Every Inch

I arrive at the forest on my bike out-of-breath and apprehensive because I didn’t come here just to walk. I came here to look for wisdom. 

Several months ago I sat in these woods on a log by the creek grieving a break-up. On our second date he told me about a platonic friendship with an ex-girlfriend. A few dates later we walked through the neighborhood while I pointed out that they seemed to still be involved. He stopped in the middle of the street, grabbed my hands, looked into me with his fiery eyes and insisted that he was not with her and that he wanted things to work out with us.

I trusted his passion over my own intelligence, but five weeks later he decided to work things out with his ex instead. I blocked his number and came to these woods to be quiet. I felt that if I followed my hurt feelings down to their deepest roots I could free up my attraction to these sorts.

I was the sort of young person you worry about—hunched over in drab clothes two sizes too big, blushing any time words came out of my mouth which they rarely did. I left home with no idea how to make a life for myself and fell into the company of a “natural health” practitioner who believed he was enlightened.

Slight and spry with a head of wavy white hair, he looked the part. He was confident that transcending my emotional issues by eschewing all forms of worldliness was going to be much better for me and my health than actually addressing them.

How does one approach the grief of giving up on oneself for an entire decade just because one has an unsightly ego? Of living for someone else’s truth?

Grief makes no sense, it’s something to wade into with nothing but Kleenex, a journal maybe, and faith. It touches the raw corners of an empty space that feels like it can’t be filled. It shows us the ways we failed to love someone enough and sometimes how we failed to love ourselves at all.

It’s been years since I parted ways with that guru and his path to transcendence but as I wade into this broken-heartedness I see that under everything I do there remains a lingering need to own an infallible truth, to trust in an intelligence more pure than my own.

That’s no fun.

Who I would be if I could oust this compulsion? How would I live? These are the questions I came to the woods to answer today and as I amble through the gold of old maple leaves stuck in brambles along the creek I feel optimistic that this grief, belated as it is, will help me get on with my own adventure, guided by my own imperfect intelligence.

I stop and sketch an odd growth of mossy branches on the forest floor. My sketchbook has been neglected for months because the better my art gets the better I expect it to be. Today I want to draw all the trees and ferns just to be close to the things I love.  

I sketch several tangled and brushy scenes. Then it starts sprinkling rain so I walk south and notice how much more of the neighborhood is visible from the trail now that the leaves are down. I take a new route that brings me onto the road to loop around to the trail on the other side of the creek. Ideas come to me about new bodies of art-work. I try to flush out all the details and notice I’m getting really uptight. I let it go and listen for wisdom as I came here to do.

It’s ok to have goals, but you are always in such a hurry to meet them you often neglect your other needs. Think of goals as paddles instead of a compass. 

It’s good advice. It occurs to me death is the one place we will end up for sure regardless of what beliefs or goals we live with; it’s our most reliable compass point. It’s feels eerie to align to death as a North Star but strangely comforting. She is like a mythic empress who gives me permission to arrive at her dark question mark having worn out every nook and cranny of life guided by nothing but the intelligence of wanting to love every inch of the way there.

I head back to my bike with sketches and painting ideas, less weight on my shoulders and a sense of how to begin.

Settling for an Old Adage

watercolor forest painting from Upper MacCleay Trail by Alexandra Schaefers

It’s 80 degrees as if summer already. I’m on the Lower MacLeay, one of the most popular trails in Forest Park. When I lived in the neighborhood I walked its length almost daily and was familiar with every section. The place where the creek runs along a wide gravely shore just a tad lower than the trail. The place a small green pool forms between narrow banks. The spot flanked by a high rock wall that’s covered in ferns. The stretch with a wide, flat rock in the middle.

Today I feel the same deep familiarity and utter strangeness with this trail as when seeing an ex. There are plenty of landmarks I recognize but they are interrupted with unfamiliar foliage, reconstructed bridges and obscured views. I feel like a tourist by the time I cross Cornell.

As I walk up the hill I feel suddenly and viscerally at home. It’s rush hour. I can hear the constant roar of traffic on the road below but I am filled with peaceful belonging.

I wonder about home. Do we have a preordained place we belong despite any roots we have set down elsewhere? Is our birthplace our only true home that we shirk off in the name of progress? Or do we create home wherever we care enough to get involved, to fall in love with the place and not just our doings?

The latter seems logical. Yet having spent four years in Multnomah Village, another ten working there, having walked all over its streets and parks feeling deep affection for its forested beauty I still feel like a traveler. Do I simply need another 4 years? Maybe I need to buy a house here to be welcome, what with all the “Stop Rezoning” signs around. I believe we can preserve the uniqueness of our neighborhoods while allowing housing for people of all incomes to be built but its a touchy issue for many.

I pass the Cumberland Trail which reminds me of my first love. I know a lot of people don’t think Sasquatch exists but I’m pretty sure I dated him. I never asked, I just assumed that as cameras became more prevalent he shaved, moved into a basement studio in the West Hills of Portland and got a job in a medical office. He’s a sensitive soul, maladapted for city life but he loved to wander in the woods as much as I so we got a long for a bit.

We met on this trail and would take the Cumberland from his old street into the park for our walks.

I hike to the Upper MacLeay then sit on a bench admiring the gentle way the Oregon grape plants on the slope move in the breeze. I listen to an Orange-crowned Warbler, juncos, jays, and Pacific Wrens all making their distinct songs the way each plant along the tail has its own distinct shapes of leaves.

When I think back to my most innocent self, home is where there are bluebells, daffodils, rhodies and hydrangea bushes, Doug fir, White Oak and Big Leaf Maple. There are the songs of robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Bob White Quail, jays, flickers, nuthatches and chickadees. But this feeling of belonging makes me want to fit somewhere on a molecular level.

I consider the Chinook, the Cowlitz, the Atfalati who were violently forced from this land. Even though their molecules, and the molecules of the place, are one in the same. It seems disrespectful to dwell on these lofty questions, to want stolen land to be my fated place. So being the descendant of settlers I’ll have to settle for the old adage home is where the heart is.

Sasquatch was not good with money and often predicted future homelessness for himself. Every so often I check the internet to make sure he’s still alive. He doesn’t share his data the way the rest of us do. The first time all I found was a marathon finish time buried in the local paper. Since he loves to run, it was enough.

Unremarkable

This is my first time at Riverview Natural Area. It is like a neglected patch of woods behind someone’s house—growing over with ivy, crisscrossed with ill-planned trails. I expect to see a few tree-houses or forts but they’re absent. At least the city took the time to number the trails and mark them with laminated paper stapled to stakes.

I feel like a neglected patch of woods myself these days, overgrown with the desire to not feel my own reality after heartlessly severing a six-year friendship because it housed an on-and-off romance that kept me from getting on with life.

It’s nice to be out under the trees even if everything seems unremarkable in the light of my mood. I cross a log so wide I sit on it and swing my legs over. I stand up to find a big, wet spot of fresh bird poop on my camel-colored corduroy skirt. This would normally be funny. A bird-lover is eventually going to meet with bird excrement. But it’s squishy and I feel oddly embarrassed about walking the trails and riding my bike home with a poop spot on my skirt, as if people will know and assume it’s my own.

I pour most of my water bottle out while trying to rub the debris out of the soft ribbing in my skirt and then keep walking, unconcerned that I might now look like I peed myself.

The trail starts to head steeply downward toward Macadam and I consider that I just rode my bike up this same slope through the cemetery, that I had to rest a few times along the way and that I may not be happy arriving at the bottom to have to climb all the way back up again.

I turn around, resigned to an unadventurous walk getting up-to-date on my requisite encounters with bird poop. Doing the best I can to reckon with the edges of emptiness around a pain in my heart that will slowly fade in the recognition that the hardest way isn’t always the most noble.

Delicate

watercolor illustration of crows flying through spring trees by Alexandra Schaefers

The scent of Magnolia blossoms draws me along the trail into their grove. The blossoms form colored clouds and layer against each other in the green, adding a murky aliveness to the quivering air as it makes room for the bursting buds and rain droplets.

One crow forages alone at the edge of a large grassy slope punctuating the green. When I look down the trail I see flashes of other crows slipping between the trees. The cloud cover deepens their black feathers so they drip through the woods like oil.

watercolor illustration of a crow at the edge of a green slope by alexandra Schaefers

I sit on a bench and reach into the lace of bird song for the familiars: Scrub Jays, Yellow Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Spotted Towhees, and crows. A woman walks past so engrossed in her phone her steps seem suspended. I do not exist in her attention even peripherally and I wonder if this how a forest creature feels, hiding in its own stillness as we pass unaware.

The rain drops become larger as I write in my sketchbook so I get on the trail again and head for the picnic shelter.

sketchbook drawing of spring maple buds by Alexandra Schaefers

A Spotted Towhee darts across the trail from one brushy cover to another. I feel as though my whole life is the same sort of comic but necessary dash; so I stop to photograph the rusty hues of dead salal leaves and draw a few buds from the spray of spring twigs along the trail.

I came here to admire magnolia blossoms. How delicate and soft the petals are, even on blossoms larger than my hands. Now I have forgotten all about them and find myself snuggled on all sides by the viscosity of green things sending ripples of growth across the air as they turn light and water into fiber.

watercolor painting of a magnolia blossom by Alexandra Schaefers

I want today to be the day everything changes. The day I walk into beauty and never come back. All I have to do is stop minding my worries. They can fuss around me like small children while I dwell in each growing moment unimpressed with their complaints.

A junco flies in and hops around the rivets of the shelter support. Another one lands on the trash and peers into its dark opening. He sees nothing of interest and flies off.

Neighborhood Trees

watercolor painting of neighborhood trees in Sabin, Portland, Oregon by Alexandra Schaefers

Today is a warm, blossoming day and the first day of spring. I am lounging outdoors on my friend’s porch in Sabin with a sprained ankle. This porch—surrounded by neighborhood trees and blue skies—is so decadent that I don’t feel bad about being laid up.

The wind rushes through the tall fir with the spray of ocean sounds, rattles the branches of the blossoming deciduous trees on the other side of the block, then rushes through the fir again.

Dead leaves skitter across the driveway. Crows pass over now and again cawing. The traffic, the chirp of sparrows and goldfinches, the clatter of a cyclist all wend their lush sounds into my ears and bring me back down to earth.

watercolor illustration of crows flying by Alexandra Schaefers

A soda can cracks open in the house. My friend comes out to check on me. I show him my sketches. He talks about mini computers, knobs, switches and 3D printed brackets for LED lights. I absorb every twelfth word and feel bad about my poor friendship skills.

Meanwhile finches sing in the treetops while kids holler like violent death at a nearby park.

Shadows flit back and forth across the porch, the old green couch, and my lap. Then a bird shaped shadow sails across the light. I look up to see two sparrows hopping about in last year’s wisteria plucking bits of twigs before flying off.

watercolor illustration of a bird shadow by Alexandra Schaefers

A breeze cools my face and carries a dry leaf down the sidewalk. An insect passes; its light body hovering here and there in the open air. Crows again. The screen door creaks on its own volition. Wind chimes tinker. A car whooshes by.

A little hair blows in front of my face and I remember myself separate from the warmth, the peaceful goings-on of eternity as it tends to its everyday chores on the block. It’s suddenly crystal clear I have been doing everything backwards; thinking myself into a person, into a purpose, a quest to find beauty even though it is exactly where I left it.

The chimes pick up again as the ocean sings through the fir while car stereos add beats from two different directions.