Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Remnants of an essay I'm still struggling to write

June 25th, 2011, Yosemite National Park: 

I tell Keith I want a pen. 

“Why?” He asks, striding out in front of me. 

“There’s always a detail you can record to make something real.”  Here, I point, “Pine cones scattered across lichen crusted rocks, lizards skittering at the sound of our feet crunching trail, the changes in the texture of the mountain.”

When Keith walked out onto Half Dome’s first saddle, I’d stood back.  Although my brother is three years younger than me, he’s more sure-footed, good at balancing, and muscular in a wiry way.  Even his face looks strong: angular and bearded, freckled from miles running outside.  That day I waited for him to find a path. I watched his shape disappear as he moved beyond the Ponderosas, weaving up steep slope.

“Holy buckets,” he said, “Rach you gotta get up here.”

I followed Keith noting details aloud: cones and lizards, the sound of my feet and the feel of the ground because I had no words to describe the bigger scene before us: the snow, the stone, the sea of gray peaks that scraped the sky and the sun that shadowed their faces. 

We didn’t summit Half Dome that day.  The fixed ropes hikers use to climb to the top still lay flat, surrounded by late spring snow, not yet set up for visitors.  Instead we scrambled till we no longer felt steady.  Then we slid back in the snow down the side of the mountain, dragging our palms to control our speed.  We perched on a boulder and had lunch.  We ate apples, let sun freckle our faces, and talked about our top five songs to listen to in each season.  We recounted the beginnings and ends of relationships we’d recently had, and sketched plans for our grown-up lives: climbing rocks, living without televisions, sleeping outside every day we could, and filling our weekends with hiking, camping, and canoeing trips.  Keith had just finished an undergraduate degree in engineering; I’d just completed my MFA.  We were in transition, sitting in the sun on a mountain, trying to imagine the shapes our lives would take.  That summer Keith would take up rock climbing and get good at guitar.  That summer, I would visit Holden Village for the first time and then move cross-country to take a job teaching outdoor science on the coast of the Puget Sound.  Keith and I would, for the first time in our lives, go months without seeing each other then find each other changed each time we reunited.  We’d meet again more grown-up, chiseled by experiences we hadn’t shared, things that had happened while we’d been on separate sides of the country.  But at that moment in Yosemite, we were together--witnessing something I had no pen to record, sharing a snippet of time when we both were so slack-jawed with awe for our surroundings that the future felt expansive and brimmed with possibility.


I recorded the details of my time in Yosemite with Keith in a composition notebook and in the years since I’ve tried at least half a dozen times to write an essay about that day.  I’ve tried to write about graduating during a recession and the fierce brand of closeness I share with my brother but I can’t find the question in the essay or the conflict in the narrative.  The reality is there might not be much of a story in that scene that means so much to me.  My brother and I both graduated the same spring then went hiking and talked about our feelings in a place big enough to hold our questions about and ambitions for the future.

I’ve had hikes like that in Holden as well: walks which meant the world to me for reasons I still don’t understand.  Some days I wonder if the people I walked with felt it too: if they also shape their stories around days spent on picking blueberries on Hilgard Pass and camping trips to Hart Lake.  I know that walking in the mountains does nothing to solve the problems that drove me to them--we live in a broken world, plagued by poverty and inequity, pollution, greed, and indifference--but when I hear a pika or watch the moon rise I can still gather enough hope to believe in something beyond the bleakness.  I feel less lonely when I’m walking and listening in the shadow of a landscape that humbles me down to footsteps, deep breaths, and heartbeats.

There’s a section from Contents May Have Shifted, a Pam Houston book that I love, where Houston describes the feeling I'm constantly writing around.  In the scene she's summiting a 12,000 foot mountain with a group of six women who share a love for the world is “so fierce it makes [them edgy.]” The women talk about wind-pants and Italian food, stepchildren and sex while they eat raspberry Fig Newmans and the season’s first clementines, then stay on the mountain all night.  When Houston looks up at the moon, she reflects, “If I die tonight it will be with every single thing unfinished (like, I suppose, any other night), and yet, what a gift to die on the verge of tears. I have spent my life trying to understand the way this rock and this ache go together, why a granite peak is more dramatic half dressed in clouds...,why sunlight under fog is better than the sum of its parts, why my best days and my worst days are always the same days, why (often) leaving seems like the only solution to the predicament of loving.”


Today is the last day of school: my twenty-third last day of school.  I’m leaving Holden Village Saturday morning, after almost two years of working here, almost two years of living in this sliver of space between Buckskin Mountain and Martin Ridge, two years of watching Dumbbell Mountain from Chalet 4’s porch swing, walking back and forth from the dining hall, making toast as a late night snack, going to nightly vespers, and being called to meals with a bell.  During the past two years, I’ve left this valley less than twenty times and each trip has felt like an ordeal: packing suitcases, bottles of water, and a bagged lunch, riding the bus, remembering boats tickets and car keys.   I’ve corresponded with Chelan cross country coaches, arranged overnight booking plane tickets, and reserved hostel rooms.  There’s no easy way to leave Holden Village: no running out to pick up a dozen eggs or a bottle of contact solution.  So now that I’m leaving for real, it feels strangely normal to be e-mailing friends about places to stay, strangely normal to be piling the corner of my bedroom with packed bags to take down lake. I have to keep reminding myself I’m not coming back this time.  

Holden Village is not a place anyone lives or owns, it's a transient community and a shared place.  No one stays here.  Right now it’s my turn to leave.  Often, it feels lonely: this process of staying conscious of what I’m seeing and doing for the last time--my last dish-team, my last Saturday vespers, my last weekend, my last Holden style-passing the peace at Eucharist, my last day of school.  I’m leaving with a lot of questions:  questions about mine remediation, about Holden, about my own future, where I’ll go and what I’ll do next.  

There’s a lot of fear and a lot of lasts--and some days, there's a lot of skepticism.  But what I want right now is to rekindle wonder and, for me, that often means going for walks and remembering walks I've already taken.  Someone once said that if you're just here to hike, construction season is the wrong time to come to Holden.  I came to Holden to serve and to work, to share books, poems, hikes, conversations, games, and stories with a two-room school house full of some of the most amazing students I've ever met.  I came to live in close community, to continue to try to describe the kind of God I believe in, to talk about faith, to struggle with church in the most active way I could.  But I also came because I love sauntering, skipping, scrambling, and hiking through woods and up mountains, particularly when I'm lucky enough to hike with someone who will share his or her stories--and when I'm on the trail every switchback and clump of lichen and patch of trillium reminds me to hope and to grieve, to breathe and listen, to see the world and name it as a gift I could never own but feel lucky enough to walk in for a while.

When I leave Holden Village, I want to tell stories about a tiny blonde 5-year old who skipped ten miles to a mountain lake and a man whose calves would sneak up on unsuspecting hikers on the 10 Mile switchbacks.  I want to recall waking early to sit in the third level snow and watch the sunrise with Sally and stargazing on the second level with Peter.  I want to remember the day Terry and I made it up to Upper Big Creek and how we spent the afternoon howling like wolves and making echoes against the stone walls of that hanging valley.  I want to remember picnicking on beet pickled eggs on the side of Martin Ridge with Peter, skinny dipping in Hart Lake with Claire, eating wild blueberries and a Stehekin cinnamon roll at the top of Hilgard Pass with Lori and Becky, calling to grouse from the top of the Holden switchbacks with Aubrey, and sledding down Copper Basin with Micah and Micaela.  I want to remember that when I got an e-mail saying that I didn't get a job I'd interviewed for three times, Alex and Graham took me on a camping trip and kept me laughing so hard that when I woke the next morning to make a breakfast bonfire, some of the ache of rejection had faded from my gut.  I want to remember the evening John stayed home with the kids instead of going to school to work so Becky could sit with me beside Railroad Creek, eating chocolate and telling stories about her twenties till the sky blackened and the crescent moon hung high above the valley.  I want to leave this community with throat full of hope and the image of a tiny village blessed by mountains burnt in my head.  Holy Buckets.  I’ll say, You gotta get up there.