After watching the entire first season in an evening, I tweeted, “What scares me is how accurately Portlandia describes life in the PacNW. It’s so funny that it’s almost not.”
Without lampooning ourselves, it’s difficult to explain how weird and awesome and frustrating it is to live the way we do. Especially to Midwesterners. And Southerners. And Texans. And East Coasters. Okay, really everyone except Californians, who are even farther out there than we are. (UGG boots and shorts – need I say more?)
We do want to know if our chicken comes from a happy, sustainable, organic farm and if the lettuce was grown by a mother of two nearby. We do patronize independent book and record stores, often lamenting our shopping experience at the same time as we loyally support them. Our mayors do ride bikes and enact a curiously naive approach to saving the planet. Local singer/songwriters with record contracts work as baristas and a few of them actually do, in fact, clean houses to earn money.
Open mike nights and public journaling are popular – we have a lot of angst to express. And there isn’t a day that my co-worker Matt and I don’t begin conversations with, “Hey, did you read that article in the New Yorker/the Atlantic/Wall Street Journal/The Economist/fill-in-the-blank-intellectual-rag…”
We like our greens fresh, our lattes creamy, our entertainment venues intimate, our friends over-educated and our leaders accessible. We turn parking garages into gardens. Our major thoroughfares have bike lanes for the many road warriors who ride year-round. We are enthusiastic sports practitioners, kayaking and boating and skiing and rock climbing. We run 5ks and half-marathons for fun. Our closets are filled with downy jackets and leggings the way that New Yorkers sport ties and jackets. Back in the day when Polarfleece reigned, you could spot well-heeled patrons taking in an opera at Benaroya Hall in fleece vests and Børn slip-ons next to men in tuxedos and polished wingtips.
We’re a bit quirky, and thankfully, nearly as endearing as we are annoying. Our good intentions redeem our peculiar habits.
As I settle back in, I’ve been thinking about Seattle a lot, and what it means to embrace it rather than looking toward the horizon for something different. Coming up on twelve years, this is the longest I’ve ever made a place my home. Though I love living here, Seattle and I have had our issues over the years, especially after I lived in Italy. Like any relationship that has seen a few break-ups and make-ups, the fact that we’ve come together again makes my affection for the Emerald City that much more rich and complex, like kissing an old boyfriend and reliving how good the good times could be.
The delight of my experience is mainly indebted to the wonderful people who also call it home, but there’s no discounting the physical environment –the complex smells, sounds, textures, tastes and sights– the invisible energy fields that make up our town. Not every city can be broken down so well on a granular scale and hold up. The buildings and streets are part of it, as are the sounds and scents of the Pacific Ocean, the array of farmer’s markets, musicians busking on corners, restaurants and bars flourishing, late-night vendors, familiar bars and bookstores, coffee shops, public art and a host of cliche but beloved urban secrets, like trolls under bridges.
You can feel how each neighborhood relates to ones nearby, yet surges with a distinct personality all its own. To absorb these cities-within-a-city, you must be on foot and –above all– you must be quiet. I found myself walking like this elsewhere when I traveled; it is an exercise best done without the distraction of conversation, but it’s hard to do that in Seattle. I’m too busy and I run into too many people, which is why Jeanine’s poetry sessions are special.
She and I met this past summer when I took her class at Hugo House, “Finding Extraordinary Poems in Ordinary Moments.” Together, our group of eight explored Seattle on foot, invoking a silent pause during each journey: no talking, writing, texting or communicating in any way, except to point at things excitedly.
Yesterday, Jeanine led us around her neighborhood on Capitol Hill, beginning at her apartment on East Summit overlooking I-5. Mark and Jen had been in class with me before; we knew the sequence well. We began inside Jeanine’s living room, reading poems by other authors to kick off our discussion, then gathered on the sidewalk to create our cone of silence. As before, we sealed the edges with the phrase, “Talk to you later,” as we smiled at one another and closed our lips.
Walking in silence is like pulling on a dive mask that makes the sea floor suddenly clear: the moments within each scene hold more meaning than they would if we were hurrying down to catch a bus or shopping with friends. Stepping into this ritual with my classmates again was like taking a deep breath before diving under: our excitement and anticipation were obvious. We knew that we were about to discover a series of small, wondrous moments that would otherwise never have revealed themselves.
Over the summer, we learned how different this practice is from simply walking alone; there’s something about agreeing to be silent that creates a keen aura of observance. Though silent, it is not isolationist. It’s a covenant. In fact, we discovered that our communal quiet lent us the opportunity to connect more deeply over a shared experience and reflect before one scene turned into the next. Independently, we compared and rearranged and sometimes even discarded certain moments in favor of others depending upon what spoke to us at the time.
When we gathered inside again, each of us noticed something that the others missed. Jen is still fascinated with construction cranes, which she fashioned into a herd of urban giraffes. Mark felt a mythology develop around a woman carrying a flute. Jeanine was drawn to a collection of tiny earthworms frozen at the bottom of a birdbath. Michael discovered a kitty who blinked at us from inside a home and followed the smell of a stack of fresh pizzas carried by a man uphill. The voyeur in me loved peering inside windows to spy slices of life and tromping through a series of scenes: the P-patch at Olive and Summit, the construction site of a building-to-be, 70 steps up a mossy concrete stair, the rush of traffic on I-5 below, and the picture that the five of us made, urban disciples on a sensory pilgrimage.
Before class, Michael remarked on the ever-present sound of jets and I realized that I hardly notice them anymore; I rarely create the kind of silence that gives their presence a stage. As we walked, the call of the jets re-emerged in the quiet. I realized that their echo is a quintessential layer of ambiance that makes me feel at home.
As with the roar of the jets, Seattle feels both familiar and new to me these days. For the first time in years, there’s something reassuring about looking out of my living room window to see the Space Needle, walking up the steep incline of Queen Anne hill, and smelling wafts of salt air as those jets fly overhead. It’s comforting, but not boring.
With this, plenty of yet-undiscovered moments swell between, beneath and beside them, like boxing in the central district or a Rat City Rollergirls match at The Key, which are about to change my perception of a town I’ve come to know well. If last year’s watchword was exploration, this year’s is observance.
As I take a moment to ponder this, I think I’ll go for a walk.
Now, life is about coming out of the earth in our own time,
Ignoring dates and progress marks, spray-painted directionals in day-glo safety orange
That insist on a schedule and a sequence, delineating all that is taboo:
Don’t park, don’t climb, don’t drink, don’t trespass,
But we ride our bikes through the grass anyway,
Severing worms and yellow chard spines and ice floes
That hold insect carcasses and brown leaves long-dead from autumn,
Reminding us, if only for the moment we catch air, that we are alive.
I forgot the roar of jet planes while I’ve been away–
The hidden staircases sewn with moss,
Music store stickers weathering on signs and hearty winter P-patches struggling–
This place called home grew icy and crisp in my absence,
Falling dormant in my thoughts,
Sliced clean from the top of my mind like a discarded Christmas tree: only the stump and stand remained.
The green pine boughs of Seattle, emerald memories of life in my bowery,
Were axed away and discarded, gathering frost with the rest of the trash at the curb.
Now, only the sunshine remains.
I look for Seattle beneath the city in places where the asphalt comes up–
The city beneath it and the city before that–
Decades of Northwest life tarred and sulfured,
The bricks of our past peeking up from the bottom of potholes,
Hinting that there is always a story beneath a story and a story until
I realize that I no longer know this place.
Romances and murders play in window scenes while small brown birds hop from branch to branch,
Coaxing seeds from pods like I coax old thoughts of my life from the gritty corners of my memory.
From the highway below the traffic-roar besets my senses, a dull cacophony rendering me numb;
I need quiet to discern the jets, to find this this new place called home atop this old place called home:
The shadowy kitten blinking its yellow eyes from inside the window,
A curtain made from gold Mardi Gras beads glittering in someone’s doorway,
The sound of skateboarders in black skinny jeans grinding on guard rails,
Frozen tomatoes hanging heavily on brittle vines,
The embrace of old friends haloed in heavy coats and gloves, red noses and fog-breath;
This hidden settlement –Seattle, Jet City, Emerald City, Queen City–
Is again a rugged frontierland, and perhaps, once more, so am I.