Hol·den Vil·lage n.
1. a Lutheran retreat center located high in the Cascade range of central Washington, on the site of a former mining town. Established 1957. Isolated by steep mountains from automobile traffic, television, radio, and cell phone contact. Staffed year-round, with a summer population of several hundred and a winter population of about 50.
2. A community of people in transition.
In my first week at Holden Village, I learn a lot of new words. Many of these are snow-related: Roofalanche. Postholing. Hoarfrost.
A roofalanche is a small avalanche off the roof of a building. All the structures here have steep roofs, to more easily shed the heavy layers of snow that accumulate on them every year. "The word may sound funny," director Steph Carpenter warns us, "but it's no joke." Roofalanches are typically sudden and involve massive quantities of snow and ice. Paths carved and stomped in the snow guide us carefully around "roofalanche zones."
Postholing is when your foot crashes through a semi-solid layer of compacted snow into the soft, fluffy stuff beneath. Sometimes this happens even when you have snowshoes on. Postholing a foot or two deep is unpleasant, but I hear stories of postholing accidents that leave the errant snowshoer buried in six or eight feet of snow. Another reason not to go off hiking alone, I remind myself.
Hoarfrost is a rare phenomenon: when conditions are just right, the surface of the fallen snow arranges itself into chips and shards. The spangly glitter of the snow I noticed under the light of the full moon, both here and in Chelan, is the result of hoarfrost. Its appearance, I am told, means avalanche weather.
The most extravagant display of hoarfrost I find is at the Labyrinth, when I snowshoe out to see it with my pastor friend on Stop Day. I have no idea what the Labyrinth looks like most of the year, but in this season it is carved in snow, its single winding path carefully stomped down with snowshoes after every new snowfall. On the walls of the Labyrinth, the shards form themselves into feathers, the feathers into tiny wings, some approaching two inches in length. It is outrageous, fabulous, winter at its most absolute glam.
Over 30 feet of snow will fall on Holden Village this winter. This is my first experience with snow in such quantities; I've spent most of my life in the balmy Willamette Valley, where the snow rarely piles up more than a couple of inches and lasts more than a couple of days. It is therefore also my first experience with snowshoes. Village paths can be safely traversed in boots, but beyond the perimeter of the buildings, snowshoes are a necessity. I discover to my chagrin that my right foot turns out just a little when I walk (I never noticed before!), which means my snowshoes tend to collide more often than I would prefer. Correcting for this misalignment first causes me to stumble over my own toes, and later brings on unaccustomed hip pain. Still, it's better than sinking to the waist or deeper with every step. And though the village provides breathtaking views every time you step outside, snowshoes will take you to still more spectacular ones.
I never get over the feeling that I'm living in a picture postcard.
* * *
I learn other vocabulary that describes Lutheran religious practice: Vespers. Matins. Eucharist.
I've already written about Vespers. Matins takes place at breakfast in the dining hall, typically 5 minutes of sharing from anyone who signs up in advance to do so, paired with the usual mealtime prayer and announcements. Matins is often a personal anecdote, or a meaningful passage read aloud, or (less commonly) a song. Despite my best intentions, I frequently miss Matins; I've never been very good at mornings.
The Eucharist service takes place every Sunday evening (and as a non-morning person, I highly approve of the timing). As with many Vespers, the entire service is often printed out on a piece of paper or booklet -- songs, prayers, scriptures, everything but the text of the sermon. Sometimes these booklets are well-worn: Holdenites have used this exact sequence of songs and words many times before. This seems strange to me, a sort of canned approach to worship. There is something reassuring, though, about being able to see what each step of the service will be (not least so you can tell when it will be over).
Each Sunday, the pastor describes the process of taking the Eucharist, so that you know to wait for the usher to motion you forward, then step through the brief dance of accepting the bread (or gluten-free wafer) and the wine (or juice). The formality of the procedure (relative to other Holden spiritual practice, not relative to Eucharist services elsewhere) makes me nervous about getting it wrong somehow. I'm used to calling it "communion," and I'm used to it being self-service, whether passed out in trays to the congregation or laid out on tables up front. Later, much later, I learn that you're not supposed to say "thank you" when the pastor places the bread in your hands, "because it's a gift from God." (But so is any other food, I protest internally, and yet it's polite to thank the person who serves it to you!)
But not everything in the Eucharist booklet is spelled out for you. At my first Eucharist service, I am in great suspense about the item listed on the program merely as THE PEACE. What is that? When we come to that part of the service, everyone stands up and hugs everyone else within reach. Then they walk around and hug more people. "Peace to you," they say to each other, and to me, as they embrace. "Peace be with you."
In every new place where I join others for collective spiritual pursuits, I have a readjustment period in which everything new seems weird and wrong. Sometimes I can get awfully judgmental about things: Why do they do it that way, it doesn't make any sense, that's ridiculous, I bet God agrees with me on this. At Holden, there is a lot about the worship that grates on me. But this "passing the peace" business, this I like immediately. Why doesn't every church have a regularly scheduled hug exchange? I wonder, my first Sunday at Holden and every Sunday thereafter. Because they should. I bet God agrees with me on this.
The other aspect of worship I'm an instant fan of is Friday night's "Prayer Around the Cross." It's a time of candlelit prayer, with a soundtrack of quiet, repetitive singing and piano. You can pray in your seat, or you can light a candle at one of the sandboxes set around the edge of the firepit in the center of the room. As each new candle is lit, the room grows a tiny bit brighter. I treasure the hush of it, the reverence and quiet joy.
Two bowls filled with sand are designated as places you can go if you want others to pray with you. When someone kneels at a bowl, others rise to surround them, resting hands on their shoulders, kneeling beside them or just standing near. I marvel at the shadowy tableaux that form around the bowls; they become even richer and more meaningful as I come to know and love the characters in them.
Before I arrived, Holden was described to me by friends as "the far left wingtip of the most liberal end of the Lutheran church." I believe this assessment was more or less accurate, unlike the label of "ecumenical" I heard from other friends. Former directors once pushed Holden toward ecumenicalism, but the current establishment has steered it back toward a strongly Lutheran identity. There are many kinds of Christians on staff, and quite a few agnostics, but I don't meet any staff who profess a different religious faith, or who openly claim atheism. A Buddhist guest tells me he feels his values are tolerated here, but not truly engaged with. He doesn't mind attending the mandatory services, but has found some of the teachings troubling, and key people seem unwilling to discuss them in the depth he is hoping for.
Holden Village's liberalism does extend to the acceptance of homosexuality; there are several gay and lesbian staff members who are open about their sexual orientation, and everyone seems to be pretty comfortable with that.
In other ways, the village is not so diverse. Staff are primarily recruited from a Minnesota Lutheran population, which occasionally makes the place feel like a sort of alternate-universe Prairie Home Companion: lots of people of Scandinavian descent, lots of Minnesota accents (and parodies thereof). Occasionally I notice a rare person of color among the guests, but the staff is overwhelmingly white. Aside from an annual gathering geared toward Mexican-Americans, photos of past years reflect a similar ratio.
* * *
Still other words I learn are Holden-specific: Maverick. Potty Patrol. Garbology.
Mavericks are the gophers and grunts of the village. It is their sweat and toil that makes walkways walkable, moves heavy objects from one location to another, and shifts large quantities of snow out of necessary spaces. The Mavericks quickly endear themselves to me by eagerly responding to all my lodging complaints, from the strobing CFL bulb in the women's restroom to the window blinds that fall down every time I touch them. The Mavericks swap out my bunk beds with no overhead clearance for adjustable ones that allow you to actually sit up in the lower bunk. If the Mavericks can't help me with a problem, they know who to ask, and will, voluntarily and without prompting, follow up. After working for so many nonprofits where you have to lean hard on people to get anything done, I am a huge fan of the Mavericks.
Potty Patrol is Holden's name for a phenomenon I have observed at most established communities: the free stuff-redistribution center. (No one has a conclusive answer as to how it acquired this awkward name.) There are boxes and boxes of free clothing, and piles of other miscellany, all of which are constantly in flux. I visit Potty Patrol many times during my stay at Holden, sifting through boxes and organizing as I go, and enjoy myself every time. In consideration of my luggage limitations, I try hard to leave as much as I take, and maybe even almost succeed.
Holden has another means of stuff redistribution: the Giveaway. When long-term staff leave Holden, typically after a year or more of working there, they throw a party and give away all the things they won't take with them. Some items get handed on from staffer to staffer for years. At the Giveaway I attend my first week, I acquire a sweater, a houseplant, and a pair of acupressure bracelets for motion sickness. Other people score items such as jewelry, books, handmade hats and scarves, a guitar stand, a laundry hamper, seed packets, and a bottle of V8.
Garbology, or "Garbo" for short, is the other place unwanted things go. All trash at Holden is carefully sorted out by hand: compost, recyclables, burnables, and landfill. (Signs in Holden bathrooms direct visitors and staff to place certain items in "biowaste cans," which are emptied directly into landfill rather than hand-sorted. This reduces the ick factor considerably.) Sooner or later, most of Holden's waste must be hauled down the mountain and removed from the village by boat.
Garbology is a task every Holden resident helps with one day a month. Garbo duty begins at "Garbo Central," a basement area where cans and boxes are flattened, and moves to the "Garbo Dock," where recycling and mixed trash get sorted into finer categories.
Going through other people's garbage is always an adventure: you never know what you're gonna find. At Holden, you definitely want to shred anything sensitive that has personally identifying information before throwing it out, because your friends are probably going to see it.
After sorting, trash gets hauled up to an area well away from the residential part of the village. There, landfill and recyclables get stored in old schoolbuses to await their removal from the village. During my stay, these buses are almost entirely buried in snow; here the doors are only visible because they've been dug out.
Kitchen scraps are layered with sawdust and "cooked compost" into big wooden bins. The compost area is haunted by hungry pine martens, which come out at Garbo time to supervise the proceedings. You can almost see them drooling, waiting for the humans to leave so their daily feast can begin.
I find myself among the few who actually enjoy Garbo duty. The work is varied and interesting, and I like thinking about the things we dispose of, and how to handle that more responsibly. The only really gross part is compost, and even that isn't so bad; in winter, it's too cold for it to smell much, quantities are manageable, and there are no flies. You get to work with staff you don't normally work with, and the full-time Garbologist is good company. Besides, pine martens are adorable, in a vicious smelly mustelid sort of way.