Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Return:  1. To come or go back to a place or person:
     Example: He returned to America in the late autumn

Dayton, Wyoming:

The windows behind the altar at San Benito Monastery look out on woods and creek.  The sisters wear socks or slippers on the chapel's wooden floor.  They sit on matching benches.  The service and music mirror the setting of the sun, in song and stretches of silence.  On Saturday at vespers, as we sung about day's ending, we watched the ravine behind the altar darken.  By the end of the service, shadows fell across the floorboards and we could no longer watch the sun through the windows.

I went to this same service last year on my way west.  When I pulled into the monastery this year, Annie, the sisters' dog, greeted me at the same point on the same gravel road.  The same nun led me to the same bedroom, furnished with a dresser, a chair, a twin bed, and a set of clean purple towels.  I placed my food in the same white almost-empty fridge.  Last year, I drove the same stretch from Ames, Iowa to Dayton, Wyoming, a fourteen hour trip. During the fourteen hours of Westward-driving I watched the landscape change from row crops to rolling hills to short grass prairie to Badlands to high desert to Black Hills to Big Horn Mountains.  I checked off landmarks I knew: the first Wall Drugs signs on the far east side of South Dakota, the corn palace in Mitchell, the Missouri River, Laura Ingalls Wilder's homestead in De Smet, the Wounded Knee museum in Wall, the Badlands rest stop that rents out interpretive headsets, the Wyoming state line, and the yellow detour lights that flash during the winter when mountain snow makes the road impassable.
This trip has been a series of returns. After almost a year of constant travel, I planned this year's route to Washington around places and people that feel like home. The day before I left, Mom invited family over for bagels and orange juice and I spent the afternoon on the back porch of my parents' house, sitting on their wicker furniture, drinking coffee with Aunts and Uncles who asked questions about my future but seemed to feel confident in my strength to find it. I hugged people I knew I wouldn't get a chance to hug again until Christmas, trying to remember the feel of all of them, garnering confidence from their presence. I ate dinner than night with my parents, my Nana, and my brother, and after we ate we sat on the benches in the backyard, watching the grass turn dusky with fireflies. When I woke the next morning I vacuumed my room one last time, flopping on the floor to check under my dresser and bed for anything I may have left. I made a mental list of thing I didn't want to forget: passport, purse, rain boots, sleeping bag, running shoes. I closed my bedroom door knowing I wouldn't open it again until December.

I've been on the road for eight days. A slower trip than I've taken before.  Last year when I drove to Washington I drove made the journey in three days: Detroit to Ames, Iowa, Ames, Iowa to Missoula, Montana, Missoula, Montana to Gig Harbor, Washington. I spent the week before I left making my car into the kind of habitat I could spend forty hours in--I vacuumed, loaded library books onto my ipod, toasted granola, and baked bread. I filled a fold-able cooler with sliced tomatoes and carrots, goat cheese and apples. I didn't stop for food once. I ate on the road or sitting in the sun on rest stop picnic tables.
Chicago, Illinois:

The first meal of this road trip took place in Chicago, on the back porch of the flat my friend Amanda shares with her sister.  We barbecued chicken, tofu, and vegetables on Amanda's Smoky-Joe.  We washed and seasoned the meat in the sink of Amanda's apartment, passing the chicken back-and-forth as we collaborated on the cooking process.  Neither of us barbecue much.  Neither of us eat much meat.  At one point, Amanda held the bird by its wings and pressed her face close to it's flesh.  "It smells weird.  Is it supposed to smell like that?"  She asked.  I drew my own nose near the chicken's bumpy skin, "It smells like death.  But that seems right.  It is dead so that makes sense."  We rinsed the bird again.  We rolled it in seasoning.  We poured charcoal into the metal basin.  We crumbled paper and created a flame.  We waited for the charcoal to burn red before placing small sections of seasoned meat onto the grill.  When the meat began to brown we filled the remaining space with green and red peppers and olive-oiled corn wrapped in tin foil.

The chicken tasted moist, grill-smoky, and garlicky--rich with backyard flavor.  We ate it on chairs gathered around the wooden table on Amanda's porch with peppers and grilled corn and Leinenkugel's.  From our second story porch-perch we could hear the hum of the highway and the jolt of the El.  We made s'mores, skewering marshmallows over the grill using forks, and talked about transitions, jobs, good and bad foods to eat on dates, books, boys, and the difficulty of being in our twenties when our lives seen so much less professionally, romantically, and spiritually definitive than the lives of our parents.  We stayed on the porch until dark shrouded the city and other apartment lights speckled the horizon.  

That night, I remembered a line from the Stuart Dybek poem Windy City: in a city like that one might sail through life led by a runaway hat.  I thought of the day I bought my first Stuart Dybek book, a collection of stories called The Coast of Chicago in a used bookstore, while wandering Chicago neighborhoods solo during another time of transition.  I read the whole book that afternoon, sitting on a sidewalk bench, underlining lines like:

Our plans for the future made us laugh and feel close, but those same plans somehow made anything more than temporary between us seem impossible. It was the first time I’d ever had the feeling of missing someone I was still with 

with the conviction that Dybek was writing about people like me: young transients who moved to moved to places like Chicago not for glamour but for old worldliness: delis and bakeries, weeded lots and hanging laundry.
Ames, Iowa:

In Iowa, ecology students burn the prairie. They section the grass with rakes and light the field on fire with small torches. When the prairie burns smoke rises into the treeless skyline. Soot covers the men and women who stand on the perimeter of the burn wearing Carharts and holding with rubber paddles to beat stray flames. The fire leaves the once lush landscape bare. But within weeks plants begin to re-sprout from the ashen soil, bright green snaps against the earth. The deep root structure of prairie plants saves them, knotting them to the Iowa earth so that only invasive species die in the fire.

What does it mean to place yourself in a landscape? On this trip, I visited Grinnell, Iowa before I went back to Ames, Iowa, where I'd lived for three years as a graduate student. I stayed with the family of one of my favorite former professors Dean and his wife Amanda. I helped Amos (age 4) and Lydia (age 7) build fairy houses from twigs and stones in the backyard. We braided strands of grass into fairy carpet and crafted tiny tables out of acorn tops. When an ant skittered over the bark where we worked Lydia asked if I thought ants could be pets for fairies. I said yes. She looked at me, searching my face, "Rachael do you believe in fairies?" I raised my head from the strands of grass I'd been thumbing, "Yes." She nodded. "Good." I imagined tiny beings, walking barefoot on our grass blankets and reclining on the smooth stones we collected. Sitting cross-legged in the lawn, with my back against a maple, I wished I could inhabit the structure Lydia built: that I could live in a shelter walled by tree-roots and lit by fireflies.

During my visit to Ames I walked two prairies: one at the Everett Casey Nature Reserve where I hiked with friends and former professors, one on my friend Becca's newly bought plot of property. It felt good to walk through grass that rose higher than my head with people whose lives I felt rooted to. I thought of a line from the Philip Levine poem Gospel, I did not come to a place like this for answers, I came to walk on the Earth. At the Everett Casey Nature Reserve, we followed my former Professor Steve, who swung a machete through the thick underbrush, hiking through brambles and nettles to reach the clear spaces on the property where we could look out at the expanse of prairie, river, and woodland. We hiked to Bluff Creek where we sat on river rocks for almost an hour, chasing tiny frogs with our palms, talking about the future and freckling in the sun. In Grinnell, I built fairy houses and read bedtime stories aloud, I talked to Dean and Amanda while Lydia stood behind me on a stool, pulling my hair into braids and buns, I ate pancakes cooked using a recipe in a children's book and drank carrot ginger juice Amanda pressed herself.  In Ames, I hiked and cooked, I ate out and drank coffee on the porches of my friends while we all perched over laptops and open books. In both places, I walked on ground that felt familiar.  I felt like a prairie plant, ready to spring from dirt.

Ames was the first place I planted flowers. Weeks after moving to my first duplex, I bought a bag of daffodil bulbs, which I patted into the ground in front of my porch. I knelt on the grass and sifted the Iowa dirt with my fingers. When yellow flowers peppered our yard next spring, the house felt more like mine. I'd planted part of myself there--bulbs which would still rise from the dirt years after I graduated and left Ames.  This trip, I didn't drive by either of the homes I lived in Ames, but I know next spring my daffodils will still be there, sprouting along the scraggly rental property lawn.

Dayton, Wyoming:

The word for Matins, the morning service at  San Benito Monastery, comes from Matuta, the Latin name for the Greek goddess Leucothae or Leucothea, the goddess of the morning.  It's an ancient ritual, one that dates back to the earliest days of the church.  The nuns spend most of the morning service in silence, with only rays of the rising sun to light the chapel. The morning I left three of us sat in a space quiet enough to here the hum of breathing and the gargle of unfed stomachs.  I settled my body into my circling thoughts.  I flexed my bare feet on the wooden floorboards and watched the sun speckle the altar.  I knew I had almost eleven hours of driving ahead of me.  I knew I had paperwork to finish and phone calls to make but for forty minutes I sat in quiet until Sister Gladys's alarm clock beeped, indicating it was time to sing in the day with hymns and psalms.  Before I left the chapel that day the sisters gathered around me, blessing the road and my travels upon it.

I jogged from the chapel to my room after matins, scattering the gravel under my sandals. I pressed my books and clothes back into duffel bags and backpacks. When I walked to the kitchen to gather the contents of my cooler from the fridge, a woman wearing a black-and-white dress approached me, offered me her hand and a cup of fair trade dark roast coffee brewed from beans she'd bought at the co-op before coming to San Benito. I accepted and we talked about our jobs and lives how we found the monastery. I told her about being a naturalist and a writer and an assistant teacher at Holden. "That's good work," she said. She told me she worked as a death penalty lawyer. "That's good work," I responded. I described my previous trip to the monastery and other occasions I'd stayed with Benedictines. She told me she'd come to San Benito to visit Sister Helen, an internationally known anti-death penalty advocate and author of the book Dead Man Walking, an activist I'd admired since age nineteen. "I'm going to bring her coffee now. I'll have her pop out and say 'hi' if she's awake." The woman disappeared with her french press and I paced the kitchen, wondering if I should wait to meet my college hero, pushing back my departure time. After a couple minutes of shifting my weight and checking my watch, I left a "thank-you" Post-It on the counter, took my coffee thermos in hand, and headed out the door.

When I looked in my rear-view mirror, I saw the woman and Sister Helen, running behind my car.  I pulled the Honda into brake, and ran toward them.  Sister Helen wore tortoise shell glasses and clogs.  She pulled me into a hug.  "I hear you're doing good work," she said.  "I'm a huge admirer of your work."  I bumbled back.  

When I pulled out of the monastery to continue on my way west, I felt the weight of Sister Helen's words and of my journey.  I like the slowness of car travel, even seven hours into a squirmy thirteen hour drive, I like watching the landscape flash by.  I like stopping at fruit stands and listening to audio-books and adjusting to the three-hour time difference one day at a time.  There's a slowness to monasteries, to prairies, to the building of fairy houses, to forging of relationships with children, learning to cook, or getting to know a city.  Some days I feel the only way to move forward is to cling to the ground beneath me and keep my car in gear.  Some days I roll down the window and sift the wind between my fingers, as if grasping at the landscape, trying to keep each passing panorama.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


As a graduate student, I wrote a short story about a boy who ran.  I made a runner my protagonist because I felt familiar with runners and their ways.  I'd run cross country and track in high school and college.  I'd woken early for predawn morning jogs and done mile repeats in the park, bending down with my hands on my knees to hear my heart pulse between each set.  I'd used "easy" and "sixteen miler" in the same sentence.    I'd qualified for the Boston Marathon.  I saw a strength in my runner self that I liked.   I knew the rush of lactic acid after the first mile of a 5K and I'd learned how to draft off other runners on the track, waiting like a predator for my competitors to weaken so that I could muster every bit of power in my body in the last lap of a race.  

When I described the running character in my story, an eighteen year old boy named Joseph, from a small town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula who woke every morning at five to run along Lake Michigan's north coast, listening to the sound of his feet and the rhythm of his breath, to Benjamin Percy, a professor and fiction writer I admire, Ben said, "Cool.  What's he running from?"  I had been sitting in the brown chair in his office, with my leg curled under me and my backpack on the floor.  

I leaned forward, "What is he running from?"  

"Yes, you have a character who runs, almost compulsively, he has to be running from something.  What is he trying to get away from?"

My nonfiction writer self stopped thinking about Joseph and started thinking about me.  What are you running from?  I asked myself.  I wondered what all my movement meant.

My brother Keith and I running in Michigan's Upper Pennisula, June 2005
In college, I could run a 5K (3.1 miles) in under eighteen minutes (5:44 per mile pace.)  I could run a 10K (6.2) miles in under thirty-eight minutes (6:05 pace.)  I ran over seventy miles a week, in addition to lifting weights, stretching, cross training.  I haunted track and field message boards and kept binders full of workouts and training tips.  I memorized NCAA qualifying times.  I'd seen teammates and former competitors become elite athletes.  I wanted the same.

When I ran hard, I wanted results, but I also ran to feel strong.  When you train that hard, the movement of running feels more effortless than walking.  On Sundays at the Indiana dunes with my teammates, I felt like a deer, moving fast and light-legged through the woods.  My first day running in Iowa, I saw a red fox, while training for my first marathon on the university's cross country course.  It dashed in front of me without consideration, looking up for only a moment.   We're kin.  I thought as I watched it disappear into the ferns, bushy tail bounding behind its sleek body.  

When I return to my hometown, my college, or the running shoe store I worked at while I competed in college, people ask me if I still run.  I run, several times a week.  I run, usually between three and six miles.  I occasionally will even go on a really long run, jogging ten to fifteen miles to remember the feel of distance.  My last year of graduate school I ran two half marathons.  But when someone asks me if I run, I shrug and answer, Not the way I used to.  Sometimes I talk about the hiking I do out west, or the rock climbing I've done in Michigan, sometimes I talk about the six to ten miles I walked everyday working as a naturalist at a kids camp.  But even with so much activity, I know that I lack the strength I used to have as a competitive runner.  My body is softer, my legs less lean, my capillaries less rich with oxygen.

In the past six years I've moved seven times.  Some of these moves have been packing a dorm room for the summer or Duffel-bagging my belonging to spend six months abroad.  Some of them have involved moving trucks and my housemates and I hoisting beds and bookshelves and couches through too-narrow doors in un-air-conditioned duplexes and apartments.  Some of them have been moves across the country, drives that took several days, in a car packed with coffee-cups, back-packs, and books.  I've learned what belongings make me feel settled.  I've learned how to make community.

Packing my college dorm room.   8/15/2006
In Ames, Iowa I attended graduate school with people from all over the country.  We created camaraderie over books and beer, coffee and conversation, pancakes and post-teaching decompression.  We all felt far from home so we learned to latch onto each other.  We cooked Indian food on Easter which we ate sitting cross-legged on the carpet of someone's apartment.  We celebrated each other's accomplishments with potlucks and champagne drank from Mason Jars.  We learned to be each other's faraway families.  

Ames was the place where I slowed all my running, where I allowed myself to stop pushing my strength long enough to slow down and stay, planting a garden and stocking a kitchen.  But Ames is a college town.  After graduation, I left.  And each time I return, more of my patchwork-graduate school family has graduated or moved, making the community we created impossible to enter in the same way.  
My friend who I texted about the title of my blog--"the ground underneath my feet" told me that Holden Village was a good place to ground myself but reminded me that I was entering a community that changed weekly, sometimes daily.  My students will stay the same but visitors and volunteers enter Holden every day, immersing themselves in the village for a couple days, a week, a couple months, before going back down the mountain to their more permanent lives elsewhere.  It's strange to think that next year I'll be the one staying-- the one being left, while people I meet keep moving, continuing on in their travels.

Last year while visiting Holden, I met a woman named Lindsey, a former librarian from Portland, who quit her job to spend a year visiting intentional communities all over the country.  When we met, she was several months into her time at Holden.  She'd already volunteered on two ships Irving Johnson and Exy Johnson through the Los Angeles Maritime Institute's TopSail Youth Program, visited a Zen Buddhist near the Tassajara hot springs, and worked on an organic homestead called "Little Farm."  She writes (beautifully) about her experiences as a twenty-first century pilgrim, searching for community in her blog: http://foreverarriving.blogspot.com.  

In one entry Lindsey writes the changing seasons at Holden, ending with this description:

"THERE'S a song called 'Rivers and Roads' that has been performed by a group of talented Holden musicians on several occasions. The first time I heard it, one of them introduced it as 'the most Holden song I've ever heard.'

A year from now we'll all be gone
All our friends will move away
And they're going to better places
But our friends will be gone away

It starts out quietly, voice and guitar, and the melody is calm, musing, detached.

Nothing is as it has been
And I miss your face like hell
And I guess it's just as well
But I miss your face like hell

But then the singer crescendos abruptly into a wail, and the piano crashes in, and finally you can feel the hurt behind the words:

Been talkin' 'bout the way things change
And my family lives in a different state
And if you don't know what to make of this
Then we will not relate

And then there's nothing left to sing but the chorus, vocals raw and haunting, harmonies building through repetition after repetition to a painful richness, the waltz-time rhythm lifting up and pounding down, moving you inexorably toward the song's end.

Rivers and roads
Rivers and roads
Rivers 'til I reach you

The song is by a band called The Head and the Heart, a group which has probably never heard of Holden Village. When I returned to the Land of Fast Internet and sought out their album recording of it, I was disappointed. It's nice, but... it's nice. I hear they're better live, and maybe even in the studio they really felt what they were singing about, but they don't make me feel it, not the way those people at Holden did, singing their hearts out in that firelit room."-Lindsey Hoffman

For me, becoming an adult has meant learning how to balance my running with the rest of my life, learning when to stay still and when to leave, learning how to both break my own heart and let it heal.  This spring, while trying to decide whether to keep my job in California or abandon it, knowing that there were places where I'd fit better, a friend asked me whether I was making decisions out of excitement or fear.  You can't keep yourself on a path because you're afraid to step off.  She said.  

Lately when I run, I'm less fast than I used to be.  I strap on old flats and put ipod ear buds in my ears.  I let my body sync into the rhythm of the path I'm on, breathe deeply, and try to remember to look up.


Dune hiking  10/23/11
Michigan is a peninsula, almost an island, surrounded by 3,200 miles of Great Lake coastline.  In my glacier-
carved state, you can never be more than six miles from a river or lake--a stark difference between the place I grew up and Iowa, where I spent three years as a graduate student.  My last year in graduate school, two friends and I decided we needed to be near big water, at least for a weekend, so we planned a last-minute beach-camping trip in late October.  We drove the seven hours from Ames, Iowa to Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan, pitched our tents in the dark, then walked by cell-phone light on a wooded path toward the Lake.  When the forest opened into dunes, we switched off our light, dropped to our butts, palms on the sand, faces toward the sky.  We took off our shoes and socks and walked barefoot on the empty beach.  The moon striped and shadowed the dunescape.  We thought about abandoning our tents, sleeping on the sand, and waking up dew-spattered to the sound of the lake lapping the shore but instead we stayed on the beach after midnight, drifting in and out of conversations about goodness and God, books and wilderness, history and the universe, before walking back to our campground in the dark. We raised questions which felt good to ask, and when we no longer knew what to say, we silenced and listened to waves swell against the beach.
 Lake Chelan School District offered me the job as para educator at the Holden Village School on July 17th, 2012 over the phone.  I received the phone call in the evening, in the parking lot of Grand Mere State Park, where I'd spent the day (my first real "day-off" of the summer) swimming in my underwear and a tank top in Lake Michigan with two friends and a former professor.  It had been almost a hundred degrees, sunny.  The sand burnt my feet.  Lake Michigan felt like bathwater. I'd interviewed that morning, via Skype, and spent the three hour drive west toward the beach retracing my words, wondering about every sentence I'd said.

When I got to the beach, I shimmied out of my jean shorts and slipped into Lake Michigan, weaving through the rocks until I reached sandy-bottomed water deep enough to cover me to my shoulders. I lay back in the lake and let the waves carry me so that my shirt puckered against my stomach and my hair drifted around me, mirroring the motion of the water.  The sun beamed against my pale skin.  My forehead freckled.  That day, all four of us tried to do the dead man's float. We did handstands in the shallow water.  We opened our eyes underwater to see the way the lake magnified our feet.  When we stopped playing, we found a spot shallow enough to stand, circled and talked.  I told them about my interview.  Two of the people I was with, my friend John, and my former professor Allison, knew Holden Village well. John's parents had met in Holden Village when they were both transient twenty-something volunteers, chopping wood and shoveling snow in return for room and board.  Allison visited Holden for a winter when she was fresh out of college, still trying to form her ideas about writing, reading, faith, and vocation.  We talked about my potential job while lifting our chin over Lake Michigan waves, wriggling our toes in the water-stacked sand.

Hiking to Hart Lake from Holden Village, 5/30/11
In 2011, when I volunteered as part of Holden Village's lawn and garden crew, I spent entire days weeding.   I knelt on an old kick-board in the shadow of Cascade peaks, wearing garden gloves and a cowboy hat and pulled dandelions and grass from rock beds of native flowers and herbs.  I learned to love roots:  The texture of tendrils in my palm, the way they laced around my fingers, the way something so fragile could hold a whole plant upright, delivering water and nutrients from the ground.  The roots I pulled from the garden reminded me of Mona Hatoum's artwork which I'd seen in 2009 at the Des Moines Art Center, grids she'd crafted from strands of human hair: delicate, unexpected, breathtakingly beautiful.  I scooped the roots into buckets to heap in the forest, because even torn, the roots possessed the potential to re-sprout life in our compost pile and we didn't want grass growing in the dirt we carefully sifted for flower boxes.

Earlier this summer, less than a year later, I felt torn from every place I'd ever planted myself.  I left Washington with most of my belongings loose in the back of my car, my floor-mats still sandy from trips to the coast, without closure or a clear idea of where I'd go next.  I'd taken a job teaching outdoor education to low income kids in California, a job I'd initially been excited about, but began to dread as the September start date approached.  I worried about beginning again in a place I knew no one.  I worried about not having housing. I tried to picture myself working three days a week at a camp, spending Mondays, Fridays and weekends WWOOFing at a farm, camping in a field for free, and living out of my car.  The freedom I thought I wanted left me feeling weeded from stability, from community, from the support of family, and the lifestyle that let me stand up straight and face sun-ward.  Halfway to Spokane, my first road-trip stop on the way back to Michigan, I dialed my boss and quit the job I said I'd take. My voice shook:  "I just can't do it".  In Spokane that night my friend Chef John, a man I'd met in Holden Village the year before, made me salad, cut me bread, and poured me a glass of wine.  He sat on the porch with me while I described the phone call I'd made earlier that day. He listened, pressing his face every time my voice quaked, keeping his tone calm as he reassured me, You did the right thing, you will be fine.  I drove the next seventeen hundred fifty-six miles knowing that I'd rendered myself jobless.  I spent a stretch of Montana throwing up, spewing cherries I'd purchased in Eastern Washington into pink piles on the side of the road, while prairie dogs skittered around my heaving body.

In early 2011, despite my impending graduation from Iowa State's MFA Program, I felt rooted.  I grounded myself in routine and community: In breakfast stir-fries cooked from seasonal vegetables savored every Friday morning at my friend Liz's apartment, in Saturday afternoons spent dirt-crusted and sweating, harvesting onions or rainbow chard at Mustard Seed Community Farm, in the lessons I planned for the environmental composition class I taught at the university, in dinners prepared nightly in my friend John's kitchen cooked with vegetables or fish we'd selected together at Wheatsfield Co-op, in cardboard box fort-building I did with my professor's kids, in back porch nights spent drinking Sierra Nevada and listening to the hum of freight trains with my housemate, in barefoot summer walks scattered with fireflies and conversation.  It was the longing to be grounded that kept drawing me back to Holden Village, even before I saw the Lake Chelan Public School job posting, I wanted to return to somewhere I'd already been and loved, to work with the same group of students all year, to settle my body and mind long enough to root myself in my environment.

The Lady of the Lake--the ferry from Chelan to Lucerne
The Holden Village School has thirteen students, grades kindergarten through twelve.  The students hike and snowshoe, influence curriculum and help each other learn.  The village hosts guests from all over the world and in the past students have met with marine biologists, exchange students from Afghanistan, students from Australia, scientists testing the health of the creek, singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, and a woman who worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Palestine as part of their curriculum.  When I visited Holden Village last spring, the school's lone senior presented a project she'd labored over for months, an extensive research paper on world religions.  I danced at her prom, which Holden Village hosted outside, under Christmas lights, aluminum stars, and Cascade peaks.  I attended her graduation which took place on a baseball field, to pay tribute to the softball season she missed in order to move to Holden Village as a boarding student.  Everyone wore caps and she threw the an opening pitch before giving her own graduation speech.

Lake Chelan Public Schools offered me a job on July 17th, 2012, after a day I'd spent swimming in Lake Michigan.  My friends and I had just returned from dinner at a fancy restaurant where we'd eaten escargot and drank wine, still wet and sandy from our day swimming at the lake.  The sun hadn't set yet but the horizon had started to pink.  When I got back to my car I had one missed call and one message.  Kelly from Lake Chelan Schools wanted me to call him back.  My phone flickered a low battery sign and I had to turn on my car and plug my phone into the dashboard charger to talk.  John, Allison, and Ellen waited outside my window.  When I gave them the thumbs up, Allison jumped a little.  John called his parents.

Big water calms me.  To get to Holden, you take a ferry and travel fifty-five miles up Lake Chelan, the third deepest lake in the country (with a depth of 1,486 feet)--a fjord which, like my home-state of Michigan, still bears evidence to the slow scrape of ice-age glaciers--to Lucerne where a school bus takes you up another eleven miles.  When you finally exit the bus, everyone in the village waits for your arrival, clapping and holding signs, offering welcome even if you come to Holden as a stranger.  This week as I've packed, I've imagined myself making the journey, a trip I've always taken with friends, by myself.  I've imagined sitting with my face pressed to bus-glass, watching Lake Chelan disappear beneath the switchbacks, waiting for the bus to stop, anticipating my first steps into the mountains.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Ground Underneath My Feet

Rocky soil, summit of Mount Townsend 6/10/12
I read on a panel at the Scienceworks Hands-On Museum in Ashland, Oregon that a single scoop of soil contains more microorganisms than there are people on the planet: over six billion tiny lives in a handful of dirt.  I recorded the fact using the "notes" tool on my old-school flip phone, keying in the words "soil," "scoop," and "6 billion plus" using the phone's number-keys.  I wasn't sure why that fact seemed worthy enough to spend five minutes number-typing into my phone.  Perhaps, even then, as a Midwestern vagabond more smitten with vistas than soil, I knew I needed that reminder of the bigness of smallness: the tiny specks of life that surround us everywhere.

1. To move about without a definite destination or purpose.  
2. To go by an indirect route or at no set pace; amble: wander toward town.

I spent the last year of my life hiking every weekend.  When I moved to Washington state fresh from graduate school in Iowa, I wasn't sure how long I would stay in the Pacific Northwest and, having never lived near ocean and mountains, I wanted to encounter them like a tourist.  I wanted to walk to each view I saw advertised in the gift shops of the State and National Park offices.  I spent work nights flipping through hiking books, thumbing descriptions and photos of my next weekend's adventure.  I put twenty-five thousand miles on my orange Honda despite the fact that I lived where I worked and seldom left the parking lot on weekdays.  I kept a mountain bike, a box of books, a sleeping bag, and a tent in my car.  Every Saturday morning, I left the YMCA Camp where I taught outdoor education with a fistful of trails maps printed from WTA, my GoLite day pack, and two tin water bottles.  I felt calm as soon as I got to my car.  The movement soothed me.  I put on music or podcasts or an audio-book, stopped at my favorite espresso stand for an Americano and a pumpkin muffin (small luxuries I justified paying for because I'd eaten bland camp food or stir-fried vegetables all week), and headed north or west or east toward the Olympics or the Cascades or the Pacific Ocean or Mount Rainier.  I stopped at the farm-stand to fill my pack with carrots and lavender chocolate and spicy meat sticks and let the landscape sweep by until I reached that week's trail head.  I grew familiar with the lactic acid strain of switchbacks and became comfortable hiking down mountains after dark, feeling my way with my feet until night enveloped the trail and had to turn to the illumination of my headlamp to guide me step-by-step back to my car.
In graduate school, my housemate named my little Honda
Fit, "my noble steed," because of the way it accompanied
me adventuring. Once, a man from Belgium who I briefly dated
told me that he couldn't wait to go back to his country and tell
people he had met "an American girl who lived out  of her
car."  I tried to explain that I paid rent, I had an apartment.
I just also had a clothes-filled Honda where I spent most of the
summer traversing the woods.

3. To proceed in an irregular course; meander.
4. To go astray: wander from the path of righteousness.

Last year, I taught 4th-6th graders orienteering (along with marine science, wildlife ecology, forest ecology, reptiles, boating, archery, rock climbing, wild worms, and ornithology.)  I walked kids into the woods and passed them compasses.  I taught them to lay the compass smooth on their palm, pressing the flat back of the compass against their belly buttons.  I'd show them the Hugo arrow ("you go where Hugo") and "Red Fred" who always pointed North.  I'd teach them how to turn their dials and quiz them about what each number on the dial means. ("So if you want to go East what do you set your dial to?"  "90 degrees!" They'd shout with their hands pointed skyward, unable to wait for me to call on them.)  I'd turn them into "pirates" and give them coordinates for things that we had to find as a group.  ("There's ice cream at 135 degrees, which way should we sail?")  By the end of the class I'd ask if they felt more comfortable in the woods.  I'd ask how they might find their way without a compass.  We'd talk about landmarks, sunsets, sunrises, the north star, the big dipper.

Dirt: Steamboat Rock State Park, a wander-y side trip after
a missed ferry and changed vacation plans.   3/27/12
When I talked about teaching orienteering to my friends outside of the camp where I worked, they'd respond, "You're teaching childen how to not get lost" and I'd say back, "Yeah, it seems like a bad idea, I should be teaching kids how to be comfortable being lost, literally and metaphorically, not how to find their way, I'm better at that."   My friends knew how often I'd gotten myself lost: on the way to the blues club in Des Moines, in half-abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit, on the way to the dentist I'd been going to for ten years.  Once, driving back from a road trip to St. Louis, I realized that I'd crossed the Mississippi at the wrong point and no longer knew where I was.  I had been talking on the phone to my father:  "Dad, I gotta go.  I don't know what state I'm in so I want to look at an atlas."  Had I taken the advice I give my students (moving slowly, looking for landmarks, paying attention) I would have stayed found.  I get lost (literally and metaphorically) because I often ignore my own advice barreling forward when I should be stopping the car or pressing my palm to the dirt or lifting my face toward the sky.

5. To lose clarity or coherence of thought or expression.

This summer, I started rock climbing, outdoors, at Grand Ledge in Michigan with my brother.  When I climb I struggle.  I want a distinct route and can never seem to find it.  When I raise my left foot I can't find a hold for my right hand, when I try to extend my leg and push my body upward toward my destination I flail at the wall, instead of feeling for crevices in the sandstone where I can wrap my fingers.  To climb well, you have to find ground beneath your feet where there is none.  You have to trust your body and trust the rock.  You have to find small spaces for your fingers and toes and learn how to work with the stone so your body balances.  My brother often climbs barefoot for this reason.  "You can feel the rock that way," he says.  This is what I want to learn, I always think, how to feel the rock.  How to see the life within the soil.  How to find my way.
Erin, my brother's lady friend, rests and rises with an
elegance I envy, palming the rock for finger pockets and
stretching upward in smooth sure movements. 8/01/12

I haven't blogged in more than six years.  I follow the blogs of friends, look at their well articulated pretty lives and struggle to see myself as part of that online conversation.  I write, but I don't bake vegan cookies or practice alternative urban permaculture, or craft found objects into jewelry and home decor.  I love to cook, but make a mess of the kitchen and the meals I make hardly seem worthy of photographing and writing about and usually, when I try to craft I end up with a scraps of magazines all over the floor and glue-gun seared fingertips.  I decided to re-enter the world of blogging because I recently took a job in a mountain school so remote that phone conversation, via land-line or cell is impossible.  I will have no car, no roads, no television.  But I will have (slow) internet and a life of hiking, reading, teaching, and writing that I want to share with friends and family.

The first thing Blogger asks for is a title.  I text-ed friends:  "What should I title my blog?"  I flipped through books of poetry I loved, listened to song lyrics, and created three or four failed blog addresses before heading to bed without any title or template.  The next morning, I woke up, poked around on the computer, sorted through stacks of books and cds and clothing, then headed to the Honda dealership for an oil change.  I dropped off my car and went for a run.  While running, I found myself retracing the last year, the decision I had made to live in a remote community without an easy escape route, my own tendency to get lost, my recent gravitation toward simplicity and soil.  I returned to the dealership and text-ed one of my closest friends.

Me:  "I came up with a title."
Him: "Is it 'Rachael's blog'?"
Me: "No, I'm pretty sure that web address is taken."
Him: "Drat."
(Pause in conversation.)
Me: "I'm calling it "The Ground Underneath my Feet"--as in getting grounded, soil, moss, rocks, sand, putting down roots, searching for home.  As opposed to vistas and travel and running away."

Last year, I learned that the tulip shaped icon on my camera allowed me to shoot photographs in Macro mode in order to catch tiny details: lichen, dirt, buttercups crusted onto mountain cliffs.  When I tried to shoot panoramas in Washington's lush landscape the greens blurred together but when I knelt down and focused the photographs came out clear.  They're the closest thing I have to the type of foot-finding my brother does rock climbing at Grand Ledge or the dirt-sifting science I learned about at Scienceworks.  They're evidence of the places I've been and reminders of the places I want to go and the way I want to stop and learn the landscape when I get there.

Moss, lichen, and kelp covered rocks, Shaw Island, 2/28/12