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.


  1. Just FYI, you are remembered every day! I love you, have a great birthday. There was never a day like the day you were born. If a person could burst with happiness, is was me on that day. Love Dad.

  2. We will miss celebrating with you! Wishing you every blessing on your journey. Happy 27th!

  3. Dear Rachael,

    I hope you have a fantastic birthday (and happy birthday, btw) tomorrow. I love and miss you.

    This essay is beautiful and your descriptions help me feel like I'm seeing bits of Holden. They felt solid in this essay, more so than in some of the other posts, or even in the conversations we've had. This is one of my new favorites of your essays.



  4. Liz--thank-you so much for the writing feedback. Mom, Dad, Liz--I love all three of you so much and I'll miss all of you tomorrow. Thanks for reading and writing and loving me so much--and for never making me feel forgotten even though I'm far away and difficult to communicate with. Love, Rachael

  5. So here I am reading your post ON your birthday. I think that is a fine way to celebrate you. So, I am doing that now as I write this note, celebrating Rachael Shay, a most wondrous person who I am honored to call niece and, even better, friend. Also, I am thinking about where I was at age 27... I like that you are allowing your birthday mean something to you. I've always done that as well - made it into a day to pause. Don't we all need to pause more often?

  6. What a beautiful birthday essay. (I also love that essay means "to try" - it was one of my favorite learning-French discoveries.) Keep on living richly, experiencing everything with such fullness. Happy Birthday!

  7. I don't know how it is that I'm just seeing this now...but I second Liz. Love this essay and you. :)