast, the conflicted, and the outsiders.

I’m only twenty-eight years old but I’ve been at least a dozen different people in the churches where I’ve prayed, pondered, whispered, heckled, sang, served, and doubted.  I’ve been the thirteen year-old with a hand raised high to give my life to God at youth group and I’ve been the high school junior who made out with my boyfriend in the front-seat of my Jeep after mass.  I’ve been the child cantor at Christmas service, the twenty-something who walked out of church because an older congregant shoved a hymnal in my hand when she noticed me sitting silent and not singing, the little girl who wanted to be a nun when she grew up, and the college student, who lurked in the back of the Holden Evening Prayer service at my university’s chapel on Sunday nights, not because I wanted to go to church but because I loved the stillness of the candlelit room and the way the song seemed to bounce off the ceiling, rising far away from the bodies producing it.  I’ve been the visitor to Jain temples and Sikh gurdwaras--standing in the back with a scarf wrapped around my head, smitten with the way people make meaning and I’ve been the student who loved examining both Genesis and the gospel of John, not as holy texts, but as essays with a thesis filled with narrative, imagery, and some of the most beautiful language I’d encountered.  I’ve served chicken soup and glazed donuts with self-proclaimed “fallen Catholics” in Detroit, men and women who’d lost patience with religion but still believed in a life of service and solidarity with the poor and I’ve stayed up late drinking Pisco Sours with a women in Iowa who told me she hadn’t believed in God since college but she still longed for a life where work could be a kind of prayer, where she could see pressing seed to palm or stooping to touch the ocean as holy.  I’ve been the traveler who stayed with Benedictine monks in Ireland, Wyoming, and Washington soaking in Gregorian chants, incense smoke, and gardens so green my camera couldn’t photograph them without blurring and the transient who found solace in an hour of silent-sitting during weekly Quaker meetings in Tacoma, Seattle, Ames, Iowa, and Detroit. 

In the summer of 2011 I came as a short term volunteer at Holden Village, a placed where I learned that one definition of the word “faith” is the ability to sit with your questions.  During my time on staff I was able to attend graduation, prom, and a vespers given by the Village’s lone graduating senior, a woman named Alyssa.  During her vespers, Alyssa read the following passage from the beautiful novel The Brother’s K by David James Duncan:

 "It's funny how everybody has their own pet notion about Jesus and nobody's pet notion seems to agree with anybody else's. Grandawma, for instance, says He's "just a defunct social reformer." Then there's Papa, who once said he's God’s Son all right, and that He survived the crucifixion just fine, but that the two-thousand-year-old funeral service his cockeyed followers call Christianity probably made Him sorry he did. Meanwhile there's Freddy, who's six now, and who told me she saw Christ hiding under her bed one night, but that all He'd say to her was "Psst! Shhh! Pharisees!"...

Personally I'm not sure just who or what Christ is. I still pray to him in a pinch, but I talk to myself in a pinch too — and I'm getting less and less sure there's a difference. I used to wish somebody would just tell me what to think about Him. Then along came Elder Babcock, telling and telling, acting like Christ was running for President of the World, and he was His campaign manager, and whoever didn't get out and vote for the lord at the polls we call churches by casting the votes we call tithes and offerings into the ballot boxes we call offering plates was a wretched turd of a sinner voting for Satan by default. Mama tried to clear up all the confusion by saying that Christ is exactly what the Bible says He is. But what does the Bible say He is? On one page He's a Word, on the next a bridegroom, then He's a boy, then a scapegoat, then a thief in the night; read on and he's the messiah, then oops, he's a rabbi, and then a fraction — a third of a Trinity — then a fisherman, then a broken loaf of bread. I guess even God, when He's human, has trouble deciding just what He is."

There’s a lot I don’t know about faith.  At this point in my life, I can say that I believe in God, if only to give a name to the way the sun shadows the mountain and the space between people when hold each other in gentleness.  I can say I feel comfortable claiming beauty as holy without having answers to hundreds of other questions religion raises about life and death, grace and sin.  When someone asks I usually say I’m Catholic, Lutheran, Quaker-ish.  But my relationship with church feels fragile.  I keep my questions as close as my convictions--and I don’t think I’m unique here.  I returned to Holden, in 2012, one year after my first visit, in part because I wanted to be in a place with the capacity to hold both my belief and my uncertainty.  I joined a church for the first time in my adult life because I wanted to engage in a community that supported and challenged me--a community I could support and challenge.  Holden has long been a community of faith, but also a community of doubt, a community of searchers and seekers--and I think a lot of our strength as a church comes from the diversity of our experiences.  We don’t know always know who or what we are--so we cling to our becoming, we get creative with our questions, we lead vespers, sing in choir, light candles at prayer around the cross, or we lay on our bellies in the loft of Koinonia, watching and listening, writing poems and sketching pictures of the Sunday praise band in our bulletins.  We give each other permission to wander and wonder. We wake each day, shaped by the stories we tell and the ones we don’t, striving to be born again to the mountains, to doubt and dirt, melting snow, mid-day sun, and changing visions.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Published in Prick of the Spindle

On my way back to Washington after Christmas break I wrote a short essay about my relationship with Michigan--a lovely journal called Prick of the Spindle picked it up!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Publication in Pithead Chapel!

I feel very lucky to be included in this month's issue of Pithead Chapel.  I'm particularly excited to have this essay about being in my twenties published the day after my 28th birthday!

Pithead Chapel:
Humanities 557: A Twenty-Something Survey Course