Bloom

Driving around town this morning, I was struck with a thought I’ve never had before: I love my life.

One of my favorite bosses once said to me “bloom where you’re planted.” She was hoping to encourage me to see the positive aspects of my life, to recognize that I didn’t have to have a perfect structure in order to survive. But it’s always bothered me, the idea that chance should wholly dictate who we become. To follow the plant analogy, there are plants that can adapt to any environment, but there are plenty that have very specific needs in order to thrive. The sequoia comes to mind; I can’t send sequoia seeds to my sister in Illinois and expect that she can grow this incredible tree in her backyard. It needs a certain constant temperature range, a certain amount of moisture in the air, and a specific kind of footing into which it can take root. Sequoias

Then there are plants that *can* survive in a variety of environments, but an optimal setting allows them to reach their full potential. Far more than “blooming”, they can become something spectacular.

All my adult life, I’ve struggled to find a place for myself in the world. When I lived in southern Illinois,  I hoped to make a home for my kids and myself in the university environment, where I enjoyed a fair amount of cultural activities and employment opportunities, but felt the impact of the transient population inherent in higher education. It’s hard to form lasting bonds with peers when people come in for a year or two and then move on to the next step in their education or career. I was guilty of the same behavior, moving around campus for promotions three times in one year, and eventually leaving the university altogether.

Moving to Chicagoland brought more economic and social stability, but the people in my peer group — and that particular time in my life, when I was in the midst of heavy-duty parenting — were not supportive or conducive to my creative side. I was a good mom, very stable and involved, but I wasn’t the best *me*. I could provide structure to those around me, but I couldn’t even start looking for my own potential. That wasn’t part of the deal, and I accepted that.

When I left Chicagoland, my father said “you can move, but you won’t leave behind your problems.” What he — and all the other naysayers — didn’t realize was that I wasn’t trying to leave behind my problems. I was trying to find the best place for *me* to live, the place in which my distinct personality and tendencies could breathe freely, where there was space and energy for me to explore the parameters of who I wanted to be. It is a mistake to assume that once you have become an adult — or once you have children, which happened for me before I was really an adult — you stop growing and becoming. I knew I wasn’t finished yet, and that the pain I felt at not belonging anywhere was telling me something.

And I was right.

Once I had a sense of the kind of things I wanted in my life, seeking the right place to be became much easier. I take credit for knowing myself well enough to understand that I had to be near natural beauty every day, that I needed trees and dirt and the view of mountains. And despite its reputation as the whitest city in the U.S., I am surrounded by diversity on a scale that makes my hometown look like a white supremacists’ meeting.

Think about *that* for a moment.

But I’ve always been much more comfortable in a diverse crowd than I ever was in St. Charles.

The city of Portland, and in a broader sense, the whole state of Oregon, has given me a healthy planting bed into which I have sunk my roots. Part of my freedom comes from being finished with the heavy-duty parenting, but that’s not all of it. If I were simply an empty-nester back in Illinois, I would be miserable: what would I have to explore? How far could I push my own limits in a society that allows little deviation from what they consider normal? Where would I go to escape the unmitigated pressure of beigeness?

In Oregon, I have my necessary wilderness. In Portland, I have the necessary diversity of personage, of activities, of interests and enthusiasm for the un-normal. There is no need for me to be like anyone else. I mean, there are hipsters here, whose dour demeanor trends toward their own conformity. I blame their unhappiness on hunger; in order to fit into those skinny jeans that tuck so neatly into their Han Solo boots, and wear those baggy baggy shirts that look like they were made for Hagrid, they aren’t allowed to eat much, so they’re terribly hungry.

But at my age, it’s totally okay — even encouraged — for me to avoid becoming a hipster. They can have their baggy baggy shirts and sad expressions: I choose to frolic among the forest creatures, celebrating the trees and ferns, then spend my days at the beehives of artistic activity where I work.

There is space for me here. For all of me, not just the parts that are palatable to other people. I’m able to reach into myself and discover long-lost loves like singing in the choir, or undiscovered loves like dangling my feet in a mountain brook or kayaking in one of the many rivers. No longer bound by a society tied up in appearances or expectations, I am free to reach out my tendrils in all directions, to do and be the many parts of who I am. Where I was once confined to a small planting box, held tight on all sides by a barricade, I am now free to grow naturally, the way I was intended to grow.

With the right mixture of sunlight and nutrients, who knows what I will grow up to be?

Visit Portland!

A couple of people are coming to visit me in the next few months. I’m pretty excited to show them my new city, particularly because I’m super excited about this place. Maybe you’ve noticed.

But I think it’s important to tell my friends about a couple of Portland quirks that took me aback when I first got here. I’d like to save them the surprise.

1) Portland will seriously f*ck with your sense of direction.
I am the opposite of directionally challenged. When I have a map or a list of directions, I’m golden: even without them, I can typically find my way around any area. I’ve done it in Chicago and suburbs, New Jersey, New York City, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Reno, Seattle, and even Livingston, Montana.

Portland is a different story.

Maybe I got spoiled by Chicago’s grid system, or am flummoxed by the persistent overcast skies shrouding one of my tried-and-true navigational methods, but after almost two years of driving around this city, I still regularly lose my sense of direction. We have a river that curves around the city, so sometimes it’s north of you and sometimes it’s east of you. We have streets that meander around the side of foothills, and they often run both north-south and east-west. We have streets that end abruptly with no notice, turn into other streets, and then resume two blocks later.

And this town can’t build a decent merge ramp. Getting on and off the highway is a game of roulette, and you just have to be patient and recognize that it is not the idiot drivers, it’s the idiotic design of the ramps. They’re awful. I have so much more respect for Chicago’s roadways since I moved here.

A native Portlander once excused the street system in this way: the streets we use for cars were once cow paths, where the cattle were run from the farm to the river for transport. Okay, I get that. But it’s a really screwed up way to navigate. Fortunately, Portland is small enough that even when you do get “lost”, if you keep going, you’ll find your way back eventually.

And don’t even get me started on the terrifying, barely wide-enough-for-my-car overpass elevated portions of the highway required to get you to the aforementioned ramps. With their flimsy chain-link fences and unlit curves. It’s a pastiche of bad engineering that adds to the charm of the town–if you’re not the one driving at night in the rain on unfamiliar roads.

OH AND ALL THE ONE-WAY STREETS! Basically, you can’t turn left on Burnside. Or anywhere downtown.

My advice: don’t rely on your sense of cardinal directions for getting around. And don’t rely on a map. And be careful and patient on the highways. Seriously. Just…let somebody else drive. Like me. Hey, I only forget which way is north for about ten seconds, and then I’m right back in sync. It’s cool.

2) People will talk to you. Like, every day. Recently, I was walking out of a brand-new craft supplies shop (new letter-writing paper: mmmm.) when I encountered a woman standing at the threshold, thinking about going in. She asked, “Is it cute in there?” I’ve never heard that question before. I said yes. Because it was.

People I have never met or even seen before say hello, wave, make eye contact and even smile at me every single day. We talk about the weather and the snow on the mountain and whether we saw the unicyclist recently. Conversations are started on buses, in coffee shops and parks, in line at the post office, on the street and even at the DMV. I know the life stories of more people than I can count, and here’s the thing: I LOVE IT. It feels like I’m part of a community. Sure, many of us in this community are pretty strange, but that’s part of the beauty of it.

I know for some of my visitors, this will be a shock. Coming from Chicago, where making eye contact can be perceived as a bodily threat, this was a huge adjustment, but trust me on this one: it’s perfectly safe to respond when people talk to you. In fact, a surefire way to get treated like crap, like a tourist, like a non-native is to act freaked out when strangers talk to you. If you want the Portland experience, just go with it. It’s cool.

3) There are a lot of street people here. Like, a LOT. I thought I would get used to the numbers of people sleeping on the street, but because this is feeling like my community, I see the people living on the street as my neighbors, and it’s gotten harder to act like it doesn’t bother me. It does.

But I remember the shock when I first moved here. I have no remedy for you, because I have none for myself, but I’m trying to prepare you. Just know you’ll see this.

4) It rains. Deal with it. Bring a slicker and comfortable, water-resistant shoes. Do not worry about looking dorky or unfashionable; the risk of being wet and cold all day is not worth those awesome sandals you bought. Portland is plenty fashion conscious (albeit in a Lumberjack-Hipster vein), but the consensus seems to be that staying warm and dry is paramount. Oh, and skip the umbrella; that only works for rain that falls straight down. This is more like walking through an invisible sponge.

5) Dogs in stores. And libraries. And book stores. And coffee shops. And Target. And restaurants. Everyone has a dog, and dogs are everywhere. I kept expecting security to escort out the people owning the dogs, but that hasn’t happened once. Dogs are treated as speechless humans; every cash register has an attendant bowl of dog treats. And everyone pets everyone else’s dog, and asks questions about it. Next to tattoos, dogs are the number one topic of conversation I’ve overheard.

Number three on that list is tattoos of dogs.

Number four is tattoos ON dogs.

6) It is so freaking green and lush and nature-y here you won’t believe it. I still don’t. I still drive down Burnside every morning and think “good GRIEF this place is beautiful.” And the mountain! And the other mountains! I tell you, I’m STILL stunned by this place. There’s no way to prepare you, so I should have skipped this one. But. Wow.

7) Coffee here is AMAZING: but also tea. I started drinking tea like a boss out here, and it’s so awesome. And if I see you with a Starbucks’ cup I will slap it out of your hand and buy you Water Avenue or Spielmans (and a bagel!) or Stumptown.

I am still swooning for this city, almost two years into my life here. I can’t wait for people to visit to I can show you my favorite things. And for everyone who hasn’t yet planned their visit, we just added a futon couch to our assortment of places for people to sleep, so now we have two beds for visitors, three if our kids aren’t in town. Make your reservations now! Space is limited, but we’ll show you a good time.

PortlandSign