Category Archives: memoirs made of dreams

The Downtown Portland Scene: Escape is Directional

DSCF0115Years 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.

DSCF0111This 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?

DSCF0116Escape 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?

DSCF0127Ah, 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.

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Portland is a Dream Memoir: Life Seen Through a Tangle of Trees

DSCF0143Portland 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.

sellwood bridge

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.

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This Being an Addendum Rather than a Conclusion

I have finally come to the conclusion that I will never invent time travel or finish any story because my house doesn’t have a basement. Furthermore, I have come to the conclusion that, even if I burrowed out a basement below my house and axed any animus projections resembling Oso, I would still never invent time travel or finish any story, including the one about Oso and Julia. Despite my numerous attempts to create conclusions, I have failed to erect such a finished structure.

This reminds me of a creative writing/short story class I once took at UNM–oh, heck, why keep the professor anonymous? He was Gregory Martin. His class was memorable for multiple reasons, including his abilities as a memoirist. During one critique session, in which we were slicing and dicing a highly polished, but essentially lacking story by a young woman in class, I asked if this story could simply be considered finished. Perhaps it was time for the writer to move on to a new one. Professor Martin then waxed philosophic about how stories were never finished. This concept disturbed me to the point that my backbone straightened up for an argument with him. It became a face-off–the professor and I arguing over the silliness of an incomplete story which equated to an incomplete life, while the rest of the class fell silent and listened. At the time, I understood what he meant all too well. He was absolutely correct. But it’s crazy-making to never find satisfying endings.

Memoirists understand the world in a different way than you or I. Memoirists don’t like endings because endings signify death. In a sense, their best skill is time travel, and for the express purpose of never concluding anything. I am, you might suggest, projecting my own psychological workings onto an innocent professor of creative writing, who has, no doubt, forgotten the argument that left such an impact on me. I should probably cease and desist before digging my hole any deeper. I really need a basement, though. I need one in order to invent time travel and to finish something, anything, even if I have to fly backwards in time in order to do so. Forgive me, then, because I’m going to continue digging until I’m deep enough to begin climbing stairs that will take me back up to the world of the sky.

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Memories! You’re Talking About Memories. Or Dreams.

A story can never end with a simple image. I take that back. Yes, it can. The writer gives her story the potency to be what it will. A weak writer may not endow it with enough power to live on its own without a respirator or feeding tube. That’s the trouble with humans playing God. We’re not shams exactly; we’re made in the image of, and all that. But where does that leave us? We aren’t mini-gods. I don’t need a biological or theological or theoretical education to know this truth in the core of my being. I’m not a god–so why do I play one as the author of my mini worlds? Yes, I know, they appear epic after the word count climbs over 90,000, but they’re tiny enough to slip into my braincells as places and people and adventures already visited, worlds already put to rest.

In my dreams, I see buildings–tall thin ones that scrape the sky, narrow oblongs that rest directionally to the horizon, and two-storied places with pitched roofs that cry for families. My rooms are inevitably messy. I’m a mess internally, so this isn’t surprising. Sometimes these buildings are hybrids, places whose windows I climb from, only to reenter again into dark basements. When I add, combine, and quantify, the dwelling I love the best is the one with the pitched roof like a spring sky. Blue roof–white shutters–yellow siding. This is the atmosphere of spring. And spring is meant to bring new life, as the agricultural world affirms–one could call it the scientific world, even if it does dwell down on the farm–and the religious world confirms spring’s delivery, as well, in its rites of cyclical death and rebirth. As a Christian, I recognize the fulfilment of my rebirth through Jesus’ death and resurrection. What that says about my interior spaces and their lack of order may or may not be unrelated because I’m a believer in Jesus, not spring cleaning.

I am a house. My rooms are messy. I have a blue roof, a slate roof, a red roof. My outside is composed of solid timbers, and timbers that are as frail as old, flaked paint. Sometimes, I live on an air-gasping, head-woozy floor in a tiny apartment filled with borrowed objects. Elevators and escalators send me up and bring me back down. At my workplace, I descend into the basement to drop my child in a womb-safe daycare, and then travel up and up to my small office, inside a larger office, inside a complex of offices in a building that was designed for medical offices. Up here, on this floor with a swooning view, I feel safe knowing my child is tucked away in the basement. On with the paperwork–or whatever it is I’m hired here to do.

The papers tucked away, I remember the house with the slate roof. That’s the one where my colleague and I–this time we’re medical examiners–climbed from a first-floor window, from that hinged, old-fashioned kind, onto the rain-soaked grass. We were frightened to be there; I can’t recall why. Memory creates an illusory image when attached to emotion. Or, I should say, memories are more vividly remembered when attached to strong emotions, but the cause and effect may be lost in the recall, such that the emotion and incident combine in the flash of a moment–a photograph left out of its packet. There’s no context, in other words, until another flash occurs, revealing another image connected to fear. Something is chasing us, and we’re ducking down in the shadows, where we can smell the mud of the grass and the dank, catty smell of the basement, and we lower ourselves through an unlatched screen back into the very same house we have just escaped.

It’s dark down here. Empty boxes sit stacked by our entrance route (and possibly our only escape route). My colleague insists we’ll be safe here, and he pulls me into a mesh box, and pushes me to a crouched position in the corner of the box. We hear a click, and it’s too late. The fear–the concept of shadow–is manifest. It has locked us in a cage of our own choice, our own hiding place. We peer out. How disconcerting. A single bulb swings above us, haloing a woman and a man in lab coats, holding clipboards. They’re examining us. We’re the specimens.

I should leave you with the spring house, rather than this cage deep inside the bowels of an old one. I should leave you with its hope, but I don’t yet know how. The last time I entered the house with the blue roof and yellow exterior and stark white shutters, it was littered with the detritus of guests–dirty plates and bulbous glasses settled with sweet wine. For now, it’s a house only the swallows will find, and they’ll build their mud houses up under the eaves. That’s a lovely image, but it’s not where I’m at.

I’m in a basement. Trust me when I insist that this is not only the proper way to end this–whatever this godlike creation of fictional worlds is–but it’s also the way to begin. Beginning on an upper floor is absurd, to say the least. No one can begin there. So I’ll start at the deepest place my dwelling dips. I’ll start at the beginning and end at whatever floor I manage to climb to before the story’s over.

I’m in a cage in a basement. That’s my simple image, and its potency relies solely on the hope of spring and its ability to unclasp locked doors.

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A World Without Social Media

Seven Pillars by Eva Domschot © 2012

This is the place where stones sing in their spiritual houses.

On Sunday, we woke early to attend church. In fact, we didn’t merely attend. My husband read a sermon from the pulpit because we’ve recently lost our pastor to Florida’s more sophisticated medical system. Our pastor handed in his retirement–which he had planned to do, anyway, albeit not under the dire circumstances of a life-threatening illness. Therefore, my husband, being one of a few men left in church, was enlisted to choose from a stack of published Lutheran sermons to read in the midst of the liturgical service.

He chose a sermon on the building of spiritual houses. It seemed a little too apropos for our small body of believers, a group that has shrunk drastically over the past several years due to its members moving away. With approximately twenty-three adults and six children left, we may, indeed, dwindle into an ethereal concept that once met in a church building.

However, I don’t wish to dwell on negativity and loss. Spiritual houses aren’t impervious to the fluctuations of the physical world, but they are certainly less prone to shifting when a cornerstone provides a strong foundation, as well as a reference point for the other stones built into the structure.

The day, itself–Sunday–built its own walls as though it were a spiritual house, one beginning with a roof and no set foundation. Time and space are inextricably linked, creating a foundation for something, in any case. The physical is interwoven with the spiritual, even if we don’t understand exactly how this tight mesh is bonded. I have no intention of mixing metaphors; a decorator has covered the stone walls of Sunday with woven banners. This requires a sole image and no mixing of thought.

The day began with a roof on a chilly fall morning. We sat under the roof of the sanctuary, speaking liturgical words and singing hymns to the organ, and then we sat under the roof of the fellowship hall, where we sipped coffee. Next, we offered a lift home to a church friend; we entered her (and her husband’s) domain so my husband could check out a broken door in need of repair. Meanwhile, the children and I studied magazines and nicknacks and books. Our friends’ house is one of puzzles, fairies and cats, and shelves of books that would give any bookworm a case of the delirious chomps.

Our friend loaned me a memoir about an Oregon family who, one summer, bicycled across Canada. Gratefully, I held the book close in the crook of my arm, knowing it could easily be the kind of memoir I love.

Family and I drove home, under the roof of our car, then entered under our own red roof, under the blue sky. And we ate avacados and other delicacies, and we allowed the house its disarray. I disappeared in my room to read the memoir, but before I’d finished a page, I fell asleep and dreamed that I didn’t have the proper license for fishing and would have to watch as others let down their hooks into the placid waters while I stood by, my lone figure a scrawny child, ageless and pale. I was a pathetic child in life and dreams; I really was. I woke up with my head missing.

The roof blew off–was it at that moment? The roof disappeared, leaving a sky overhead and walls of sliding dirt and stones, of cactus and mesquite, of wild fall flowers blazing in violet verbena, marigolds, orange mallows–all backed up against the desert mountain. Husband and I walked deliriously up to the seven pillars, a quarried place, the dog in a heavenly house where rabbits ran pellmell through the brush. Then we ran, scrabbling down, down, back to our house.

Under the red roof, head restored, I, in a tangible fashion, made tortillas on my press and cleared the house of clutter. If others have domains of fairies and cats and books, I own a mental world whose clutter is so eclectic and bizarrely shaped that I need an outer one that maintains an orderly distance.

And so the spirit house ended with beans and chile and fresh tortillas grilled in a substantial cast iron skillet.

****

But the house with the fairies and books and cats and puzzles is only part of the whole. Remove the roof, discover stone slabs where rocks sit, piles of them, singing and waiting to be set into houses. A hoard of them crack and pop–insubstantial until somebody breaks a tooth on one.

In the center of a slab bench, a seat waits in the middle of two piles of rocks. Sort them, discover their unique shapes, where they might fit, but leave them undisturbed because this is the place where stones sing in their spiritual houses.

A bent tree (I hear it). A patch of shrivelled vines (I know that song). A triangle of grass breathing a different air in the midst of a city where others dwell (I’ve heard it, but have yet to learn it).

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