‘I have traveled a great deal in Concord’ —Thoreau
By John Darling
This is my Concord, this Ashland. I have traveled a great deal in it and found it my balm, my guru, my god-infested Athens, my healer, my Renaissance painting (as good as any Botticelli) and, though I’ve traveled the world, much of it hitchhiking or hopping trains, ever eager to see new vistas, it’s all toned down in past years and I find it all under my feet and I don’t want to leave, even for a day.
I love the alleys here, drooping in the fall with plums and apples no one bothers to pick. The old Plaza at dawn, when no one’s up, the long park we forget to stroll, an open arboretum. The constant glimpses of the Grizzly Range, sweeter and more interesting than the Alps. The coffee shops, yard sales, sidewalk tables, Green Show. The friend who says “hi,” no matter if the last time you talked was 20 years ago. The welcoming intelligence and cheer of the university and Shakespeare. The local bookstore and the many used bookstores, all clearly operated for love of books.
And the college track I’ve come to love in past years. Places have energy (or they don’t) and the track, open to sky and mountains, has energy. It often gives it to you alone — no one else around. How sweet to breathe its wind-swept air, even if it’s raining. It’s hard to keep from singing or at least praying, communing with the many energies of surrounding nature.
Then one day, against all habit and preference, I go to Portland. My friends and kids are amazed. You went to Portland? But you never leave the Rogue Valley! The first thing that pops in my mind when I consider a drive over 50 miles is … car trouble. Sitting in some gas station waiting for a verdict, then for parts to arrive, eating bad food in local restaurants.
For the first day in (sunny) Portland, I’m sure I was a pathetic sight, hangdog, trying to be cheerful in conversations with my daughters, sister and their mateys. They would put their hand on my shoulder and say, “sorry, dad, but you’ll be back home in no time; try to enjoy it. Here’s some wine.” Then come the inevitable stories of crime in the big city and how scary it can get on the MAX. We don’t have that in Ashland, I thought, and thank the gods! We are civilized and not only that — we are green-sustainable, culture-rich, neighbor-friendly, organic-local … and we hug, a lot!
But then something starts to change (or as we call it in Ashland, “shift”). Across the street from daughter Heather’s home in northeast PDX, a bunch of bicyclists are having a driveway party. They wave cans of beer and beckon me over, showing off their fascinating ape hanger handlebars and banana seats from the ’70s. No Lycra here. These are alternative fun bikers called the Belligerantes and, as they slake my thirst, we rattle off hilarious stories for an hour and a half.
It’s Saturday night and daughter Hannah and her matey Galen take me out for Mexican on Mississippi Street — thronged with milling, yakking, smiling revelers of every ethnicity and adornment, a veritable Mardi Gras, a writhing manswarm of happiness, an experience (not a concept) of diversity — and suddenly, I am swept up into it, taking random pics every 10 seconds, studying the incomprehensible, unprovoked joy of it: people touching, laughing, bareshouldered lasses exposing themselves to the sun for the first time in 10 months, quaffing ale and wine, loving, just loving.
And to my mind come these lines, from Yeats of almost a century ago:
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
“What’s wrong with you, dad?” So Hannah asks, adding that I should be looking at them and talking with them — but I can’t. It’s as if I’d never seen it before, humanity, the cause of all the problems in the world, the ones I escape from in my most un-diverse, unaffordable, sustainability-obsessed town of orthodox new thought.
I see us on Mississippi Street as we really are and I want to shout, as Hamlet did, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”
I am touched with the apprehension of a god and I bless them all and am blessed — and realize that while we in Ashland often delude ourselves that we’ve created the most perfect of worlds and must hold it close to our breasts, that this blessing is portable, is not outside us and is ever present in our genes and cells and souls, ready to flow like heat lightning on a summer night.
As with Yeats, it slips away after 20 minutes and I can’t catch my breath or hope to describe any of it. I wondered if I were perhaps having a manic episode, but simply knew that “now I know.”
That’s how I sum it up to myself. Now I know. Again. The center of the universe is the same as the center of the human soul. It’s like a hologram, with each part containing the whole and available to pull back the curtain on it at any time and reveal, in both part and whole — particular and universal, that it’s all fine, if not perfect, just the way it is.
John Darling lived in Ashland from 1971 until he died at age 77 in January 2021. A US Marine Corps journalist, he went on to write for the Oregonian, Mail Tribune, Daily Tidings, and United Press International, among others, along with stints as a news anchor at KOBI, executive assistant to the Oregon Senate President and press secretary of campaigns for Oregon governor and U.S. Senate. Ashland.news is, with permission, publishing monthly excerpts from his collection “The Divine Addiction: Essays Out of Oregon.”