– Benji Schneider, Lord Huron, “Auld Lang Syne”
There’s a Fleet Foxes song that starts, “Now that I’m older, than my mother and father when they had their daughter, what does that say about me?” It catches me off guard every time it shuffles up on my iPod. I’m a year older than my mother was when I was born. My parents married after college. They saved for a brick house where they planted a pear tree and a vegetable garden. There’s a photo of us, taken shortly after Mom’s twenty-sixth birthday: Mom, Dad, and me sitting in a pile of leaves. I’m propped between them with a white lace bonnet tied beneath my chin. We look like a postcard family: haloed by late autumn sun and framed by leaves. Within months of that photograph, I learned to loosen my bonnet. I’d fling it from my head, shouting “No bonnet” with a gummy smile. I wiggled away from the postcard image. But my parents remain tied together. Mom and Dad still rake leaves in the early fall, wearing faded sweatshirts and soft jeans. By their mid-twenties my parents saw the shape their life would take.
Last year, I worked as a naturalist at a YMCA overnight environmental education facility, teaching marine science, forest ecology, orienteering, archery, and sustainability to 4th through 6th graders from Seattle and Tacoma. What do you want to be when you grow up? I heard chaperones ask students. Sometimes they’d get an answer that seemed as rehearsed as the question: engineer, architect, journalist, teacher—careers parents taught their kids to aspire to as opposed to the jobs younger kids would respond with: artist, professional basketball player, astronaut, president. As an instructor, I got asked a different version of the same question: What’s next for you? What do you plan to do after this?
Since August, I’ve lived in the Cascade Mountains, in Holden Village, a community so remote cell reception doesn’t reach us. No one has cable. We listened to the presidential debates and the election gathered around a satellite radio. The internet lags and our hydroelectric power dwindles during the cold months. We take short showers and hang our clothes on the drying racks to save power. We stoke wood-burning stoves in order to keep warm.
Holden Village is a Lutheran retreat center, an intentional community staffed by volunteers, although many of Holden’s residents are not Lutheran, or even religious. People tend to hike, snowshoe, read poetry, make pottery, knit winter hats, and wear wool socks. During the summer, villagers tie-dye t-shirts, bulletin board covers, and prayer flags. It’s a transient community and, with few exceptions, no one lives there more than a couple years. I work for Lake Chelan School district, at Holden’s “remote and necessary” public school, one of the few paid positions in the village.
Recently, in response to the question: Have you ever been on a pilgrimage? My housemate Jericho responded: No. She’s traveled to India. She’s lived in Holden Village. When I asked her why she considered neither of these experiences pilgrimages, she responded: Since I moved out of my parent’s house at age eighteen, I’ve never really lived anywhere. Pilgrims need a place to come back to.
I own boxes of books. I shelve some of them in the room I rent at Holden Village, but I still store hundreds in my parent’s house: in their attic, under the basement stairs, in boxes beneath the bed in my childhood room. Some days I imagine living somewhere big enough to move those books. I picture floor-to-ceiling book shelves, a vegetable garden in the backyard, worn wood floors, shelves stacked with mason jars, and laundry drying on a clothesline. Sometimes, I imagine a person in this house with me: perhaps a bearded man who works wood and gardens. I picture the kind of family my parents made: clumped together in the autumn leaves. Other times I just want a dog to lean against me while I read and write.
Folk musician Justin Vernon, better known by his band name Bon Iver, wrote and recorded his album “For Emma, Forever Ago” during a winter he spent by himself, living in a cabin in northern Wisconsin. It’s about breaking-up, gambling, leaving home and losing love —about the people and places we love and the people and places we leave.
My graduate school housemates called the summer of 2009 my “Bon Iver summer.” In the summer of 2009, after breaking up with my boyfriend of two years, I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and took a job working at The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. I had no reliable access to phone or internet. I slept in my parents’ cabin, in the basement of a nineteenth-century coast guard building, in a loft above the Shipwreck Museum’s movie theater, and on the couch of my boss’s brother’s empty apartment. I kept a copy of Hunts Guide to the Upper Peninsula in my car and stuffed my glove box with maps. I lived off Cheerios, dark chocolate, and hard-boiled eggs bought from the Shell station in Newberry. I spent the nights I stayed at the Shipwreck Museum bundled in sweatshirts with my back pressed against driftwood, writing on the beach. I listened to Lake Superior slap Michigan’s northern shoreline.
I learned not to be afraid. I heard stories about ghosts in the coast guard building where I slept and bears and cougars in the woods where I ran. I wandered abandoned cabins and stayed out after dark. I drove without destination. I talked to strangers. I hiked by myself. And when I had my parents’ cabin to myself: I danced. I submitted to rhythm. I loosened my limbs and let my shower-wet hair smack my neck. I spun in barefoot circles until my body tired. Then I stepped outside where I could watch fireflies and listen to crickets under the shadow of cedars.
Last summer, my brother taught me to rock climb. I knew I had a decent strength to weight ratio. I knew knots. I’d belayed hundreds of kids and taught rock climbing classes at the YMCA where I worked, but the first time Keith belayed me at the rocks in Grand Ledge, I barely ascended the easiest route. I bruised my knees and banged my shins and held onto the rock so tight that my arms shook till my muscles pumped out. One day, a man named Dave stood behind my belaying brother and watched me climb. Dave crossed his arms and told me in an even voice, You have to work with the rock, not against it. Then he scrambled beside me, pulling his body in toward the stone, feeling the creases in the rock with his fingers. You’re fighting the stone, he said. I imagined what climbing might look and feel like if instead of trying to muscle my way up rock I could move more like the ledge itself: gracefully sloping upward in a series of sharp steps and smooth reaches.
To climb well, you have to find ground beneath your feet where there is none. You have to trust your body and trust the rock. You have to find small spaces for your fingers and toes and learn how to work with the stone so your body balances. My brother often climbs barefoot for this reason: to feel the shape of limestone ledges against his skin. This is what I want to learn, I always think: How to move with rock. Like dancing, it’s about loosening, about feeling: reacting rather than acting.
In the past year I’ve learned to climb rocks and can, to brew beer and find my way in the woods using a topography map and a compass. I’ve learned how to bake granola and pack a backpack for a weekend on the trail. I have no money saved for retirement. Most things I own fit in my car. But I’m finding my way—with bare feet and bare skin, easing upward on slabs of stone on a route I cannot yet see.
I prefer “Auld Lang Syne” to any other holiday song. I like how the song gathers strength as it goes, building volume and becoming more orchestral until it blooms into the kind of chorus an entire room can sing along to: for auld lang syne, for auld lange syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet for auld lange syne. The words come from a Robert Burns poem and every time they cross my lips I feel their weight: the passing time they stand for, the days of old they embody. One of my favorite bands, Lord Huron, recently covered the song. They kept the chorus but changed some of the verses. The line I love most: We’ve wandered far beneath the stars since auld lange syne.
Instead of making a New Year’s resolution: I’ll give you reflections—observations. In January I’ll be twenty-seven: older than the average American woman is when she marries, old enough to have married friends: friends with careers and houses and babies. I have no spouse. No children. Instead I have a smattering of published essays and poems and the beginnings of a book. I have a creased atlas, a composition notebook, and no plans for the future. I have relationships I’ve walked away from but parents and a brother I get to return to every time I come back to Michigan. I have a home in the mountains, hands that are beginning to learn to work with the surfaces beneath them and feet searching for a path. My life has no shape but it has substance: form I look forward to working.
On Monday I’ll celebrate New Year’s Eve at Holden Village. I’ll walk a prayer labyrinth lit by luminaries, holding a candle to both mark winter’s darkness and anticipate the coming light. It’s not a somber night: we also drink and dance and eat until we’re bloated—but when everything stills, we stumble into the cold-slicked snow to walk a path stomped by volunteers. When I walk I’ll have to trust in the footsteps that went before me. My breath will freeze. Snow will silence my footfalls. My candle will shadow the snow. I’ll move forward in dim light.