After we moved to the farm when I was ten, I felt like my world collapsed inward.
No more going to school - now school was held at the kitchen table, with #2 pencils and textbooks from Alpha & Omega and A Beka. No more piano lessons from the nice lady in the trailer house - now I walked up the road to take piano lessons from the neighbor girl. No more spending the afternoons with friends or going to sleep-over. Now there were diapers to change, diapers to wash. Sticky toddler hands to wipe and cherries to can. Chickens to feed and goats to milk. Zucchini and pole beans to weed and water.
We were only 23 miles from Portland, 4.5 miles from the grocery store, but it seemed to me that we might as well have existed in our own universe.
And then: my father got a job working as a building engineer in downtown Portland. He left before dawn and returned in the early evening, upon which he would change his clothes and head back outside to work in the barn, or add another section of fence, or chop branches for the wood pile.
One Saturday morning, he announced that he was going into his office for a few hours.
"Can I go?" I asked.
He studied me for a moment. "Well," he said, finally. "I suppose you might like to see a bit of Portland."
We drove downtown together, and arrived at a large office building. He fiddled with his keys, unlocking doors and leading the way through a maze of hallways until we were deep inside.
He sat down at his desk, instantly absorbed in papers and screens, while I hovered nervously in the background. "What should I do?" I asked.
"You can go," he said. This was what I had hoped for, and what he had seemed to imply earlier, but it seemed too good to be true. No one would have ever described my father as permissive; he was not an advocate of independent exploration or unsupervised wandering, but by some stupendous dint of luck, he got up from his desk and opened the door and directed me back along the hallways and out to the street.
"When should I be back?" I asked.
"Let's say three hours," he said. "Just ring the buzzer, and I'll come out."
I walked down the street, heart pounding, halfway expecting that he would change his mind and call me back.
It was like I had discovered a trapdoor, or a key that slid into an invisible lock - and I was free.
Free for three long, unfettered hours to roam the streets and stare up at the buildings. I walked and walked, peered into alleyways, stepped shyly into bookstores, sat on park benches and craned my neck up to look at the buildings that loomed above.
Portland might be insignificant on the world map, but to me it was pure magic. In the shadows of its buildings, I felt gloriously anonymous, a spectator, not responsible for anyone or anything. In my adolescent imagination, these edifices seemed like keepers of secrets, each window framing a story. I imagined people inside fighting, laughing, loving, dying.
Over the next few years, I got to go back downtown with my father on a few occasions, and each time he waved me outside to explore, and each time I had to pinch myself. I still feel grateful for those wide-open mornings, for that gift my father gave me without knowing it, for the way my little world cracked open for a few short hours.
This many years later, when the farm is a story I tell, and when magic sometimes seems in short supply, tall buildings still make me happy. I get that same old rush of delight whenever I walk through a busy downtown anywhere in the world - San Francisco or Edinburgh or Rome. That humming sense of magic creeps over me, and my petty issues seem to shrink as I become a speck in the vast drama of humanity.
Towering sculptures of concrete + steel: I not-so-secretly love you.
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Wonder is Where You Find It
+ I'm reading Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. I loved his book The Shell Collectors, so when I saw this, I picked it up trusting that I'd like it too. Here Doerr chronicles a year spent in Rome with his wife and infant twin sons, sketching their surroundings in prose so tender and vivid that I can only read one or two pages at a time. A treasure.
He describes St. Peter's and the surrounding piazza: "The boys are quiet, huge-eyed. Twin fountains spray and gurgle. I feel my breath leave me, a flood of different sensations: the roar of space; sunlight coming in streaks through the haze; the huge dome of the church seeming almost to hover over the facade. It is as if, while we look, the basilica swells, adds another layer. Country, continent: the piazza is a prairie, the church a mountain range. And the city crowds in all around it, panting, thronging, sulfurous."
+ I attended a gathering for 20X200 collectors last week at Crown Point Press - a gorgeous space filled with smudgy light and beautiful art. They have a bookstore in the front, where I stumbled across An Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa by New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman. What a find.
From the Introduction: "This book is meant as a kind of Wunderkammer, a cabinet of wonders about art, which, like the heart, can sometimes defy logic and which can also be instructive even (and often especially) when it is difficult or unfathomable."
+ Check out the genius of Melinkov House by Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov (via one of my new favorite blogs - Heading East by photographer Raul Guiterrez - check his post on Melnikov for more fabulous links).
Photos Above: buildings around San Francisco. No special significance - just glass + brick + layer after layer of untold stories. Magic.