Portland is a land viewed through shadows and trees. Portland is an image: a stark white house brilliant through the branches. It evokes a certain melancholia, a nostalgia for a life not lived–at least, not there. I lived there in an actual sense. Yet, I grew up with no real notion of how dense the shadows were, with no real understanding of what lay behind the dark windows of those houses–the ones lost in the trees. If I were to enter in through the gray door, what would wait beyond it? Would the house give up its mysteries?
Portland is a place of scenes. Everybody must belong to one. But for those who skirt the edges of society, observation is the only way in, and it isn’t a way in so much as it is a way through to the exit on the far side of the house. Last week, I visited Sellwood, which is a Portland neighborhood arrived at via the Sellwood Bridge. We crossed the bridge, my sister and her daughter and I, into a world of large old houses on a bluff. In the best spots, these houses are perched as beacons above the Willamette with clear views of the river and the city scene that lies across from it. As the afternoon was already darkening when we arrived there, a turn around a tight curve could suddenly open us up to the glow of the distant waterfront lights. If you’ve ever descended into Portland at night, you’ll remember the winding river lights, and you will–if you still carry a childlike joy–gasp at the memory. Portland, as seen from above the shadows of too many trees, is a place that glows. It glows because there’s a river below and heavy clouds above, and the lights in between reflect and refract in the water. And so it is in Sellwood when the streets take a turn to a view.
What kind of scene is Sellwood? Ten or more years ago, it was a place largely cut-off from Portland proper. According to my sister, who once rented a house in the area, the buses didn’t run there regularly, and there weren’t many stores. Nowadays, it’s an upscale neighborhood and very much a beating-heart-of-Portland with its New Seasons organic grocery, its antique shops, its yoga studios and sushi parlors and microbrew houses and espresso bars. While there, we visited a small but bright old house, where my sister’s homeschool friend lived. Just across the polished wood floor, sat a table decorated in lacquered pennies and, on top of that, a tray with homemade hummus and cut vegetables and dried chips made from various vegetable parts and seeds leftover from juicing. Next to that sat a glass tea dispenser that appeared to contain tea–and it did–except, of course, it was not the usual sweet tea, but kombucha. If I hadn’t recognized the feathery, floating mushrooms, I might have thought it was a homeschool experiment that involved caring for exotic sea-creature pets in a tea bath. I wouldn’t have been surprised; I can’t remember the last time I was surprised by anything. On the cookbook shelf all my questions were answered, as if they hadn’t been already: Nourishing Traditions. Every good homeschool mom has one, except the ones who don’t. This particular mom appeared and sounded to be the kind who would nourish you in any way she knew how, whether with food or words or pleasant laughter. Oh, yes, I can’t move on without mentioning that my sister has a particular affinity for people with silvery laughs. I loosely based my character Mary and her silvery laugh off one of my sister’s friends, who became mine, as well, when I worked with her at Coffee People. That’s, however, another story entirely; it serves merely to demonstrate my sister’s affinity for people with a laughing talent.
Still in Sellwood, we skipped from the tiny house of Nourishing Traditions to the New Seasons organic grocery for a few potluck items, to a million dollar home, complete with four stories. This was the meeting place for the homeschool Lego robotic group, where we watched the children perform a practice demonstration of their robot project before having a potluck. As one might expect, the potluck dishes were not casseroles. Rather, they were the dishes of middle and upper class Portlanders, which involved baked potatoes and trimmings, elegant salads and sauteed vegetable dishes and bean dips. Black beans are all the rage in Portland, to be found in mall food courts and even in the OMSI cafe, but if there were any to be had here, they were long gone before I arrived at the marble-top buffet island. Instead, I chose a white-bean and tuna salad.
I didn’t know any of these people, and so found myself standing in the corner studying everything as I usually do. I’ve been in fine homes before; this one had a particularly nice feel to it, as if the people there were just that–nice. And I think they were. Without overly assessing them by their Alaskan artwork and books in multiple languages–their stacks and stacks of Scientific Americans and their shelf that contained numerous biblical translations, I would say they were normal intellectuals who managed to work hard and make a lot of money. My last image of Sellwood, aside from the misty night trip back across the bridge, was of the father of the household peacefully relaxed on an expensive couch, watching the rambunctious children horse around in dangerously close proximity to expensive, breakable things, and smiling. Yes, smiling.
That was Sellwood, as seen through the trees–as seen in one door and back out another.
Photograph credits: The first is mine from the hills above Portland, not quite to Terwilliger. The second I found in Wiki Commons. I don’t know why, but I didn’t take any pictures the day we traveled to Sellwood.