Do you think we can learn from places? Anything worth mentioning for an Oregon Lessons, Part 2?
Those who wander
Right. I left you hanging last month with the first five-and-a-half lessons I learned from living in Oregon. We have a few more to go. So let’s dive into Oregon Lessons, Part 2…
There is hardly ever a need to hurry. If I have the presence of mind to wonder, “Should I hurry?” then the answer is no.
Prior to my west coast life, I was an Easterner. I never thought of myself as an Easterner until I became a West Coaster. People who live on the West Coast come to think of everyone who lives in the entire eastern third of the continent as an “Easterner.” There is a cluster of defining Easterner characteristics: We walk fast. We talk fast. We chalk fast. (I don’t even know what that means; I just wanted to think of a third rhyme.) Some of us are impatient – legitimately impatient – but all of us at least seem impatient to a West Coaster. All of us, even the most timid, wallflower Easterners, seem urgent.
In the East, we are working to arrive – somewhere, anywhere. In Oregon, people have arrived. The arrival already happened. There is no rush. Writing this post, Oregon Lessons, Part 2, was about doing it at my pace.
The entire first year I lived in this state, I experienced what I now call “post-acute urgency syndrome.” One of my first days at work, I was walking, at my normal pace, to a meeting elsewhere in the facility. A middle-aged client, leaning against one of the corridor walls, caught sight of me and exclaimed, “Where the hell is the fire?” I had no idea what he was talking about and for a brief moment, I wondered if he was actively using drugs or having hallucinations. I stopped walking. “What do you mean?” I asked, and he started chuckling.
“The way you were running, I thought the place was in flames,” he cackled. “But now that I hear you talk, I realize you’re just from back east. Go on ahead.” He waved me along.
Once I had been transplanted out of a never-calm, urban environment, into a small, quiet, and only-sometimes-bustling rural “city,” I learned that hardly anything is urgent. House fires and health emergencies, sure, but nothing I encounter daily. If I have enough awareness to wonder if I need to rush, the answer is already apparent: I don’t.
If we are very lucky, we can find several homes throughout our life. If we are open to it, our homes will find us.
7 and a half. And our people find us, even if it takes decades.
I fit here in a way I’ve never fit anywhere else. This place knew that before I did.
Prior to living in Oregon, I was a bit of a nomad. My family moved several times, across three states, during my childhood. As an adult, I accrued a long list of addresses in several different regions. Despite all of my wonderful adventures across the country, I hadn’t experienced a rootedness. I had not felt as though I were planted anywhere.
In late 2014, I decided I would like to be closer to my brothers, both of whom had relocated to the west coast. “I’m going to set a job alert for something out there, in my field,” I determined, and within days, the alert buzzed for two positions: One in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the other in rural southern Oregon. As much as I love San Francisco – it is truly one of my favorite cities – my heart sank. “The commute will be awful,” I thought. “The one-room cell of an apartment I can afford there will feel claustrophobic.” In retrospect, I realize some deep, cellular part of me was yearning for a little less stimulation, a slower pace, a natural space.
I had never been to Oregon before. My entire concept of Oregon floated around the TV show “Portlandia,” and I assumed the state was full of weirdos, hippies, and freaks. This isn’t a totally inaccurate view; it’s just incomplete. There are also wide expanses of nothing, where people live in the folds of foothills, growing their own food, prepping for the end of days. There are loud patriots and gun owners, herbal medicine growers and humble family farmers. There are vegan animal sanctuaries next to cannabis grow-ops, across from cattle ranches that process cows into shoes and steaks. There is probably a nook in this state for just about anyone, and I learned that after I made the decision to accept the rural job offer. The first time I set foot on Oregon soil, I didn’t know what to expect; I simply figured that the worst case scenario would involve moving again – from a starting point much closer to my family.
Over my time here, I have befriended people who intuitively understand me in ways I never experienced before. My quirks – the ones that bugged so many people in the past – lead many of my new friends to laugh and put their hand on my shoulder. When I broke my arm and it resulted in two surgeries, I had a momentary panic about having no family nearby to care for me. It was anxiety in vain. My work colleagues brought me bags of take-out. One friend arranged a “babysit Natalie” schedule, with various people arriving at my house in shifts. I sat with one friend before the surgeries and was picked up by another afterward; drugged and half-dressed, I leaned on this friend after surgery as she weaved me through the pharmacy and the grocery. Friends picked up my medications, drove me to and from the hospital, texted my relatives, and fed my cat. I had a family here after all.
It has been nearly four years and I have no plans to leave. I want to be planted here. I arrived and it seemed as though the place itself told me, “Grow roots here.” Part of why I had to write Oregon Lessons, Part 2.
Nothing is as wise, patient, persistent, and strong as a tree. There are lifetimes of stories in those roots.
Speaking of roots….
Have you ever pressed your palm against a tree and just let it lie there for a moment? You can feel a steadiness in there. Even if the ground were to quake beneath you, you would feel the strength and sturdiness of that tree. There is wisdom in that, I think.
Trees have resilience. I marvel at their tenacity, the way they often grow in the strangest, least hospitable spots, and how their branches bend and bow in adaptation to the environment.
And when you see a downed tree, an old one especially, you see a massive, upturned network of wooden capillaries. The life of that tree was not self-contained; it wandered and spread miles beneath the surface, sometimes tentatively and sometimes boldly. We do that, too.
A tree is a grandmother that knows seasons are just seasons. They are not lifetimes. Lifetimes are continuous. Sounds, snowfall, and sunlight changes, and we do, too. We flex or we break.
There’s hardly ever a good reason not to stop at the weird spot I might never accidentally, randomly stumble upon again.
My friend Peter, the guy in the fancy hat, is the best example of this. He lives in Sydney, and he has come to the US to visit me a couple times. During both trips, he would find the most obscure places – museums I didn’t know existed, information desks hidden within monuments, shops and stores I’d walked past dozens of times but never visited. When he came to Oregon, we seized his adventurous, investigative spirit and decided to go to a weird spot advertised on a half-dozen local billboards: The Oregon Vortex.
I don’t know how to succinctly explain what this place is, so I’ll quote their website: It “is a spherical field of force, half above the ground and half below the ground,” where “naturally occurring visual and perceptual phenomena” are skewed and somehow defy the basic laws of physics. An example? “As another person, on a level platform, recedes from you towards magnetic south, they appear taller. When they approach you, coming towards magnetic north, they become shorter.”
Now, whether this is a simple smoke-and-mirrors game or a genuine scientific mystery, I don’t know. What I do know is I’ve broadly adopted his outlook. Sometimes I go for drives on mountain roads and something random will catch my eye. Why wouldn’t I stop? Half the time, I don’t even know how I got to where I am; if I don’t stop and check out this tree, or this perfect campsite, or this leftover mining equipment from a hundred years ago, I likely won’t ever find it again. Life is short. Make the pit stop. So says what I have found in writing Oregon Lessons, Part 2.
Sometimes a wildfire is a wildfire, and sometimes it’s the mother of a new forest. We don’t know until we know.
When I first moved to Oregon from a place where forest fires didn’t exist, the concept of a wildfire was terrifying. They looked hellish – licking flames consuming tens of thousands of acres in days, flooding our valley with smoke so thick, automobiles and windows would be coated in ash. After fire season, I would hike through burn scars, and the charred remains of tree families saddened me. Then I read about Sequoias.
Sequoias need fire to propagate. The heat causes their cones to release seeds, and the fire stokes the soil’s fertility to support seedlings. Every new stand of sequoia trees was birthed of fire.
When I think about it, isn’t that us, too? How many fires have we walked through, each of us, feeling as though we would melt into the earth? How many times did we nearly evaporate? Yet years later, we look back and think: Oh, well here I am. I am here because of that, renewed, stronger, more plentiful within myself.
We do not know which fires will char us and which will reinvigorate us, and perhaps they are not mutually exclusive. We learn once we arrive at the end of our own fire seasons.
Until next time,
P.S. – Did Oregon Lessons, Part 2 resonate with you at all? What life lessons have you learned from being in a new place? Share via email at AskNatalieColumn @ gmail.com – Contributors are identified by their first name, but you can request anonymity if you’d prefer.