Archives For Portland

Column: Invisible Among Us

Alley Valkyrie —  December 26, 2014 — 6 Comments

“Without the sleeping bag I’m just somebody up early in the morning, sitting under a tree. With the sleeping bag I’m nobody up early, sitting under a tree: a slight, but important difference in how I’ll be perceived.” – Craig Stone, The Squirrel That Dreamt of Madness

I.

“Hi, do you have a moment for the environment?”

Very seldom could I get the entire sentence out. More often than not, my attempts at interacting with passers-by ended somewhere between “Hi, do you…” and “Hi, do you have a moment…” On the busy sidewalks of Manhattan, very few people were willing to grant more than a few seconds of their time to anyone trying to get their attention; let alone someone working as a street canvasser for Greenpeace.

Of all the thankless, minimum-wage jobs that I cycled through when I was in my early twenties, the canvassing gig was by far the most brutal. We spent four to five hours a day on the sidewalks of New York City, trying to convince people to sign up for a monthly donation subscription with a $15 minimum. We went out in teams of four, a different intersection every few days.  If we didn’t meet our quota of two sign-ups a day for three days straight, we were automatically fired. It was an uncomfortable, stressful, pressure-filed job, where one’s income, as well as their status as ‘employed’ altogether, was completely dependent on an often hostile and skeptical public.

Prior to landing the job, I had spent lots of time on street-corners, both as a busker and a tarot reader. I knew full well that trying to solicit money from the public was often a frustrating and futile task. When folks would ask me how I fared as a street performer, I would usually tell them that if smiles were a form of currency, I’d be very well off. I never made much money, but at least I had the smiles.

I usually had the smiles as well while on the street corner on behalf of Greenpeace. That is, until one day a few months into the gig when our director decided to send my four-person team down to Wall Street, an area that had been avoided up to that point due to the perception of political hostility. She warned us that it might be tough. I thought back to my days reading cards and playing music on the streets and figured that I knew what I was in for. I can handle this, I thought to myself.

Oh, how wrong I was.

“Hi…”

“Hi…”

“Hi, do you…”

After the first hour, not only did I realize that I was probably going to have a zero day, but I was starting to feel desperate for even a smile. Very few people would even make eye contact with me, let alone stop. Over the next four hours, I couldn’t get a single person to actually pause and listen to my pitch. A few folks gave gave me nasty looks, one man even spit at my feet as he passed. A woman who worked for Exxon took it upon herself to scream at me, telling me that I should get a “real job” and stop trying to “destroy the oil industry.” But mostly, I was completely ignored. I couldn’t even get people to look at me, let alone open up their wallets.

For the first time in my life, I literally felt invisible to everyone around me. And by the end of the day, not only did I not sign up a single person for the first time since landing the job, I was so psychically numb that the only thing I wanted to do was go straight to the bar afterward. I had many unsuccessful days before but at least I got the smiles; I experienced human interaction and my humanity was acknowledged. But that day, I had never felt so invisible, and I was taken aback by how deeply it affected me, especially considering that I had only experienced it for a single afternoon.

The next day I was sent back to Wall Street again and, as I walked downtown toward my destination, I was overtaken by feelings of anxiety and dread; feelings that only increased over the next few hours. I stood there once again, completely invisible, and as the hours passed I felt every more desperate. Thousands of people walked by me, almost no-one would look me in the eye, and at the end of the day, once again, I headed straight for the bar.  At that moment, drink was the only thing I could think of that could possibly numb the indescribable feeling that grew throughout the course of the day.

800px-Lower_Manhattan_Aerial

Lower Manhattan [Public Domain]

By the third day, I knew as I was walking downtown that it would be my last day on the job. I was already so broken that I didn’t even try. At that point, I actually looked forward to name-calling and insults. The experience of being ignored for the past few days was so psychologically stressful that the insults at least served as a reminder that I actually did exist; that I actually was seen; that I was really standing there in the flesh and was not in fact an invisible spirit.

Toward the end of the afternoon, knowing that I was going to be fired anyway, I simply couldn’t take it anymore. I felt I was about to break, and I abandoned my post on the corner and walked a few blocks away, looking for somewhere to sit with my emotions.

I walked past another corner and saw a homeless beggar sitting in a doorway, an older man that I realized that I had walked by dozens of times before, and yet I had never actually seen him. I stood there, staring at him, processing what I had experienced in the past three days. I realized that not only did this man experienced that same invisibility every single day, but for him it was a fixed condition, not something that ended when the work day was over. Had I always done to this man what others had just done to me? How could I not have seen him before the way I saw him now? He looked up and caught my eye, and I walked over towards him.

“How long have you been out here?” I asked.

“Thirteen years,” he answered. “I’ve been in and out of housing a few times, but those periods were brief. I used to hang out up near Times Square for several years until it gentrified, but I’ve been down here in the Financial District for a few years now, since the late nineties. ”

Thirteen years. And here I was, on the verge of a mental breakdown after only three days of experiencing what it was like to be completely invisible. I stared at him for a moment, and then sat down next to him and started to cry. He didn’t understand why I was crying, but he put his arm around me nonetheless. After a few minutes, I wiped my tears, stood up, reached into my pocket, and gave him every dollar I had on me. I looked into his eyes and started to tear up again.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I wish I could do more.”

“You’ve done more than you think,” he replied. “Most people who hand me a buck or two don’t even look me in the eye. Nobody actually wants to talk to you when you’re on the street. You’ve just given me more of your time and attention than any stranger has in days.”

I thought about my prior interactions with street folks, and it hit me that I had usually done the same thing that he just described. I would give them a dollar or two, but never really look them in the eye. I suddenly felt like a horrible person for not understanding how dehumanizing it was to ignore the presence of the poor and homeless. It hurt me so greatly to realize that I had inadvertently made others feel the way that I had felt over the past three days. I stood there for another moment, looking down at the man, and silently vowed to the Gods that never again would I walk past someone who sought my attention in good faith without at least looking them in the eye and acknowledging them as a person.

To this day, I have never consciously broken that vow.

II.

I walked out of the grocery store with a croissant in my hand, and ran across the street to the corner where a man was sitting, back towards me, wrapped in a blanket.

“Hey, Sam….” I said softly as I approached.

He turned, our eyes met, and we both grinned at the same time in mutual recognition. Wordlessly, I broke my croissant in two and held out a half towards him. He took the half, and we both looked down at what we held in our hands and bit into our half of the croissant at the same time. We chewed slowly, enjoying both the taste of the treat as well as the moment itself.

I don’t know much about Sam’s life – I know he’s on the street due to mental illness and has been a fixture in the neighborhood for years. Over time, I’ve noticed that his lucidity and his ability to function varies greatly from day to day. Some days he barely seems to recognize me, which is why I always approach him cautiously. But despite the challenges, I make a point of breaking bread with Sam on a regular basis.

The corner where I often find Sam.

One of the corners where I often find Sam.

In a world of deep and painful socioeconomic divisions, creating moments of equality and communion wherever possible is one of the few antidotes I know of; one of the few ways that I can reach across the ever-widening divide between the haves and have-nots and reach out to those who have been failed by the system. Breaking bread on the street corner was a simple but powerful gesture, one that often creates ripples beyond the immediate reality of the two of us standing around munching on pastries.

“All day I stand here, but nobody sees me,” he told me once while we were sharing a donut. “It’s as if I don’t exist. But then you stand next to me for a few moments, and suddenly I’m real to them. Suddenly I’m standing here too, as though I wasn’t just before.”

I felt a powerful wave of sadness and empathy with an undercurrent of rage as I digested his words, as I knew that what he was saying was all too true. While I cannot personally cure or mitigate the experiences of Sam, and so many others like him, I keep them in mind in my actions and my navigations. When I break bread with Sam I always hold close the intention of fighting for a world where I do not have to hand a croissant to someone like him in order for him to be seen in the eyes of others.

III.

“Can I tell you something? I need to tell somebody.”

I nodded. It was a common request, more common than some might think. I had seen Daphne sitting on the ledge earlier that day, and ran back home to bring her socks and hot coffee, sensing that she was in need of someone to talk to.

“I think I see the dead. And on some days, they’re everywhere.”

I nodded again. Street folks who see spirits are also more common than one might think. Sam had told me the exact same thing only a few days earlier.

“I never saw them before I was out here, but now I see them all the time,” she continued. “I think I’m going crazy, but I know a lot of other folks out here who see them too.”

“You’re not going crazy,” I quickly answered. “I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve talked to who see similar things. What you’re speaking of goes far beyond just the street population of downtown Portland.”

She looked up at me, and I could tell by her expression that I had just greatly helped in validating her reality.

“I think that the more invisible I become, the more I see things that others consider to be invisible,” she said after a moment.

I stared at her, taken aback. She had just perfectly articulated what I had always considered to be the most plausible explanation. Being ‘othered,’ being cast aside, ignored and treated as though one doesn’t exist, inevitably drives one closer and closer to being in touch with all else that is invisible and unseen – that other world that many believe also doesn’t exist.

“Yes, I do think that’s the case, although you just put it better than I ever could,” I replied. “And even if that’s not the reason, you’re still not crazy,” I added. “To tell you the truth, sometimes I see spirits too.”

She suddenly grabbed me for a hug, spilling the coffee in the process.

“Thank you,” she said as she hugged me. “I needed to hear that.”

I returned the embrace. In a sense, I had needed to hear what she just told me just as much as she needed to hear what I had just told her.

Walking home, I passed by Sam, who didn’t even notice my presence. He was deep in conversation with something – something I couldn’t see but could definitively sense. I thought of what Daphne had just told me and simply shook my head as I walked away.

IV.

I said a quick hello to Sam on the corner and walked into the coffee shop. I was in a sour mood that day on top of an already stressful week. I had nothing left in me other than to grab a latte and sit at the window of the coffee shop, staring out at the corner where Sam stood with his blanket and a cup.

While trying my best to tune out the Christmas carols playing in the background, I couldn’t help but to keep my eye on Sam, partially out of guilt that I was too tired and broken to engage in either conversation or croissants that day. I sat and watched as he stood there, wearing only sandals on a near-freezing windy day, holding out his cup and trying to engage those who walked by.

Person after person passed without even looking at him. One man literally bumped right into him as though he wasn’t even standing there. A woman walked by with her dog, and her dog nipped and pulled at Sam’s blanket,. She pulled the dog back and scolded it without even apologizing to Sam.

After a while, my sourness turned to rage. I continued to sit at the window, visibly shaking in anger, watching him on the corner. Suddenly, I realized that everyone else in the coffee shop was starting to notice me. A few women on the couch behind me were staring and whispering. A man came up to me and asked what was wrong and if I was okay. I didn’t hold back in my reply.

“Right now, what’s wrong more than anything is that this entire coffee shop is more concerned about what’s wrong with me than the fact that there’s a man begging on the corner wrapped in a blanket who doesn’t even have shoes. No, I’m not OK, but that has nothing to do with my own needs. It has to do with the fact that someone else in such need is literally begging to survive in a community of great affluence and people are acting as though he isn’t even standing there. If you want to help someone, I don’t need help. He does,” I said, pointing out the window towards Sam.

The man just stared at me, as did everyone else within earshot.

“Tell me,” I continued, my voice rising with my anger. “How many times have you walked past that man out there? Have you ever even stopped to say hello? Have you ever acknowledged his existence? Have any of you?” I asked, turning towards the others who were listening. “Does his life even matter to you? Does his suffering affect any of you at all?” My voice had started to shake along with my body, and I was on the verge of tears.

The man nodded. “I hear you,” he said. “And you’re right. I’ve never said a word to him. And I probably never would have thought to do so. And I don’t even know why that is, but again, you’re absolutely right.”

I watched as he turned around and walked out of the coffee shop, walked right up to Sam, and held out his hand to introduce himself. Sam looked up, surprised, and enthusiastically shook his hand. They started to talk, and as they did, the two women on the couch also got up and walked out of the coffee shop. They went right up to Sam while the other man was still talking to him, and each of them dropped a dollar in his cup. As the three of them stood there with Sam, other people started to look over. Another woman then came and dropped a dollar in his cup. And then another. Suddenly, Sam was seen, he was visible, and people were reacting to his presence.

As I watched Sam talk with the man from the coffee shop, I thought back to that night on the corner down on Wall Street years ago, and how that interaction with the homeless beggar there forever changed my perception of and behavior around street folks. Perhaps he’s learning the same lesson, I thought to myself. Please, I silently wished, let him learn the same lesson.

V.

A day or two later, I was walking down that same block when I saw Sam on the corner again with his cup, but instead of sandals on his feet, he was wearing a sturdy pair of lightly-worn boots. I smiled, pointed to his boots, and asked him where they came from.

“The other day, a man walked up to me out of the coffee shop and shook my hand and we started to talk. He asked me what my shoe size was and then mentioned that he wore the same size. A few hours later, he came back with these, and wished me a Merry Christmas.” He looked down at his feet and grinned. “They fit perfectly. And he’s walked by a few times since then, and he says hello to me every time now.”

I grinned back. Not only was I indescribably happy for Sam, but my own wish had come true as well. I reached in my bag for the croissant I had bought a few minutes earlier, ripped the pastry in half and handed the bigger half to Sam. “Merry Christmas, Sam,” I said.

“Yes, Merry Christmas,” he replied, and we ate our croissant on the corner together.

800px-Croissant-Petr_Kratochvil

[Public Domain]

 *   *   *

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.]

I came across the marsh last spring on my very first walk through the new neighborhood.

Three blocks from my building I stumbled upon it, flourishing within the confines of a city block in sharp contrast to its immediate surroundings. Overshadowed by condominium complexes on three sides, a vacant lot sits to the north, and then another park on the other side of that lot which stretches to the riverfront. The vacant lot allows for a breathtaking view of the Fremont Bridge gracefully arcing over the Willamette River.

Tanner Springs Park, as the marsh is officially known, is a modern recapture/recreation of the creek and wetlands that flowed through this area up until the late 1800’s. The original creek was filled in to make way for industrial development, which dominated this area from the turn of the century until approximately twenty-five years ago. When the industrial cover was eventually stripped away in order to plan the neighborhood as it stands today, the city was presented with an opportunity to restore a small piece of the natural topography, which eventually manifested as a thriving, swampy ecosystem contained within the boundaries of a city block. The park is not only specifically designed to capture storm water as the native environment once did; the storm water is then treated and pumped back into the spring as opposed to simply being directed back into the river.

Since that first encounter with the marsh, I’ve visited the spot nearly every day, sometimes only for a minute or two and other times for the better part of an afternoon. The marsh feels very tucked into itself; there is something very grounding and psychically cohesive about the block that is not felt among its surroundings. There are strange spirits among the grasses and ponds here, spirits both old and very, very new, and their presence seems to magnify the more I pay attention to them. The marsh is both beautifully out of place and also completely fitting as it stands. Its surroundings protect and isolate it while highlighting it at the same time, and the open space between the block and the river creates a positive aesthetic flow that opens up the surrounding neighborhood in a very distinctive and pleasing manner.

The wonderful marshiness of Tanner Springs Park. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

The wonderful marshiness of Tanner Springs Park

At the marsh, I can hide in plain sight. The more I pay attention to the everyday details, which are contained within its borders, the more the everyday details outside of its borders become more obvious to me. I have developed an energetic reciprocity with this spot, and the spirits have made it clear that they welcome my presence. In a sense, it’s the only block in this neighborhood where I feel at ease.

*  *  *

For the past seven years, I had been deeply engaged in a close relationship with a small section of the Willamette River, specifically the curve that defines the border of Alton Baker Park in Eugene; a spot that the State of Oregon defines as River Mile 183, and that I could never quite define myself.

Nowadays, I live exactly 172 river miles north of that spot in a building that sits a few hundred yards away from the west bank of the Willamette in Portland at River Mile 11. While the mile markers of the Willamette generally don’t carry a specific connotation, River Mile 11 is significant and often referred to by name due to the fact that it marks the furthest point upstream where the Willamette has been designated as a Superfund site. From the Broadway Bridge downstream several miles to Sauvie Island, the river suffers from highly elevated levels of toxicity due to well over a hundred years’ worth of industrial activity on the waterfront. The banks and waters of River Mile 11 are specifically noted for their toxicity apart from the rest of the Superfund site. The area from the Broadway Bridge downstream to the Fremont Bridge is the only stretch of the Willamette in Portland where swimming is not only ill-advised but advisory groups caution against even walking barefoot on the riverbank.

The toxic effects of a century’s worth of industry was not confined to just the water itself. The housing complex I live in was built on top of formerly toxic brownfields, as were many of the surrounding buildings and current features of the neighborhood including my beloved marsh. But while the toxicity on the land has been cleaned up to an extent over the past twenty years, any substantive cleaning of the river itself has yet to begin.

The view at River Mile 11.

The view at River Mile 11

I have learned that she is both the same river I knew in Eugene and a completely different character at the same time. I feel as if I’ve gotten to simultaneously know her in two separate stages of her journey. The youthful exuberance of the Willamette at Mile 183 is largely absent from the river that now sits across the street from my building. Here, the river has been altered into submission, industrialized to a point where the energies that I easily sensed in Eugene are almost unrecognizable.  And yet, she is my old friend all the same. And, while I miss dipping my feet in, the understandings and lessons that I am quickly gaining from living on this stretch of the river far outweigh what I used to take for granted.

*  *  *

I stood in front of the statue, keeping in mind that the imposing woman before me was the second-largest copper repouseé statue in the country after Lady Liberty herself. Hunched down, she reaches out to me with her right hand as she wields a trident in her left. I take in her essence, both fierce and inviting.  In the tradition of Columbia and Brittania as well as Lady Liberty, she is intended to embody the persona of this city. I feel that she does in many ways, although not necessarily in the ways that were originally intended. For me, she is a powerful symbol of what is held back as much as what she inspires to push forward.

Symbols hold tremendous power, and one of the reasons that the Statue of Liberty is such a powerful symbol is that she can be seen everywhere. One does not have to visit her in person to quickly conjure up her likeness in the imagination. She appears on everything from birthday cakes to snow globes, and to step inside of any New York City tourist shop is to be visually assaulted with countless versions of her likeness.

The statue I stood before at that moment, however, is barely a recognizable symbol at all. Her likeness is restrained under threat of litigation. Despite the fact that the statue was built with public funds, the statue’s creator retains the copyright to the statue’s image, in contrast to most publicly funded art, which is generally in the public domain. Not only does the artist retain the copyright, he aggressively enforces it, which means that commercial reproductions of the statue’s image are practically non-existent. You will not find a cheap postcard with her image in a tourist shop.

Interestingly enough, despite its failure to become a symbol of any sort, the statue’s name is instantly recognizable among the American public, albeit the association is far removed from its original source. When people hear the name “Portlandia,” they generally think of a television show, not the beautiful copper goddess that kneels before me at that moment.

Standing before her, it struck me as strangely fitting, in a depressing sense, how the name of this statue has come to be primarily associated with a show that satirizes the very real tendencies and excesses of hipster capitalism, as opposed to being associated with the statue itself, a powerful and potentially iconic image that has been intentionally repressed and held back from mainstream recognition on account of its creator’s excessive love affair with capitalism.

Portlandia

Portlandia

I left a flower for Portlandia at the entrance to the building that she hovers over, and bid her adieu. As I walked away, I deliberately tried to picture her in my mind as I had just seen her, but strangely enough, or perhaps not strangely at all, her specifics had already become a bit of a blur.

 *  *  *

The cargo trains are often close to a mile long, and several times a day they slowly roll past less than a hundred feet from my bedroom window. When the cargo is mainly lumber, my throat occasionally tightens as I think of the forest, but my throat tightens much more when I spot the ominous black tanker cars that I know to be carrying crude oil, mostly from the Bakken region of North Dakota en route to a refinery near Clatskanie, Oregon.

The oil trains have been a subject of controversy, especially since a tragic accident in Quebec last year when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed, killing 47 people. Oil trains started running through Portland a few years ago without public notice or input, and oil train shipments have increased 250% just in the past year. Railroad companies are not required to report the entirety of their oil shipments through Oregon; only trains that are carrying over a million gallons of Bakken crude on a single train, the equivalent of approximately 35 cars, must report.

Oil trains crawling past my building complex

Oil train crawling past my building complex

Aside from the dangers of transporting crude oil in the first place, the frequency and slowness of these cargo trains creates additional environmental and quality-of-life issues on a local level. Vehicles are stopped several times a day for the trains to pass, and dozens of cars sit idling, sometimes for the better part of an hour, while stopped in a narrow traffic corridor lined on both sides by residential apartment buildings. Especially in the summer, and when the air is already stagnant, the build-up of car fumes as the train crawls past is noticeable and unpleasant.

There’s a cruel irony in witnessing all the refined oil being wasted as cars just sit there in frustration. These cars, which are often covered in pro-environment bumper stickers, idle away, waiting for the trains carrying Bakken crude to pass on the final stage of the journey towards becoming refined oil.

*  *  *

A block south from the marsh, I walked down Lovejoy Street and once again couldn’t ignore how new the corridor felt. The entire neighborhood feels new to an extent, which makes sense in that most of the development is less than thirty years old. But Lovejoy Street radiates newness in a way which truly captures the feel of the neighborhood.

In relation to the surrounding neighborhoods, I can’t help but to liken the Pearl District to an ultramodern bathroom in an otherwise old Victorian house. From the turn of the last century until the late 1980s, this area was simply known as the NW Industrial area.  Then rezoning and the removal of the viaduct that towered over Lovejoy Street opened up the area for development. The classic gentrification pattern followed: artists moved in, developers followed, artists were then priced out, and today the Pearl District is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Portland. It’s a neighborhood that reminds me more of SoHo in New York City than anyplace else.

Portland Streetcar one block north from Lovejoy Street

The Portland Streetcar one block north from Lovejoy Street

I did not choose this neighborhood — this neighborhood chose me. My ideal vision of living in Portland consisted of a cute little bungalow in the southeast with a garden in the backyard, but the Gods had other plans. I surrendered once I realized what was at work and, while there is something awkward and distressing about both the newness and the lack of standing history in the area, the why part of the “why here?” question is starting to become clearer to me by the day. Right now, within that one question, my task is to simply bear witness and take notes.

*  *  *

I was sitting at the edge of the dock at the marsh last month when I first heard the sound of the pile driver. I looked over at the vacant lot in horror, and noticed that overnight the lot had been surrounded with fencing and filled with construction equipment. I realized immediately that my beloved view of the Fremont Bridge was about to disappear.

And though I’ve only lived here since last Spring, it feels very personal and very raw in its effect upon me.

My view, interrupted by construction

The view, interrupted by a wall and a pile driver

Every day since, I’ve watched as the hole in the ground expands, and the pile driver has just recently been replaced by a crane as concrete paneling is quickly ushered in. Most who walk by seem much more affected and upset by the sound of the construction itself than the fact that another huge mega-building is about to go up in the vacant lot, destroying the open feel of the park. Part of me, the small part that tends to envy the bliss inherent in ignorance, wishes I was as unaffected as everyone else who walks past. But I just can’t shake the inevitability and the reality of the impending loss.

Slowly but surely, developers are stealing a little piece of my sky.

The spirits in the marsh seem unsettled and anxious; their feelings mirroring my own, affected by not only the construction but by the utter disenchantment in everyone around us. Sitting in the marsh, it feels like the spirits and I are the only ones who feel that there’s something subtly disturbing in the acceptance and normalization of urban development as it occurs before us. For everyone else, it seems to be business as usual.

This neighborhood has many impressive features: three well-designed parks, several coffee shops, countless yoga studios and art galleries, Portland’s first dog gym, a spiffy new streetcar line, and more “sustainable” restaurants than one could possibly track. But what it notably lacks is what stood out for me the most at that moment.  It lacks both a collective memory as well as a cohesive community spirit.

construction

 *  *  *

I came back from lunch to learn that activists from Portland Rising Tide had temporarily blockaded the train tracks leading to Clatskanie as a protest against the shipment of crude oil.

I sat with this for a moment, silently honoring anyone and everyone who potentially puts themselves in harm’s way in the name of environmental justice. At that moment, I heard the train signals clanging outside my window, and I could tell from the sound against the tracks that it was a cargo train.

Quickly, I ran out of my building to see the black oil tanks snaking their way down the tracks towards the Steel Bridge. At the end of the side street, I saw vehicles backed up over a mile in each direction from the tracks, most of them idling away as the oil train crawled past. I looked behind me, and something on the light-post caught my eye.  It was a faded sticker that read “Portland: America’s Greenest City.”

I glanced out across at the river and, as the sun reflected off the water, I remembered hearing that there was currently a rare and toxic algae blooming on the Willamette. The advisory not to enter the water now reached far past the confines of River Mile 11. The oil train made its way across the Steel Bridge as I looked on; an ugly feeling grew in the pit of my stomach as I watched the dangerously toxic train cross the dangerously toxic waters.

I walked back in the other direction and headed over the pedestrian bridge that crosses the tracks at Union Station. On the bridge, I looked out at the train. Its black cars stretched eastward as far as the eye could see. A few tourists walked by, snapping pictures from the overpass, and then stopped to stare at a map for a few moments. I asked them what they were looking for.

“Do you know where we can find that big statue, the one that you see in the intro to ‘Portlandia’?” they asked me.

I pointed to a spot on the map. “Just so you know, Portlandia is actually the name of the statue itself,” I told them. “That’s where the show got its name from.”

They looked at each other, surprised. I smiled and nodded and continued walking across the bridge. At the bottom of the stairs, I paused for a moment. My original destination had been the marsh, but I suddenly felt the urge to bring a flower to Portlandia once again.

I took off in the direction of the statue, tuning out the sound of the oil train in the background as I conjured up the image of Portlandia in my mind’s eye and, for the first time, I was truly able to picture her clearly.

 

 

Today I will be at Multnomah University, a Bible college and Biblical seminary in Portland, Oregon, to talk about modern Paganism with several Christian seminary students. The class, on world religions, is taught by Paul Louis Metzger, Professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture, and author of  “Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths”.

9780849947247

“This book promotes evangelism and dialogue, not one to the exclusion of the other. And as such it also promotes the need for thoughtful, sensitive communication during a time when our nation is reeling from the onslaught of the culture wars. The problem has not been our God or the Bible, but our approach to God and the Bible. As a result of our inauthentic witness, our God has looked all too common rather than as the uncommon God revealed as Jesus Christ. In light of this spiritual and biblical gut check, our witness in the twenty-first century will likely look very different.”

Normally I wouldn’t step into such a situation, but I thought that Metzger’s book was different from the many other books written by Christians that dealt with modern Paganism, as I noted back in May.

“Make no mistake, this is a book where all faiths are ultimately found lacking or incomplete in comparison to Christianity, but Metzger at least engages with what he sees as  positive manifestations of each religion he looks at, and argues that Christians should repent for the sins of the Church. Further, he actually lets representatives from each faith tradition he writes about get the last word. So Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell responds on behalf of her church, Prema Raghunath speaks for Hinduism, and Gus diZerega gives a Pagan perspective.”

So I will speak today about my faith journey, the basics of the modern Pagan movement as I understand them, the mutual challenges we face in regards to dialog, and hopefully have a constructive conversation that broadens the world of several future chaplains, theologians, pastors, and missionaries. I have no illusions that my testimony may be used to hone missionary tactics, but I also hope it will eliminate some of the sad and ignorant propaganda that is disseminated about our faiths in certain Christian circles.

I will be a Pagan among the Christians, and like a stone thrown into water, I hope the experience will create ripples in the lives of those I interact with. Pagans and Christians will always have a complex, painful, and sometimes hostile relationship with each other, but we must share this world, we must learn to live together in a pluralistic society that holds many faiths, many paths. I don’t expect to solve our problems, but I do hope we can at least have a dialog that doesn’t begin and end with tactics for my conversion.

The heart of interfaith is recognizing the common humanity of a believer you may have profound disagreements with. To find areas of commonality, to learn how to move past entrenched hostilities and prejudices. To build a world that is less violent, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I will walk into that seminary with an open heart, and an open mind, and I hope my faith will be rewarded.

If all goes well, I’ll update this post later today with some impressions, and perhaps some photos. Wish me luck!

I think that modern Paganism has hit some sort of landmark when hip(ster) touchstone Vice Magazine features a new music column spotlighting a show in Ann Arbor, Michigan headlined by a band called ‘Wiccans.’

Wiccans in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Photo: Vice)

“Last night I walked into Encore Records, the best record store in Ann Arbor and one of the best anywhere, where Wiccans front women Aran Ruth and Kelly Jean Caldwell had cleared a space on the floor to spread out a flowery blanket on top of which they were busily setting up an altar made out of spellbooks, incense, a silkscreened tapestry of a tarot card Empress, and candles—one of them in the shape of a kitten because there’s apparently no rule against mixing magick and cute shit. When they had everything properly arranged and lit Aran picked up an acoustic guitar, Kelly picked up a flute, Fred Thomas (who plays in Saturday Looks Good to Me, which Kelly used to sing for) picked up a set of bongos and a djembe, and the thirty or so representatives of Ann Arbors sizable indie rocker, weirdo artsy crust punk, and hardcore witchcraft scenes sat in a semicircle around them.”

Not to be confused with the hardcore punk band of the same name, Wiccans sounds like “Pentangle meets Pentagram” and sings songs with titles like “Invocation of the Horned God,” “Moon Door,” and “Oh Holy Maiden.” In a perhaps unintentional nod to the past of modern Pagan music, their release is available only on cassette. This raises many questions, are Wiccans Wiccan? Will they be releasing their music in a format other than cassette?  Will they play at a Pagan festival if we asked them nicely? In any case, it’s an interesting development, one that speaks to how Wicca is mainstreaming, while still holding on to enough counter-cultural edge that bands are being named after it.

In other news, it’s Pagan Pride season and tomorrow is the Columbia-Willamette Pagan Pride in Portland, Oregon. I’ll be there to have a public discussion with Anne Newkirk Niven, editor of Witches & Pagans, about Pagan media. It should be fun! I was lucky enough to be interviewed by local paper The Oregonian in advance of the event, and you can read the results here.

“Basically, we’re just like you. That is the message all minority faiths try to tell the world: We have the hopes and fears of everyone else. We just follow a different religion. We have a message and wisdom that we can share, about being more aware of the natural world, that the divine can have a feminine face. Some real potent elements within pagan faith can be helpful to the wider world as we deal with ecological calamity and the basic rights of women. The message from the closing ceremony of the Paralympics was universal in scope. There can and should be a space where our poetry and our world are integrated with everyone else’s.”

I thought it turned out very well, do check it out if you have the chance. If you’re in the Portland area, why not drop by? It’s being held at an amusement park! For real! I’ll try to post photos and experiences from the event tomorrow.