Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Saturday, November 9, 2013

perpetual motion

In a little while I’ll be drifting up an on-ramp,
sipping coffee from a Styrofoam container
checking my gas gauge with one eye
and twisting the dial of the radio.”
-Tony Hoagland, “Perpetual Motion”

There’s a Tony Hoagland poem I can’t get out of my head.  I play the lines in my memory like a song: it seems I have the traveling disease again, an outbreak of that virus celebrated by the cracked lips of a thousand blues musicians.  The drifting up the on ramp, the cracked lips of blues musicians, the radio: a disease caused by the lull of motion, a condition resulting in the inability to sit still.  I quoted Hoagland as an epigraph to my graduate thesis and three years later I’m still hinged on the lines of his poem, a captive to a the condition he describes.

I repeated them to myself this morning in the bathroom, while I splashed soap and water onto my face. My partner Peter and I had been pondering where to spend Thanksgiving.  We’d thought for months of going to Portland to cook dinner with our mutual friend Cecilia but her neighbors left their kitchen sink on, saturating the wall and floorboards of their apartment, filling the complex with the smell of wet wood and molding drywall.  Cecilia felt unsure about hosting company with her home in such a state--so we were left adrift and without plan. 

We could stay here.  Peter suggested.  We live in a remote village in the Cascade Mountains where there will be festivities and free food, snowshoeing, and star-gazing--not a bad place to spend the holiday.  But my gut surprised me.  Left to my own devices, I thought, I would celebrate Thanksgiving on the road.  I would eat lunch at the taco truck, wander markets, talk to strangers, cook Thanksgiving dinner in a hostel, and wade in the sage brush on the side of the highway, drenching myself in gratitude for a world this big and wide. 
~
Travel’s a hard habit to shake.  I’m not talking about vacation.  I’ve taken very few vacations as an adult.  I’ve been a teacher and a writer, a college instructor and a naturalist and none of those professions afford much expendable income for hotels, international flights, or restaurant meals.  What I have instead is time, flexibility, a dog-eared atlas, and friends so scattered around the country that there’s almost always a couch to crash on. 

If there were a movement for slow-travel the way there is for slow-food, I’d make brochures about encounters with strangers and roadside fruit stands.  I’d picket for back roads and blog about buying lemonade from the neighborhood stands of seven-year-olds.  I’d praise garage sales and promote stopping to swim in rivers.

This summer I spent five weeks on the road and two on the trail.  I learned how to herd sheep, graft trees, care for chickens, and build shelves.  I ate venison and horse, elk and bull testicle.  I bottle-fed baby goats, summited a 13,000 foot mountain.  I made my car a kind of home: a raft that carried me down two lane highways between small towns.  Even on un-showered days when my sleepy bag had become sticky from sweat and wear and my back stiff from sleeping on floors, I felt lucky to be able to witness so much, to look out my windows and watch the land change shape.
~
In college I took an environmental writing class.
On the syllabus my professor listed two quotes:

To be rooted is perhaps the most important
and least recognized need of the human soul.
~Simone Weil

Why have I always been glad to leave?
~J. B. Jackson
~
In a radio show about road trips, This American Life host Ira Glass observed, It’s hard for an American to just hit the road without some expectations--we all still bind to the cliche about road trips...a road trip stands for is hope. Hope. That somewhere, anywhere, is better than here. That somewhere on the road I will turn into the person that I want to be.

At twenty-seven I have an idea of who I want to be--I've a writer and a thinker, a teacher, a runner, a walker, and a wanderer.  I love the smell of earth and the scent of sawdust.  I want to sit on my porch on summer evenings, to read out loud to the person I love, to walk barefoot through the grass.  I want to cook on cast iron, shop at the farmer's market, and eat long lingering meals with friends and family.  I want a home lined with bookshelves and a clothes line stretching across my backyard.  I live as close I can to these desires.  I take small steps to draw them closer.  When I daydream it isn't about money or cars, clothing or sex.  It's about home: a place where my piney heart can put down roots.
~
I’m in love with a man who has spent most of his life living in the same place.  Peter grew up on a farm in Decorah, Iowa, a college town laced with rivers, farms, and limestone cliffs.  He went to college ten miles from the house where he grew up and didn’t live outside Decorah until he moved to Holden Village, the retreat center in the Cascade Mountains where we both work now.  Peter is careful with words and gentle with his hands.  When we hike, he pauses to watch ants or to palm the bundles of lichen that cling to Douglas Firs.  Sometimes he makes bouquets, collecting ferns and firs and flowers in artfully arranged bunches which he places in jars on the windowsill when we return home.

Peter talks of farming in the future--a plan that both excites and terrifies me: to root your fate to the land beneath you and to map your years by the patterns of weather.  It’s a life different that the one I grew up with, living in suburban Metro-Detroit, and a life different that the one I’ve made for myself in my twenties, moving every year or so to a different state, a different mountain range, a different job.  But there’s something about the life Peter imagines that calms me--I picture grass growing high around fenced garden plots, dirt-caked boots askew in front of a storm door, and a pantry brimming with mason jars of fruit jams and pickled vegetables. 
~
My first year living in Washington, I got lost in loneliness.    I’d get anxious about the future and nostalgic for times when I could quell my worries with coffee dates with my friends, post-teaching pancakes with my housemate, or home-cooked dinners of carrot soup and oatmeal stout with my then-boyfriend.  Without family or friends nearby, I’d wander in my car on the weekends.  I’d drive three hours to the Pacific Coast.  I’d walk among sea stacks and listen to the sound of ocean slapping shore.  I’d scramble the rocky shoreline and press my fingers against the aggregating anemones.  I’d balance on driftwood and stare at the line where the sea and sky came together, losing my bearings in the swath of blue and gray stretching further than I could see.

I don’t know what it is about movement that calms me.  I don’t know why standing on the edge of the ocean eases my loneliness or why I feel so smitten with highways I haven’t traveled or why, on some days, my car feels more like a home than anyplace I’ve lived.  But I know that travel fills me with hope, reminding me that I’m still on a journey and that I don’t know what my destination will be.
~
When Peter and I travel together, we imagine what it would be like to live in the towns we pass--what it would mean to stay in the places we stop.  Last weekend we road-tripped around the Eastern slope of the Cascades.  We stayed at a hostel and in a camper at the farm where Peter had interned this fall.  We cooked squash, shopped the farmers’ market, and stopped at our favorite shops for coffee.  We walked the high desert roadside and ran our hands along the hand-hewn wood fences that lined cattle pens.    

Peter and I are not married, we’re not engaged, we’re not even moving in together--but we’ve decided that when we leave the Cascade Mountains we’ll move to the same city.  It’s simple--no certificates or ceremonies or leases--but it’s the furthest I’ve ever gone with someone.

I’ve been on my own for most of my twenties.  Even when I’ve been partnered, I’ve made plans alone.  I’ve moved cross country by myself than once, unpacking my belongings into a dwelling I hadn’t seen before moving into it.  For a long time, I glamorized the freedom of flying solo, but recently, walking hand-in-hand with this gentle man, I’ve wondered what it would be like to move somewhere with a person and a plan, to put down some kind of roots, to begin to craft the kind of book-shelved home I’ve always wanted but never strived toward.
~
Last weekend, on our road trip, Peter and I scrambled cliffs that overlooked the Canadian border.  We traversed through brush that left burs clinging to my socks.   When we reached the north side of the cliffs, we came across a wooden cross with a girl’s name on it and the dates 9/11/2005-9/11/2005, a baby who died the day she was born.  Peter went to work.  He walked the surrounding area gathering flowers and grasses, winding them into a bouquet too intricate and pretty to buy in the store.  He didn’t rush--he ambled, selecting exactly the plants he wanted.  I watched Peter’s thin frame in the late afternoon light, feeling so much love for this man who moved with precision, selecting flowers for a baby he’d never met.  When he finished, he placed the bouquet underneath the cross then sat down beside me until the sun dipped below the hills and shadows started to streak the valley below.
~
When I confessed to Peter the feeling I’d had about Thanksgiving: the restless want for wandering, he told me that he wouldn’t feel unanchored traveling around like that for the holiday.  We’ll be together, he said, we’ll be grounded in each other.

It feels cheesy to write about: this contentedness.  It’s hard to tell an unfinished story--particularly a happy one.  Narrative arises from conflict.  Peter and I have dozens of questions but we encounter them with our feet on the trail and our eyes on the horizon.  We have next to nothing.  We hold onto hope, vulnerable on a road that will wind and twist.

It seems I have the traveling disease again.  Only this time, I’m by someone’s side and we’re walking together, smelling of sage and letting the autumn wind whip our faces under a sky too big to see the edges of.  We go forward in gratitude.  We make muddy footprints on the matted trail we’re breaking through the brush.
~

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bread Potluck vespers: A Seven Year Plan

(copy/pasted from http://www.holdenvillage.org/village-life/blog/rachael-button-seven-year-plan/)

RACHAEL BUTTON: A Seven Year Plan

September 25, 2013 at 12:05 PM
20130916-BreadVespers-MKoch19190006.jpg

On Saturday, Becky told me that approximately every seven years the body rebuilds itself. Atom by atom, cell by cell our physical being changes, until our body has only a handful of cells in common with the body we had before—until we are different. Becky and I had this conversation squatting in a patch of blueberries below Hilgaard Pass, palms stained blue, tongues tart with blueberry juice. I’m glad these blueberries will be part of my next body, Becky said. I love the idea of bodies being built by food—not just nutrients and calories—but by the experience of eating: apple pie shared with friends in a lamp-lit room, morning coffee and croissants savored over conversation at Chalet 5, or Sunday Eucharist, which happens twice for many of us here at Holden, once in the round in front of the altar, than a again after the service, when we huddle around the Lord’s Table and serve each other seconds of blessed bread and wine.

In Luke 24, the disciples recognize Jesus when he breaks bread with them. They’d been walking together since the beginning of the chapter but it is the act of blessing food and eating together—that reminder of taking Christ’s body into their bodies—that allows the disciples to understand the change that had been happening in their hearts the whole time.

Last spring I found the summer theme, “Made known in the breaking of the bread,” an odd choice. Why choose verses so attached to food when the Holden kitchen had just been contracted out, changing our rhythm of eating as a community? Several weeks ago, when I returned to the Holden for the first time since June, I changed my mind. After 170 miles on the trail, I visited Holden as a hiker, with a sore back and a body made skinny and shaky from long walking days. The day I entered the Railroad Creek Valley, Villagers gathered at the top of Chalet Hill for a potluck. We laid lawn blankets on the grass and ate black beans and baklava, cucumber, feta, quinoa, orzo, kale, zucchini, cantaloupe, and meat-mash. I heaped my plate and sat cross-legged beside friends, people whom I knew and people whom I didn’t know yet, who had taken time on their Saturday to cook for community. As someone who was working to rebuild her body, I needed that meal, the calories and the nutrients, but also the company, the scenery, and the flavor of foods crafted by people I love. I want the memory of that potluck meal to be part of my body, my cells, my next seven years.  

Perhaps Jesus’s disciples would have recognized him sooner if they’d met Christ on the road to Emmaus during a more certain time. But they’d watched empire slaughter their savior. They’d seen a person who symbolized salvation hang on a cross, body broken and deflated by death. It took the table to break them away from sorrow, to bring them back to flesh, hope, and a body that had been changed from dead to alive. At the table, in community, their world began anew, with a meal that would become part of their changing beings.
When I returned to Holden to start the new school year, I found a different village than the one I left: a village laced with red caution tape and trenched in by heavy construction. Yet even in the midst of all the clanking trucks and orange vests, I found meals with friends that filled me not only with calories but hope, meals that allowed me to see and know my community here at Holden: Claire’s croissants; Kari’s apple pie; Gary’s BBQ, cooked on the pit behind the kitchen; dinners eaten outside during the last warm evenings of summer; breakfast fruit held out an extra five minutes by Juan so that us latecomers can still enjoy pineapple and blackberries; extra oatmeal toppings added to the line by Rachel, who loves hot cereal as much as any Holden staff member; coffee in the registration window brewed in small batches by Bonnie and Tressa; blueberries on the trail; seconds at the communion table, and bread baked and eaten by our community here tonight. When we eat together we talk. We sit, we chew, we listen, and pause our work for fellowship at the table. In the midst of altered rhythms, these shared meals allow us to recognize Christ in ourselves and others here in this valley. I want this kind of eating to become part of us: a piece of the self we’re rebuilding, part our next seven years and the people and place we’re becoming.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Summer break, first snow, September equinox

Who would 
have guessed
it possible
that waiting
is sustainable—
a place with

its own harvests.
.-Kay Ryan, Patience

Larches at Hilgard Pass
I spent the summer of 2009 living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, splitting my time between the northern coast of Lake Michigan and the Southern coast of Lake Superior.  I gave tours at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point and barista-ed at a coffee shop off Highway 2.  I read a book a week and baked my own bread.  I wandered the woods, hiked sand-dunes, and explored the ruins of abandoned logging villages.  I slept in a tent, in a bed at my parents’ cabin, in an apartment above a movie theater at the shipwreck museum, in the basement of a 19th century coast guard building.  I vagabonded.  I read.  I recorded notes.  I hardly wrote at all.

In the fall, when I returned to graduate school in Iowa, I confessed to a professor who I loved and respected that I hadn't finished an essay all summer.  I told him about my adventures and asked him for advice on how to balance exploration and reflection.

He paused then gave me an answer I didn't expect: "Summer is for going out, drawing material, filling up the well.  Then when the weather turns, you come back to your desk and write."
~
This summer I traveled by car for five weeks.  I stayed in a hostel in the North Cascades and ate my way through small town bakeries as I drove Highway 20 toward Spokane.  I herded sheep, burnt invasive Alyssum, served meals at a shelter, learned about tree grafting, and built shelves from wood taken from the forest service burn pile in Hotchkiss, Colorado.  I ate horse, venison, and elk, bull testicle, and alligator.  I hiked to a hanging lake and summited a 13,000 foot mountain.  I bottle-fed baby goats, swam in Iowa rivers, and walked dirt roads bordered by fields of fireflies.  I went rock climbing at the ledges near Lansing and drank home-brew with my brother.  I canoed and stargazed.  I went to my cousin's wedding and walked 170 miles--from Stehekin to Canada and back on the PCT. 

There’s a freedom to travel that I needed this summer.  After spending nine months living and working in a mountain village that spans less than a quarter mile, I wanted to wander.  I wanted to the smell of high desert sage in Eastern Washington and feel the smooth surface of slip rock in Moab, Utah, I wanted the cool mountain air of Rocky mountains and the thick humidity of midwestern summer. I needed to walk myself tired then return to my little mountain village, full of experience, ready for another year of being grounded in light and darkness, the changing of the seasons, and the rhythm of community.
~
I returned Holden Village twenty-two days ago.  A new school year began.  I've hiked mountain passes and swam in lakes.  I've sat out under the stars and soaked in the hot tub.  I've taken our two second grade students on their first hike to Holden Lake.  I've baked bread from mountain blueberries.  I've started cross country training with the high school team.

I know how to live with urgency.  I know how to wake up early and how to stay up late.  But this morning, when my alarm went off, my eyes felt watery from allergies and my body spent from hiking.  Outside, clouds covered the mountains and the air felt damp with the potential for rain.  I let my body settle back into bed, pushed snooze and decided that today would be a day for writing and rest, a time to transition into a slower season.
~
Today is the fall equinox--the halfway point between the solstices, the day of the year when the hours of darkness and light are almost equal.  It's a day to strive for balance and celebrate the turn of the season.  As of tomorrow, the days will begin getting darker.

This morning, after deciding to sleep in and not hike, I went to the chalet next door for Sunday morning coffee and scones.  I bundled in a sweatshirt and a puffy vest, sat cross-legged in front of the fireplace, and joined in slow-Sunday conversation with my neighbors.  Outside clouds cloaked most of the mountains.  After about a half hour of coffee-drinking someone pointed at the peaks.

“Snow!”

We all looked at Buckskin’s summit--its peak dusted white.
~
I don’t feel ready for winter.  I love snow and sledding, fireplaces, and sing-a-longs but there’s still half a dozen places I want to hike to before the snow comes and even on a rainy Sunday, I feel guilty about the miles I didn’t walk, the places I didn’t visit, the adventures I didn’t have. 

And after a summer spent traveling, writing feels more difficult than usual--in a way that makes me question what I do and why I do it.  I have half a dozen unfinished essays started.  After so much movement, so much travel, sitting by a computer makes me squirmy--hours spent staring at a screen working through my thoughts feel wasteful compared to time spent outside.  I have to retrain myself in slowness and reflection, in the art of staying in a place and sitting with a feeling.
~
There's a momentum to the seasons but in the mountains, they seem to shift without warning.  Last weekend I swam in Domke Lake, Lake Chelan, and Holden Lake.  I lay back and let the water hold my body's weight as I looked up at the mountains all around me.  The sun beamed off the water, and it seemed like we'd have months more of summer.  Then the weather changed.  Autumn began and suddenly there's snow on the summits and as much dark as there is light in the day.  

I'm a better climber and a better hiker than I was when I moved to Holden.  I know more about the mosses and lichens, more about the texture of bark and the shapes of leaves.  I know more about living in community and caring for children.  I've slowed the pace of some of my hikes.  I've stopped to pick berries and swim naked.  But I'm still learning how to live here, still learning how to slow.  I want to keep recording, reflecting, writing, and balancing.  I want to cultivate wonder and practice patience--and on a fog-shrouded Sunday I want to linger in bed, look out the window at the falling rain, and feel at peace.   

Friday, June 7, 2013

Traveling, Exploring, and More Gary Snyder inspired list-making

Things to do in the Cascades, east of Lake Chelan:

-Cook black beans and kale
-Drink beer
-Read guidebooks
-Hot shower
-Floor-sit
-Bakery-hop
-eat a Cinnamon Twisp
-Drive dirt roads
-Call home
-Walk sidewalks
-Whistle at marmots
-Sing folk songs to cougars*
-Discover the timer feature on your camera
-Fill tires with air
-Slip on snow
-Look at maps
-Follow footprints
-Photograph glacier lilies
-Hike toward Holden

Things to do in Okanogan county:

-Vacuum car
-Wash exterior
-Get organized
-Walk the strawberry patch
-Afternoon tea
-Brie and crackers
-Freckle shoulders
-Sweat
-Climb barbed wire
-Dodge sprinklers
-Decompress
-Drink home brew
-Homemade ranch with celery
-Linger over salad
-Carry cat on shoulder
-Sleep outside
-Pee in the grass
-Wake with the sun
-Banana bread and coffee
-Scramble rocks
-Smell sage
-Herd sheep
-Trace tree cambium
-Learn about grafting
-Tour felting yurt
-Wish weeds unwellness
-Fist-fulls of roots
-Biodynamic farming lesson 
-Burn invasive species
-Horse meat with Tapatio
-Bagels in Republic
-Hugs on the highway shoulder
-Drive into the next drainage

Things to do in Spokane:

-Smell ponderosa
-Linger over dinner
-Hugs and conversation
-Sleep in clean sheets
-Wake slow
-Prep green beans and lamb
-Serve lunch
-Meet travelers
-Compare notes
-Repair tires
-Change oil
-Wine on the patio
-Story telling
-Story hearing
-Dinner party at Sheryl and Bill's
-Catch up on phone calls
-Morning coffee
-Afternoon pasta-making
-Conversations in the sun
-Feel like family
-Plan another visit


*which may or may not be watching you on the trail

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Robert Frost, roads not taken, and the poetry of graduation

Graduation speeches make me tense.  The platitudes that saturate such occasions often leave me feeling more skeptical than inspired.  The speeches made at both my high school and college graduation quoted Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”  In both instances the speaker talked about success and the path one travels toward it.  They both quoted the end of Frost’s poem where taking the road less traveled makes all the difference.  But neither speech tackled to the poem’s beginning: Frost’s description of two paths in a yellow wood bending into the undergrowth, “worn about the same,” two similar-looking trails that veered in opposite directions.  Frost writes, And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black./Oh, I kept the first for another day!/ Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back.  

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back. Those lines evoke so many instances for me: times when I've left jobs, people, places, relationships, with the wistful hope of returning, times when I've had to make a decision about the future, wishing that I could chose both roads. In my mind by focusing solely on the poem’s last line, the speakers at my commencements missed Frost’s point: the memory of not just the path traveled but the haunting image of the road not taken—the trail that gives the poem its title.

I think this part of the poem often gets ignored because it’s less straightforward, less inspirational.  But to me, this uncertainty isn’t depressing.  It resonates with my experiences of life: with the decisions we make and the way we amble through them, with the paths we trod and the paths we leave behind still wanting wear.  Both Kasey and Joe made choices that brought them here today.  Joe left his family, his high school, the cross country team he captained and the friends he felt familiar with to board at Holden and attend a tiny mountain school.  Kasey imagined her future half a dozen different ways, before she committed to spending the next four years at Boston University.  Both seniors sacrificed: for a path they’re still walking, toward to a future they cannot yet see.    There will be days when both Kasey and Joe will wonder about decisions they made and the places those decisions led them and there will be days when they step back, claiming their road with pride Frost’s narrator presents at the end of the poem, I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence:/ Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference…

I love poetry because it’s sparse and imagistic.  It moves like memory, jumping from association to association in a stream of stories and words.  It’s dense with meaning but lingers on images instead of giving us answers.  When writer Cheryl Strayed was asked for advice she recommended buying ten books of poetry and reading them each five times.  When asked why she responded, “Because the truth is inside.” 
 
Truth unravels our stories, breaking them down to the memories which saturate our senses.  Wisdom doesn’t live in proclamations; it resides in the contradictions that complicate our character.  It’s beautiful in its vulnerability.

In one of my favorite poems, “The Two” by Philip Levine, a man and a woman meet outside a Detroit diner.  Levine writes, 
 
He's tired, a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion on his own breath, he kisses her carefully on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what. The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives nothing away: the low clouds break here and there and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven. The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn't decided what to become.

The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn't decided what to become.  I love that line—how it says so much with so few words.  The image gives me a lens to think of my own becoming—my entry into adulthood—low clouds and pure blue slices of heaven, an April sky lit with change, still taking shape.  It’s a moment of promise and potential: a snippet of time when answers and destiny seem ephemeral compared to frying bacon, work-spent breath, poached eggs, and cloud-slivered sky. 
 
Joe Coffey and Kasey Shultz have a lot to be proud of abut the people they’re becoming:  both Holden graduates have high grade point averages, outstanding test scores, and scholarship offers from prestigious colleges, both graduates are kind community members and leaders the younger students look up to but if I were to write poems or essays or stories about Kasey and Joe those wouldn’t be the details I’d include.  I’d write about Joe Coffey’s half-built boat coming together piece-by-piece on the platform behind my chalet.  I’d write about his paint stained shoes, wood-warn hands, and the crowd that gathers around him every night to watch him construct the vessel he hopes to sail out of the village.  I’d write about Kasey’s braided hair brushing her shoulders as she sits cross-legged on the Kirchner’s couch reading Mary Oliver poems aloud at Poetry Club.  I’d write about the poems she wrote on neon pink sticky notes every day in December and the way they decorated my desk for months, reminding me of ice cream flavors, flirting with babies, and the sun spattered mid-winter sky.  
 
Both Joe and Kasey are driven and motivated, intelligent and thoughtful.  So what I want for them is more than success.  I want wisdom and insight.  I want boat-building and poem writing, sun speckled braids and saw-dusted feet.  I want them to continue to be as vulnerable to life as they are now--brave enough to fail and courageous enough to look back and wonder.  I want them to get their hands dirty and stop for snacks, to walk the shoulders of back roads and drive two lane highways.  I want them to reflect on both the paths they took and the ones they didn’t with an honesty that leaves them vulnerable to both regret and joy--and when I see them again in future years I want to hear their poems and their stories: their low clouds breaking into pure blue heaven.  
 
(Sing Holden Prayer of Good Courage) O God you have called us to ventures of which we cannot see the end, by paths never yet taken, through perils unknown. Give us good courage, not knowing where we go, to know that your hand is leading us, wherever we may go. Amen.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Vespers: reflections on the Boston Marathon

(taken from a vespers service I led at Holden on 4/17/2013)


I didn’t mean to sign up for vespers.  Last Wednesday at the staff meeting, when Pastor Scott stood at the podium with a clip board and said he needed a leader for vespers next Wednesday, I thought he said reader.  I watched the quiet response from my perch in the loft and wondered what the big deal was.  Is anyone willing?  Scott repeated.  I raised my hand.  I didn’t realize what I had volunteered for until breakfast on Monday.


Monday morning, I sat down to work intending to talk about my experiences at Quaker meeting, about silence and the space we make for it--but several hours into writing, I read a Facebook post from Aaron Scheidies, a man who still seems like a boy to me because I knew him best in high school.  Aaron graduated before I did but came back to train with our cross country team during the summer--so almost a decade ago we did some morning runs together, chatting and sweating, legs in stride, breathing easy in the mid-July Michigan heat.  After college, Aaron made a name for himself as one of the country’s best legally blind triathletes.  On Monday, he ran Boston in 2 hours and forty-five minutes, a personal record for him, less than a minute off the race record for a blind athlete.  Aaron posted his time; but it was the second post he made on Facebook which gave me pause.   Two sentences: Hey everyone wanted to let you know I’m okay.  Please pray for those affected. When I read what Aaron wrote, my stomach lurched.  I closed my Word document.  I shifted focus.
~
I don’t quite know how to talk about the bombings that happened in Boston on Monday.  Three dead.  Over a hundred injured.  Images of stumbling bodies and blood-slicked pavement.  The detail that kept coming up in the news was lost limbs.  Legs.  Arms.  Smoke and severed glass.  I don’t want to describe more.  I spent most of Monday sitting with my legs curled under my body, searching Facebook and twitter for word about the people I know.  The community targeted at Boston was my community: retail workers who use their comp time to travel to road races, graduate students who maintain their sanity by claiming the afternoon hours for a trail run, college athletes who wear seventies style short-shorts with vintage singlets, weekend running groups who meet Sunday mornings for fourteen mile pre-brunch “jogs.” 

I’ve been a runner since grade school.  I ran cross country and track in middle school, high school, and college.  I know the rush of lactic acid after the first mile of a 5K and the elated exhaustion of the finish line.  I've used "easy" and "sixteen miler" in the same sentence.  I’ve sold running shoes for nine summers at three different shoe stores.  I’ve joined running clubs and volunteered at road races.  I’ve passed out paper cups of Gatorade and sprinted from spot to spot on a race course, yelling out places and positions. 

I ran my first and only marathon in Des Moines the fall I began graduate school.  I didn’t have a running community in Iowa so I trained for months by myself, running two lane highways, looping the Iowa State University cross country course, and doing speed workouts on the middle school track behind my house.  I missed the camaraderie of college running and the running groups who trained with me in Michigan but the act of strapping on shoes and starting my watch made my new state seem less strange.  I got sick the week before my race and spent the three days before the marathon bedbound, hoping to pull myself together enough to still compete.  I drank dozens of glasses of orange juice and cup after cup of Theraflu tea.  The Sunday of the race, I lined up at the starting line, unsure of the body I’d trained.  When I finished my marathon I crumpled to the pavement, muscles too shaky to lift my legs.  I watched other runners search for their families and friends, many of them still wrapped in silver space blankets we’d been passed at the finish line.  Some seemed bouncy with adrenaline; others were as spent and shaky as me.  

When my mother heard the news about Boston this week she e-mailed me, with her memories of the finish line at Des Moines, the chaos of the crowd of finishers: the struggle she had finding me.  She wondered how the families of Boston runners felt trying to find their runners.  She wondered how Boston runners felt trying to find their families.

Had I run Boston this year in a similar time to time I ran for the marathon in Des Moines in 2008, I would have finished about forty-five minutes before bombs started going off.  I may have been still near the finish line, within seeing and smelling distance of the explosions.  But I’ve only run the one marathon, almost five years ago, and even though I qualified for Boston the year I ran Des Moines, I didn’t register for the race the following spring.  The cost of entry fees and travel became too much on a graduate student budget and the writing schedule I created allowed less time for running.  I changed course.  In some ways, I’ve left the running community I felt so immersed in for most of my life and when I read about the experiences of my running friends in Boston, I feel guilty, guilty for not running or racing the way I used to, guilty for not being in the center of their grief, for watching everything from so far away.

~
As a writer, I fight loneliness with words, by finding sounds and syllables for the things I feel and experience.  I want to share what I feel.  I want someone else to feel it with me.  But sometimes, words feel too heavy--so I crawl into silence or the comfort of familiar rhythms: a walk or a sit, a song or a prayer.  One of the things I love about running is the cadence, becoming aware of my body’s breath and beat.   Before the Boston Marathon this year, participants engaged in twenty-six seconds of silence for the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting last fall.  I imagine them: shoulder-to-shoulder, in hunched quiet, muscles tight with anticipation, a community of bodies and beings breathing together, sharing the same experience, if only for a half minute. 

My heart breaks when I think of Monday, when I try to imagine the shape the finish took for so many of those runners lined up at the starting line.  I think of Aaron, running a personal best time, before bombs broke his post-race bliss.  I think of the many people I’ve known over the years that have planned their training schedules and flex days around spring trips to Boston.  I think of the runners that dedicated their races to students and teachers shot this past fall and the runners who went straight from the carnage of the Boston finish line to Massachusetts General Hospital to donate blood from their race-spent bodies.  Our lives can change in a minute, everyone in this room knows that, but it’s hard to watch that change happen for someone, even a stranger, and seeing their pain, we wish we could snatch back time to make things better, different for them.  But instead we’re left with the path we have and the race we have to keep running. 

As far as I know, no one I know who ran Boston came away with severe injuries.  None of my friends or family was killed.  Everyone I know who lined up at the starting line Monday left the race with their life and limbs.  But people I know and love saw and heard things I wish they could un-see and un-hear.  As a runner, I’m haunted by the Boston bombings because of the thousands of runners I’ve raced alongside and the hundreds of finish lines I’ve crossed. 

Tuesday I read that in Des Moines, where I ran my first marathon, runners are gathering together in groups to run distances between 1 and 6 miles: a no cost, no fuss show of solidarity for the runners who finished Boston, the runners who didn’t.  Like those runners in Des Moines, I believe movement can be a kind of prayer.  I believe the rhythm of our bodies can bring us solace when words fail us during both times of tragedy and times of transition.  I don’t know if I’ll run another marathon.  But I know that tomorrow morning; I’ll wake early to run the road.  I’ll watch my breath billow in the cold as the sun crests of Buckskin Mountain.  I’ll skim the surface of the frozen dirt with my shoes.  I’ll let my questions hang in the snow-muffled stillness of morning.  I’ll mourn and then I’ll give thanks, for the legs than carry me, and the community that surrounds me, for the day I’ve been given.


Coaching high school cross country at the Holden Village school, Fall 2012

Friday, March 22, 2013

Spring Break


Things to do in Oregon:

-Floor-crash
-Puddle-jump
-Eat donuts
-Walk beneath waterfalls
-Befriend cats
-Wander bookshelves
-Put a bird on it
-Drink cocktails in a pie shop
-Watch the lights dim
-Listen to Marvin Gaye
-Walk sidewalks
-Look at stars
-People-watch
-Tally hipsters
-Dress in layers
-Photograph lichen
-Stew oysters
-Cook clams
-Smell the air
-Pocket buckeyes
-Watch whales
-Soak in hot water
-Sit cross-legged
-Buy stickers
-Buy bobble heads
-Buy broken dolls
-Shop local
-Miss home
-Have tea
-Creepy dessert
-Picnic 
-Take the bus
-Walk the Interstate
-Watch the weather
-Reconnect
-Recount
-Return to Washington

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

To walk, to listen

“This is my living faith, an active faith, a faith of verbs: to question, explore, experiment, experience, walk, run, dance, play, eat, love, learn, dare, taste, touch, smell, listen, speak, write, read, draw, provoke, emote, scream, sin, repent, cry, kneel, pray, bow, rise, stand, look, laugh, cajole, create, confront, confound, walk back, walk forward, circle, hide, and seek.” ― Terry Tempest Williams, Leap

When I think of winter at Holden I'll think of the smell of wool sweaters, damp with sweat and snow.  I'll think of eating lunch on the loading dock, my face turned toward the sun cresting Copper Basin.  I'll think of brewing and the nutty smell of soaking barley.

I'll think of the night when my friend Scott and I walked out of the dining hall after hours of grief-heavy conversation, to a sky smattered in stars so bright that when we looked up, we both slipped on the ice at almost the exact same moment. I'll think of eating chocolate fondue with my housemates, sitting crossed -legged on our living room floor in front the wood-burning stove drinking wine and laughing till our bellies cramped.  I'll think of camping next to Railroad Creek, waking to the breakfast bell then tromping to the dining hall for waffles with my sleeping bag gathered under my arm.  I'll think of porch sitting, bundled in wool blankets, watching the mountains shift shape in the changing light as I drink my morning coffee.  I'll think of howling and yodeling with Peter and Terry in Upper Big Creek, cupping our hands to our mouths and listening to our voices bounce back from cliffs that walled us in the alpine basin that we nick-named "the great white bowl in the sky" and "Shangri-La."
~
There are days when Holden feels like Narnia: a place veiled in snow, shadowed by mountains dressed in clouds, a place only accessible by boat, with no phones or television, where people dance in the streets and wear costumes for fun, a place with an endless supply of toast and jam, and a lost-and-found that functions as a free thrift store.

This fall, a friend's roommate wondered at the fact that I live at a retreat center.  He kept repeating it: retreat center.  Retreat center.  Retreat: an escape, a place separate from problems I've immersed myself in at other points in my life: poverty, the achievement gap, white flight and institutionalized segregation. What he couldn't have known, what I couldn't have told him at the time is how real life is when you spend your days with such a small population of people, how immersed we become in each other's joy and pain.  We share burdens.  We hold hands, we cry together, and some days we ache so much for each other that it seems the entire village becomes sleep deprived and puffy-eyed.  The lines between co-worker, neighbor, friend, and family blur til we become a puppy pile of people lost in each other's lives.
~
The most difficult and gratifying part of writing is the space it requires sitting with the same idea.  The things I write about are the things I talk about, the things I dream about, the things I worry about, the things I cry about.  When I'm working on an essay or a poem, I become a kind of daytime sleep walker, lost in an idea.  Artist and activist, Terry Tempest Williams said as a writer she spends more time in her head than on the page.  At a reading she told a story about her partner coming home to find her laying down, back flat on the floor, feet pressed against the wall, toes pointed toward the ceiling.  When he asked her what she was doing, she responded, "writing."  The essays I like best are the result of hundreds of conversations, of twenty-mile hikes, and fifteen mile runs, of nights spent staring at the ceiling, listening to the sound of my own breathing, my mind too busy to sleep.  

I moved to Holden, in part, because I wanted to sit with a place the way I've learned to sit with an idea.  In so many ways I'm a wanderer, a runner, someone who'll drive half a day to spend an evening sitting beside the ocean, someone who'll travel five hours at eleven thirty at night to wake up in a campsite beside Lake Superior. The changing scenery keeps my skittery brain busy.  But here, in this valley, my travel is limited to how far I can get on foot.  So instead of losing myself in movement, I get caught in moments, in the intimacy of knowing a place so well I can see the ways the trails have changed every time I walk them.  I'm getting to know the rhythms of the days here, the way the sun rises and falls on the peaks of Buckskin and Bonanza.   I live at a retreat center, but for me, this place has become a place of immersion rather than a hideaway.  I'm learning the names of trees and lichens, I'm learning how to slow my pace to match the speed of the season.  I'm learning how to read the faces of the people I share my meals and moments with.  My days feel saturated: full, brimming with food and conversation.  I'm working and absorbing.  I'm listening.  I'm learning the textures of a community more complicated than I would have ever imagined when I boarded the ferry at Field's Point seven months ago.
~
This summer, I listened to "Bookends" by Simon and Garfunkel, almost every day.  I listened to it running on the trails near my house in Michigan.  I listened to it driving between the Upper and Lower Peninsula on Interstate-75.  I listened to it in my bedroom while I wrote my first blog entries about my upcoming move to Holden.  I put it on a mixed CD I made for my brother after a road trip to the Two Hearted River.  Time it was, oh what a time it was.  I loved the the guitar picking, how it speeds and slows, adding weight to the words.  This summer, while waited in Michigan to transition from one job to another, from one community to another, I needed music to convey the sense of immediacy I felt.  I needed a soundtrack for nostalgia, love, and loss.  


The line that's lingered with me the past few months comes from a song called "My Favorite Chords" by a Canadian indie rock band called The Weakerthans.  The song only has a couple chords.  Most people I play it for don't take to it.  It's too repetitive, too circular.  But I love it.  I like the way the simplicity of the music allows me to lean into the lyrics and I like the way each line feels like something out of poem.  In the song, the singer describes finding the safest place to store his tenderness, his bad ideas, and his hopes, he says, it's here in the smallest bones, the feet and the inner ear.  It's such an enormous thing: to walk, to listen.  That's what I've thought to myself over and over again this winter as I've hiked and run, stomped the labyrinth  and watched the stars.  It's such an enormous thing, to walk and to listen: to slide through the snow with someone I love by my side, learning the people I live with by moving through this village, this valley, together in conversation.

~
This week the weather is changing.  Sun and rain has made the snow damp and slushy.  For the first time in months, we can see patches of mud on the road.  More snow will most likely fall this winter but for now we smell soil, feel the dampness in the air and imagine spring.  Two weeks ago, Holden Village celebrated “Sun over Buckskin Day”—the day when the sun rises high enough in the sky to ascent over Buckskin Mountain, pouring light back into our valley for the first time since autumn. We picnicked. We ate ribs, cooked outside on a wood-burning grill with platefuls of bean salad, pickles, and potato chips. We drank mimosas. We danced in the street to pop music. We dressed in flip flops, sun hats, and Hawaiian shirts. We filled our bellies and twirled our bodies.

There’s a line I love: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t get it. It’s a translation of John 1:5 that I first heard in a vespers written by Will Chiles, Greek scholar, composer, and frequent Holden villager.  I hear it and imagine our tiny village, gathered in the street, eating outside with our plates in the snow and our faces in the sun.  I’m learning. Here in this sliver of land between Cascade Peaks, I’m learning how to seek the light and how to lean into the darkness, I’m learning to live in a village of fifty people, who eat together, dance together, celebrate together, worship together, and grieve together.  I'm learning how to celebrate sunshine, even during moments of loss.  I’m learning what it means to be close to people, to walk, to listen, to watch the shape of our footprints change in the melting snow.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Realms and Roads



Things to do in Detroit, Michigan:

-Paint polka dots
-Climb rooftops
My brother Keith explores Detroit
-Plant kale
-Serve soup
-Tear down houses
-Scrape paint
-Photograph graffiti
-Fist bump statues
-Sing carols
-Bless boats
-Shop Eastern Market
-Wander alleys
-Eat crepes
-Jazz at Baker's
-Books at King's
-Dance with strangers
-Fall in love with buildings
-Flirt with activists
-Mourn the past
-Plan the future
-Sit in silence
-Rise from the ashes

Things to do in central Iowa:

-Burn prairie
-Eat pancakes
-Climb the fire escape
-Walk railroad tracks
-Plant daffodils
-Play board games
-Can pumpkin
-Have brunch
-Foster doubt
-Learn to drink
-Write a book
-Walk the butterfly garden
-Eat buttery popcorn
-Play euchre
-Hunt for morels
-Cook carrot soup
-Run a marathon
-Plan classes
-Grade papers
-Harvest chard
-Unearth onions
-Potluck in the grass
-Try to settle
-Learn to pack

Things to do on the Olympic Peninsula:

-Feed slugs to chickens
-Pick nettles for pesto
-Walk tide-pools
-Build shelters from driftwood
-Camp on the coast
-Vision quest
-Ponder brackish water
-Walk the spit
-Hide in a cedar tree
-Scramble sea stacks
-Scrape skin on barnacles
-Eat lavender chocolate caramels
-Toss stones
-Touch anemones
-Slide snow-slopes
-Make-out on a mountain
-Lapse judgement
-Watch meteors
-Photograph lichen
-Build trails
-Dig ditches
-Drink whiskey 

Things to do at Holden Village:

-Make toast
-Sing hymns
-Stomp the labyrinth
-Dress up
-Fall down
-Brew beer
-Wash dishes
-Sing dog songs
-Make tie-dye
-Wear tie-dye
-Slip on snow
-Smell dirt
-Stoke fires
-Dog-ear books
-Break for coffee
-Sleep outside
-Sort garbage
-Sift compost
-Pee in the snow
-Sleep in an igloo
-Fall in love
-Talk yourself out of it
-Knit hats
-Light candles
-Hold hands
-Identify trees
-Gain courage


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Birthday Essay

Avalanche chute on route to Hart Lake
Essay: from the French word: essayer "to try" or "to attempt"--


I live in a valley shadowed by mountains, in a village covered in snow, heated by wood, and powered by a creek.  In the darkest days of winter, we get less than an hour of sunlight: a sliver of time when light pours over Copper Basin and onto Holden Village.  I haven’t seen dirt or smelled earth since November.  In January, my chalet had no hot water for almost a week.  One of my housemates began to boil water in a tea kettle to rinse the shampoo from her hair.  I’ve never lived anywhere where people experience winter so much.  We bask in snow and stillness, light and dark.  We lean into the season and watch the way our valley changes shape in snow.

Last Friday, my friend Philip and I woke early to watch the sunrise.  We carried thermoses of hot chocolate and back-packs full of blankets and hiked up to the third level of the old Holden Mine.  We flattened a patch of snow where two trails intersected and sat on my sleeping pad.  From our position on the tailings, Holden looked like one those ceramic Christmas villages: painted buildings with lamp lit windows and snow-heaped roofs.  We watched our breath billow and talked about the lives we had before coming to the Cascades and the lives we imagined afterward.  Fog rolled above the village.  A martin skittered across the snow.  We saw the first patches of pink slivering the clouds on our way back to the dining hall for oatmeal.

There are times in my life when I sense the importance of everything I experience, when I know that the day I’m living is one that I’ll look back upon, when I feel nostalgic about moments as they unfold.  Over the past three weeks I’ve spent most of my lunch breaks picnicking in the snow: perched on a piece of cardboard or a five gallon bucket, eating soup and salad with my face turned toward the sun.  I’ve drank a beer in the snow with a friend under stars so bright we didn’t need headlamps to hike to the second level.  I’ve build bonfires and gone to bed smelling like smoke and soot.  I’ve gone winter camping beside Railroad Creek. I’ve woken to the sound of river water rushing in a landscape muffled by snow.  I’ve lived in proximity to people brave enough to share their lives—friends who remind me to lean into both my past and present.

Last week I hiked to Big Creek with seven women—women I love for their strength and sure-footedness, for their humor and vulnerability.  We carried packs full of water and winter clothes, shovels, snow shoes, and avalanche beacons.  We walked through the snow laughing and singing, pausing to photograph snow bridges and cougar tracks.  We picnicked in a patch of cedar trees beside an avalanche chute.  We shared apples, cheese, banana chips, and salmon.  We sat in the snow swapping stories for almost an hour, before we began back down the mountain, retracing our route in a series of downhill slides, belly laughing when one of us landed in powder.
~
The weekend I turned twenty-six I drove to Portland by myself and stayed at a hostel with a green roof and gray-water toilets.  I cooked kale and quinoa in the hostel kitchen, wandered the poetry section of Powell’s Books, and went to a Breathe Owl Breathe concert.  I stood near the stage and read Where Shall I Wander by John Ashbery between sets.  I hiked Table Mountain, using maps I printed from a backpacking website.  Ice still slicked the scree slide I needed to take to the summit so I stopped short of the final ascent.  Wind whipped my hair and face.  I kept my body low, in the shadow of the rock-faces before descending to a more sheltered spot to picnic on hardboiled eggs, apples, and chocolate.

At the time I considered the trip a kind of vision quest.  I wanted to walk, to cook, to pause, to reflect, to feel out the future.  So I traveled solo and left myself space for silence.  Since that weekend, I’ve had to restart, to re-evaluate--to look at myself through a critical lens that made it painful to keep living the life I saw.  I’ve untethered myself from people and places.  I ended two relationships and deleted a number from my phone.  Some days I trace the changes I’ve undergone to a trip I took to the Two Hearted River with my brother, other days I attribute it to changing jobs or moving to Holden.

On Thursday, January 31st, my twenty-seventh birthday, I will have lived in Holden for five months.  I moved here August 31st, after weeks of driving cross country, after stopping in Illinois and Iowa, Wyoming, Montana, and Washington--after roasting s’mores with my friend Amanda on her porch in Chicago, climbing trees with my former professor’s children in Grinnell, playing board games at my friend Bekah’s newly purchased farmhouse in Ames, and discussing the relationship between vocation and social justice with Sister Helen Prejean at a monastery in the Big Horn Mountains.

I came to Holden Village because I wanted to live a simple life in the Cascade Mountains.  I wanted to take short showers and eat kale every Friday.  I wanted to hike until my legs ached—to pound a rhythm into my shins and my soul.  But over the past five months I’ve learned as much about lavishness as I have about simplicity.  I’ve learned to wake early to watch morning light break across the mountains and I’ve learned to stay wrapped in flannel sheets, basking in my nest of quilts and blankets until I hear the breakfast bell ring.  I’ve learned to put my face in the sun when it shines, claiming a lunch space on the loading dock or a sun spot in the dining hall.  I’ve learned to dress up in costumes when the mood strikes, to sing when a song drifts through my head, to dance when music plays: jumping and bobbing my head like a Charlie Brown character, shedding my self-consciousness like skin that no longer fits.
 ~
Usually I don’t like celebrating my birthday.  I worry that the people I love won’t remember me and the implied significance of the day often leaves me disappointed.  But this year, as I creep toward January 31th, I'm excited about turning twenty-seven.  I find myself reflecting on what it means to be in my late twenties, only three years away from thirty.  As a kid I imagined growing up to be a writer and a nomad, a teacher, a traveler, and a mountain women and I’m grateful to have gotten this far into adulthood without losing track of those aspirations.  I’m grateful for the money my parents contributed to my college education, for the scholarships that got me through graduate school, for the collection of strange but fulfilling jobs I’ve held and the dozens of things they’ve taught me about myself as a teacher and a student, a learner and a writer.  I’m grateful to be here at Holden, working in such a supportive community, in a setting that still leaves me slack-jawed every time I see the mountain peaks that shadow our village.
~
Dozens of postcards and pictures cover my bedroom wall: notes from family, friends, ex-boyfriends, and former professors, from the children I nannied for and the kids I teach.  I hang cards I especially like with the text side showing, so I can re-read my favorite phrases--lines about building Lego creations and the dangers of love and distance, about abandoned buildings in Iowa, and the first snap of winter in November.  This week I tacked a Christmas card from my friend Brenna to a blank space beneath my calendar, underlining her wish for me for the upcoming year--that you keep moving when you need to keep moving and that you are still in the moments when you need to be still.  I hope 2013 brings you creativity and fulfillment…steadiness and peace.

In this slice of valley between mountains, movement and stillness can mean strapping on Yaktrax to grip the slushy snow or spending an evening on the living room floor, with my computer on my knees and my back to the radiator.  It can mean staying in this place, in this life, or starting again in another job, another community.

Last Friday night, my friend Scott and I hiked to the second level of the Holden mine.  Like me, Scott is in his late twenties.  We talked about what it meant to abandon our regular lives to live at Holden Village and the ways we’ve changed since coming to this place.  We talked about the rhythms we live here and the ways we want to replicate them once we leave this mountain valley.  Then we silenced.  We stood on a road paved by snow and stared at Bonanza, one of the highest peaks of Washington, snow-capped and back-lit by moon.  Cold flushed our cheeks.  We watched our breath freeze--and under the dome of stars and sky, we let all our questions about the future fall.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Vespers

I led a vespers at Holden on Monday--I wanted to post my reflection from the service: 

At twenty-four years old I met a man from Belgium on the beach in Paradise, Michigan. We found each other journaling on the shores of Lake Superior and stayed near the water till almost midnight, watching the Whitefish Point lighthouse light comb the sand. We swatted mosquitoes and listened to the lake lap the shoreline. We talked about reading and writing, food and families, mythology and loneliness. He was traveling around Lake Michigan, visiting sites from Hemingway’s short stories. We exchanged e-mail addresses and met up the next day to hike the limestone cliffs lining Lake Superior. We picnicked on rosemary bread and Laughing Cow cheese on the beach and kissed on the Pictured Rocks boat tour in front of tourists wearing ponchos. Later that month I bought a bus ticket to meet him for a weekend Chicago, and on sidewalk lined by skyscrapers, the Belgian man and I talked about religion, one of the few topics we hadn’t touched. He told me, that he didn’t believe in God, he believed in philosophy. And for the first time since we met, that stubbled man seemed less shiny. I felt myself distance. I pulled away, suddenly objectifying the person I’d been so smitten with. 

In so many ways, my reaction made no sense. I hadn’t been to church in six months. I’d spent my Sundays running on the trails near my house or in my bedroom, bent over books of religion and philosophy, books by John Muir, Dorothy Day, Soren Kierkegaard, Simone Weil. I didn’t want to commit to doctrine. I didn’t know what I thought about heaven or hell or church or God. But the Belgian man’s sure flat voice left no room for narrative, no space for mystery. 

Mystery. It’s a word I love—a word that connotes something secret or hidden--something incomprehensible. When my friend Marissa worked as a nanny, Vinnie, the four year old boy she babysat, misplaced the hockey puck he spent all day hitting up and down the hallway. A significant loss. They searched everywhere. Finally, he looked at her, Where is it? I don’t know, she said, it’s a mystery. 

Eventually, Marissa found the lost puck in the backyard and from that point forward, whenever Vinnie lost something he asked Marissa if they could check the mystery for it. I heard Marissa’s story in a bar in Iowa, over a bottle of Bell’s beer and a basket of buttered popcorn. We laughed. The mystery. It became a place rather than a concept. Vinnie put a picture to the secret. He made it sensory. 

Three years after parting with the Belgian man, mystery defines my sense of spirituality more than grace or faith or abstract notions of salvation. My first year graduate school, I left church because I could not rationalize heaven and hell. I could not explain God or justify the way I saw people who claimed him behaving. As the one of the only Christians in a graduate program full of people who cared more deeply about stories and social justice than most of the religious people I knew, I struggled to see how the friends I had fit into the theology I knew. So I worked to form myself into someone different: someone adult and academic. Someone not unlike the Belgian man—a scholar versed in notions, concepts, and philosophies. 

But at my core, I am a wanderer--a storyteller, someone who needs a life laced in mystery the way I crave mid-afternoon sunlight during winter’s darkest days. I’m in love with lichen-cloaked fir trees and the smell of soil, with the driftwood that snarls the shore of Lake Superior, and the dew that coats my sleeping bag when I spend the night outside. I still don’t know if I believe in an afterlife but I trust in the holiness of the world we inhabit now. The faith I have isn’t grounded in my head, but in my hands and feet, the things I see and smell and touch and taste: the wonder that shrouds my sense of being in this world. In the beautiful words of writer David James Duncan, “Wonder is unknowing experienced as pleasure”--and as this point in my life, God has become a synonym for that unknowing, that wonder.

I love the poem, “Returning to Church” by Michael Dickman. I love how the poem conflates romantic love with the mystery of a mass in a way that leaves me unable to discern what moves the narrator more: I had forgotten/all the promises, they make/at church, singing/or/not singing--/a new body/a living water/I wanted to be very still and listen to her voice moving out in front of me/there are two houses/the dark and quiet/house of God/and the house of her/voice. I love the unselfconscious wonder in Dickman’s language—the way he calls the people in the pews strangers who aren’t strangers but his/ other homeless children. I love the way he adds an exclamation point after the line Everyone here is so nice! Following it with And they don’t even know me, they don’t think they have to. But my favorite line in the whole poem, the line that’s lingered with me this winter at Holden, each time we pass the peace or lay hands on someone praying at the cross, is hand after hand they take my hand, a prayer of bone. I hear it and picture all of you—the way we wave each other in and out of Holden Village and hug each other on Sundays, the way we eat together and pray together and hike together and knit together. The way we play board games with the village kids and check up on each other during times of illness or loss. A prayer of bone. 

The poet Rumi said, “Every moment Man receives a slap from the unseen.” Not a brush with the unseen, but a slap from it, an experience so direct and wondrous that we are left slack-jawed at the mystery. Unknowing experienced as pleasure. I believe in those moments. That’s why I came back church, why I spent hours sitting in silence in Quaker meetings in Tacoma, why I loved working alongside the Catholic Workers at the farm where I volunteered in Iowa, and why I choose to spend a year here at Holden. The first time I visited Holden Village, I met people able to sit with their questions, who honored wonder in all its forms, who seemed to celebrate those slaps from the Unseen. I knew I wanted to be here longer. Like four-year-old Vinnie, I wanted to check the mystery. I wanted to see what I could bring to this place, and what it could bring to me. 

Here at Holden, we have to opportunity to practice wonder. We live on such a small patch of land: a sliver between mountains. Many of us spend weeks within the same square mile. So we notice the way the sun shadows the peaks at different times of day. We note the texture of the ground beneath our feet, the changing shape of the snow. We learn to see the shifts in each other’s faces and we notice when someone wears something new: a sweater, a hair-cut, an expression of joy or of pain. We look forward to Sunday brunch and Tuesday pancakes. And when the seasons shift or the holidays come we cloak our lives in ritual: in snow-shaped prayer labyrinths lit by candles and Christmas tree bonfires. We make our time sacred, shrouding ourselves in silence and song, flickering candles and billowing fires, in prayers of bone and moments of mystery.