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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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