“We, too, have run about the slopes and we’ve ran into the night.  We’ve wandered far beneath the stars since auld lange syne.”

– 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.

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RACHAEL SHAY BUTTON is a writer, a teacher, an activist, and a place-based educator. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Over the past nine years, Rachael has been (among other things) an adjunct professor, a farm hand, a naturalist, a middle school teacher, a wilderness trip leader, a museum educator, a marketing coordinator, an environmental stewardship teaching fellow, and a high school cross country coach. Her essays and poems have appeared in Pank, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Collagist, Creative Nonfiction, Diagram, and Redivider, among other journals. She can be found online at: http://rachaelshaybutton.wordpress.com.

11 responses to “For Auld Lang Syne”

  1. Laura Bogart says:

    I loved this piece. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Erica says:

    Good words. Beautiful. Just now I’m leaving a difficult place and moving into, I hope, a better one. It’s good to know we are not alone in this journeying, this off-the-beaten path. (Also, you make me want to take up climbing again!)

    • Lovely Erica. Thanks for the kind words. Every time I read your writing and your blog I think that we should have hung out more while we were both in Ames. Perhaps sometime this summer we can meet somewhere pretty, go camping, and catch up. ~RB

  3. Your words flow into my being so, for this respite of reading, my urgency to do whatever has been gently eased aside. In this writing, I see in the picture your words paint something like a place I was going had I not taken a certain turn the fall after my mother died. Having taken that turn, my life became more like how you describe your parents as, not that lives (your parents and mine) are really that comparable…. So, on the one hand, it would seem that the closest I now come to “Most things I own fit in my car” is the vicarious accompaniment of you afforded by being able to read your writing. On another hand however, your thoughts triggered an important “note to self” I misplaced in my mind somewhere reminding me that everything I seem to have is really just on loan to me. Furthermore, that ground beneath my feet (and my stuff) sometimes shifts whereas I go on and on. I loved the idea of contouring to the creases of the rock your being encounters as you negotiate the way you’ve chosen. Nice. That will sit with me for a good while.

    • Uncle Glenn,

      Thanks for reading and thank-you for the kind words. I read your response yesterday morning before I drove from Spokane to Chelan and was puzzling through it and contemplating as I drove that stretch of Route 2 I’ve driven so many times before: with John last March on his spring break, by myself in June after I quit the job I’d taken in California, by myself in August on route to Holden Village, with friends from in September on the way back from Coeur d’Alene, and by myself in November after a trip to Boise to visit my friend Liz. Each trip has been different and that stretch of two-lane highway weaving through wheat fields and mountains seems to punctuate the changes in me. I liked what you wrote about the way we change and the way we make our way. We should get coffee next time I’m in Detroit.



  4. Lisa McManaman says:

    Beautifully written Rachael! Oh how I remember your cherub face in that bonnet, you are always the same to me Rach!
    You are doing great with your writing! This time in Holden will have great significance in your life further shaping you as a successful writer! Keep it up and keep experiencing the joys of living and sharing them with us, your words are inspirational.
    Love you dearly! Aunt Lisa

    • Aunt Lisa,

      Thank-you for reading and for the generous response. I really appreciate all your support and love as I make my way forward on this somewhat uncertain path. I’m looking forward to catching up this summer!



  5. Amy Monticello says:

    Rachael, you’ve floored me, both with the grace and poetry of your writing and with your shining beacon of self in this world. I never wish for a different disposition more than when I read your work. Thank you for so generously (and complexly) offering another perspective on what life can be.

    • Amy,

      Thank-you so much for the kindness and support! I’m such a huge fan of your writing–it’s so vulnerable and real and insightful and complicated. I feel like I learn something about myself and the way I process emotion every time I read your work. I hope all is going well and that you’re enjoying your New Years.

      All the best,


  6. cherie sydor says:

    Wow Rachael, I loved this piece! It paints a picture of being present, of grabbing the gifts you are being given and embracing them completely. You are filling the empty slate life gives us with beauty, joy, dancing, writing, being fearless in your endeavors…..I am so proud of you!! You cannot foresee what God has planned for you but you are an inspiration of beauty and light to me! “All that I have fits in my car” translates into ‘I’m not dragging a lifetime of baggage into my future’. Bravo! You will have the life you are beginning to envision…in the meantime….enjoy 🙂
    Aunt Cherie

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