How can I change my tone to reflect what I’m about to write? I ache for the lost tone in my writing, the one inspired by poetry and the notion of myself as a poet. High school girls cling to these ideas because the world is what it is: a place without dreams. When they look around, they witness most adults sacrificing their dreams to reality. Their mothers, fathers, teachers, friends offer their dreams as sacrificial lambs to appease the tangible world, so that the world won’t destroy them. And these young people witness those who refuse to give over their dreams, and they see the addiction and failure and unhappiness of dreamers. At the very least, they witness the failure of dreamers to soar beyond the tremors of their inside worlds. But the magma presses upward, and the plates shift until dormancy is no longer a viable option.
Consider for a moment that my dad gave me a journal just before I entered into the reality of marriage, and he inscribed it with these words: “Catch your dreams before they slip away. Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind. Is life unkind?” I can hear you asking why a sensible Christian father would advise his daughter via Keith Richard’s Ruby Tuesday. I have an answer for you– because he is a sensible person. He’s sensible because he doesn’t believe in the superstitious giving over of dreams.
For better or worse, Portland and the Pacific Northwest are entangled with my dreams. They’re a web in my imagination, giving voice to what’s left of my poetic framework. This is why I use Oregon places as backdrops for my Gothic, supernatural tales. At their essence, they provide me the words I’ve lost, words from wild, wet weather and the icy, gray Pacific. Imagine, with these words, stepping over the bricks of a square to enter into the depth of a cafe, where strong coffee provides heat and stimulation to the rain-slow brain. Imagine stepping up a raw sidewalk and entering the clinking-clanking refuge of a brewery, where craft beers provide happiness and hops to the cloudy soul. That’s my world, my inside life, the landscape of my youth.
But you might be surprised to know that Portland and its environs weren’t always colored by water birds on amber bottles or red paper cups bearing the logo of a couple who could have graced a Grateful Dead album. In Portland’s early years, it was an enclave of conservative working class folk. Even though Portlanders weren’t snobs, they did drink beer. In fact, Henry Weinhard opened up his Portland brewery in the 1850s, and this beer-brewing business gave Portland its distinctive hoppy smell for more than a century before it moved to Washington in 1999. Gourmet coffee, though, and its elegant companion, fancy food–these came about as Californians moved up and recreated Portland in their own image. In my younger years, my parents still preferred instant coffee. And in my father’s youth, most restaurant menus featured the not-so-exotic roast beef and whipped potatoes.
Were these changes good or bad? They were neither. When culture shifts and adapts, it loses some of its essence, its original heart, but brings new and exciting elements to the fore. Do you remember when I wrote about Rue in my last Nineties Coffee Girl? Rue was a San Franciscan, my sister’s boyfriend for a while, and my default brother. For all his good points, he was a snob. And this gave us cause to take him down a notch or two. Once, for example, we poured my grandpa’s can of Hamm’s in his expensive bottled beer–after dumping the precious elixir down the drain, may God forgive us–and he either didn’t notice, or was too dignified to respond.
We took what we wanted from him, though, and that was his enlightened attitude toward good coffee (good beer, yes–we took that, too, but not before taking him down a notch). Who knew that coffee didn’t have to taste like acrid, oil-greased dirt? Things–black and white pronouncements–begin to blur and run all shades of gray when you mix in the complexity of people and culture. Were Californians really responsible for the shift in culture? Oregonians love(d) to make this claim. But did we forget that my mom was a Los Angeles transplant to Portland? Did we forget, when we visited my grandparents at their Big Bear home every year, that they served up water for coffee and used mild salsa as if it were an exotic condiment–that my grandpa drank Hamm’s and that my grandma enjoyed cocktails, but was so stingy in her later years that she bought Manischewitz wine off the clearance rack?
Admittedly, this not-so-elegant California is enmeshed in my dream world, as well. One year, Rue travelled with us for our Christmas visit to Southern California. He was, then, a part of the landscape that inspired dozens of poems I wrote about the iced-over Joshua trees, the snow-cracked desert, the yawning mine shafts, the whirring or still windmill blades slicing at the blueness of the sky. Where has that poet gone? Why can’t I summon one more poem from these old images, or from the new topography of my mind? Where will I go to rewind the tone of my writing?
That Christmas, the one with Rue and my family in Southern California, holds me captive with its strangeness, offset by black and white photographs I took with my 35 mm camera. The coffee was no good, and beer meant little to me, but Rue gave me a book of Dylan Thomas poems as a Christmas present, and it was the kindest sort of gift. When I cracked it open for the first time, I read the intro, and silence filled the space of the log cabin. Thomas captured the air around us, and after I finished, Rue claimed he had never heard anyone read it as well as I had–I with my unemotional voice and deadpan pronouncements.
I was a poet, an unemotional poet, who read Dylan Thomas with no expression whatsoever, allowing the words to contain their own emotion and power.
And, now, as an adult who has never fully given up my dreams, I wonder what they were to begin with. What should I not let slip away? What should I not let slip away before I lose my mind?