Portland, Music, Futures, Pasts: A Love-hate Story

My parents loved music nearly as much as they loved their four children. My mother had grown up on the East Coast and come from old Southern money. She was, miraculously, thankfully, the black sheep of the family. Motown, Soul, and any other kind of music that didn’t involve Barry Manilow or orchestral strings were socially verboten- so she listened to them often. It’s what got her through whitewashed summers in Virginia, and through the horrors of being sent to juvie at age fifteen for running away from her alcoholic mother. My father was the son of a civil rights leader and a no-nonsense but loving artist, and his obsession with jazz, modern folk, and rock and roll were encouraged, despite his fears that his parents wanted him to straighten up and fly right (read: become a teacher). He worshiped the guitar slinging of early 1970s beauty Bonnie Raitt and he bought himself a Guild with what was probably his rent money. When my parents met it was like the meeting of oceans: it ought not to have happened, but something beautiful occurred at some point, anyhow.

I don’t remember many concrete things about my life before the age of five, but I remember music. My father had a vinyl collection that anyone who had once hoped to be a famous musician in the 1970s would own. All of the classics, and some treasures few would recognize. I remember the light of the coastal sunsets bleeding through our curtains as my older, wiser sisters placed the sturdy discs of vinyl, held delicately by the rims, on the turntable and carefully placed its needle on the correct ring, like a baker icing a virgin’s wedding cake. In addition to all the Beatles and Allman Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel, there were other, lesser known gems.

One was “Stealing Fire” by Bruce Cockburn. Most kids’ parents that I knew listened to 1960s pastoral folk or had older siblings who obsessed over the Pixies, Michael Jackson, the Sex Pistols, or U2. I bopped my four-year-old head to a little-recognized Canadian songwriter whose album was created as a reaction to the horrors he witnessed in 1980s Guatemala (while the U.S. turned a blind eye). This album included the ballad – I sigh – “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” which remains one of the most painfully passionate stories I’ve ever sung along to (and which U2 stole directly from) (Well, okay. With permission.). It was also a song absolutely no one my age ever heard of, except for one guy. A guy who in every other respect was pure, grade A, unadulterated loser, dripping with the kind of lackadaisical male greasiness reserved for after-school television specials about teen pregnancy.  He also happened to be great looking and broke my young, dumb heart. He nearly ruined the song for me. But I was older than him by a small bit, so I rightly reasoned that the song was mine. And really, no one cared, because who is Bruce Cockburn, besides a tragically spelled surname floating around in Canadian music spheres? In effect, the sounds I was drawn to as a child were in direct opposition to what was considered popular. It is a trait I carry grumpily through every aspect of life.

My head has always been a maze of contradiction. Even when I am working on a piece of art, its creation is formed in an indecisive kiln: drawing a portrait of Art Blakey, I listened to System of a Down. Inking an album cover for a friend’s surf metal fusion band, I listened to Vivaldi. I want to feel the weight of wool in the summer and the weight of light in the winter. I hate ice cream and love butter; I only like the weather when it includes both blue sky and rain, at once. I always want something the minute I can’t have it: an embarrassing, child-like habit I fight with miserable results. My contrary brain knows no bounds.

All of this meant that my big trip across the United States – on the hunt for a new life – would consist of unending internal struggle. Every choice (that little town instead of this one, this cheap diner instead of that one) felt like a missed opportunity. I was a tangle of worry at not having experienced the thing that would transform me into… what? A happy person? A content one? I already knew that those were not things I was aiming for. I had no idea what I wanted, only that I didn’t want to work in retail and that I wanted to be feeling things, anything at all, besides stagnation. The trip was successful in that way. I felt many things, like massive amounts of frustration and sadness at being on the road, and then, toward the end, panic at leaving the road.

Damned, damnable contrary brain.

But the decision my boyfriend and I made was that, if we didn’t hate each other by the end of the trip, we would choose a place and try it out for a while. We never ended up hating one another; in fact, I probably have never been closer to anyone in my life. However, there were moments when I stood on the edge of an abyss (canyon, highway, vast body of water, etc.) and wondered what it would be like to go it alone. I decided against that, though, because there would be no one to passionately argue with. And that’s an essential part of life.

So here I am. That mysterious ribbon of road ended one year ago today, in the city of Portland, Oregon. I am fascinated by this city, intrigued by its storied past and frustrated by its willingness to commence with homogenizing its culture for the sake of money, much like the city we left behind- San Francisco. Portland is dirty and beautiful, and is technically a “city” but is still small. It retains- much like myself- an identity crisis profiled firstly by contrariness.

It wants to be progressive but it is 85% Caucasian. This is still better than most of the Midwest, but not by much. (Many white people in Portland still say, if there is a menacing person somewhere in their vicinity, either “There’s a black man over there doing a bad thing” or “There’s a person over there doing a bad thing” depending on- you got it- their skin color).

It wants to support artists and musicians and various weird, little-man food truck creators and does a truly amazing job of it, but that support appears to be on the quick decline. As with the crooked old gingerbread houses and marbled architectural wonders that crowded this old city, these people are replaced by shinier, flatter, louder, more modern versions of themselves. People who did not grow up here and have arrived to do business, make money, and leave. (I recognize the ridiculousness of me, a person who just arrived here and hopes to make money, speaking with such disdain about said people- but if you’ve been reading my blog then I hope you catch my drift.) There is no love for the broken, the tired, the people who’ve fought and fought and who are still trying to build themselves up but who rarely see the end of struggle. There is no extension of welcome from these enterprising newcomers; their love lies in the tourism trade. The whambamthankyoumaams of society. The condos of entrepreneurship, as it were.

Yet I still love it, even if it’s a slow death that I revel in. Where I came from, California wine country, social and creative circles were pocked with small town rivalry and suffocated by old-boy networking government. There were bright beacons of hope here and there, but wherever I went I felt cast out, side-eyed. It left me all elbows and no soft spots to recommend me for social embraces. So I left the place where my heart was planted to follow my wandering brain.

This city is broken in so many ancient ways. They aren’t very original breaks, I must say. Like so much of the United States there are entire cultures buried under the cement. First, the plowing-over of Native tribes for some uninvited white man’s dream. And now, the gentrification of neighborhoods that for generations have hosted families of color and people whose life goals did not include the invention of useless apps, squeezed out to make room for brunch spots that host hungover white hipsters with elbow patches and a love of tiny, handheld computers.

But I discredit those who fight back by focusing so often on the negative. There are stories being ignored by everyone; there are hidden dreams everywhere. They sleep in dark corners, waiting for the dawn to brush them off.

Portland is a love song written by someone far more talented than me, for someone far more deserving of the writer’s love, but which I will listen to unfold as I chase, chase, chase after my ever-wandering brain.

Happy one year anniversary to my four-year-old self.


About Oona Suzannah

Currently living in the Pacific Northwest, roaming the sidewalks and trails in search of the next muse. I keep track of the adventure here.
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