CDS Column: 7 Billion Small

The world at times can seem quite full. Seven billion people all scratching out a living, with hundreds of different languages and customs. It sounds like a lot. But sometimes it’s not.

This past summer, I was working in Belize. I was there with an organization that takes American high school students around the world on volunteer service trips. The Americans were the native language speakers at a summer camp designed to teach Belizean elementary and middle schoolers English. We spent two weeks teaching and otherwise explored the country.

We were hardly the only program there. There were groups everywhere. Even our home base was not immune: There was a group of high school students there to learn about rainforest and barrier reef ecology, another group backpacking through the jungle and a third group of American middle school students who were doing adventure trips around the country interspersed with the occasional day of volunteer service.

This was at one rustic eco-resort, and there were similar groups at other sites across the country. It was a flood of Americans, all there to discover a new place and lend a hand. Our 26 kids were swimming in a sea of transplanted American youth.

Anyone who works on such programs knows there develops a brotherhood and a sisterhood among the staff. An affinity grows for others caught in the same situation, facing the same daily stress of chaperoning dozens of kids that aren’t yours. It must be the same among teachers, but in Belize there were no hallways or walls to hem them in, no busses home at the end of the day. We all worked from breakfast until bedtime, and at the end of the day the students hopefully settled back to their beds without incident. Hopefully.

That’s when we, the staff, would take our breather. We would sit together and chat. Program allegiances tossed aside, we would relax, sometimes solving as a team the complexities involved in individual programs.

It was in one of these impromptu summits that I saw the sticker. It was on one of the other program staff’s water bottles, a lobster next to the letters ME.

“Are you from Maine?” I asked.

“Yes,” the woman replied. “Originally. I now live in Oregon. But my family is still there.”

“Nice,” I said. “I live in New Hampshire. My sister lives just outside Portland.”

She smiled, and I thought that the end of it. But two days later I got an email my sister.

“I’m having dinner with a friend,” she said, “and my friend says her sister is working in Belize. Her name is Alison. Small world.”

“Tall teacher from Oregon Alison?” I wrote back. “No way! I met her the other day!”

Fast forward to now. The holidays are when people migrate across the country to visit friends and family. On Friday, I walked into my sister’s kitchen to see my niece and nephew, and there’s Alison, along with her sister, chatting with my sister. I couldn’t help but start laughing.

That alone might be enough to prove the world a small place, but these sorts of coincidences never travel alone.

Three summers ago, I was in Peru doing similar work, this time taking American high school students to build greenhouses at rural schools. With me were three other staff members — a couple from California named Miguel and Gigi, and a woman named Laura from Wisconsin who lived in Finland. We were all there for the summer, again to corral up to 30 American students at a time on multiple programs. It was two months in total, and we four spent a lot of time together.

For the couple, however, time off together was important. Miguel and Gigi did what they could to get away in the moments between programs, as well as most afternoon breaks when the students were there.

That left Laura and I to spend a lot of time together. We were paired by default, and while such a pairing could have been disastrous she had an adventurous spirit. Together we explored Incan ruins, traveled to remote villages, soaked in hot springs and got to know Cusco. We’d sit in the central square, me writing, her drawing, and enjoy the quiet of a student-less afternoon. Over the course of the summer, Gigi, Miguel, Laura and I all became close friends, but it was with Laura I spent by far the most time.

When the program came to a close I stayed in South America. I traveled to Arequipa and then to Chile. Laura, meanwhile, caught a flight back to Wisconsin and then to Finland. She and I stayed in touch for a time, emailing and chatting over Skype after I returned to New Hampshire, but life eventually caught up. We lost touch.

That was almost three years ago. Fast forward to Monday. This Christmas, I decided to draw my own holiday cards. I wanted to make them individualized, special, and I’ve been drawing a lot lately. So I bought card blanks at an art store and tackled a few, but inevitably it went slower than I’d intended. Most of the box sat unsent.

The day after Christmas I picked up the box, feeling a guilty about the remaining cards. On the cover was a beautiful line drawing showing just how creative cards could get, and underneath small print credited the artist. Four words: “Art by Laura…”

It was my friend. Her name was on my card blank box. I looked at the box and remembered her afternoon drawings in Cusco. Suddenly it was as if she was at my dining room table, in line form. I laughed out loud. I Googled to make sure it was the same Laura, and it was.

I tossed the box aside and wrote a much-belated email.

This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

Favorite Stories

Sometimes we get to write about something we’re passionate about.

This past week I had the pleasure of watching my piece about Circus Maine, the Portland-based circus school I’ve been taking hand-balancing classes at, appear in the Portland Phoenix. The designers at the Phoenix did an awesome job, and Circus Maine gave us access to beautiful photos. The whole package looked awesome. It was cool to see. Circus is a mix of art, gymnastics and stage performance, and it combines the passion of all three.

And as if that wasn’t cool enough, last night I got to take my 9-year-old niece to a Circus Maine show. We found front row seats, and for an hour-and-a-half we watched the students and teachers give an amazing performance. After you write a story about how cool something is you think you know, but last night I was blown away. It was awesome. It makes me love what I do.

Portland Phoenix: Just Don’t Fall

duo-lyra-3“Push up. Push up from your shoulders. You’re sagging.”

I can tell I’m sagging. I’m upside-down, balanced on my hands above a concrete floor, my feet pointed at the ceiling like the cone of a rocket ship. And since I flipped into this handstand, my face has been slowly lowering. Push as I might, I can’t halt the descent. My shoulders are spent, won’t budge anymore, and as they fail I can feel my weight tipping. The tower of my body has begun swaying like a felled tree.

“Push! Tighten your butt! Push! Push! Push!” Cory is yelling at me again. He’s always yelling at me, at least when he’s within 10 paces. Otherwise, he’s yelling at somebody else. It’s not a scolding yell, it’s a coach’s yell, the shouts of encouragement that seem almost enough to suspend someone in air upside-down, like his students’ balance hinges on the volume of his instructions. He clearly sees what I’m doing wrong, and maybe a few well-timed shouts can save me.

But not this time. His yells aren’t enough. My balance has shifted, and the spell that somehow kept me standing upside-down on my hands has broken. My legs are now headed over backward towards the concrete, a tumbling fall that at this point has become familiar. I fold at the waist and twist my body, the spin coming just in time to plant my feet safely under me. I pop up, standing rightways again, my face red from exertion and the rush of blood that comes from being upside-down. Cory is nodding and smiling. “Good. Good,” he says. “Now just don’t fall.”

Just don’t fall. That seems like good advice at Circus Maine, where handstands are probably the least hazardous height someone can take a tumble from. “Just don’t fall” becomes even more important once you move to the trapeze, the aerial silks, the straps or the Chinese pole (actually two poles that stand parallel that performers bounce between).

Falling is required just to get going on the giant inground trampoline, but then the faller flies into the air at twice their original speed, suddenly giving “just don’t fall” new meaning.

Even acrobats who stack to form human towers must heed this “don’t fall” mantra. For them, a fall there takes out not only themselves but the rest of the team.

So yeah, it’s good advice, just don’t fall.

The thing is, there’s lots of falling at Circus Maine. It’s a circus school. No one is born knowing how to do a handstand, much less a one-handed handstand, much less a one-handed handstand on stage before an audience where every movement is choreographed in time with music. To get there takes falling, years and years of falling.

“It took me seven years to put my hand-balancing act together,” Circus Maine’s hand balancing instructor Cory Tabino said.

He studied handbalancing at Ecole Nationale de Cirque, the National Circus School of Montreal, for three years, and then he spent three years working for Cirque du Soleil, also based in Montreal. He’s now spent a quarter-century working as a circus artist around the world.

“I went across the Atlantic Ocean four times,” he said, doing his act on cruise ships. “The only place I haven’t performed is Antarctica.”

Now, in addition to being the lead handbalancing instructor and a professional performer (just last week he went to Japan to perform for U.S. soldiers), Tabino is also Circus Maine’s artistic director. And he’s also the head of the professional program. And he serves as a stagehand at live productions. And he organizes signature events in the Circus Maine building on Thompson’s Point. And he coordinates off-site performances for private and corporate events.

Like everyone at Circus Maine, Tabino wears many hats.

“We are the textbook definition of a startup company,” he said.

Circus Maine is a recreational circus school with both adult programs and kids programs, a professional circus training academy and an event production company. They put on monthly cabarets that bring top level performers to Portland, host a summer camp that over the past three years served more than 500 kids, and in October they held their first marquee event, a Halloween party called Mischief Night that paired circus performers swinging on silks in full costume with DJs, drinks and a dance party.

These events are anything but bland: two of the Mischief Night performances were pole dances. Two others were beautiful women in trim costumes hanging above a crowd dancing on a concrete floor. At a cabaret event in October, a couple performed on a suspended hoop in formfitting bedclothes, her wearing a slinky top and shorts that barely held her in. The pair tumbled and swung above the audience bathed in milky light; the whole performance felt like something out of a dream.

“New circus is sexy,” Joshua Oliver, the male-half of the bedclothed performance, said. “It’s very bold. It’s intoxicating.”

An instructor and performer at Circus Maine, Oliver is also the technical director and driving force behind the project. When he talks about circus he gets animated, the excitement shows in his eyes.

“We’re essentially the next generation of high-end entertainment,” he said. “We want to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable art. I don’t think you will be bored.”

At the heart of this effort is Circus Maine’s purpose-built circus training facility in Thompson’s Point Brick North. From the outside, it’s an old brick mill building, but inside it has a trampoline, multiple lines for trapeze, padded floors and countless gymnastic mats. If ever there was a space to fall, it’s here.

But that learning space can also be converted into a performance space. And that performance space can also be converted into an events venue. The same room that hosts a dozen children practicing back flips every Tuesday night also housed a TEDx event last year in which Oliver swung from a pair of straps suspended from the ceiling in a performance that looked both Olympic and artistic. Circus Maine uses the venue to host 10 shows a year and also run their recreational program serving 120 students. Later this month they will hold their Solstice event, their first full in-house circus production, there, and on New Year’s Eve they will hold another marquee event, a 1920s Great Gatsby-themed “Red Carpet Event,” in the same space.

It’s a movement towards a type of spectacle-infused events that have become common in bigger cities, Tabino said, “but here in Maine we’re really toeing the line.”

Shows are provocative, emotive, fast-paced, beautiful. Performances infuse tremendous physical control and precise movement with an element of storytelling.

“It’s highly athletic,” Tabino said, “but it allows for individual expression.” The artistic angle is the key part. “Otherwise it’d just be gymnastics.”

That such expression is occurring at all, however, is somewhat of a surprise. Fifteen months ago the idea that Portland would host multiple circus shows in a matter of weeks seemed unlikely if not impossible. The Circus Conservatory of America, a proposed professional-level circus academy, had just turned insolvent, and Oliver, Tabino and the other professionals recruited to bring contemporary circus to Portland were out of their jobs.

But circus isn’t a normal career. No one gets into handbalancing, trapeze, juggling or clowning for the money. Contemporary circus is an art, and like any art form, it is the art itself that pulls at its practitioners. They do it for passion rather than the paycheck, performing almost out of compulsion.

Oliver is no exception. “I’ve been on stage since I was 8 years old,” he said. He discovered new circus, the intermixing of gymnastics-style physical feats with performance, in his early 20s, and it has held him ever since.

Modern circus style is an intermixing of Russian technique with French artistic tastes, according to Oliver. “We perform in theaters rather than tents,” he said, and cotton candy and elephants aren’t part of the act. “New circus is been a really important art form, an opportunity to use physical excellence as a voice.”

Circus artists create their own acts, and it takes time. It takes developing your skills and your own creative vision. It’s similar to dancing, but unlike a dancer, a circus artist choreographs their own movement. The person builds the act, Oliver said, and what you see on stage: “That’s her.”

This is a tradition with centuries of history, but it used to be passed down among families. You were either born into a circus family or you weren’t. The modern circus school is a very new thing, and it occurred in tandem with the intermixing of Russian and French influences that eventually became contemporary circus. Schools pulled elements from Moroccan and Chinese acrobats and went to seed in Canada. And it blossomed. Cirque du Soleil is the name everyone knows, and Montreal is now its the global hub.

Oliver lived in Montreal for 10 years. Like Tabino, he studied at Ecole Nationale de Cirque, Canada’s premier circus arts training institute, and then worked in the industry afterward. The Ecole and Cirque du Soleil sit side by side in Montreal, he said, and they form the left and right ventricle of contemporary circus around the world.

Oliver started circus at 22, a late arrival for the industry—at Circus Maine 12-year-olds are already eyeing the National Circus School—and his act includes aspects of the martial arts that were his passion before he found circus. He is powerfully built, and when he walks he glides across the floor, leading with his chest like a warrior headed to battle.

Which seems appropriate, because when Oliver talks about pulling Circus Maine from the ashes of Circus Conservatory of America it sounds like a battle.

“There have been at least three miracles that have allowed this project to continue,” he said. “We worked until we were bloody, and then we worked some more.”

Oliver and Tabino literally dug the hole in the floor that became Circus Maine’s inground trampoline with shovels, pulling out old railroad ties by hand, hacking them out with an ax. Oliver is a builder, and much of the work that went into renovating Brick North was done by his hands.

“I came to Maine to make this project work,” Oliver said. “I tried to build a circus school in Norway and in New Zealand. This was my third attempt.”

So when Circus Conservatory of America sank, Oliver was not ready to let go. He scraped and saved. He asked Thompson’s Point to work with him to keep a school afloat. He put on outside shows to earn extra cash, borrowed and leased and bought equipment and built what he couldn’t otherwise find, renegotiated and collaborated and asked for help.

“We opened in October of last year doing classes,” he said, and at the time the school had 21 students. It wasn’t nearly enough to make ends meet, but they kept pushing, limping their way through the holidays and into the winter.

Then in February, they held a two-hour cabaret that ran several times over a weekend. They sold 900 tickets. Suddenly it felt like ground may have materialized beneath their feet, however unsteady.

Since then Circus Maine has continued to grow. Tuesday nights are now packed with adult hand balancers (my class) falling out of handstands, a youth tumbling class and a youth trapeze class. Afterward is adult partner acrobatics and an adult tumbling class. The monthly cabarets are filling up. Shows include professional performances, and then students take the stage at intermission to grab their first chance at performing. It has a unique feel, somewhere between a family picnic and a broadway stage performance, like Cirque du Soleil descended on a Fourth of July barbecue.

“People are realizing our potential,” said Oliver. “We were international level spectacle performers. Cory and I are plugged into the source. We’re going to turn Portland into the nexus of new circus in the U.S.”

“But,” he said, “we need to create a solid community of circus artists here first.”

And, as I prepare to flip into one more handstand, that’s how it feels. Cory is across the room now. Mathias, another student in his 30s, is muttering something to himself just to my right. He and I have both flipped upside-down at least 50 times in the last 20 minutes, but neither of us seems able to hold it today. A few feet away high school phenoms Sarah and James are balancing on their hands and doing slow splits, lowering their feet inches off the ground before returning upright. Hugh, whose daughter is in the tumbling class, is on the mat flipping up into Cory’s assistant Sierra’s waiting hands. Hugh’s still working on finding his balance point, but he’s gotten much stronger. Kirsten and Ian are flipping on their own, legs waving in the air before they tumble, and Cory is striding between all of us barking instructions: “Tighten up! Point your toes! Hollowbody! Hollowbody! Squeeze your butt! Push! Push! Push!”

And of course, “Just don’t fall!”

But we all know, at Circus Maine it’s safe to fall.

This story appeared in today’s Portland Phoenix.

Portland Phoenix: Art Walk

The best part about art shopping is the wandering it requires. It’s not like buying a blender or one of those abominable Hatchimals, things you can just order off the internet or walk into a store, point and go home—quick, painless, boring.

Art is different. There is no MSRP, no UPC, and to find something you like takes time. It takes perusing galleries, developing a taste, seeing a lot of crap or plain work before you strike on something unique.

And my unique is different than your unique. A stroll through the Greenhut Galleries on Old Port’s Middle Street last week pulled me to a painting by Jeff Bye, Portland Harbor in oil marked by strong lines and colors that bled into one another. On the reverse wall another Bye piece, this one a painting of New York City’s Canal Street from the air, measured almost four feet by four feet. It puts the feeling of skydiving into traffic while wearing goggles smeared with Vaseline onto canvas, and it stopped me in my tracks. So did its $12,000 price tag. My gift giving is by necessity far less generous, but when else are you overwhelmed by arresting beauty while holiday shopping? At Target? At the Apple Store? No. Art shopping is its own gift, as much as for you as for those you’re shopping for.

And opposite Bye’s opus were four tiny masterpieces by Kathi Smith, six inch by six-inch landscapes bursting with color. Even upscale galleries have something for everyone—Smith’s wild rendition of Black Head on Monhegan Island, a fraction of the size and price of Bye’s work, fell much closer to my price range.

Portland is full of such gems: a few doors down the Portland Art Gallery had Bill Crosby’s seascapes, smartly smeared sand dunes and angular beaches. At the Roux & Cyr Gallery on Free Street, it was Sally Ladd Cole’s crashing waves and Dan Graziano’s restaurant scenes that stopped me. Shopping became a midweek art walk, the discoveries of an afternoon meander.

But maybe you’re more excited by the creative process itself than the clean quiet halls of city center galleries. Luckily Portland carries broad tastes. If you missed the First Friday’s street fair and MECA’s holiday sale there is always Running With Scissors, a studio tucked in East Bayside. Their print shop, ceramics studio and woodshop houses painters, potters, jewelers, furniture makers. Walking their halls is like roaming Santa’s workshop, with human-sized elves everywhere making, making, making.

And on Dec. 10 Scissors is opening its doors, holding a holiday pop-up sale that mixes art, food, beer, woodblock printing, painting and shopping. Artists creating in their spaces are also selling. It’s a chance to get drawn in, to become part of the process, as well as chance to take something home.

And with art isn’t that the point? To make, create, experiment, mess up and start over? Running With Scissors is a chance to buy prints, mugs, handmade maps and paintings, but it’s also a chance to watch the creative process in action, to shake hands with the hands that sculpt the art.

But there are also opportunities to become the sculptor. Here the wandering steps deeper, beyond the galleries and even the gallery/studios to the maker spaces, places never intended for public consumption. A walk back into town ends at the Continuing Studies department of the Maine College of Art, where anyone can sign up for—or gift—courses in drawing, ceramics, sewing, photography, glassblowing. For the cost of a handful of handmade mugs (or a fraction of the cost of an Elizabeth Hoy painting) you can give instruction and dirty hands. Art doesn’t just sit on the wall here. It’s blue collar work built on apprenticeship and years of training.

But it doesn’t take years to draw a portrait. It takes sitting still and looking deeply. These are rare gifts today. A weekend workshop transforms art from a noun into a verb.

Lastly, before we close we must make two more holiday art walk stops: Art Mart on Congress Street and Artist & Craftsman Supply on Deering. Whether you’ve signed someone up for a class or know a friend who spends nights drawing random scenes while bar-hopping, these stores carry paper, paints, pastels and glue, ink, xacto knives and easels, holiday gifts for anyone with a creative spirit. It’s hard to walk these aisles and not imagine the showpiece that might spring from your own hands.

One more wandering holiday step. And still not a blender in sight.

This piece appeared as part of the Portland Phoenix Holiday Gift Guide.

Love and Thanks

messages-image1395101098I read a short story the other day, and in it the author did all the things I admire. Her writing was playful, light, a drift of thrushes flitting about a thicket. I was deeply taken with her.

My writing, by contrast, is more goose-like: heavy, waddling from here to there. Sometimes it flies, but it only takes flight through powerful strokes. And once airborne it soars; the light dance is not for me.

I wish it were. There is a pixie-ness in erratic movement, a detachment from worry and the future. My writing is too serious, too focused on getting a point across. Responsibility for understanding sits with me, the writer, rather than on you, the reader, and therefore every sentence is planned, deliberate.

But for a book on love that technique will never work. There words can’t fall like stones too heavy to lift again. I’d be lighting a tea candle with a flamethrower. Love deserves better treatment than that. It deserves starlings and pigeons, packs that move in unison though they have nowhere to go. That’s love. Or a version.

I know a girl who holds her heart like a grasshopper tucked in cupped hands and covered. She wants it to leap, but everywhere are frogs waiting so she keeps her hands closed.

Another woman’s beauty is her curse. She’s not sure if it’s her that men love or her container. They profess everything but whenever she speaks they go blank. Her words become an echo. Her physical beauty is only a reflection, that a woman so stunning will accept them is to say they are enough. It is the acceptance they care about. She is lost to them.

I married the same thing once, only it was smart that mattered rather than pretty. She was pretty, mind you, but it was the quick-talking brain I fell in love with. That is to say, if she was that smart and loved me then maybe I was that smart too. I couldn’t tell—I’d never been very good at looking at myself. But with her as my rearview I stared quite contentedly. It didn’t last long.

What is love? Is it a joke? A tease? Because it never seems to go as we’d like. I have an answer, one that leans on trademark and is likely deeply unsatisfying for many. But it was shown to me, so I must tell.

Love is the Force, the Matrix. It is everywhere. It binds the world together. It flows into people and pets and chairs. It moves inanimate objects and pulls apart windmills. It’s a fingerprint from god, and it’s on you.

I wish I could explain it more precisely, but there it is. Love is a hummingbird, not a goose. The goose we can predict. It takes to the sky in great heart-shaped flocks and soars south to north with seasonal efficiency. But love isn’t like that. Love is Canada, where the geese land, and the rain that slows their way. It is the hunter looking to fell them. It is the marshes where they take refuge. It is the bullet and the reed. It is all those things. But we keep looking for the goose alone.

If I love you I don’t care who you are. I look at you and I know. I look at you and see brilliance. I see you for who you are and love that thing. I love it unceasingly, without reciprocation. Love is in the viewing, the standing next to, the breathing in. It is in your scent, the brush of your eyelash, the movement of your throat as you swallow. I love madly because I must love. It has nothing to do with being loved back. Those two are not connected.

Love honors, but it does not keep. How hard to remember! But I do not honor your walk by demanding it parallel mine. I honor your walk by watching you take it, by being blown away by each stumbling step, by admiring your courage those times your heart calls you to walk alone and you heed it, cast me to dust. That tearing sound? It is me. Your walk may leave me bloody, but it amazes me just the same. Love cannot kill me because it is me. It never leaves. It flows in and out of things. Sometimes it flows into you and out of me. A river in springtime, sometimes swelled with snowmelt and rain, a river in fall, sometimes lean and rocky. All versions of love are as equal.

So where does my love live? Where can it reside if not in you, with you? Nowhere. Everywhere. In me. Because you are fleeting, and if I love you I want you to be. I want your transformation to end, for the you that is to be you always. But you are the hummingbird. Your dance I cannot understand. Your shimmer changes with every twitch. I can only watch. I can only follow you with my eyes, my hands, my body. You might linger for a time, but I can not pour myself into you. Such acts are temporary.

So where does my love live? It lives in me. It is me. It is my body and being. It is my every heartbeat and breath. That is where my love lives. I boil with it, and it overflows me. I see you and recognize another such creation, perfect and wild. But I cannot give you anything. I can only hold that love myself, let the wonder of you live in my eyes. I know that love boils in you too, that the grasshopper you carry is a feint, a distracting jellybean. Your love is not for you to give away; it radiates like a second sun. It gives no greater light for my proximity. Find a place to entrust your heart inside of you and let it power the shining. Your heart is everything—the goose and the hunter.

And what of the fear that they are here because of the container? I suffer that fear myself, but only when I am in search of a container too, when my motives are shallow too. My covered eyes allow the world to fool me. Because what is a container? If you love, you offer the world you. That is the gift. Your container is destined to die. I may love the look of you, but look with an eye for beauty and everyone is beautiful. Smart, funny, pretty, kind, everyone has pieces. The other day I drew a woman who had the most stunning lips. I wanted to kiss them, but that’s not what she was there for. All the beauty of the world sat right there beneath her nose: full, red, alive. The rest of her form, what does it matter? Where are your lips?

I can’t fully explain. Either you get this or you don’t. But if you don’t, please come back to me. Reread, looking for pigeons rather than eagles. Majesty cures for a while, but humility allows a glimpse of the world around us. I am not wise, I can barely explain. But the river in springtime flood can carry us away without explanation. Love is like that. Don’t worry about the words themselves. Trust the feeling. Wade in. Worry about nothing. Worry about not drowning. That would be scary.

From the Backseat: MECA, Me and Swirling Eddies

From the Backseat: MECA, Me and Swirling Eddies

14444663_1636164186409660_5623119052921151833_oI’ve always loved the Porteous Building. The home of the Maine College of Art sits regal and square, a hub spinning eddies of creative energy into surrounding streets. Behind its department store facade hides an economic engine, a piston of Portland’s arts economy, sweeping windows and cascading stairways that breathe life to center Congress.

I first noticed it in 2001, the first time I moved to Portland. I was 20, dropped out of college a second time, working a warehouse shift at L.L. Bean. I lived diagonal from MECA crashing on the couch of my sister’s third floor apartment for token rent, woke each morning before dawn to catch a carpool to Freeport, home by early afternoon. Life was rote, routine, boring.

But just down the street MECA was a cauldron of creation, pluck and juice. There was an energy in the punk-style of the art kids who poured through her doors each day. A fire draped the work that hung in her windows. From my perch I could watch it stream past like artistic magma, stirred and prolific but too far to touch. I left Portland having never walked through her doors.

Four years later I was back, my second try at Portland aimed to finish college; this time as a double-major in political science and media studies. MECA’s creative curriculum wasn’t my syllabus. But I needed money and MECA needed models.

The first time I took my clothes off in a roomful of students was for an evening class. Painting. We were on the third floor in a room with the floor-to-ceiling windows that make Porteous so beautiful. I sat naked on a couch holding a 45-minute pose.

At first I thought I was comfortable. But after 10 minutes my neck grew tight. Soon my shoulder ached, my legs trembled with fatigue and my back cramped. By 25 minutes I was in agony, resigned to stillness among shuffling palettes. Sitting there naked I wondered if anyone outside could see in; if the glow lured peering eyes perhaps from some third floor apartment across the way.

When the teacher called a break I collapsed, wrapped myself in a second-hand bathrobe I’d brought for modesty and walked to the window. I looked out at the street dreading the next pose’s 45 minutes of pain.
Then I turned around. In front of me ran canvas after canvas of bold readings of my body, interpretations like twisted mirrors of paint and light and skin tone. I wandered from easel to easel mesmerized by translations striking and alive, bound by darkness, light and mystery. And I was a part of all of them.

I walked back to the podium transfixed. Suddenly the next 45 minutes became a different dance: I now knew the creative fires being lit around me, and that knowledge steadied my pose. I sat engaged, part of the process, a willing actor, no longer concerned with who might look in. I wasn’t there for the money anymore but a witness to the creation unfolding around me, a central ingredient to its birth. I would not miss it for the world.
Two days later I was back for a drawing class. Then for comic class. Then another, and another. I had a front row seat to unselfconscious expression and every class was opening night. Porteous was hemmed by reckless creation and inspiration. And I sat in its center.

But all good things die. It lasted a year, then my modeling career came to an end.

This past Sunday I walked into Porteous once more, this time a student. I carried my drawing pad to a room where I once stood naked. Our model, a woman of perhaps 60, sat casually in the corner. When it was time she stripped her dress and took to the podium like a prizefighter, she the captain, the room her ship. I did my best to anchor her poise and certainty in charcoal, but untrained fingers tripped and fumbled. My renditions were colorless. Only she could do her body justice.

Porteous’ windows and stairwells, however, knew better: Mine was one more act of creation born within her walls. One more mesmerizing eddy.

This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

The Road, and Everything Else

The Road, and Everything Else

IMG_7411.JPGThere’s something about the road.

It doesn’t matter how many times people write about it, how many times people say it, the truth of it always resonates: There is something about the road. Maybe it’s the unsteadiness of it, the unpredictability. It cracks people open, leaves them vulnerable, open to spark and tangents. It pulls us in unforeseen directions, leaves us with fresh perceptions. There is something beautiful about it. Something primal.

I was outside just after dusk last night. 100 steps from the house was silent, dark. Then a flash of green, and another. Slowly they multiplied, a sea of beacons blinking around me: fireflies. The first of the season? I couldn’t tell. I hadn’t noticed them before last night, but was that because they weren’t there, or because I’d been distracted? I don’t know. But seeing them was like magic.

How much to we forget to see? How often do we look at the world as mundane because we have grown accustomed? And once we’ve stopped seeing, how do was see again?

That is the gift of the road. It brings us back to our senses, to our sense of wonder. The things that we grow accustomed to at home become new again in our absence. The fireflies regain their spark.

I hit the road in a few days. A week of freediving in the Florida Keys, then out to California for some friends, diving and climbing, then up the Pacific Coast to surf, climb and explore the Pacific Northwest. From there I catch a flight to Belize where I’m working with high school students on a service-learning project for three weeks, then diving for a week. Then it’s back to the PNW, and who knows, maybe more climbing, maybe Canada, maybe drive east.

But as much power as the road has for revealing the richness of our existence, I’m still caught among a mixture or emotions. It’s strange to be preparing to leave again. Today marks two weeks since I got home, barely time to settle after two months of climbing, diving, surfing and friends, adventures that began on one coast and ended on the other. It’s been two weeks of family, friends, oceans, rivers and lakes, cliffs and mountains, coffees and laughter. There are so many things that make life rich, and adventure is but one of them.

Adventure, however, is the one I know well. My heart can throw itself into lost wandering at a moment’s notice, barely a change of clothes in hand. When I was 15 I started carrying a toothbrush, a towel and a fresh pair of underwear with me everywhere I went. I wanted to be ready to wander, always. It’s a habit I’ve only built on over the last two decades.

IMG_0400But there is another version of adventure, a kind that doesn’t require plane tickets and mountains; an emotional kind, a personal kind. It is standing in front of a roomful of people and speaking honestly about something that scares you. It is taking the stage to sing, talking to a friend and admitting you were wrong. Saying “I don’t know” in a roomful of colleagues. It is revealing your heart, your beautiful raw self, with openness and vulnerability, being your true you in a crowd. Those are a different kind of adventure, the kind that build build bonds not just to ourselves or to one another, but to society, to community. They are nature, but not as we normally seek it. They are us in our natural state, us as us.

Those, I find, are rarer on the road. They may be there with one person, or with a few, but to throw ourselves into the depths of our community and be our richest, rawest selves, we need society. We need a critical mass of humanity. We need room to be among the members of our tribe.

That is not the adventure I’m known for. That is the adventure of musicians, artists, dancers, not those we typically call “adventurers.” But it is in the same spirit, lives within the same reckless heart, that someone takes to the stage for the first time to act in a play. To climb a mountain is no more daunting. This is the full spectrum of “adventure.”

My life of late has been full of the mountain kind. It has been full of rope and remote places, plane tickets and passports, oceans and overhangs. Some call it “Living the dream,” but lost along the Pacific Coast Highway is only one kind of adventure, and many versions call. The Dream includes every version of risk.

The Road. That is one thing, and I will soon be back on it. It is a course I can easily take—my bags are still always packed. But the other version of recklessness—the vulnerable human kind—calls too. And to access it takes more than plane tickets, more than wandering. It takes people. It takes community. It takes a crowded room. It takes a willingness to cut through the mundane, to reveal things normally kept hidden. It takes a bold heart, one poised for emotional destruction, not just physical.

And just like wandering the remote enclaves of nature, there is tremendous beauty hidden on these adventures, moments full of richness and light. But they are seen together, shared, not lived alone.

There is something alluring about that. As alluring as the road.