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.