The Heart of a City in the Heart of Girl

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.

portland skyline

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.

early mornings, sacred moments

Before the sun makes its daily debut over the pristine Portland skyline, I make my way out from under the covers into the brisk Spring air and through the double-doors of one of my favorite coffee shops in the Pearl to meet a new friend for a good old fashioned cup of joe. If you know me, you probably know that I love mornings, most of the time. And then there are the other times when I have to set 5 alarms three minutes apart just to drag myself out of bed. But I do it, because once my feet hit the ground and the showerhead spits out those reviving waters, I wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place. And then, especially once that warm mug is firmly in my grip wafting the fine aroma of an even more reviving kind of liquid, you can bet I’m wondering why I don’t do this every morning. Sadly, I still don’t have a good answer to that question, I’ll have to get back to you on that…

Portland Sunrises…

Sundays are taking on a new shape for me as of late. I’ve always been especially fond of Sundays because for me the day is imprinted with images of early mornings, community, Scripture and sound teachings that re-center me and renew my perspectives for yet another week [God willing]. Emphasis on the early mornings portion…

I’ve always been a morning person, so it comes as little surprise that I have long since preferred the early services at church. Personally, it’s the time I feel most awake and aware and able to retain what I hear, and most able to then reflect on what I’ve heard, chew on it for awhile and then perhaps even do something about it. But since I’ve moved to Portland, I’ve found myself embracing a rhythm characterized around lazy Sunday mornings spent sleeping in succeeded by post-sunset services. This is in part due to the fact that evenings are the only time the downtown services meet. Furthermore, it’s the service everyone from our house church attends, and well, it just works. And I’ll admit I’ve grown to appreciate the routine here more than I’ve ever been able to before, but there is still something about the early a.m. hours that I feel like I’m missing out on. So I signed up for the Theology class that Solid Rock is offering downtown on Sunday mornings and I’m discovering a deep sense of gratitude welling up in me as a result. It reminds me how much I love being a student. How much I miss being steeped in deep, critical thought while the air is still crisp, the coffee is still hot and the skyline still hazzy with fog. And for all the petitions and arguments that attempt to keep me tucked firmly away beneath the covers come Sunday morning, I have learned that the getting up and the going are ultimately always worth it notwithstanding. And so I do. And it is. And I’m so thankful. The day is filled with so much promise when you don’t sleep through it.

Friday morning rituals

Friday morning rituals

Recently I had the pleasure of sharing my fondness for early mornings and Portland coffee and heart-to-hearts with a lovely girl who just keeps popping up in my life in the most random, unexpected and delightful ways. Take for example the time a friend and I were co-hosting [hostessing?] a little gathering of friends over wine and cheese and small treats. We had both invited friends of ours, some of which we knew mutually, and others we did not. When Abby walked through my door, my jaw dropped. I had no idea she would be there nor did she know that when she accepted the invite from my co-hostess, that invite would bring her across the threshold into my apartment. It was… perfect. Moments like these are precious to me because they make a really big, often cold and calloused world seem just a little bit smaller, warmer and brighter. So we took it as a sign and decidedly made our run-ins more deliberate and purposeful… bringing us to this particular morning.

It’s amazing how quickly two hours can fly by. The time spent in the company of this sweet girl made me wish I really did do this every day. There is just something about the hours surrounding sunrise that always feel more honest, more pure, and certainly more fruitful. And even though her own feelings toward this time of day are quite the antitheses of my own, she still met me there, resisted the urge to hit snooze and made her way into the chair across from me trusting the caffeine to come through and carry her the rest of the way. And I’m so thankful she did, because moments like these are sacred. While the rest of the city sleeps, these moments are gathered up like gemstones. More often than not they go entirely unnoticed and overlooked, slipping through our fingers before they’ve ever had the chance to be discovered, unearthed, and appreciated.

See exhibit A:

We found this gem tucked surreptitiously away in a drawer at our table.

We found this gem tucked surreptitiously away in a drawer at our table.

Now I understand that mornings are not for everyone. I’m a rarity in that I happen to be predispositioned with an ability that enables me to rise quickly, sprightly and cheerfully… most of the time. Some of my most cherished memories have been illuminated by dawns first light. And yet the very moments that feel most sacred to me resemble something more like being ripped through a knot-hole backwards for others. I get that. For me though, it seems that with each passing year as time becomes less abundant and simultaneously all the more precious, my appreciation for these hours grows exponentially with it. There is an insatiable craving in me to partake in the compounded potential that seems to reside in the suspended hours surrounding day break. Granted, it’s not always the easiest choice or practice, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t worth it every.single.time.

Anyone else out there have any thoughts on this topic? I’d love to hear them, no matter which side of sunrise you find yourself waking up on… :)

Grace & Peace

IT’S THE little THINGS

About 3 weeks ago I spent the weekend in Sunriver with 12 other friends; 13 people packed into one, 3 bedroom cabin. The intent behind the gathering being that we might gain an ever-so-brief reprieve from the noise, routine and distraction of city life. We would exchange all this instead for a weekend crammed together in tight quarters playing board games in PJ’s, savoring slow mornings sipping on excessive amounts of french-pressed coffee, strolling through freshly fallen snow in the afternoons, and reveling in the joys of home cooked meals… the kind that summon you from the far reaches of your own private corner of the world to sit down together and partake in one of the greatest marvels of this lifetime: the irresistible fusion of lives and stories that weave together effortlessly, magnetically, magnificently around the dinner table. It was a portrait of community at its finest. Not to mention it makes me stupidly giddy knowing that sleep overs are still acceptable at this stage in life… in our mid-twenties, single, dating, and married alike. Reunions such as these are really nothing more than glorified slumber parties, and I love that. Knowing that full-grown adults still carve out time to trade in our queen-sized, four-post-beds for sleeping bags on carpet, evenings typically spent working late for those filled with silly games that carry us well into the wee hours of the night on the wings of laughter and delirious tears, and routines that normally revolve around the monotonous balancing acts of adulthood, for a care-free weekend spent eating too much junk food, drinking too much beer, and sleeping in too late. I’m 25 and I’m delighted to say that slumber parties are alive and well and still as brilliant and magical as they ever were. In fact, I’d probably argue they’ve only gotten better.

It’s weekends like these, full of small, simple moments that help re-center me. When everything else is chaotic and overwhelming, pressing in on me from all sides, these are the moments I remember to breathe. These are the moments I find it in me to appreciate the ability to do so. Sometimes life gets so full of clutter, things that feel urgent and appear important because they so quickly pile up and encroach on our personal space, that we begin to lose sight of the fact that IT’S JUST CLUTTER. Period. While a deep clean is most likely necessary, a meltdown probably is not. And yet, this is often what it takes in order for us [me] to take a step back, take a breath, and remember what is true.

The week [okay, weeks] prior to quitting my job, I was living in a perpetual state of meltdown [just ask my poor boyfriend] much like the kind I just described above… you know, the ones that probably aren’t entirely necessary and yet are somehow inevitable. Anyway, there came a point when everything reached its apex and I felt fear begin to envelop me from every which angle. It was no longer just about my job. It was my job, and my bills, and my responsibilities, and my future, and my family, and my relationship, and my friendships, and ALL of it. And then it hit me one evening as I was sitting alone in my room: I had come to a place in life where EVERYTHING I saw was being filtered through a lens of fear. Things that ought not to have been a worry were burdening me with an unnatural weight. Every breath felt burdensome and I couldn’t see a way out. I vividly recall sitting there trembling, fearful of what was before me when I realized my eyes were shut tight like a vise. And then 2 Timothy 1:7 came to mind like a lifeline when you’ve come to the very end of yourself. And I heard this in the depths of my heart: I have not given you this spirit of fear. This is not from me. Open your eyes.

Please do not misunderstand. There was no booming voice from heaven. But in that moment, the Living Word rose up to meet me in my time of need in order to remind me of what was already deeply impressed upon my heart, but just forgotten amongst the clutter. And so for the first time in a long time, I began to open my eyes and my ears, and I listened. And I did something I don’t believe I have ever done before. I made out a physical list of things I knew to be true. And in order to get there, I had to start at the very, very beginning…

1) I am a child of the Most High God
2) He loves me
3) He does NOT give his children a spirit of fear but of power, love and sound judgment
4) He has never given me, nor is it in his character to do so, more than I can bear
5) He called & brought me to Portland [this isn’t up for debate… it’s just reality]
6) He would never bring me to a place simply to abandon me
7) I can trust Him

Not surprisingly, what I discovered as I began to spell out and dwell on these fundamental truths, was that there was very little room for fear to dwell among them. And the actions I took from that point forward, while still scary, were anchored by these realities at the end of the day. And when my mind would race as it often does, my heart was soothed and I slept in the safety of what I did know, even while what I didn’t remained.
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What was beautiful about this trip, among many things, was that it came at a very pronounced collision point in my life. I had been unemployed for 5 days at this point, very unsure of what was next or where I was going. But on that morning before we left, I had an interview. And on that same afternoon, while we were walking in the aisles of Safeway grabbing last-minute grocery items for the trip, I got a phone call offering me the job. I was to start on Wednesday, which, if my math is correct [and I really hope it is since I just spent the last 2+ years of my life as an accountant] I was to be unemployed for all of 7 days. SEVEN DAYS. Never mind the fact that this is the number of completion and fullness and perfection… that is SHORTER than the last vacation I took. That’s crazy. No. That’s a miracle. That’s the hand of God.

But God wasn’t finished. He didn’t just provide a great job in a frighteningly quick amount of time, He then proceeded to pour on additional gifts. Gifts I never even asked for. He sent me on a trip filled with out-standing community and faithful friends. He filled the time with bountiful laughter and simple joys. He provided space to breathe again. It felt as though He was throwing a party to celebrate His provision in my life. And it’s in moments like these, when I’ve taken the time to dispel the clutter for a moment and lean into the essentials of this life that I begin to see and feel and experience all over again what God is like. And this is what I find:

He is faithful
He is generous
He is communal
He is provider
He is a Father who desperately loves His children
And He celebrates the small, quiet moments with us
And He can be found among them also

Sadly, I am rarely found to be so faithful or generous or quick to recall and rest in the faithfulness of His character. And yet, I rejoice in another outstanding truth: that His grace is not dependent upon me. He is good and kind and all that He is simply because He is who He is. That is all. I don’t get it. I certainly don’t deserve it. But I’ll receive it with a glad heart and open hands. Because I need it. It’s that simple. It’s that straight-forward. That’s what makes it so epically beautiful. It’s the most redeeming, healing kind of beautiful. And it seems it can almost always be found right in the heart of the little things.