My City

Travel brings perspective.

I just got back from a music education conference in Nashville. All our sessions were held in the downtown conference center which, on in the inside, could have been located anywhere in the United States: a brown and beige interior, indirect lighting, no pictures, posters, or even room names to suggest we were just a block from the crackling honky tonk culture of Broadway. Had I attended every concert and meet & greet, and had I been staying in the adjoining hotel, eating my meals in its restaurant, I could've gone all four days without seeing any of the city.

Fortunately, that's not how I was disposed. I was staying off site, and got out of the building for lunch and dinner, as well as to see some live music. That taste of the city made me hungry for more, and I wish I could've spent another day or two experiencing it apart from the rigid conference schedule. The evening I spent in the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, in particular, left me wishing I knew of a place in Portland that featured high powered music in an intimate setting as it did. (There may be such a place, but I don't know of it--yet. Please enlighten me.) The liveliness of Broadway was appealing, too, something I've also encountered in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I didn't see any residential neighborhoods on this trip, but I'm sure they're lovely. If it weren't for the conservative Christianity oozing out of every nook and cranny, and the fact that most country music leaves me cold, I could imagine living in Nashville.

That's not unusual. Maybe it's the itinerant life I've led, changing my address dozens of times, having to quickly find something to like about new neighborhoods, districts, towns, cities. I can picture myself living just about anywhere. That's what makes what I'm about to say really significant: Portland is my city.

I think this every time I return from a trip. Is fascinated as I am by the places I visit, and the things they have to offer that I can't find at home, it never takes long to identify their shortcomings. In Nashville, apart from that evangelical edge, it was beer, coffee, and cuisine. The best coffee in town is Starbucks. Southern cooking and barbecue joints deliver just fine, but there were only two Asian restaurants I saw, and just two breweries I was aware of.

Now back to Stumptown, where our coffee culture rivals that of Seattle, a block of food carts can feature more menu diversity (and quality) than an entire Southern city, and we probably have more craft breweries than the entire Southern half of the USA.

I could now reel off a list of cities I've visited or lived in, along with all the ways they don't measure up to Portland, even as they have fine qualities of their own: Washington, Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, London, Edinburgh, Munich, Vienna, Rome--I've been enamored of, excited by all these places, imagined myself living in a townhouse here, a craftsman there, a flat, a loft, whatever would most suit life in a particular neighborhood or municipality; yet none of these places was My City. That distinction really does fall to Portland.

I could now rattle off a long list of what makes Portland wonderful--bike routes, Forest Park, breweries, food carts, restaurants, coffee shops, Powell's, dog parks, real neighborhoods, all those bridges, a downtown with a night life, mountains, rivers, beaches, desert, and fertile valley (and yes, proximity to all the major forms of natural landscapes counts)--in fact, I just did--but I'm not going to spend anymore time explaining why all these things are wonderful, or why they make Portland so special. Every city has a list like this; they're easy to find online. Lately I've been researching Tucson, where Amy and I will go for our winter vacation, and it's got its own long list of wonderful attributes. Rather than publish yet another annotated list of cool stuff, I'm going to zero in on something entirely different: breathing.

When Portlandia, the sketch show that lampoons Portland's liberal culture, first appeared, it began with a musical tour of the city that included this line: "Portland is where young people go to retire." There are many underemployed creative people in Portland. I know several of them, and I have been one for seven of the last fourteen years. I do see my underemployed friends struggle at times to make ends meet, but they always seem to manage, just as I did; and I rarely see them desperate, nor did I have any times of real panic. I knew that somehow, I would always make it through. I did have to move at times, spent three years living communally, and cobbled together my income from a variety of sources. And it all worked out. I didn't live in opulence, but I had enough, more than enough at times, and I was able to breathe.

In Portland, we know how to breathe. It's not just that our air is cleaner--and at times, thanks to the peculiarities of geography and climate, it's not--it's that we remember to inhale. There are plenty of breathless cities, places where one always has to hurry, whether on the road or the sidewalk, and any delay turns to rage. I commute as much as anyone I know, from Bethany to Gateway, 35-40 minutes when traffic is good, more when it is not. Along the way, I occasionally encounter someone who's in too much of a hurry, but I spend entire weeks without hearing a car horn blast. Walking in Manhattan, on the other hand, I don't think we had a car-horn free minute. There's just no point: we get there when we get there, and getting frustrated over a slow trip through the tunnel isn't going to make it any faster.

This is the spirit at the heart of "where young people go to retire." We're zen about things, accepting what comes our way. If it's a time of industry and income, fine. If not, then we've got more time to write that novel, learn to play the accordion, wade through that stack of books we acquired during our last trip to Powell's. I did plenty of job searching during my times of low employment, but I also wrote, performed, exercised, and even traveled. I kept breathing.

It ultimately comes down to a question of spirituality. Portland consistently makes the list of most unchurched cities in the United States, but that's a misleading distinction. When we say we're "spiritual, but not religious," it's not a cop-out, a more acceptable way of admitting we're too lazy to go to church. We're quite serious about spirituality, but we don't define it by membership in an institution. As a pastor, I didn't understand this, and had to choke back scoffs when widows would tell me their dead husband's church was the great outdoors. Once I was liberated from that profession, I came to know exactly what they were talking about: I found myself far more connected with the ground of my being when I was on a trail. Others find it in yoga, meditation, performing, cooking--anything that helps us experience our humanity in the core of our identities. Apart from outdoor exercise, I feel most deeply connected to my true self when I'm teaching music. My spirituality has come to be much less about what some religious leader says it should be, and much more about who I am.

Being your most honest and real self is the essence of most definitions of salvation or redemption that I've encountered, and in this sense, Portland may just be the most spiritual place in America. People come here to be themselves. The piercings, tattoos, beards, comfortable but distinctive clothing; the embrace of fringe politics; the pursuit of excellence in brew pubs, distilleries, espresso shops, food carts, ice cream parlors, bike shops, book stores, and on and on; all these things speak of individuals on a quest to be their own true, best selves, and to do it in the larger community of our city.

My City. Your City. Our City. That's Portland, my home.


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