Years ago, I escaped from Portland. I can’t say I’m altogether happy about escaping from city life. I’m married to a small town boy, and a small town is where he gravitates. While Portland isn’t the city I would like to make my home, I would prefer a city over a small town any day. Cities have resources. They have green spaces and museums and tall buildings–old buildings up against new architecture. They have a variety of shops and businesses that offer variations on a theme, whether that theme happens to be clothes or medicine or books. Small towns are hit and miss–mostly miss. If, for example, an herb shop exists in a small town, it’s likely to have a limited selection of dusty vitamin bottles and herb bins and not likely to sell whatever the customer had in mind to purchase at a given moment. Living in a small town, mail order and lengthy, expensive trips to the nearest city become the norm. In other words, the nuisance that shopping is (and, yes, it IS a nuisance) turns into a greater nuisance of long shipping times and expensive shipping rates or just doing without because the gas needed to arrive in the grand metropolis is outside the budget.
Although I’m currently living in a small-town island that contains little more than a Wal Mart, and although I bemoan its lacks, I acknowledge that city life isn’t perfect. Traffic is hell in most cities, and not all of them offer adequate public transportation meant to ease the burden of cars on the roads. In addition, most city water sources must be filtered to rid the tap of chlorine and fluoride–cities are, in general, difficult for the health conscious individual. I’m living in a kind of Promised Land of clean water and air, above the agricultural run-off and smog of rural valley or city living. I’m living in a place where the enormous sky meets the horizon in a distant one-point perspective, no matter where I’m standing. While I sometimes imagine how our family life would be in a city, I can’t deny that I live in a beautiful environment that is low on stress and devoid of the kind of drama I avoid like the plague.
It may sound as if I’m checking the scales of small town life against city life and seeing how they balance, but that wasn’t my goal when I sat down to write. My goal was in remembering that I don’t want to mentally regress, except in memory, to where Portland lives and thrives inside me. Escape is sketchy. Environment plays a role in mental health, but it can never create a situation in which a person is able to escape himself. I won’t ever be able to escape who I am–an outsider in any world. I will never escape my own mental landscape, formed only in part by my childhood in Portland.
My niece works at the Portland nightclub pictured above. In describing it to me, she said it was meant to be a place where people could be themselves without judgment, even if only until the wee hours, with dancing and artistic open mic shows. I get that. I do. Escape is vital for humans. For that reason, people eat and drink together and seek out entertainment after work. But from birth until death, escape is a transitory concept that is as easy to cling to as wind. And sometimes, it’s better to live in the moment–this moment, in the daytime–and face it. I look up and hope for escape. I mull over the past; I plan for the future. Yet, how often do I take on the present and live in it? How often do you? Escape is an upward trajectory, but until death, it’s a finite ideal. I applaud my niece for her work at the club. In her own way, she’s taking on her present reality and creating something positive with it. She’s creating a tangible, albeit temporary reality in the midst of city life and attempting to find health through it all.
This is only to demonstrate that an upward trajectory, a lack of regression, a moving forward is impossible. A life is made of layers, and the outermost layer isn’t the only reality. The past peeks through and, sometimes, the outer layers are intentionally stripped off in order to reveal the past, to lay it bare. This is a necessary occupation for even those who aren’t detectives or psychologists. Escape moves inward before it turns back around. In some cases, exposing the past reveals its beauty, rather than its degradation, as in this building. Somebody made the decision to expose the beauty of its past. What if, upon investigation, a detective were to discover unexpected beauty in human populations, rather than heinous crimes and the perpetrators and victims of such?
Escape is more than a reflection of our environment. When I peered in these dark windows, I could see the hint of decay in the building. As opposed to the uncovered facade of the previous building, this one was dirty on the inside, in need of cleaning and repair. Yet, when I stepped back and took a picture of the windows, the camera caught only the reflection of a functioning world outside the gritty interior space. The city continues to function, just as homes and humans do, for better or worse, despite ignoring interior work. What if, upon entering the interior space, we were to begin to clean and repair rather than walking past and imagining that those reflections we see (including those of ourselves) are, in fact, reality?
Ah, well, I suspect you’ve already guessed I saved the best for last. This is Powell’s. This framework is the same Powell’s I knew as a child. Wandering through the aisles, up and down stairways, I recognized the basic construction, even though the inside had transformed itself throughout time. For example, upon entering, the dreadlocked and pretentious intellectual elites, who used to work there and shout at you if you didn’t immediately check in your backpacks and bags, were nonexistent. It’s a friendlier place, an open place, but still full from floor to ceiling, upstairs and downstairs, with books. As I walked through with my camera, surreptitiously snapping pictures, an uncomfortable feeling stole over me. It was as if a pretense of friendliness and openness had subsumed the place, but it was a big, fat lie. The interior space was, is, and always will be about books and a cramped literary life lived in them. You might try to repair the past, but you can’t change it, nor can you change the core essence of what something or someone is. Escape is moving outward. Look: down the dark aisles covered in books, there’s a world outside. It might appear small from this perspective, but trust me when I tell you it’s much bigger than it appears. Your repairs may seem to overshadow it, yet they are minute compared to the grand outer workings, the mechanical scheme of the universe.