Finding Peace in Portland

It was the weekend just before finals week (May 8th, if my memory is serving me well) when I went out to brunch with my friend, Caroline, who I’d met and befriended freshman year when we lived on the same floor. Our conversation was distracted and stressed in the way that graduands suddenly realize the daunting proximity of “real life.”

That was when she mentioned, “After I’ve worked for a few years and earned some money, I want to travel.”

“Same! I was actually teasing the idea of going to Portland for a couple days after graduation.”

“Wait, really? I kind of was too, to visit Mariam.”

“Dude, let’s go together.”

(The conversation probably didn’t follow in those exact words, but I’m about 99% sure I did say “dude” and 100% certain that the gist of it still gets the same effect across.) The idea had been brought up as a pipe dream, a conversation topic that could lighten the mood and give us something to look forward to while knowing full well we wouldn’t be seeing each other for the indefinite future.

But after we parted ways that day, I hesitated — why wait?

Three texts later, our Portland plans became reality.

City sign by the Waterfront | Photo by Courtney Cheng

Portland — and Beaverton! — was breathtakingly beautiful. Not so much so that it hurt to look at, but just eye-catching enough that after having lived in the middle of the urban space of Berkeley for four years, everything was just so lovely to behold.

I’d visited Portland before, when my brother and I were younger and my family used to take yearly road trips up to Seattle to visit family, but my memory of it was spotty. I just remembered that the city’s summer weather wasn’t as swelteringly hot as California’s, and that the nature around me was green rather than gold (read: brown).

I wasn’t wrong, per say. But my memory failed to convey some of Portland’s finer features.

Portland Saturday/Sunday Market | Photo by Courtney Cheng

Portland is a large city, but unlike the Bay Area, it’s relaxed. There were lots of people wandering through downtown Portland over Memorial Day weekend, just as we were, but the space still felt calm. People walked slowly. The weather was balmy. Everyone was pleasant and nice.

I was born in New Jersey, but moved to the Bay Area when I was quite young and have lived there ever since. Even after graduating from UC Berkeley, I have little inclination to leave this region, and I very openly label myself a homebody to this particular corner of the world.

Portland, however, provided a space where actually I felt relieved to be away home for a while.

There are lots of articles online and people in our lives who tell us about the great aspects of travel and how it might benefit our lives to be away from home for certain spells of time. I believed it before, but I believe it even more now.

Portland Japanese Garden | Photo by Courtney Cheng

The environment in Portland — the refreshing stretches of green stripping past you on the highway, the perambulating population making its way around the city — forced me to slow down my own pace of living, to live in the present, to uproot myself from my deeply-rooted Berkeley ways. Everything called for my attention in its own soft-spoken way, and I wanted so dearly to give all of it my fullest devotion.

I was happy in Portland.

I felt at peace with things, like I could breathe deeply (before the pollen set in and caused me to sneeze) and feel okay with everything.

What also can’t be omitted, though, is just how wonderful my home-away-from-home was. Caroline and I were fortunate to be able to stay at Mariam’s place with her mom and aunt during our visit.

I come from an introverted family where love and care runs deep, but solitude is valued and respected. With Mariam’s family, Caroline and I were easily swept into the ebb and flow of their lives. The breakfast table overflowed with food, our plates were constantly refilled, and I drank at least 14 cups of tea in three days. (That’s not even counting the other times I was offered tea but declined as politely as I could because I would have burst from overconsumption.)

Back in freshman year, Caroline, Mariam, and I had always been the ones on our floor hosting post-midnight feels talks. Sometimes, they were stereotypical girl talks at 2 am; other times they also included the small handful of men on our floor.

International Test Rose Garden | Photo by Courtney Cheng

We knew, from the moment we planned this trip, that we would reprise our late night conversations. I didn’t, however, anticipate also being joined by Mariam’s family as we engaged in discussions about politics, about religion, jobs, people, life. Both women were quiet and gentle, but remarkably strong as they shared wisdom from their memories and experiences.

My heart felt full on our last night there, when all five of us stayed up until 3 am, talking over tea and (of all things) salsa and chips around their dining room table. Looking back on it only a few days later, I feel very lucky to have had the chance to sit there with them, in the quiet, removed space of Portland (Beaverton) where everything felt so tidily packed up in neat little spaces, and yet so open that I felt readily able to leave my worries behind me.

I am back in the Bay now, at least 600 miles away from both Mariam and Caroline. My heart feels much less full than it did just a few nights ago because of the distance between us, but I will always remember the warmth of Portland and the breaths of fresh air it offered to me through its people and its space.

For the past several months, I’ve been feeling extremely conflicted about moving on from Cal. After Portland though, I feel a little less like a baby deer taking its first steps. I’m still probably only at the level of Bambi trying to gain his footing on a frozen lake, but even then — spring is just around the corner.

This post is dedicated to Caroline and Mariam:

Many thanks to Sophie from UNC Chapel Hill for taking this photo and keeping us company during our first day of travel.

We’ve never been the best at consistently keeping up with each other after we stopped being floormates-turned-adopted-roommates, but what we lacked in quantity, we made up for in quality. It’s been two proper years since the three of us last hung out, and four since we had those 2 am girl talks in what we all know was my room, but in the past few days you’ve shown me (yet again) how friendship isn’t determined by time or distance. Our most recent 2 am conversations took on hugely different tones and reflected just how much we’ve grown and changed as people over time. Their essence, though, remained unchanged.

I wanted to cry as I hugged you both at the airport in Portland, and I felt empty and alone as I waited in the TSA security line, surrounded by people traveling with at least one other companion. Nevertheless, I am and will always grateful that you two have given me so many reasons to be so upset about leaving. We’ll be living in three separate states in the forthcoming future, but I know we’ll reunite again soon, undoubtedly older, always with our same characteristic gusto. I love you both so much.

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