People warned me about moving to Portland. Some were concerned that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, that living in this city would change me in ways I didn’t anticipate.
Turns out they were right.
Here are the things they warned me about.
1) Weather. “It rains so much! You’ll never be able to deal with all that rain!”
Even before I moved here, I knew this was ridiculous. I mean, anyone who’s lived in Chicagoland has dealt with all kinds of extreme weather conditions, so the thought that I wouldn’t be able to handle weather was absurd.
And once I arrived, I heard repeatedly that it’s not the rain, it’s the darkness that’s difficult to get used to. Like Chicagoans just learn to deal with snow and slush from November to May, Pacific Northwesterners have to learn to deal with overcast skies from December to March.
Now, I have an unusual perspective on this, because I have very sensitive eyes. Any kind of sunlight — even the sun coming in the windows across the room from me — makes my head hurt. I can — and do — get headaches on sunny days. I wear sunglasses when it’s cloudy.
The days I don’t have to wear sunglasses? Rainy days.
And the other thing about the weather here is that the consistency of the rain is very different. In the Midwest, we had luscious, violent storms that blew sheets of pellet-like drops sideways into your face. Rain usually meant storms there, and storms were often dangerous. Here, it ranges all the way from gentle mist to small droplets, and there’s no danger. Unlike the rain in the Midwest, rain in Portland doesn’t prevent anyone from doing anything; we just throw on our Columbia jackets, slip into the waterproof boots and head outside.
And that’s another difference between here and the Midwest. When I lived in Chicagoland, weather did, in fact, prevent me from going outside. It’s fearsome there, in the land where the air hurts your face.
2) Weird things happen in Portland!
Okay, this one still makes me laugh.
I’ve lived here for almost two years, and granted, I haven’t seen or done everything there is to see or do. From flaming bagpipe unicyclers to the outrageously popular Birdathon, unique and interesting jobs and hobbies are “normal” here, as opposed to just “tolerated”. This is an environment that encourages individuality by vocally and financially supporting people who make an effort to share their beliefs and talents.
The weird things I’ve seen include the band whose percussionist uses alternative instruments to keep time, among them a manual typewriter, while he wears a huge pink tutu to complement his massive mohawk; the company that makes and sells artisanal cheese puffs (they’re really good) in small batches and sells them at farmer’s markets; the city block full of goats that the neighborhood not only accepted but championed.
However, I suspect the speaker was alluding to things that challenge the “norm” not just in creativity but in morality, and that’s a different set of calculations. And based on that interpretation, I rather expected to find heavily advertised Wiccan meetings, or churches repurposed as locations for Satanic rituals, or half-off sales for animal sacrifice accessories.
What I found instead was an incredibly open, welcoming society. The church down the street from me advertises “all gender identities welcome” and “We value questioning in our search for understanding.” They have made me want to go to church again for the first time in years.
There is a remarkable feeling that arises in a culture that celebrates differences. When you see adults walking down the street with animal ears *and* a tail, it’s much easier to let down your guard, maybe allow a bit of your own atypical behavior out to play.
And that’s the part that makes me laugh about this warning; “weird things happen in Portland” is, on its face, a statement of fact, but as a warning, it’s meant to tell you “watch out! you might get sucked in to whatever they’re doing!”
What’s happened instead is that I feel a tremendous and growing tenderness toward the people here. I’ve done more active prayer here than I had in decades in the Midwest, things like giving thanks for the sweetness of everyday encounters, or holding a brief protective thought for someone who seems mentally ill, or silently praising the joy and enthusiasm of the CosPlay couple waiting at the bus stop. You go, Glenn Coco.
This is the Island of Misfit Toys, a place where it’s not just okay to be abnormal, it’s almost an entry requirement. Those of us who find it difficult to diminish our individual selves enough to fit into the small box of suburban beigeness regulations can stretch out to our true dimensions.
Being in this “weird” place has given me a chance to become who I’m supposed to be, unfettered by small minds.
3) You’re too old for Portland: It’s full of young people.
The first thing I jumped into here was Friends of Trees, an enormous group of volunteers repopulating the area with millions of trees and shrubs. At our training at the Audubon Society, I met Greg, the director of the Audubon’s native plant nursery. I suspect he’s near 70. A wiry man with a gold tooth, he manages the nursery in the dell in the middle of the rugged Audubon wilderness, a daily task employing wheelbarrows and shovels and an incredibly sharp mind. He shows no signs of slowing down.
About a third of the people at our FOT plantings are over 60–and this isn’t sit-down work stuffing envelopes, it’s pretty vigorous yard work. Sure, there are lots of young people involved, but the crowd is a far cry from all “young people.”
I see the same integration in the music school; we serve kids as young as two and seniors into their 90s. And the swing dancing events are full of people age 60+ who really know what they’re doing, dancing right next to the 20 year olds who wish they were original Swing Kids. There is no segregation of the ages.
And the best part about the older people I’ve met is that just about everyone is active and involved. Hiking, kayaking, cycling, performing, attending concerts in the park, playing with their grandkids, raising kids for the first time in their 70s; the energy of this city emanates from its residents of all ages. It is a great place to be a young, single person, and a wonderful place to raise kids, but it’s also an incredible place to grow old. The weather is easy to manage, public transportation is robust, the infrastructure is abundantly accessible, and the inclusive attitude of the populace means that the spectrum of activities available is vast and varied.
So I guess they were right; I have changed. I no longer spend the winter huddled in a blanket, wishing for spring to come. I feel much more connected to my fellow Portlanders, natives and transplants alike. And I am looking forward to becoming a very old woman in this environment that nurtures personal growth at every age.
I don’t know what the future holds for me, but Portland has helped me see the endless opportunities that life holds. I may not have all the details sorted out yet, but I am sure of my right and responsibility to pursue my life the way I want it to be.
It’s a beautiful thing, this kind of freedom.