They say you ought to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Along the same vein, I’ve found that you also ought to be careful the deals you make with God, because one day, he just might ask you to pay up. No, he definitely will.
Eight years ago I packed my belongings into a couple of suitcases, cut off my long locks, bleached them blonde and boarded a plane. I was off to find some adventure and sunshine. I was off to create a new identity. One that did not involve single stop-light towns, cows or cornfields. Determined to leave small town life behind me forever, I informed God that I was never moving back. Or actually, I told him I never wanted to move back. Knowing at some level that with everything you ask the Big Man, you’re supposed to tag “but your will be done” to the end of it, just for good measure, I made a deal with God. I told him that if it were up to me solely, I never wanted to go back and I never would. I had found my home and Oregon was not it. But… if for some outrageous, unforeseeable reason that I could not yet comprehend, HE ever wanted me to go back, I told him I would go, but on one condition: he would first have to change my heart. I’m talking heart-transplant-status, because I am stubborn and I want what I want, and if left up to me, I would always find a reason to be anywhere but back where I started.
But I hadn’t just left a small town behind, I left the house that built me, three younger sisters, who were actually little at the time… I left a history that I thought didn’t matter. But history matters. Good or bad, it always matters. And it always comes full circle.
June 26th marked one year since I spread my city of angel wings and landed among the roses here in Portland.
I hadn’t seen that one coming…
And now, as I eat my own words, I’m finding what I expected to be bitter and contentious has turned sweet and fulfilling on my tongue. I don’t know how or when he did it… but it hit me like a wave the other evening as I was walking through the charming neighborhood of John’s Landing, overlooking the stunning city scape nestled so cozily among the green, bordered by the glint of a deep blue harbor, I love this city. I mean deep, invested love. And just as immediately as this dawned on me I found myself wondering out loud in amazement at how in the world he accomplished it… and when? Because he certainly didn’t do it all at once. It must have happened softly, gently, in the quiet moments. In the moments I didn’t expect to be significant.
My sweet mother came up to visit me last weekend. We went for a walk after dinner, and as we were walking through aforementioned charming neighborhood, my country-loving mother admitted that she really adored this part of town. That she didn’t even know places like this existed in Portland. She even said she could see the charm, why people would want to “live like this.”
Now let’s be clear, my family has never understood me. I am quite literally the only city-lover in my entire extended family [with the exception of one uncle]. So for these words to leave my mother’s mouth was history in the making.
But quite honestly, while I resisted the urge to say I told you so, I understood what she was saying. People who don’t live in Portland, or Los Angeles, or New York, or wherever, don’t know the first thing about the heart of the city. They don’t know the subtle charm, the community, the local hole-in-the-wall market that sits at the corner of Corbett & Curry with their Thursday evening Craft Nights. People who don’t live daily life here don’t know about that adorable coffee shop tucked surreptitiously away in that neighborhood on the East Side among the craftsmen-style houses and abundant foliage that’s so ubiquitous in Portland. They don’t know about the phenomenal meal you can get for 5 bucks at that long-standing, community favorite food cart that’ll feed you for a week straight. They don’t know about the body of believers that thrive there, the people who are dedicated to living life missionally; who will forego sleep night after night to stay up dreaming and praying with you about a shared passion to love a city well in fresh and creative ways.
Rather it seems that people who are unfamiliar with Portland come to visit with “downtown” as their only frame-of-reference, similar to the way foreigners intrinsically link “Time Square” with New York City as though they are one and the same. But ask any native New Yorker and they’ll tell you they avoid Time Square at all costs. Because despite popular belief, the heart of that city isn’t found in iconic streets lined by lights, billboards and tourists, but rather just left of center in that quaint little brunch shop in SoHo that only the locals know about. Stick around long enough and you’ll start to pick up on a subtle hum, an undercurrent to the deafening ruckus of this enormous, sleep-deprived city. There’s a pulse that beats just below the surface, filling the million little nuanced crevices with the genuine lifeblood of investedness.
Similarly, downtown Portland is the business district of the city, complete with high-rises, confusing one-way streets, innumerable, sprawling bridges and shopping malls. All things that can be had elsewhere with far less stress and free-parking. I get it. It’s not always glamorous, especially if you’re not used to crowds and traffic. If that’s all a city was, I wouldn’t like them very much either. But this, this is a far cry from the heart of any city. The face of the city, perhaps. It’s certainly the first thing you see. But just like getting to know a new friend, you have to sit in the chair across from them for some time, day after day, before you really get to know the heartbeat and soul brimming behind the eyes. There are layers and layers to be discovered. And if you are willing to invest the time and get your hands dirty, so-to-speak, you’ll certainly find more than just a face sitting before you, pretty or haggard as it may appear, you’ll start to uncover a story. As you peel back layers, you begin to learn the history that forged this person; where they’ve been and where they are going. You’ll learn their subtleties, what it is that makes them tick and come alive, what distinguishes them from a sea of faces in a crowd. There are caveats and sacred spaces that only the invested will ever earn the privilege of knowing.
The same is true for a city. There is an immense amount of character that exists beyond the superficial layers of traffic, brazen pedestrians/cyclists who pay your thousand-pound-hunk-of-metal little, to no mind, impossible parking, and countless coffee shops. I mean, how much coffee can one person really consume in a day anyway? You’d be surprised…
A dear friend of mine was keeping me company the other day. This specific friend moved up to Portland from Southern California the same exact time that I did just over a year ago. We share a kind of kindred-spirit in this regard as we both settle, in our own little ways, into the rhythms [and layers] of daily life in this beautiful corner of the world. She posed a great question: Okay, one whole year later and we both love this city. So what’s your favorite thing about Portland?
I actually had to stop for a moment to sort through a list of things I love… favorite?
[Pause:] I simply must note: I count it a crazy-cool blessing that this was not an easy question to answer due to an abundance of possible conclusions.
[Resume:] Truthfully, I love all the little things. The freckles that pepper the face of this city. At first glimpse, easily overlooked, known only by those who get close enough to really see. But at the end of the day, I have to land the plane on this: size. Portland is a small “big city,” naturally giving way to genuine and intentional community. Since I moved here, I have bumped into innumerable friends from all stages and walks of life. I have a number of friends I went to school with in California who are now scattered all throughout the city, and I run into them at coffee shops and food carts and intersections and church… all of the time.
One of my favorite instances of this happening occurred when I was leaving Fox Tower one afternoon in late January. I turned the corner when BAM: I nearly plowed over a dear-old friend from college standing on the corner stuffing his face with authentic Portland, food-cart cuisine. The craziest part? This particular friend lives in Vietnam. In fact, he has lived there for the last 5 years. He was in Portland for one day. One day! What are the chances? I mean seriously…
But it doesn’t take long to realize that this is not an uncommon scenario for seasoned “Portlandians.”
Worlds collide here in Portland.
The community is tight-knit. I know full well that I can’t walk around this city by foot without bumping into someone I know. That’s just Portland, and that’s just the way I like it.
Portland often gets a bad rap. The street corners and bridges are regularly thronged by a young homeless population, “weird” free-spirited hippies and weed. But again, this is a first-glimpse kind of take-away. What you just missed was the story playing out behind the scenes. You missed the kind-hearted coffee cart owner who just pulled a hopeless looking young man back behind his cart to hand him a hot cup of coffee “on the house” before proceeding to speak truth into his heart, breathing life [quite literally] back into this young man’s vacant and void expression as evidenced by the welling moisture that eventually breaks the brittle dam, carving out a fresh trail down burdened cheeks. You just missed the broke med student who stopped to shake the hand and look into the eyes of a man who is used to being ignored and treated as sub-human. You missed him handing him the last few dollars in his pocket… dollars he is accruing interest on. Sure, you saw that group of runners on their early a.m. jog as you drove to work this morning, but what you didn’t know is that they were praying for you as they tread the landscape of the city they love, covering it with so much more than their footsteps.
Okay, I recognize that these stories are not strictly Portland-specific. Kindness and the nuances of a community are found in every city. In fact, they aren’t limited to “cities” at all. Even single stop-light towns, like the one I come from, possess stories all their own. Because at the end of the day, the true heartbeat of a city isn’t found in any particular place per-say, but rather intimately bound and fashioned to the hearts of the people, the community that inhabit it. And only once you dig deep into the heart of a human will you uncover the true heart of a city. And then one day, like me, the realization will likely hit you like a freight train as you sit back in wonder and awe while it all comes to life around you, unfolding right before your eyes, burrowing itself deep within the sacred-most spaces of your heart. There’s no question, we will certainly have to brave a little traffic and congestion from time-to-time, walk the dark and lonely streets and enter into the stories of others in any given city before we will ever earn the right to bear witness to its truest beauty. And the most pronounced miracle of all? The transformation of your own heart in the process.