Archives For Alley Valkyrie

I.

If determined enough, the dead can assert themselves to appear nearly as present as the living.

And if one who is noticing and interacting with them does not know they are dead, and/or they are too young to comprehend what dead even is, the distinction between dead and living becomes rather confusing if not at times completely irrelevant.

This was my experience, anyway.

What I believe to be my earliest memory, for example, seems quite average on its surface.

I am a toddler, just old enough to walk and talk. My grandparents are sitting up in their bed, facing the television that was perched on their dresser, and I am sitting at the end of their bed, playing with a pile of coins, babbling enthusiastically to my grandpa about my stacks of pennies. On the television is a rerun of ‘Matlock’, and my grandpa is engrossed in the show, not paying much attention to me. But my grandmother keeps reaching her hands out toward me, trying to get me to sit on her lap. And I keep looking over at her and smiling at her, but I am too distracted by stacking pennies and the sound of my own voice to go to her.

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Me at 2 1/2 in the yard where I sometimes saw my grandmother.

It’s a notably clear memory, right down to every little detail. And it wouldn’t strike me as unusual at all if not for the fact that my grandmother died of cancer when I was only a year old, well before I was old enough to climb onto the bed and babble in sentences and recognize Andy Griffith’s face on television.

And yet nobody had told me directly that she had died, and everyone else in the house still talked about her as though she was still there. So it didn’t seem all that out-of-place to me as a toddler that I would see her around and occasionally interact with her. My clearest and most sustained memory of her is of that day in the bed, but I can also clearly recall seeing her hovered over the counter in the kitchen, sitting in one of many antique chairs in the living room, hunched over the dryer in the laundry room, sweeping on the back patio, or in the backyard near the doghouse.

Our dog also had been dead for quite some time, having been my mother’s childhood pet. The backyard had seemingly been abandoned once the dog had passed on. By the time I was a toddler, the backyard was so overgrown with ivy it was barely navigable, and the doghouse still sat in the corner, rotting and collapsing, with a metal bowl still poking out from the ivy. But just as I did not grasp that my grandmother was no longer on this plane, I similarly did not completely grasp that we did not actually have a living dog. I never saw the dog quite as I saw my grandmother, but I sensed that she was there all the same.

It wasn’t until I was around four years old that it started to occur to me that my grandmother was not a current member of our household and that my sightings of her were not shared by my mother or my grandfather. I had overheard a phone conversation in which my grandfather mentioned “the summer before Betty died.” I still didn’t understand what death was, but I could sense what it meant on one level, and it meant that the person was said to no longer be here.

And yet she was. She was all over the house.

grandmakitchen

My grandmother in the kitchen, exactly as I remember her.

II.

One afternoon not long after that, my mother and I were in our front yard, sitting on the sole boulder that graced the edge of the yard. My mother was watching the road in front of us, waiting for a friend, while I scrambled up and down and around the rock. There were etchings – crude letters carved into the side of the rock, which I had always noticed for their texture but which suddenly held a greater interest to me as I was just learning to read.

“What does it say?” I asked my mother.

“It says ‘Here Lies Elroy’, she said.

“Who’s Elroy?”

“Elroy was my brother’s gerbil.,” she explained. “When he died, Jay buried him under this rock. That was when we were kids, long before you were born. This rock is Elroy’s gravestone.”

“So Elroy is dead like Grandma?”

“Yes, and like your uncle Jay.”

All I knew about my uncle Jay up to that point was that my bedroom was once his room. In a sense, it was still his room. It was often referred to as “Jay’s room” by my mother and my grandpa, and I had always felt that, while it was my designated space within the house, on another level it was not my room at all. I had somehow always felt more like a guest in that room than its primary inhabitant. But unlike Grandma, who was talked about regularly and often as though she was still present, Jay was rarely mentioned, and I had always sensed not to ask questions about him. My room was his room, and that had been the extent of my understanding.

But now, at least I knew he was dead. And on one hand, that knowledge only deepened the mystery, but on the other hand for the first time I felt as if I had some concrete understanding about who was still here and who was not. They were all dead – Jay, Grandma, Elroy and my mother’s old dog who still seemed to live in the backyard. At at that moment the fact that they were all dead was suddenly real where before it had only been abstract.

III.

As I reached grade school age, the sightings of Grandma became much fewer and farther between. And while I couldn’t deny to myself that I was still seeing her occasionally, the part of me that knew that I wasn’t supposed to be seeing her would very actively kick into gear, resulting in a tug-o-war in my head between experience and reason every time I thought I spotted her.

‘Ghosts aren’t real’

‘But I saw her!’

Part of me didn’t want to be seeing her at all. Part of me just wanted to believe I was imagining things. And part of me also wanted to tell the world, or at least to talk to someone about it. But part of me also knew that it was very real, and that I was best off keeping my mouth shut.

And so I did keep my mouth shut about Grandma. I also knew to keep quiet about what was in the garden.

My mother had built a garden in the side yard the year before. She would sit me out in a tiny lawn chair with books-on-tape as she worked for what seemed to be hours on end, weekend after weekend, tilling and planting neat little rows of flowers and vegetables.

Within a few months, we had a glorious garden, and it quickly became a favorite spot of mine. I would spend hours out in the garden, examining flowers and bugs and stealthily rescuing/relocating the snails from the saucers of beer that my mother would leave out to drown them.

Garden slug. Photo by I, Colae.

Garden slug. [Photo Credit: I. Colae]

But eventually, I sensed something else there too. Unlike Grandma, I couldn’t see anything concrete, but after a while I felt a constant presence every time I was in the garden. I could sense her; I could hear her,

Maybe this is God, I thought to myself more than once. But God is a man, I would then reply to myself. I knew little about religion or God, other than that my mother had referred to our family as “lapsed Catholics” when I asked her once. But I had taken enough in from the wider culture to know that ‘God’ was also the ‘Father,’ and while I couldn’t see whatever was in the garden, I felt very strongly that it was female. So she couldn’t be God.

But what was she?

I didn’t know, but she was definitely there. And I liked her, and I could tell she liked me back.

Around that same time, I had started to read the book Anne of Green Gables. In the book, Anne refers to God several times as ‘Providence,’ which stood out to me as unusual as I had thought that Providence was a female name. At some point, I was reading the book in the garden, and when I felt the presence of the yet-unnamed entity in my garden, a potential connection stirred in me.

I asked whoever was there if I could call her Providence. And I sensed immediately that the answer was yes.

IV.

When I was ten, my grandfather died.

My mother and I had moved out of the house three years earlier. She had remarried, and they were able to buy a house of their own, a small Cape Cod-style bungalow about ten miles away from what then became known as “Grandpa’s house.”

Grandpa had continued to live in ‘his’ house for the next few years until a heart attack rendered him unable to live alone, and he ended up moving in with us for what ended up to be the last few months of his life.

grandpaxmas

My grandfather, six months or so before he died.

I grudgingly surrendered my bedroom, not really grasping that his life was coming to an end. He recognized my frustration at losing my space and invited me to share the bed with him if I wished. I took him up on it a few times a week.

And it was on one of those nights, when I crawled into bed with him in the middle of the night, that he died peacefully in his sleep with me sleeping right next to him. When I woke in the morning, I turned to shake him awake, and he was cold. I knew instantly that he was dead.

After the wake and the funeral were over, what remained to be reckoned with was nearly as emotional and painful as my grandfather’s death in itself. We needed to do something with Grandpa’s house.

I had assumed when he died that we would be eventually moving back into that house. After all, not only was it bigger and nicer, and in a much better neighborhood, it was our home. My grandparents were the original owners, and both my mother and I were raised in that house. While I didn’t recognize it so distinctly at the time, I considered that house the closest thing I had to an ancestral home, and the land around it was the only piece of land with which I had ever had a real relationship. I wanted to live where I was born and raised, where Grandma and most likely now Grandpa still remained. I wanted to replant the garden where I first met Providence. I wanted to clean up the backyard and fix up the doghouse so that it was a more proper place for the dog that I sensed was still there.

My mother, on the other hand, had absolutely no desire to live in the house again. And while in retrospect I can completely understand why she felt that way, as a ten year old this decision sparked nothing but anguish, anger, and resentment on my part. I sullenly tagged along as she slowly emptied the house. At times, I flat-out refused to help, as I watched her empty it of the antique furniture with which I had grown up. She eventually put the house up for sale.

By the time prospective buyers were beginning to look at the house, it had all become so painful for me that I started to emotionally detach from the process, not able to bear the thought of losing it. During that period, I often took refuge in what was once the garden, by then overgrown with grass and weeds, crying my eyes out to Providence and anyone else who would listen. At one point, it occurred to me that in losing the house I would be losing my relationship with Providence as well, which only brought more tears.

It wasn’t until a few months after the house had been sold, as I finally started to recover from the numbness and grief associated with the entire episode, that I started to notice an occasional and familiar presence as I went about my day-to-day, unmistakably the same presence that I first met in the side garden as a child.

V.

My mother quit smoking the year I started. Ironically enough, her quitting and my starting were both directly related to the same event. She became pregnant with my sister and quit for the obvious health-related reasons. And then a few months later I started it up as a coping mechanism, wanting no part of a life with a younger sibling. I was fourteen years old and an only child, and was dreading the changes that were sure to come.

When my mother was a smoker, she occasionally kept a pack or two stashed in random places, a fact I remembered one day when I was home alone. Inspired by the idea of found treasure in the form of nicotine, I rifled up and down the sides of my mother’s dresser drawers, hoping to find that prized, half-empty pack of stale smokes.

But instead I found an old envelope in the crack of her sock drawer that had a piece of newspaper poking out of it. I generally wasn’t one to pry in such a way, but my instinct told me to look inside, and so I carefully and gingerly opened the envelope and pulled the piece of newspaper out.

It was a clipping from the local paper dated April 1982, summarizing the death of my uncle Jay. He had been killed in a car crash, having driven into a telephone pole only a few miles away from where we lived. The article stated that alcohol was a probable factor in the crash.

I thought of the uncle I never knew, whose room I grew up in, whose death was never mentioned once throughout my entire childhood. I felt a sudden and strange relief, as a mystery that had grated on me for years had finally been answered without my having to actually ask.

jayID

My uncle’s college ID card. He died a year before he was set to graduate.

I also immediately understood why it was never mentioned, especially given my mother’s penchant for avoiding uncomfortable subjects. And as I took in and processed this new discovery, I also forgave my mother for her silence.

VI.

I had been living on my own in the city for a year or so at that point, and had decided to drive out to Jersey to visit my parents for the day. On the drive out, my mind drifted to thoughts of my grandfather’s house, which I realized hadn’t seen since it was sold nearly a decade earlier. Out of curiosity, I decided to take a detour through my old neighborhood before heading to my parents’ house.

I parked on the street and stepped out of the car, and the moment I stepped onto the property I felt a distinct chill. Instantly, this place and I recognized and remembered each other despite many years of absence. The yard and the house had both been altered with much of the original flora removed, but Elroy’s rock remained as did the tree I planted as a small child. I walked toward the side yard, toward the garden where I first met Providence. The garden was gone.

“Hey, what you doing?” I heard a voice yell behind me. I turned around and found myself face to face with my former next-door neighbor, whose expression went quickly from anger to a smile as he recognized me. I knew him quite well; he and his wife had lived next door to our family since my mother was a small child. My mother grew up playing with their daughter, and I grew up playing with their granddaughter.

“Oh my God you’re all grown up. Look at you. I knew you’d come back one day.”

Without exactly knowing why, I burst into tears.

He reached over to hug me. “You know,” he said, as I tried to calm down. “Maureen talks to your grandpa and grandma constantly. She sees them all the time.”

I immediately stopped crying and jerked back in shock. Maureen was his wife.

“She does?”

He nodded. “Oh yes. Her and Betty have long conversations. I don’t know the details, but she says they’re both quite loud and active.”

I spoke before realizing I was speaking, before realizing that I had never said what I was about to say aloud before.

“I used to see Grandma all the time. She even tried to play with me once. I remember it quite clearly.”

He nodded again and pointed to the house. “Since your mother sold it, its changed hands three times in eight years. I swear, your grandparents are so loud over there that nobody wants to stay for long. The last folks remodeled the entire kitchen and patio before they left… I watched them just pour thousands into it but then just pick up suddenly and leave anyway.”

I thought of Grandma in the kitchen, and suddenly it all became a little too much.

I explained to him that I was on my way to see my mother and that I had just taken a quick detour and should be going.

“Come back anytime,” he said as I quickly walked towards my car. “I’m sure Maureen would love to see you.”

*  *  *

“I went by Grandpa’s house today,” I casually mentioned over dinner.

My mother looked up immediately. “Oh yeah?” she asked. “Does it still look the same?”

“Not really,” I answered, uninterested in talking about the aesthetic changes. “But I saw Bill. And he told me that Maureen talks to Grandma and Grandpa all the time.”

My mother laughed a bit and then was silent for a moment. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Its funny, I always felt like Mom had never quite left that house.”

I stared at her for a moment, not quite believing what I just heard. Until that moment, my mother had never acknowledged anything of the sort to me, had never given any indication that she ever sensed the presence of anything at that house. Suddenly, between Bill’s words earlier and my mother’s words just then, my experiences were validated after nearly a lifetime’s worth of questioning in silence.

“She never left, Mom, trust me. She definitely never left.”

Still stuck on the idea that my mother held any kind of religious belief or superstition, I decided to go all or nothing and ask one of those questions I had never before dared to utter.

“Why are we lapsed Catholics as opposed to regular Catholics?” I asked.

It was almost as though she was expecting the question. “Well, your Grandpa’s mother, your great-grandmother, she drowned in the ocean when your Grandpa was a teenager. And even though she drowned, the Church insisted it was a suicide, and they refused to grant her a Catholic burial.” She paused.

“And then they turned around and said they would bury her for a price. Which the family somehow paid, but once she was buried the family didn’t want to have much to do with the church after that. And so neither do we.”

I had never really thought much about my grandfather’s life growing up, other than the knowledge that he had lived through the Depression. But something hit me hard the moment that my mother told me that my great-grandmother had drowned in the ocean. Our family had spent nearly every summer at the beach as I was growing up, a yearly trip which I always dreaded due to a lifelong and unwavering discomfort of being in the ocean. I could never fully enjoy the water no matter how hard I tried and I could never quite understand why, and I couldn’t help but to reflect on that discomfort in light of what I had just learned.

“What was her name?” I asked. “My great-grandmother, I mean.”

“Her name was Providence,” my mother answered.

VII.

A friend and I had spent the day endlessly talking and catching up, and trying to plan out the pilgrimage that we would be taking in just a few months. Both of us were under a lot of stress, both coming off of traumatic experiences, trying to piece together what had happened with our lives and what was being triggered by our upcoming journey. After hours and hours of back and forth, he eventually passed out on the couch. I passed out in my bed not long after, and slept better than I had in weeks.

And when I woke up, I felt a strange familiar presence, which I noted but didn’t put much thought into until he woke up a few hours later.

“I felt so safe,” he told me. “Safer than I had in ages. And I actually slept. And when I woke up early this morning, I heard this lovely voice telling me that I could go back to sleep, that it was safe. And I did. And I feel so well-rested. And whoever that was, it was such a wonderful feeling. Do you know who or what that was?”

I thought back to the presence I sensed when I woke up and I smiled. “Yes,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that was Providence.”

“Who’s Providence?” he asked.

“I’m not exactly sure,” I admitted. “I once thought she was a land spirit, or more specifically a garden spirit, nowadays I think she might be an ancestor spirit but again I’m just not sure. What I know is that she’s been around me since I was very small and she’s always nurtured and protected me. She’s just… around. I don’t think about her for a long while and then she’s just there and reminds me she exists. I’ve never seen her, but I feel her and I hear her and that’s been a constant for most of my life. She never wants anything. She’s just around, and she’s warm and she’s wonderful.”

“Yes, she’s quite wonderful,” he said with a smile.

VIII.

I woke suddenly, not knowing why. It was the middle of the night, but I couldn’t remember anything that I was dreaming which could have stirred me awake. I sat up and looked out the window, and immediately felt the urge to be outside.

Quietly so not to wake my partner, I slipped on my shoes and my coat and went downstairs. I stepped out the front door of my building, and felt myself being pulled toward the river. A minute later, I was lying on by back on the dirt by the riverbank, suddenly overtaken by a stream of visions and messages that seemed to be pouring out directly from the full moon above me.

Full moon over Portland. Public Domain.

Full moon over Portland. [Public Domain]

Under the Scorpio moon, just a week before Beltane, the dead filed through and thoroughly between my ears. I closed my eyes and saw generations’ worth of flashes through my mind, scenes that I can only assume were connected to my ancestors. And then, my grandparents. And then, my uncle Jay. And then the scenes changed sharply, and I was back at the house in which I was raised complete with all the familial spirits and old furniture, and as I saw myself as a child in the garden. I felt the presence of Providence nearby.

I opened my eyes for a to stare at the moon, and then closed them again. This time I saw what I only can assume to be the future, with flashes and aerial scenes of myself and a dear friend backpacking over mountains as the dead stirred beneath our feet. Every step we took echoed both above and below, an echo I physically felt in my feet throughout the course of the vision.

It then morphed into darkness, and we were in a cave-like setting. And then, he is gone, and it is only I. And there she is. Not a ghost, not an ancestor, but a god.

I knew what she was about to tell me. I also knew why he had suddenly disappeared, as he had not only received this exact message from Her before, but had related it to me only a few weeks prior. There was also a small part of me that knew that if I opened my eyes at that moment, that it would all disappear, that I technically did have a split-second option to escape this moment.

But I also knew that, while I may be able to escape the first-person utterance, I didn’t get to escape its consequences. And I realized in the moment that the message, though delivered before, was incomplete in its overall meaning until now. For the words were not just about the future, but also about the past.

So I kept my eyes closed and stayed, anticipating her words.

“Do not look there, unless you’d leave.”

*  *  *

I returned home and back into my bed. When I fell asleep again, I deeply and vividly dreamed about the house for the first time in years.

We were all sitting at the dining room table, all having what looked like Thanksgiving dinner. And when I say all of us, I mean all of us: Grandpa, Grandma, my mother, my uncle Jay, and myself as an adult. In my sleep, straddled between worlds, we were talking and laughing and drinking wine and breaking bread without any concept of the barriers between life and death. We were just together, enjoying life, as the family that never quite was.

Even the dog was there, in the corner, patiently waiting for scraps.

 

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

I. Migration

“no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark…”

According to the United Nations, there are currently more displaced people on the planet than at any other time in recorded history. Nearly sixty million people have fled or have been driven from their homes on account of war, violence, political destabilization, or severe economic conditions, compared to around 38 million a decade ago. 1 out of every 122 humans on this planet is currently a refugee, and 9 out of 10 of them are in regions considered to be underdeveloped by international standards. While the Syrian war is currently the largest contributor to such displacement, displaced people hail from every corner of the world, from Haiti to Pakistan to Senegal to Colombia.

More than half of the world’s sixty million refugees are children.

*   *   *   *   *

“you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well…”

Refugees flooded into Europe in record numbers last year, comprising the largest influx of migrants from outside the European continent in modern times. While the majority of refugees fled from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, they came from every corner of the world; from Haiti, Mali, Senegal, Eritrea, Pakistan. The vast majority of them landed on Greek shores, but they also flooded into Hungary, Italy, and Turkey, desperately hoping to eventually reach Northern Europe.

They are fleeing civil wars, sectarian conflicts, and widespread poverty caused by both natural disasters and social forces. They are leaving their homes, their ancestral villages, and their families, with many never to return, risking their lives in an attempt to reached a promised land of safety that in reality is often quite harsh and unwelcoming. While the conflicts and tragedies that drive them from their homelands are varied in both complication and scope, nearly all are bound by the common roots of imperialism and colonialism.

Iraqi and Syrian migrants land on the island of Lesvos. Photo by Ggia.

Iraqi and Syrian migrants land on the island of Lesvos. Photo by Ggia.

In response to this “migrant crisis,” the affected countries of the European Union (mind you, the very same countries that have financially benefited for centuries off the same imperialist meddling that is at the root of the current conflicts) have recently moved to close borders, restrict free movement, and otherwise thwart the attempts of the refugees from reaching Northern Europe.

The rhetoric employed by both government and media throughout Europe in order to justify these actions follows the same tried-and-true scare tactic formula that immigration foes have effectively used throughout recent history: dire warnings that the migrants will “game the system,” “refuse to assimilate,” “steal jobs,” as well as contribute to “moral decline” on account of their differing “culture” and “values.”

American lawmakers and media personalities have also similarly politicized the refugee crisis, using both the aforementioned rhetoric as well as fears of “terrorism” in order to turn an easily manipulated populace against the idea of supporting refugee resettlement in the United States.

Their tactics are no different from the rhetoric of a century ago, even two centuries ago. The exact same dire warnings were once used by American “settlers” against the Irish, and later the Italians, Chinese, Greeks, Portuguese, Hungarians and Jews. Nowadays they are used against immigrants from both Latin America and the Middle East. And both them and now, such arguments only further benefit the ruling class at the expense of the oppressed.

“go home blacks, refugees, dirty immigrants, asylum seekers, sucking our country dry…messed up their country and now they want to mess ours up…”

But while this rhetoric negatively affects the level and effectiveness of humanitarian efforts, it obviously does nothing to stem the tide of people fleeing their homelands. Well over a million refugees flooded into and moved through Europe last year, comprising the largest influx of migrants from outside the European continent in modern times.

“the dirty looks roll off your backs maybe because the blow is softer than a limb torn off…”

II. Push

A hundred years ago there were also a million people per year moving through Europe. But instead of risking their lives to reach Greece, Hungary, and Italy, they were risking their lives to migrate from these very countries, in many cases due to sociopolitical conditions very similar to those that are triggering the current migration crisis. They fled war, poverty, natural disaster, starvation, and religious persecution, embarking on perilous voyages across the sea only to arrive in a foreign country that was harsh and unwelcoming, treated them with great prejudice, and often subjected them to severe exploitation.

Where did they flee to, you ask?

They fled to America.

Immigrant children at Ellis Island, 1908. Public Domain.

Immigrant children at Ellis Island, 1908. Public domain.

*   *   *   *   *

“you only leave home when home won’t let you stay…”

When it comes to why refugees are currently fleeing Iraq or Syria, the basic answers are readily at the tip of everyone’s tongue. War. Conflict. Terrorism.

But ask the average American why their own ancestors came here, and they tend to respond with either or both of the following vague answers: they either came for “religious freedom” or for “a better life.” And while these answers are not necessarily untrue, they painfully oversimplify and sanitize the myriad of complex factors that triggered massive waves of immigration to America.

Immigration functions as a “push” or “pull” phenomenon: in short, those who migrate from one place to another are either being pushed out of a specific region due to specific negative sociopolitical factors and/or they are being pulled into a specific region due to specific positive factors, factors that frame the belief that immigrating to said region will allow for “a better life.” The standard American narrative around the immigration journey emphasizes and glorifies both the pull of America in terms of its religious freedom and promise of prosperity while stressing the great sacrifices that our ancestors made coming to America.

But what is often overlooked and forgotten in that narrative are the very reasons that so many made such a sacrifice in the first place. The pull factors are stressed, but the push factors that led to large-scale immigration to America are minimized and rarely ever summarized beyond the simple statement of “a better life.” Which then leaves unanswered the specific question of why thirty million people fled Europe over a span of a hundred years for a better life in the first place.

And in ignoring that question, we ignore both our roots as a nation as well as the struggles of our ancestors.

One of the most crucial and yet most overlooked aspects of white American identity is the fact that with very few exceptions, we are all descended at least in part from people who fled from war, persecution, starvation, and/or poverty, and who risked their lives and left everything they knew behind to do so. We categorize them as “immigrants” or “pioneers,” but in reality so many of them were refugees, no less refugees than many of those currently fleeing the Middle East for Western Europe.

*   *   *

“you have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land…”

In November of 1913, sixteen year old Sofia Manossadakis arrived on Ellis Island after a three-week journey at sea. Sofia and her three siblings were among nearly a million immigrants that arrived that year, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. For her, a better life meant the chance to escape the sectarian violence and political instability that had characterized her homeland of Crete for well over two centuries.

The Ottoman Empire took possession of Crete in the mid-1600s after several hundred years under Venetian rule, and the Greek Christian population of Crete spent the next two hundred and fifty years consistently and actively resisting Turkish rule, culminating in several notable revolts and rebellions. From the Daskalogiannis Revolt in 1770 to the numerous Cretan revolts throughout the 1800s, the island was consistently destabilized by violence. Uprisings and riots in the mid-1890s culminated into the Cretan Revolt of 1897, which directly coincided with the Greco-Turkish War being fought on the Greek mainland, a war fought over the possession of Crete. The overlapping of these two conflicts and the resulting violence led to an intervention by the great powers, who declared the Cretan state an autonomous territory under Ottoman suzerainty.

It was also in 1897 that Sofia Manossadakis was born in Livaniana, a tiny settlement high in the mountains of Sfakia on the south-west coast of Crete.

The 'Lefka Ori' of Sfakia. Photo by Oltau.

The ‘Lefka Ori’ of Sfakia. Photo by Oltau.

Sfakia had been a stronghold of Christian resistance against the Ottomans since the Daskalogiannis Revolt, which originated in the mountains of Sfakia in 1770 and was brutally suppressed by the Turks. The village of Livaniana itself had lost nearly half its population during the uprisings of 1821, and had suffered further violence in the subsequent uprisings throughout the rest of the century.

By the time Sofia was born, the population of Livaniana as well as the surrounding villages was significantly dwindling, with more and more peasants either fleeing for mainland Greece or risking the voyage to America in order to escape the violence. The autonomous designation of the Cretan state did little to quell the chaos, with sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims breaking out throughout the first decade of the twentieth century. Revolts in 1905 prompted another intervention by the great powers, and the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 prompted Crete to declare union with Greece. The international community refused to recognize the union, triggering yet another series of revolts. A few years later, the Ottoman Turks went to war with Italy over control of Libya and were easily defeated, a defeat which prompted the members of the Balkan League to then declare war on a weakened Ottoman Empire.

It was against this backdrop, with seemingly no end to the violence and hostilities, that Sofia, her two sisters, and her older brother sailed for New York on the RMS Carpathia, which departed for New York from Trieste on November 5, 1913. Their passage was paid with help from their oldest brother, who had established himself in Massachusetts after immigrating a few years earlier and who they planned to reunite with in America. Their parents stayed behind in Crete, never again to see their children.

A little over a week later, while the Manossadakis siblings were partway across the Atlantic, the Greeks and Ottomans signed a treaty officially ending the hostilities between them, at which time the Cretan union with Greece was finally recognized. Only a few days after the Carpathia docked in New York Harbor and Sofia was legally admitted to the United States, the Greek flag was finally raised at Firkas Fortress in Chania, Crete after centuries of struggle.

Firkas Fortress, Chania, Crete. Photo by Moonik.

Firkas Fortress, Chania, Crete. Photo by Moonik.

*   *   *

“no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck…unless the miles traveled means something more than the journey…”

Nobody will ever know for certain how Manuel Cardozo made his way to America, but by far the most plausible scenario is that he smuggled himself to New England on one of the countless whaling ships that came through the Azores on their way across the Atlantic.

Thousands of Azoreans made their way to port cities in New England via whaling ships in the late 1800s, most notably Bristol, Rhode Island and Fall River, Massachusetts. Those who could leave the Azores freely usually sought employment on the ships in exchange for passage to America, but those who could not leave freely had no choice other than to travel as a stowaway. And Manuel Cardozo could not leave freely.

Uninhabited when claimed by Portugal in the early 1400s, the Azores were first settled by Portuguese prisoners under the direction of Prince Henry the Navigator. “Free” settlers soon followed; peasants from the Algarve and Madeira, Sephardic Jews and New Christians who were expelled from Spain and Portugal under the Catholic monarchs, former Moorish slaves and prisoners exiled from the Portuguese, as well as peasants and merchants who migrated from war-torn Flanders. The islands were established as series of ports serving the Portuguese crown, and for the next five hundred years the Azores were treated similarly to many other colonial possessions in that they served a dual purpose as a source of profit for the mainland and a convenient place to exile the unwanted and dispossessed. The well-being of the peasants themselves was rarely an afterthought.

Faiai Island, Azores. Photo by Luca Nebuloni

Faiai Island, Azores. Photo by Luca Nebuloni

For the next five hundred years those living on the Azores suffered through poverty, starvation, famine, and a series of wars initiated by both the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. With a terrain inadequate for sustaining the population in even the best conditions, and a land-ownership system that prevented peasants from ever attaining any sort of upwards mobility, many Azoreans started to again migrate beginning in the 1600s, most often to the newly-founded Portuguese colony of Brazil.

Those who stayed continued to suffer for generations, and a series of crop failures combined with natural disasters in the mid-to-late 1800s once again spurred a wave of migration driven by desperation and poverty, this time to the New World. However, while so many of the impoverished and oppressed throughout Western Europe were able to migrate via steamship to Ellis Island, the illiterate peasants of the Azores faced unique barriers to “legal” immigration, given that it was the most impoverished region in Western Europe.

Not only was the cost of and access to a steamship voyage to America financially unfeasible for most Azorean peasants, but males who had yet to complete the mandatory period of military conscription required by the Portuguese government were legally barred from leaving the islands unless they posted the equivalent of $300 as bond, a figure ten times higher than the $30 average steamship passage that was already out of reach for most.

As a result, the whaling ships functioned as the primary means of immigration for Azoreans, whether legal or illegal, whether as employee or stowaway. And at sixteen years old, Manuel Cardozo had every reason to take his chances as a stowaway rather than spend the next four to eight years of his life helping to expand the Portuguese empire only to then to be forced back into a life of ever-worsening poverty and starvation with absolutely no hope for mobility.

Manuel arrived in Bristol, Rhode Island around 1899, established himself and found work amongst the Portuguese community in Bristol, and a few years later married a woman of Portuguese descent who “legally” came to America by way of Hawaii. And despite lifelong illiteracy and a lack of fluency in English, Manuel supported a family of sixteen through hard work and determination, finding employment in factories and second jobs as a night watchman throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

He lived and died as an “illegal alien” in this country, having never received a single benefit throughout his entire life, but his sacrifice and hard work (along with the magical powers of “assimilation” and “whiteness”) ensured that his children and grandchildren had the opportunity to both contribute to and benefit from the “American Dream.”

III. Land

On one hand, it can be fairly stated that people have been driven off of land through actualized or threatened violence since the beginning of recorded history. But the specific geopolitical and economic forces and conditions that triggered both the colonization of the Americas as well as the eventual push of mass migrations of Europeans to the New World were dependent on a very specific process known as “primitive accumulation.”

Primitive accumulation is the process of seizing land that was previously regarded as commons for the purpose of commodification, a process that first developed in Europe during the Middle Ages and was central to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In Karl Marx’s words, primitive accumulation was “the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.” Those displaced producers, generally known as peasants, are then reliant on the market for survival, which tends to force them into urban areas seeking wage-labor jobs, leading to industrialization due to the sudden and enormous pool of desperate workers.

farming-pic-edit_med

The Enclosures of Medieval England. Public domain.

This process, which echoes and repeats clearly and continuously from 12th century Flanders to the effects of NAFTA in the late 1990s, still continues to this day in places such as Nigeria and the Amazon, triggering the same consistent patterns of violence and displacement that have been fueling migration for hundreds of years. Waves of primitive accumulation throughout Western Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries not only drove direct emigration, but also triggered a cascade of socioeconomic conditions that led to later waves of migration, most notable the thirty million immigrants that came to America between 1850 and 1934.

Primitive accumulation also factors starkly and prominently in the accumulation of the land the eventually became America in the first place. This accumulation, which came at the price of around 100 million indigenous people, quickly developed into an economic powerhouse due to its investment of 20 million African slaves, which in itself can be seen as another form of primitive accumulation.

Going back even further, it was in fact primitive accumulation that financed the “discovery of America” and sparked the colonial era in the first place.

*   *   *

In the sanitized version of history propagated mainly through American public school textbooks, Christopher Columbus discovered America while sailing under the flag of Spain. This narrative is problematic for many reasons (most of which others have elaborated on much better than I ever could), but aside from its sanitization of details and pro-colonialist framework, it is also most often problematically presented as having occurred in a vacuum.

While such a voyage, whitewashed or not, may have signaled the “birth” of the New World from a European colonial perspective, the voyage occurred at a pivotal moment in European history, standing as a symbolic consummation of a fledgling power that came to be known as Spanish Empire. The rise of that power, a victorious culmination of hundreds of years of warfare, would not have been possible if not for the sudden and consistent influxes of wealth generated through what was arguably the very first instance of what came to be known as primitive accumulation.

In 711 AD, Moorish armies invaded the Iberian peninsula, establishing what would eventually be known as the kingdom of Al-Andalus. Within a decade, the vast majority of the peninsula was under Muslim rule, and the various Christian kingdoms in Iberia spent nearly eight hundred years fighting to reclaim Iberian territory from the Moors.

Al-Andalus and the surrounding Christian kingdoms, circa 1000 AD. Public Domain.

Al-Andalus and the surrounding Christian kingdoms, circa 1000 AD. Public domain.

This campaign, known as the Reconquista, gained strength in the 9th century with the alleged discovery of the remains of St. James in Galicia, transported and then enshrined in a town that came to be known as Santiago de Compostela. This discovery sparked a pilgrimage route through northern Spain that quickly became the most popular medieval pilgrimage route through Europe. The influx of pilgrims across what became known as the Way of St. James was of both financial and social benefit to the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain, who were able to strengthen their position and finance further mercenary armies to reconquer Iberia from the Moors.

The Moors, meanwhile, had imported merino sheep from North Africa into Iberia, and as the kingdom of Castile gradually retook land from the Muslim kingdom, the Christian aristocracy recognized the potential for merino wool as a lucrative cash crop that could reliably fund the Reconquista.

Common lands throughout Castile were then seized for the purpose of sheep grazing. The Castilian crown quickly prospered and amassed significant wealth due to the demand for wool in northern Europe at the expense of the peasantry who were displaced en masse and left to starve. Unlike the later cycles of primitive accumulation that affected England, there were no industrialized cities desperate for exploitable wage labor for the peasants of Iberia to flee to. In many circumstances, the only viable (and bitterly ironic) alternative to starvation for Iberian peasants was to join the very armies that were funded by the commodification of the lands they once lived on.

By the mid-1300s, the crown of Castile controlled the majority of the Iberian peninsula, and a hundred years later the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon created a consolidation of power that would bear fruit in 1779 when Ferdinand succeeded his late father as king. The combined union of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon then successfully conquered the last Muslim kingdom of Granada thirteen years later, in January of 1492.

It was only weeks after the fall of Granada in 1492 that the court of the kingdom of Castile agreed to finance Columbus’ voyage. Columbus had been presenting his case to the Spanish court for a few years at that point, but the completion of the Reconquista meant that the profits from Castilian wool were no longer needed to fund armies and mercenaries. That wealth could now be used to fund “exploration” with the purpose of acquiring further wealth.

And so as peasants faced the choice of migration, starvation, or conscription while sheep comfortably grazed on their former lands, Columbus set sail for what he thought would be the Indies financed by the profits derived from those sheep. The voyage, as we know, did not lead him to the Indies, but instead he landed on the shores of an island known to its Taino inhabitants as Guanahani.

Illustration of Columbus' men massacring the Taino. Public Domain.

Illustration of Columbus’ men massacring the Taino. Public domain.

The Italian explorer and his crew expressed their gratefulness towards Taino hospitality by committing horrifying atrocities against the Tainos and by seizing several Tainos as slaves that they then took back with them to Spain, an action repeated by Columbus on subsequent voyages, as well as by Amerigo Vespucci a few years later. By the time Columbus left what was by then called Hispaniola for the last time, the Taino population had been reduced from eight million to less than 100,000. Not long after, slaves from other islands had to be imported to Hispaniola from other possessions of the Spanish crown as the native Taino population had been decimated by murder and exploitation to the point of extermination.

The taking of both land and slaves for the sole purpose of exploitation and profit eventually progressed into the accumulating genocidal force that we know today as global imperialism, and those takings are the foundation on which the United States was built.

IV. Legacy

A hundred years after immigration peaked at Ellis Island, the New World that once provided a remedy for the intertwined issues of land and scarcity in Europe is now the epicenter of an end-stage crisis that is a direct continuation of the same cycle that produced America in the first place.

Gentrification on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Photo by David Shankbone.

Gentrification on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Photo by David Shankbone.

The crisis is most often coded in the languages of development, policy, and economics, deliberately isolating it from its historical roots or patterns, but it is neither a new process nor one confined to the terrain of cities or the field of urban planning. While one was obviously a much more physically violent and bloody process, especially on American soil, overall there is little difference between the mechanisms of gentrification in America and those of colonization as a whole. The specific modes and methods of violence and oppression differ greatly, but both are processes sparked by the intertwining forces of scarcity, commodification, and speculative profit, the same processes that have been driving displacement and migration for centuries and that forced so many of our ancestors to leave their homelands for the New World.

In turn, several generations after the completion of the massive land grab that was America, the descendants of that massive wave of immigrants are now learning the hard way that the limits of the “American Dream” are congruent with and dependent on the physical limits of available, affordable and viable land. But unlike a century ago, this time there is no viable pull, no newly colonized landmass for the current crop of landless peasants to settle on and continue the cycle of oppression.

*   *   *

In the fall of 2007, I sold nearly everything I owned, packed what I had left into my van, and drove across the country from New York City to Oregon. I had little to no connections in Oregon, no job prospects, and no concrete plan on how I would survive. But despite these unknowns, I knew that the possibilities that lay before me on the other side of the country still held more promise than what I was leaving behind.

I was an economic migrant, driven from NYC at the height of late-stage gentrification. I could not find an affordable piece of land to live on, which forced me to leave my “homeland” in order to seek out “a better life” on the West Coast where land was not as scarce and in demand.

I was the first American-born member of my direct lineage to make such a journey. Neither my parents nor my grandparents ever needed to migrate for socioeconomic reasons, as the privileges we call whiteness, assimilation, and citizenship allowed them to generate wealth and stability through the American Dream of property ownership. But my journey into adulthood was congruent with what’s now been referred to for at least two decades as an “affordability crisis,” and property ownership is now out of reach for a significant portion of my generation due to a manufactured scarcity of viable housing.

This scarcity of available and viable places to live combined with job scarcity and depressed wages has not only led to a newly proletarianized white middle class (in as much as the opportunity to generate wealth through land ownership has been newly denied to them), but it has also led to widespread migrations from economically saturated urban areas as a result of inflated housing prices. And those migrations inevitably result in triggering the cycle of gentrification in the areas that they settle.

A decade later, three thousand miles from my homeland, I myself am a part of and am witnessing this very effect. The same cycle of gentrification that drove me from New York a decade ago has now thrown my adopted home of Portland in crisis, erasing any potential of a better life in terms of economic security. And yet, despite this crisis, I am still in an infinitely safer position than some of my fellow economic migrants, whose lack of privilege in contrast to my own has resulted in their being forced to exist in some of the most dangerous and squalid conditions imaginable.

*   *   *

Across the street from my building in downtown Portland, a homeless camp slowly but steadily formed over the past several months. While homeless camps have been sprouting up with frequency throughout America for at least a decade now, the growth of a camp literally in my front yard in tandem with the growing refugee crisis in Europe made the similarities and shared causes and circumstances impossible to ignore.

In technical terms, “refugee” is reserved for displaced people who cross a border seeking refuge. Those who do not cross a border but are still displaced are referred to the UN as “internally displaced persons.” And while the UN may not categorize the ever-growing population of homeless in the United States as internally displaced persons in terms of their reports and statistics, there is little difference between the sociopolitical forces that produced the camp across the street and the sociopolitical forces that produce many refugee camps around the world. Once we strip away the specific signifiers (“homeless,” “bums,” “travelers,” etc.) that we use in our culture in order to characterize them, they are simply landless peasants, displaced persons, economic refugees and migrants.

One of the great myths that drives homeless policy on the municipal level in the United States is the belief that the majority of homeless people in any given area are not actually local but from somewhere else, and that they migrated to the city in question because it’s somehow better for homeless people there than wherever they came from. Often presented as incontestable truth by both local politicians and business owners, the myth is used as a justification for not funding services or shelters, as it is stressed that doing so will “enable” and “attract” these supposed masses of migrants from elsewhere.

visitor7

Homeless camp in Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Visitor7.

That this idea is myth as opposed to truth is incontestable: federal data consistently shows that the majority of homeless persons within any given urban area are local to at least the county if not the city itself. And yet this myth is still consistently and successfully wielded as a weapon as it serves the ruling class on multiple levels. Not only does it exploit the same fear-of-others tendency that is also central to anti-immigrant rhetoric, the myth also serves to placate and flatter the citizenry and to create a false impression of economic stability within the community. By positioning the community at issue as a “draw,” the myth reinforces the idea that the community is such a desirable place to live that homeless folks would travel from all over the country to take advantage of the quality of life that the taxpayers enjoy, as well as create the false assumption that poverty is not a severe issue in their community.

If the visibly poor are conveniently regarded as being from elsewhere, denying and/or hiding the severity of poverty in any given community becomes much less of a challenge. Poverty itself becomes the other.

Such inaction, combined with criminalization, only exacerbates the problem of homelessness. While the federal government estimates around 600,000 homeless people currently living in the United States, that number is widely regarded as a dramatic undercount due to the federal government’s narrow definition of homeless combined with a significantly flawed data collection process. When the definition of homeless is expanded enough to include those living in cars, motels, and those who are temporarily living with family and friends, the number of American displaced persons and economic refugees rises to well over eight million people.

Though not (yet) as severe in its scope, the “homeless crisis” is to present-day America what the “refugee crisis” is to present-day Europe, and the myth of the other, the “migrant” seeking to “take advantage” of local communities echoes with eerie similarity throughout the politics and rhetoric around both crises and across two continents. And of course, that rhetoric is no different from the rhetoric that so many of our ancestors in America once faced.

It is for these reasons that I can’t walk past the camp without thinking simultaneously of the refugee camps of Europe, of my own economic migration, of the journeys of my own ancestors, and of the cycles of accumulation and displacement that lies the root of all of it.

*   *   *

It is the basic contradiction in our entire history as a nation. The first European settlers who landed on these shores saw themselves as creating a great new experiment in democratic government. Yet they were enslaving a whole population of human beings, Africans, and committing genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America. As a nation, we have never really dealt with this contradiction. We’ve only picked around the edges of it.” – Anne Braden

On one hand, I am undeniably a child of empire, born and raised on unceded Lenape land that colonial occupiers renamed “New Jersey” after driving the Munsee out in the 1600s. I am a product of the same American Dream that is theoretically afforded to everyone under the protection of this empire, and despite my lack of access to land ownership I am the recipient of an immeasurable amount of privilege purely on account of my European ancestry.

On the other hand, while raised in relative stability as the descendant of two generations’ worth of landowners, once I step back any further in my family line I am a descendant of refugees and illegals. And those ancestors, who suffered through war and poverty before leaving everything behind to come to America, were in turn descended from countless generations of landless and exploited peasants.

It is variations of this contradiction that most white Americans cannot escape, the often coterminous roles of oppressed and oppressor. And in facing that contradiction we also must face our ethical obligations and closely examine our actions and attitudes towards both historic and present victims of oppression. For whether it’s the homeless already in our back yards, or the refugees risking their lives to reach our borders, to turn our backs and other them is not only a refusal of basic decency and hospitality in the face of suffering, but a painful hypocrisy given the histories of so many of our own ancestors.

When we deny hospitality and safety to the displaced, when we refuse and dismiss those begging at our door seeking safety and relief from war and poverty, we in turn deny our own past, we dismiss the trials of our ancestors, and we erase our own truths.

V. Epilogue

A few weeks ago, the camp that had built up over months across from my building was suddenly and harshly evacuated by law enforcement, with dumpsters and personnel on hand to confiscate and destroy any trace left after the residents were forced to leave. A few days later, the refugee camp in Calais known as “the Jungle,” one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in Europe, was also bulldozed and evacuated.

DIsmantling homeless camp underneath the Steel Bridge. Photo by John Monroe.

DIsmantling homeless camp underneath the Steel Bridge. Photo by John Monroe.

In both cases, those displaced were given nowhere to go. They are without land, without possessions, once again victimized by a cycle of displacement that has been benefiting the few on behalf of the many for nearly a thousand years.

A cycle that will never end for as long as the value of land carries a higher worth than the value of people.

*   *   *

This piece is dedicated to the estimated 2,500 refugees who died at sea trying to reach Europe in 2015.

It was written under the guidance and with the persistent urging of my own ancestors, most notably my maternal great-grandfather and paternal great-grandmother, whose stories I shared in this piece.

What is remembered, lives.

*   *   *

The italicized quotes running throughout this first half of this piece are excerpted from ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet currently living in the United Kingdom. The poem in its entirety can be found here.

*   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

I. July

“The gods are making it clear that I really need to walk more,” I said to Rhyd as we walked through downtown Portland on the way to the bus stop.

“But I’ll admit it, I’m stubborn. I really like my bike. And I know I’m screwing myself over on many levels, from simply needing to be in shape for the trip to the whole ‘let’s not ignore the gods’ thing. But dammit, my bike. I’m a creature of habit, and walking everywhere just screws with my routine. And yes, I know how that sounds. I really just need to suck it up and walk. They’re getting louder about it.”

He nodded. We had just spent the Fourth of July weekend discussing the various destinations and meanings of the pilgrimage path that had been laid out to us a few months earlier and which had been consistently revealing itself to us further as the weeks progressed. Our departure was still ten months away, but it had been made very apparent to both of us that the journey that had been demanded of us had already been initiated as far as the will of the gods was concerned. An unfolding was in the process, and while that process was far from complete it was clear that the journey was going to require significant walking, including a few hundred miles along a route considered by the ancients to be the literal path to the end of the world.

After Rhyd boarded the bus back to Seattle, I spent the walk back to my building reiterating to myself that I was going to start using my feet to run my errands. But as I walked under the Steel Bridge, I suddenly remembered the package I had waiting at the FedEx center, and my previous thoughts were forgotten as I instinctively decided to bike over to retrieve it.

At that exact moment, my eye briefly drifted toward the haphazard pile of bicycle wheels that had been continuously shrinking and then growing again for the past few months. A mountain of metal and rubber, the pile was covered with a tarp and doubled as both a visual barrier and physical perch for the man I knew lived behind it, a man who I had nicknamed the ‘bridge shaman.’

The bridge shaman wore a long, black duster jacket, accentuated with a striking combination of aluminum can tabs and small animal bones hanging off the flaps. He had several animal teeth hanging around his neck, carried a wooden staff adorned with various markings, and seemed to wield sole authority over the small homeless community living under the bridge. I knew not his specific craft nor his origins, but I regarded him with the same combination of wariness and respect that I did toward any otherworldly figures who do not specifically reveal themselves as either friend or foe.

But when my eyes drifted toward the pile of bike wheels, which happened to be the very same moment that I had decided to ride my bike to the FedEx office, I saw a pair of boots rising up from the top of the pile. My eyes followed the boots, and the next thing I knew I was staring right up at the bridge shaman himself. His eyes met mine and flashed angrily.

I looked away, immediately making a conscious decision that I simply wasn’t going to allow his reaction to have any significance or meaning at that moment. I nodded toward him and then continued on toward my building, fumbling for my keys so that I could unlock my bike as soon as I got to the rack.

I turned the corner and froze. My bike was locked to the rack where I had last left it, but the wheels had been crudely removed, the brake lines and chain having been ripped off and damaged in the process.

I reflected immediately to my conversations with Rhyd, my various interactions with and messages from the gods that prompted my conversations with him, and then to the bridge shaman and my conscious decision to ignore the flash in his eyes. And while I briefly acknowledged what was being laid out very obviously in front of me, at the same time I was simply not in the mood to entertain or accept it. My anger at the immediate situation overpowered my ability to accept my fate in the face of meaning, and I turned around and stormed back to the bridge.

As I approached the underpass, I spotted the bridge shaman, who had repositioned himself from the pile of bicycle wheels and was now perched on the guardrail at the entrance to the underpass as though he had been expecting my arrival. I took a deep breath, trying to quell my rage as I knew that diplomacy would get me further than anger.

“I think its possible you may have my tires,” I called out to him once I was in earshot, pointing toward the tarped-up mountain just behind where he was positioned. “They went missing this morning, and I would love to have them back.”

“Why would you think I had your tires?” he sneered.

As I glanced again at the pile of tires, I noticed a familiar looking one peeking out from the edge of the tarp. I turned toward my building for a moment, and then back toward the bridge shaman.

“Because your pile is taller than it was yesterday and my building is right over there. And because that one sticking out there looks just like one of mine.”

He jumped off the guardrail and approached me menacingly, stopping less than a foot away from my face. I immediately noticed his knife, prominently strapped to his waist, and then quickly glanced down to my own knife on my boot.

“Those aren’t even my tires. Those belong to my community. And yours aren’t in there.”

“And how do you know that mine aren’t in there?” I asked angrily, immediately regretting my words the moment they left my mouth.

“BECAUSE I SAID SO,” he bellowed as he stepped in toward me. I jumped back, reaching for my knife just as he reached for his. He saw my hand move and instinctively stepped back as he realized I was also armed.

As he backed off, his eyes flashed just as they had when I had passed him earlier in the day. And in that flash, the entirety of what I had been both deliberately as well as subconsciously ignoring hit me all at once. I suddenly knew exactly what I had done, exactly what this was about, and exactly what was about to happen, and yet I had no choice in the moment but to stand there and allow the scene to play itself out to its logical conclusion.

“Now you listen to me right now. There are no tires here. Not yours, not anyone’s. And you’re not here anymore either, do you understand? You better turn around and go, and I don’t want to see you anywhere near this spot again, you hear me? DO YOU HEAR ME? GO.”

I nodded and obliged, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Not only had the option of biking just been forcibly removed from my choices until further notice, I had also just cut off my only direct access point between my building and the downtown area, which meant that any given errand would require my walking the equivalent of at least four blocks out of the way in order to avoid the underpass.

 

underpass

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Not only was I walking, I was taking the long way until further notice, until the bridge shaman decided to move on.

I headed back to my building, frustrated by the realization that I was once again experiencing that one crucial lesson, the one that never seems to stick despite its simplicity and despite how many times I had already learned it. Gods will often have their way whether you cooperate with them or not.

II. August

It was day two of Many Gods West, and by mid-day I didn’t have much left in me. It was a combination of several factors:  the stress of travel, adjusting to a large group of very powerful people, and the consistent pull of the familiar dead from the lake shore directly behind the hotel. My energy had been divided and subsequently depleted by all three, and I was debating on whether to take a nap or not when I walked past Sannion, smoking a cigarette in front of the hotel.

I stopped to say hello, and he asked me if I was planning on attending the Bakcheion ritual that night. I expressed that I was feeling rather drained, and he smiled and told me that he wanted to give me something that would help to bring me back and center me.

A few minutes later, one of the other members of the Bakcheion found me in the lobby, and handed me a teabag as well as a woven bracelet with a talisman of sorts hanging through it. Having a significant aversion to anything tied against my skin, I wove and then tied the bracelet into the top eye of my right boot, and then went to find some hot water for the tea. A few hours later, I was feeling myself again, and attending the ritual that night was one of the highlights of my weekend at the conference.

And being a rather superstitious type, I left the woven charm tied to the top of my right boot after the ritual was concluded, where it remains to this day. And while I don’t know and can’t vouch for the exact meaning or power of the charm, nor can I single out any singular effect it has had on me alone since the day of the ritual, the charm quickly revealed itself as a very specific and powerful beacon in regards to others.

boots

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

It goes where I go, often traveling several miles per day at dog’s eye level. And for the most part, it serves as an invisible accessory; very few notice it at all. But fitting of an object constructed by Dionysians, those who do notice it are almost exclusively in varied states of intoxication and/or madness. And when they notice it, they fixate on it excitedly, asking me what it is, often asking to touch it with a pleading but respectful tone in their voice or sometimes even asking if I would be willing to part with it for a price.

Which, upon reflection, means that the charm actually does create a specific effect that it has on me alone. It reinforces the irrelevance of the concept of ‘belief’ in the face of what consistently reveals itself to be, as to ‘believe’ supposes that one could ‘choose’ not to believe. What is has a way of presenting itself as truth whether I’m in the mood to ‘believe’ in it or not.

III. September

On foot, my patterns and rituals realigned themselves as my daily pace slowed down and my route subsequently transitioned. While a five-minute journey should had become a twenty-minute one in theory, in reality the very process of walking combined with my low-latent inhibition had resulted in an entire series of new rituals and relations that created many holes for time to leak through, so to speak.

In lieu of my being able to travel westward on foot via the underpass, I diverted my route up and then down the Broadway Bridge, carving out a daily path that I quickly dubbed ‘The Voyage of the 81 Steps’ in honor of the number of stairs that it took to reach the top. Once at the top of the bridge, the descent back down the ramp leading to the Pearl District was fraught with various distractions and obstacles as an unusually dangerous intersection led down to a narrow sidewalk overrun with both pigeons and their feces.

pigeonramp

It was in my first week on this new route that I started to notice frequent yelling and cursing from others who walked up and down the ramp, as the pigeons perched above on the light-post would regularly poop on those who walked below. I laughed every time I heard someone cry out until the fourth or fifth day when I was also pelted with a significant dose of bird shit, which admittedly made the overall situation much less funny.

Since it was impossible to avoid walking below the birds as the light-post was the same width as the ramp, the next day I decided to start acknowledging the pigeons, offering them peanuts, and asking them not to poop on me. While not wanting to be shat on was a big part of my motivation, a bigger part of me simply wanted to see if such actions would be effective. And, of course, a very small but very persistent part of me wanted to yet again test my relationship to coincidence.

Three weeks later, after witnessing countless folks pelted by poo while completely avoiding such a fate myself despite my frequency on the ramp, I deemed the experiment a success. Pigeons were no different from people or gods, in that even simple attempts at communication and mutual respect often went a long way.

IV. October

The significance, demands, and implications of our pilgrimage continued to unfold with an ever-greater frequency as the days progressed. It was obvious that revelations were coming out of every corner if I simply chose to accept that what I was perceiving as reality, and yet there’s a seductive illusion of control in denying such realities, an illusion that also functions as a defense mechanism when it all becomes a little too much.

And it was a little too much that day. Deep in my head, walking down the ramp, I found myself angrily ruminating on the idea of coincidence as it stands in opposition to meaning, questioning my sanity for the umpteenth time as I struggled to not only make sense out of everything that was being revealed but also struggled to reconcile the fact that I had to make sense out of it in the first place and could not merely dismiss it as coincidence.

If only I could, I thought to myself angrily, stewing in such muddled frustration that for the first time in six weeks I neglected to acknowledge the pigeons on the light-post above me.

They acknowledged me, however. At the exact moment I found myself envying those who had the luxury of dismissing such synchronicities of meaning, the pigeons acknowledged me with simultaneous shots of poo to my head, neck, and back.

And of course, I didn’t have the luxury of dismissing any of it.

“That was meta,” I shouted up toward the light-post as I turned around to head home and shower.

“Very meta. Good one. Nice job.”

poo

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

V. November

“Perhaps the answer to the question lies in the question. Perhaps you should read my thoughts, line them up like soldiers…” – Tori Amos, ‘Police Me’

It may have been a Tori song, but it was Nimue who was singing it in my ear.

I heard it as I woke up. I heard it consistently throughout those random cracks in time during the day when the mind is momentarily unoccupied and the other world can seep through. I heard it when I deliberately invoked silence and stillness. And I heard it throughout my dreams. I knew not what it meant, but it persisted.

The song was once again in my head as I walked toward the post office, through the crowd of hustlers and transients that congregated just south of Union Station. Head down, I was humming the very line that was haunting me when someone jumped right in front of me. I halted and looked up to see a noticeably strung-out homeless man blocking my path.

His eyes fixated on mine for a moment as his lips started to move.

“That red-headed bitch… I can’t get her out of my head,” he mumbled at me. He jumped twice in place, and on the third jump he moved aside so I could pass.

“Red-headed banshee bitch,” he continued. “Don’t listen to her. Don’t listen to any of them, you hear? It doesn’t leave, never leaves your head.” His voice had risen at the end, teetering on the border between civil speech and primal scream.

His eyes widened. “Don’t listen,” he repeated. “You hear?”

I nodded, not knowing exactly what to think. I briefly pictured the red-headed singer whose tune had been haunting me for the past several weeks, then nodded again at him.

“Yes, I hear”, I said, and walked away from him as fast as I could.

VI. December

“Never before have I been so deeply entrenched in my own story, so to speak. And I have no idea how to even begin to write about it,” I said to her over early-morning coffee.

“I know we’re both writers, but I’ll admit I can’t really relate to what you’re struggling with, as much as I wish I could,” she said to me sympathetically. “I’ve never met any gods, let alone have I ever tried to write about them. I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s like.”

“But I don’t actually write about the gods at all,” I argued. “Not directly, anyway. I actually go out of my way not to write about my interactions and relations with the gods themselves, but instead I focus on where those interactions take me and the conclusions they lead me to.”

“And yet that’s failing you now.”

I nodded. It was not only failing me, it was driving me to madness.

“Why?” she asked.

“Why what? Why is it failing? Or why I don’t write about the gods?”

She laughed. “Dare I say the answer to your question is found in your question? Start with the second one. Why don’t you write about the gods?”

My face reacted instantly in horror as I recalled the song lyric incident near Union Station a few weeks prior. I momentarily fixated on my companion’s bright red hair, all too terrifyingly aware that the tendency that I was struggling so greatly to both write about and explain to her was manifesting itself in the very moment.

She smiled innocently, unaware of that manifestation and equally unaware of what a loaded question she had put forth. I racked my brain for a neutralizing response but quickly realized I had nothing to wield but the truth.

“Because those conclusions are much easier for me to defend than those relationships. Because it does not damage my psyche for someone to tell me that my politics and my viewpoints are delusional, as that’s a step removed from the accusation that I am delusional as a whole, which does damage my psyche and which I open myself up to very easily by directly writing about my interactions with the gods. I feel vulnerable enough as it is with what I already put out there.”

“Ok, now the first half of the question. Why is that strategy now failing?”

I thought for a moment. “Because this one’s just too real. And I’m at a loss at how to describe it, to relate it, while keeping it contained enough so that it feels safe.”

“But it’s not safe,” she said quietly.

She stared into her coffee cup for a moment before she continued. “Again, I can’t conceive of what the gods are like, but it’s obvious from way over here that whatever it is you experience is very, very real. And as much as I don’t understand it, the only explanation that makes any sense to me at all is the very one that you seem to accept without question while at the same time you fight it with everything you have. You are trapped in that contradiction, and I think that by trying to feel safe you only fuel it.”

I sighed, trying to settle the internal discomfort that always came with uncomfortable truths. She was absolutely right. I did internally fight it with everything I could muster. I had never asked to be gods-bothered or anything of the sort. I could handle the realities and consequences most of the time, but my inability to either ignore or express the sea of meaning I was drowning in had pushed me to the edge of madness. And it was always in those moments, teetering at the edge, that I often most desperately wished that it was all indeed just a delusion. And yet I knew it was anything but.

“I don’t think you’re looking for advice,” she continued after a long silence. “I think you’re looking for permission. And I think that the only force that can grant that you that permission is within.”

VII. January

The dreams had officially become a significant interruption. Although that’s not even quite right, as they were anything but dreams. They were most active and most traumatizing during sleep, sure, but I knew to distinguish mere dreams from visions, and these were definitely of the latter category.

And yet, knowing they were more than dreams did not produce nearly as much anxiety as the content of the visions themselves. Constant scenes, of war, violence, carnage, which had first started appearing the summer before but had only become a nightly phenomenon since around the time of the new year. I didn’t know what the scenes were, nor did I necessarily want to know, but there were a few key impressions, most notable of bombed-out towns and stone ruins, that simply would not leave my head no matter how hard I tried.

I had these very images in and hanging over my head as I went out on my daily walk on an unusually cold day, taking a slightly longer route with the hopes that potential distractions would empty my mind a bit. I bought myself a coffee and wandered through downtown, inadvertently disassociating myself from the goings-on around me as I tried to clear my head.

Without realizing it, I found myself randomly stumbling through the aisles at Powell’s a few hours later, having indeed become distracted after wandering in to use the bathroom. I wasn’t searching for anything specific, but after walking around in the cold for so long there as something quite comforting about the cramped, crowded aisles of books, and so I methodically wandered up and down the aisles clutching my coffee while trying my best to shake off various troubles.

The aisles at Powells. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust

The aisles at Powell’s. [Photo by InSapphoWeTrust]

And then out of nowhere a book fell off the shelf just to the right of me, knocking my right foot and landing on its spine, flipping the book open to the center. I bent over to pick it up and when I brought the book to eye-level I saw my dreams of bombs and ruins staring back up at me.

The photos were scenes from the Spanish Civil War, of battles that took place in the very towns that we were set to walk through as part of our pilgrimage, which was now only a few months away. I turned the page, and the images on the next page were also familiar from my dreams and visions. I closed my eyes for a minute, suddenly trying my hardest to clearly recall what I had been trying so hard to block out for weeks, and then stared back at the page again.

As I stood there, the words I had taken to heart on the ramp a few months back ran through my mind, and I resisted the urge to crave the luxuries of ‘coincidence’. And suddenly, standing right there in the middle of the aisle, connections started to form and yet-unasked questions started to answer themselves without warning. The pilgrimage. The bike. The walking. The dead. The dreams and the not-dreams. The unknowing emissaries. The touched prophets. The book that just fell in front of me.

Perhaps the answer to the question lies in the question.

I put the book back on the shelf and ran out of the bookstore, desperately needing air. I walked around the block, composed myself, bought another coffee, and then went back in to buy the book.

The book, of course, was no longer on the shelf when I returned, despite the fact that I had carefully placed it in an unassuming spot. And for once, I simply surrendered to what was before my eyes without feeling a need for answers, without feeling the need to either deny the significance of it all or to analyze the significance to death. After all, the book had served its purpose, and I hadn’t even gone looking for answers.

VIII. February

I’m at Pantheacon, and I’m in the women’s bathroom.

Except I’m not in the bathroom. I’m sitting in the stall, but it’s not really the stall, I’m no longer really in San Jose, and the harsh lighting has been replaced by a murky darkness.

Part of me knows that I am in middle of a flashback, and yet most of me is already too far gone, once again reliving the same terrifying series of moments that has held me captive for eleven years. The stall has evaporated into a dark, wooden shack. The wind is howling outside, rattling the walls around me as I desperately try to remain upright, remain present, simply remain.

In my hand is a plate of rice and beans. White rice, black beans, on a soggy paper plate that is starting to give on the right-hand side, the side that my hand is clutching. My hand is shaking like a leaf and the rice and beans are shaking along with it, creating a blurry optical illusion that is greatly enhanced by the kaleidoscopic effects of my tear-blurred eyes.

There is a firm hand grasping my leg, trying to still my shaking, trying to ground me just enough so that I can listen to what she is saying. Attached to that hand is an older figure, wrapped in robes, who evokes equal parts wise-woman and desert warrior. Seated at the same level, I tower over her physically, and yet she looms much larger than I in the moment.

She is speaking softly, her voice gravelly but strong, the cadence of her voice evoking a calming, lulling effect. I stare down at the rice and beans again, fixated on the sagging plate, as her voice slowly makes its way into my head. Her accent strikes a place of comforting familiarity, momentarily bringing me back to Brooklyn, bringing me back home to my front stoop and to the endless conversations that I used to have with my elderly Israeli neighbor in Park Slope. She then squeezes my leg harder and I once again come back, remembering instantly that I am far from Brooklyn, far from the comforts of my stoop and my former neighbor.

I have never met her before, but I knew to trust the folks who brought me to her. Or did they bring her to me? My body and my being jolt at the realization that I are unable to recall. I don’t even know how they found me. Did someone else bring them to me first? Did they give me the rice and beans? If not, who did?

My brain hiccups, momentarily halting my shaking, and her grip on my leg tightens again. I look up into her eyes, trying desperately to focus on her, and only then do I realize that she has been speaking to me since I sat down. I realize that I trust her too, that I trust her completely, and that I don’t know why but it does not matter. I try with everything I have to tune into her voice long enough to actually hear.

“I want you to follow my finger. And remember to breathe.”

I start to breathe, and I follow her finger. Up, down, left, right. Over and over and over again. And suddenly time and consciousness start to blur even further, and all that remains in that moment is darkness, repetition, and a consistent reminder to breathe. Not only does darkness envelop the moment, but the moment envelops into itself and by the time I think I’ve come back I don’t know whether I had just lost minutes or hours, or what actually transpired in that little shack once she started to move her finger and talk.

At one point, the sagging plate lost the battle with the rice and beans, but the plate was subtle enough in its surrender that I didn’t even notice as I followed her finger, clinging to her words, trying desperately to simply remain.

And when she concluded, when she let go of my leg with a release of finality and a pat, I did come back, or at least I thought I did at the time. It would take me many years to accept the fact that I could never truly come back from such a thing, but at that moment enough of my being was restored that I could potentially fathom the idea of walking out of the little shack on my own two feet and continuing on with whatever it was that one is supposed to do after they brush up so closely with death.

I can’t even speak, can’t even comprehend, can’t even find words to thank her. I simply start to shake and cry uncontrollably. She reaches over and embraces me, soothing me with both her arms and her voice. I drop the plate of rice and beans to the floor and allow myself to simply be held.

And then I slowly come to and open my eyes and I’m once again staring at a wooden slatted door. The variety of noises and voices behind that door snap me instantly back as I realize that I’m sitting on a toilet seat in a bathroom stall at the DoubleTree and there are people in line waiting their turn. And I can’t help but note the irony in that just as in the very moment that I had just re-lived, once again I have no idea whether I’ve been sitting there for minutes or for hours and I can’t stop shaking.

I quickly slap some water on my face in an attempt to bring myself back, hurrying as I realize that I have no idea how long I’ve been out of my booth. I look in the mirror for a minute to make sure I look presentable enough to fake it for the next few hours, and as I breathe a sigh of relief at the person reflected back it occurs to me that everything I have become, everything I have been able to sustain, everything I hold and have kept intact would likely have not been possible, would possibly not be at all if not for her intervention.

You likely owe her your life, I confided to my mirror-self, finally giving voice to a truth that I had been holding this entire time but could never actually admit.

I walk out of the bathroom and past the info table, trying my best to shake off the intensity of what had just occurred, while trying even harder at a subconscious level to deny the very actuality of any of it. Unlike my struggles around the luxury of coincidence, blocking this reality out had become an effective and reliable short-term coping mechanism over the years. As I walk around the info table, I absentmindedly stare blankly toward the smaller tables that are positioned right outside the vendor room, and as I turn at the end of the info table toward the vendor room door my gaze inadvertently drifts to the left.

And there she is, sitting right next to the door, looking right at me.

The wise woman, the desert warrior. The one who I had just reminded my mirror-self had likely saved my life. The one who holds my truth. The only one who knows that one piece of my story better than I do. There she is, thirty feet from the bathroom, sitting right there next to the door.

My mind flashes back to the shack again as I stare at her in disbelief. For once, I couldn’t fathom trying to dismiss the enormous significance of her presence, especially in congruity with the flashback I just had and the realization while staring in the mirror. My body starts to shake as my stomach pulls itself into the tightest knot imaginable.

She recognizes me and her face immediately lights up. I pull up a chair and sit down, pulling the chair in tight next to her so as not to block the flow of traffic. She reaches across to hug me and once again I am momentarily pulled back to the shack, to the grip on my leg and the embrace and the plate of rice and beans that slipped from my hand. I hug her back while kicking my left leg with my right foot in a desperate attempt to once again remain while doing everything in my power to compose myself emotionally, acutely aware that we are in a very public space.

“How have you been?” she asks me softly after we finished embracing.

My mouth opens and words start to flow out, uncontrollably at first. I’m not able to harness what’s coming out; nor does it present itself in any easily identifiable order, but she seems to understand me all the same. I babble, she nods, time blurs once more. I shift from kicking my shin to crushing my left toes with my right heel, trying to be conscious of physical impact while lacking any other way to keep myself in my skin. I breathe. I try to calm. Eventually my heel relaxes. Eventually my babbling ceases.

“I think of you often, always wonder how you are doing,” she says, and I finally lose control and briefly burst into tears.

“Sometimes I’m fine, but lately… all of it… it’s just too much, too much meaning… it’s so suffocating…. it suffocates me whether I accept it or deny it. And I can’t turn it off, it never stops, never. Even just now. Right here, the fact that you’re here and I’m here right now, there it is again. I can’t escape it no matter where I turn.”

“No, perhaps you can’t escape it”, she said. “But I know in my heart that you will figure out what you need to do to process it all, to understand and heal from it all. You just mentioned to me a moment ago that you’re a writer now. Maybe you just need to try writing about it.”

“The very thought terrifies the shit out of me,” I said softly.

“And that’s exactly why you need to do it,” she said with a smile.

*     *     *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

I. The Silence (December 2013)

It was the last city council meeting of the year on a frigid, snowy evening two weeks before Christmas, and the immediate future of the Whoville encampment was on the line. A few days earlier, the police department had made public its intentions to evict the 50-person camp sometime within the coming weeks.

The thought of so many people being tossed back onto the streets around Christmas time had prompted a community response unlike any I had seen before up to that point. In the hour or so before the meeting, the plaza outside City Hall quickly became a crowded scene with protests, press conferences, and media interviews simultaneously occurring as council members started to filter into the building.

As I walked back and forth between people and cameras and bursts of energy, my stream of attention kept being interrupted by a sole figure, one of the few faces in the plaza that I had never seen or met before. She stood silently amongst the chaos in the center of the plaza, bracing against the wind and the cold, holding a sign that said, “Have Mercy”.

There was something about her presence, something about her simplicity in the moment that made me pause every single time I walked by her. Others noticed as well, nodding toward her as they passed in recognition of the space she was holding. When I walked by her for the last time on my way into the building, I felt a small lump form in my throat.

havemercy

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

There were nearly fifty speakers that night, most who used their two minutes passionately pleading the Council to spare the encampment. Halfway through the speakers, an unfamiliar name was called, and I looked up to see the woman from the plaza, holding her sign as she approached the podium.

She stepped up, held her sign up to the council, and spoke softly into the microphone.

“What about those of us who aren’t safe within four walls? What about those of us for whom a tent is our home?”

And for the next minute and forty-nine seconds, she held the entire room in silence.

The effect on the crowd was immediate and profound. Within seconds, I saw people start to stiffen, tear up, grab the hand of the person next to them. Others closed their eyes, a few with their hands in prayer formation. As I looked around, I felt my stomach tighten as the lump in my throat grew larger.

When I looked up at the Mayor and the Council, however, I saw a very different sight. They sat in obvious discomfort, and their facial expressions ranged from forced smiles to wide-eyed looks of terror. In all the years I had attended Council meetings in this town, in all the dozens of times that I had stood at that podium and attempted to appeal to their consciences through my words, and in all the times I had watched others more powerful than myself do the same, I had never seen the Council anywhere near as affected as it was in that moment. I kept my eyes straight on the Council members, watching them sweat out the seconds.

As the powers-that-be shifted uncomfortably in their seats, the entire room was holding a communal energy of great power, and she was at the center, anchoring that power from her physical position directly between the figures of authority in front of her and the populace behind her.

After what seemed like an eternity in a moment, the two-minute buzzer broke the spell that she had held over the room, and immediately the Council members snapped out of their discomfort. The crowd, on the other hand, stared at her in awe as she walked down from the podium towards the back of the room, several of them with tears streaming down their faces.

I was also in awe, and tears were streaming down my face as well.

*   *   *

The encampment was not only spared through Christmas, it held on for another three months after that. And while I have no doubt that it was a variety of factors that swayed the Council towards that decision, my mind consistently goes back to that 109-second moment in time when a young woman demanded mercy from those in power by so effectively holding silence.

II. The Noise (A Few Weeks Later)

The phone woke me out of a sound sleep. I quickly reached over and fumbled for it, instinctively sensing that it was an emergency and not a wrong number.

“Alley? Are you there? You need to get down here. Please.”

The caller was panicked and in tears, but I still recognized the voice immediately as one of the local street kids who was camped down by the river a few miles away.

“Stitch? What’s going on?” I asked.

“It’s Casey. He needs to get to the hospital. I need your help. Please.”

I sat up and shook myself awake, trying to make sense of what was occurring. I momentarily wondered why Stitch had called me instead of 911, but the terrified urgency in his voice quickly overrode my need for details at that moment.

“I’ll be right there,” I said and hung up the phone, scanning the room for my waterproof boots. As I briefly recalled the two-hundred foot stretch of mud between their campsite and the nearest navigable path, I looked out at the pouring rain and mentally prepared myself for a potentially soaking and treacherous trek. I found my boots, threw them on, and five minutes later I was driving towards the riverbank.

The sun started to peek out from behind me as I drove, and as I pulled into the parking lot closest to their location I was granted exactly enough light to safely navigate the terrain before me. I ran down the hill toward the path and then across the tracks where I knew to climb up and cut into the woods. From there, a maze of endless mud pits and boulders eventually led me to their encampment, nestled between the tracks and the river, so well-hidden that they had avoided detection for nearly a year at that point.

photo-500x373

[Photo Credit: A Valkyrie]

Stitch was standing outside one of the tents as I approached. He waved me over and bent down toward the tent next to him. I stooped down and peered in, and saw Casey keeled over, rocking in pain as he struggled to breathe. His skin was pale and clammy and he was severely disoriented.

“He’s been fighting bronchitis and pneumonia for a few months now, and he’s been super weak,” Stitch told me when I climbed back up. “We took him over to the ER last week, but they wouldn’t admit him. And then we couldn’t get him to the clinic last Sunday because we didn’t have a ride, and then he got real bad the other day. I called 911 yesterday, but they told me that they couldn’t dispatch anyone out here without an address or exact location.”

I glanced around and thought for a moment. The nearest “address” was the car dealership nearest to the parking lot where I had left my car.

“Can you drive him to the hospital?”

I shook my head. “I can’t safely transport him in my vehicle. And I’m not sure that you and I can even carry him safely up there. But I’m going to get someone to come down here and help.”

I took off back through the woods, dialing 911 on my phone as I reached the top of the path near the parking lot. I described Casey’s symptoms to the dispatcher and gave the address of the car dealership.

As a fire truck pulled into the driveway I waved them over toward the back lot. The truck followed me up to the point where the lot ended and the hill down to the path began, but the driver stopped as soon as I started waving them down the hill. I turned around and ran back up the hill as he started to climb out of the vehicle.

“What is this?” he yelled angrily as I approached.

“I’m about to ask you the same thing,” I replied, matching his anger. I pointed down the hill. “He’s back in there. I’ll lead you there to him. Come on.” I turned to head back down the hill.

“Back there? Down by the riverbank? Like in a homeless camp?” He scoffed without waiting for me to answer. “No, absolutely not, we’re not going down there.”

For a second I was in utter disbelief as to what I had just heard, but quickly snapped out of it and turned back around, furious.

“That man down there has been sick for weeks, and if he doesn’t get to the hospital, I truly think he’s going to die down there. And making sure he gets to the hospital is YOUR JOB. So do your damn job and get back behind the wheel and follow me down there. OK?”

He glanced back at his colleague for a moment, who shook his head. “Where is he, at the bottom of this hill? Can’t he get himself up here? We came to check him out, but I’m not driving down there.”

Check him out? It was clear from his tone, his language, and the lack of an ambulance on site that not only was he convinced that Casey’s current condition was not serious, he was annoyed at being sent out for what he was viewing as a welfare check at a homeless camp.

I momentarily tried to control myself but then just exploded in anger.

“No, he can’t get himself up here. This is an emergency. That’s why I called 911. I don’t know what the hell your problem is, but I’m telling you right now that if you don’t go down there and do your f**king job, getting fired will be the least of your worries. You will regret this more than you can possibly begin to imagine, mark my word.”

I stood there, shaking, as shocked as he was at what had just come from my mouth. He muttered a string of obscenities under his breath and turned back towards the truck. Glaring at me angrily, he started it up and slowly started to drive down the hill. I ran ahead to guide them toward the path.

At the intersection, the truck stopped and the driver jumped out once again. “We can’t drive past here,” he said, pointing at the narrow path ahead. “Where is he?”

“He’s way back in the woods there,” I replied, pointing down the path. They followed me to the tracks on foot but once they saw me start to climb up the dirt ledge they once again shook their heads.

“That’s not a path,” one of them said. “Where’s the path?”

“There is no other path. This is it,” I said and continued climbing up.

At that moment, I heard Stitch yell from the woods. I turned around toward the voice, and saw him struggling toward us with Casey on his back. Everyone helped to lower Casey down, and as soon as the driver saw Casey’s condition his expression immediately shifted from annoyance to grave concern as he reached for his radio to call for an ambulance. They quickly ferried Casey up the hill past Stitch and I. We hobbled after them, struggling to keep up.

A minute or two later, the ambulance pulled away with Casey in the back on his way to the hospital. Stitch and I were soaked to the bone and covered in mud, and as we made our way back up to the top of the hill I offered to take him back to my place to shower and clean up. He accepted, and as we got to my van I made another phone call, this time to a fellow advocate and trusted friend.

“Hey. Can you go to the ER and meet Casey there? He’s in the ambulance now on his way and I’m soaked and covered in mud and I don’t trust that they’ll actually treat him unless someone who they perceive as having power is insisting on it. At least that’s been the theme so far this morning, and I’m not taking any chances at this point.”

“Of course. No need to explain, I’m headed there right now,” she replied in a soothing voice. “Go home and take care of yourself. Are you OK? What happened?”

“I’ll explain later, but long story short, I’m now more aware than ever that the existing power structures are perfectly willing to simply let someone suffer and die unless and until someone else with social capital makes a whole lot of noise about it.”

III. The Echoes (Recently)

Staring out the window of the train, I tried hard to fight back feelings of hopelessness and déjà vu. I was headed down to Eugene for the first time in many months after receiving the news that yet another acquaintance had died on the street, this time only a few blocks away from where I last had lived down there.

Despite nearly two years and a hundred-plus miles of distance between myself and the community at hand, the news had brought on the same level of pain, emotional turmoil and crushing secondary trauma that had been a constant throughout my years in Eugene. I felt numb and dissociated, haunted with the helplessness that comes with knowing that no matter how hard I fought, no matter how hard we all pushed, people we loved were still going to die on the streets no matter what we did. And while I knew this trip was necessary in order to process and deal with my emotions, I was also dreading it. I didn’t want to face it, I didn’t want to process it. At that moment, I simply wanted to forget it.

When the train stopped in Albany, an older man sat down next to me. He immediately pulled out a large sketchbook and started to draw, connecting his new lines to an already complex series of miniature abstract images. Ordinarily I would have been fascinated, but in my numbness I was simply relieved that he was keeping to himself as I didn’t have it in me for small talk. I kept my head toward the window and tried to empty my mind as much as possible, but after a few minutes I sensed that I was being stared at.

I turned my head. My instinct was correct, he was staring right at me.

“Are you an artist?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Do you know the Dali painting, the one with the melting clocks?” he asked me.

I nodded again, warily but obediently, sensing immediately that I did not have the luxury of ignoring him.

He smiled. “It’s about the balance and paradox of time and memory, you know. And power. That painting, it’s called The Persistence of Memory. Think about that, that’s important. Because it’s the memory that persists. The time, even the place is often irrelevant. The power is carried in the memory. What you do now matters later, what you have done in the past may matter significantly at some point in the future.”

“It not only persists, but it perseveres,” he continued. “I like to riff off of Dali sometimes, and I often remind myself of the perseverance of memory. Actions become memories, and those memories seep into the cracks, like Dali’s clocks are seeping down. They lie in wait as seeds down there, and then they sprout when you least expect them to. Sometimes, long after I lose hope, I then learn that seeds that I planted end up bearing valuable fruit.”

He paused for a moment. “It’s like sound, right? From my perspective, my scream ends not long after I stop screaming. But whether I hear it or not, that scream echoes, and my lack of perception of that echo has no effect on whoever may hear that echo and whoever may be affected by that echo. The echoes retain power long after I let go.”

I wasn’t sure if he knew who I was and was offering specific advice to me, or if he was merely offering random babbling wisdom to a random stranger as some folks around here tend to do. But at that moment his words took on an entire universe of meaning.

He smiled at me while nodding and went back to his drawing. I sat there, dumbfounded but no longer numb, not knowing what to do or think other than to take out a notebook and write his words down as accurately as I possibly could.

*   *   *

A few hours later, I was walking downtown near the bus station when I heard someone yell my name from behind. I turned around and there was Casey, running toward me with a big grin on his face. He grabbed me for a hug and started to talk a mile a minute.

“I’ve been looking all over for you! They told me you left town. Oh my god I’m so glad I found you. I’ve been housed up for six months now just north of Mapleton. You need to come visit me. I was finally able to get SSI and OHP and my pneumonia’s been clear for a year now and I’ve got this great place on a piece of land right not far from the river. Let me tell you how to get there. So you know where the main intersection is right? At 126? OK, so you make a right so you’re going north…”

I became too overwhelmed at that moment to follow his words. I had known through friends that Casey had disappeared from Eugene the summer before, but nobody I knew had heard from him and I had feared the worst. But not only was he alive, he was healthy, housed, and looked ten years younger than the last time I had seen him.

I burst into tears and hugged him while thanking every god that was listening for this beautiful moment, this rare happy ending. I thought back to that horrible rainy morning on the riverbank, and then thought of the words of the man on the train earlier that afternoon, and I hugged Casey even tighter.

Hope. Time. Persistence. Perseverance. Echoes.

*   *   *

The following afternoon, when I got to the station for my train back to Portland, I learned it had been delayed another hour. I was hungry, so I headed to the bar across the street from the station.

visitor7

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I ordered a beer and some chicken fingers, sat a few seats away from everyone else, and glanced around while sipping my drink. Immediately I noticed a man at the end of the bar staring intently in my direction with a look of recognition in his eyes.

I averted my eyes and immediately cursed the train for being late. Drunken confrontations in public establishments were one of many reasons I had left Eugene in the first place, as my political work had eventually made me into a target and I had no longer felt safe in public. I saw him rise up from the barstool and walk toward me, and I tensed up as my heart started to pound, instinctively anticipating conflict.

He sat down next to me and ordered another drink, I could tell immediately that he was on at least his third or fourth. He turned toward me. I kept my head down as the bartender watched us both warily from a short distance away.

“What, are you afraid of me or something?” he asked me after a moment.

I opened my mouth to snap back, paused, swallowed my words, and started again, realizing in my initial sputter that this was a moment where surrender might be more effective than defensiveness.

“Yes, actually, I am afraid,” I replied as steadily and calmly as I could muster. “You seem to know who I am, so you probably know I get yelled at a lot, so yes, in this moment I am afraid of you and I am afraid of conflict. In my experience, when someone spots me from across a bar and comes over to talk, it usually doesn’t end well.”

His eyes widened for a moment, and then he started to laugh. “Well, I’m not going to yell at you,” he said, his voice slightly slurred. “But I must say that your response is a bit amusing, considering that you got up in my face and yelled at me once. And I never would have admitted it then, but I’ll tell you straight up here and now that you scared the living crap out of me.”

I looked into his eyes, examining his facial features as I pleaded with my memory to cooperate. While he seemed vaguely familiar, I could neither place him nor the incident he had just referenced. He laughed some more as he took another swig of beer.

“Let’s see….” he started, with obvious amusement in his voice. “I believe your exact words were… ‘if you don’t go down there and do your effing job, getting fired will be the least of your worries…’ “

My memory jolted and my stomach clenched up immediately, the incident with Casey at the riverbank already fresh on my mind after running into him the day before.

“Ah. Yes. Of course,” I said as calmly as possible.

I literally have no idea what to say, I thought to myself. I wasn’t sure if he was looking for an apology or a punching bag, but I was determined not to cater to either role despite my fear.

“I literally have no idea what to say,” I then blurted aloud to him.

He gulped down the rest of his drink, waved at the bartender, and pointed at the empty glass for a refill.

“You don’t need to say anything to me. You were in the right that day.”

I looked up at him, shocked at what I had just heard.

He continued. “Yep, you were absolutely in the right. My behavior was inexcusable that morning, and what sickens me most in hindsight is that such behavior was typical, everyday reaction for me. It was normalized.”

He looked at me for a moment with a look of distress and then continued. “And your reaction was also normalized to your situation. Not only were you  in the right, but the very fact that you knew you had to be there in order for him to get the help he needed…that is what sickens me the most.”

His voice had suddenly gotten quite loud, and the bartender looked over again and raised an eyebrow at me. We’re fine, I mouthed towards her as he continued on.

“Heh, yeah, I can see that now. I couldn’t see it then, but I do see it all differently now. And that morning was a part of that. I didn’t get it immediately. But now, nowadays…”

I still had no idea what to say. My heart was still pounding although my fear had subsided, and my mind was racing in a million directions at once. He shifted on the barstool, sat back and looked at me quizzically for a moment. Suddenly his face softened and he leaned in toward me.

“I’m sorry I scared you. I’m sure that lots of folks aren’t nice to you at all. But I still have to laugh a bit. To be honest, based on that morning I didn’t think you knew how to be scared.”

I finally knew what I wanted to say. Well, to be honest, based on that morning I didn’t think you knew how to be kind or compassionate. So let this stand for both of us as a moment in time when our surface-level assumptions were satisfactorily disproven…

And yet I bit my tongue and only shrugged, hoping that this was one of those moments where silence would speak louder than noise.

At that moment, the train pulled into the station, announcing itself with a deafening blast of the whistle. I grabbed my bag, pointed toward the train and nodded, and made a quick exit.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: Names and minor identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

I. The Other

“I don’t practice what I preach because I’m not the kind of person I’m preaching to.”Rev. Ivan Stang

Sitting on my patio, I looked up from the clay in my hands and was suddenly and immediately awestruck by the silence. For a moment, the entire street symphony was quiet: the birds, the cars, the workers on the Broadway Bridge, the pedestrians, it was though the volume had been suddenly turned down for dramatic effect. I looked around and down towards the street, surprised by the silence, and it was at that moment a truck came roaring by out of nowhere, hit the loose pothole right outside my building, and set off the car alarm for the fourth time that day.

I looked down towards the car from my third-floor balcony, enraged. I knew exactly which vehicle it was, license plate number and all, as I had been directing my anger towards that car on a near-daily basis for several months now. It was a beat-up black Honda, one of those late-80s models with the exaggerated black rear window louvers, and its alarm went off nearly every time without fail whenever a truck directly hit the lose pothole.

The view from my balcony. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

The view from my balcony. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

The car had been a constant source of my frustration and rage since the first week that I settled into this unit, having moved from a smaller unit upstairs at the beginning of last summer. Other than the constant car alarm, the unit and the streetscape that accompanied it were exactly to my liking, which in retrospect I realize only further aggravated my anger towards the car. It was the only nuisance in an otherwise ideal scenario.

The alarm stopped for a few seconds and then started up again. My mind started to rant, presenting the same line of questions that came forth every time I got aggravated over the alarm. How can the owner not know it’s going off all day? What kind of person acts so inconsiderately towards their neighbors and their neighborhood? I can’t be the only one pissed off about this.

I stood up and looked over the balcony, noticing as I rose that my instinctive reaction had become a ritualized routine at this point: Truck goes by; alarm goes off. I get up as my mind starts to rant. I look down at the car in anger; beam rage down from the balcony; contemplate filing a noise complaint; remember that it won’t have any effect; fantasize about having the car towed; silently curse the owner under my breath; and then get back to whatever I was doing until the next time the alarm goes off.

In consciously realizing the pattern I decided to interrupt it at that moment. Instead of stepping into the cycle that I had just identified, I went inside, closed the door, and turned up the music. My housemate looked at me quizzically.

“Its that Gods-damned car alarm,” I said. “Every time I hear it, all I want to do is throw a brick at that miserable excuse for a car. This has been going on for months! When’s it going to stop?”

He looked out the window towards the street below for a moment and then shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t even notice it,” he said. “I mean now I do, because you pointed it out…”

If only I didn’t notice it, I thought to myself.

I grabbed my jacket and went out for a walk, hoping that by walking it off I could drain the frustration out as well.

As I walked, the rant between my ears carried on. How does the owner not know that their alarm is broken? Can’t they disable the alarm? If it goes off here constantly, it must be going off anywhere they park. How does a person not figure out that it’s their car? I mean, they have to know, right? Which means that they’re just an inconsiderate excuse for a human being, and they don’t care that someone like me has to hear it all day. I hate people. Dammit, I hate people so much…

I allowed the stream of consciousness to fade out as I started to physically tire, and I could feel the anger had mostly drained away. After a few hours I turned back toward my building, making mental notes of the patterns and emotions that I had just experienced in the hopes that I could react more rationally the next time the alarm went off.

I was a half-block from my building, walking directly below my balcony on the sidewalk, when a car pulled into a space a few feet in front of me. I was so deep in my head that I almost walked past it when I noticed the telltale black louvers out of the back of my eye.

My heart and my stomach jumped at the same time, as my anger immediately rushed right back in. This was the car. And the driver is inside.

I froze and stared at the car, realizing that in all the months of anger and frustration and rage that I had never actually conceived of this moment in my mind, never thought that I would actually ever be face-to-face with the person responsible for the constant interruptions that had plagued me since the summer. What do I do? What do I even say?

The door opened, and the driver stepped out. I shifted immediately from anxiety and anger to bewilderment and shock. The driver that just emerged from the car was my former neighbor from across the hall when I lived upstairs – a sweet, elderly, nearly-deaf woman who I befriended and interacted with on a daily basis when I lived in my old unit.

Instantly, the entire situation explained itself, and my consistent internal questions were answered. Of course, I said to myself. She can’t hear the alarm from inside the building. She probably doesn’t hear it if she’s more than ten feet away. It then occurred to me that even if she did know that her alarm was broken, fixing it would be a great challenge as she lives on a fixed income and did not seem to have family nearby. As it was, she collected cans in the building to supplement her income.

She saw me, smiled, and waved. I waved back, barely noticing that I was returning the physical gesture as feelings of guilt and nausea swept over me. I immediately thought of how may times I had been tempted to call the police; how many times I had wanted to have the car towed; the amount of anger and hate and frustration that I had exerted towards an unknown entity, the ‘other’, who had turned out to be a friend.

She continued to grin as she walked toward me, and I had to remind myself that she was unaware of my internal transgressions. She had no idea that I had been wildly fantasizing for months about throwing a large object from the balcony onto her car. She nodded hello and I nodded back and, in my awkwardness of the moment, I offered to help her with her bags. She accepted, and we walked in silence up to her apartment.

After I dropped her bags off at her front door, I went back to my place and completely fell apart. It wasn’t just the immediate situation, but a much harsher feeling of hypocrisy and a failure to live up to my own standards. As someone whose work for years has been rooted in demystifying and breaking down ideas and prejudices around the ‘Other,’ I had fallen into the identical trap that I have spent countless hours of my life writing, teaching, arguing, and lecturing on. I had demonized the unknown based on a personal inconvenience, and spent months projecting my anger and rage onto that Other, only to find out that the Other was actually not only a friend, but one of the most vulnerable people I know.

While the car alarm had been a legitimate annoyance, one could argue that the homeless man who plays bucket drums on the downtown was a comparable annoyance – the man who I see being yelled at all day by working folks who scream “get a job”. And I have always stood as the constant defender of him and others like him, always conscious of the fact that the anger projected at him is much greater than the annoyance warrants, always aware that such anger is being displaced onto him because he represents the Other.

I sat with that hypocrisy and with that discomfort for what seemed like endless hours, finally passing out only to enter into a dreamland in which my conscience and hypocrisy were at the forefront.

The next morning when the car alarm went off, I immediately felt a guilty pang upon first hearing it but then found that I could almost immediately tune it out. Later in the day, when it went off again, I was instantly able to tune it out, which was relieving on one level but also made me even more uneasy on another. I thought of my housemate, who is able to tune it out every time, and I realized that my past overreactions and my prior inability to tune it out had everything to do with my displaced rage and little to do with the actual annoyance factor of the sound itself.

Against the other regular sounds that float in off the balcony, the alarm suddenly seemed no louder nor more prominent than anything else in the immediate sonic landscape. I knew deep down that it has everything to do with the fact that I now immediately connect the sound to a vulnerable friend who lives in poverty, as opposed to the unknown, horrible, mythically inconsiderate person that I had built up in my head. I could see clearly what had happened; I could see and understand and explain the trap that I had fallen into. But understanding it did nothing for my conscience and my anxiety.

In hindsight, at that moment I was in the midst of yet another repeat lesson that I hadn’t realized that I needed. For the rational mind can explain and justify and forgive, but it has little effect on the psyche as a whole if the emotional mind throws up enough roadblocks.

*     *     *

A few days later, I met a friend down by the waterfront and spilled the whole tale.

“On a intellectual level, I recognize how powerful social conditioning is, I recognize that no matter how much work we do we can never root out that conditioning completely, and I know that to dehumanize the Other is deeply rooted in that conditioning. And yet despite recognizing that, I’m having a hard time forgiving myself. No matter how strong the conditioning, the fact is that I still caught myself red-handed not practicing what I preach, and when I look at how easily I fell into that trap, I feel like perhaps I haven’t embodied the lessons that I teach as much as I thought I did.”

She thought for a minute, and then spoke.

“Or maybe the fact that you can never embody it fully, that no matter what you do you will always be somewhat susceptible to that conditioning, maybe that’s the lesson you needed to learn instead.”

 II. The Self

I remember when I first encountered anthropocentrism. I was in primary school and, in preparation for our confirmation, the class was learning about the afterlife.John Burnside

It was one of the most powerful learning experiences of my life, powerful enough that it reverberates just as deeply over fifteen years later as it did the time the lesson first sank in.

“Go out for a walk in the park, make it a long one,” he instructed me. “And while you are out, concentrate fully on everything occurring around you, and assume that every single thing that you notice, that occurs in your presence, that falls across your path, is a message from the Gods. Absorb as much as you can, and come back to me when you can’t hold onto any more of it.”

And so I went out on a beautiful spring day into Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and spent the next several hours divining my environment according to instruction, taking in everything I saw as a significant symbol or trail of meaning. As I made my way through the park, reading the swaying of the trees and the patterns of the birds, I hit a moment of what felt like enlightenment, a spiritual breakthrough, a place of true power.

The Nethermead at Prospect Park. Photo by Garry R. Osgood

The Nethermead at Prospect Park. [Photo Credit: Garry R. Osgood]

The entire park is speaking to me, I though to myself. I am in communication with the universe as a whole. We are one, we are connected, we can read each other’s thoughts. All the archetypal notions of woman as witch, woman as connected to nature, the universality of the divine – at that moment all were at the forefront.

I headed back to my teacher, intoxicatingly high on what I had perceived as the ultimate taste of power and divinity, floating on air and my own ego as I approached his house. He opened the door as I walked up the porch stairs, took one look at me, and his face immediately fell.

“Dammit,” he said, shaking his head while also trying to stifle a smile. “I should have known. This is just like when I gave my son the whiskey.”

“Wait, what? Whiskey? What are you…”

My voice drifted off as I stood there, my face reflecting my complete and utter confusion, a confusion that brought me down from my metaphysical high almost instantly.

He laughed. “When I was young, maybe ten or eleven, I was walking with my mother one day and we saw some of the older kids in my neighborhood drinking in a nearby alleyway. There was something about it that intrigued me as we walked past, I started asking my mother about alcohol and drinking and all of that business. So when we get home, she asks me if I want to try some alcohol. I was stunned… and confused, of course… why was she offering me something that was forbidden?

“So of course I say yes. She hands me a bottle and I take a foolishly big gulp, and it was the most horrifying taste and sensation I had ever experienced in my entire life. I immediately vomited and started to cry, and I didn’t dare try alcohol again until I was well in my college years. Meanwhile, those kids who drank in the alley all the time, they never made it to college. And of course as I got older I recognized why she did what she did, as unorthodox as it was, and I recognized how effective it was on me as a kid. It made me a believer in preventative measures.

“So when my son first showed curiosity around alcohol, I repeated the lesson. I handed him a bottle of cheap, cheap whiskey, the kind that tortures your insides no matter your disposition, and he took the same big swig that I did as kid. But unlike me, his eyes immediately lit up as it went down. He loved it, I remember him licking it off his lips. I remember standing there in horror – what had I done?”

He paused for a moment and then smiled. “My son, though, I raised him right, and he understood that his reaction was the exception to the rule, and that my intent was to keep him on the right path, and he internalized what I had intended in the lesson despite that lesson backfiring in reality. He stayed away from the troublemakers in the neighborhood and went on to finish college like I did.”

“But what does this have to do with me?” I asked.

He smiled again and paused to collect his thoughts. “Well, I basically sent you out there hoping it would have the same effect as a bitter gulp of whiskey, so to speak. But you reacted just like my son. I can tell that you loved it.”

I thought back to the intoxicating high I felt during my journey in the park. “I did love it. That was amazing. But I still don’t quite understand what you’re getting at.”

He waved me inside and we sat down at the table, the tea already set out for two in anticipation of my return. I took a few sips and he started to speak again.

“The reason its like the whiskey is because I intentionally gave you an exercise that in a sense was supposed to make you sick. Not vomiting sick, but anyone else I’ve ever sent into that park has come back here either physically exhausted, angrily frustrated, or teetering on the edge of madness. But you, you’re happy and glowing like you just came back from a successful first date.”

He continued. “When one works with place, with the land, with the land spirits, its very easy to fall into the trappings of anthropocentrism. The connections forged in an ongoing relationship with the land, the ongoing process of learning to read signs and symbols, it can open up a dangerous space where we as the spirit worker become convinced that the universe and the gods and the spirits are speaking to us at every moment of every day.

“The universe is always speaking, yes. Absolutely. It is relaying messages at every moment of every day in every corner of existence. But neither you as an individual nor us humans as a whole are necessarily the intended target or recipient of those messages. And yet, many fall into that trap where they are convinced that every leaf, ever feather that falls in front of them carries a crucial meaning, and it is those unfortunate souls that tend to descend into either narcissism or madness.”

I nodded. I thought back once more to that feeling that carried me through the park, but this time I immediately recognized its potential danger.

“So yes,” he continued. “Again, the universe is always speaking, but the point is that its not always speaking to you, and the intended lesson was that opening oneself to the idea that they are the center of the universe does not end well. Sometimes the Gods are trying to get your attention, and sometimes the squirrels are just chasing a leaf and it has nothing to do with you whatsoever.

“And yet I feel that we both learned unintended but powerful lessons today. You are smart, as smart as my son if not more. And I have no doubt that you understand the lesson in its intent just as my son did. You’re just going to learn it a little differently in its application. Like my son, you will need to keep in mind how much you liked that forbidden taste, which may make resisting it a bit more challenging.”

You’re just going to learn it a little differently, I repeated to myself.

“Wait, going to learn it?” I asked. “I thought I just learned it. “

He laughed. “You have. But you’ll learn it again and again before you’re done, my dear. Lessons like these don’t begin and end, they hover constantly and tap you on the shoulder when you need another reminder.”

*     *     *

I was walking home from downtown last month when I decided to take a detour, making my way down to the riverfront so that I could walk through Waterfront Park towards the Steel Bridge.

Waterfront Park in downtown Portland. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Waterfront Park in downtown Portland. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie.]

It had been one of those days where the planet seemed off and the land felt shifty somehow, as though the place itself was tense in expectation. I couldn’t help but internalize that feeling as I did my errands that day, feeling myself slip into moments of uncertainty and paranoia, and everything that fell before my path seemed to confirm or further validate what I was feeling.

I was nervous, started to quicken my pace towards home, when I suddenly heard a racket out of nowhere coming from the seagulls above my head. I looked up for a split second and quickly did a double-take.

The air was full of seagulls, but they were flying haphazardly through the air, swooping unnecessarily and chaotically as they circled the immediate area. They reminded me at once of stunt pilots, swooping through the air to dazzle and amaze the crowd. But these were birds, not airplanes, and in all my years of concentrating on the flights of birds, I had never seen birds act like this before. I thought back to the uneasy feeling I had been noticing all afternoon, and as I continued to watch the birds I slowly and surely became absolutely terrified.

I watched as two gulls nearly crashed into each other, and the one that was nearly hit responded by darting up and then nose-diving straight into the river.

My mind started to race. Are we about to have an earthquake? Is a meteor about to hit? A hurricane? I looked around to see if there were any other animals acting oddly in the vicinity. A couple was walking their dogs down the riverfront path, oblivious to what I was witnessing. Their dogs were also oblivious, ambling along and sniffing the path without a care in the world.

I looked up again. The seagulls were still flying around everywhere, swirling around without end, with some yelling while others bounced from tree to tree in bursts and fits. Did something horrible just happen? Was there a terrorist attack? I pulled out my phone and quickly pulled up the news headlines as my eyes kept focus on the gulls. I then glanced back down for a moment and scanned the page. Nothing unusual, just a few sports games and some kind of international conference.

I looked back up at the sky, my fear growing as I started to think back on all the signs, all the synchronicities, all the feelings that had drifted through and past and before me over the course of the afternoon. I watched as two seagulls landed in front of me, stared blankly at each other while yelling, and then quickly took off and started circling around the nearest tree.

Minutes went past, and I continued to stare at the sky in terror, having no idea how to proceed. I wanted nothing more than to walk away, than to pretend that I never witnessed this and/or that it was simply a random and easily explainable occurrence that held no significant meaning. But my fear would not allow for such a decision. What in the world is going on here? What does it mean? What are they trying to say?

A group of seagulls then landed in front of me, and as I looked down at them I also once again glanced around the immediate vicinity, hoping that someone else was at least witnessing what was occurring in the sky. As I turned and looked behind me, I noticed a group of street kids about twenty feet away, watching me as they were stifling their laughter.

I shot them an angry look. “What are you laughing at?” I pointed at the gulls, who had once again taken to circling around like stunt pilots. “This is not funny. There’s something seriously wrong here. Birds aren’t supposed to do this. I pay attention to the gulls every day and I’ve never in my life seen them do this.”

The street kids started to crack up uncontrollably. “They’re fine, I promise you,” one of them said through his laughter.

“No, they’re really not, they’re not fine at all,” I countered.

“Well, they may not be fine right now, but they’re acting as expected,” he replied

He looked back at his friends for a moment and raised his eyebrows at the group; a few responded with a nod and a shrug. He turned back to face me again.

“Seriously, they’re fine. We just gave them some acid, that’s all.”

I stared at him, shifting from disbelief to anger to relief back to disbelief. I looked up at the birds and then back again at him, and I knew immediately that he was telling the truth.

Suddenly, my fear melted away and an overwhelming wave of relief came over me, a wave of relief so powerful that the part of me that was horrified and disgusted that someone would give psychedelic drugs to seagulls was immediately drowned out and overcome by a feeling of safety. This has nothing to do with me. Not only am I not the intended recipient, this isn’t a message for anyone. This is not an omen, the world is not ending, the universe is not trying to communicate through the seagulls. They’re birds on drugs, that’s all.

I wanted to give the kid a verbal thrashing, but I found myself speechless as the sense of relief started to shift to a feeling of utter foolishness. I can’t believe I fell into that trap, I said to myself as I stood there in front of him. I looked up once again. Oh, gods, I thought. Those poor birds.

He walked back to the group, which was still trying to collectively contain their laughter. And as I walked away towards home, I thought back to the original lesson in the park all those years ago. I continued to hear laughter around me long past the point where the street kids were out of earshot. It was laughter that I admittedly deserved. I could almost hear my teacher’s voice in my head, his commentary slightly altered for the occasion:

Sometimes the Gods are trying desperately to get your attention. But sometimes, the seagulls are just on acid.

III. The Fabric

“All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation.” Walter Benjamin

My morning routine takes me up eighty-one steps to the top of the Broadway Bridge, then down the ramp past the rear of the Post Office Facility toward Lovejoy Street, my eventual destination being a coffee shop a few blocks further down the road. It is a half-mile stretch that I have walked near-daily for over a year now, and there is not an inch of the terrain that I haven’t either studied or committed to memory at this point.

It is that deep familiarity and intimacy with the terrain and its expressions within that half-mile stretch that allow me to quickly lose myself and tune in completely to my surroundings while maintaining enough of an awareness to engage in the varied rituals that have revealed themselves as necessary over the course of many months. Every block and turn in the journey has aspects and signifiers that demand specified attention and, while I go out of my way not to invest too much meaning into any given signifier, I cant help but to ‘read’ my daily walk the way some read the tea leaves at the bottom of their cup each morning.

A week or so after the Paris bombings, I was on the return leg of my daily outing, walking up the ramp that connects Lovejoy Street to the Broadway Bridge, when I looked up at an instinctive spot and noticed an inconsistency in the landscape.

Pigeons on the light-post. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Pigeons on the light-post. [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

The light-post at the top of the ramp is home to a pigeon’s nest, and there is rarely a time that at least a dozen pigeons are not perched on the top of it. Passers-by often notice the pigeons the hard way as they are hit by poo as they walk underneath. After observing this a few times, I started making eye-contact with the pigeons as part of my daily routine, announcing my presence each time I walked under and asking them to grant me a poo-free passage.

On that day, however, when I looked up at the light pole from the bottom of the hill, I noticed that instead of pigeons, there were crows atop the pole, and they were all staring down at something below. There was not a pigeon in sight. I greeted the crows from a distance as I walked towards the pole, reaching into my pocket for some peanuts while looking around to see where the pigeons had gone.

A few steps closer, I was able to see onto the rooftop below the bridge where the crows’ gazes had been fixed for at least a minute now, and from a distance it looked like two pigeons were mating. I laughed at the idea of the crows as voyeurs, assuming that the other pigeons had the decency to grant the pair some privacy, but my amusement quickly turned to shock as the roof came into focus and I once again looked down.

Staring directly at me, less than twenty feet away, was a hawk with a pigeon in its talons, jumping up and down to smother the bird and smash it against the concrete surface while simultaneously squeezing the life out of it. I looked away in horror as I heard the crows editorializing above. I looked up briefly and observed them leering over, and I followed their eyes down as they watched the brutal display on the roof with a rapt fascination.

The hawk and I again locked eyes, and continued to stare for several seconds. The hawk maintained eye contact while continuing to squeeze the life out of the pigeon. I thought back to the seagulls in the park a few weeks prior, and then shifted to the brief and hopeful notion that this was a random occurrence devoid of any significant meaning. And yet I could not unlock my eyes, and the hawk seemingly read my mind and both his gaze and the motions of its talons intensified. At that exact moment, I heard the hawk in the back of my head.

Make no mistake. This one is for you.

I started to shake as once again terror came over me. I felt paralyzed, held there by fear and the realization that I was meant to bear witness, trapped in the gaze of the hawk as the pigeon screamed for its life. I averted my gaze for a split second and looked down at my hand, realizing that I was clenching the peanuts that I had taken out for the crows. I then turned back at the hawk, who was staring bullets through me, its head nodding in a taunting manner as the pigeon continued to struggle between the grip of the hawk’s talons.

At that moment the pigeon let out a horrible, desperate wail, and before I realized what I was doing I flung the peanuts in my hand onto the roof a few feet to the right of the hawk. As the peanuts landed on the roof, the hawk tightened its talons once more, snuffing the rest of the life out of the pigeon, and then took off with the bird in its claws while continuing to stare me down until he flew past.

The crows and the gulls on the light-pole immediately took after the hawk, and out of nowhere came a flock of pigeons, literally screaming for justice as they followed in pursuit behind the crows and the gulls, who chased the hawk under the Broadway Bridge and across the Willamette River.

I stood there, shaking, once again stunned at what I had just witnessed. I glanced around, hoping someone else had seen what I had, but this time there was nobody in sight. Looking down toward the roof, the only evidence of what had just occurred was a scattering of feathers in the exact place where the violent act had unfolded. I then scanned my eyes over toward the river in the direction of the birds, drawing immediate meaning from both the randomness and the significance of the incident as the birds disappeared out of sight.

I walked to the top of the ramp and crossed over toward the bridge and the staircase, briefly stopping to glance back at the path I had just walked. Unlike the other repeated lessons of late, this one needed no explanation, no reference, no external validity. I was all too familiar with what it meant to have a hole torn through the fabric of one’s routine, through one’s illusion of safety, and once again I recognized the value of an old lesson reinforced. I thought of the Paris attacks again and shuddered.

Heading down the stairs, a wild-eyed man was walking up toward me, and I could hear him muttering to himself as we neared each other. “Death, She speaks through the birds,” I heard him say as he brushed past me on the way up.

“Yes, yes, I know,” I muttered back.

*     *     *

Note: Columnist Alley Valkyrie, who has been with The Wild Hunt since 2013, has started her own Patreon account to help enable her to become a full-time writer and artist. 

*     *     *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

[Alley Valkyrie is one of our talented monthly columnists. If you like her stories and want to support her work at The Wild Hunt, please consider donating to our fall fundraising campaign and sharing our IndieGoGo link. There are only 10 days left. It is your wonderful and dedicated support that makes it possible for Alley to be part of our writing team. Thank you so very much.]

I was headed toward a friend’s place for tea, on foot from my place to hers. I wove through Old Town, and then into the heart of downtown, climbing uphill toward the south and west. I followed I-405 as it snaked through the city center and up into the hills.

I first spotted her building from a few blocks away, perched near the base of a hill overlooking the interstate. As I walked across the overpass toward the building, I noticed how the road around the building winded back, seemingly defensively, as though it was holding the building and the hills behind it back from the man-made chasm below. I looked down at the highway for a moment and then back at the building again. The configuration of the streets around and the exits onto the highway were telling; the assortment of dead-ends and winding curves were suggestive of the historic layout of the area prior to the building of the interstate.

When I got to the other side of the overpass, I looked back for a minute, amazed at how what in actuality was the exact length of one city block felt like a much longer distance just then. It was as though I had just crossed over an invisible boundary, a ley line that felt as defensive as the curve of the road had suggested. The building itself, while obviously rooted, seemed to be almost holding on for dear life.

“Do you know how old the building is?“ I asked my friend as she let me in. “Does it pre-date the highway?”

“The building was built in ‘52,” she replied. “I’m not sure about the highway.”

I nodded. I was pretty sure the highway was built in the ‘60s, and the age and curvature of the street that snaked up past the building struck me as older than either the building or the highway. I made a mental note to do some research when I got home.

We had a lovely afternoon over tea and, after I left, I once again distinctly noticed what seemed to be an exaggerated distance and an energetic shift while walking back over the highway. Curious, I decided to follow the 405 again back toward home, but this time paying close attention to the specifics of the twists and turns; the blocks that were taken out; the houses that were obviously and sometimes awkwardly spared; the random dead-end streets that once cut through where the highway now runs.

Older houses on an awkward dead-end street overlooking I-405 [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Older houses on an awkward dead-end street overlooking I-405 [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Fifty years ago, the planning, layout and building of this highway was an event of great controversy that permanently altered the downtown landscape. While every building spared along the route has a potential saga attached as well as a potential tale of power and corruption, it was the structures and blocks that were not spared that most likely carried the most tragic and quickest forgotten stories of them all.

But while those stories are forgotten, the present negative effects of the highway have been a source of local frustration since the highway first opened. An unforgiving scar cutting through the natural topography, the highway is universally recognized as a visual eyesore, a pollution nightmare and a cumbersome structural boundary that awkwardly splits the western half of the city in two. The idea of a freeway cap has been floated around a few times over the years, but as it stands the 405 is a canyon of traffic and white noise, harshly cutting through the body that is downtown while seemingly creating a vortex-like boundary at its various crossings.

As I followed the 405 north past Burnside, I briefly paused and turned down at a familiar spot – the intersection where the highway rises from the ground and starts to elevate. While the elevated highway creates an unwelcoming, imposing shadow, the underpass provides a rare source of shelter to dozens of homeless folks who have nowhere else in the vicinity to stay dry. I walked under to say hello, and to my disgust I found that it had been recently swept by police, most likely that very morning.

 

I-405 underpass, swept by police.

I-405 underpass, swept by police. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

And for the rest of the way home, my mind was preoccupied with patterns and histories of land grabs and displacement.

*  *  *

I-405 runs straight through the heart of downtown Portland. The highway branches off from I-5 just south of the city center, running below grade as it loops around and through the center of downtown, then rises in elevation and eventually over the Fremont Bridge, rejoining I-5 again on the east side of the Willamette River.

I-405 on the left and I-5 on the right in blue, forming a loop through and around Portland. Image by OpenStreetMap

I-405 on the left and I-5 on the right in blue, forming a loop through and around Portland. [Image Credit: OpenStreetMap]

It turned out that my friend’s building did indeed pre-date the highway, and I was able to locate an aerial map from the 1950s that showed the downtown core in its glory several years before they broke ground on the path of the 405. Tracing the current path of the highway over the streets and structures in the photo, I could see how the previous street grid combined with the natural topographic features influenced the eventual path of the cavernous interstate. As I suspected while standing on the overpass earlier that afternoon, the building was the last structure at the edge of the hill that was spared when the highway was built through the neighborhood.

Aerial photo of Portland, circa 1955. The red dashes indicate where I-405 would be built a decade later.

Aerial photo of Portland, circa 1955. The red dashes indicate where I-405 would be built a decade later.

A few days later, I found myself at the corner of NW Glisan and 13th on my way to the reuse store, subconsciously anticipating a ritualized pattern as I hesitated for a moment and summoned my strength before heading westward across the street.

Its not that far, I said to myself, and yet I felt myself resisting, as though I was trying to talk my body into a five-mile hike as opposed to a destination that was less than five blocks away.

Its not that far, I said again, and yet there was something about this last leg of the journey that was consistently overriding my everyday sense of time and distance. It wasn’t just a one-off; I felt this resistance every time I was set to walk west of 13th Street. I looked up at the terrain before me, the small hill that led to the overpass that crosses I-405. Its just a hill, I said to myself.

It has nothing to do with the hill, I said right back to myself, as I realized that this psychic resistance had a counterpart: the walk that I had taken over the same highway on my way to tea a few days prior. It was not the distance, nor the climbing elevation, but the act of walking over the 405 itself that felt so fatiguing.

I walked quickly up the hill and onto the overpass, pausing halfway across. Staring northward at the 405, I closed my eyes for a moment and envisioned the layout of Portland, transposing the route of the highway over that image in my mind. The slightly jagged line, running directly through the center of the natural shape of the land mass, immediately brought to mind an often bare-chested friend who bore a vertical scar down the center of his chest from open-heart surgery. I opened my eyes and chewed on the layers of meaning that sprung from such an image; the highways ripping through the hearts of communities, of neighborhoods, of the city center, the visual scar that the highway leaves on the landscape to remind us of that brutal surgery many years ago.

The overpass and the highway beneath [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

The overpass and the highway beneath [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

As the traffic whizzed by me, turning downward into the chasm-as-highway, I remembered that the technical name for the road I was standing on was an arterial road, and the significance of the metaphor grew ever stronger as I stood there, watching the concrete arteries literally feeding into the heart, into the scar, into the highway

Suddenly the west side of Portland was a living being before my eyes, highway-as-scar torn through her chest, with cars being fed to the highway from the roads-as-arteries that cradled out and enclosed the land mass from all directions. The two halves of the west side took the shape of lungs on either side of the highway, and she breathed in and out as the cars circulated in and out from the highway and the arterial roads from every direction.

The west side of Portland, divided by the 405 in yellow.

The west side of Portland, divided by the 405 in yellow. [Public domain Image]

I turned around and walked back, abandoning my destination, deliberately falling into and feeling each step that I took down and off the overpass. I was preoccupied with the sudden realization that the hesitance, the vortex, the skewed distance and/or perception made sense once I took into account that I was walking over a living wound.

I looked down as the cars sped past below, never-ending, through the arteries, drowning everything out for blocks. Everything, that is, except for the energetic effects of the wound itself, which could not be drowned out no matter how loud the white noise.

*  *  *

The next day, I decided to walk the length of the 405 as far as I could toward the river, and then cross over and follow the edge of I-5 going north, reading the journey along the way as though it were a story.

Where I-405 breaks off to route through the heart of downtown, I-5 runs over the Marquam Bridge and then north through southeast Portland. There, for the first few miles, it runs mostly on and over landfill, towering over patches of grass and fill dirt that extended the river’s edge by the equivalent of up to two city blocks.

It’s not until I-5 crosses Sullivan’s Gulch, just south of where the two highways rejoin on Portland’s east side, that I-5 creates an even more damaging effect than I-405 does through downtown. This time, the highway cuts through five miles’ worth of residential neighborhoods in north Portland up through to the Columbia River. The interstate cuts like a knife straight through a series of communities that were the heart of the Black community in the 1960s – a community that was already once-displaced a generation earlier as a result of deliberate racism and negligence.

Out of all the advances in urban planning over the past half-century, in not only technology and philosophy but policy and practice, the one true reliable constant is that eminent domain will inevitably be wielded against those who are the least equipped to fight it. Tucked within the overall story of any urban planning “achievement” is the suffering of those who were uprooted; their communities demolished; their homes taken for far lesser value than they were actually worth.

I-5 at N. Lombard Street, circa 1973. Public domain.

I-5 at N. Lombard Street, circa 1973. [Public domain Photo]

As I walked north, following the interstate just to the east of its edge, I started to notice lots and blocks where the continuance of the cycle of displacement was currently unfolding. Four and six-story buildings were going up in lots surrounded by single-family homes, and a noticeable amount of houses were undergoing significant renovations that indicated recent turnover. The same neighborhoods that I-5 sliced a wound through fifty years ago were now undergoing various stages of gentrification, and it appeared that many longtime residents were being uprooted nearly as quickly as those who lived along what became the route of I-5 were forced out all those years ago.

Walking along, taking in the details, absorbing the quaintness and the beauty alongside the construction and destruction, I started to alternate back and forth over each overpass I came across. The strength of its boundary felt even stronger here than it did several miles south on the 405, and with good reason. While the 5 in north Portland does not cut as deep as the south end of the 405 does, the 5, at the overpasses I was crossing, spans three city blocks as opposed to the single block-wide chasm that contains the 405 through the downtown core.

Each time I looked across at the houses on one side and then the other, I couldn’t stop thinking that what I knew were once pieces of a connected community seemed all too far away from the pieces on the other side. I thought again of the heart and knew I was standing in a place where the heart had truly been torn out, where two halves were permanently disconnected with little hope of reunification. I tried to picture the houses that once stood in the path of the interstate, tried to imagine what the neighborhood would have looked like without a giant canyon of speed and noise running through it, but contemplating the vastness of what had been obliterated quickly overwhelmed me. I thought of the heart and the arteries again, realized that I had fully taken in what I had set out to know for now, and I headed away from the interstate back down towards the river to process it all.

*  *  *

In the few weeks since I walked alongside the highways, I’ve gradually changed my routes so that I deliberately cross over the 405 on a near-daily basis. Each time I cross, I note the wound and the boundary. I greet the older buildings teetering at the edges, and yet I mainly focus on the warped perception of distance, often imagining that I’m pulling the two halves of the neighborhood closer together as I make my way across the chasm of traffic below.

And, while I can’t definitively attribute it to either a deepening of my relationship with the chasm itself or the effects of a deeper awareness and attention to specifics along my route, each time I cross with attention and intention I take away with me a little piece of understanding – a sign of some type, a detail that holds a greater meaning. Despite the eyesore despite the vortex, the arteries and the wall of sound, I’m finding that the chasm itself tells many stories from its edges.

It’s a fitting conclusion when I consider that the ‘story’ that originally focused my attention on the interstate in the first place was a building perched at the edge of the chasm as though it was holding on for dear life.

*    *    *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

[Alley Valkyrie is one of our talented monthly columnists. If you like her stories and want to support her work at The Wild Hunt, please consider donating to our fall fundraising campaign and sharing our IndieGoGo link. It is your wonderful and dedicated support that makes it possible for Alley to be part of our writing team. Thank you very much.]

“The housing crisis doesn’t exist because the system isn’t working. It exists because that’s the way the system works.” – Herbert Marcuse

Borders and Fortifications

On one side of the post office sits Bud Clark Commons, a Housing First complex that also functions as a day center and a drop-in shelter for the homeless. Extending just eastward from Bud Clark Commons are both Union Station and the Greyhound station, anchoring one of the defining corridors of what little still remains of Portland’s ‘Skid Row’.

Portland's main post office. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Portland’s main post office. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

On the other side of the post office is the eastern edge of what is now known as the Pearl District, a neighborhood currently at the tail end of a twenty-year redevelopment plan that transformed the area from an industrial district to the most expensive neighborhood in Portland. Trendy shops, bars and restaurants and million-dollar condos now dominate the ten-block radius just west of the Post Office complex; a neighborhood which thirty years earlier was dominated by auto repair shops, warehouse art spaces, and various types of industry.

The post office itself is not only the city’s main post office, but also the main processing facility for all of Oregon and southwest Washington. The complex stretches from Hoyt Street to the tail end of the Broadway Bridge, spanning 14 acres and the equivalent of eight city blocks. The post office predates both Bud Clark Commons and the Pearl District by a generation, having first opened to the public at the height of the Kennedy administration.

Rear view of the post office complex. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Rear view of the post office complex. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

While the physical presence of the post office creates a delineating barrier of sorts in terms of its sheer size alone, there’s more to it than just that. It serves as a significant energetic buffer between two neighborhoods that are on the opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. The post office stands as neutral ground, holding a space understood as commons at an otherwise volatile crossroads where affluent folks often feel uncomfortable two blocks to the east, while poor folks are made to feel uncomfortable only two blocks to the west.

It feels and acts as a fortification as well as a territory of safe passage. But the fortification is seen as an obstacle in the present day, as the eight blocks that the complex rests on is among the most valuable land in Portland. City planners and local developers have been itching to redevelop the land for years and, after many years of negotiations, the plan is finally coming to fruition. The timeline has not been set as of yet, but the complex’s days are all but numbered. 

I actually learned this news as I was standing in front of the post office itself, staring into the newspaper box at the headline. Since I don’t believe in coincidence, I stood there digesting the moment when a older man tapped me on the shoulder – a man who I knew to frequent the area around the train station.

“You live here, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. He continued.

“You know this whole place is done for, right?” he said, gesturing with his hand in an arc towards the complex. “According to the news, its going to be condos or some crap like that. The whole thing, coming down.”

I nodded.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking. I mean, I know what they’re thinking, they’re thinking money. And it may make dollars but it makes no damn sense. Not to me, anyway. They want to take over all of it.” He pointed over towards the Greyhound Station. “All the hotels, all the SROs, straight up to Burnside, they want to take over all of it.”

“Yes, yes they do”, I said to him sadly.

“And where do we go then, huh? Where we all gonna go?”

He walked away without waiting for an answer, which was a small relief only in that I sure didn’t have one. The only thing I could focus on at the moment was that this was at least the third time that month that I had a nearly identical conversation in nearly this exact spot.

Vice, Temperance, and the Vanishing Commons

The term “skid row” originates from the greased skids that made up the roads that loggers would use to transport cut logs from the forest to the river in the Pacific Northwest. To be ‘on the skids” was to have no choice but to live in such an area, as the conditions of the roads were considered not to be fit for dignified habitation.

Portland’s skid row stretches down through Old Town Chinatown, butting up against the borders of downtown proper. It has unwaveringly held that territory since Portland’s early days when it was considered one of the world’s most dangerous port cities. The history of “vice” in Old Town is as old as the history of the city itself, and it is both that history of vice and the resistance against its proliferation that define much of the landscape and the historic nature of the area.

Portland's historic 'Benson Bubblers'. originally installed as temperance fountains in the early 20th century.
Portland’s historic ‘Benson Bubblers’. originally installed as temperance fountains in the early 20th century.

As a result of well over a century’s worth of blue-collar domination, much of the original infrastructure is still intact. Old Town and the northern edge of Downtown are home to an impressive inventory of Victorian-era commercial buildings, many of which are historic landmarks and have been kept up to their original glory. Others, no less lacking in history, have fallen in disrepair over the course of many years, but many still retain landmark status and due to the current real estate boom are newly slated for renovation and preservation.

Unlike the sidewalks outside of busy establishments, which for the most part are regularly controlled and policed, the sidewalks outside the tenant-less, abandoned buildings of Old Town function as a commons, not too differently than the the block which contains the post office. In the absence of anywhere else to carry out such functions, homeless folk of all stripes eat, sleep, commune, fight, bicker, barter, hustle, and otherwise claim territory throughout these uncontrolled sidewalks, which in turn only adds to the desires of developers to gentrify the area and displace such folk.

Long abandoned, the Grove Hotel is slated for renovation and restoration in the near future.

Long abandoned, the Grove Hotel is slated for renovation and restoration in the near future.

Those who displace and renovate also rebrand, and Portland’s rebranding on a national level of being a haven and destination for craft beer is starkly reflected in the newer establishments that have accompanied the recent waves of gentrification throughout Old Town and the surrounding areas. Hipster vice has replaced working-class vice as the area is slowly overtaken by drinking establishments that cater to the young and affluent. Meanwhile, bars that cater to the neighborhood’s historic population have all but disappeared.

Business owners and community members alike credit themselves for “cleaning up” the area, and while I’m sure they’re “cleaning up” economically, it becomes apparent after a while to those who live here that they’ve simply replaced one group of unruly drunks with another. Apparently it was not the presence of “vice” itself that was supposedly “dragging down” the area as much as it was the socioeconomic class of those who were partaking.

Ruins and Reminders

Before Portland had a source and the proper infrastructure for importing natural gas, it manufactured gas from oil in a process known as “coking.” The Portland Gas and Coke (Gasco) plant was built in 1913 on the NW riverfront just across from St. John’s, just north of where the Cathedral Bridge would be built nearly twenty years later. The plant refined gas from 1913 until the city converted to natural gas in 1957, and the plant was shut down a year later. An estimated 30,000 cubic yards of coal tar had accumulated on the site over the years. Fifteen years later, it was covered with landfill when the site was sold, and most of the operational buildings were demolished.

The original administrative building, built in 1913, still stands and has been vacant for nearly sixty years. It is perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful Gothic ruin that I have ever seen with my own eyes. A ghostly reminder of the past, it is one of Portland’s most photographed structures, and over the past several years a fence has been installed and a guard put on duty in order to discourage explorers and adventure-seekers.

In addition to the crumbling condition of the building itself, the land that it sits on is among the most contaminated areas along a stretch of the Willamette River through Portland that has been designated a Superfund site. A DEQ report from the late ‘90s states that contaminated water was detected up to 100 feet below the surface of the west bank of the Willamette. Any significant cleanup of both the Gasco site and the Superfund site has yet to begin.

NWNatural, who still owns the building, announced last year that the building was to be slated for demolition. A community group attempted to raise the funds to buy the building, but they failed in their effort, and NWNatural announced last week that the Gasco building is to be demolished next month. Its reasoning mostly centers around safety. But what is unspoken yet completely understood is that, once the site is cleaned up, the land that the building currently stands on will be quite valuable.

It stands on its own as a sentimental tragedy that such a beautiful structure is to meet the wrecking ball, but there’s something that hits deeper in the timing of the announcement, given that demolition and gentrification have dominated both media headlines and local conversations nonstop for the past several months. The announcement comes in the same wave as the proposed redevelopment of the post office site, further talks of an “urban renewal” plan for the adjacent Old Town neighborhood, and a record number of demolitions and no-cause evictions. While the destruction of the building itself is a significant historical loss, the timing, the symbolism, and the layers of meaning and crossover between the demolition of the Gasco building and the greater overhauling of the city and its denizens — these combined factors speak to a much greater collective tragedy than the loss of any one structure.

Confessions over Coffee

“I mean, there’s a part of me that feels like I did a bad thing, but at that price I just couldn’t say no.”

I looked over at the table next to me and saw two men in suits with portfolio cases at their sides, having what obviously was a heart-to-heart over some sort of business decision. Intrigued, I leaned in slightly in order to properly overhear the conversation.

“Are you crazy?” the other man replied. “You said yourself that you profited nearly a hundred times what your grandfather originally paid for that land. Every other house on the block had already had a date with a wrecking ball. How many hundreds of houses have you bought and flipped over the past five years? This is really no different.”

“It’s a little different. He built that house with his own two hands. That house was a Sears bungalow from the 20s… you know, the kind you bought and put together yourself. Three generations in that house. Mom’s still confused, still thinks we own the house or that she lives there, but we all agreed that she’s better off in a home… but still. It’s the house itself. Its this weird attachment, almost. Knowing they’re going to raze it. I feel like I signed its death warrant.”

1920s era Sears kit house. Public domain.

1920s era Sears kit house. Public domain.

“Its business, Tom,” the other man said after a moment. “You need to remember its just business.”

“I know. I need to stop. It’s just a house. But there’s something that feels nagging.”

I stared at them in disbelief as I realized that this man, obviously a wealthy real-estate developer, had sold his family homestead out from under his ailing mother, not out of economic need but purely for profit. Suddenly I felt sick, and I quickly got up and headed toward the door.

That nagging something that you feel is most likely your ancestors, I muttered under my breath as I walked past them on my way out.

The Yelling Field and the Green Cross

Anywhere I’ve ever moved to, I quickly seek out the abandoned parts, the empty lots and the derelict warehouses. I look for a place, hopefully with features that echo, where I can yell as loud as I need to and nobody’s close enough to hear or investigate or call the police. I call these places my ‘yelling fields’.

When I settled into this neighborhood, I found my closest yelling field a mile or so up the main drag from my building, just north of the Fremont Bridge. A series of abandoned waterfront lots, a few dotted with ‘for sale’ signs but no sign of activity, and nothing else for blocks other than an ancient-looking bar and a run-down strip club a few blocks away across the street.

I thought it to be a consistent landscape that wouldn’t surprise me with any significant changes, but I walked by one day and noticed two things at once. My yelling field was suddenly fenced in, with a sign from a construction company posted in the center of the lot. And across the street, the strip club had closed, and in the window covering the old sign was a new sign that stated “Coming Soon” above a picture of a green cross, which in Portland is the universal symbol for a marijuana dispensary.

I stared at the sign for a minute, thinking back. Fifteen years ago, when I watched New York City undergo a similarly massive gentrification, the “Coming Soon” sign accompanied by a Starbucks logo became known as the telltale symbol that an area was about to gentrify. I realized at that moment that this symbol in front of me was operating on the same pattern, that the green cross held the same symbolic power in this new chapter of gentrification as the ubiquitous coffee goddess did when that first wave hit New York.

And sure enough, I watched over what seemed like only a few months as not only my yelling field, but several consecutive waterfront lots, went from abandoned industrial frontage to high-end condominiums and townhouse apartments. The dispensary opened right around the same time that the first completed development did.

I lost my yelling field while developers created a cash cow. Meanwhile, recent signage indicates that more riverfront construction is to come.

Demolition and Migration

I heard them talking while standing next to the food carts waiting for my lunch.

Food carts in downtown Portland. Photo by Another Believer.

Food carts in downtown Portland. [Photo by Another Believer.]

“We’ve been living in that house for less than six months, and our landlord just sold the house right out from under us. We have less than thirty days, and I have no clue what we’re going to do. I mean, the realtor literally just knocked on the door, asked for the owner, and made an offer right there…”

Her friend nodded in acknowledgement, and she continued.

“Turns out that same developer bought three other houses on the same side of the street. Apparently if they’re approved for a zoning change, all four will be demolished to build condo units.”

“Yeah, that’s happening everywhere,” her friend said awkwardly, obviously not knowing what else to say.

“Yep, and so I’m just following the pattern of migration. I don’t know what else to do, so we’re all looking in way outer SE for a big house out there. But then the folks who already live out there are then pushed farther out once folks like me start moving in. So in following the pattern, I’m complicit in the cycle.”

They paused for a moment. “But my only other option is to go back to Arizona and there is absolutely nothing for me there. I have community here. I need to stay here. But I can’t stand the thought of being the gentrifier. I feel like I’m either I’m screwed or I’m screwing someone no matter what I do…”

I swear, this entire town is having the same conversation, I said to myself.

Remedies and Realities

I stepped out of Powell’s and saw a man with a sign.

“Rent Tripled, Newly Homeless. Need $28 for a Bed, Keeping My Job Depends On It.”

I gave him a dollar and walked down the street, looking up for a moment at a building just long enough to notice a green cross in the window. It didn’t matter where I went, what I read, where I looked, who I talked to. Everything, everywhere, from the people to the signs to the snippets floating through the air, a city in crisis that was broadcasting and reflecting its collective distress through every possible method of expression.

A few blocks later I walked past a man sheltering himself in newspapers. I stopped for a moment and noticed that the headlines that were covering his legs stated that Portland mayor Charlie Hales announced that he wants to declare a housing emergency, while the headlines covering his feet highlighted a proposed “demolition tax.” I’m not sure if the man was aware of the irony and symbolism contained in his presence at that moment, but the universal broadcast was suddenly much louder than I could really handle.

Walking home, mind racing, I realized that I couldn’t recall a day this month where the local headlines haven’t greeted me with displacement-related stories, whether its astronomical rents, multiple mass evictions of both tenants and artists, studies that stress that the national housing crisis is about to worsen, the impending eviction of a longtime homeless camp, ominous comparisons to the market situation in San Francisco, citizen calls for a renters’ state of emergency, and now the potential for a housing emergency actually being declared.

And yet the hope of a remedy provided no real or imagined comfort. It was clear from the level of the broadcasting crisis around me that most others weren’t fooled either.

*    *    *

bell hooks had it right when she described gentrification as “colonization, post-colonial style”.

Her words serve as an important reminder that the term ‘gentrification’ itself fools us into thinking that what is currently occurring in both Portland and in cities all over the world is a 21st century phenomenon and a “sign of the times.” In reality, this is only the latest round in a cycle of colonization and primitive accumulation that has been ongoing for hundreds of years.  And, it is a cycle that will continue its destruction unchecked as long as laws, policies, and sentiments continue to value and prioritize profit and property rights over human need.

In the meantime, I remain in search of and in service to the ever-vanishing waterfront ruins and yelling fields, consistently and helplessly bearing witness as the economic powers allied with the green cross and the wrecking ball seek to displace and devour every last square inch of this city.

And in those searchings and wanderings, my mind keeps going back to the displaced. I keep thinking of the conversation with the man in front of the post office. I wish someone had an answer for him. I wish I knew where he could go.

I’m not sure where I’ll go, either.

*    *    *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

I. Fire and Bone: July, 2006

I was hurrying home, deep in thought and not paying attention, when I walked right into his sign, accidentally tearing it with my boot as I plowed through the cardboard.

I looked down at the torn sign and snapped back to reality. “Oh god, I’m so sorry,” I blurted to the man sitting a few feet away as I started to bend over to pick it up.

“Only Need $20 More For Bus Ticket Home” the sign said. Next to the sign was a collection of objects presumably for sale. There were a few tattered romance novels, some antique Coke bottles, and what looked like a piece of antler.

I picked up the antler and examined it. Part of it was broken off with a small stump remaining, but it was a beautiful piece, and I realized that if I sanded the broken stump down it would make a nice wand.

“Where is home?” I asked.

“Milwaukee”, he answered. “I left years ago and swore I’d never return, but over the time I’ve decided that maybe one actually can go home again.”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out $20. “Sorry again about your sign, but hopefully now you don’t need it,” I said as I handed him the money.

Image: US Treasury Department

Image: US Treasury Department

He broke into a wide smile. “Oh thank you, thank you so much.” He got up to shake my hand. “I hope that piece treats you well.”

I thanked him again and continued home, waving the antler around like a wand as I neared my corner. I went through the front door of the building and up the stairs, leaving the antler outside my door by the landing on the second floor before going inside.

A few days later, I dug out my dremel and went out on the landing with the intention of sanding off the stump on the antler in order to give it the right shape. I had done some bone carvings some years back, and didn’t think much of it as I put on my goggles and turned on the dremel.

I held the sanding tip to the antler and made contact, and within a second or two I started to suddenly panic and uncontrollably shake. I quickly put down the dremel, and before I could understand what was happening my body went into full panic attack mode. I started to hyperventilate and I lowered myself into a seated position as my heart started to race and I started to sweat.

Terrified, I put my hands over my head and closed my eyes, and all I could see and feel and taste and smell was fire. Visions and sensations poured through my head; a fiery inferno, the screams of the dead, the stench of burning flesh. I felt myself being pulled down into myself and I briefly opened my eyes, but the visions and the smell did not immediately cease and I felt myself tightening into the fetal position as I closed my eyes again and reminded myself to breathe.

My heart was pounding ever faster, and it took me several minutes of slow breathing before whatever had come over me faded and I was able to uncurl myself and sit back up. As I felt myself come back, I stared at the antler in horror, utterly confused and terrified at what had just transpired. What had flashed through my mind was familiar, all too familiar, and yet so deeply buried and deliberately forgotten. But…what? How did the…

At that moment, my upstairs neighbor bounded up the stairs towards the landing, and as he got within a few steps of me he suddenly froze and sniffed the air. He looked at me, wide-eyed.

“That smell. Holy Mother of God, that smell. What the…?” he said, his voice shaking slightly.

I pointed to the antler and the dremel and tried to summon the proper words, but he had no interest in what I was actually pointing to. I looked down again where I was pointing and the objects suddenly read out to me as a solved riddle: friction and antler. Fire and bone. I looked up at him again but he spoke before I could.

“That smell,” he said again, his voice barely above a whisper. “It smells like when the Twin Towers were burning.”

II. A Lesson in Capitalism, A Lesson in Imperialism: February, 1993

Our fifth-grade class had spent all month learning about the stock exchange, and it seemed fitting to wrap up the unit with a day trip to the Financial District. We piled into a big yellow bus and rode into Manhattan along with the morning traffic, eventually inching our way downtown towards Wall Street right at the peak of the AM rush hour.

We started out with a guided tour of the New York Stock Exchange, had lunch at a Burger King near Wall Street and, afterward, we walked over in a group to the headquarters of Solomon Brothers, located in the World Trade Center complex.

7 WTC as seen from the South Tower. Photo by Duncan Rawlinson.

7 WTC and the North Tower as seen from the South Tower. Photo by Duncan Rawlinson.

It was the first time that I had ever seen the Twin Towers in person, and I was instantly mesmerized by their energy and presence. We stood in front of the towers for a moment as our teacher took a few photos, and then proceeded across the street towards Building 7 where Solomon Brothers was located. As we walked away from the towers, I kept looking back as I struggled to process that anything could be so tall, so vast and so otherworldly. There was something truly unreal about them, as though I had stepped onto a Hollywood movie set or I was being fooled by a hologram.

One our way into Building 7, one of the guards wanted to check one of the bags that our teacher was carrying. We stood back as she was searched, all of us quite confused as to why there were security guards in the first place, let alone why our teacher had to open her bag up for them. After she was waved along by security, a few of us immediately wanted to know what that had been all about.

She gently tried to explain that the security guards check bags because they were worried about people potentially sneaking in “bad things”, which only piqued our curiosity further. She then told us that it was hard to explain in a few words but it was something we could discuss the next day, and then quickly led us toward the elevator while changing the subject. Within moments, the incident was forgotten.

In school the next morning, we talked extensively about our trip and what we learned, what the good parts were and what we didn’t enjoy so much. I was still wondering about the security guard and hoping that our teacher would talk about it, but nobody else brought it up and I was too shy to do so.

The following afternoon, we came in after recess to learn that a bomb had ripped through the garage of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, with reports of both deaths and injuries. We looked around at each other, both terrified and confused. Why, we asked. Why would someone do that?

Our teacher had no answer that afternoon, telling us only as much as the media knew at the time. Over the next few weeks, however, it became apparent that the bombing was an act of terrorism, which eventually facilitated the discussion around bombs and security guards and bag searching that our teacher had evaded during the field trip.

“But why do bad people want to hurt us?’ one student asked.

“Because we are the most powerful country in the world, and sometimes that means that we do things that anger people who do not have power,” she answered.

Nobody asked anything after that, but I stewed on her words long after the subject had been exhausted. I wrote them down in a journal and thought about them often, especially when watching the nightly news. Between my own personal awestruck experience with the Twin Towers in and of itself and having been on that land in their presence only 48 hours before the bombing, my attention was suddenly aimed towards subjects like terrorism and empire in a way that would never have occurred had we not gone on that field trip.

III. Of Boxes and Blemished Skylines: Summer 1996

I remember the very first time I heard the joke.

I was with a friend, in the backseat of her parents’ station wagon, on our way into Manhattan to see Les Miserables. As we approached the Holland Tunnel, with the skyline clear-as-day in front of us, her father turned around to face us.

“You girls know that the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are the two tallest buildings in Manhattan, right?” he asked us with a grin.

“But….” I started to immediately correct him, as everyone knew that the Twin Towers were the tallest.

He interrupted me with a laugh. “Yeah, the two boxes that they came in were dumped way down by Wall Street …”

We laughed along with him, immediately getting the joke. It was an understood and unspoken truth that for all their impressiveness in terms of height, the Twin Towers did look like two big ugly boxes, especially in comparison to buildings such as the Chrysler and the Empire State. While I had a strange fondness for them, even I had to admit that while they were otherworldly, they were otherworldly eyesores.

“You know, I was about the same age as you two are now when those towers first went up, and I’ll never forget how much folks hated ‘em at first. They called ‘em a blemish on the skyline, complained that they ruined the view of Lower Manhattan. And now a generation later, everyone’s buying tchotchkes with the Twin Towers on ‘em, and nobody can imagine what the skyline would look like without the towers. Funny how that works…” he said, drifting off into his thoughts.

Manhattan skyline, 1960. Photo by Harold Egeberg

Manhattan skyline, 1960. Photo by Harold Egeberg

I thought about what he has said as we came out of the tunnel. One of my neighbors had expressed a similar sentiment recently, and as I got a brief glimpse of the towers out the back window, for a moment I tried to imagine the skyline without the Twin Towers.

And while it was hard to imagine that those buildings actually existed in the first place, it was even harder to imagine what it would look like without them.

IV. Land, Once Water: Spring, 1999

“And it was right at this spot, at the base of a buttonwood tree, that the contract that became known as the Buttonwood Agreement was signed in 1792, marking the beginnings of what was to eventually become the New York Stock Exchange…”

‘This spot’ was in front of a hot-dog stand on Wall Street near the corner of Pearl Street. I was on a guided tour of the Financial District, having been dragged along by a friend from the West Coast who had never been to New York before. At that point, I had been taking the bus into city once or twice a week and I knew most of Manhattan like the back of my hand, but as I looked around I realized that I hadn’t been down near Wall Street since the school field trip six years earlier. I looked around, down the dark narrow street tucked within the oldest and deepest depths of Manhattan’s concrete jungle, and it was nearly impossible to imagine any sort of tree, buttonwood or otherwise, ever having grown in that spot.

We started walking eastward again behind out tour guide, who continued talking as we ambled along.

“Wall Street itself was named after an actual wall which once protected the settlement of New Amsterdam from both the British and the local tribes. The wall was built in the mid-1600’s, and originally stretched from Pearl Street to what is now called Church Street, which were the original shorelines of Manhattan over three-hundred years ago.”

Wait, what? I said to myself. The original shorelines of Manhattan are Pearl Street and Church Street? The present-day Manhattan extended three blocks east past Pearl and at least as many blocks west of Church. I thought of the Twin Towers, which I knew were just west of Church Street. If the tour guide was correct, that would mean that the entire WTC complex was standing in what was once the Hudson River.

Manhattan, 1865. The yellow areas denote "made land". [Public Domain]

Manhattan, 1865. The yellow areas denote “made land”. [Public Domain]

“By the time the Buttonwood Agreement was signed, landfill had extended Wall Street out an extra block east, and the next year the Tontine Coffee House was built here at the corner of Wall and Water, which was to serve as the headquarters of the New York Stock and Exchange Board until the mid-1800s….”

I looked down where I was standing, suddenly aware that I was standing on an invisible border between bedrock and landfill, between the original boundaries of Manhattan Island and a man-made extension of “land” that was created from refuse. I looked eastward at the blocks and buildings, stretching towards the waterfront, buildings that I now knew stood where fish swam for millennia. I tried to imagine what the shoreline might have looked like around the time that the Dutch first fortified New Amsterdam with a wall, but once again the concrete got in the way.

The tour guide headed back in the other direction, still pointing out landmarks, but I was only partially paying attention at that point, still hung up on the idea that the lower half of Manhattan Island was once only half as wide as it was in the present day. As we approached the New York Stock Exchange, I tuned in to the tour guide again for a moment and quickly couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“And it was right here that on September 16, 1920, that a bomb went off in front of 23 Wall Street, at the height of the lunch hour on a busy weekday. 38 people were killed and over 100 were injured in what was at that time the deadliest attack on American soil. It was suspected that the bombing was carried out by Italian anarchists, but nobody was ever convicted, and it remains an unsolved case to this day.”

Wait, what again? A bomb? Here? My thoughts immediately drifted back to the WTC garage bombing, and then back to the tour guide’s words about Wall Street as a fortified wall that was built as a means of defense. The guide made no mention of the events that led to the need for a fortified wall in the first place, but I understood enough about history and empire at that point to sense a general pattern of cause and effect.

I looked around; the block itself felt like a fortress, holding itself in tension, in constant defensive posture against anything that may try to attack it. It felt nervous and guarded, and I felt the same as I continued down the narrow concrete corridor.

Damage from the 1920 bombing as seen today. Photo by NortonJuster7722

Damage from the 1920 bombing as seen today. [Photo Credit: NortonJuster7722]

 V. Fate and Foreshadowing: Late July, 2001

“You don’t have a fear of heights, do you?” he asked me at one point while giving me a tour of the main dining area. I had been looking out the window for a moment, temporarily paralyzed by the realization of how high up I was, and the look on his face was one of slight concern.

“Oh, no, not at all,” I lied. “I’ve worked in skyscrapers before,” I added nervously. That part wasn’t an outright lie, but I left out the fact that while I had actually worked in a few skyscrapers, I had never been higher up than the 29th floor.

“Uh-huh,” he said, sounding unconvinced. “New hires always tell me that they’re not afraid of heights, but then I’ve had some go and quit on me after a few weeks because they realize they can’t deal with it,” he said to me.

For the money I’ll make here, I’ll learn to deal with it, I thought to myself.

“This is as high up as you get in this town,” he continued, as if I needed any more reminders that I was on the 107th floor of the tallest building in Manhattan.

I nodded and smiled. “I know. I’m OK,” I said again, trying my hardest to project an air of confidence.

He smiled back and waved me over as he walked towards the back of the restaurant.

Other than the awkward exchange around heights, the interview went smoothly. I got along well with the interviewer, he seemed satisfied with my resume despite my relative lack of fine dining experience, and he was pleased at my willingness to take any shift that was available. I left there very hopeful that I had the job.

“I’ll give you a call in a few days”, he told me as I walked out.

But a few days came and went without a call, and by the end of the week I realized that I didn’t have the job after all. For some reason, that time I had really gotten my hopes up, and I took it very hard and very personally. Those around me noticed, and tried in their own little ways to cheer me up.

“You know, I have dreams of that building sometimes,” my partner said to me a few weeks after the interview. “In the dream, I’m standing against the windows on one of the top floors, and all of a sudden the building starts to sway violently back and forth.”

I thought back to when I looked out the window from the dining area of the 107th floor, that terrifying, paralyzing rush that the manager picked up on, and I nodded.

“Frankly, you’re better off with a job closer to the ground,” he said after a while. “Personally, I don’t know if I could handle being that high up all the time. That building always made me a little nervous.”

“Everything happens for a reason. I’ll find a better job,” I concluded.

After dinner, we walked through Midtown down to Lower Manhattan. The sun was setting, illuminating the skyline, and I stared down at the southern tip for a moment, thinking about the job I didn’t get. The job in the buildings that stood where the river once flowed, the buildings that swayed back and forth in my partner’s dreams. I suddenly felt a strangely unexplainable relief that I wasn’t going to be working in that building.

The manager probably made the right call, I admitted to myself as walked through the shadows of the towers towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I probably wouldn’t have been able to deal with being that high up.

VI. Consequence of Empire: September 11, 2001

I opened my eyes just a crack, immediately closing them again as the bright sunshine streaking through my windows temporarily blinded me. I knew it was already mid-morning, and I also knew that I wasn’t ready to wake up quite yet. I had spent the night before out late drinking with friends, and I hadn’t gotten back to my place until close to sunrise. I had only been asleep for three or four hours at that point.

But something had just woken me up out of a sound sleep, and I shifted my head slightly and slowly tried to open my eyes again to see if it was anything that I needed to worry about. The head of my mattress was up against a large bay window, and as I squinted my eyes open again all I saw was blue. The sky was an amazing, brilliant blue, not a cloud in the sky, a rarity that late in the season. I turned my ear towards the open window for a moment, heard nothing but birds and traffic, and rolled over back to sleep.

Blue sky over New York. Photo by Payton Chung

Blue sky over New York. [Photo Credit: Payton Chung]

A little while later, I heard a similar noise again. That time I sat up, again my vision fixated on the sky, wondering if what I heard was the demolition project from a few blocks away. Again I listened for a minute, looked out the window again, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But as I lowered myself back into bed, an unsettling and creeping feeling came over me.

I tried to get back to sleep but failed, eventually settling for lying in bed while staring at the sky, too anxious to fall back asleep yet too exhausted to actually get up.

Out of the silence the phone rang. I jumped at the sound, then slowly reached over and picked it up.

“APLANEAPLANEHITTHETWINTOWERSTURNONYOURTVWEAREUNDERATTACK” was all I heard on the other end of the line.

I recognized the voice of a friend but thought I had misheard what he said. “What?” I asked. “Can you say that again?”

“TURNONYOURTVJUSTTURNONYOURTV’ was the reply.

I stayed on the phone and reached for the remote. I turned on the TV and saw the Twin Towers engulfed in flames.

I threw some clothes on and ran downstairs, flung open the front door, ran down to the end of the block, and looked northwards towards Manhattan. I could see what looked like smoke and fire in the distance, and the air was sooty and acrid. I looked around. My block was mostly empty, and the few faces I saw looked as ashen as the sky in the distance.

I stood, frozen, staring at the smoke in the distance. As I stood there, an older man walked past me, walking with a cane and wearing a hat that proclaimed his status as a Vietnam vet. He stopped next to me for a moment, and then looked me in the eye and motioned towards the smoke with his cane.

“That there,” he said, his voice cracking as he spoke, “that there is the consequence of empire.”

I nodded, repeating his words to myself quietly. The consequence of empire.

My thoughts started flashing, from the bombing of the WTC garage nine years earlier, to the 1920 bombing of Wall Street, to the original fortification from which Wall Street bears its name. The consequence of empire indeed – 350 years of colonialism that led us to this very moment.

I ran back to the house and stood in front of the TV for the next several hours, taking in as many vital details as I could bear. I reflected for a moment on the job that I ended up not getting a few months prior and a knot immediately formed in my stomach.

As I stood there, I slowly took in what this meant in actuality. Subways were shut down. Bridges and tunnels shut down. Flights grounded. Cell phone networks hopelessly jammed. ATM networks down. Stock exchange shut down. Traffic suspended throughout all of Manhattan for the first time in the city’s history. An entire ‘way of life’, shut down in an instant.

And out my bay window, only a few miles away, a fiery pit steadily burned, with television cameras catching every detail save for the one things that I knew could not be transmitted through sight or sound: the stench of fire, of metal and soot, of burning flesh and bone. The news was calling it a “rescue mission”, but my senses and my gut both told me otherwise. I could smell death in the air, and I could hear and feel the dead as well.

VII. City of the Dead: September 12-15, 2001

The morning after, I cracked my eyes open in the identical manner as I had the day before, and it only took a split second of staring at the blue sky to remember what had transpired over the past 24 hours. I lay there for a moment, my dreams still fresh in my mind, dreams filled with fire and horror and the screams of the dead.

I needed to check on a friend who lived downtown, and I couldn’t ignore the pull that I was feeling from the other side of the river, so I grabbed my camera and a few other items and set out on foot towards Lower Manhattan. It was around three miles between my apartment in Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridge, and with every block the smell in the air increased along with the tension of the land and the unmistakable screaming that shook through every bone of my body.

At the base of the bridge, an officer with an AK-47 guarded the walkway. “Residents only,” he barked as I approached.

“I live on Warren Street,” I lied, and gave the address of my friend.

“ID?” he asked.

“Its in my wallet which is in my apartment on Warren Street.” I answered calmly. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, I thought to myself.

He scowled for a moment, not sure whether to believe me, then relented and let me through.

I walked across the bridge, straight through Lower and Midtown Manhattan right up towards Central Park, walking in a city that other than the sound of emergency vehicles had gone completely silent. Not a single store was open, not a single car was driving through the streets, and there were very few people on the sidewalks. Birds eerily chirped as I made my way uptown, briefly pausing near 14th Street to take in the totality of the silence. It was a literal ghost town, in more ways than one, with the surreal nature only increasing when a military tank rolled right by me as though it was the most normal, everyday thing.

Tank rolling down 14th Street in Manhattan. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Military vehicle down 14th Street in Manhattan. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I continued uptown, taking pictures as I went. By the time I got to Rockefeller Center, I paused and looked around and for a moment was in utter terror. There was nobody in sight. No cars, no people, no sounds other than the shrill shrieks of sirens and the screaming that I couldn’t tune out. I stood across from Radio City, the only person in a 360 degree radius, and was so taken in and paralyzed by the emptiness around me that it took me a few minutes to realize that I was standing right in the middle of Sixth Avenue. A group of people walked by on the sidewalk and I was so surprised by their presence that without even thinking I pulled my camera out and took their picture.

Photo by Alley Valkyrie

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I then laid down in the middle of the street and did a log roll straight across to the other side. I didn’t know why, but in that moment I needed contact with the land, with the concrete and ashes that I had been walking upon for miles. I lay still in the street next to the sidewalk for a moment, and the screaming I was hearing suddenly became a roar. When I got up, I looked over at the people on the other side and realized that they had been taking pictures of what I had just done. They waved, I waved back.

Remembering that I had a friend that I was checking on, I quickly made my way back downtown. As I approached Union Square, I quickly saw that makeshift memorials were already being erected in the park, and flyers with pictures of the missing were taped to nearly every street-pole.

It brought me back to what I couldn’t tune out, the screaming. The dead. I wanted to stop and pay tribute, but I was still on a mission, and I continued on until I arrived at my friend’s apartment four blocks north of the disaster. As I rang the bell, I could feel the heat of the fire, and the stench had become overwhelming.

“I haven’t seen a thing yet, I haven’t left the house and I don’t want to,” he said to me we sat down on the couch.

“I don’t blame you,” I replied. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get that smell out of my mind.”

He looked up at me. “My grandmother’s been in a constant anxious state since yesterday, and nothing I can say or do will calm her down,” he said, motioning towards the back room. “She says the smell reminds her of Poland when she was a child, and she’s been in a terrible state. She’s terrified. I mean, we’re all terrified, but I don’t even know how to begin to comfort her.”

I didn’t know what to say, and we both sat there in silence for a while with our tea and cigarettes as I tried desperately to tune out the screaming that had hit a deafening pitch.

For the rest of the week, I spent my afternoons in Union Square, praying and making offerings for the dead. The screaming only started to fade a few months later as the fire finally went out, but I heard the screams in traces for the next several years.

VIII. Fear of a Blue Sky: July 2010

“When you were a kid, did you ever hear that joke about the Twin Towers?”

I paused for a minute, trying to access a file in my brain that had been long since tucked away. “You mean the one about how they’re just the boxes that the Empire State and the Chrysler Building came in?”

She nodded, poured herself another glass of wine, and then continued.

“Isn’t it weird how one day the world has suddenly changed and you just can’t say things anymore? Like, my mother would go on and on about those buildings when I was a kid, about how ugly they were and how she wished that they had never been built, on and on. And even remembering and recalling that just feels so weird and inappropriate now. I mean, obviously telling any jokes about the Twin Towers nowadays doesn’t seem right, but even remembering that we used to make jokes feels funny, like we did something bad retroactively or something. Its weird, I almost feel guilty about it.”

“Yes,” I said. I knew just what she was talking about. “I think we all carry around much more baggage around that event and our relationship with those buildings in general than we’d ever want to admit or even conceive of,” I said.

“For example, I’ll give you one,” I continued. “I can remember years ago being in the back of a friend’s car driving into the city from Jersey as her father was telling me how there were no Twin Towers when he was a kid. And when I heard him say that, I stared out at them and tried to picture what it would be like if they weren’t there. I shudder when I think about that now, it just freaks me out. And I swear, its like I’m almost afraid to even put words to it, to say it out loud. Somewhere in my head I seem to think that it never actually happened if I don’t speak of it. “

She nodded. “Can I tell you a secret?” she asked me.

“Of course,” I answered.

“I mean, its weird and messed up. I feel like I’m just crazy or this was just some crazy thing that happened in my head, but I really just need to tell somebody and you’re good with crazy stuff.” She looked at me for affirmation and I nodded.

She took a deep breath. “Okay. So, a few years ago I was having a cavity filled, and I should preface this by saying that I hadn’t gotten any work done on my teeth since before 9/11. But I’m in the chair, and as the dentist started to drill, all of a sudden the smell just jolted something seriously deep and I suddenly started panicking and remembering the towers and the aftermath in this vivid and intense way that felt like I was on psychedelics or something. Its like it was right there for a moment, it was real and in front of me again. I had to get the dentist to stop, and it took me a while to calm down after that.”

I nodded vigorously and I told her about my experience with the antler and the dremel. “It was one quick and hardcore lesson in how deeply scent and trauma are linked in the brain, and the degree to which trauma is retained long after you think you’ve gotten over it,” I said to her. “It felt like an out-of-body experience, like I had completely lost control.”

Her expression suddenly turned to sadness. “There was a part of that experience, the part where your stomach clenches so tight you think you’ll choke…. I’ll tell ya, sometimes that happens to me for absolutely no reason at the most innocent times. Like last week, I was lying on my back in the park and there was something about the color of the sky that just threw my stomach in knots. It was that same blue, something about that shade…”

“I mean, listen to me,” she continued after a moment. “ Fear of a blue sky? It’s just absurd. But its also very real and I don’t know if I’ll ever rid myself of it.”

I just stared at her for a moment. as not only did her experiences so precisely mirror my own, but she had the courage to vocalize something that I couldn’t ever bear to acknowledge to myself up until that moment.

“Yes, the fear of a blue sky,” I said after a while. “It’s very real indeed.”

Author’s Note: Minor details were changed for privacy reasons.

*   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

Whims of the Father

Alley Valkyrie —  July 24, 2015 — 9 Comments

(Author’s note: The following attempts to capture a recent four days in time and about time with as much accuracy as possible. Minor details have been changed to protect privacy.)

I walked from my apartment to the elevator, going past a dozen or so doors on the way. It was early afternoon, and I could hear a TV blaring in nearly every apartment as I walked past. In a typical apartment building, most folks would be at work, but here in this building a noticeable number of the residents are home all day with little to do other than to watch television. I was used to the sound of TV as I walked past, but right then it was much more noticeable than usual.

I live in what is generally referred to as “tax-credit housing”, meaning that the property was built under a federal program that grants a 30-year property tax credit in exchange for renting the units for well below market value and only to those who make less than 60% of the area median income. As a result, the building is composed of a noticeably varied range of working-class and poor folks, from single moms and working families with kids to retired folks who live on Social Security, as well as a significant number of disabled folks, including several war vets, who also live on fixed incomes. There are also several multigenerational households, where younger relatives work while their elderly parents and/or grandparents are at home during the day for the most part.

I stepped into the elevator, where a man was awkwardly leaning in the corner, propping himself up to relieve pressure off his leg, which I noticed was in what looked like a permanent brace.

“You ever watch that Kardashian show?” he asked me as the elevator door started to close.

“Nope,” I replied. I don’t have a TV.”

He looks at me in amazement. “You don’t have a TV?” He looked me up and down. “Well, I suppose you don’t need one. You’re young, you can go amuse yourself in the real world. Twenty years ago I thought I couldn’t afford cable. Now I realize I can’t afford not to have it.”

I nodded. It had occurred to me often as of late that the very fact that I can sufficiently keep myself occupied to the point where I did not need a TV was a significant privilege that many of my neighbors did not have.

“My nephew criticizes me, tells me I’m wasting my money,” he continued. “I asked him, what else am I supposed to do with it? I get a little over $700 a month plus my food stamps and whatever I can get returning cans. $595 for rent, $40 for electricity, $20 for a big bag of dog food, after that I got well under a hundred dollars left to amuse myself for the entire month. Can’t even afford a respectable drinking habit. So cable it is. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is. Cable and my dog, that’s what keeps me occupied.”

“Makes perfect sense to me,” I said to him as the elevator door opened into the lobby.

He nodded. “Thank you, I need to hear that. My nephew, he’s the only blood family I really have around here but he’s so judgmental. The kid doesn’t understand how easy it is to think the way he does when you’re bringing in $50K a year. He goes bowling, goes to the movies, goes to the coast. Doesn’t know what its like to not be able to afford all that, and then lectures me for how I spend my money. He doesn’t think about the fact that his time itself is worth money, while my time doesn’t hold value for anybody. ‘Time flies’, he says to me. Not for me it don’t.”

I looked at him sympathetically as we walked out the front door. “You know what’s best for you better than anyone else does,” I said to him as we parted ways.

As I walked on, his words rang on in my head, as they illustrated the core divide that the sound of the TV had come to symbolize for me as of late: the divide between those whose time had a market value, and those for whose time did not carry a transferable value and was often regarded as a burden, as the enemy, as something that needed to be intentionally wasted and consumed in the absence of a meaningful way to spend it. For some, time flies, while others are in constant need for time to fly away.

tempusfugit

*   *   *

I was sitting for a moment just outside the library when he approached me.

“Hey, you got a smoke?”

I’m not a smoker nowadays, but I still carry cigarettes sometimes, deeply aware of the power that tobacco has to initiate random conversations with strangers. I handed him one and he lit it up.

“Ah, thank you. I’ll tell ya, it’s the only addiction I have left, but this one’s manageable and I’ve stopped trying to give it up. I gave the rest of them up, I still need something, you know.”

I nodded and he continued.

“My counselor said to me many times that addiction was a demon. I could tell that she meant it as a metaphor, but over time I’ve come to realize that it’s literal. A heroin addiction is the ugliest of demons – it’s a beast inside of you that you constantly need to feed, and feeding it becomes your utmost priority over time. But time is the key, time. An addiction also eats the time, and gives purpose to the time, and time itself is another demon, one that also eats away at you. And as screwed up at this sounds, in the face of the demon of time, the demon of addiction is actually a bit of a comfort. Simply put, it gives you something to do. You wake up, and the first thought is that you need a fix. Immediately you have a task, a goal. Something to do with your time. Something to take care of, something to feed.”

“How’d you kick it?” I asked.

He pointed down towards the corgi at his feet. “After I finally got through rehab, I got myself a dog,” he answered. “Figured having something else to feed would keep me out of trouble. And it did in terms of smack, but I didn’t stay completely out of trouble and after a while I collected a wife and then a kid as well. So now I have a houseful of creatures that howl to be fed in the morning.”

He paused for a moment and smiled. “But at least they’re all external. And I love them all dearly. I’d rather feed kids and dogs than those other demons. But often it’s better to feed demons than to be left to the whims of the father without sufficient distraction.

“The father?” I asked. “You mean God?”

The price of a conversation. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

The price of a conversation. [Photo by Alley Valkyrie.]

He laughed. “No, Father Time,” he said. “But he might as well be God. Cruelest force there is, that time. Never enough of it when you need it the most, then it drags on endlessly when you desperately need it to pass.”

He put out the end of the cigarette. “The tricks of the Father are endless. Time files sometimes, but never when you want it to. A winged demon, that Father Time.”

“And that’s no joke, that’s real as you and me.”

*   *   *

“This next sequence will run for four minutes.”

The strange patterns of beeping noises started again, and I closed my eyes and desperately tried to relax, trying to block out absolutely every aspect of the current situation. As I had discovered in the past, if I ignored the headphones and earplugs and panic button in my right hand, the coldness and the brightness and the very fact that I was in a cylindrical tube, if I blocked out all of that successfully, for a split second it was almost as though I was just lying down listing to some sort of avant-garde techno music.

I held the illusion for a moment, until the beeping shifted to a faster-paced and much more jolting rhythm, which snapped me back immediately into the realization that I was currently in an MRI machine. I think this is why I don’t like techno, I thought to myself.

“This next sequence will run for two-and-a-half minutes.”

I closed my eyes once again and tried my best to pretend that it was a just techno-tunnel.

When the final sequence was over, it struck me how 38 minutes in a tube, broken down into 2-4 minute segments that are announced step-by-step, makes for one of the most accurate flows of time that I experienced as of late. As uncomfortable as it was on one level, it was exactly as long as it seemed, as long as it was supposed to be without the catches and loopholes that are often present in time. The ‘tricks of the Father’ were conspicuously and surprisingly absent this time around, which considering the circumstances was quite a relief. For once, time seemed a strange constant.

They pulled me out of the tunnel, took down some additional information, and told me that I would hear back within a week.

“I know that the waiting is the hardest part,” she said to me, sympathetically. “Time can be especially cruel that way…”

I thought of the man that I talked to that morning with the dog outside the library. Time can be cruel in many ways, I silently whispered to myself.

“Do you need a parking validation?” she asked.

“No, I walked here.”

She looked down at the screen at my info for a moment, and then looked up at me again. “That’s a quite a bit of a walk,” she said to me.

“Yeah, it took a while. But I find it a good way to clear out some time.”

“Must be nice to have that kind of free time,” she said.

Trust me, its not nearly as nice as you think, I thought to myself, and thought hard for a second before answering

“Yes and no,” I said to her after a moment. “Free time tends to lose its value and appeal once its no longer being weighed against the time you wish you didn’t have to spend elsewhere. Eventually, it becomes somewhat of a liability, especially when you don’t have adequate ways to waste or spend it. I’m grateful in a sense that I’m able to spend the amount of time that I do walking around Portland, especially considering how many folks I knew with mobility issues who don’t have such an option. But the time itself isn’t always a good thing to have, especially for those who can’t get out as I can.”

She looked at me, silent for a moment.

“Huh,” she finally said. “I hear you. I never thought of it that way before, but I can definitely see what you’re saying.”

*   *   *

I dragged a chair and a small table out on my patio, intending to spend a good portion of the afternoon making pinch-pots while watching the traffic below me.

My upstairs neighbors started watching a TV program about UFOs, which I could hear clearly from where I was sitting, and before I realized what was happening I found myself sucked in. I forgot about the clay in my hand as I strained to hear their TV above the sounds of the traffic while staring out mindlessly towards the street below.

Out of nowhere, their dog started to bark uncontrollably, which set off the dog next door and another dog nearby, and the neighbors either muted or paused the TV while yelling at their dog to shush. I snapped back into reality, and as I listened to the chorus of barking dogs I looked out and noticed the doggy day camp van pull up in front of the luxury condos across the street. I had noticed the van many times before, but seeing it in that moment brought with it a whole new significance.

I tuned in to the cacophony of barking throughout the building for a moment, dogs that for so many folks here were instrumental in giving their time and their lives meaning in the face of very few accessible amusements or comforts.

And as I listened to the barking, I closely watched across the street as the van driver walked the dog toward the building, the owner approaching them from the other direction. In stark contrast to my upstairs neighbors who spent most of their waking hours caring for their dog with the TV blaring in the background, this dog owner’s time is so valued under capitalism that he can afford to pay someone to amuse his dog for several hours every day while he’s gone so that the dog itself doesn’t get bored in his absence.

Sitting on the porch, staring across the street, I realized that I was experiencing two worlds at once, worlds that in the moment were being illustrated by dogs and separated and defined by the value and perception of time.

As the van drove away and the barking died down, they turned the UFO show back on upstairs. I started to listen in once again, but my thoughts kept interrupting my ability to concentrate as I couldn’t help wondering what a dog actually does all day at doggy day camp.

*   *   *

“Daddy, why is the market only open on the weekends?”

“Because during the weekdays, everyone is at work. They’re off on the weekends, so they can come here and shop,” he replied.

Sitting in the back of my market booth, the weekend ‘workplace’ that I’ve steadily inhabited for over a decade now, I tipped both my eye and my ear towards the direction of the conversation.

“But there are some people who work on the weekends too,” the kid countered. “These people here all are working right now,” he said, pointing towards the booths in front of them.

Smart kid, I thought to myself, curiously anticipating how the father would attempt to explain this particular aspect of class dynamics to a six-year-old.

“Well, yes, you’re right. Some people do have to work on the weekends.”

“But when do the people who work on the weekends get to go to the market?”

“I guess they just don’t get to go,” the father said after a moment. “We’ve talked before about how the world isn’t always fair.”

“Are the people who work on the weekdays more important than those who work on the weekends?

“Well, I guess some would say that. Those who work weekdays generally make more money than those who have to work on weekends, and there are many people who think that those who make more money are more important than those who make less money.”

“That’s stupid,” the kid said defiantly. “The people who work on the weekends should make more money, because they’re the ones who are missing all the fun.”

Portland Saturday Market. Photo by Steve Morgan.

Portland Saturday Market. [Photo by Steve Morgan]

“Are you hungry?” the father asked abruptly, desperately trying to change the subject at that point. The kid nodded and they walked away towards the food carts.

“If I was in charge, I’d have a market all week just for the people who have to work weekends,” the kid said as they walked out of earshot.

The father looked around for a moment, his expression one of pure helplessness and exasperation.

Right on, kid, right on, I thought.

*   *   *

As I watched her hand, moving so eloquently and furiously, I realized that I had seen her before, although in a different park on the other side of the river. She finished the bird with a few quick strokes and started to write underneath the picture in Chinese, quickly scribbling out a few rows of text in what seemed like seconds.

She then picked up the picture, blew on it, quickly looked both ways, and muttered a few words under her breath. And before I really understood what was happening, she pulled out a match and quickly set the paper on fire.

I gasped aloud, not meaning to, and she turned around, surprised to see me there. She nodded hello at me and I nodded back.

“It is OK, it is supposed to burn,” she said to me, smiling. “It is a prayer for the sparrows.”

“But you just spent so much time….” I stopped mid-sentence, recognizing the thought-trap regarding the value of time that I was about to fall into. She laughed.

“I have all the time in the world to draw things and set them on fire,” she said. “I am retired, I do not work. I do not like TV, I do not like bingo. Instead, I draw and I pray and I pay attention to nature.”

I stared at her for a second, wondering if I should say aloud what I was dying to ask her, then took a breath and went for it.

“Do you mind if I ask why? Why did you burn what you just drew, what was it for?”

She motioned for me to sit, and I immediately dropped down on the ground next to her.

“I draw them to ask forgiveness for the past. When I was a girl back home, one day our leader commanded all the people to kill the sparrows, all the sparrows. It was a matter of duty, of honor, patriotism, all of those things, to kill every sparrow we could find. So we did, we chased them, killed them, destroyed nests, some shot them out of the sky. Throughout my village, throughout the country, the people killed all the sparrows, every one they saw.”

As she paused for a moment, I thought about her age and realized that I was hearing a personal account of the Great Chinese Famine. My stomach clenched up as I anticipated what she was about to say next.

“But sparrows eat locusts and locusts eat grain, and when sparrows don’t eat locusts, locusts eat all the grain that is grown to feed the peasants. And then, after the sparrows were gone, after we killed them all and the locusts came, the droughts also came. And for years, there was famine, and millions and millions died.“

“Years later, I moved to America to be with my daughter, and everywhere I see different kinds of sparrows. And they reminded me of my childhood, of the famine and the death, and at first I was very angry at them. They almost felt haunting. But then I thought of what the people had done, and what happened as a result, and how all of the species are connected and interdependent. Here we both reside, me and the sparrows, and we are both alive, both survivors, and I don’t like bingo. So eventually I thought why not reach out to them?”

She smiled and looked around. “So I started coming to the parks, and when I see sparrows, I draw them and write prayers of forgiveness and send them up towards where I spotted them. I think it heals both of our wounds.”

I stood there for a moment, slightly shivery. “Thank you for sharing that with me,” I told her.

She nodded. “Nobody can change the past, but I can at least give them the time I have now. I often feel like I’m just wasting my days away when I sit at home, but then I remember the sparrows and I realize that my time has value.”

*   *   *

Walking back from the park towards my building, I noticed the man who has asked me about the Kardashians the other day, sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette. He looked up and I nodded; he waved me over.

“Hey, you ever hear of a time bank?” he asked.

Before I could answer, he continued, excitedly. “I saw something on TV this morning where they were talking about unemployed folks in Greece and how they’ve started these exchanges called time banks. It’s a bartering of services where if you can perform a skill, you can trade your time for the time-skills of another. Everyone’s time is worth the same no matter what service they perform, and services are traded hour for hour, no money exchanged.”

I nodded and he went on. “I’m one hell of a wood-turner. Put me in front of a lathe and I’ll make you some of the most amazing things you’ve ever seen. But I can only do it at most for a few hours at a time, which is why I’m useless to an employer. But if I could trade a few hours a week’s worth of my skill for, say, someone who could help me fix my car up or could repair my boots, I’d be so much better off.”

He pointed toward our building. “That whole place, I’m sure almost everyone can do something. But so many do nothing at all, because they’re trapped in their apartment with nothing but a TV and maybe a chat with the neighbor once in a while. What they know, what they do, it all just goes to waste. Nobody’s time has any real value as it stands.

“But just think of what we all could do if we all decided to start organizing ourselves and our skills around something other than money. You’d have a whole bunch of folks who think they’re useless who would suddenly find themselves quite useful again. We’d all have an easier time of it, a much easier time.”

“A much easier time,” he said again after a moment. “It always comes back to time.”

 *   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.  

I thought I was a strong swimmer. But I was also seventeen, and I thought I knew everything.

It was hot, and the Delaware River was refreshingly cool. I can do this, I said to myself, perhaps a little too confidently. I stood at the bank of the Pennsylvania side, with my eye on a small sandy landing across the river in New Jersey. I jumped in and made it across easily, then without really thinking about it I quickly turned around and swam back.

Halfway back, I learned quickly that I wasn’t as strong of a swimmer as I thought, and that I should have given myself more time to rest before attempting the trip back. I was caught in the current, and started to move sideways instead of across. Foolishly I tried to fight it; tried to swim against the current and, as I started to drift downstream, I quickly tired myself out.

I felt myself losing the battle, and allowed the current to carry me for a while. I struggled to stay afloat, felt myself starting to drown, found myself reflecting in that panicked moment how this is never what it looks like on TV or in the movies, all while still facing upstream and still attempting to swim back the way I came. I tried floating on my back but the river kept pulling me down. Knowing that there wasn’t a human in sight that could hear a scream for help, I started shouting the names of every deity I could think of at that moment, but yelling for only those few seconds quickly weakened me further. I switched from screams to silent thoughts as I felt I was about to go under, my last concern being that I didn’t tell anyone I was even going for a swim in the first place.

And then I literally smacked into a ton of bricks. I had been facing upstream the entire time, and in all my struggling I didn’t notice that there was a bridge behind me. I landed on a masonry pier, and the height of the water was at an exact level that I found myself seated on the ledge of the pier before I even realized where I was. The moment I was about to go under, the bridge had provided a chair for me to rest.

I sat there for the next few hours, first to catch my breath, then to reflect. I had done a very foolish thing, and I nearly paid with my life. I owed that life to what I would have always considered to be an inanimate object … until that moment of collision. There was something so alive about the pier; the way an old tree or the river itself felt alive. And the longer I sat there on the edge of the pier, in a strange dazed delirium filled with fear and gratitude, the more I felt a very deep connection with stones themselves, even more so than I had every felt from a tree or a river. There was a true mutual appreciation in that moment: I appreciated the pier for being where it was, and the pier seemed to appreciate my just sitting on it for a few hours in contemplation. I thought about the people who constructed that pier, each brick laid down by hand, the literal sweat and blood that went into this structure that held me in a time of need.

When I felt rested and clear-headed enough, I prepared to swim back to the riverbank. I found myself thanking the pier profusely, at that point having the same regard for its spirit and sentience as I would any person or animal, and right before I jumped back in the river I asked the pier to wish me luck and if possible to see me over to the other side. The swim back was easy, and by the time I landed on the riverbank the only pain I felt was a bruise on my side from when I had smacked into the pier.

The bridge that caught me. Photo by Aerolin55.

The bridge that caught me. [Photo Credit: Aerolin55]

After asking around a bit the next day, I learned that, although the bridge had been rebuilt three times, the pier was the original and had been standing in that water for over 150 years. Other than the river itself, those masonry piers were the just about the oldest thing around. This made sense to me, as the pier definitely felt old, and yet there still was something much more to that pier, something much deeper than age alone.

That pier had life; that pier had spirit. That pier had imprinted something unshakable upon me.

*   *   *

It may be painfully typical to state that such an experience dramatically shifts one’s perspective on life, but it’s the only way to describe the transformation that I went through in the months after the bridge incident. Not only was I grateful for and deliberate in my existence in a way that I couldn’t have imagined beforehand, but I became fascinated by and fixated on both spirits and bridges in various ways.

After spending a few months processing what happened at the bridge, I left home and started to couch-surf with friends in New York City, first in lower Manhattan and then in Brooklyn. At first, I took with me only my backpack and a small bag of possessions that most would consider mere knick-knacks but I saw as infused with consciousness and spirit. Among those possessions was a small piece of moss that I had pulled off the masonry pier.

I loved so much about Brooklyn, but I loved the bridges the most. I found myself mesmerized by the bridges; first by their structures themselves and then by the lush history behind their existence. I spent hours in the library, drinking in stories of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and later the Verrazano.

 

Verrazano Bridge from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Verrazano Bridge from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. [Photo by A. Valkyrie.]

The stories also revealed a darker side, one I had never considered before. Those who financed and engineered such bridges were usually remembered by history as those responsible for the bridge itself, not so much the workers who gave their labor and often their lives to actually bring the bridge into existence. Similar to the building of the railroads, those who actually built the bridges were mostly forgotten while those who backed it are remembered and glorified. Also forgotten were those who were displaced by the building of such bridges. Planning for the Verrazano Bridge, which broke ground in 1959, wiped out an entire stretch of neighborhood in Bay Ridge; bulldozing Victorian-era brownstones, and displacing working-class families and second-generation immigrants who had nowhere else to go in a rapidly developing city. The cruelty and injustice inherent in such urban planning was no different than today’s urban gentrification battles that raged throughout Brooklyn as well as cities across the nation.

I loved and appreciated those bridges, but did I ever shutter deep down whenever I thought of the true cost, whenever I consider the ghosts of a generation uprooted.

*   *   *

Nearly a decade after the bridge incident, I packed my things and moved across the country. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to that bridge when I left, but I kept it in my thoughts and my prayers as I was saying goodbye to the East Coast, to Brooklyn, to the bridges that I had adopted as my own in the years that I was a resident of New York City. I took only what I could carry in my van with the front area behind my seat reserved for carefully-packed boxes containing, what I then referred to as, ‘spirit-items’.

On day five in the car, driving along the Columbia Gorge in Oregon less than an hour from Portland. I suddenly saw a sign. Bridge of the Gods, it said.

I turned off at the exit.

The bridge looked rather modern, almost disappointingly so, but a historical plaque told an intriguing story about an ancient bridge that once stood in that spot. There was a natural land-bridge that once blocked the river, that was the subject of various folkloric tales from indigenous tribes that populated the area prior to European settlement.

There was something about stumbling upon local mythology, around gods and bridges, so close to the end of my journey to a new home that struck me in a very significant way.

I walked down to the base of bridge, going as far down the steep riverbank as I safely could manage. I introduced myself, and left a few coins at the base. Despite its newness, despite its lack of any real connection to the historic ‘Bridge of the Gods’, there was something about it that still felt sacred.

Walking back up, a rock the size of a golf ball bounced down straight towards me. I stopped it with my foot, picked it up, and put it in my bag. I slipped it into the special box right behind the front seat.

Eight years ago, eight moves ago.

*   *   *

“Hey, would you mind holding onto Grandpa for me? I really don’t have a safe place for him and … well … you’ve already got a big collection of dead things that you take care of …”

‘Grandpa’ was a jar of ashes; more specifically the ashes of my ex’s grandfather who had passed over during the first year of our relationship. Grandpa had indeed found a comfortable spot among my various collections of dead things over the course of our relationship.

We were at the point in the break-up process in which we were dividing our things in preparation for his move back to the Midwest, and I was deliberately forcing a mindset of collaboration and compassion in order to maintain my sanity. I had already been keeping an eye on Grandpa as though he were my responsibility. It seems sensible to maintain what was already routine for me.

“Of course, don’t worry.” I replied. “Leave Grandpa right where he is, I’ll keep an eye on him.”

Five years ago, five moves ago.

The Patio of Living Things, circa 2010. 'Grandpa' is hidden in the corner behind the lavender.

The Patio of Living Things, circa 2010. ‘Grandpa’ is hidden in the corner behind the lavender. [Photo: A. Valkyrie]

It was never made clear at the time whether my custody of Grandpa was temporary or permanent, but Grandpa seems to have become a perpetual addition to the strange assortment of items that I had been carrying around. The assortment has grown considerably since I was in my late teens, an assortment of items that themselves possess spirit and soul to the extent where simple ideas of ‘ownership’ quickly evolve into reverent caretaking of a very peculiar kind.

*   *   *

I knew he was severely depressed to the point where he was possibly suicidal, and I knew that a change of environment can often positively shift someone that is in such a state. It was only a few days after I started scheming on how to get him out here that a thousand dollars literally dropped into my lap unexpectedly in a way that only happens when greater forces are at work. I bought him a plane ticket from upstate New York to Eugene and, a few weeks later, we were headed down the 101 in my van, packed for camping and exploring.

We drove for ten days, down from Florence, Oregon all the way to Mendocino and back, stopping at every place that looked interesting and many other places that were simply quiet and serene. We camped in the redwoods, on the coast, on the bank of the Russian River. He ran right in, I timidly waded up to my knees and stood in contemplation. I took a few steps more but wouldn’t go in past my waist.

He asked why, I told him. “Once bitten, twice shy,” I said when I finished the story.

He nodded. We shared many other stories that week, of close calls and near-death experiences, as well as darker experiences such as self-harm and suicide. He admitted to me that he had contemplated killing himself, both in the past and very recently. I nodded; I had sensed as much. I didn’t have to say aloud that such worries were why I flew him out here … it was unspoken but understood.

By the time we got back to Eugene, the van was filled with various objects, both natural and man-made, that we had amassed over the course of our trip. He had the same sense and affinity for what he called ‘living’ objects as I did. Much of our trip consisted of stumbling upon such wonders like small children, giggling as we left offerings in return.

As he packed up to return to New York, we both tried in vain to fit the entirety of his new collection in his baggage, cramming nearly everything except for a pile of bark and a bag of meticulously chosen and extremely ‘living’ bunch of sticks that he had intended to carve an ogham set with.

“I have to leave that all here. You can have the bark,” he said. “But I would love that bag of sticks back from you one day.”

“I’ll give them back to you the next time I see you,” I replied.

Four years ago, four moves ago.

bag copy

[Photo: A. Valkyrie]

Eighteen months after he left, I got a message from a mutual friend. Call me immediately, the message said, followed by her phone number. My throat tightened; I knew instantly that he had done it; that he had committed suicide.

I called her to confirm what I already knew and subsequently broke down for several hours. At one point, I looked over at the bag of sticks, hanging on the door, and remembered my words to him.

“I’m still going to hold onto your sticks until I see you again,” I said aloud.

A few days later, I placed them with the rest of the collection.

*   *   *

When I knew I had to leave Eugene, I surrendered my fate to the Gods, who very quickly and bluntly guided me to a tiny little studio, 100 yards from the river, smack dab between two of Portland’s most iconic bridges. I didn’t even begin to question it, I simply accepted it and settled in.

The tone had been instantly set for my Work in this new place, and the very first action I took even before signing the least was to make offerings at the bases of both bridges. I thanked the bridges for their presence and their function, I made prayers and offerings to those who were sacrificed in the construction of the bridge, and to those who had taken their lives by jumping. I also made prayers and offerings for those who currently lived under the bridges, those who we tend to label as ‘homeless’ and ‘mentally ill’ and ‘addicts.’

The studio was just under 400 square feet. Realizing that there was not enough room to unpack the majority of my possessions, within a few months I put myself on a waiting list for a bigger space in the same building, unheeded by the warning from management that it could take well over a year to happen. The studio served an immediate purpose in terms of survival and a place to print, but was unsuitable as a place of worship or Work. I took my worship and Work to the riverbank, to the bridges, building altars on abandoned piers and stone foundations.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Against the wall in my studio, meticulously stacked boxes, boxes containing packed up altars and places of offering, boxes containing those packed up objects-turned-obligations. Bones and sticks, including ‘Grandpa’ and the ogham bag, the rock from the Bridge of the Gods and the moss from the bridge that saved me, all in safe storage, in plain sight and yet obscured by corrugated cardboard.

One year ago, one move ago.

There’s something admittedly strange and yet comforting in talking to boxes, feeding them and caring for them just as you would were they outside of the box. I kept an eye on them, checked up on them constantly, awaiting the day when I would be able to unpack them again and put them in their proper places.

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There have been well over 200 drownings in Oregon in the past decade The vast majority of them occurring in rivers in the Willamette Valley.

I don’t have the luxury of believing in coincidence, so it only seemed perfectly natural that I stumbled across a detailed list of those drownings the same day that my computer screen was filled with headlines and opinions focused on the racial dynamics of a pool-party incident in Texas. Browsing the list of drownings, it struck me immediately that a significant number of those who have drowned in Oregon were people of color, in a state that is overwhelmingly white.

In a vastly unequal society where minorities and the poor were both historically and still presently denied access to safe, publicly accessible bodies of water, it sadly makes sense that so many would seek to relieve themselves from the heat in the rivers, and meet a tragic fate in doing so. Learning how to swim, learning what to do when one is in danger of drowning, and being able to safely access bodies of water when it is hot, are basic needs in terms of public safety that should be accessible to anyone and everyone in this country, regardless of race, socioeconomics, or documented status.

I read through the list again, this time focusing on the descriptions of the incidents. It hit a tender nerve when I read through accounts of drownings that resulted from those who thought that they could swim across a river. It has been more than fifteen years since I nearly drowned, but after having relived the incident more times in my mind than I ever care to acknowledge, the naivete and commonality of my mistake still reverberates. I thought I was a strong swimmer, I still cling to occasionally in defense. I thought I was a strong swimmer.

But there’s a piece of moss on my altar that will always remind me otherwise.

With those thoughts swirling through my mind, I went down to the base of the nearest bridge, as close to the water as I could get, with flowers for those who have died in the river. I petitioned the bridge and the land spirits to do what they could to protect those who may be floating by in distress. I spent a moment in touch with my inner terror, that taste of death that has never quite left me since my own dip in the river years before, and I whispered prayers of protection towards the opposite side as I let that terror go on the riverbank.

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It has been unbearably hot this past week, as my partner and I moved boxes from the tiny studio to a larger space in the same building, after nearly a year of waiting for such a space to open up. The new place faces the river just across the street, and the breeze from the Willamette blows directly into my new living-room and bedroom. It’s at least fifteen degrees cooler than the studio, which faced southward with very little breeze.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Unpacking the boxes, with layers of altars and old friends hidden away for nearly fifteen months, becomes an unexpectedly emotional reunion. Bits and pieces of my life and journeys all spread out for my eyes to take in, each infused with life and spirit as well as countless stories. I uncover Grandpa and sit him on a shelf; I find the bag of ogham sticks and hang the bag out on the patio. I dust off my friends, I smile, and for the first time in years I know I’m exactly where I should be.

Now. Here.

A hundred yards from the river, between two bridges, I finally feel like I am home.

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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.