snapshots: a good way to write about your city

As summer turned into fall, I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, generously lent to me by my beautiful friend Amanda. A book about love, lust, relationships (and how they play out in our heads vs. in the world), travel, cities, and where we may belong. It spanned many years, though time was represented in a disjointed, vaguely opaque way. We jump from one relationship to the next, from one lover to another, from a marriage to an affair. And over the course of the 320 pages, we get to know the characters but close the book feeling like we have barely met them. Amidst this chronicle of lovers circling one other, are beautiful passages describing life’s everyday beauty. One in particular caught my attention. Lovers Franz and Sabina jetset to New York from Europe to escape the watchful eyes of Franz’s wife. They indulge in the romance and the intoxicating urbanity of one of the most sought-after cities in the world:

“Franz and Sabina would walk the streets of New York for hours at a time. The view changed with each step, as if they were following a winding mountain path surrounded by breathtaking scenery: a young man kneeling in the middle of the sidewalk praying; a few steps away, a beautiful black woman leaning against a tree, a man in a black suit directing an invisible orchestra while crossing the street; a fountain spurting water and a group of construction workers sitting on the rim eating lunch; strange iron ladders running up and down buildings with ugly red facades, so ugly that they were beautiful; and next door, a huge glass skyscraper backed by another […] the beauty of New York […] it’s unintentional. It rose independent of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern […] such incredible surroundings they sparkle with a sudden wondrous poetry” (107-108).

the strange and beautiful things we see

Images of cities are so beautiful to me. I love recording the strange and beautiful things I see in the cities I have lived in, capturing snapshots or sketches like an artist or photographer. Only my medium is words. Letters that when joined together form pictures in our minds, metaphors which bring together the natural and man-made, the historical and new. To live in a city is to always be absorbing, to always be stimulated, to always be inspired by the busyness. I once wrote an essay called “Where We Live” about my experience living in cities and how nature-lovers can reconcile their urban life. I have continued to contemplate this topic, my relationship with the urban sphere. And especially now, moving back to the city of my youth.

Yes, urban beauty lies  in it’s sparkling, “wondrous poetry,” in its arresting and sometimes shocking rawness, but for me it is most delightful in its fluctuations and spontaneity. The concreteness of destinations and landmarks juxtaposed with the swirling chaos of people, vehicles, animals, songs, laughter, and desperateness, constantly changing. The beauty is is in the pampered passing the neglected in the street. The charm of a city lies in its deep history of forests or plains or deserts, transforming into dwellings, streets, and commonplaces and this past crashing quite abruptly and sometimes fatally into the ever-changing, revolutionary present. The character of a city is different for every inhabitant, the combination of shops, parks, schools, and places of business they combine and serve up as their buffet. A city can be exciting, comforting, beautiful, nostalgic, efficient, tragic, practical, and chaotic all at once, a teeming collection of thousands of people living their lives simultaneously. Sometimes they cross paths, sometimes they parallel each other, never meeting.

So, in all of this, I would like to capture more snapshots of my city that I am rediscovering over the next few weeks, months, and years that I live here. And if I move on, I will continue to do so in this new place. Here are some now:

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

-A lanky, bald man rocks on his heels, selling “Street Roots” outside an elite Westside grocery store. Shoppers in Nike work out clothing, holding coffee drinks in disposable cups rush by.

-A woman in a wheelchair sits, raptly watching the intersection of Burnside and NW 23rd Avenues at 9:00 pm. She requests a “Walk” signal every time someone approaches the corner, but when the light turns green she stays there.

-Men in business suits and young folks in raggedy garments mingle in Director’s Park. There is not a photosynthesizing plant in sight.

-A hackysack is jauntily passed around from foot to foot in Pioneer Square.

-A three-car accident happens in front of my eyes at 6th and W. Burnside. One rear ends one which rear ends the other, a sickening game of dominoes. The one in the middle, she is unhurt, but she rocks back and forth in her seat, crying.

-A line wraps around both sides of Music Millennium, people waiting for a free live show. It’s Blind Pilot.

-A stream of bikes pours onto the Hawthorne Bridge at 5:00 pm, a traffic jam of handlebars and helmets and frantically blinking red lights. Cars glide past, unobstructed. Some bikers wear neon vests, others carry yoga mats slung over their shoulders.

-A marching band loudly plays their weekly Friday noon rally for the Beavers in Pioneer Square. It’s 12:30, and they promptly stop and load up their instruments. The crowd of orange and black disperses.

-A young man contemplates his coffee and sculpture in the art museum’s sculpture park.

-Ten blocks of downtown enjoy the warmth of dappled sunlight, fully planted down the middle with maples and oaks. In fall this will be a tapestry of color.

-200+ people show up in Wallace Park to watch Vaux’s Swifts turn down their covers at night. A falcon chases after the flock of cigar-shaped birds, a teeming mass of black wings against a darkening sky.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

This is my city. What are some snapshots of yours?

a camera’s snapshot


5 thoughts on “snapshots: a good way to write about your city

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