Thursday, June 13, 2013

Portlandia And Points Beyond

Posted from Delta flight 1228, Salt Lake City to Indianapolis.

It’s a little like a foreign country up here in the northwest. Not quite. But almost.

Monday, Micki’s uncle Bob dropped us in downtown Portland. We walked a block to the Bike Gallery and rented two cruisers to explore the city. When we hit the streets, motorists, pedestrians, and even streetcar drivers were so patient and friendly, we knew we were in a cycling paradise.

We made a B-line to Voodoo Doughnuts. I ordered up a Maple Bacon Bar (a caramel-iced donut topped with 2 slices of bacon) and an Old Dirty Bastard (a classic yeast donut, drizzled with chocolate & peanut butter, then encrusted with Oreo’s). Micki went for “The Dirt,” (think dirt pudding on a donut).  As we settled at a picnic table outside, a car decorated with elaborate, demonic sculptures pulled up. The driver, a slim, middle-aged man in jeans and sandals propped open the door so all could hear KC & the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty” blaring from within. He donned a monkey mask and began dancing in the street.

Decadent donuts and some dude in a monkey mask dancing in the street: “Shake, shake- shake. Shake-shake-shake. Shake your bootie. Shake your boooootie.”

Yeah, not exactly breakfast in Indiana.

In the satirical TV show “Portlandia,” they say, “Portland is a city where young people go to retire.” Most jokes begin with a grain of truth. There are several grains of truth in that line.

Portland is a city where everyone has a dog or a bicycle, or both. It’s a city where, like its hip sister to the north, Seattle, people are pissed if you smoke cigarettes in public but fine if you’re smoking weed. There’s seemingly a micro or nano brewery on every corner. And across the street is an interesting restaurant of one sort or another that cures its own bacon or grows its organic arugula on the rooftop of their building. And across the street from that is a left-of-center gift shop or art gallery. It’s a town where gays and lesbians walk arm-in-arm or hold hands and nobody cares or stares. Make eye contact with pretty much anyone and they smile back, warm and welcoming. It’s a town where you can take a streetcar around the city center, light rail to the burbs, or Amtrak north to Seattle or south to California. And all three rail systems are clean and well tended. (Where’s the mass-transit stench of stale urine so familiar in Manhattan’s subway or Chicago’s L?) Wanna backpack the forest, hike the Columbia River gorge, ski Mt. Hood? It’s all nearby.

They plant roses in their highway medians and exit ramps, they cover their high-rise rooftops with gardens, refuse to “poison” their city water with fluoride and most overpass graffiti reads something like, “May the world be free of suffering.” They’re on the cutting edge of land planning, environmentalism is a cornerstone, and the organic and local food movements – unquestioned. Portland and Seattle seem not to give a flying-fuck what the rest of America is doing. They’re gonna do it their way.

So for a Hoosier, yeah, it’s kind-of a foreign country. And for this Hoosier, it’s kinda paradise. But no, it’s not the America I live my days in.
Chris & Micki on Purget Sound
Micki and I took Amtrak down to Portland from Edmonds, Washington last Sunday morning. A stones throw from the sailboat where we were staying up there on Puget Sound, you could take a ferry to various islands, jump Amtrak to Seattle, or enjoy the lovely, pedestrian-friendly town about the size of Noblesville with its old movie theater showing first run films, killer restaurants and coffee shops lining the streets, and farmers markets and breweries making life just that much happier. Everything is so well cared for, so thoughtfully tended, it’s almost a little creepy. Almost. Simply because it’s so foreign.

Seattle is Portland’s rival for hippest city in America. But no need to fight about it. I’ll happily take a condo in both city’s and just split time between the two.

The previous Saturday we took in Pike’s Market and dined on a deck beneath the 5-story high Ferris wheel overlooking Puget Sound. That night our Edmonds friends, Chris and Janelle, who used to live on Logan Street back home in Noblesville took us to a Sounders soccer game in Seattle. Imagine the number of people who show up for a Colts game showing up instead for a professional soccer game. There were 53,000 people in the Seahawk’s stadium. And not because there was nothing else to do. Literally right next door the Mariners were playing the Yankees in Safeco field.

American football exudes militaristic imagery. Two teams at war in helmets and uniforms. “Bombs” are thrown, defenses “blitz,” from the German war term “blitzkrieg,” and there are “neutral zones” and “trenches,” ala World War I.
Micki @ waterfalls along the Columbia River
Not soccer. The fans stream in with scarves, randomly chanting team ditties in unison, strangers picking up the tune and hopping and chanting along with like-minded strangers. Chris reminds me that to most of the world, soccer is a winter sport, so the scarves make more sense elsewhere. But no matter, on this 70-degree day scarves representing the local team are required wear. They’re part of a series of rituals in this sport that are not militaristic, but tribalistic. It is not so much standing on the ramparts watching two armies clash, but more a shoulder-to-shoulder hugging, dancing and chanting ‘round a Celtic or African tribal campfire in preparation for a gang fight. It is both more primitive and more gentile than American football. Earthier. Friendlier. Less contrived.

These are familiar rituals in the northwest. But not so much in my home state. If you’re wanting to flee conservative America, this is your homeland, whether you know it or not. I can’t see myself retiring to Florida and eating the blue-plate special of salisbury steak and overcooked green beans at a Morrison’s cafeteria, but I can see myself retiring here and eating grilled fish & clams late at a craft brewer’s tap room.

On Wednesday I confirmed our flight home and gave Micki the rundown as she headed upstairs with a cup of coffee in her hand. “Fly out of Seattle-Tacoma at 1:00, layover in Salt Lake City, then arrive in Indy at 10:23.” She smiled and shook her head, “No baby. I’m not going back. I’m staying here. You go on without me.”

We both know better. But it’s nice to fantisize about a new life in this foreign land all the same.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

At The Foundling Wall

In Medieval times foundling wheels came into use in Europe. They were lazy-susan-type devices built into the outer stone wall of a church as places to abandon babies. Mothers who couldn’t afford to keep an infant or whose lives were too fractured to accommodate it’s tending could leave their child there. The baby was placed within the wheel from outside the church and then the wheel turned, transferring the child safely inside where a priest would find it. It was a way to let go of a precious burden without doing it physical harm.

The wall of the building where these devices were installed came to be known as foundling walls.

During the past two years I’ve written several times about my journey through separation and divorce, making this blog a bit of a raw diary. From the personal comments and emails I get, I know this has made some friends uncomfortable, but this organization of my thoughts and experiences has been a comfort to me, and as it turns out, to others as well.

I have been handed many books and self-help prescriptions from friends during this time, but nothing has spoken more directly to me than Thik Nhat Hans book “Reconciliation.” It’s not necessarily about reconciliation in marriage, but personal reconciliation with the inescapable realities of life.

I dog-eared a page from the book that lists the Buddha’s Five Remembrances and underlined two that struck me deeply:

“All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of a nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. I cannot keep anything. I came here empty-handed, and I go empty-handed.”


“My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.”

In the Vietnamese temple in Indianapolis where I’ve spent many Saturday mornings in the past two years, we’re called to meditate on a simple counting from 1 to 10 as a way to clear our mind of chaos. I did that for a long time, and still do. But Thik Nhat Hans called for meditating on well-wishing, compassion for others, and letting go of personal burdens. I went time and again to those two “Remembrances.” And so I’ve spent many of those meditation sessions within the towering temple, with the Buddha before me, making small mental journeys to a foundling wall in my mind to give away the things I can no longer tend. The things that are not really mine.

I made up my own rules . . . or ethics about the foundling wall.

The foundling wall is a place where you let go of a piece of yourself, a part of yourself that speaks to your soul, something you built or nurtured with love and diligence – but that has become a painful burden to you, or to others you love. No one can force you to the foundling wall. To have something taken is theft. You have to give it freely. And no one can make the journey for you. You must go to the wall of your own resolve, and you must go alone.

I am a persistent person, often persisting beyond reason and logic. During this difficult time I found myself hurt repeatedly by a two close friends. I kept trying to reclaim or nurture these fractured friendships — beyond reason and logic, blowing on the flickering embers of our connections, offering olive branches only to have them slapped from my hand or left to wither. At the same time I complicated the friendships by forcing my own weaknesses and failings against my friends’ hurtful actions. I eventually realized I needed to let go. I needed to accept that we wouldn’t really be friends anymore, but simply acquaintances. That was a hard thing to do — to accept that two people I loved and had shared so much with would not be my friends any longer.

But there was peace in letting go of those relationships. Yes, there was hurt, but also peace to be found in going to that foundling wall in my heart, ­­­ kneeling down and laying those friendships in that turret-like device, symbolically turning it and letting them go. No pronouncement is needed at the foundling wall, just resolve to love and feel compassion for those you let go.

and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . .

It’s not just a Buddhist calling. I learned it first as a Christian prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

While many parents of the middle ages were no doubt driven to the foundling wall by desperation, others must have had ample time to reflect and understand that while they could physically keep and care for the child, something in the failing of their stars and their circumstances was not enough. I can’t imagine their personal journey. But I can imagine mine.

I am a carpenter of sorts. I build things. There are things in my home that I built with my own hands, like an oak porch swing. I designed it in my own mind, imagining its form, the joints, the flush-finished brass screws to be polished smooth along with the sanding of the wood. It would all be built from salvaged wood, every piece of it pulled from a dumpster or garbage can. The discarded oak chalk tray from a school where I once taught would be the back rail of the seat. A stack of half-inch oak slats pulled from a garbage can would make the seat bottom and the back. Pieces of quarter-sawn oak baseboard from a demolished house would make its armrests. Then I built it. For years my children sat there as I read to them when they were small, or they swung hard and wild with childhood friends, pumping their legs with reckless abandon, laughing, or they curled up and napped there on a long summer afternoon, or cuddled with their first love as a teenager. My friends drank beer in that swing on warm summer nights and many a thunderstorm was watched from that swinging seat while lightening crackled across Old Town.

It’s just an object made from wood no one wanted. How does something like that worm its way into your soul? But in the division of property after the divorce, it will go. It is not mine. I cannot keep it.

It is a small item in the scheme of things, but a precious child of mine none-the-less. And so in yet another way, I knelt at that foundling wall in my heart, the place I take the things I cannot keep, no matter how much I want to. And there I gave it away. It was not mine. Even though I conceived and built it, it was never really mine. At age 53 I am grown up enough  — just barely, to do such a thing – to let go of yet another piece of my identity.

and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . .

But then a miracle!

An email arrived one day that said, “Why don’t you keep the porch swing? It belongs with the house.” She too has been to the foundling wall, the one in her own heart. And suddenly I find myself on the interior, receiving side of the wall while she kneels outside. I had not even imagined the easy return of this thing whose loss I had totally accepted.

But be warned: you can neither count on nor dare imagine the return of things left at the foundling wall. If you are prone to such mystical hopes and magical thinking, as I have been most of my life, then you do not belong at the foundling wall. Best keep clinging against reason to things that aren’t yours ­– that cannot be reasonably kept. Best torture yourself, your family, your friends with your senseless clinging than allow those corrosive hopes of reclamation into your mind.

There are so many people and things I have said goodbye to at the foundling wall these past two and a half years; family members, friendships, and possessions I’d nurtured with love and attached great expectation to. But that trying journey is now in the past. Regular, relatively peaceful day-to-day life surrounds me now and lies ahead as far as I can see. I knew that life once before. And it has returned to me now, in part because of the things I let go of.