Beyond Urban Energy

Late at night, lost in the cavernous and empty Seattle Convention Center parking garage, I realized the truth of an old adage: You can’t go home again. This was a while ago, before we had smart phones to tell us where we’d left our cars. Even when I finally located the car, I couldn’t find an exit that wasn’t blocked by an unyielding mechanical gate. 

Seattle once was MY city, where I’d studied, worked, romanced, played, and prayed. Except I never lived within Seattle city limits but on Vashon Island, which was then an affordable fifteen-minute ferry ride across Puget Sound. My life style would be impossible today. It was the ’70s, before Microsoft and Amazon. I owned a ramshackle house with a grandiose view of the sound, both Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, and the Seattle skyline. I’d walk to the ferry and commute to class or job or whatever.

My nostalgia was provoked this week by the opening of a new, two billion dollar Seattle convention center. It’s pretty much next door to the “old” center, which opened in 1988, was doubled in size by 2001, and will continue to operate. The hope is that new center will reverse the dismaying decline of the downtown core. Its event and meeting spaces equal ten football fields. That doesn’t include the public parking garage, into which I surely won’t venture. I never figured out the old one.

Navigation aid: J-C-M-S-U-P

I once was a master of Seattle navigation, knew the back streets, shortcuts, escape routes. I learned from one of the best. As an Associated Press editor, I rode along with an AP photographer who I swear invented alleys and byways that didn’t exist for regular drivers.

Even though I was working for the world’s largest news gathering organization, I didn’t want to go anywhere else in the world. I turned down any and all promotions that would require moving. I smiled as I read reports from along the Iditarod trail, written by a colleague who accepted the job in Alaska that I’d declined. Didn’t matter that I was working the crummy overnight shift in Seattle. I could watch the Space Needle’s glittering lights through the office window.

Slowly, though, the idyll was fading. Commuting, even by ferry, was becoming unreasonable as gridlock strangled the city. Eventually I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. It came from the owner of a weekly newspaper in a gritty little eastern Washington town. He was striving for five thousand paid circulation and figured I could help get him there. It was a package deal: a significant cut in pay, a marriage proposal, and a pledge that we’d visit Seattle monthly for my vital infusion of urban energy — theaters, restaurants, and salt air.

In 1994 we dallied for four months in the city following my husband’s paralyzing stroke. John was a rehab patient at the University of Washington Medical Center. I lived in an aging residential hotel on Capitol Hill, cheering him on, terrified of the future, seeking solace in all that urban energy.

Even after John’s death in 2007, I’ve surprised myself by returning to Seattle only rarely. Certain landmarks are still there. No one’s going to move Mount Rainier. They did move the bus depot without telling me.  A couple years ago, thinking about that gridlock, I parked my car in Wenatchee and rode the bus the remaining hundred and fifty miles to Seattle. I was stunned to disembark in a strange area on a rainy night, multiple blocks from the hotel that I’d thought would be just a short walk away.

My long-ago favorite restaurants, hotels, hangouts are either boarded up or replaced with something weirdly nouveau, gleaming towers, and that new convention center. Still unchanged are the names of downtown’s strangely angled streets, laid out — so the story goes — by a couple of drunken city founders. To navigate the grid, one is advised to memorize an irreverent rhyme using something of a stutter: “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest” (Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike, Pine). 

It’s unsettling to be a tourist in a place that once was yours. Unsettling and yet okay. The nouveau may be better, maybe not. The future will figure it out. I no longer require doses of urban energy. I fill up each morning with the silence of my neighbor — a slow-flowing river — and the occasional quack of a duck, chirp of a bird. It’s all the energy I require.

A Tale of Two Christmases

Yesterday (January 5) was Twelfth Night, in olden days recognized as the final day in the Christmas season. Ignored by most people now, Twelfth Night may have a ring of Shakespearean familiarity. It is the occasion for which his comedy of that name was meant to entertain.

I still cling to a Twelfth Night observation. Otherwise, it seems as if we catapult our way from Christmas to New Year’s, landing with a thud on January 2. The party is over. We’re befuddled by the new year’s reality, which feels an awful lot like the old year’s. 

Twelfth Night offers a more gentle landing, like reading a good book, coming to the end and closing the cover with a satisfied pat. It’s a lovely day for lighting candles one more time, listening to carols before tucking them away for another year, packing up decorations, and reflecting on lingering joy. I celebrated this year by lunching with two friends who described their Christmases.

“I boycotted Christmas,” announced Friend No. 1. So much for my gentle landing. She sounded both defiant and liberated. And really, if I’d had a December like  hers, I would’ve boycotted not only Christmas but the entire world. She had demands for year-end reports piling high on her desk when (a) both of the family’s two cars quit running, which maybe wasn’t that big a problem because (b) two family members were stuck at home with Covid, which was anxiety-producing because (c) this year’s especially heavy snow load has resulted in their home’s cracked ceiling.

Because they have offspring, my friend’s boycott was not total. There was a small tree and gifts. Otherwise, she advised extended family and friends that there’d be no packages or cards in the mail, no cookies in the oven.

And then there was Friend No. 2, who began by listing her Christmas dinner guests. They were a variety of ages, religious backgrounds, interests, etc., with one thing in common — they all would have been alone for Christmas dinner. (May I digress: there’s nothing wrong with peaceful solitude on Christmas if you enjoy it, and I do, but that’s another story.) 

Friend No. 2 admitted she was two hours behind schedule getting her guests seated at the table. The meal was delayed by numerous side dishes. I’m not talking about the mashed potatoes, vegetables, salads, etc. Her side dishes were plates of food she and her guests delivered to folks who couldn’t make it to her house for various reasons. I would have found the combination of guests in my home AND deliveries a hair-pulling logistical challenge. She  made it sound as if it’d been no more complicated than buttering toast. She adopted just the right tone of humility, telling us everyone proclaimed her meal delicious.

After our luncheon, I considered the many ways people celebrate Christmas, including — maybe especially — the self-proclaimed “boycotter.” Her day job involves helping people solve problems that are too often unsolvable. She’s overworked, underpaid, under-appreciated and above all, compassionate. Boycott Christmas? Nah, she observes Christmas — the REAL Christmas — every day of the year.