Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Big Two-Hearted

“If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.”-Philip Larkin, “Water”

Four months ago, my brother Keith and I traveled to the Two-Hearted River in northern Michigan.  We drove with my friend Dave and Keith’s girlfriend Erin after another friend’s wedding.  We left the wedding after midnight and didn’t arrive at the Two-Hearted until almost dawn.  Dave drove.  I slept against the back window with my cheek pressed to the glass and woke only once, when the headlights of our car illuminated the silhouette of a black bear blocking the road.  Keith and Dave shouted and the car jolted, making my body lurch forward, before the bear ambled off and I fell back asleep. 

I woke stretched across the backseat of my brother’s car, still wearing my contacts and jeans I pulled on after the wedding.  Sun shadowed my body and when I opened the door of the car the air felt dry and crisp.  I walked past pitched tents down a hill to the Two-Hearted River--the namesake of Hemingway’s story: “The Big Two-Hearted River.”   When I splashed river water on my face it felt cold enough to numb my fingers and redden my cheeks.

I borrowed a compass and bushwhacked the mile and a half from our campground to Lake Superior.  Ferns whipped my legs and sandy soil filled my canvas slip-on shoes.  I scrambled up hills and down a dune, stripped to my underwear, and waded into the water. I dipped my hair under the waves till it hung damp at my shoulders.  I drifted on my back.  I let myself go limp in the waves, baptizing my body in lake water. 

That day, we walked from the campground to a bridge above the Two-Hearted.  I cut my jeans into shorts using my brother’s Leatherman so I could stand in the river and fish.  We took photographs of each other in cut-offs and cuffed pants, t-shirts and flannels, drinking Bell’s "Two-Hearted Ale" and casting in the same river Nick Adams, Hemingway's protagonist, fished after returning from the first World War almost a century ago.  Later, we traveled to mouth of the Two-Hearted, where we let the speed of the river sweep us into Lake Superior.  We ran and jumped.  We tucked our legs into our stomachs so our torsos moved through the river faster.  We bruised our butts on river stones and swam in the cold water till our skin stung.  Then we read Hemingway out loud, popcorn style, passing the book from one person to another.  I watched my friends drinking beer, huddled around a book I loved, and felt like Hemingway’s protagonist, Nick Adams: “there in the good place,” “in my home where I had made it.”

Before we left the Two-Hearted, Dave and Boot wanted to jump from a fallen tree into the river.  I stood on the bank, watching them climb weathered limbs.  The top of the tree had been cut, creating a spot the size of a dinner plate, flat enough to stand on, about fifteen feet above the water.  I watched them jumping into the sandy-bottomed river. 

“Wanna try?” Boot asked.

When I told him that I did but I felt nervous, both Boot and Dave assured me that it was normal--that humans should fear falling.  We don’t want to let our bodies sail through space.  They told me it would be scary, but also fun and safe.  I looked up then looked at both of them.  I set down my backpack.  I dropped my towel, stepped out of my shorts, curled my bare feet around the stubs of severed branches and started to climb.  Boot followed me.  He told me which limbs were loose and which could support my weight.  He helped me pick a spot to jump from.  I let my body submit to the sensation of falling.  The river zipped me into it, smooth as a stone, and when I burst up from the water, I knew that the next four months would be better than the last four, that the world is big and wild and I planned to let myself succumb to it—with all its joy and pain and love and fear.

I’ve tried to explain to half a dozen people why that day at the Two-Hearted meant so much to me—why I needed that day to move from one part of my life to the next.  That day started so much of what was to come, setting the tone for my move west and my time in Holden Village.  I needed to cut my jeans into shorts with a pocket knife, stand waist-deep in water casting, and swim until it hurt with people who made me laugh until it hurt. I needed to read out loud with friends and I needed to do something that scared me.
I spent Thanksgiving in Holden Village, three hours from the nearest city, store, or cell phone signal. Holden Village starts its Thanksgiving celebration with a Turkey Trot.  But Holden’s Turkey Trot is unlike any road race I've ever run. Participants were asked to predict their times and the runner who ran closest to his or her anticipated time won. No watches allowed, costumes suggested, cheating encouraged. We all started in the middle of the village and ran a road that looped around the mine. Everyone chose which direction he or she wanted to start so when the gun went off, the crowd parted, running both ways down the road.  I ran with my friends Peter and Dhiraj. We led our half of the crowd, ran way faster than our predicted times, and talked the whole way. We finished at the dining hall where the kitchen served egg bake, fruit salad, and applesauce. 

I spent the rest of the morning snowshoeing with my friend Scott on the second level of the old Holden mine. We wandered through snow-stacked trees to an old mine shaft. We walked and talked and looked  Cascade Mountains which scraped the sky with snow-capped peaks. Later, we ate Thanksgiving dinner in the dining hall: turkey and mashed roots, Brussels sprouts and double-buttered rolls, pumpkin-spice pie and homemade apple cider. I did dishes for a crowd of one hundred fifty with a team of seven who danced and laughed as we washed, swirling and spinning to pop music as we fed dishes through the Hobart.

That night, my housemate Kari and I went sledding. Hoarfrost sparkled the snow and the clouds parted enough for us to see stars over the silhouette of mountains. We tried to keep our voices quiet as our sleds scraped down the hill, bouncing over icy jumps, but by the time we finished each run, Kari and I collapsed into a heap of laughter. We felt so lucky to sled with bellies full of food and wine. We couldn't contain everything we felt in the silence of the night.  We brimmed with gratitude.
Saturday, at Kari's birthday party, a group of friends sat around talking about the good things in life. We made a list, circling from person to person. Gardening.  Fresh Baked Bread. Wood Floors. Dark beer. We kept listing for almost an hour.  The way campfire smoke lingers in your hair. Walking barefoot.  Sleeping in. The moment before you kiss someone.  Someone remarked: I like when other people do my dishes and I like doing dishes for other people but I don't like doing my own dishes. Someone else said she likes the way beans feel when she sifts them through her fingers. 

I joined Holden Village's Fullness of God Lutheran Church (FOG) the day after Kari's party.  I stood in front of the congregation and repeated baptismal vows.  I still don't know what I believe about the after life (or even this one) and I don't know how or why we choose to claim one set of beliefs over another in a world rich with ritual.  I don't think that baptism in a church is any more spiritually significant than jumping in the cold water of Lake Superior during a day of transition   But I believe in a world infused by the sacred and being part of a community like Holden makes me want to hold tight to that sacredness and serve it.  I believe in simple living, in giving grace to the people around me, in seeing God in gardens and mountains, in fresh baked bread and the sound of dry beans sifting, in the frost that sparkles the snow, the smell of campfires, and the silence of nightfall.
Hemingway named his story "The Big Two-Hearted River" because of the river's name.  "Two-Hearted" evoked Hemingway's protagonist, Nick Adams.  The story is in the subtext, in the sparseness of the sentences and the untold stories that white space symbolizes.  Nick Adams came back from the war and went fishing.  He pitched a camp on the side of the Two-Hearted to heal--Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas. It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day...It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it.  Hemingway's story unwinds in sentences which make tangible both the turmoil Adams felt and the peace he found.

In Cheryl Strayed's "Dear Sugar" column Strayed described her yet-to-be-written first book as, "pulsing in my chest like a second heart, formless and unimaginable."  I don't know how I'll remember this time in my life or how I'll think about my trip to the Two-Hearted in the future but now I think of that trip and this time it as a baptism, a birth of my own second heart: the pulse of unwritten essays, unwritten poems, and an unwritten book.  The beat of questions about faith and home which drill through me every day I live in this beautiful place thousands of miles from where I was born.  And when I feel the rhythm of that second heart I feel grateful to wrestle with meaning in a world so big and wild.  I feel lucky to live in a place where I can wake each morning to sun shadowing snow-capped peaks and lucky to tromp back to my chalet each night in a village blanketed by snow.  I catch my breath and watch it freeze in the air.  I follow my own footprints back to the place I'm learning to call home.


  1. Oh, Rachael.

    This is so beautiful, and I can really hear that second heart beating in here. You're certainly building toward something.

    Send me work if you ever want to. I miss you, I miss you.

  2. Dear Rachael,

    I second everything Marissa said, especially with this pulse. As Sugar says, your love for Holden and for life shimmers through in this post -- this letter. I don't think you'd shared yet the story about the tree from Two-Hearted River and that was nice to read about, and I can see that being a pivotal moment in some longer worker (though probably not THE pivotal moment, but who knows?). I was listening to Bon Iver as I read this (specifically Towers in it's entirety, plus part of another song) and it seemed exactly appropriate.



  3. Thanks Liz and Marissa,

    I miss both of you so much. I wish we could all get lunch at the cafe and talk about books and writing and life. Sigh.

    Miss miss missing you both.



  4. I always think about what you write long after I read it.