Saturday, August 18, 2012


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.


  1. Lovely. I like the tracing/circling pattern of this writing -- it reminds me of the way a fox explores the nest it makes by turning round and round to flatten the grasses.

  2. I miss that trip. And you. But I get to see you soon! :)

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  4. Brenna: I'm excited for Indian food, cooking, breakfast, and walks.