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.