Lately I’ve been thinking a tremendous amount about places I’ve been, places I am and places I may be going. Since Friday I’ve been in Portland, Oregon. While here, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with a number of old friends, beloved members of my family and a city I am finding so full of meaning to me, even though I've only lived here a few months. Yesterday morning I drove along Lombard Street. Stopped at a light where Lombard intersects with Albina, I pondered a craft store in a small house on the north side of the road. A large shingle hanging in the yard read “Yesterday and Tomorrow.” From the road I could see through the windows to view what looked like vases and sculptures and other knick-knacks, but the store’s name and the fact the sign featured a dragon (See postscript) made it hard not to think it catered to lovers of fantasy novels and science fiction. I thought of Renaissance Fair fans and Trekkies and how the two groups share a category somewhere in my brain.
Something dawned on me. Fans of these genres spend so much of their entire lives concerned with either what has been (in a loose sense, since we’re talking about fantasy), or what might be (as fanciful as such visions may be constructed). I don’t say this out of judgment, for I admittedly enjoy a great deal of science fiction and the odd medieval-themed book or movie. Still, it’s an unsettling thought. What about the beauty of the present?
I’d rather not delve into a cultural/literary critique, especially because I don’t want to discount the power and beauty of imagination. Nonetheless, these thoughts arose as I’ve pondered the intersection of my own present with my past and future. Here in Portland this week I’ve seen how so many paths have intersected. I'm always awed as I drive East and West by the 10 bridges spanning the Willamette River, and only now am realizing that Portland itself has been the backdrop for so many transitions across my own life.
Over the past year I’ve flown into this city three times. There’s something about landing here that stirs a tremendous amount of nostalgia. When I land in Portland, it feels like home. I understand where I am. I see where I’ve been. It feels like a real arrival, unlike any other city I’ve been to. It makes a certain amount of sense. Whether it’s mist dancing through City Center skyscrapers or bursts of green splashed across the outskirts of town, everything seems to fit together. Certainly, Portland isn’t quite the emerald masterpiece it’s cracked up to be. Like most American cities, Portland displays the scars of sprawl. As I landed, I saw huge swaths of recently-sprung developments. From the air, the foreclosure signs and anxious faces that surely populate many of the capillary-like cul-de-sacs were invisible. All I could discern were patches of conformity spreading around the city. Visible evidence of turn-of-this-century greed that left this and all of America reeling.
It’s so jarring, because on the ground Portland proper, if not its suburbs, swirls with the pot luck attitude of a true community, although strong, valid critiques exist of redevelopment within the city as well. Far more than any place I’ve been in the United States except perhaps, as a matter of fact, the original Portland, this is a self-determined city, including the blemishes of its modernity.
As I land and swirl through so many past worlds of mine, I remember I can move about the city without thought. However, I’m still constantly discovering more beneath Portland's surface. The only time I ever had a similar sensation was at my five-year college reunion last year, and that feeling was aided by the presence of so many others who had experienced that period of my life with me. But where the grounding I find among my undergraduate peers is most firmly rooted in a mindset, there seem to be physical roots here in Portland.
It’s strange as well because if my sense of home has something to do with the experience of landing in a city, I’d imagine my ties to L.A. would be stronger. Where I can count the number of times I’ve flown into PDX on my fingertips, my journeys to and from LAX are innumerable and stretch back to my youngest days. But the meaning carried by a descent into Los Angeles is far different, likely because until last summer I had never resided there. I’m still forming my understanding of Los Angeles and the placement of that megalopolis into my mindset. I’m still defining what it means to me. As much as I’ve come to love the city and begun to understand its layered intricacies, I am far from knowing it, from internalizing it the way I’ve internalized Portland.
And the thing is, i don’t know if I ever will, and not just because Los Angeles is such a massive place by comparison. It’s something deeper. When I am in Portland I feel little more than the now. Like the city, I’m not perfect when it comes to finding serenity, but, I think importantly, I don’t feel rushed to find it. In L.A., as I did in Ventura, I feel I’m constantly trying to get my footing. To get settled.
That divergence might be stronger now, when I feel myself trying to pack an entire life into a one-year graduate program, then find myself this week coming to understand perhaps more deeply than I ever have just what it means to be on vacation. I am aware there are thousands struggling to live in Portland. Thousands without the luxury I’ve had this week of time and loved ones and treasured friends with whom I can reconnect. Thousands standing at the precipice of an uncertain future, as there are across the world. But I also am finally at a point in my life where I’m finding it’s pointless to fight the way I feel about anything so I will savor this sensation.
This weekend, a couple days after I landed in Portland and first started forming these thoughts, I thought about what Portland and the other parts of Oregon that have been a part of my life really mean to me. In my life it has been not just a place of respite, but something of a transitional zone. A buffer. I move through lives here. Most of the major phases of my adult life have been book-ended by travels, sometimes quite literally, through the state. These journeys have been moments of re-centering, of rediscovery.
At many instances I find myself upon bridges traversing two sensations. I have rebuilt myself, found esoteric escapes and torn down shells of myself here even as I have simmered amid apprehension and self-doubt and pushed myself beyond my limits. When I’m here, I find myself chasing the faintest of distant lights and simultaneously fighting to stand firm against the over-exuberant facets of my personality. I find myself wandering through semi-charmed moments of surreality as if amid dreams yet feeling incredibly alert.
Again, I’m still here. My words still get tied, get excessive, they get me in trouble and go too far. Somehow, though, Somehow even if I resist, I know there is comfort and rest here. I know myself here. I can free myself, I can be myself here, whether the "here" is this moment, this place or neither.
I took a few moments to peruse the Web site of the Yesterday and Tomorrow store after I Googled its name. I didn't get too far, but I did notice this hilarious description of one category of their products.
"Our Gargoyles & Dragons are only visiting us, while they are waiting for just the right person and place to call home. A few stay only a day and some are much more picky and stay a while. So we never know who will be here moment by moment, but it seems that as one moves out another moves in. There always seems to be a number underfoot. Big & Little, they come in all sizes, some like to be tucked in small places and some like to be the center of the show."