Ten days in the northwestern bit of the USA — a sort of slow-paced quick visit to a part of the world I’ve wanted to see for so long.
On the way, I managed to spend five days with my friends Tim and Stephanie in Bellingham, hiked with my sister’s friend, Marisa in Portland and talked with strangers on topics as varied as politics, love, and the proper rotation of corn crops in the Midwest.
On a bus to Bellingham, I sat next to a 60-year-old man from Wisconsin who declared himself a Trump voter. For him, the president was a “street fighter,” someone who would “shake politics up.” He had been married three times, first to a nurse who’d “patched up men broken in Vietnam,” the second to a liberal teacher with very different views to his own. His third wife, who he’d been married to for 20 years, wouldn’t let him talk politics in the house.
Last week I perched on a rock in front of Annie Dillard‘s house and read Holy the Firm, which described the scene in front of me. I wondered what the point was, in sitting here reading a book about the view I could already see, but she answered my question almost as soon as I asked it:
“The idea of a thing [is] always more real…than the actual thing itself.”
I’m still thinking about that one.
While sat there, I met an 89-year-old woman who lived in the house below. She gave me a grapefruit orange and told me she’d been 43 years clear of alcohol, since leaving her husband and running away with another alcoholic to Santa Fe. She eventually ditched him (in Santa Fe?) and moved to Lummi Island.
“An Annie Dillard reader from England living in China, my my,” she said, and patted my elbow. “Well, you look healthy.”
Clearly most Dillard fans who made the pilgrimage to her house were not healthy, or didn’t look it. Before I left, she told me that we can get addicted to anything “even recovery.”
In Portland, I met a homeless poet and heard his epic 7-minute poem about a Norse warrior in the Battle of Ragnarök. His performance to me, over chai and breakfast in a greasy spoon, was one of the most powerful I have seen, complete with actions. As a college student he had been obsessed with Jim Morrison and the Grateful Dead. He used to perform his poetry with his long hair shook out over his face so he wouldn’t have to see the audience.
This evening, I saw Regina Spektor sing at the Keller Auditorium in town. Walking home through the dark streets hung with blossom, humming bits of ‘Samson’ & ‘Us’, and reflecting on the trip, I think, it’s not been bad at all. I even got to see the first Starbucks in Seattle, and with great pleasure took my business elsewhere to an excellent local crumpet shop. Maybe nothing is fully local any more in this world, but in this place it felt a lot like it could be.
Tomorrow I return to China for three more months before the move back to London in July. What I expected coming here I don’t know – like Britain, America has been in the news so much for all the wrong reasons. What I have seen here is, yes, a divided country, but also searching self-examination and, in pockets, a fierce resistance.
On our walk through Forest Park this morning, Marisa told me about her work to develop sustainable communities and products. I wondered whether there was hope for a better future. She saw that there are many possible responses to the situation but that her approach has always been optimistic and positive. This is characteristic of her sunny nature. We were talking about the environment, but it could have been about any issue.
The James Baldwin film, I Am Not Your Negro, made the case that little has changed or improved in race relations in the 49 years since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. I cannot ignore the role race, religion, nationality and gender plays in all this, to an extent which I cannot fully understand, and of the way that it defines us.
I picked up a zine in Seattle called Learning Good Consent. In it there was one bit that particularly struck a chord:
“Consent isn’t inherently sexual. It’s about communication, about working towards creating safe spaces.”
This week, the overriding experience has not been of the great outdoors or the trendy cafes. It has been the conversations, held sat next to people on buses, standing in shops, in people’s homes, through messages or phone calls. It sounds strange but I think there is an element of consent in all the interactions I have had. I have tried to be a safe space myself, to listen, ask questions and enjoy the process. The consent is a respect for the other person – for their right to their experiences, and their views, for their right not to talk to you if they wish. And I think, here’s the hope; that it is through this that we make change. You don’t know what change is being made when you start on that journey but you can only open yourself in some way and see what happens.