In graduate school study becomes specific. Instead of majoring in English, graduate students study “depictions of domestic women in late eighteenth century novels of social criticism” instead of studying biology, graduate students study, “the PH of soil and its role in urban farming.” The graduate students I know are people able to pour themselves into fields so specialized that they may know more about the subject of their dissertation than anyone in their department, their university, or even their state or country—which is why, when I try to explain what I studied in graduate school, I struggle to articulate the subject of my thesis or the aims of my research.
During my three years at Iowa State I completed a book-length project titled, When I Get Home. I checked out dozens of books on Detroit, Michigan, the Midwest, and the rust belt. I studied my home. I read about the concept of home. I learned that there is no word in the French language for “home.” In Mandarin (“Jia”) and Cantonese (“Gaa”)—“home” and “family” are synonyms. In Spanish, the word for home, “hogar,” translates closely to our English word for “hearth.” The Spanish phrase for being far from home: “hallarse ausente” literally translates to “seeking and finding distance.” I ended my graduate thesis, my book, with my own image of hope and home: a description of standing on top of the Guardian building in Detroit looking out on the city, “a garden of towers scraping the sky.”
But I didn’t move back to Detroit after graduating. I applied for jobs at Cranbrook and Wayne State University. I searched Metro-Detroit job-finding websites weekly. After sending out dozens of cover letters and applications, I ended up on the west coast teaching outdoor education, helping students near Tacoma, Washington learn about their environment and claim their landscape. I stored the furniture from my graduate school apartment and moved cross country with a glove box full of maps, a cardboard box of books, and two suitcases bags full of my most weather-durable clothing. I moved into a room with white walls and a twin bed and woke every morning to the sound of pop music playing on the dining hall stereo and the clank of students setting breakfast tables.
I moved cross-country for the second time last August, to Holden Village, a place so isolated that it’s only accessible by ferry or on foot. I arrived August 31th, six days before I began working as a para-educator in Holden’s “remote and necessary” public school. I’ve been in Holden Village for just over a month and a half. I live with three girls in a chalet with a wood-burning stove and a front porch swing. We host knitting circle every week and bi-weekly tea parties in our living room. I have book shelves lining my wall and prayer flags hanging above my bedroom window. There are pots of basil in our dining room and checkered curtains hanging on the window above our kitchen table.
My mom visited Holden in the beginning of October. I watched her ferry chug up to Lucerne landing. I greeted her wearing a sweater she’d bought almost thirty years ago in Scotland on her honey-moon. We rode the school bus up the ten miles of switchbacks and ate soup and salad together in Holden’s dining hall.
What makes a place feel like home? The night my mom came to Holden I invited people from the village to my chalet after vespers for snacks and conversation. I served wine my mom brought from the Safeway in Chelan, trail mix, pumpkin cookies, Wheat Thins and goat cheese. Friends filtered in and out. We sat in a circle in my living room, drinking wine and tea and laughing. The crowd that congregated in my living room ranged from people in their twenties to people in their sixties—professors and pastors, social workers and students, musicians, artists, writers, and cooks. We belly-laughed about totaled cars and cross country road trips. We talked about hiking and mountains and the sacredness of sharing food.
My mom and I walked thirty miles during her weekend in Holden. We hiked to Holden Lake and Cloudy Pass, places I’d walked to by myself in the days between arriving in the village and starting my work at the school. We sat at the top of the Lyman switchbacks, stretching and drinking water while we looked out at Dumbbell mountain’s glacial snowfields. We picnicked on homemade granola, plums, green peppers, and cheese and hummus sandwiches at Cloudy Pass. We crouched on boulders beside Lyman Lake and photographed its turquoise water. We dined with villagers of all ages and talked at our dinner table about big families, counseling at camps, applying to college, and crashing weddings. At night we sat in the Holden Village hot tub where we let our muscles soak in the hot water and looked up at the smattering of stars which spanned the sky from one horizon to the other.
I’ve been living in this mountain village for over a month and a half. It’ll be two months on Halloween. Last week, after my mom’s departure, I left the Cascades for the first time since August to travel to my housemate Kari’s cabin in Coeur d’Alene with my friends Cecilia and Jericho. When we left the village, we referred to our chalet in Holden as “home.” It’s a word that’s been slipping back in my mouth for the first time since I left my graduate school apartment in Iowa and it feels good to have it back on my tongue: Home.
Tuesday night, at a party, a friend asked me what I missed most about the world outside Holden. I paused and told him that I missed the diversity of places like Detroit: the assortment of economic, religious, and racial backgrounds the city offers. He said he missed movie theaters and going out to eat and access to the support network he’d built in the city where he lived. I told him that I missed my family and friends from Michigan and Indiana and Iowa but that I’d struggled to build the same kind of close cluster of friends during my first year in Washington. I thought about the things I didn’t miss: driving, malls, traffic, texting, spending money.
But later that night, without the buzz of people talking and drinking all around me, I thought again about what I miss. I miss being able to talk with my parents on the phone. I miss the colorful heaps of vegetables at the co-op. I miss going to Grand Ledge with my brother, working climbing routes, playing fetch with Dave’s dog, and picnicking on humus and homemade bread beneath Grand Ledge’s limestone cliffs. I miss cooking breakfast on Fridays with Brenna and Liz and Annie in Iowa, lingering over French toast casserole and breakfast salad. I miss drinking coffee with my mom on my parents’ back porch and listening to my dad play guitar. I miss cooking dinner with John, making fish tacos or squash soup or pesto, while drinking cheap wine and listening to podcasts. I miss internet fast enough to stream songs and going with my brother to see Michigan bluegrass and folk bands play at college auditoriums and art galleries, dive bars and libraries.
Claiming a home, like falling in love, becomes harder as you get older. Or maybe it becomes more difficult if you haven’t done it by a certain age. I could have stayed in any of the places I’ve lived in the same way I could have ended up with any of the people I’ve been lucky enough to be close to over the years. But as a twenty-six year-old, single and living in the Cascade Mountains, my sense of home feels fragmented and there’s not a person or place I can return to that fills all the gaps. Instead there are memories of moments when I felt at home and a smattering of people who make those moments happen more often—family and friends who are scattered across Michigan, Iowa Indiana, Oregon, California, Pennsylvania, and Washington. And there’s Holden Village, a community of people clustered together in the mountains, trying to make a home for vagabonds like me.
Wednesday afternoon I received a book I’d ordered in the mail, a hard-covered copy of Rick Bass’s collection, The Lives of Rocks. I read it in graduate school for a class on “Re-inventing the West” and I bought it because I wanted to own a copy of the first story in the collection, a short story about two boys, best friends, who both loved the same girl, and, in a less common variation of the ancient story she chose neither of them but went on to meet and choose a third, and lived happily ever after. It’s not a story about regret or mistakes, but a narrative about change and the ways we become the people we are. The story ends, Even now, Richard thinks they missed each other by a hair’s breadth…he thinks it may have been one of the closest misses in history of the world…he marvels at how wise they were and all the paths they did not take. I re-read the story in my chalet Wednesday evening, before heading to the dining hall for dinner, and thought about the people I’ve loved and the places I’ve lived, “husks” of my former lives: fragments of the homes I’ve had and the homes I could have had.
There are moments in the village where I feel a sense of home, “hogar,” hearth and “Jia,” family: roasting marshmallows at Hart Lake with Sally, watching My So-Called-Life reruns with Cecilia, talking on the porch of Agape after Vespers with Scott, reading out-loud to Micah and Micaela in the Holden School library loft, running four-hundred meter repeats with our school’s three cross country runners, and hanging my jeans and sweaters back in my closet after a trip out of the village. My chalet--with its porch swing, paneled walls, flower boxes, lamp-lit living room and wood burning stove--looks and feels like the kind of home I’d design for myself: homey and old-worldly, spacious and quirky.
Thursday, I left the village for the second time in two weeks. I went with our three high schoolers to a cross country meet in Chelan. The school district chartered a private boat to drive Joe, Kasey, Corey, our assistant coach Thomas, and me. We zipped along the rocky cliffs of Lake Chelan, watching the boat's depth finder. We photographed the finder at the lake's deepest point: 1,535 feet. At points the boat sailed through water so smooth that only the boat's wake rippled the lake's surface, at points white-capped waves broke our rhythm, sending the boat sputtering and swerving, bouncing us from our padded seats. We watched the mountains get smaller and smoother. We watched the groves of Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Firs thin to the scrappy dessert. We pulled into the dock at Chelan in just over an hour, where our driver, a grizzled man with gray stubble, told us to stay seated until he'd tied the boat to the dock.
Before we left Holden, we attended a pep-rally put on by the primary schoolers. The school's seven elementary students wore forest green and computer cut outs of clip art goats. They wore green ribbons in their hair and painted their faces. They held painted letters which, when they stood side-by-side spelled "Go Goats!" (the school's mascot) and led the entire village in pep assembly cheers.
The students ran on the golf course in Chelan, on rolling grass back-dropped by distant Cascade Mountains. Thomas and I ran from spot to spot, sprinting our legs sore and shouting our voices raw. All three Holden runners ran personal best times. Two qualified to go onto districts.
After the meet, we huddled into a pizza place in called Local Myth and ordered pizzas with Kalmata olives, tomatoes, and basil. When I went to the bathroom, I could hear the cooks talking about how long our order of three large pizzas would take to complete. They'll be okay waiting, one said, They're Holden people and I felt like a representative of our mountain community where high schoolers run mountain trails for cross country practice and where people show enough grace to wait patiently for pizza while sipping on water, lingering, talking, and laughing.
It snowed Monday. The mountains look like someone powder-sugared the peaks. The day it snowed I watched Holden Village students race around the playground, trying to catch falling leaves. They moved in a clump, extending their arms skyward, elbowing each other in their efforts to hook yellow foliage in their fingers. When the wind stopped, they caught snow on their tongues.
As the day went on, I watched the snowline creep down the mountains till white powder covered not only the peaks of Buckskin and Copper but Martin Ridge and the top of the Ten Mile Falls switchbacks. Yellow leaves skittered across the dirt road that runs through the village and frost sparkled the grass and ferns.
By November the village should be buried in snow. When I picture winter here I imagine the smell of the wood-burning stove and books piled on the coffee table of my chalet. I imagine learning to weave and knit and looking up at the stars on snow-lit nights. I picture sledding down chalet hill and snowshoeing up to Copper Basin. It'll be a different time to be in the Holden, blanketed by stillness and snow. Maybe in Holden I'm seeking and finding my distance--or maybe making a home doesn't mean buying property or staying forever anymore than loving somebody means building your entire life around them, maybe creating home just means being in a place long enough to see the seasons change, feeling the first snaps of cold in the air and staying to watch the leaves frost.