-Pam Houston, Contents May Have Shifted
|Camping sans tent, Miner's Ridge, September 15, 2012|
This week at Holden, smoke from the Wenatchee forest fire enveloped the mountains. During the afternoon smoke made Buckskin Mountain and Martin Ridge look hazy, like a poorly developed picture. At night, smoke made the moon seem foreboding, a glimmer of yellow light in a cloud-streaked sky. Smoke made our throats scratchy and our sunsets spectacular. Those who work outside all day wore masks, like dental hygienists, filtering the air through a thin layer of white paper.
Last weekend, because of smoke and trail closures, I stayed in Holden Village instead of hiking. I went to both early breakfast and regular breakfast, conversing with friends over coffee in the dining hall. I went to Saturday text study. I logged work hours at the school—wiping windows and desks and planning PE activities. I read a fourth grade science text book and started designing ecology lessons for the upcoming weeks. I listened to David James Duncan’s novel The River Why on audiobook while I did laundry, mopped my bedroom floor, and cleaned my bathroom. I went to a “sexy Christmas” costume party for Holden staff’s September birthdays (think nine months prior to September and the theme makes sense) where I ate stuffed mushrooms and drank Fat Tire on the front porch of Chalet Three then danced till almost one am, spinning in circles in a tinsel-strung room where someone’s Macbook played songs spanning from Old Crow Medicine show’s “Wagon Wheel” to Rhianna’s “Umbrella.”
Fall is my favorite time of year. Particularly at night. The air seems dense, not humid-dense, but thick with change. Cold winds follow warm winds and in between the air stills. This is the time of year when I learned to love running, the time of year when I went on Chicago trips in college, the time of year when I fell in love with a blonde bearded boy on a camping trip in graduate school. The trees begin to yellow in the first splinters of cold. The air feels electric with the changing weather.
In his memoir The Necessity of Empty Places, Paul Gruchow writes about birds and “migratory restlessness.” Even in captivity, birds choose the south side of their cage in autumn and the north side in spring. They eat more, molt, and pace more. Without ever having migrated, domestic bird bodies know that the changing season means it’s time to move.
I believe in the progression and spontaneity but I also love the idea that we know and need ritual—that even the most transient human’s impulses root back to our bodies, our own version of “migratory restlessness.” I like to imagine myself evolving every autumn. I can trace back the person I was from year to year by the way I felt when the leaves first started to change.
I think of a night spent dancing in the YMCA dining hall with my friend Amy to the Garden State soundtrack last October and my first drive to the Pacific coast last November. I think of my trip to Warren Dunes two years ago and a drive I did during the earliest moments of autumn the same year, a Labor Day trek back to Michigan where I danced with strangers on Belle Isle in Detroit, ate perogies in Hamtramck, and stayed up all night talking with a writer I liked in Ann Arbor. I think of sitting on my brother's porch in Valparaiso, bundled in blankets, listening to Sea Wolf while our breath froze in the November night air. I think of my first fall in graduate school: going to workshop and then out to the bar with friends who, like me, had just decided to commit three years of their life to writing. I think of us drinking beer and talking about craft, writing, the West, Cormac McCarthy, Rick Bass, and Sherman Alexi during our first autumn together.
Autumn feels as grafted on my body as any instinct. For me, the compulsion to travel, the yearning to sleep outside, and the habit of sitting on the porch talking or reading late into the night, signify the shifting of seasons as much as pumpkin-spiced baked goods, bonfires, sweaters, or the start of school. My own "migratory restlessness" feels most focused in fall and I’ve learned to ritualize this restlessness with camping trips and road-trips, long walks, trail runs, and conversations with strangers.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ritual. I live in a place steeped in habit. At Holden, tradition dictates our day: breakfast at 8:30, coffee break at 10:00, lunch at noon, dinner at 5:00, vespers at 7:30. We eat hard boiled eggs and sweet bread Sunday morning, pancakes on Tuesday morning, eggs on Thursday morning, and hot cereal every other day. There's "Hunger Awareness" rice Thursday afternoon, fish and kale on Friday, and dessert on Sunday nights. Before the Holden Mine remediation started the Village only served meat at Saturday dinner but now it's become a part of some of our daily soups, and a feature of the early breakfast served for the remediation workers every morning at 6:30.
My two favorite Holden services are the same every week: “Vespers ‘86” and “Prayer around the Cross”, our Friday and Saturday services. During “Prayer around the Cross” we gather in darkness, chant (hymns from Taize, a religious community in France), light candles, lay hands, sing, pray, and mediate. During Vespers ’86, we sing a service written at Holden in the winter of ’86 when Marty Haugan served as village musician. Despite the fact Haugan wrote Vespers ’86 only twenty-six years ago, the music and lyrics feel old, rooted in a liturgical tradition that valued simplicity and reflection. There’s nothing flashy about the music but each week when I sing Haugan’s line, “Make us shine with gentle justice,” I feel the weight of each word, the way I savor my favorite novels and poems.
I love the structure of my days here in Holden Village. It leaves me with manageable spaces that I tend to fill with things like reading and writing, running and conversation because they’re time periods which lend themselves to short bursts of personal fulfillment and productivity—the two hours between when I wake and the start of school (when I often run or linger over long breakfast conversations), the thirty minutes between the end of my work day and dinner (when I read), the hour and a half between dinner and vespers, the three hours between vespers and bed. Routine gives my day shape but I also appreciate the breaks in structure. I loved backpacking to Miner’s Ridge two weekends ago and dancing till late into the night last Saturday. I love conversations that expand beyond the expected small talk. A week ago, when I got to dinner, instead of asking me about my day, someone at my table asked me: What's the most interesting thing you've ever done?, starting a table-wide conversation that lasted almost two hours. We shared the best book we’d read in the past three months and the summer movies we’d seen. We listed our top five films and talked about our favorite non-fiction texts. We discussed about Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri, Naomi Klein and Malcom Gladwell, The Departed and Aladdin. We lingered around our coffee cups and empty plates while the tables around us cleared. I hated leaving the table that night, because I have no place built into my week for those kind of conversations, they spring up spontaneously and I don’t ever know when I’ll get to have another one.
That's how autumn is. The changing of seasons catches me off guard, giving weight to things I might otherwise find ordinary. In fall, I find myself not only going on camping trips at Warren Dunes or hiking five mile sand spits on the coast or driving to Michigan to meet a man whose writing I admire for a beer, but lingering in normal moments while they happen, taking the time to appreciate the conversations I have and the letters I receive and the way the sun streaks the mountains when I go running in the morning. This week I find myself thinking: What details will I want to recall when I think back on the last week of my first month in Holden?
I'll want to remember the way the sun was last night: red against the smoke and the mountains, making the whole valley look volcanic. I'll want to remember a conversation I had with my friend Ben during a run that became a walk and then a sit as we continued to talk about life and love and death and the inevitability of sorrow while dangling our feet above Railroad Creek. I'll want to remember a care package I received from a family that I love which contained a poem written by their two children titled, "Orange things will take you far" and I'll want to remember watching three elementary school students I teach tromping around Chalet Hill barefoot, dressed in vests and rolled up jeans, holding sticks, playing "hobbits." I'll want to remember breakfast discussion I had with a three year-old about who was more curious: me or him. You can't be more curious than me, he kept saying, it's not possible. I'll want to remember sitting on the porch of the Village Center, eating chocolate peanut butter ice cream and listening to a man with a guitar and long blonde hair singing "Garden Party" and "Christ for President."
I'll want to remember that a friend of a friend called "Prayer Around the Cross," my favorite service at Holden, "Cry Around the T" and that when I heard him say it the ritual felt, not trivialized, but more important. Sometimes we need to gather together in darkness with candles and song. Sometimes we need to come forward, in sadness or happiness, regret or release, or even in joy and gratitude, to cry around the "t." We need that kind of weight in our weeks.