Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Time To Tango

Everyone has a music that fits them—a rhythm that beats in time with their heart, a melody that makes their feet move, a soundtrack that accompanies them when they dance with a broom in the kitchen late at night after everyone has gone to bed.  It turns out that mine is tango.  All along, those years swaying down the sidewalk humming, my steps were being led by the poignant melodies and wrenchingly piquant rhythms of a music formed by years of European influence in a land of South American passion and drama.   
On Monday, I was treated to my first formal introduction to the dance style that haunts cinematic dreams of Argentina when some friends and I visited the PPAA for their Monday night “Noche de Buenas Aires.”  Though the building is plain from the outside, once we crossed the threshold of the dance floor, we were transported back in time to an era when partner dancing was a pastime and a form of socialization, not simply a thing to do to pick up or romance a date. 
The music for tango is a blend of classical styles; intricate piano passages, lush strings, playful counterpoint, sultry accordion, and a steady emphasis on the downbeat that outlines a dignified step slightly slower than the normal walking speed.  Dancing to this music is a transcription of melodies and subtle rhythms with your steps, interpreting the music as a responsive duet with your partner.  
The instructor, Robert Hauk, was excellent.  He began by teaching us not the steps and turns, but how to walk properly.  Essentially, the basic tango is synchronized walking, a smooth placing of feet and shifting of weight.  Once we had mastered this, he had us stand, uncomfortably close, chest to chest with our partners.  Without touching in any other way, we were to walk around the room, maintaining contact.  In order for this to work, there has to be an equal give and take, a meeting in the middle—if one person is in the other’s space or too distant, their partner will inevitably feel tense and off-balance.  Graduating from this exercise, we were taught the gentle embrace that adorns this wordless connection and were set loose to enjoy the endless diversion of listening to the music and our partner’s movement and responding accordingly. 
At the PPAA, songs are danced in sets of four with one partner, then you are given the opportunity to dance with another partner.  It is the ultimate social mingling—learning the movements and styles of each person in the room, sharing a wordless conversation as you move through the complex rhythms together, listening to the music and the other person’s body as you circumnavigate the room.  By the end of the evening, I felt an intimate connection with quite a few people there, though I scarcely remembered their names or their faces—they are the details that are forgotten as you learn the more important features of how a person hears the music and turns it into a movement.  
Although we were the ultimate novices in the room, the regulars at PPAA are a gracious sort and invited us all to dance the entire night.  When we weren’t dancing—which wasn’t often—the room was a bouquet of lovely couples who were obviously accomplished dancers, each with their own distinctive panache and style.   It was a remarkably exquisite evening, hopefully one of many.  I look forward to returning and highly recommend this venue for all potential tango-lovers!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Love Portland: Schools

Last Saturday, as part of my church’s “Love Portland” campaign, about 40 of us went to Alder Elementary School in SE Portland to do some cleanup and get it ready for the fall.

It was the work you might expect—weeding, spreading mulch and woodchips, painting over graffiti.  
By the time we left, the gardens were transformed from weedy jungles into tidy rock-lined beds filled with flowers, vegetables, and herbs.    It was enormously satisfying to sweat and get dirty with people that I’d only seen dressed in their Sunday Best.   It was rewarding to see such a tangible difference.

Then I overheard one of our leaders as she brainstormed what could be planted in the “secret garden” at the center of the building, surrounded by classrooms.  Every time they came back to weed this garden, they found all of the flowers dead and the pathways overrun with weeds.  Hearing that, I was discouraged.  Was all this effort was in vain, then?  It was only going to be erased in a matter of months as they forgot to tend and water the beds?  What was the use in our cleaning if they weren’t going to keep it that way? 
As I asked myself why we would be working so hard on something that would need to be done again next year, it occurred to me that maybe that was exactly the kind of love that we needed to be giving to this community.  It wasn’t a gift that we could give and then walk away; it allowed us to come back and keep creatively and diligently building on what we had done before.   It gave us the chance to remind them every year that we cared about them.  It opened the possibility of a relationship.

I may have mentioned before that the name of my church here, Imago Dei, means “Image of God.”  Kind of sacrilegious to say that a church, a group of very flawed individuals, looks like God, right?  But ideally, that’s exactly what a church should look like—a reflection of God’s desires and attitude.  It should be a group of people who work together to creatively love and restore others just like God loves and restores us.

 This past weekend, as I listened to our leaders plan what we could do for this garden so that it might have a chance at remaining beautiful, it struck me that this might be the kind of conversation God sometimes has with Himself: “now, what could I do to make these people really understand that I care about them? How could I show how much I love them in such a way that they will remember it a few days from now?”  He knows we'll forget and probably screw it all up, but He does it anyway.  Repeatedly.

This church may never become a mirror image of God, but it just might be headed in the right direction. 

A Time To Cook

There is no way around it: I love food. I am pretty fond of eating it, but even more than that, I love the beauty of that ephemeral artpiece that is a meal.  My friends here make fun of me a little because I tend to take pictures of my food before I eat it (it's better than playing with it, right?), but I can't help but want to capture it! 
Stack of crepes: a lighter and lovelier version of a stack of pancakes. Alternating layers of crepes, peanut butter, assorted jam, and thinly sliced bananas, topped with chocolate and raspberries.

On Friday night, I had some friends over and prepared a french-ish meal.  It wasn't legitimately french, I'm sure, but with the Parisian accordian music and some French wine and cheese, it was close enough to count in my books!  I made a variety of canapĂ©-style hors d'oeuvres (on crackers... forgive me),  a lovely salad, and ratatouille, while my friends provided the wine, cheese, and bread.  We finished with fresh fruit flambe, which flamed beautifully, but were harder to capture on a camera.  Just imagine blue flames flowing from a spoon full of honey, lime, and rum onto a delicious pan of similarly flickering peaches, pinapple, plum, and strawberry.  It was pretty exciting.

Canapes from left to right: 1) blackberry-elderberry cream cheese, peach, blackberry, sunflower seeds 2) italian herb cream cheese, smoked salmon, dried cherries, cucumber 3) italian herb cream cheese, smoked salmon, pepperocini, sunflower seeds, oregano garnish 4) italian herb cream cheese, tomato, cucumber, spicy mustard 5) cream cheese, tomato, stuffed olive, basil garnish.

Salade Verti: mixed greens, tomato, peach, cucumber, basil, nasturtium

Ratatouille a la Josie: tomato sauce topped with with fresh basil, onions, and garlic, layered with alternating zucchini, squash, eggplant, red pepper, and large wedges of tomato.  Garnished with feta and oregano.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Spotlight: Zenger Farm

Since I moved to Portland, I have been pulling weeds weekly at Zenger Farm.  There is some part of me that secretly enjoys weeding—the ability to see clearly that you have accomplished something, the satisfaction of an ache in your arms and sun on your neck, the simultaneous guilt and euphoria at pulling out the roots of some plant that was trying to eke out an existence in the rocky soil. 
Zenger Farm was originally a dairy farm, back in the days when there wasn’t much else out in what is now SE Portland.  Upon the death of the last Farmer Zenger in the early 1990’s, the City of Portland procured the land in order to preserve the farm and the adjacent wetland as a green space to act as a storm-water collection and filtration area.  When the land was later leased by Marc Boucher-Colbert, it became not only a farm, but also a classroom. 
In 1999, Friends of Zenger Farm took over and extended the lease, and the farm remains an educational and sustainable farm and wetland, offering summer programs, tours and classes on cooking, beekeeping, chickens, and more.  Having tasted the veggies produced on the farm, I can attest to the fact that organic methods and kindness to ladybugs are paying off, as is the dedicated work of the friendly and knowledgeable farm crew and volunteers.   What’s more, community members are able to get involved in learning where their food comes from and in meeting their neighbors who also come to the farm!
So it is to Zenger Farm that I come once a week to sit in the sun with a group of other Portlanders, pulling weeds and talking about the weekend’s concert plans.  Overlooking the Springwater Corridor, we watch as cyclists pedal by and the swallows swoop behind the old tire swing that hangs just at the edge of the wetland.  It’s hard to imagine a better way of spending a Friday afternoon.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why I Like the Outdoors Connection Group

This past weekend I was once again reminded that thwarted plans aren’t such a bad thing. 

Stephanie at Wahclella Falls
The Outdoors Connection group at Imago Dei went with intentions of hiking Wahclella Falls in the Columbia Gorge on Saturday.  However, after a lovely hike and some time atop a rock admiring the beautiful falls, it was still only noon. So we decided to drive on to hike Punchbowl Falls.  This hike was similarly breathtaking and filled with hikers jumping from the 40-foot cliffs into the frigid water.  I repeat. Frigid.  Think Lake Superior in early spring.

Punchbowl Falls

Are you surprised that a group of us decided to swim in for a closer look?

There was a small alcove with some sunny rocks, so we stayed for a while, regaining the feeling in our limbs and—of course—building a raft with some driftwood, a nalgene bottle, and the zip-off bottoms of Ben’s pants.  It held together pretty well, but somewhere along the lines Ben lost the keys to his car.  
Cally with our raft

The mad-hott jumpsuit

By the time we realized this, we had already made it back to the trailhead, so the group of us waited while he went back up the trail to freeze in that water some more.  In the mean time, Stephanie demonstrated how to break into a car with a coat hanger (it didn’t work, we still had to call AAA), Cally taught us the Norwegian foot game, I tried on a fashionable jumper in an effort to keep warm, and we prayed for patience, safe swimming, and that Ben would find his car keys.  Then, since it was nearly dinner time and there was no way we would make it back to Portland in time for the concert/picnic that Cally and I had planned on, we broke out the brie, crackers, cantaloupe, and energy bars and had ourselves a feast. 

Picnic with the group
The car was eventually left in the lot and we got another ride back into town, but not before we had done a great deal of bonding.  Perhaps not quite what we had planned for the day, but we all agreed that I had been an adventure.  And that is why I like hiking group.

A Time For Spontaneity

Even though I claim to love spontaneity, I constantly have to fight the part of me that wants to snatch the reins and muscle my way back to the schedule I wrote down in the morning.  Anybody else have this problem? I’ve learned, however, that when I finally do let go and see where life takes me, my experiences always tend to be more interesting than what I planned.  This past Thursday, for example…
Here was my plan: go downtown and eat lunch in a plaza while listening to live music, spend hours perusing a couple of museums by myself, then find a nice park and do some writing in solitude before going to a Spanish worship service near my house.    
An elderly Chinese man was the first to foil my day of leisurely browsing.  On the bus into town, I was treated to a Reader’s Digest version of his life—which was, I’ll admit, quite interesting.  When we arrived downtown, he insisted on accompanying me through Chinatown (wait, what about the concert??), so we walked through the quiet streets as he beamed and repeated to me several times “this is Chinatown.”  Despite my packed lunch, he shanghaied me into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and proceeded to order several dishes, urging me to try everything and complimenting me on my use of chopsticks: “it’s hard, yes? But you do very well!! Eat more! I not do so well, see?” (this while showing me a finger that had been sliced off at the top knuckle).  Don’t even ask me what I ate, because I haven’t the faintest idea.  Then we went through the newspapers and he translated some headlines, wondering if we had the word “Congress” in English. 
Still digesting whatever delicious thing it was that I ate, I left him at a bus stop and proceeded to the first museum, which specialized in 3D artwork and was currently showing a series of medical illustrations.  I think I spent more time talking to the two very casual hosts and watching 3D films with a couple of guys from England than I did contemplating the deep meaning in any of the artwork. 
At the second museum, I skipped the first floor entirely to use the bathroom, then got distracted by the hands-on weaving demonstration.  For several hours, I sat at the table with an intern from PSU who specialized in textiles, a young girl whose grandmother made quilts for men’s shelters and a cardboard loom, chatting away happily until I realized that I was going to have to leave immediately if I wanted to make it to the evening worship service. 
Upon leaving the museum, I learned that it was the one evening of the month that all the galleries were open, and the streets were thus filled with carousing as people made their way from gallery to gallery with wine glasses in hand.  Need I say that I decided to stay? 
I met a painter from Peru who was excited about his forthcoming show in the Portland Art Museum, learned a lot about symbolism in Tibetan Buddhist artwork, laughed and bantered with a guy selling jewelry who worked as a translator and whose business card proclaimed that he specialized in “leisure and adventure,” and generally enjoyed the festivities and the many musicians (including a bagpiper) who flooded the streets and galleries with music. 
Despite arriving home four hours later than planned, it was somehow very hard to regret my abandoned plans after a day like that. They’re more like guidelines, anyway.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Living in an Artistic City

When I moved to Portland, I knew that I was moving to a city known for its abundance of artist-types.  However, it wasn’t until recently—having had a chance to poke around a bit—that I realized the extent of the creativity present in this city. 
For example, there’s the Last Thursday festival every month on Alberta Street.  For six solid blocks, the streets are packed with artists displaying their creations, musicians jamming, dancers and DJs jiving and inviting others to dance with them, people decked out with stilts and fairy wings, colorful food carts, and thousands of people who come to appreciate the spectacle. 
On the first Thursday of every month, there is an open-gallery night downtown in the Pearl district.  This scene has a slightly less pot-and-roses scented atmosphere than Alberta, with fewer dwarf and sunflower costumes, and nobody sitting on corners offering you tea, toast, and a dollar to hear your story.   It is instead saturated with a certain variety of posh people who stand sipping wine out of plastic cups in galleries and appear to be equally interested in looking at the artwork and chatting with other peripatetic art-lovers. 
When weekends come around, droves of people flock to the Saturday market (ironically open on Sundays as well), which is a combination of all the best art fairs you’ve ever been to, a Central American indigenous market, and a carnival.  Vendors and artists from all over the world set up a labyrinth of tents, and the smell of falafel, curry, tamales, and bratwurst wafts over crowds of tourists and locals alike. 
If you were to tally up all of the people who present their work at these festive venues, the number of ingenious sidewalk-sitters in Hawthorne District, and the incredible number of people you meet on any given day who paint, write, make jewelry, knit, or make fantastical metal sculptures in their spare time, you may find that the total encompasses more than half of the population of Portland. 
Isn’t that exquisite?  A city where being open and excited about creativity is quotidian! Where labeling yourself an artist is like claiming your humanity: “of course you’re an artist, so am I!”
The creative energy I feel here is infectious.  Rather than being overwhelming because of the sheer number of other people creating, it feels like living in an abstract mosaic mural.   Your own tile of creative space is allowed to be oblong and twisty and whatever style you want it to be.  Maybe it's completely different than everyone else's, maybe it's similar, and maybe it bumps into or even becomes part of other people’s tiles.  Close up, it's chaotic and colorful and a little messy, but when you take a step back, the beauty and magnitude of what you have become a part of is breathtaking.