I went alone that Christmas to a place far away from any one or any place I knew.
Two mountain passes and four hours of driving, and a flat gray lake absorbing the wake of a rickety ferry fell behind me, and I sat with my head against a school bus window bumping up a dirt road into a snowy mountain valley and arrived to an unlocked dorm room with a single bed and white walls blank enough to give the shadows I brought with me a place to live.
I’d heard about Holden, a tiny Lutheran community in the North Cascades tucked into a mountain valley, and I decided to go.
My coming here had alarmed those I knew, who demanded I come to visit, who let voices drip with disapproval that I wasn’t going home.
But I’d helped sell my childhood home the previous summer after my dad and step-mom were killed. There was no home for me to visit.
I had orchestrated a funeral, a burial, a house cleaning, a house selling, and an adoption of some new version of normal I didn’t want and couldn’t interpret in my life in another city.
I had no interest in maneuvering through family dynamics with those who remained. I had no interest in submitting to others’ attempts at cheer or denial or counsel.
Christmas had always been my favorite holiday. Returning home and walking off the plane in past years, I easily sighted my dad’s tall figure next to my step-mom at the back of the crowd just past security, mountains glowing icy-white in the quick-falling Alaska night through the terminal windows behind them.
The easy holiday cheer, both sacred and secular, pierced any young-adult angst I might have carried with me. I loved midnight mass and the carols and someone wearing a Santa hat passing out presents, and stockings stuffed with oranges, toothpaste, and sundries.
This year was different. The walls closed me in and I wanted them to. I wanted to shut out the artificial brightness of lights and smiles. I watched shadows. I looked at snow on the mountains and my mind processed blankness.
I went for walks. I sat at communal tables forcing small smiles during meals and it took everything I had to participate in conversation. “You’re here alone?” someone would ask. “Yes,” I’d say, and though I was used to answering that way, both the question and my answer stung.