For two-and-a-half years, I was privileged to live and work at Holden Village, once a mining town, now a remote religious community on the edge of the Glacier Peak Wilderness. From time to time I shared journal entries with family and friends. Now I’m happy to share this collection of musings with you.
Dec. 4, 2011
When you’re getting ready to leave a place, you begin looking at it through a different lens. Aperture wide open, shutter speed slow. Drink it in. Remember.
Having lived in the Okanogan Valley in North Central Washington for more than thirty-two years, I’m accustomed to its landmarks, the curves in the road, the silhouetted mountain tops backlighted by the sky. But this week as I drove up and down the valley, I was seeing it again for the first time, taking care of last-minute business, rehearsing for the Sing-Along Messiah, saying many good-byes. A week from tomorrow I leave to become communications coordinator for Holden Village, a remote retreat center in the North Cascades Mountains. It’s not that far away, as the eagle flies. But for this human, it’s an hour’s drive to the foot of long, long Lake Chelan, then several hours on a boat until, two-thirds up the lake, I’ll get off at an historic landing called Lucerne. From there it’s a twelve-mile bus ride up switchback mountain roads until I reach the tiny village that once sheltered a booming mining community on the boundary of Glacier Peak Wilderness.
I’ve committed myself to working there for one year, but I’m thinking I may last longer. Of course, I may wash out in two weeks. How embarrassing would that be?!
I’ll return to the Okanogan from time to time, but I know from experience that the place and the people will have changed, just as I will have changed.
As I drove along the curves of Highway 97 on its parallel track with the winding river and valley walls, I thought about the changes I’d witnessed over the years. The landscape is a little busier than it was three decades ago, dotted with houses, a strip mall, some industry. Yet the massive hills and mountains that define the valley change only with the colors of the seasons – now dressed in a monochrome of umber, ecru, taupe, sagebrush green and castor gray.
All those decades ago, my new husband joyfully introduced me to those mountains. Now I see them through his photographer’s eyes, how the sun changes their character as it crosses the sky, how crevices and ravines emerge and disappear in the changing light and shadows.
I think about the hundreds of stories I wrote for the newspaper about the people and places in this valley. With nearly every turn of the road, I’m reminded of yet another story, some tragic, some heartwarming, some funny. I don’t always remember people’s names, but I do hang onto their stories.
Next week I begin a new chapter in my own story. Sometimes I wonder why I can’t just hunker down in my comfortable house and wait out old age. Plenty of widows do, and it’s a good life. But it’s not to be my life. Moving on does not mean abandoning the love that held me here for so many decades. No matter where I go, there’s still that hole in my heart that can never be filled. Silent tears still flow at the slightest trigger – a photo, a song, a sunset.
After Holden, then what? Then where? I don’t know. In the end, I know I’ll return to this valley. There’s a gravestone with my name already etched next to my husband’s. Until the final date is inscribed on that headstone, I plan to live every day as fully as I can, because I am living for two.
Dec. 18, 2011
Many single women around my age (67) down-size, moving from large homes to a simpler life, where someone else will do the yard work and maybe even serve dinner.
When I told a younger friend that I was moving to Holden Village, she asked with confusion: “What is that? Some kind of assisted living?” She wasn’t far off. Communities are, after all, about helping each other get through life. In that sense, Holden’s remoteness dictates especially organized and rigorous mutual assistance. A retreat center, Holden draws up to five thousand visitors annually. If you’re a guest, you become a community member the minute you arrive. Guests, staff and volunteers eat, play and pray together. But long-term staff (of which I am one) and short-term volunteers get to participate in three additional activities: “dish team” (scrubbing up before and after meals), “garbology” (use your imagination), and stoking.
It is five o’dark in the morning, and I hit my alarm snooze button. This is the moment I’ve been dreading: my first stoking shift. I’d slept poorly the night before, worrying. The last time I’d felt this stressed was when I brought my stroke-paralyzed husband home from rehab, terrified that I would not be able to manage his feeding tube, medications, and tracheotomy. That was life and death, I keep reminding myself. This is simply a matter of keeping people warm and comfortable. Holden Village is powered by a delicate combination of hydroelectric, wood fires, and occasionally, diesel. The morning stoking shift requires firing up and maintaining three boilers, a couple of which are aptly named – Dante and the Dungeon.
I meet up with my mentor, a compassionate 18-year-old. He trained me yesterday, then got up early on this, his day off, to reassure me as I make my first round. He leads me into the very bowels of the village, the kind of places I’ve avoided all my life. At least there are no snakes or spiders to fear at 25 degrees F. Only mice.
Embers still hot from overnight make firing up Dante easy. I shovel out excess ash and throw on a dozen or so logs. The Dungeon is more resistant. Not even paper will burn. It becomes a battle of wills. On the third try, I finally get a blaze roaring and slam the double iron doors shut with a triumphant “Ah-hah!”
By ten a.m. the sun is burning blue holes through the morning fog. Boiler temperature gauges are slowly climbing – the contrary Dungeon reaching optimum level first. I climb to the top of the sledding hill to savor the view. Smoke curls from chimneys and disappears into the mountains that tower above the village.
How affirming to move from apprehension to confidence in just one day. It takes some people a lifetime.
Dec. 25, 2011
If I thought I would escape the ghosts of Christmas past by coming to this isolated mountain village, I was dead wrong. Every Christmas tune, greeting card, decoration, every kid (of any age) sledding down the hill next to my chalet, every one of the billions of snowflakes that fell this day evokes memories.
Christmas is built on tradition, on a story handed down for centuries, and traditions are created from memories. My remembrances come to mind in no particular order. I guess it’s whenever the Spirit brings them to life.
I walk into the Fireside Room, see and smell a giant Christmas tree, and there in living color is the memory of my late husband meticulously arranging lights. I enter the dining hall where an abundance of aromas tantalize the senses, and there’s my mother pulling a loaf of Christmas bread from the oven. I see the excitement of village children and I am seven years old, filled with eager anticipation. On Christmas morning the pastor reads, “In the beginning was the Word …” and I hear the voice of my late father, a Lutheran minister.
Nostalgia perhaps, yet it is what makes each Christmas richer than the one before. With more than sixty years of memories in my bank, I revel in this wealth of Christmases past. And now with this year come new experiences that I will savor in Christmases future:
… Wearing a long “formal” dress over my snow boots to the Christmas Eve feast, a sumptuous dinner shared with 150-or-so people – many of them strangers who, by the end of the meal, were family.
… Village children enacting Luke’s timeless story. Our youngest resident, six-month-old Benjamin, played the role of the Christ child as we sang “Silent Night.” We’d just gotten to “round yon virgin” when Benjamin’s face began to pucker, a sign of what was coming. At “so tender and mild” he was howling a boisterous descant to the congregation’s amusement. A stand-in doll, wrapped in swaddling clothes, took his place.
… The requisite fire crackling Christmas morning as I watched my chalet mates, most in their 20s, gratefully open gift packages from home. For some, this was their first Christmas away from home. My own occasional bouts of loneliness allowed me to empathize.
… Sitting next to a young woman at Communion Christmas morning. I noticed that her eyes were filling with tears, as were mine. She gazed at and touched her diamond engagement ring longingly. Her true love is on the other side of the state; mine is on the other side of life.
… Donning snowshoes and following the winding course of the outdoor labyrinth as a memorial to my husband. He would have celebrated his eightieth birthday today. I mused how the twists and turns of the labyrinth resembled the surprising turns of his remarkable life. Before I knew it, I’d reached the center and followed the path back to the beginning. Just like Christmas, the labyrinth journey ended too quickly – now another memory to keep.
Jan. 1, 2012
This cozy little village snuggled in its mountain valley can be a scary place. I was recently awakened in the dark of night by a distinct rumbling. Earthquake! I thought. Then I realized it was something I’d never before experienced: a roofalanche. Snow was roaring down the steep metal roof above and crashing onto the ground beside my chalet.
Roofalanches are a constant threat, especially next to the larger buildings, where tons of snow pile up overhead until the temperature turns. Then, with no warning at all, snow thunders to the ground, amassing into high banks. My first floor window, which offered a lovely view into the forest when I first arrived, is now hidden behind a snow bank. I feel as if I am living in a snow cave.
Because of the roofalanche threat, pathways are strategically shoveled well away from buildings, yellow signs remind everyone of the danger areas and children are sternly forbidden from playing in those areas.
There are other frightening aspects of this environment. One woman recently discovered bear tracks on the path while strolling alone outside the village. She reversed course and discovered, as she walked back, her own tracks within the bear’s. She took photos and when she returned, did something not atypical for a villager – wrote a poem about it. She happened to be the village Creative Resident. Writing and later reading her poem aloud to us was to be expected. I wonder, though, if there aren’t a lot of people who would find meeting a bear less scary than reading aloud a poem of their own composition.
The poet’s residency was for only a month. As of now, we have no designated Creative Resident – except for all of us. Creativity and self-expression, both serious and hilarious, are encouraged. That can lead to another scary proposition: Self-exposure.
Among our hilarious holiday events were madcap “Winter Olympics.” I agreed to participate in the snow ballet competition. I wore a black bathing suit over my long, black underwear, hid my hair in a stocking cap and my face with a mask. Somehow, everyone still recognized me, commending me for my part in the wacky performance.
Even more scary, for some, is spiritual nakedness. On New Year’s Eve we gathered for a worship service called “Prayer Around the Cross.” Beautiful in its simplicity, the service is based on the Taizé model of worship that began in France and has continually gained popularity worldwide. In a dark room while quietly singing simple chants, we knelt around an abstract sculpture of the Holy Family. We were invited to light candles “as a fragile sign of hope against the darkness.”
There is no face more naked than one concentrated in prayer, a face more illuminated by flickering candles than in a theatrical spotlight.
We ended with this prayer for a new year, for every year: Eternal God, you have placed us in a world of space and time, and through the events of our lives you bless us with your love. Grant that in the new year we may know your presence, see your love at work, and live in the light of Christ.
Jan. 8, 2012
Thursdays are “Hunger Awareness Day,” which means we get rice for lunch. Just rice. Steamed.
You can have as much as you want, flavored with condiments of your choice. I prefer milk, cinnamon and – though they’re not always available – raisins. I notice other folks pouring on Tabasco, soy sauce and even vinegar and oil. The money saved by not preparing a full meal goes to various food banks in the region and other hunger projects. More significant than the money is the awareness part of “Hunger Awareness Day.”
The food situation in our country is nuts – no pathetic pun intended. We spend millions on diet books and weight-loss programs while the obesity epidemic continues unabated. Millions of people go hungry (including one in five children), while we throw out tons of food annually.
The EPA says food waste is the largest single component of stuff going into landfills, It’s not just about hunger. That wasted food – from production to disposal – represents energy equal to 350 million barrels of oil each year. Per capita we’re each responsible for a half-pound of wasted food daily. Much of it is going right out the back door of your local grocery store, into the dumpster. That’s perfectly good food – according to the entertaining and sobering documentary “Dive!” that I watched this week.
I’ve been aware of the food at Holden from the moment I stepped off the boat. All able bodies join a human chain, passing big boxes of food from the boat to the bus for the twelve-mile trip up into the mountains. In the village, another human chain passes food from bus to kitchen. After hefting fifty-pound bags of potatoes, cartons of broccoli and gallons of milk, you’re mindful of what you eat.
I’m aware as I dish up my plate in the buffet line. Take all you want, but even guests are required to scrape excess food from their plates into the compost bins before leaving the plates at the dirty dish window. Leave food on your plate at a restaurant? Someone else will deal with it. Confronting your own wastefulness makes you think.
This week a couple dozen students from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, arrived for their January or “J-term” to study environmental ethics. There’s a long tradition of Holden staff playing tricks on J-termers. Our plan was, instead of rice on “Hunger Awareness Day,” they’d be served all the snow they could eat.
The students shrugged, carried bowls of snow to their tables and were munching philosophically when the joke was revealed; the cooks brought trays of steaming hot rice out from the kitchen. I filled my bowl with rice and sat next to a student. She was still polishing off her snow, which I noticed she’d flavored with milk, cinnamon and raisins.
“You’re still eating snow!” I marveled. She looked at me curiously and responded “Of course!” as if to say, “It’s crazy to throw out perfectly good food.”
Yup. I’m aware of that. Joke’s on me.
Jan. 15, 2012
My first snowshoeing trek was neither what I anticipated nor desired. I’ve snowshoed the easy mile out to the labyrinth and back, but this time I was going on a real hike with four other people to a popular site called Monkey Bear Falls. We didn’t make it. Slowed by fresh snow and my clumsiness, we cut the hike short to return to the village by dark.
I was surprised when a couple days later, Leah asked in her beautiful North Carolina accent, “Wanna make another try for Monkey Bear?” You can tell at first sight that Leah, tall, lithe, age undeterminable, is an athlete. On our return from the thwarted Monkey Bear quest, she’d headed up the road in what was her normal gait and was soon out of sight. Her offer to accompany me on a second try was generous to the max.
We started out with two others, an eight-year-old and her mother. They intended to go only the first mile and then turn back. All along that mile, the eight-year-old was intent on smelling the bark of trees, up close and personal. Ponderosas, she insisted, smell like vanilla. It was slow going as we took turns sniffing. When we parted, the mother handed me a peppermint drop, which I put in my pocket.
“Imagine,” I said. “After three days of being stranded in the wilderness, when the helicopter comes to rescue us, I’ll be able to say ‘I never would have made it without that peppermint drop.’”
“If that’s your vision of what’s ahead, Ah’m not goin’ with you,” Leah protested. “Ah’m jes’ sayin’.”
We laughed and kept going, Leah first. She has leadership credentials as a former coach, a minister (United Church of Christ), and a couple years as a back-country guide in Colorado. Traits of a good leader include not only seeing clearly the trail ahead but understanding the abilities of the troops who are following. Without appearing to slow down, Leah moved at my speed. At one point she stopped, pointed to a tree whose drooping boughs created a small cave next to its trunk.
“Now, if we were stranded, there’d be a great place to hang out,” she commented.
Fresh snow had obliterated the trail. Occasionally, Leah would stop, gaze about, then move on with assurance. I had no idea where we were, but I felt double-insured following the trail of both a spiritual leader and back-country guide. Finally, she stopped and said she couldn’t be sure of the trail from that point, and maybe we should hike somewhere else, where the trails were better defined. We spent four happy hours snowshoeing and talking.
I felt as if I were losing an old friend when she left for home a few days later.
“Ah guess Ah’m just not meant to see Monkey Bear Falls this trip,” she grinned. And maybe I’m not meant to see the falls until summer, when I can find my own way.
Jan. 22, 2012
I had a dream the other night about Holden Village. Most people here would classify it as a nightmare.
In my dream, it was a beautiful, blue-sky morning with gleaming fresh snow all around (so far, not that different from reality). I was on the porch of my chalet snapping on skis – downhill skis, not the cross country type people here use! Just a few feet from the chalet was a chairlift rising to the top of the ridge above the village. It all felt familiar, like many of the ski resorts my late husband and I loved to visit in winter. You could hear the grind of the lift motor and the metal clanking of chairs as they moved through the mechanism.
My alarm clock woke me and I flipped the light switch to – darkness. The power was out. The grinding and clanking in my dream were, in reality, roofalanches. A real avalanche had blocked the stream that powers the generator that turns on the lights. Holden Village is off the grid, powered by an intricate and fragile combination of locally produced hydroelectricity, wood for heating and diesel for emergencies. Because the towering mountains block most direct sunlight in winter, solar is not feasible. Power outages are frequent, though I dare not complain – we heard the news of the terrific ice storms and lengthy outages in the Puget Sound area.
Outages make one mindful of the great conveniences and blessings of electrical power. One is especially mindful when one is stark naked and about to step into the shower but instead, one is plunged into a black void. One gropes along the bathroom walls in search of a door, hoping to open it for a shaft of dim light. One also hopes there’s no one in the hallway.
On a recent powerless afternoon, with our computers of no use, a co-worker and I cleaned our corner of the office. It was something like an archeological dig through layers of dust. Obviously no one had cleaned in years, and I wondered what my predecessors did during power outages.
As for my dream, Holden is ideally set up to be a ski resort. There was some talk of that 50-some years ago when the former mining town was for sale. Thank God, there weren’t enough backers with enough money. When the Holden Mine was operating, power was provided by the Chelan County PUD, and power lines were strung along the lake. After the mine closed, the U.S. Forest Service required that the lines be removed as a potential fire threat. When the retreat center began operating, a major challenge was getting hydropower up and running. It remains a challenge.
The power was back on long enough last night so we could watch a documentary on nuclear waste. It was part of the college course on environmental ethics that students are taking here during their January term. The film underscored how we as a nation are eagerly consuming nuclear power but politically incapable of dealing with the waste. The crisis is imminent.
“My generation has a lot of problems to solve,” mused a 19-year-old sitting near me. I have nothing but hope for his generation, and a lot of dismay for my own.
Feb. 5, 2011
To get home you have to go “out” – a strange turn of phrase for someone raised in a family of baseball fans. In baseball, an out means you have no hope of reaching home. In Holden-speak, “out” refers to everywhere outside the village.
If you are a long-term staff member, you are given 37 “out” days per year and seven sets of boat tickets. I took my first “out” to go home last week. Getting to the boat was an adventure. The standard buses – even chained up – couldn’t navigate the deep new snow on the steep road down the mountain. Those of us heading out climbed into World War II-era vehicles called “Bombardiers.” They have tracks for propulsion in the rear and skis for steering in the front. They are smelly, noisy (the driver handed out earplugs) and more fun than an amusement park ride. They seat about a dozen people cozily.
Under brilliant blue skies, we bounced down the road, peering through portholes at eye-popping accumulations of snow. The trees were so heavily laden their boughs were vertical. Lower on the mountain, we transferred from Bombardiers to a waiting bus that maneuvered the final breathtaking switchbacks to Lake Chelan.
During the boat ride, I tried to mentally reorient myself to the world that waited. Reentering that world is nonetheless a culture shock. Especially jarring is the material wastefulness of everyday life in America. The remoteness of the village and its pristine, wilderness surrounding dictate a mindfulness about material goods that the “outside” world takes for granted.
A tiny example: In the village we meticulously sort our waste. We separate our trash and then take turns sifting through it a second time. Recyclables are recycled, paper products that can’t be recycled are burned, organics are composted and the remainder is regretfully shipped to a landfill. It’s an intentional process that makes you think about every item you pick up and ultimately throw away.
At home, I didn’t want to lay in groceries for my brief visit. Instead, I purchased a ready-made “deli” salad for dinner. When I opened the container, I discovered it required eight – eight! – separate plastic containers to compartmentalize the ingredients for an individual salad. What was I to do with all that non-recyclable plastic?
Despite the culture shock, it was wonderful to be welcomed home by family, friends and, of course, Daphne – my black lab mix. She has cheerfully adopted our house-sitting family during my absence. It is possible, I find, to have one’s heart in two places.
I returned to the village on an equally blue-sky winter day. Riding along in the boat, I gasped again at the spectacle of glacier-coated mountains towering over the third deepest lake in the country. I was reminded of news I’d heard that morning about a very different kind of boat ride – political refugees being forced onto treacherous seas to escape their native land.
I know I am a privileged person. May I never forget it.
Feb. 12, 2012
Just when I was finding my groove, we had “Stop Day.” Like a lot of events at Holden Village, Stop Day is somewhat whimsical, held every now and again. There are no written Stop Day policies, procedures or protocol. Someone in charge simply declares that such-and-such-a-day will be Stop Day – generally a day when only a few guests are in the village and no special activities planned.
Everything stops. No one does any work except for bare essentials, such as stoking the boilers that provide heat. Not even the cooks work. The evening before Stop Day they lay out a buffet of left-overs and we help ourselves to a day’s worth of wonderful food to graze upon – sandwich makings, salads, baked salmon, calzones, bagels, pork roast. No one starves on Stop Day.
Yet I do not stop easily. For one thing, it’s taken me a long time to feel like I’m accomplishing anything of real value here. Every project had been stymied or delayed for a variety of reasons beyond anyone’s control. Now I’m finally beginning to see progress. I’m experiencing the satisfaction that comes with at least rudimentary understanding of new computer programs, projects are coming to fruition, and I don’t want to stop.
Stop Days are about learning how to “be,” instead of constantly doing. I’m a long way from mastering that lesson. I have some kind of genetic warfare going on between being and doing.
The Swedes on my father’s side were adept at simply being. Legendary are the long, boring Sunday afternoons when my grandfather and his friends would sit on the front porch, rocking, with mere threads of occasional conversation. After a long silence someone would pronounce, “Dat’s de vay she gose.” Another very long silence and someone would confirm: “Eee-yup.”
The Germans on my mother’s side were doers, hustling and bustling, living life at top speed even if it meant going in circles. Mother once told me that her idea of heaven is a place where “there’s lots to do and plenty of time to do it.”
I did my best to observe Stop Day. I spent the morning holed up in my bedroom – a virtual cave with snow outside piled higher than my window. I slept until after 8, lifted weights, showered, wrote a short meditation I’d promised for Lent (writing short takes an extra long time), snacked on my left-overs, read a light-weight mystery. By 1 p.m., I couldn’t stand it any longer. I took a two-mile walk, enjoying the crunch of my boots on snow underfoot while above, soaring mountains gleamed in the sun against the backdrop of a brilliant blue sky.
Walk completed, I went to my darkened office, which is usually bustling at that time of day. I worked in the silence for three hours, feeling only a little guilty about my workaholic compulsions.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” writes Annie Dillard. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to stop.
Feb. 26, 2012
Holden Village is so remote and tiny, it doesn’t even merit a dot on the map. Yet I feel as if I’m at the crossroads of the world. Without leaving the village, I recently traveled – at least in spirit – to Palestine, Nepal, Iran and Kenya.
People come to retreat centers to get away from the world and all its troubles. I, of course, am not on retreat. I’m here to welcome people who sometimes bring with them the world’s pain. They may need to share their pain as they work through it, sort it out, make sense of it.
We recently dedicated a week to Palestine, learning about the tangle of historical and political events that have led to the current, intolerable mess. To deepen our empathy for the Palestinians, we ate their food, listened to their music and watched their movies. Our guide was a woman who has spent the past ten years either in Palestine, where she works for liberation, or in Washington, D.C., where she lobbies for change in U.S. policies. When she gets burned out (and who wouldn’t?), she comes to Holden for respite, serving on the utilities team.
I emerged from the week with renewed yearning that we as humans could embrace each other’s humanity. It is the only way we will bridge the artificial barriers of race, religion, nationality and economic status. It will take each of us, one relationship at a time.
Some of the world travelers who arrive here bring messages of hope. Janet, our current creative resident, had been to Kenya to gather data about health issues such as water-borne disease, malaria, malnutrition and AIDS in a remote and medically under-served community. She was working on behalf of a clinic that was established by a physician in Iowa and is supported through private donations. She’d also been to Nepal with an organization that combats the tragic practice of child marriage by providing scholarships for girls to go to school. Education is proving to be an excellent defense against exploitation. All of this is done via person-to-person networking.
Many visitors present slideshows. Stunningly beautiful photos from Iran were taken by a mountain climber whose day job is organic farming in the Skagit Valley. Last year he participated in an exchange between the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Iran. From his description, the process of obtaining visas – both into the United States and Iran – was more daunting than any of the mountains they climbed. His slides included jarring photos of pervasive anti-American propaganda, yet he said everyday Iranians were delighted to meet Americans.
Another guest, Lisa, who was formerly on staff here as a nurse, hopes to work next in Africa. I can’t remember if she said Zaire or Zambia, but because we were, for a few weeks, members of the same community, I feel as if I’m part of her mission. I am one more human being closer to bringing light and healing to a dark and wounded world.
March 4, 2012
Even at Holden Village, one dresses for the opera. Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte was playing Thursday night. Luckily I had a long, black silk coat-dress which I accessorized with a gold necklace, black fur hat and my black, knee-high Muck© boots. For you city-dwellers, Muck boots are exactly what they say they are, favored by farmers when they’re mucking out the barn. I wear them when the snow gets deeper than the tops of my snow boots.
I planned to walk to the opera, but as I stepped onto the road, the village limousine (aka Bombardier, the vehicle that is equipped with a strange combination of skis and tracks) screeched to a halt and the door swung open. The limo was crammed with excited opera-goers, but the front seat was still available. I climbed in next to the chauffeur and suggested to him that he was going the wrong way. There’s only one street in the village, and the “opera house” was in the opposite direction.
“Not to worry,” the chauffeur replied in a somewhat convincing attempt at a British accent. “It’s all part of the plan.” Despite his vocal disguise, I recognized him immediately as the fellow who operates the snow plow during the day. Thrilled to be driving a faster vehicle, he tore down the road and into the inky night at top speed – at least 10 mph, maybe even 15.
The chauffeur was somewhat distracted, constantly scraping away frost that was accumulating on the inside of the windshield.
“My side isn’t icing up as much,” I observed. “Maybe I should drive.”
But the chauffeur remained in control and after a few minutes of joy-riding we turned around, reaching the village just in time for our night at the opera. We were play-acting of course, an example of what we call “Holden hilarity” – which is listed on official documents as one of the village’s core values.
Hilarity is an understatement. The villagers, usually clad in turtle necks and jeans, could have doubled as an Academy Awards audience. Women were resplendent in a panoply of sequined, low-cut gowns, borrowed from the village costume shop and therefore not always a perfect fit, to say the least. Every once in a while you caught a glimpse of sturdy snow boots peeking out from beneath the shimmering hemlines. The men all seemed six inches taller in suits and ties, although I was confused when a couple of men showed up in toga-like outfits. Maybe they thought we were there for Aida.
We mingled like high society, admiring each other’s creative costuming, sipping mocktails and nibbling petit fours and meringues. Some of us actually watched the opera, a video projected on Holden’s less-than wide screen. It was an excellent production but long. When it was over I felt like Cinderella at one minute past midnight. No limo. No chauffeur. I walked the path to my chalet, Mozart’s music echoing in my ears, accompanied by the crunch of Muck boots on fresh-fallen snow.
March 11, 2012
In addition to our regular jobs, all volunteers and staff at Holden share three rotating assignments to keep the community going.
“Dish team” is the Holden version of KP. Once-a-week duties range from scrubbing pots so huge you could get lost in them, to running around the enormous kitchen, trying to locate where to put away the myriad pans and utensils after they’re clean.
“Stoking” is a once-monthly, nine-hour shift of maintaining the wood fires that heat the boilers that warm our buildings. Usually I enjoy the primal satisfaction of fire building, but last week I accidentally got one of the fires too hot and smoked the volunteer carpenter out of his shop. Carpentry is one of the most valued skills here, and it is not good to make its practitioners unhappy.
“Garbo,” while my least favorite task, is probably the most motivational, as in, if I can do this I can do anything.
Garbology is defined in my dictionary as “the study of modern culture through the analysis of what is thrown away as garbage or trash.” At Holden, garbology is less a study and more a practice, an intent to live on the land as lightly as possible despite bringing some 6,000 people into this fragile wilderness setting every year. Garbology is taken as seriously as worship. Just as we have a full-time pastor to oversee our spiritual practices, we have a full-time garbologist who directs distribution of refuse.
Garbo duty has three parts, like a liturgy through which one moves from the benign into the disgusting and finally the icky. We begin by sorting paper and flattening cardboard cartons for recycling. Then we don gloves and literally pick through other people’s trash. Guests are encouraged to put their trash in designated receptacles: (a) recyclable, (b) burnable, (c) biological waste, and (d) none of the above – the latter going to a landfill. For many people, it’s just too complicated. Consequently, we double-check it all, piece by piece.
“I think the first thing guests should experience when they get off the bus is an hour of garbo instead of their nice hot lunch,” I muttered inhospitably as I picked through bottle caps, used tissues, and plastic candy bags. “Maybe then they’d get it.”
“You’re not the first to suggest that,” smiled a veteran staffer. Our No. 1 job is to be hospitable, and I do enjoy and appreciate our guests – even those few who leave a mess behind. They’re the reason I’m here, after all.
The final rite of garbo duty is compost. After huffing our way up a steep hill to the compost bins, we empty huge garbage cans filled with food scraps (no meat!) and use shovels to chop the slop. Grapefruit peelings are particularly challenging.
Last week I spotted my first pine marten near the compost bins. The little critters are shy but curious, and I’m told they especially favor that area.
“Hey, buddy,” I whispered. “This is all about you – you and all of God’s creation.”
I felt better.
March 18, 2012
You may be lingering at the table after a meal, or you may be waiting for a meeting to begin or the boat to arrive, or you may be out on the trail on a snowshoe trek, when more than likely, someone gives you a gift: their story.
Stories abound here because we have time and space to accommodate them. We tell each other our stories because they are welcomed and because we feel safe in the telling. Many stories are funny, usually accounts of stupid things we did that were mortifying at the time but are hilarious in retrospect. Other stories are tragic, confided because the telling of them is necessary for healing.
Some stories are spiritually rich, told and heard with awe. Those stories are so powerful that when you hear them, you know you’ll remember them for the rest of your life. I hope I never forget pausing on the trail while snowshoeing with two others last Monday and listening to Peter, the father of a 16-year-old son, tell his story.
Our setting itself was memorable. It had snowed more than a foot the previous night, and snow was still falling. Each tree in the forest wore its fresh cloak of snow with the pride and grace of rich women wearing ermine. The powdery snow felt weightless, but that’s easy for me to say. My two companions were generously breaking trail for me.
We were chatting about food when Peter, who is from Montana, commented that his family was eating a lot of elk meat this winter. His son had bagged an elk, his first, on the opening day of hunting season.
“It was kind of a spiritual experience,” Peter said, and we stopped to listen. He described how they started out and were surprised to come across a herd almost immediately. Peter was determined that his son should have the first shot and told the young man to go ahead. The son knelt and aimed but didn’t shoot and didn’t shoot. The herd moved on. The son explained he was shaking too much to shoot.
They followed the herd and once again got into shooting range. This time the young man shot and hit his target, mortally wounding it. As father and son waited at a respectful distance for the great animal to die in peace, the son again knelt.
“What are you doing?” the father asked.
“Giving thanks,” his son answered.
I’ve never been and never could be a hunter, but stories have a way of connecting with each other. I filed Peter’s tale in my mental anthology of beautiful hunting stories told to me by my late husband and by various Native American friends. I deeply appreciate people who, when they hunt, fish, or raise and butcher animals, do so with an abiding respect for the life-giving nature of their efforts.
I’m richer from hearing Peter’s story, and the world is richer for having in it a 16-year-old who instinctively knows when to give thanks.
March 25, 2012
If Holden Village, with its Lutheran roots, were to have a patron saint, I would nominate Katharina von Bora, wife of Martin Luther. Called “Katie” by her husband, she was one of twelve nuns who escaped a prison-like convent life with Luther’s help and ultimately married him.
“My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me,” wrote Martin, “that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.”
The fact that Martin had food on the table at all was due largely to Katie, who was the economic generator for the family. While Martin was changing the face of Christianity for centuries to come, Katie ran the family farm along with a boarding house for Martin’s theology students and a brewery.
It is said that Martin habitually gathered his students around the dinner table to discuss theology while drinking Katie’s excellent beer. The tradition is alive and well at Holden, where a weekly “Bible and Brew” discussion includes suds – beer or root beer, your choice.
Because transporting beer to the village is cumbersome, various individuals maintain Katie’s legacy of making first-class home brew. I can attest to the quality of Holden beer after attending last week’s village-wide tasting competition, an unofficial annual event. About a half-dozen home brewers offered 25 varieties of porter, lager, IPA, ale and even mead and hard cider. Organizers also included two “ringers,” premium commercial beers to be blind-tested against the skills of village brewers.
About three dozen volunteer judges crammed into a chalet living room, armed with score sheets, stubby pencils and empty glasses. The beer was dispensed from behind a curtain so even brewers could not say for sure which of the samples was theirs – except for the cider. Because there was only one entry in that category, the maker was easily identified and roundly criticized for producing something that tasted like liquid cleanser. Most people, after one sip, dumped the remainder into the swill bucket.
Each taste consisted of only an ounce or less, but still, 27 ounces of beer is enough to warm a person on a cold winter evening. I noticed the volume of conversation intensified exponentially with every pour. We scored the beers on a one-to-ten scale, with one being swill and ten being the best beer ever tasted. I kept careful notes, but by the time I reached samples 25, 26 and 27, I was having a hard time remembering samples 1, 2 and 3.
Luther’s theology was all about redemption, and the castigated brewer of cider ended up winning first place for a highly digestible ale. The two commercial beers scored almost as low as the cider. My personal favorite was entitled “Classic Ale,” brewed by the village’s head mechanic, who has written a book on home brewing. It’s available at the village book store, and I intend to buy a copy. In the tradition of Katie Luther, next year I want to be a contestant, as well as taster.
April 1, 2012
Perhaps someday I will live in a senior citizen community with folks my own age. Eventually I may yearn to be with people who walk my walk and talk my talk. I’m just not there yet.
I thought about that yesterday after a brief episode on the snowshoe trail. Three of us, in our 60s, met up and chatted with three men in their 20s. We talked about the trail, where we’d been, where we were going. We 60-somethings were finishing up a pleasant roam through the forest with no elevation gain. The 20-somethings, lean and muscular, planned to climb to the top of the ridge, then ski and snowboard back down. Very different journeys: the 20-somethings were on their way up and we 60-somethings had plateaued, so to speak, perhaps even nearing descent. But we found common ground on the trail.
That’s why, at least for now, I can’t picture myself in a community that sets upward age limits for its residents. The traditional view of generational roles is that the young learn from the old. I find I have much to learn from the younger folks with whom I’m blessed to live. I’m not talking just about technology – how if we want to figure out our smart phone, computer or TiVo, we ask a grandchild. Admittedly, there is that element. My office associate, who has forty years less work experience than I, has been invaluable as I’ve struggled to learn new software.
The larger lessons I’m getting from the younger generations have to do with their world view: their tolerance, human values and disdain for getting suckered into the tired old arguments over politics, sex and religion that have plagued my generation. Granted, I’m living with some extraordinary young adults, here as volunteers, getting only a slight stipend and health benefits – if they stay long enough. For many of them, volunteerism is a way of life. They’ve either come from or are going to work for various non-profit organizations in service all over the world. Partly it’s their ethic, partly it’s because post-college jobs are hard to get these days. By doing service, they can often delay payments on those onerous student loans.
There are young families here, too, with children from infants to high schoolers. I see these children not just in passing; I interact with them throughout the day. Seated around our breakfast table today were several adults and three children under the age of 5. It was a cold, blustery morning and I’d been thinking how appealing it would be to crawl back into bed. Then I found myself looking across the table at a 10-month-old who was staring back with awe. His job is to discover, every minute, everything new the world has to offer.
Immediately my outlook changed. I know that somewhere deep inside me is that same sense of awe, buried as I grew older and more blasé. Time to search for it, to discover what is new in my world today.
April 8, 2012
Last week – Holy Week – marked a one-year anniversary for me. I visited Holden Village for the first time during Holy Week of 2011, leaving on Good Friday with a tiny seed planted in my mind, or perhaps, in my heart. Just before I stepped onto the bus for the ride down the mountain to Lake Chelan, Chuck, one of the directors said, “Why don’t you come back some time as a volunteer and share your communication skills?”
I laughed and answered, “No, thanks. I could never leave my dog.” But his suggestion was like a seed that lay dormant in fertile ground beneath the snow, waiting to sprout in due season. I reminded Chuck of that conversation last week as we were climbing a snow-covered path on our way to a morning meeting.
“Any regrets?” he asked.
“None,” I answered, “but a lot of adjustments.” (Missing my dog among them.)
When I speak of a one-year anniversary, I’m referring not to the civil calendar, which is a fixed order of days, weeks and months, but the liturgical – or church – calendar, which is more about the soul’s annual journey. On the civil calendar, Easter can land anywhere between March 22 and April 25, the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon. Last year that was April 24.
The liturgical calendar begins in early winter with Advent, a time of waiting and expectation for Christmas, one of the few “fixed” dates in the church calendar. Christmas takes us to Epiphany, the celebration of God manifested as a light to the world. Following is Lent, one of the most personally introspective seasons, offering us the opportunity to appraise our lives within the shadows created by that light of Epiphany. Then the extraordinary miracle of Easter.
Easter and Christmas both, while misunderstood by much of the secular world as one-day holidays, are really seasons – hence the “Twelve Days of Christmas” that begin on, not before Christmas. The Easter season is fifty days, during which the resurrected Jesus appeared to many people before the Ascension. The liturgical cycle is completed with the longest season, Pentecost, a time when believers are called to get to work as Christ’s presence in the world.
It was around Pentecost last year that Chuck’s casually planted seed began to sprout in my mind. By Advent, here I was, committed to staying a year. By Epiphany, I’d extended that commitment to three years. Lent reassured me that I’d made the right decision.
The village approached Easter by observing the traditional “Triduum,” a three-day continuum of worship starting with Maundy Thursday. Easter morning, after the final Alleluia!, came an utterly nonreligious Easter egg hunt. Children and adults vied aggressively, sometimes wrestling in six feet of snow, for brightly colored plastic eggs. I had planned to join the fray but ended up watching in amazement as people chased each other up snowbanks and across rooftops.
A few of the victors shared their candy with me on an Easter Day unlike any I’ve ever experienced.
April 22, 2012
During a brief visit home last week, I realized that while my neighborhood looks the same, it will never again be the same. My neighbor Jerry had died.
When John and I chose our house nearly 30 years ago, it was without consideration of the neighborhood. We wanted the riverfront setting along the back side of the house. The neighborhood, on the front side of the house, turned out to be a plus even though we neighbors don’t socialize much. We’re aware of each other in a caring way.
Jerry played a large part in that, especially after my husband was paralyzed by stroke and required 24-hour care. In winter Jerry shoveled snow from my walk most mornings before I was even out of bed. He tried to disguise his large heart behind a patina of ironic humor, pretending to complain if I let vines get out of control or didn’t decorate adequately at Christmas. When I eventually bought a snow blower and cleared Jerry’s small driveway, he’d call out, “I’ll send you a bill!”
Back at Holden the buzz was all about the spring “shift.” Some staff members are leaving, new ones are coming. For many, this means a change in room assignments. It was the opportunity I’d been waiting for since December, when I arrived and was assigned to Chalet 3.
Chalet 3 houses eleven people. Except for one other woman, everyone is under 30. It’s a little like living in a frat house. Apparently, the hope had been that my presence on the first floor, adjacent to the living room, would reduce Chalet 3’s non-official function as the after-hours social center. I, however, have no intention of being house mother.
The late-night socializing has been sporadic and tolerable. My issue has been with the mornings-after, threading my way through empty cans and bottles, popcorn bowls and left-over snacks while on my way to breakfast in the dining hall.
More often than not, the chalet kitchenette is a disaster until, occasionally, someone gets inspired and does the dishes. Things are tidy for a day or so, and then the cycle of, shall we say, “casual living and leaving” resumes. My primary excuse for moving, however, would be that the window of my ground floor room gets snowed in during winter. It’s like living in an igloo.
As people filled out forms requesting room changes, a number of chalet mates asked my plans. Some sounded anxious. “You’ve had a quieting influence,” said one young woman. Moi? Quieting?! I’ll admit to enjoying a few cozy evenings in the living room, watching a film or playing cards.
Yesterday, as I sat in the front porch swing, reading and luxuriating in the warmth of spring sun, I accidentally sent my insulated coffee mug off the edge of the porch, into a 12-foot crevasse that has developed between the chalet and snow bank. I resigned myself to not seeing the mug again until June. That afternoon, I found it sitting on my desk. One of my “chal” mates, Nate, had recovered it at no small effort. Nate’s ironic humor reminds me of Jerry.
I’ll wait until fall to change rooms. You get used to a place.
April 29, 2012
Spring at Holden Village is both a state of mind and an exercise in determination. I am determined not to break my neck, or any other crucial part of my body, as I pick my way across disappearing paths. The primary, well-traveled paths are either trodden or shoveled down to solid earth. But here in the suburbs, where my chalet is located, I have several feet of melting snow to navigate before I reach my front door, panting and grateful.
Negotiating the path requires finding solid footing for each next step. If I fail, I sink up to my knee (or deeper) in soft, mushy snow. Problem is, many ahead of me have failed, leaving trails of “postholes,” which are to be avoided at all cost. We make new trails atop the banks that were adjacent to the old trails. But before long, the new trails are postholed, and so it goes.
If it’s early morning, the trails – such as they are – have frozen over, making them even more treacherous. Last Sunday I put on Yaktrax (which give traction to boots like chains do for tires) to go to a neighbor’s house for coffee. I picked my way up the trail, arrived breathlessly unscathed and discovered another guest was wearing sandals.
“How did you get here?” I asked.
“Very carefully,” she laughed.
That’s the state-of-mind part. While I’m still wearing a parka and turtle necks, villagers who have had more than enough of winter are in shirt-sleeves and shorts. Never mind that there’s more than three feet of snow still on the ground in most places. There’s something surreal about watching bare-footed people in shorts engaged in intense snowball fights, which are still frequent.
We know it’s spring because the birds came back. First there were just one or two occasional birdsongs. Then apparently myriad flocks got together in the lowlands and decided, “Let’s head up to Holden today.” The next morning we awoke to a jubilant avian anthem of multiple songs, more complex than a Bach fugue.
Beneath the bird chorus is the insistent babble, whoosh and chortle of water. Streams of running, galloping water are emerging everywhere I look, spilling from snow banks, spurting out of rock walls, even gushing through basements. The water escapes its icebound form with the glee of children running from the schoolhouse after a long day of confined study. As if to the beat of a single drum, water races urgently down, freed from ice but now a captive of gravity on a predestined path. Down to Lake Chelan, then the Columbia River, finally the Pacific Ocean.
The energy of running water is good news for the village. After limping along on winter’s paltry flow, our hydroelectric system has returned to full power. Two weeks ago, those of us who have refrigerators were allowed to turn them back on. Last night came the announcement we’d all been longing for: “You may now use your clothes driers.”
My mind’s made up. Spring is here.
May 6, 2012
The surest sign of spring at Holden Village is the arrival of two busloads of workers. If the first image that comes to your mind is busloads of field workers who keep our agricultural industry afloat, you would be wrong. These workers are solidly middle class, old enough and affluent enough to take time away from jobs or – in most cases – retirement, to give free labor for a week.
It’s a long-standing tradition. During Spring Work Week the village is transformed from a place of quiet winter solitude to a bustling center of activity. The volunteers replace storm windows with screens, move furniture, repair winter-damaged plumbing, open buildings that have been closed and unheated for months, make beds, hang curtains, scrub and polish, creating a village ready for the thousands of guests who will arrive in summer. For many, Work Week is a semi-annual pilgrimage. They will be back in fall to prepare the village for winter.
I’d never met any of these people, yet I’ve known them all my life. These are the people of my Minnesota childhood: smart and capable, yet selfless and humble. They’re the people public radio humorist Garrison Keillor writes and talks about. Keillor doesn’t make any of that stuff up; he just creates composites of people who really exist.
There were Minnesotans among the Work Week volunteers, but they came from all over the country. Maybe like mine, their roots are in the nation’s heartland; if they’ve emigrated, they’ve taken the heartland’s solid ethics of work and service with them.
One morning I was washing windows and mopping floors alongside a woman from southern California. She confided that she’d hired someone to do a thorough spring cleaning of her house while she was at Holden.
“Y’know: wash windows, mop floors.”
We laughed at the irony.
Holden welcomes all people and encourages diversity, but at the end of the day, most of us are WASPs. There are exceptions, including a week in August devoted to Hispanic people and culture, when only Spanish is spoken. We are diverse, too, in age and background. Around my breakfast table this morning were a retired doctor, a college drop-out who hasn’t figured out his life’s direction yet, a high-ranking fireman, a 20-something who’s having a hard time finding a job (there are several of those folks here these days), and a couple older adults who are changing direction mid-stream in their lives.
The conversation drifted from one topic to the next until we settled on something we all had in common: dish team. Every village volunteer and staff member, doesn’t matter who you are or how important you think you are, spends one shift a week washing dishes and wiping tables. We happily agreed that the experience not only serves the village but helps put our own mistaken sense of self-importance into perspective.
So what if we’re mostly WASPs? Even the privileged classes need a place, somewhere other than Disneyland or cruise ships, to discover who we are.
May 13, 2012
I spent my 68th birthday yesterday trying to recall the previous 67 – or as many as possible. I recollect only a small number of celebrations, though I’m sure there’ve been many. Was I there?
Two years ago, I was in England for what the British call my “birthing day.” I remember that but have no idea where I was or what I did last year. It’s not that I’m trying to ignore birthdays or forget my age. I don’t mind my age; I’m simply amazed by it. Like so many of my contemporaries, I wonder, “How did I get here?!”
A couple milestone birthdays are memorable. On my 60th, friends and family threw a blow-out party that was blessedly absent of silly jokes about being “over the hill.” My 50th fell on the day before I was to take my stroke-paralyzed husband home from rehab and begin my 14-plus-year career as a full-time caregiver. My heart brimming with anxious prayer, I ignored my birthday – which may be why I remember it.
I remember my 30th birthday, when I grieved the end of my Terrific Twenties. “I will never have any more fun,” I moaned to my newspaper mentor, the man who would become my husband. He laughed at my foolishness. Now, having more than doubled that age, I happily report he was right.
There were other milestone birthdays: the 12th, when I was permitted to begin wearing lipstick and nylon stockings; the 16th, when I got my driver’s license and the accompanying, glorious freedom; the 21st, when I was fully an adult, able to vote, answer for my own financial decisions, and oh, yes, drink. I don’t specifically remember that celebration (probably a good thing) nor the others.
I have good reason to remember my 68th. I did not celebrate it at Holden Village, having left the village to attend my granddaughter’s wedding, which happened to fall on my birthday. Such an event totally eclipsed my own relatively insignificant observance.
En route to the wedding, I stopped for gas, muttering to myself about the unseemly price. After I’d filled the tank, the station manager approached my car and handed me a ticket for a free “deluxe” car wash. A previous customer had purchased it and then, for some reason, decided not to use it. I happily sat in my car while giant, soapy brushes moved back and forth, removing the layers of dust that are inevitable after a cross-state drive.
When I emerged from the automated facility in my gleaming car, the manager nodded approvingly. I rolled down my window and said, “It’s my birthday. Thanks for the surprise gift.” He beamed.
I’m sure I’ll still remember the wedding when my next birthday rolls around, but I may have forgotten the car wash. That’s OK. Life is full of little surprises, not only on birthdays. Every day of my life there’s at least one small, happy surprise. I don’t always remember them. The point is to notice each, confident there’ll be more to come.
May 27, 2012
Sometime or other, when I was distracted with other matters, the splendid silence of winter dissolved into a short and diffident spring from which summer has suddenly emerged. The grass is green, daffodils are in full bloom, dust has replaced mud on the road, and I’m getting my vitamin D directly from the sun instead of a pill.
In summer, Holden Village goes to town. Our population more than quadruples; volunteer staff triples. Busloads of people arrive and leave daily. I missed much of the transition because I was out of the village for a couple weeks in May attending family events and tending to village business.
In winter, traveling on Lake Chelan to and from the village is sublime. There is barely enough business to keep one boat running just three times a week. Passengers can stretch out in near-solitude, maybe squinting their eyes and dreaming they’re aboard their private yacht.
In summer, two boats run seven days a week and reservations are advisable. Besides folks visiting Holden Village, there are the day-trippers headed for the tiny port of Stehekin at the head of the lake and back-packers venturing into the North Cascade mountains. I should not have been surprised when I called for a reservation to return to the village last Friday and was told, “Boat’s full.” I already knew a couple hundred teens were headed to Holden for one of three “May Youth Weekend” events.
I made reservations for Saturday morning, thinking it would at least be more peaceful without 200-plus teens on board. I’d forgotten it was Memorial Day weekend. The boat was jammed with passengers, mostly backpackers whose enormous packs at least doubled the amount of space they consumed. Many had dogs, also equipped with packs. There were day-tripping tourists, too, including a large, jovial group of East Indians. I don’t know what language they were speaking – Hindi, maybe, or Bengali. But other tourists were speaking languages I recognized, including Spanish and German. I closed my eyes and thought, “I could be anywhere in the world, not just 50 miles from home.”
The boat was full to capacity. I was lucky to find a single seat outdoors on the upper stern deck. It was chilly, and I snuggled into my hooded windbreaker, content to people-watch. Although the accommodations were well short of luxurious, everyone was in a holiday mood, eager for adventure.
I caught the mood. I’d been anxious about the change that the summer boom would bring. When I left, there were fewer than 100 people in the village. I returned to nearly 400 and was immediately charmed by the energy of the visiting teens.
Others beside me had returned to the village, too. As I walked to Vespers that evening, a doe and her two yearlings grazed casually on the tender new grass of the chalet lawns. The doe looked up at me as if to say she supposed she could tolerate yet one more human in the village.
June 3, 2012
“All you can do now is pray.”
So often, we hear those words in a medical setting – the examination room, the hospital corridor, even at the patient’s bedside. It is said with a tone of resignation. Translation: We physicians and clinicians have sampled blood and tested urine, probed and x-rayed, diagnosed and prescribed, cut open and stitched back up. There’s nothing more we can do. All you can do now is pray.
It’s as if we’re saying, when all else fails, when all the rational, scientific life-saving measures are exhausted, let’s resign ourselves to prayer – as if there’s nothing better to offer. As if prayer is like climbing into a leaky lifeboat with no oars and no provisions. Who knows if it will stay afloat, much less make it to shore?
The curious thing is, prayer is not the ending but the beginning. It is not the panacea for hopeless cases, but the very foundation of hope. After my husband’s stroke nearly 20 years ago, we were appreciative when people told us they were thinking about us. But we were strengthened immeasurably by the people who were willing to go out on a limb and pray for us. Thoughts are good, but prayer is the language of the heart; it is empathy and community, connection and empowerment.
Don’t bother to send me the results of various scientific studies that either prove or disprove the power of prayer. Prayer heals what needs to be healed, and science cannot always determine just what it is that needs to be healed. Nor can we.
This morning I learned that a friend, a brilliant musician, suffered a paralyzing stroke two weeks ago. News, even important news, is sometimes slow to reach this remote place. My first reaction was, of course, shock and sorrow. I was engulfed, as I always am when I hear the word “stroke,” by waves of memories back to my own experience as a stroke survivor’s wife. I know something about this foreign, hostile land through which my friend and his wife are traveling.
And then, instantaneously, without my even willing it, the prayer began. Not a conscious prayer with eyes devoutly closed, hands clasped. It was a prayer of wordless gratitude, a deeper appreciation of how important this friend is to me, instant replays of his many kindnesses over the years – most recently, the collection of jazz CDs he burned for my “long winter nights” at Holden Village. Then more gratitude: we did not lose him, he survived.
Still unspoken, the prayer moved through a spectrum of emotions: hope for his full recovery; appreciation for the healing therapies available to him; thankfulness for the wisdom and strength of his wife, now his caregiver, and concern for her well-being. Throughout the day, thoughts of them come to my mind at random times, but the prayers remain in my heart continuously. They will be there in the days to come.
All I can do is pray. And that’s the best anyone can do.
June 10, 2012
I wonder what it is that makes a house a home. I’ve lived in a number of houses, but didn’t always feel “at home.” I’m not sure why.
When I arrived at Holden last December, I was assigned a room. It was a simple room with knotty pine paneling and a window that looked into the forest (until the snow piled up too high.) There was a bed, nightstand, dresser for clothes and small table. It was to be my home away from home, but I couldn’t get it to feel homey. I asked that a desk and chair be brought in. That helped. I found an old bookcase in the basement and hauled that up. I hung a bright fabric curtain over the closet door. I hung posters, family photos, scarves and a blanket to brighten the walls. My step-daughter Jean made me an elegant quilt, but even that could not transform the room from its innate dullness.
Wednesday I was advised I could move into a new room, the one directly above mine. The new room has many amenities. Because it’s on the second floor, I’ll be able to see out my window even when the snow gets deep next winter. It is quieter, away from the living room and noise of after-hours socializing. It is larger, with a much nicer closet and at least twice the storage space. And there is the No. 1 amenity, almost unheard of among single staff members at Holden: a private bath. The bathroom makes this room much sought-after and indeed, there were others who wanted it. Room assignments are a sensitive topic, and I don’t envy the people who make the decisions. Their rationale in this case, I was told, was not that I’m older or nicer than anyone else (I am the former but not the latter). It was because I’ll be here longer.
Thursday, moving day, happened to coincide with the arrival of family members who came for a brief visit. In less than an hour they stripped my old room of all my attempts to make it homey and transported everything up one floor. We didn’t try to hang all that stuff back up. We didn’t need to, except for two photos – one of my late husband John and one of us together.
The room immediately felt homey but still needed one thing. We gathered for a social hour before dinner along with Catherine, a friend who was visiting for the week. I asked Catherine to bless the room. She asked God’s blessing, naming every item, from the bed to the windows, the closet to the bathroom. She asked for John’s spirit to be in the room. It wasn’t a séance, but a simple, beautiful prayer.
All the houses I’ve lived in, large and small, but I never thought to have one blessed! And I’ve never slept so well through the first night in a new place, never felt so immediately at home.
July 1, 2012
A guest asked me, “Do you get so you just take the mountains for granted?”
“I hope not,” I answered. To do so would be to join the ranks of the walking dead.
After nearly seven months in Holden Village, I have never seen the mountains appear the same way twice. Every morning I walk from my chalet to the dining hall, risking the likelihood of falling flat on my face because my eyes are not on the path but on the massive peaks that surround us. Some mornings they have decided to dress themselves in an array of clouds, like Hollywood starlets draped in ermine. Other mornings they’ll partner with the sun, their grand glaciers sparkling to produce a brilliant lightshow. On rainy mornings, they’re all attitude: dour, grumpy, unapproachable. Some mornings I can’t see them at all; they have stepped behind a curtain of fog. But I can feel them. They are too large a presence to be seen only, and not felt.
When I’m looking due south, the dominant peaks are named (from left to right) Buckskin, Copper and Dumbbell. Behind me is Martin Ridge – a more benign presence and one I hope to climb someday.
“Why do we think we have to name everything in nature?” yesterday’s hiking partner mused. “Why can’t we just let them be?” Good questions. I suspect the answers may go all the way back to however you want to interpret the stories of Genesis.
While we’re in the Bible, I’ve long been fond of the opening verse of Psalm 121, especially the King James translation: I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. I once recited it to a friend who was more biblically literate than I. She pointed out a significant detail.
“It’s a question, Mary.” I checked it out, and she, of course, was right. “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?” reads the New Revised Standard Version, with the immediate answer: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Is the psalmist saying the hills are no help, only the creator? Well, mountains empower me while, paradoxically, they remind me of my smallness. Venture into those mountains and one becomes a mere speck.
Living at Holden Village has reminded me that very little in my life can be taken for granted, much less those enormous mountains. Everything human-related here is tenuous, such as electrical power and hot water. There’s nothing like experiencing one ice-cold shower to make every subsequent hot shower precious. We are invaders in the wilderness. The trail I hiked just yesterday was closed last night because a mother cougar with cubs had been spotted in that area.
I still take one thing for granted. I assume that when I crawl into bed each night, I will wake up in the morning. It’s an audacious assumption, but without it I probably would never be able to fall asleep.
July 27, 2012
What does a hiker on a hot day in the North Cascade Mountains have in common with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner? Of course: Water, water, every where,/ Nor any drop to drink.
We carried an adequate water supply for our nine-mile hike. But as the temperature neared triple digits, the water in our backpacks became warmer and less refreshing. We were reminded at nearly every turn of the trail why they’re called the Cascades. Water pours off these mountains: countless waterfalls fed by glaciers, cascading hundreds of feet down sheer granite walls; roaring creeks and ice-cold streams of water bubbling alongside and across the trail. At one point, as we crossed a stream, I didn’t try to balance myself on the slippery rocks but simply walked through the water, letting it splash over and into my boots. It felt wonderful.
But drink it? Not on your life. As clear as the water appears, it could be carrying Giardia lamblia, a parasite that makes one very sick. While I wasn’t willing to risk an intestinal infection, I did witlessly risk heat stroke by hiking on the hottest day of the year (so far). All summer I’d been wanting to hike to Hart Lake, one of the area’s most popular destinations. Until that day, I’d either not had time, or when I had time, was unable to find someone to hike with. Finally a companion became available, and I grabbed the opportunity.
It never occurred to me that the hike would challenge my abilities. I’d looked at others who had done it previously and said to myself, “Well, if SHE can do it, certainly I can.” What hubris! Besides, SHE’d made the hike in 60 degree weather.
The Hart Lake trail is rated “moderate.” According to the trail guide, average hikers do the round trip in four hours. It took us six-and-a-half, including the hour we spent eating a sandwich and chilling our feet in the lake’s glacial waters.
We stopped frequently, both coming and going. There were many reasons besides my pounding pulse rate: from the drama of the mountain peaks to the sweep of the timbered valley, the vistas extended further the higher we climbed. And flowers! Tiny, delicate, multi-colored wildflowers that belie the fierce and rugged nature of this country.
Our last gulp of water was hot enough to poach an egg, but we were close to home by then. I stumbled into the village, frankly a little frightened, deciding I should give up strenuous hikes.
A week later, another companion and I decided to take a stroll along the Hart Lake trail, not planning to go the distance. Before we knew it, we were halfway there and agreed to proceed. It was cooler by at least 20 degrees than the previous week, and the water in my backpack remained refreshing. Best of all, the second hike erased memories of the previous dismal experience. I’m reassured that there are still a few more miles ahead for my hiking boots.
Sept. 16, 2012
Poof! Summer has vanished like multi-colored soap bubbles that briefly shimmer and then disappear. I’m leafing through notebooks, trying to recapture what happened
People came and went daily, sometimes by the hundreds. A new teaching staff arrived weekly: college professors and various experts from all over the world. Topics ranged from economics to theology, science to philosophy. I had time to sample only a few of the classes.
My eclectic sampling included a lecture on the ethics of purchasing and disposing personal electronic devices – information for guests to take home since we don’t have cell phone service here and only limited Internet. I learned about animal behavior, the ecology and spirituality of rivers, the legacy of slavery, how climate change is affecting the world food supply, and the impacts of throwing garbage “away” – or to quote the professor, “away from me is closer to someone else.”
There were enticing book studies, but I had time for just one: A review of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which, believe it or not, was published 50 years ago. I made time for poetry studies: Wendell Berry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edward Abbey, Langston Hughes, Billy Collins and even one session on why Shakespeare’s punctuation matters.
I attended concerts by gifted musicians: classical guitar, jazz flute and harmonica, harp, Celtic folk music and dance, and a Gospel choir that had these normally reserved Lutherans dancing in the aisles.
I participated in worship services, Bible studies and heard sermons that raised my awareness of and concern for the world around me while opening doors to a deeper world within.
I did my job: writing thousands of words for newsletters, brochures, news releases, blogs and whatnot. By each week’s end, no words remained to send to friends. I listened to and recorded dozens of stories from people visiting the village. Some were hilarious, others left me sharing tears with the tellers. I attended myriad meetings – committees, teams, boards – all necessary to keep a place like this operating. Best were the Wednesday evening staff meetings when we sat on the grass at the top of Chalet Hill, staring straight into the mountain peaks that tower over the village.
I scraped and rinsed thousands of dishes and helped hand-sort garbage into recyclables, burn pile, landfill and bio-waste. I led a kazoo band in a weekly parade. I witnessed massive machinery doing preliminary work for the mine clean-up that will go into full operation next year at a cost of $100 million (or more)*.
I survived power outages, bear and cougar sightings (by others, not me), fire drills, ground squirrel attacks, but I barely survived a recent dance. Unwisely joining the 20-somethings on the dance floor, I felt something snap in my hip. Ten days later, I’m not in as much pain as I was, but early autumn hikes are postponed indefinitely. We’re down to just a few dozen guests now, and I plan to be healed by the time we’re pulling the snowshoes out.
*$500 million as of spring 2016
Oct. 28, 2012
Seasons do not evolve here in the mountains. We do not slowly rotate from autumn to winter, luxuriating in lingering sunny days, watching golden leaves drift slowly into piles. No. It’s more like someone clicked a switch. One day it’s fall. Next day winter. One day I’m wearing a cotton shirt and clogs. The next day I’m donning snow boots and digging through my closet for the long underwear I put away – when was it, only last May?
Snow has been falling for a week. Not the pretty, crystal, delicate kind of snow that piles up and turns the village into a fairy land. That is yet to come. This is early winter snow, liquid, sloppy, making sludge and muck of what was just yesterday a dusty path.
This early winter has its moments of beauty. The snow arrived before leaves fell. Alder, cottonwood and aspen stand regally gold amidst a backdrop of white-coated firs and pine. Today a chinook blew in like a breath of grace. Warm air and a few hours of sun have melted much of the snow in the village, yet the mountain peaks continue to dazzle with their newly-donned white winter cloaks.
We stood in the sunshine this afternoon and waved goodbye to two busloads of volunteers who spent a week turning the village from summer to winter mode. It was fall “Work Week.” The village was closed to regular guests while enthusiastic volunteers repaired the ruins of summer and prepared for the onslaught of winter. Their energy revived long-term staff who were perhaps a tad weary after the crowds of summer.
Several of the larger buildings are closed for the winter because they’re too big to heat. Storm windows and doors are placed on other buildings. Some 200 cords of wood are cut and stacked for heating. Every nook and cranny is swept, dusted and scrubbed. The long dining hall that can accommodate several hundred people is reconfigured. For winter, some tables are removed – replaced by an area for ping pong and couches to create a cozy “living room” for reading and recreation.
Wood barricades are set in place to protect first-floor windows, reminding me that before too long snow will pile up as high as seven or eight feet. Today, as a friend and I walked up the three steps to my chalet porch, she remarked, “Pretty soon you’ll be walking down to get to your porch.”
I look at those stacks of firewood and remember that once a month I’ll be up at 5 a.m. to take my turn at stoking the boilers that heat the village. I feel confident. I’ve done it before and can do it again. I ordered a new set of traction attachments for my boots. Having gone through two sets at $20 each last year, I invested in a $50 set that comes highly recommended. Winter is simple at Holden Village. It’s just a matter of staying on your feet.
Nov. 25, 2012
Thanksgiving weekend at Holden Village is similar to many American households: football preceding a sumptuous turkey dinner, earnest prayers of gratitude, cross-generational card and board games with the staccato of ping pong in the background, and finally, the snowy and solemn processional to the Blessing of the Composter. The huh?
Blessing a composter may seem somewhat unusual, but Holden has a way of putting its own twist on even the most orthodox events. Football, for example. Without TV, if the village is to enjoy Thanksgiving football, it must stage its own game: the annual Copper Bowl, pitting Sinners against Saints – sinners in black, saints in white (primarily white underwear worn outside their clothes). The game of touch (make that “grab”) football was played in a couple feet of snow. Rules were set by the volunteer referee.
“I’m a Baptist,” announced the ref, “and we believe in rules.” Among them, players would declare positive affirmations to their opponents during breaks.
Breaks were frequent to allow time for commercials. The game was “broadcast” to folks sitting inside the Fireside Room (no fire, but cozy nonetheless). The frequent commercials included an eight-minute saga about “Big Dipper Grease Products.” The Big Dipper is an appliance used by the village to extract grease from waste water. Suffice to say the commercial explicitly showed more than anyone ever wanted to know about the Big Dipper and its byproduct.
Which brings us to compost, another famed Holden byproduct. Everyone – guests and staff – participates in the composting process by thoroughly scraping their plates into compost bins after each meal. Staff members’ monthly “garbo” shift concludes at the compost bins, where compost-to-be (aka food past its prime) is chopped with shovels into tiny bits so it will compost faster. It’s not the tedium; it’s the aroma.
The arrival of an Earth Tub, which will somewhat automate the making of compost, was An Event, something to be celebrated and consecrated. While the rest of the nation observed Black Friday and with an incessant snowfall piling up on hats and parkas, a hardy bunch of about twenty souls marched uphill to the old compost bins, singing a hymn commissioned for the occasion: “Good garbage breaks down as it goes. That’s why it smells bad to your nose (pee yoo!)”
After a prayer of gratitude to the old bin, the congregation processed to the new tub singing,“Dirt, you made my lunch, Oh baby.”
“Shouldn’t that be, ‘Lunch, you made my dirt?’” questioned one of the faithful. It’s the old chicken-or-egg question.
With the village data administrator presiding, villagers promised “to profess [their] faith in good compost, reject meat scraps, and confess the merits of thorough dish scraping.” Because Holden Village names everything of consequence (as well as several things of no consequence), the bin was named Oscar and given the blessing: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust, food scraps to compost.” Amen to that.
Dec. 2, 2012
This village takes fire seriously, aggressively protecting its historic wooden buildings that are well dried after 75 years. Therefore I have no excuse when, supposedly participating in a fire alarm last week, I fell into a pile of powder snow, laughing so hard I couldn’t get back onto my feet.
Every staff member has a specific duty during a fire alarm. I am a “searcher,” which means I go to the alarm site and carry out whatever searching assignment I am given – to look for flames, smoke, bodies, whatever. Midday last Monday the alarm went off from Chalet 3, where I happen to live. I hustled there from my office – a couple hundred yards. By the time I got my assignment, we already knew it was a false alarm (someone roasting barley for homebrew forgot to turn on the kitchen fan). We continued to follow procedure anyway, for practice.
I was assigned to a two-member team to search the perimeter of the chalet. There was about three feet of powder snow on the ground, but no problem. I figured I could follow the footsteps of my partner, in the style of Good King Wenceslas. My male partner, however, was at least six feet tall with a long stride. I finally toppled over while trying to land in his footsteps, and simply laughed, basking in the glorious snow, the brilliant blue sky, the teasing sunshine. I ultimately brushed off the snow and went back to work.
There’s an urban legend that Eskimos have a phenomenal number of words to describe the many varieties of snow. In truth, English has just as many snow-word combinations. I could have used most of them last week. Early in the week was my favorite kind of snow: squeaky-dry, when your boots make a pleasant, scrunchy sound as you walk.
At night a hoar frost icing on the snow glittered under a waxing moon – a spectacle that would make even Cartier diamonds dim like dime store junk in comparison. We scheduled an evening hike for the night of full moon. A layer of clouds tried to foil our plan, but we watched the shadowed orb float across the sky while snow-laden trees lighted our path like giant streetlamps.
Thursday I joined two accomplished backwoods women for an off-trail, predawn snowshoe hike into the woods. As we moved through the silent trees, I could hear only my own breathing and pellets of wet snow falling onto my parka hood. It was like weightlessly swimming through air. The law of gravity was suspended; if we lost our balance, we fell softly into the nothingness of snow.
Since then the temperature has warmed and the snow is heavier – ideal for sculpting snow people and snowballs. A village-wide snowball fight was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. I’m reminded of my Minnesota childhood, when I bundled up and spent hours cavorting in snow. I wonder if I’m experiencing my second childhood, or if I never really left the first one behind.
Jan. 25, 2013
About a mile west of the village is a large clearing in the forest, the site of a labyrinth fashioned after the famous one at Chartres Cathedral, near Paris, France. In summer, the labyrinth is humble, outlined by river rock within nature’s carefree landscape. In winter, it is something to behold: an intricate pattern of snow berms created by volunteers who stomp the pathway with snowshoes. On special nights, tapers are placed in the berms to enable walking the labyrinth by candlelight. It is visually stunning.
People sometimes confuse labyrinths with mazes. A maze is a puzzle, designed to stymie the hapless soul who enters. Labyrinths are circular with a single path winding and curving, in and out, back and forth, until it reaches the center. I’ve read that similar designs are found in Jewish Kabbala, the Hopi medicine wheel, Tibetan sand paintings and Hindu and Buddhist mandalas.
People walk a labyrinth to pray actively. For many, the winding path represents the twists, turns and reversals in life. Ultimately we reach the center of our being. One commentary I read noted that in a labyrinth – where you have no choice about the route you take – “we are all walking together.”
That was certainly the case the other night when I and many others walked the Holden labyrinth by candlelight. It was a spectacular night. Candlelit lanterns, augmented by a luminous half-moon and star-filled sky, marked the snowy path to the labyrinth. Nonetheless, walking was not easy. We haven’t had fresh snow for a while. The compacted snow is about five feet deep, crusty and prone to grabbing your boot as if to pull you under.
Walking alone from the village, I was one of the first to enter the labyrinth. I managed to keep my balance by focusing on my feet, which meant I had to stop if I wanted to contemplate the stars above. After reaching the center, I turned to go out by the single path, thus meeting dozens of people on their way in. The labyrinth path is narrow, really only enough room for one person. We silently sidled past each other; the only sounds were our footsteps on snow and parkas swishing against each other. After about 20 minutes, I emerged from the labyrinth, relieved that I’d neither fallen nor knocked anyone else over.
Not the deep spiritual experience I was seeking. But as I trudged that cold mile back to the village, I mused on something I’d noticed in the labyrinth. I would squeeze past someone going in the opposite direction and then, after we turned a corner, we would find ourselves walking side by side, separated only by the snow berm. How many times in life, I wondered, have I wrongly concluded someone was opposed to me or headed in the wrong direction? How many times have I allowed something as ephemeral as a snow berm to separate me from another on a parallel path? How many times have I failed to notice that, as in the labyrinth, “we are all walking together?”
April 14, 2013
“Aren’t you proud?” Rebecca asks as we eat lunch in a high mountain basin, gazing at vertical glaciers that feel so close I imagine reaching out to touch them.
Aren’t I proud, she is remarking, that after a couple hours of strenuous uphill snow-shoeing, I’ve arrived at this magnificent destination. I’m gasping, but that has more to do with the 360 degree view than the rigors of the climb. A year earlier, I wouldn’t have—couldn’t have!—attempted it. I suppose I can take a certain amount of pride that as I approach my 69th birthday, I feel stronger and healthier than I did a year ago, both in body and in spirit.
As I hunt for the turkey jerky in my backpack, I am reminded to keep my pride in check. It’s a sturdy, green canvas REI pack that my late husband used for carrying his camera equipment more than 20 years ago. Backpacks have become lighter and better designed since then, but I won’t give this one up. For one thing, it isn’t the least bit worn out. More important is the unabashed sentiment. When I’m carrying that pack, it means John’s got my back—as he did for so many years.
Peering into that backpack is like looking through a lens into the past. It was John who introduced me, a city girl, to the wonders of the backcountry: of camping along the shores of pristine lakes, of riding horseback through the wilderness, of foraging for a dinner of freshly-caught trout and morel mushrooms, of stretching my boundaries further than I ever thought possible. I made it up the mountain this winter day, marveling at cougar tracks in fresh snow and fear-inspiring avalanche chutes, only because John opened the path for me many years earlier.
Proud? More like grateful. A gratitude that comes with every success. I am not a self-made woman. Whenever I think I’ve accomplished something special, when my ego puffs up, ready to carry me off like a helium balloon, I’m brought back to earth with the recognition that I didn’t do it on my own. I’ve had people steering me onto the right path from day one: parents who didn’t just mouth a religious faith, but lived it. An older sister who treated me as a contemporary instead of the tag-along that I was. An older brother who read aloud to me when I was tyke. OK. So he was probably showing off that he could read when I could not, but still …
Throughout my life’s journey, there have been teachers, mentors, bosses, co-workers, friends—all of them guiding me. In this, I have been unusually blessed.
Another thing John taught me was how to make a good martini: equal drops of vermouth to jiggers of gin, then stir. The ratio makes a good tonic for the heart, also: just a few drops of pride to get us motivated, then fill to the brim with gratitude. And don’t forget to stir.
April 21, 2013
This is postholey season. The joke (not original with me) is that we have Holy Week leading to Easter, then we have Postholey Week. But it’s really a season; some people call it spring.
My dictionary says a posthole is a noun: “a hole sunk in the ground to hold a fence post.” Here, it is frequently a verb: to posthole is when you’re walking gingerly atop three or four feet of compressed, crusty snow and suddenly your foot breaks through the top. You’re up to your knee—frequently deeper—in mushy snow with one foot while the other is flailing about, wondering where to plant itself.
The noun posthole, in this context, has nothing to do with fences but is the deep cylinder left by one who has managed to disengage from said hole. Etiquette dictates that one fill in one’s postholes to make the path less treacherous for others. In deep winter we’re pretty good about it. But at this time of year, we’d be spending all our time filling holes in the snow and we’d never get anywhere.
I walked to Ten-mile Falls last week without snowshoes for the first time since winter arrived. Half the trail—the exposed part—was bare mud, oozing with a delicious, earthy aroma. The shaded part of the trail was still covered with snow, pockmarked with postholes. I avoided them but added two of my own, somehow managing not to fall on my face in the process.
Spring is elusive. The village does a slow, seductive strip tease, slipping out from under its cloak of melting snow, revealing just a little more of itself each day. The hotel looks as if it’s wearing an off-the-shoulder gown. The snow it attempted to shed from its roof is now piled up, half-on, half-off the building.
I signed up to do my monthly stoking shift on April 20, sneakily suspecting that by the 20th, spring might be in full force and we would no longer need to fire up the boilers. In fact, there’s a “pool” going (no money exchanged, of course) to see who can predict which day stoking ends. The staff member who “bet” on April 20 was probably more disappointed than I. Stoking fulfills my primal urges. Two of the boilers have been shut down and I had only Dante—the big one—to deal with. The firewood is well-dried by now, and it was easy to get a hot blaze started in the morning.
We’re supposed to stop stoking if the outside temperature hits 50 degrees. As the day progressed, the thermometer refused to climb above 48, a chilly wind blew and occasional raindrops spit in my face. My shift ended at 3 p.m., just as the sun emerged for a few moments and the thermometer hit 50. As I headed for a shower, I spotted a daffodil in bloom in the shelter of my chalet. I couldn’t resist picking it for its own protection. Today it snowed.
May 5, 2013
I knew my day of “Grace” would come eventually. Not “Amazing Grace.” Grace, in this instance, is a 23-foot inboard speedboat. It was donated—slightly used—to Holden Village for occasions when staff members have to get down-lake at times when the ferry isn’t running.
A few of us needed to be in Chelan on one of those off-days in late April. I saw HVS Grace for the first time as I walked down the ramp to the dock. Small boat. Big lake. Adventure ahead. It was a classic spring day, clear blue sky and a brilliant sun highlighting the snow-capped mountains—and the white caps on the water. White caps were not a welcome sight.
We donned life jackets and climbed aboard. I was perched on a seat in the stern, looking backwards. As the boat pulled away from the dock, I found myself staring straight into the water, bracing my feet so I wouldn’t slide down. I figured the boat would eventually plane, and that I could stop worry about tumbling off the back end. It never did.
Lake Chelan is 55 miles long, the largest lake in Washington state and the third deepest lake in the country. Fed by the North Cascade mountain streams, its water is cold. I would never worry about drowning in Lake Chelan, because I’d die of hypothermia first.
Over the roar of engines and in between bounces, I yelled at the driver: If … I … fall … out … will … you … circle … back … and … fetch … me, like … a … water-skier? He assured me he would. I told myself: If you were 15 again, you’d be ecstatic, bumping along in this fast boat, feeling the thrill of the air, the speed, the spray in your face.
So I retrieved that 15-year-old who lurks somewhere inside me. I stretched out my legs, a big grin on my face and reveled in the experience. I even released my death grip on the seat and munched the sandwich I had packed for lunch. I wouldn’t really want to be 15 again. Too much angst. But sometimes that teen perspective, that naiveté about mortality, can be helpful.
I made it to the meeting only slightly windblown. It was a presentation by Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mineral extraction companies, about the huge ($100 million and counting) mine remediation project underway at Holden. On May 1, life in our serene village became very different as we morphed into a major construction site.
June 28, 2013
(Originally published in the Wenatchee World)
Around three in the afternoon, I couldn’t take it anymore. Usually I love my office with its view into the forest, windows open to the sounds of a rushing creek and pine-scented air. But I fled my working haven to escape the noise of heavy construction — the whine of engines, pounding of boulders being scraped across the earth, buzz of chain saws, clank of hammers hitting metal, and most irritating — incessant beep-beep-beep of machinery backing up.
This is life now in Holden Village: for fifty years an idyllic retreat center high in the North Cascade Mountains where people have been coming for peace and quiet, rest and refreshment. Now it is the site of a massive construction project aimed at cleaning up pollution created when the village was home to large-scale copper mining from 1938 to 1957. After mining ceased, a group of Lutherans turned the quaint chalets and lodges into a mountain valley getaway which every year draws thousands of people from all over the world.
The legacy of mining pollution provides an ominous backdrop to this wilderness setting: eight million tons of ore tailings tower over the village in giant piles covering ninety acres; metallic acids contaminate Railroad Creek, which would otherwise be a pristine mountain stream. For decades, the U.S. government studied, pondered, debated and negotiated the complexities of who would clean up the mess and how. Now, to the amazement of those who were involved through those decades, it’s actually happening. Rio Tinto, one of the largest mining companies in the world, is spending $100 million for the largest remediation project under way on national forest land.
As Holden’s communications coordinator and before that a longtime journalist, I’m here because I love a good story. Mix hard-core construction workers, corporate overseers and federal bureaucrats with a bunch of religious types, and you have no end of good stories. If you can hear them over the noise.
As I escaped my office in search of a quieter corner of the village, I spotted one of the many musicians who happen to live here. “What note IS that?” I asked, humming the pitch of the beeping machinery. We ultimately established it was E, an octave above Middle C.
Who, we wondered, decides the pitch and tonality of warning signals. Then we wondered, what if all the machinery were pitched differently, so we could hear lovely harmonies instead of this irritating continuum of a single note. But then we worried, what if one or two of the machines went out of tune — how irritating would THAT be!
That’s life at Holden at these days: occasional irritation resolved with creative laughter. During the cleanup disruption, we can’t host guests so volunteers are working on village projects, upgrading infrastructure and aging facilities. We work, we pray, we escape the construction hubbub with hikes into the adjacent Glacier Peak Wilderness, and we laugh. We’re here because it’s a place unlike any other, and there will never again be a time quite like this.
July 5, 2013
(Originally published in the Wenatchee World)
We villagers are oblivious to what the fashion capitals of the world dictate. Our style statement for summer is orange — bright neon safety orange.
Nature’s paintbrush continues its usual lavish décor around the village: sky of blue, forest of varied greens and wildflowers in a riot of colors along the trails. The human paintbrush, however, is applying orange and its neon cousins, lime-green and yellow, to clothing, fences, signs and even a few fingernails.
Neon orange is endemic to construction sites, which is what all of Holden is this summer. More than a glaring way to get people’s attention, orange has become a symbol. Just as red, white and blue evoke certain feelings, orange for Holden Villagers has come to signify a time and feeling of renewal, friendship and laughter. A popular character in village festivities is a 12-foot-tall puppet dressed in orange safety vest and hard hat.
Recently an 11-year-old villager bounced into his parents’ chalet, delighted to show off his freshly-painted orange fingernails.
“They’re my PPE!” he happily explained. That’s “Personal Protective Equipment.” Even the lingo of construction is infiltrating the village. A group of Holden staff had decided orange fingernail paint would signal solidarity with mine remediation workers.
The Holden community is usually pretty homogenous, made up of folks — generally Lutherans — seeking a time of renewal and recreation. These days the community is more diverse: a small, long-term staff trying to maintain a thread of continuity; short-term volunteers coming for a week or more to help upgrade the village’s 75-year-old facilities and infrastructure, and—the largest group—mine remediation workers along with the people who feed and provide support services.
Throughout its 50-plus year history, Holden Village has maintained that no matter who you are or what your purpose for coming, once you arrive you are a “Villager.” No litmus test, no pledge to sign. You’re simply one of us. That credo is being enforced with spirited intent, especially now that traditional villagers are in a minority. Nobody here is a stranger, or at least that’s the goal.
It’s not always easy to get to know our neighbors, who work long hours, eat earlier in the morning and later at night. We don’t schedule “mixers,” but the workers are invited to evening classes, worship and other events. Occasionally, a few show up. More likely, they hang out with us in the pool hall or snack bar, always likely places for one-on-one conversation.
Before orange, the perennial fashion statement at Holden was tie-dye. Villagers love to tell the story about a delegation of Rio Tinto executives who came to Holden during the early days of the remediation project. They showed up wearing suits and buttoned-down white shirts. Mind you, this is the edge of the wilderness. After a few days here, they returned to their corporate offices wearing those same shirts, which they had tie-dyed.
No matter why you come to Holden, the place changes you.
Sept. 1, 2013
I stripped bare naked, thinking I’d go swimming. But the instant my foot went numb as I slipped it into the glacial waters of Holden Lake (elev. 5,278 feet), I gave up on swimming. I had no idea how my body would react to the icy water; I suspected it would succumb to shock and sink. Instead, I joined my two hiking partners on a sun-baked log and settled for splashing myself with lake water.
My second summer at Holden Village was about over, and I still hadn’t made it to Holden Lake—one of the area’s most popular hikes. There’s always been work or some other distraction. Finally, I set a firm date for Tuesday with a hiking buddy. “We’re going!” we pronounced with determination, only to awaken to rain that morning. The long-range forecast promised a sunny Saturday with a high of 75—perfect. And it was.
A third friend joined us on the trail, which was no longer layered in dust thanks to the rain. The trail begins on the valley floor in deep forest and eventually lifts you up, switching back and forth along the valley wall. Well it doesn’t “lift” you, exactly. You push yourself, climbing 2,000 feet in five miles. With every switchback you see an ever wider and higher panorama of mountain tops, cascading falls, and forested valley beneath.
The lake itself is stunning. Alpine lakes always are, each a gleaming jewel in the majestic mountain tiara. Holden is corralled within a tight circle of peaks—Martin (8,511 feet) on one side and on the other side Bonanza, at 9,511 feet the highest non-volcanic peak in the state. Clearly visible is the glacier feeding the lake. In decline as all glaciers are, it hangs fiercely onto its granite ledge, its remaining layers of blue-green ice stubbornly solid.
Confident that we were on our own (except for a noisy marmot), we slipped off our clothes to soak up water and sun. Too soon, we were dressed and headed back down the trail, stopping only to pick wild blueberries, snack on salmon berries and occasionally scare each other with bear stories. I wanted to linger more along the trail, savor the views and especially the peace and quiet.
One has to hike some distance from the village to escape the constant noise of mine remediation. Outside my office window each day is the roar of diesel engines, the monotone warning beeps of heavy equipment backing up, the thunder of massive dump trucks dropping their loads of giant boulders along the creek side. It goes on seven days a week as humans attempt to undo at least some of the damage left behind when industrial mining ceased in this valley more than 50 years ago.
This is what I signed up for, to witness a jaw-dropping, monumental scale of de-construction. Wouldn’t miss it for the world, if only because these heroic efforts of humankind become hilariously puny when measured against the enormity of Creation.
Sept. 9, 2013
Last week we had heavy rain along with thunder and lightning. Consequently there’s a water shortage. It’s the kind of paradox you get used to here. For example, this must be the only spiritual retreat center, particularly in a wilderness setting, that prominently displays a warning sign, “Blasting Today,” or “No Blasting Today,” referring to dynamite charges in the nearby quarry, which provides rock for mine remediation construction.
But I was discussing water shortage. Torrents of rainwater create runoff, which increases silt in the water, which plugs the filters, which automatically shuts down the water treatment plant, which means we draw on our reserves in the water tank.
Personally, I’ve never been comfortable drawing on reserves—that little savings account set aside for who-knows-what, the special frozen dessert waiting for the day unexpected company arrives, the expensive note paper tucked away for a really important letter. Never mind that the savings account diminishes in value thanks to low interest and inflation, the dessert becomes icebound in the freezer and the notepaper yellows.
It’s a good thing I’m not in charge of utilities at Holden. I would probably turn off the taps to save our “rainy day” reserves for when we have an actual flood. Saner heads prevail. To mitigate for the shortage, we take quick, less frequent showers; let dirty laundry pile up and, as for the toilet (if you have a graphic imagination, skip the rest of this sentence), “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”
Ordinarily, I take great pleasure in scrubbing my face each morning with a really hot washcloth. I’m trying to find reverse pleasure in scrubbing with a cold cloth to avoid running water while waiting for it to get hot. I read once that cold water tightens the pores, yet why is that a good thing? A lot of other areas of my body could stand tightening more than my facial pores.
Experiencing thunder and lightning in a high mountain valley is worth these minor inconveniences. You can’t help but catch your breath when a flash of lightning illuminates the looming mountain peaks, volcanic action in reverse. Valley acoustics make the thunder double fortissimo, as if you were curled up inside a tympani drum. Quarry blasts are a mere murmur in comparison.
Even the false fire alarms in the wee hours of the morning, when we stand outside in the driving rain with jackets over our pajamas because lightning has set off our sensitive alarm system—even those moments are so adrenalin-producing that we crawl back into our beds with no hope of ever getting to sleep again, and that’s just fine.
We know we have it a little too easy for being on the edge of the wilderness. Lights turn on (most of the time). We get hot showers (most of the time). The Internet works (some of the time). This week’s forecast is for sun, highs in the 70s and low 80s. Where’s the challenge in that?
Sept. 10, 2013
(Originally published in the Wenatchee World)
It amuses me that in this remote wilderness get-away I am meeting neighbors from back home in Okanogan County — neighbors I’d never met before.
There’s Ed, a mechanic who lived in and still owns a house just a few doors from mine in Omak. There’s Sean, whose grandmother is a friend and lives in the next block; Rhonda, who drove a Paschal Sherman Indian School bus for years, and Graciella, who lives with her family in Brewster. They’re a few of the hundreds of workers tackling the massive Holden Mine remediation effort. We have engineers and truck drivers, cooks and custodians, all of them temporary residents — just like me. People don’t live at Holden permanently. Even we long-term staff members stay for just a few years at most. We — meaning village staff as well as mine remediation workers — are from all over the world.
Rio Tinto, the global corporation that is overseeing and paying for the environmental cleanup, presented an economic impact analysis at a meeting in Chelan last spring. The company has budgeted $105 million for the project and anticipates spending $30 million of that “locally” over the life of the project. That includes ferry services and marine transport (those heavily laden barges Lake Chelan residents see moving up-lake several times a week), equipment rental, fuel, subcontracted and professional services, lodging, and construction-related goods and services. Add to that, say the analysts, the “multiplier effect” — another $15 million.
Part of the multiplier effect comes from Ed, Sean, Rhonda and others spending their paychecks so that local businesses can add to their payrolls. The mine project payroll includes $4.3 million in wages for “local” workers over the life of the project. I don’t know what they mean by “local.” I’ve lived in Okanogan County enough years (34 and counting) to know that “local” can include a lot of territory. From the neighbors I’ve met, I’m guessing those millions are spread from Wenatchee to the Okanogan and beyond.
In my office is a reproduction of the April 26, 1939, Wenatchee World front page with a banner headline shouting: RICHES POUR FROM HOLDEN MINE. The subhead declares: 350 EMPLOYED; DAILY PAYROLL REACHES $2,000. Those riches stopped pouring in 1957 Still, it’s as lucrative, at least for your neighbors and mine — even the ones we haven’t met yet.
(Update: In spring 2016 Rio Tinto announced that the remediation project, by then two years behind schedule, was costing $500 million. None of that, it’s important to note, is taxpayer dollars.)
Oct. 27, 2013
After nearly two years of proving myself to be an earnest, responsible member of the community—steadfastly showing up for my shifts of sorting garbage, stoking wood-fired boilers and scrubbing crusty pots and pans (all in addition to my real job as communications coordinator)—I was finally given the position of responsibility for which I yearned—backup to the backup weather reporter.
This is no small assignment. For more than fifty years, Holden Village has been an official site for gathering and reporting weather information to the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2012 the National Weather Service presented Holden with an Honored Institution Award.
Besides reporting to the government, Holden posts its weather data on its website. It’s the most popular page on the site—read primarily by people who are not in the village but enjoy the weather extremes vicariously.
During those 50 years of reporting, Holden’s highest snowfall in a 24-hour period was 34 inches on Nov. 23, 2011. That was three weeks before I moved to the village. My first winter here, I became accustomed to walking on top of five or six feet of snow, but the deepest accumulation on the ground was nine-and-a-half feet back in March of 1972. The extremes are not as great as they were in the 1960s, when the highest temperature—101 degrees—was recorded on July 31, 1965, and the lowest—minus 32 degrees—on Dec. 30, 1968.
As the backup to the backup reporter, I arise early in the morning when no one else is available and walk about 50 yards to the weather station, which is a humble set-up adjacent to the school. I examine the glass canister that is housed inside a metal tube to see if there’s been precipitation. If you’ve ever had your own weather station, you probably know about these things, but I marvel at the ingenious design that allows even as little as 0.01 inches of water to collect via a cone-shaped device and be easily eyeballed without a computer. Measurement of the daily highs and lows is a bit more high-tech and automated. The most subjective part is examining the sky and determining where it fits among prescribed categories: More than half covered by clouds or less than half? Does drizzle count as rain?
Nevertheless, I apparently did OK. The young woman in charge of all the weather reporters asked if I wanted to take over for her when she left the village last week. From buck private to sergeant in one fell swoop! But my stripes were soon snatched away when saner heads at the management level prevailed. Winter is coming, I was told, and reporting gets complicated. Best to have someone more experienced in charge. My consolation was promotion to a permanent, once-a-week reporting position—on Sunday mornings when no one else wants to get up that early. I plan to be here another year. Maybe I can work my way up the weather ladder.
Nov. 3, 2013
Autumn is a natural and glorious time to consider death. Hence the death-related observances of this season: Halloween (originally All Hallows’ Eve) on Oct. 31, followed by All Saints Day Nov. 1 and All Souls Day, embracing all the departed, Nov. 2. In Mexico this time is observed as “Dia de Muertos,” Day of the Dead. As part of a Day of the Dead ceremony Saturday night, I shared a few memories of my dad:
My first trip to Holden Village was Holy Week 2011. I came to honor the memory of my father, who lived a good, long life that included visits to Holden in the retreat center’s earlier years (the late ’60s and ’70s). He loved Holden, but I admit that on that first visit, I didn’t quite get it. As I gratefully boarded the bus at the end of the week, Chuck Carpenter (one of the executive directors) said, “Why don’t you come back and volunteer—help out in communications?” I said no, I couldn’t leave my dog.
Chuck’s invitation echoed all the way down the mountain. It may have been Chuck’s lips that were moving, but it was my dad I was hearing. I could never say no to my father. When we were kids, he’d pass the platter of lutefisk around the table at Christmas and suggest: “Try it. You may like it.” Indeed, over time I learned to like lutefisk—almost as much as I learned to like Holden Village.
Dad was a Lutheran minister who preferred small churches. When his congregations inevitably grew to the point where he would need to hire staff, he’d move on to another, smaller church. The Holy Spirit always made sure that wherever Dad landed, there would be a pool hall reasonably nearby. Dad relished combining his afternoon coffee breaks with a game of eight-ball. When he taught me how to play, his instructions were simple: “There are two ways to hit the ball—soft and softer.” His pool hall cronies tended not to be church-goers. If they complained to him that churches were filled with hypocrites, he’d cheerfully respond, “There’s always room for one more.”
Dad’s churches grew, I believe, because he was both a good preacher and a good listener. I frequently would suggest to friends who were having problems, “Go talk to my dad.” I didn’t know exactly what he did, but I sensed he was skilled at helping people sort through things. During the Viet Nam era, while I was noisily marching and protesting in the streets of Seattle, Dad was quietly counseling conscientious objectors who were seeking refuge from the draft. I learned of this only after Dad died, when one of the men he helped told me about it.
I don’t play pool anymore, but occasionally I wander through the village pool hall when it’s dark and empty. I can imagine my dad there, 40 or more years ago, savoring Holden’s cutting-edge theology discussions while winning more than his share of pool games. I am reminded that my life works best when I follow his sage advice: “There are two ways to hit the ball, soft and softer.”
Nov. 17, 2013
As remote as Holden is, the news — whether global, national or personal — ultimately reaches us. Last week I received news I didn’t want, that my oldest friend had died. Cindy and I had been friends since that miserable passage of life known as junior high school.
It began with our eighth grade English class when three of us were assigned to write a play. We were given time out from class to work on the script. Thankfully, I have no memory of the story line or characters. I recall only that when we budding playwrights ultimately presented our masterpiece to our classmates, their uniform response was: “You got all that time out of class to do THAT!?” We learned at an early age that everyone’s a critic.
I don’t know what ever happened to the third member of our triumvirate, but Cindy and I shared parallel lives for the next fifty-five years.
Our glory years of friendship were in high school, when we were equally at home in each other’s houses, with each other’s parents. We went on double dates that inevitably included “parking” under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the car windows opaque with steam. We learned to drive and went on camping trips without adult supervision (what were our parents THINKING?). We experimented with alcohol, commiserating the next morning. We fought bitterly over card games and religion. We attended the same college and experienced “rush.” Cindy thrived as a sorority girl; I did not.
For each of us, marriages too young ended in divorce, mine amicably, hers less so—she had a child to worry about. For each, the joy and depth of a mature second marriage, then the grief of widowhood.
The best of friends—and I am grateful to be blessed with more than one of these—are those who can be absent from your day-to-day life for long periods of time and then, when you reunite, it’s as if you’d been together just yesterday. The conversation picks up exactly where you left it six months or four years or two decades ago.
Problem is, you might take that kind of friendship for granted. You might get too casual about arranging get-togethers. I became less casual as Cindy battled breast cancer. I made it a point to visit whenever possible. I learned to be patient when other friends absorbed her time and limited energy, when she’d say, “Don’t come now.” Cindy collected friends like a rich woman collects jewels; they were plentiful and all precious to her.
The stubbornness Cindy exhibited in our teen-aged debates (the “Irish” in her, she’d boast) saw her through years of treatments and experimental procedures, exhaustion and misery. Finally, not even her “Irish” could loosen the tenacious grip of cancer.
Our final visit was last month, when I took an “out” from Holden. We’d picked up our conversation seamlessly, no longer foolish teen-agers but mature women who’d experienced life fully, who understood its grace. We didn’t speak of it, but we knew we were saying goodbye. Instead, mutually confident, we said the most important words: “I love you.”
Dec. 8, 2013
Surely everyone, especially as we grow older, experiences times of angst when we wonder whether our existence has made any difference in this world. Friday night, as I set my alarm clock for 5:30 a.m., I decided without equivocation, “Yes!”
I was preparing to arise early the next morning while my fellow villagers snuggled in their beds. It was my morning to “stoke.” I would be starting the fires that heat the boilers that send steam to the radiators that warm the sleeping villagers’ bedrooms. I was already stoked. Life has meaning when your simplest efforts provide comfort for others.
Not as much comfort, however, as I would have liked. It turned out to be the coldest night of the year (thus far) at minus 8 Fahrenheit. It had warmed to around zero as I started my rounds to fire up three large, wood-burning furnaces, located in various places around the village. Despite the cold, I stood still for a moment to enjoy the glitter of stars in a black sky. With virtually no ambient light, this is a fine place for star-gazing.
Then I turned on my headlamp to follow the treacherously frozen path. Ice traction cleats attached to the bottom of my boots keep me upright, but I marveled that the echoing crunch of my footsteps didn’t wake everyone. I eyed the mountains of split firewood, the work of dozens of volunteers throughout the summer and a not-so-subtle reminder that many months of winter await.
Grateful for the abundance of kindling that previous stokers had left (I dread handling a hatchet), I set about laying my fires. I’d also been left a stack of old worship songsheets as fire starters. I dutifully crumpled the paper, but it hissed instead of sizzled. I love these traditional, staid Lutheran chorales, but for starting fires, perhaps the Baptists might have something more incendiary.
The eastern sky was beginning to lighten as I stopped in the dining hall for a piece of toast. The only other individual awake and moving was Elizabeth, who recently arrived from Frankfurt, Germany, and whose biological clock is still nine hours ahead. One of the privileges of living here is meeting young and thoughtful volunteers—it gives you hope. Elizabeth is fluent in four languages. Family on her mother’s side are in Syria, where she used to visit. Now, she observed solemnly, “It’s not a good place to live. Every minute you think you might die.”
She was intrigued when I explained what I was doing, so I invited her to accompany me on my next round. As she helped toss wood on the fires, I asked if she’d ever read Tom Sawyer. She hadn’t, and I told her the story of Tom luring his buddies into white-washing a fence by pretending it was fun. She smiled, and I grinned. Then she returned to her warm room, and I continued my nine-hour stoking shift. The job is rewarding, but apparently not as much fun as white-washing a fence.
Dec. 22, 2013
For the past forty-eight hours I’ve been dithering over whether to leave the village. Nothing about living at Holden Village has frightened me: not the remoteness, limited communications, wilderness wildlife (I hiked alongside fresh cougar tracks last week), or winter snowstorms. Not even the mice that invade our chalets. Nothing frightened me until a thick layer of ice paved our roads and trails.
I forget the exact sequence of events that turned Main Street into a glacial slab: snow, below-zero temperatures, warming trends, sleet, then cold. Thursday night a scant two inches of dry snow landed on the ice. Having just completed a week-long, required course on avalanches, I understood why that was going to be a problem. Dry snow does not “bond” with the ice. Placing your foot on the snow is like starting a mini avalanche. People were falling faster than bowling pins in a 300 game.
We donned traction gear. A popular style features coiled wires on boot soles. But the snow balled up into the coils, acting like wax on skis. Zoom. Crash. My traction devices have studs that dig into snow. But ice? Not so much. I added ski poles for stability and crept along at about ten percent my normal speed.
By Friday night I was a nervous wreck. I don’t mind falling on snow. It can be fun. But with 69-year-old bones weakened with age, a fall on ice can have serious consequences. The directors (my bosses) supported my decision to leave, although the next boat down-lake wouldn’t be until Sunday. One offered to loan me his ice-climbing crampons, which have teeth that any man-eating shark would envy. I declined, figuring I’d be in worse danger of stabbing myself while putting them on than from falling.
To leave Holden Village just before Christmas is like, well, heresy, especially with so many people longing to be here. I listened to the bell choir practice, rehearsed my lines for the Christmas play (a bit part that anyone could fill, but I’ve gotten attached to the role), watched decorations going up. It would be nice to be home for Christmas, but I’ll be home for Christmas next year. This would be my last Christmas at Holden.
This morning, by the time the bus left to meet the boat, conditions had changed. Again. Temperatures were climbing; snow and ice bonding. Walking still required concentration, but gravity was less of a threat. I did not board the bus. New snow fell for a few minutes—as if nature were emptying a pillow of feathers on us. A small pillow. We have only four inches on the ground. Normally we’d have several feet.
Changing weather patterns are a global concern. It’s not just about me or this little village. Opinions about this threat are varied and divisive. But like snow and ice, we’re going to have to figure out some way of bonding. May the promise of peace that is Christmas lead us in that direction.
Dec. 29, 2013
“Cold December flies away …” and not a moment too soon, I thought, as I practiced the traditional Catalonian carol for Sunday worship. Weather-wise, it’s been a month to forget, so we’ll probably be talking about it for years.
A week ago, I contemplated leaving the village because it is thoroughly paved with ice. Simply walking to breakfast requires unusual adroitness and balance, preceded by earnest prayer. I decided to stay, figuring it couldn’t get any worse, a Pollyanna tendency that I admit is a flaw in my character. Of course it got worse.
The ice is so slick (occasionally coated with a watery sheen when afternoon temperatures momentarily climb) that you can fall over while standing still. Just blinking is enough motion to undo equilibrium. This afternoon I watched a woman fall to her knees—and she was not engaged in worship. Though she has a couple years on me, she resignedly picked herself up, declined assistance and hurried down the path, wearing no traction devices on her feet nor carrying a ski pole.
I envy her insouciance. I have cleats under my boots and carry two poles, planting them solidly before taking a step. I look like some absurd insect with skinny front legs setting tracks for a balking, insecure body. “This just does not look like Mary,” a friend sympathized. Creeping along like this is a humbling preview of old age. Still, pride goeth before a fall.
The forecasts are dismal. No promise of snow, real snow, like the many feet we usually have by now. Will we catch up in January, or will this be an historic no-snow year?
“Cold December flies away at the rose-red splendor. April’s crowning glory breaks while the whole world wonders at the holy unseen pow’r of the tree which bears the flow’r.” The carol isn’t about the passage of time after all, but the presence of wonder. It goes on to describe how the awakenings, the new blooms we associate with spring, are present in the dead of winter because of an everyday miracle, the birth of a baby.
I’d like to claim my fear of the ice flew away as I marveled at the music, the message, the splendor of a Christmas celebration at Holden. It didn’t, exactly, but I’m convincing myself to stop fearing the ice and simply have a healthy respect for it, along with cougars, cold germs, avalanches and other potential threats in this remote setting.
I doubt if there are many, if any, places on earth where you can experience Christmas like this. And I hope it’s not the ice nor the historic lack of snow that I’ll store in my memory bank. What I want to remember is sitting in a crowded, hushed room, contemplating with others the inexplicable, the mysterious, the outrageously impossible Christmas message. I want to remember feeling the warmth of spring on the coldest December day. I want to remember a force stronger than ice, more gentle than a single snowflake.
Jan. 5, 2014
This new year of 2014 seems nicely rounded to me. It’s easier, when someone asks me my age and I can’t remember for sure but can always remember my birth year, to subtract 1944 from 2014 than from 2013, where I had to mentally carry the one across two columns. Did you follow that? It’s hard work for an aging brain.
I will turn 70 in May, and as a friend who made that passage a year ahead of me wrote on his Christmas card, “How did that happen?” A phenomenon of aging is that it takes us so much by surprise. It’s hard to identify with this particular passage in life. In 2013 I lost three people I’d looked up to as venerable keepers of wisdom. Each death was like watching a giant Sequoia fall in the forest. Who will replace the keepers of wisdom?
Much as I relish living and working with 20-somethings at Holden Village, last year I was particularly inspired by people who were older than I. Their buoyancy and lust for life were examples of how to age gracefully and gratefully.
One, Jerene Mortenson, even taught classes on how she injected enthusiasm into the process of turning 80. About a year-and-a-half before her 80th birthday, Jerene and a cousin of similar age launched a personal challenge called “80 before 80.” They pledged to do eighty new and exciting things before their 80th birthdays. They cooked and ate unusual foods, attended strange events and visited weird places. Jerene says the most challenging was a swim in the Bering Sea.
The project was especially crucial, she explains, because it came at a difficult time in her life. She is the mother of Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling Three Cups of Tea. Greg’s mission to build schools in central Asia had been the subject of a news media blitz with allegations of fraud and a subsequent nasty snarl of lawsuits. An investigation by the Montana attorney general found no evidence of fraud, Jerene notes repeatedly, like a mantra.
The episode inspired Jerene, an admired educator, to teach one other class at Holden: on kindness. At the opening of the class, she had us pore through newspapers, from the New York Times to local weeklies, in search of the word “kind.” After much looking, someone would ultimately find the word, inevitably in an obituary: the deceased was known for his/her kindness. Jerene asks a troubling question. Is kindness disappearing from our culture like my giant trees of wisdom?
As I approach the end of my seventh decade, I consider how to apply Jerene’s lessons. Here’s a thought! I could perform 70 acts of kindness before turning 70. Naw. Counting good deeds would be as distasteful as notches on a gunbelt. When Jesus advised forgiving each other “seventy times seven,” he was really saying: stop counting.
Eighty before 80? I may do that. But the only number that applies to kindness is 24/7. It’s worth a try.
Jan. 12, 2014
“This is the way it should be!” a young man shouted. Snow was falling as we emerged from Vespers, our Saturday evening worship service. The worship music had been joyful, but nothing to compare with exultant voices celebrating the first real snowfall this winter.
More than a foot of magical, beautiful, extravagant snow fell within twenty-four hours, providing a thick padding over the treacherous ice that had terrorized us for a month. The village was a wondrous sight, every tree limb blanketed, the chalets snuggling into their winter landscape as if nature had just pulled freshly laundered white sheets off the clothesline and tucked them all around us.
A chalet mate, Rebecca, and I gathered snowshoes with plans to venture out at first morning light. I filled a glass with fresh snow for my favorite winter bedtime beverage, scotch and snow-da, figuring I’d easily be asleep by 9 p.m. I hadn’t accounted for the party in the living room of our chalet.
The village is filled with college students from across the country, here for January term classes. The party was hosted by the 20-somethings I live with. There were probably some distilled spirits involved, but the party-goers’ exuberant spirits were more attributable to the fresh snowfall. I could only smile at the noise, somewhat muffled in my upstairs bedroom. Adhering to village code, the party broke up by 11 p.m., when the celebrants left to inaugurate the sledding hill that had finally, officially opened.
Sunday morning Rebecca and I strapped on snowshoes, plotting an off-trail course into parts of the forest that are too brushy in summer to penetrate. I enjoy snowshoeing with Rebecca because (a) she has a better sense of direction in the back country than I, (b) she’s willing to break trail, and (c) most important, she stops every few minutes to drink in the beauty.
The snow was not our usual powdery dry, eastern Washington type but heavier and wetter, the kind of stuff you find on the west side of the Cascades—what my late husband, an ardent skier, disdainfully called “Cascade concrete.” The going was challenging, especially for Rebecca breaking trail. We sank up to our knees, pulling up several pounds of heavy snow with every step. Still, we were thrilled to be out in it. Our window of opportunity was small. The forecast warned that snow would turn to rain and temperatures would rise. Slush on the horizon.
All the more reason to relish the sight of every tree sculpted in white, the silence of a hushed winter forest. We were the only noise-makers, with the swish of our ski pants and squeak of snow under our feet—not the high-pitched squeak of dry snow, but deeper, throaty and moist.
Finally, it happened: the thing I’d been dreading with near panic for weeks. I fell. My snowshoe got stuck, I lost my balance and toppled over sideways. Giving into the fall, I rolled onto my back, lay there and laughed, gratefully cushioned by nature’s soft pillow.
Jan. 19, 2014
The most challenging part of living at Holden Village is not the remoteness, lack of cell phones and TV, extreme weather, frequent power outages, nor scarcity of hot showers. Those are mere inconveniences. The challenge is living in close community with pretty much the same people, day after day, hour after hour.
Imagine being part of an extended family with sixty or seventy brothers and sisters. We’re with each other continuously—at breakfast, lunch and dinner; at work; doing village chores—stoking the fires, washing the dishes, sorting the garbage. And even when we try to get away, we bump into each other on the trails, in the craft area waiting for a loom to become available, shopping in the one tiny store. If we leave the village for a couple days, we inevitably end up travelling with each other on the bus down and up the mountain and the boat down and up the lake.
Most people, primarily guests and short-term volunteers, come and go pretty much on a weekly basis. The overall fabric of personalities changes continually. But those of us on long-term staff are a continuous thread, and we get to know each other intimately. This can and does lead to romance. Village history is replete with stories of couples who met here and ultimately married. In fact, we’re into the third and fourth generations of such stories.
Yet too much intimacy can lead to destroyed relationships. A long winter at Holden has sent more than one couple to divorce court. That may be a shocking revelation about a Christian community that gathers for worship at least once a day, but religious people (and not everybody here is) are no less human than other humans. It’s not just the romances and marriages that can fall apart with too much familiarity. With sadness, I’ve watched friendships fracture and the icy chill of hostility descend between people.
A couple months ago, another villager and I were stunned to find ourselves at serious odds with each other. We didn’t have an argument; we hadn’t exchanged “words;” we just had a riff. It was stunning because we enjoy and respect each other. We were at cross purposes over something that was trivial in my mind and major in hers. After twenty-four hours of brooding, I asked her if she were content with the way things stood. I was relieved that she wasn’t, because it opened the door to discussion. We tiptoed our way, talking over how and why things went wrong, how she felt, how I felt, what she needed, what I needed. I’m grateful we were able to do that, because it would be hell to eat, pray, work and walk alongside someone who pisses you off.
The most beautiful part of life at Holden Village is not the spectacular scenery, the quaint village setting, the extraordinary music, recreation or educational opportunities. The beauty is living in close community, rubbing up against each other so personally that sometimes it hurts.
Feb. 3, 2014
The late Mollie Ivins, a wise and witty journalist, described her beloved home state of Texas as a place where “too much is not enough.” I believe that description applies to the entire country on Super Bowl Sunday—even at Holden Village, where excess is tolerated only in moderation.
In this remote and sacred place at the edge of the wilderness, there is no television, not even cell phone reception. Yet villagers managed to watch The Game, broadcast live via satellite. It was a momentary abandonment of Our Way Of Life As We Know It.
Holden is beautiful but not pristine. This never could have happened were it not for the massive pollution clean-up that is underway at the long-ago abandoned mine site here. During construction months (May through November), hundreds of workers live in the village instead of the usual guests. Workers are here not to pray but for pay, and they require all the American conveniences, including television. Last summer, satellite dishes were erected and TV provided only in the buildings where mine remediation workers lived. When they left for the winter, the televisions were unplugged.
It really comes down to drug of choice. TV or booze. The mining company, while providing TV, demanded a village-wide ban on alcohol. Holden Village, which does not provide television, allows alcohol consumption as long as it occurs in private living spaces by people age 21 and above. Break those rules and you’re “NBO’d,” riding the Next Boat Out. Prohibition included a cessation of a popular Holden pastime, brewing of beer—quite excellent beer, for that matter.
We survived the dry months. The 20-somethings were fully capable of throwing parties as boisterous as ever without a drop of alcohol. Still, the end of construction season in late November was marked in my chalet by the smell of hops and grains roasting as brewing activities resumed.
I wasn’t privy to the discussions and negotiations that determined we should be allowed to watch the Super Bowl on a single wide-screen TV. “Why that and not the State of the Union Address?” asked one incredulous villager. Apparently the last time there was television in the village was 1974, when someone put up an antenna so the village could watch a grainy image of President Nixon resigning. While Holden’s football fans filled up on the chips, dips and snacks that are essential to this national celebration, one usually crucial ingredient was missing: beer. The TV was, of course, in a public place. No alcohol allowed. It didn’t matter. The crowd, heavily weighted in favor of the Seahawks, was drunk with glee watching a blow-out game. For Sunday afternoon, the drug of choice was football.
I’m deeply ambivalent about football. There are endless pros and cons, which are debated endlessly. I like to think that overall, humanity has progressed and a football game beats the Roman era, when the popular sport was throwing various minorities to the lions. Football is not too much, but it’s more than enough.
Feb. 9, 2014
How cold has it been? Three sets of pajamas worn one on top of the other, two pair of heavy socks and five blankets are all you need for a good night’s sleep at 3,200 feet elevation in the North Cascade Mountains. That’s not a complaint. Just an observation. What’s to complain about?
Even when Holden’s patchwork system of hydro-electric, wood and (rarely) diesel is fully operational, power in winter is a fragile commodity. Water for the hydro diminishes in direct but inverse correlation to increased demand. We unplug clothes dryers and accept brief and rare hot showers as an occasional privilege, not a daily rite.
Like much of the country, we’re experiencing a weird winter. Last month we had a storm that included, according to the National Weather Service, “mountain wind waves.” Not the kind of waves that lull you to sleep. Lying in bed that night I felt as if I were on a ship buffeted by screaming gusts. Come morning we were still at sea. Toppled trees blocked the lone road in and out of the village and took a power line down. With no power to my office, it became something like a school snow day, except with guilt. I didn’t feel guilty about skipping work to play word games in the dining hall all morning. But there was a modicum of discomfort as I thought about fellow staff members atop icy power poles, returning us to light and heat by day’s end.
Last week, as temperatures plummeted, the screens that filter the water that turns the generator that powers the village froze into solid ice. While I snuggled under my layers of pajamas, blankets and socks, others were climbing through snow high above the village to chip away at nature’s dam. It took all night.
I should complain?
The other day four of us women decided to go snow-shoeing after work. I dressed in layers, knowing the effort of climbing (every trail from this village leads upward) would soon warm me. But I’d grabbed the wrong mittens; my fingers were freezing by the time I finished strapping on my snowshoes.
Instead of enjoying the eerie beauty of a snow-laden forest, monochromatic in the fading light of dusk, I could think only about the ten ice cubes lodged in my mittens. To get my mind off my physical discomfort, I’d occasionally revert to cursing myself for forgetting the disposable hand warmers I’d left in my room. I must have whined pathetically enough to be convincing, possibly irritating. My companions offered their gloves and mittens. I tried various combinations, finally pulling on heavy-duty, insulated gloves provided by a woman who works outside much of the time as an electrician. Already warm from her body heat, the gloves quickly thawed my numb fingers. We hiked onward, joking about whether it’s bad manners to wipe frosted, running noses on the backs of borrowed gloves.
That’s community: warming each other in more ways than one.
Feb. 16, 2014
“All that motion, and so amazing because it’s in total silence,” said the woman at my lunch table as she gazed out the window at falling snow. Poetic, but there’s something in me that won’t let a generality pass without scrutiny.
“Not always,” I replied. Snow may be silent when you’re watching it through the lens of a double-paned window from the cozy warmth of the dining room. It’s not so silent when blown sideways by moaning winds, or when you hear a sudden crack and whoosh overhead, followed by a conclusive thud as heavy layers of snow slide off metal roofs.
Getting out into that snow, I hear the ping-ping-ping of snowflakes landing on my nylon jacket, like a thousand fairies tap-dancing on my shoulder; the scrape-scrunch-scrape of snowshoes skidding across an icy plowed road as we head out of the village and into the forest; the grunting and giggling as we leave the road and begin breaking trail through hip-high snow. We climb a ways and pause, panting. We catch our breath while gazing with awe at the forest: each branch, even the tiniest twig, meticulously adorned with a layer of white. How many shades of white could there be? The spectrum is endless, changing with the constant shift of light. Shadows form and disappear, fog lands and lifts with the frequency of Sea-Tac air traffic.
One day last week, the sky insisted upon stealing the show. Usually it’s the mountains and trees that command my attention. But that afternoon we started out under a gray sky, a ceiling so low I should have been able to puncture it with my ski pole. I’d noticed a tiny patch of blue near the horizon. As we climbed higher up the valley wall, the blue expanded, moving center stage and dominating the sky with all the bravado of an understudy replacing an ailing diva. Suddenly the mountain peaks that had been vague specters in the distance moved in on us, startlingly close and clear. The sky again shifted priorities, the blue disappeared and snow began to fall.
We have suddenly been blessed with snow upon snow upon snow after a two-month ice age that brought only meager snowfalls. It’s all that we ask of winter. Endless snow and enough wood to keep us heated until spring thaw. Up until last week we were chasing the record for lowest winter snowfall, 91.4 inches total in 1976-77. An average winter brings 270 inches. After it started snowing last week, we breezed past the ignoble low record. As of today we’ve had 121 inches, with more than four feet on the ground.
I revel in the sounds of snow: the scrape of shovels clearing steps, squeals of children as they whiz down the sledding hill past my chalet. Last week, children built a small snowman outside the dining hall. The snowman has disappeared, not melted by the sun, but buried under his own DNA—more snow. I’m sure he’s resting in peace.
Feb. 23, 2014
“Three days coming, three days here, three days going”—the traditional wisdom about colds that I learned decades ago. That was the 20th century. In this century, like everything else, viruses are on a fast track. This cold—my third since Thanksgiving—hit with all the warning of a mountain avalanche. One minute you’re fine; next minute you’re under.
Like dominoes, our resident population cyclically succumbs to whatever “is going around.” Through the thin interior walls of my chalet I hear my neighbors’ persistent hacking, and this week I joined the Anvil Chorus of coughs. I try to avoid colds: plenty of sleep and liquids, exercise, obsessive hand-washing, multivitamins. The slightly paranoid theory here is that our guests, who come from all over the world, bring in exotic viruses that we can’t resist. As I greet happy, excited visitors, I try not to visualize them as walking cold germs.
I attempt remedies of every sort. Last year, one cold was severe enough that I consulted the village nurse, who handed me a vaporizer and a Pat Conroy novel. I’d never read Conroy, and now I understand his commercial success. I blew my way through 500 pages in 24 hours. He won’t cure your cold, but he’ll distract you, which is all you can ask.
For this cold, the distraction was my window. It held my attention as if it were a TV screen. No, better. My reality show was quieter. From my bed, I can see the edge of the forest: trees growing in such thick abundance they merge into a single mass of snow-laden branches, like a choir outfitted in dark robes and white stoles. Initially I was disappointed to have a room with an eastward view—the only direction in which you can’t see mountains because of the dense forest. That was my late husband’s complaint about western Washington: “I suppose it’s pretty here,” he’d say as we camped in the Olympic Peninsula’s lush rain forest, “but all those trees get in the way of the view.” I’d counter that trees are where the action is.
The day I spent in bed, snow fell lightly. Occasional gusts of wind blew clumps of snow sideways off the branches, as if the trees were engaged in an all-out snowball fight. The wind steadily picked up speed, and my “screen” became like those early years of TV, when people turned on their sets in eager anticipation of the test pattern. No picture, just snow.
This morning I awoke to discover gratefully that I could once again breathe through both nostrils. Opening my eyes, I saw the trees garbed in new snow—14 inches since yesterday and more to come. I donned ski pants and boots and headed down the path to carry out my assignment as Sunday morning weather recorder. I don’t claim to have the cure for the common cold, but walking knee-high through snow that feels lighter than air, and I’m good to go.
March 2, 2014
Holden Village takes hilarity seriously. Thus S.O.B. Day is celebrated religiously every February. Hilarity is among the official fourteen core values listed on the Holden website and in various publications. The list begins with worship, theology, hospitality … what you’d expect for a religious retreat center. Some of the values are more esoteric, such as grace and shalom. And there, at the tail end of the list is hilarity, often described as “holy hilarity.”
I don’t know that S.O.B. Day is all that holy, but it does pull one out of the unholy attitude that can darken the soul as winter plods on and on and on. This valley is so deep, its mountain walls so high, that the sun, following its southerly winter course, is hidden by peaks to the south. It’s as if the sun doesn’t have quite enough energy to pull itself above the mountains in its daily journey across the sky. And we begin to feel that same lethargy.
One of the tallest peaks and furthermost east is named Buckskin. Every winter the epic day finally arrives when the sun gains enough elevation to cross above the peak of Buckskin, and the village is suddenly blessed with considerable more light. Hence, Sun Over Buckskin (S.O.B.) Day, rejoicing and hilarity most absurd.
All work stops for a luau-style lunch on main street, never mind that there’s nine feet of snow on the ground and the temperature’s in the 20s. People dress in shorts and sandals, wear loud Hawaiian-print shirts, dance to even louder music, participate in wacky stunts and (those of majority age) drink mimosas. The champagne is kept cool (hardly necessary) in a real ice box, carved out of a snow bank.
This year’s S.O.B. observation was at least partly theoretical. After our record-breaking month of snowfall (142 inches, most of which fell in a two-week snowathon), the sky remained dense with clouds. We were running out of February, yet we were certain that if we could only see the sun, it would surely be traveling above Buckskin. Consequently last Tuesday, Feb. 25, was declared S.O.B. Day. A bright orange sledding disk was mounted on the side of a snow bank to suggest the sun, an apparition convincing enough to require sunglasses.
My first S.O.B. Day, in 2012, was also theoretical, the sun submerged in a day-long deluge of rain. That year we didn’t even try to celebrate outdoors. Instead, an ingenious “shower of sunbeams” was devised through the use of an electric fan and orange bedspread. I have no idea who thinks up these crazy things. They just magically appear, the result of some kind of group insanity that inversely allows us to retain a semblance of sanity.
Wednesday—the day after this year’s S.O.B celebration—dawned stunningly bright and clear. The village, nestled under blankets of snow, shimmered as the sun moved across the sky, right where it belonged, over Buckskin. Since then? Eleven more inches of snow and it’s still coming down.
March 9, 2014
My name echoed through the old building called Koinonia, where my office is one of several on the second floor, tucked above meeting rooms, library and the “craft cave.” I wondered how many people besides me were being alerted that something was up.
Again, “MAAARRRYYY!” I recognized the voice of Rebecca, who was already causing me grief this particular morning. I heard her footsteps on the wooden stairs just before she burst into my office, announcing breathlessly: “No one’s going out today!”
I was confused. I thought she was telling me that she would be the only person riding the bus out of the Village that morning. Big deal. Her lonely bus ride did not compare with my sadness that she was leaving, ending her tenure here after nearly three years—one of the few people still here who were at Holden when I arrived in 2011.
I’d been gearing up for a tearful goodbye when Rebecca explained that a large avalanche had closed the road to the lake. There’d be no transportation to or from the boat, and the next boat wouldn’t arrive for another 48 hours. A reprieve!
Comings and goings are a regular part of life at Holden. We welcome people with applause and sooner or later send them out with prayer. We know that eventually everyone will leave. We function by denying that knowledge, just as humans live in denial of the fact that sooner or later we’re all going to die.
Departures are like little deaths. It’s an intimate community. You sleep under the same roof; you eat, work, pray and play with the same people every day. It’s like being married—without the sex. (Well, for most of us, but romance does thrive.)
Back to Rebecca, a psychiatric nurse whose specialty is drug and alcohol treatment. She was here on a prolonged sabbatical, working in the laundry and teaching, though not as part of the formal teaching staff. She teaches as she lives: joyously, spontaneously, without inhibition. A Jungian, she taught about the mystery of dream work. She quietly coached people in recovery, candidly rejoicing over her own 20-plus years of sobriety. She delighted in the most humble work, posting a sign on the laundry door: “Welcome to Heaven.”
As a hiking companion, she convinced me—as no one had been able since my late husband’s hiking days ended with a stroke—to go further and higher than I ever thought I could. That lesson lingers well beyond the trail.
Rebecca has a gift for making all friends feel as if they’re her best friend. Thus when the avalanche was cleared, several dozen best friends slogged through melting snow to see her off. She’d put the extra 48 hours to good use, posting tastelessly funny photos in surprising places, where we’ll be discovering them for days (weeks?) to come.
“She wants to make sure she won’t be forgotten,” said one best friend after finding a Rebecca photo inside his laptop. Forgotten? Not likely.
March 16, 2014
Friends write to me of spring’s arrival in the Okanogan lowlands: warmer temperatures, bird songs, forsythia and balsamroot blooming, bulbs sending green shoots skywards. Here in the North Cascade mountains, the harbingers of spring are different.
I realized winter was nearing its end as I walked the slushy path to my chalet late one afternoon and spotted my chalet mates positioned in their annual spring sun-bathing tableau. This is my third spring at Holden, and I’m no longer amazed, but still amused, when winter-weary villagers arrange themselves on lawn chairs and blankets along the crest of a snowbank, some 20 feet high, reaching to the second floor of our chalet.
It’s too cold for bikinis, but more than the usual amount of flesh is exposed as sunbathers strip down to shirt sleeves and a plucky few even roll up their pants.
“Mary, join us!” yelled the crowd. I demurred. “My skin burns too easily.” A scantily clad (by Holden standards) red-head waved her tube of sunscreen. If you’re approaching 70, something delicious happens when a bunch of people half your age (or younger) sincerely wants you to join in their fun. It’s probably delusional, but your heart beats a little faster and you think, “Maybe I’m not an historic artifact after all.”
Deciding you’re not over the hill is one thing. Figuring out how to climb up it is another. I opted for the back side of the mountain. The snow is piled up against the chalet porch; all I needed to do was step onto the porch rail, only a tantalizing two inches higher than my legs can reach, then clamber up the snow berm while avoiding bonking my head on the porch roof. Of course, it was an impossible feat, but two of the young men graciously hauled me up and got me settled in my folding chair.
I drank in the sun, reveled in the joy of doing something utterly juvenile, read my newspaper, sipped coffee from my thermos, waved at passersby and after quite a while, realized that the two gallant young men had left. Our crowd of sunbathers was thinning, it was past time to go to dinner, and I had no idea how or if I was going to get off that snow bank.
I considered staying where I was until the bank thaws, which won’t be long. We lost 30 inches of snow on the ground last week and have less than five feet remaining. We’ll be seeing bare ground in a matter of weeks. I decided not to wait and somehow clambered down from my perch without breaking anything
After months of cold and ice, we had only about two weeks of real winter—that glorious season of softly falling snow, all our world a virginal white. Still, we’re not really ready for spring. This seems to be an in-between season.
“For everything there is a season,” declared the philosopher in Ecclesiastes. His beautiful poem doesn’t include this one – a season for silliness.
March 24, 2014
It’s been a week of bridges, of recognizing how much we need them.
We wanted to snowshoe to Big Creek, a high mountain valley with spectacular views. It’s accessible only in winter, because you have to cross an ice bridge over a fast-flowing, glacier-fed stream. Last year the bridge was spectacular. This year, with our below-average snow level, the bridge barely exists. Others had crossed the previous week, so three of us headed out Tuesday with high hopes. When we reached the bridge, my inner voice was saying, “Unh-unh.” One of my companions ventured part way across, probing the snow with her ski pole. She suddenly stopped and shook her head. She announced that even if we made it across (a possibility I’d already dismissed), the bridge would surely be impassable by the time we returned in a couple hours. We turned back.
My next search for a bridge arrived with two busloads of Spanish-speaking guests for “Bienvenidos” weekend. For more than a decade, Holden Village has been building bridges with Hispanic communities around the state, setting aside a week or weekend to celebrate and welcome Spanish-language cultures and people.
Despite my several attempts over the past 25 years to learn Spanish, the language is beyond me. If I sit at a table where the conversation is in Spanish, I smile, nod pleasantly and try not to look as stupid as I feel. The language barrier is like being on opposite sides of a roaring mountain creek. We smile and wave, but never connect.
Saturday morning Bible study began awkwardly. English-speakers talked, Spanish-speakers remained mute. I knew how they felt. Finally a young bilingual woman volunteered to translate. We’d been reading about the problems Moses had with the Israelites when they were crossing the desert, thirsty and clamoring for water.
“Has anyone here ever been that thirsty?” wondered a woman who speaks English with a Kentucky drawl. The question, when translated, created a bridge big enough for the elephant in the room to cross. A strapping fellow, probably in his 30s, recalled crossing from Mexico with only one gallon of water to last six people for three days.
An older, distinguished-looking man pointed out that water is both life-giving and life-taking. He’d barely escaped drowning on three occasions. It being a Bible study, he added one more piece of his life story: He read the Bible cover to cover (which I have never managed) while he was in prison.
That evening, he and I sat at the same table. If we’d spoken the same language, I would have gently sought details about his time in prison. As it was, we managed to learn each other’s names. Later that evening, when our paths crossed, we smiled and nodded as if we were well acquainted. And we are. I know that Rudolfo has been in prison, has read the Bible cover to cover and knows what it’s like to be at death’s door. Like a poem, a large story sparsely told.
March 30, 2014
A hard crust on top of the snow means that the season for making snow angels is pretty much over. But Linda Jensen was on a mission last week, and this was one snow angel I didn’t want to miss.
What is it about snow that releases the child hidden in us? Grown men howl with delight when they nail an “adversary” with a snowball, and mature mothers commandeer their child’s sled for a coast down the hill. No winter is complete without lying flat on the snow, arms and legs waving back and forth to create a celestial sculpture. One grandmotherly type once demonstrated that you don’t necessarily have to lie flat: find a reasonably high snowbank, back into it, then kick and wave.
For Linda, making a snow angel was a return to childhood in a real sense. As a youngster, she spent four years, 1951-55, at Holden while her dad worked for the mine. She remembers those as the happiest years of her childhood.
Holden was a tight-knit community during the mining years. Closure of the mine in 1957 meant more than lost jobs; it meant saying goodbye to neighbors and best friends, to a splendid way of life that many cherished. Former residents from the mining era still return for reunions, and Linda, who lives in Lynnwood, Wash., publishes an occasional newsletter so people can stay in touch more than a half-century after their community disbanded.
Most of the people writing in the newsletter are, like Linda, surviving children of the miners. They describe an idyllic childhood. There was school, of course. Part of the Lake Chelan School District, it operates to this day. There were Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls, sports and school plays. There were community-wide picnics on the Fourth of July and Labor Day and an annual Christmas celebration with a personalized gift for each child in the village.
Village structures that remain today include the dormitories, where single men lived, and chalets, where families of upper management lived. No longer part of the scene are the houses built by families just outside the village—about a hundred of them.
“They were NOT miner’s ‘shacks,’” Linda declares with a bristly tone. Photos of the homes attest to that. When the mine closed, some people deconstructed their houses and barged them down-lake. Most were abandoned, ultimately destroyed by the U.S. Forest Service because they became derelict and a fire hazard.
Nonetheless, 59 years later, Linda knows exactly where her house once stood with its magnificent view of mountains and meandering creek. We donned snowshoes to get there.
“There’s my tree!” she declared, and she was home again. After gazing about for a few minutes, she took off her snowshoes and stretched out on her former front yard to make her snow angel. The ice-crusted snow resisted, but she dug at it with her boots and created a definable image.
“How’s it feel?” I asked.
“Like going back to childhood,” she said happily.
April 6, 2014
“I’m tired all the time, grumpy and irritable,” confessed one of my usually cheerful hiking companions. Then she uttered the village-wide mantra I’d been hearing for weeks: “It must be because it’s March.” I reluctantly pointed out that March is over.
We at Holden Village do not get spring fever because, well, spring is pretty much a missing season. But we do get this weird kind of angst because SOMEthing is happening. The road is mud, the paths slush. Yet there’s still nearly four feet of snow on the ground, and shaded snow banks can last into June.
I was raised to believe that robins are the definitive declaration of spring’s arrival. Saturday morning, after slip-sliding along a hundred or so yards of mushy path to the dining hall, I peered skeptically at a robin perched on a snow bank. It peered back.
“What!?” it seemed to say. “WHAT!?” and flew off.
By afternoon, I hadn’t seen my above-mentioned hiking companion. I suspect she spent her day off hunkered in her room, reading a book or sleeping. A day of solitude is balm when you live in the close quarters of a tight-knit community and winter won’t go away.
A guest, an Episcopal priest from North Carolina, mentioned she was going snow shoeing, and I offered to join her. A number of guests who usually come in summer are visiting now because of the mine remediation project. Holden will not be able to accept guests after April 21 as construction gets underway again. This guest was better acquainted with the summer village.
We walked a quarter-mile or so along the muddy road before we reached a trail and donned our snow shoes. Trails close to the village, which when I first arrived seemed exotic and even scary, have become routine. Now I walk them because I’m on my way to somewhere bigger, more challenging.
Our snowshoes kept us on top of the thin crust of ice most of the time. Occasionally, with no forewarning, the ice would collapse and we’d momentarily struggle to maintain footing. I walked through the familiar landscape, occasionally missing the path but not concerned. By now I know the territory. Just another day in the wilderness.
Suddenly my companion called out, “Oh, this is so beautiful! I love this in winter! Maybe even more than summer!”
I thought about how it looks in real winter. How the trees are smothered in blankets of white. How you glide silently through feather-weight snow instead of crunching on top of a not-to-be-trusted crust. I thought about trying to describe to her how much more beautiful it can be. And then I saw it through her eyes, and I had to admit: this late-winter forest, just beginning to reveal itself, has the allure of a stripper shedding her first item of apparel.
My companion was having one of those it-doesn’t-get-any-better-than-this moments. And because she was, I could too. March is over, and yeah, it will get even better than this.
April 22, 2014
Quite possibly, the most important thing one does at Holden Village is to leave. The village mission statement says Holden is here “to welcome all people into the wilderness to be called, equipped and sent by God …” Presumably “sent” into the world to do good.
I will leave at the end of April, seven months short of the commitment I signed. I came to Holden because I’d looked at its communications program, saw things that I thought could be changed and decided doing that would be interesting. I figured it would take about three years. At the end of two, my vision was not complete, but I realized I’d gone as far as I could. I was treading water, which is not my favorite activity. I either swim laps or get out of the pool. Still, there’s that sticky wicket called commitment, especially for those of us who subscribe to Horton’s mantra: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful 100 percent.” The question is, faithful to what and/or whom?
While anxiously treading water, I chanced upon John O’Donohue’s blessing poem: “For the Time of Necessary Decision,” which includes these lines:
“Often we only know it’s time to change
When a force has built inside the heart
That leaves us uneasy as we are.”
In short, the rest of the poem encourages the reader to move on.
Per Holden’s mission statement, I figure I’ve been “called” and now I’m being “sent.” But that part about “equipped …”
It’s such a prosaic word. Because this is a churchy place, I’m tempted to recall those old militant hymns, like “Onward Christian Soldiers.” I can see myself marching down the mountain, equipped Joan-of-Arc style with a breastplate and sword.
No. If I have any equipment to take away, it’s in the areas of humility and hope. I don’t recall ever praying specifically for humility, but this place can dish it out—proof that God blesses us abundantly with that which we don’t even know we need. I do not claim to have become a humble person. That would be an outrageous oxymoron. Yet the doses of humility tell me that like cod liver oil, it’s not nice to swallow but good for you.
As for hope, it comes from living and working with an inspiring bunch of mature and insightful 20-somethings. One of them, knowing I’m about to turn 70, asked me for a sample of the wisdom I’ve supposedly gained over my great span of years. The only wisdom I could offer was recognition of the wisdom in her.
When we were in our 20s, my generation was committed to saving the earth and ending war. Another commitment unmet. But it’s a legacy we’re passing on, and one that these 20-somethings seem willing to accept. Like Moses and Martin Luther King Jr., my generation won’t make it to the promised land on earth. These 20-somethings may not either, but it’s a commitment and vision worth keeping.
May 26, 2014
Saturday’s email from a staff member at Holden Village stirred pangs of remembrance. She mentioned she’d walked to Ten-Mile Falls that day. The falls are about a mile from the chalet where I lived for two-and-a-half years. I walked that forested trail in all seasons, sometimes wearing snowshoes, sometimes sandals, frequently with companions, more frequently alone. One of those times alone, I met a bear on the trail. Bruin was not interested in me and casually lumbered downhill.
The trail is easily accessible for all sorts and conditions. You can push a baby stroller or ride in a wheelchair. Countless thousands have walked or jogged it over the years. You don’t have to strap on a backpack or have mountaineer skills to sample the immensity of alpine grandeur: panoramic views of white-capped mountains; delicate, tiny wildflowers growing alongside the path. Massive trees sprawl on the forest floor, split and broken by brutal winds. They’re testimony to the ferocity of nature, a force contradicted by fragile butterflies floating on a gentle spring breeze. I took countless photos on this short trail, but on my final walk—a few days before leaving Holden—I left my camera behind, wanting to memorize it all.
Now home, I reminisce about Ten-Mile and other Holden hikes while I celebrate a reunion with one of my favorite hiking companions. The minute she sees me lacing up my walking shoes, Daphne, my 6-year-old black lab-mix, begins a celebratory song and dance. She squeals, yips, wiggles in four directions at once and licks my face, which complicates shoe-tying. Dogs cannot reside at Holden out of consideration for the deer population and other wildlife issues. Daphne waited out my sojourn under the care of my house sitter, Jill.
Sunday morning Daphne and I headed out to walk our usual loop. First we climb uphill to the next street, a grade steep enough to impress San Franciscans. I catch my breath while gazing across the winding Okanogan Valley. Its rugged hills are green for what seems like only ten minutes out of the year, but for those few moments it’s an extravagant emerald display.
Our course takes us downhill and over the bridge to the large park across from my home. The river is swollen and dark, fed by silty glacial melt from Canada. On this quiet morning with no one around, I illegally release Daphne from her leash, letting her run and sniff at will. Wild roses are in fragrant bloom along the riverbank, pairs of mallard ducks scoot atop the swift-flowing water, Daphne demonstrates impressive self-discipline by not chasing the park’s wild rabbits, and I discover a lone shaggy mane mushroom growing in a grassy playground. I recognize it as a “welcome home” from my late husband. I pick it to place at his grave on Memorial Day. An ardent forager, he’d much prefer an edible mushroom over flowers.
Sooner or later, you have to come down from the mountains. But you can have mountaintop experiences anytime, anywhere.
Sept. 7, 2014
Holden Village reminds me of a saying about rivers: you can never step into the same river twice. I recently returned to Holden for a brief visit. Nestled amidst soaring mountains, the place is always the same but different because people continually come and go. Only a few are privileged to remain as long as I did.
Originally a mining town, Holden’s industrial legacy endured in three enormous tailings piles that loom above the village. Pollutants from the old mine seep into a large, nearby creek. Nearly 60 years after the mine closed, the mess is being cleaned up in a project so immense I can barely wrap my mind around it. Who could ever imagine picking up and moving a fast-flowing stream of water as it rushes down the mountain? Yet they’ve done it. Who could imagine building a mile-long, 80-foot wall that no one will ever see because it’s underground? They’re doing it. Who could imagine reshaping the entire side of a mountain? They’re doing that, too.
All it takes is a battalion of engineers, a fleet of Herculean earth-moving equipment and laborers – men and women – who relish rugged, hard work. Oh, and it takes, I’m told, more than $200 million.* No, not your tax dollars. The international mining company, Rio Tinto, is stuck with the bill.
Early one morning I sat on the creek bank, listening to the rush of water. In minutes, that idyllic sound would be drowned by the roar of machinery. I watched as the machine operators and truck drivers strolled onto the job site. Uniformly outfitted in hard hats and neon safety vests, most of them are burly guys. Yet they’re dwarfed by their equipment. And even a 30-ton dump truck is reduced to Tonka Toy proportions when measured against the mountains that tower overhead.
Decades of legal wrangling preceded this strange project. Contaminants leaching from the old mine turned the rocks on the creek bottom the color of copper. Still, the water is clean enough to drink. Of course, no sensible person would drink from the creek because ALL mountain streams carry the threat of Giardia. The problem here is that contaminants killed tiny insects on which fish feed, severely reducing the trout population. The creek, by the way, manages to clean itself of contaminants by the time it reaches Lake Chelan, some 10 winding miles downstream.
The incongruity of it all surpasses my awe and wonder. Why such hubbub and disruption in this time and place? Of all the mountain streams, remote valleys, polluted waters and tainted landscapes on this planet, why here and now? And how large a carbon footprint do we create when we’re supposedly cleaning up pollution?
People working on this project are earnest about doing the right thing. One by one, the machinery fires up, a crescendo of disruption in the early morning peace. I have to wonder if God profoundly sighs and maybe laughs.
*Rio Tinto announced the price tag as of summer 2016 was $500 million.