By Neva Knott
Sandycrest Terrace. The first place I lived all on my own as an adult. The first place I was totally financially responsible for myself. The first place I was in charge of my whole life. Twenty-two, naïve, alone. Just me—paying the bills, figuring out who I’d become. I found myself there after having walked out of the relationship that brought me to Portland, after having walked away from home. The bottom line I offered when people asked what my plans were was to say, I don’t know, finish school.
I can so easily go back to that time in my mind, but only to the sorrow of it. Only to the encapsulation of my confusion as that twenty-two-year-old girl. That memory allows all of the sadness to refract and land elsewhere. For me, that time of my life has to stay in the shadows so that I can make sense of who I’ve become since.
Here I am again, back at Sandycrest, twenty-six years later. I needed a place to live on the fly, after another crash and burn of the life I imaged and planned for myself. A start-over homecoming, it seems. Brick buildings and door vestibules by which I can mark my progress, reflect, and hopefully move on.
Even though I’ve been brought here by the two large disasters of my life, I want a seamless adherence to the truth of my choices, a rationale to the trajectory of life I set myself upon the last time I was here. I want to see the clean progression between then and now, yet all of the past lurking in the darkness just outside of my daily reality wants to tumble out now, to stand as a reflected image, to murmur as an echo, begging my contemplation of the strands I tried to tuck out of the light when I lived here before.
As I put my new key in the door, I notice the out-moded intercom box with its chipped green paint. The instruction placard reads, Talk Here.
I awake, amongst the boxes and clutter of the move-in. Lucid dream this morning—I dreamt of the Himalayas. I used to have a certificate for having flown over them in a little plane when I was, probably, eight. It was in a cheap frame, brown with gold along an indent in the middle of the molding, glass-covered. The certificate itself looked quite official, with a color-print image of the mountains and a wordy declaration of my feat. My name had been hand-lettered into the form. I was dreaming partly of the piece of paper and partly of the event itself. I looked down and I was above Mt. Everest, and I was in the plane. All of a sudden, as the plane swooped, the snow changed into grass that was lush and electrifyingly green. I realized the scene had changed and I was walking a narrow path through the verdant fields of the Himalayas. I passed a monastery that lay off in the distance, above the path. I looked back at it. Seeing the monks, I smiled. They were emptying large burlap bags of rice into brown ceramic pots. And then the dream switched off.
Later in the day, I went out in the yard to throw a ball for my dog. The grounds at Sandycrest are beautiful, atypical for an apartment complex. Maples that curve over the street, creating a curtain that veils my apartment from the world beyond, tulip trees that drop blooms that look like fireworks and the courtyard tree with the redolence that wraps around the atmosphere at night.
In 1984, during my previous residency at Sandycrest Terrace, after that first big crash and burn of my then newly-minted adult life, I set some goals—the big life kind:
Teach at a small college
Write and photograph alongside teaching
Make money from other investments
Buy an old barn and convert it into a house
Have a self-sustaining farm
For years, I used that list as my compass. I had originally written it on lined notebook paper and kept it folded in a stack of important papers. A year or so later, I bought my first journal—a hardbound black sketchbook. I pasted the list onto its flyleaf, making it more official, deeming it part of my daily ritual.
I am not a keeper of my journals. When I feel they have served their purpose, that I’ve chewed on the musings in them long enough, I destroy them, rooting all their mumbo-jumbo in the past. I burned that journal, but before I lit the match, I cut out the list of goals and pasted it into a new blank book. Through a series of cut-and-pastes, I carried my compass with me, forward in life.
Just three or four years ago, I realized I’d accomplished most of the list—or a version of it. I taught high school, the barn idea had shifted into a 1920s Portland-style bungalow. I wrote and made photographs, and have an investment account. Simultaneously, I realized I wasn’t really happy—not due to the list—I had not planned wrongly, but circumstances separate from my endeavors were bringing me down. I let go of it all and moved, still yearning for the simplicity of the plan of the list, and actually looking for the land for the farm. I knew the list by heart then, so I left it behind in that batch of destroyed journals, as an artifact of the life I was trying to escape.
I tried to change everything, just as the world shifted. I moved out of the city to Central Oregon, landed a nice teaching job there, and bought a house. In just two years, as the recession hit, I ended up stranded in a new town, no job, no home, no plan. That’s how I landed back at Sandycrest, back to shaping my life.
My first apartment here was on the ground floor. Now, I live on the second. I have a bank of paned windows that look out among the treetops and across the side street. I look eye to eye with the birds. Much of my time is spent sitting on my perch, pondering. I spend some evenings in the yard, often sketching my surroundings—the chestnut tree, so bold in its flowering and germination. The crows, as they taunt my dog and sing out the threat of his presence.
I like the idea of the cloister world of monks. Of spiritual intellectualism. Of how their days are filled with simple tasks and big ideas. They do not follow compass directions of place, but of heart and mind.
Spring has turned to summer and then to fall. Now it’s December. The winter solstice sneaks up with it’s darkness and then, all at once, is shining light. One year, I was standing on Waikiki, all the hotels and tourist hustle and bustle behind me, brightly lit, and I was alone on that world-famous, usually packed, beach. I watched the moon, walked barefoot and watched the nighttime ocean wander in and then recede. This winter I’m in Portland, a city so long my home. I think, maybe coming back is moving forward. No matter one’s location, the solstice is a sneaky thing, begging internal reflection.
My yoga teacher asked today, “What is hidden in your darkness that you are not letting out?“ In Jungian conception, the darkness, the shadow side of life, is two things—it is that which we perceive as weakness and want to keep hidden, and it is the beauty in each of us yet to escape. As I drove through my day, I kept thinking about the question. It is one of the human heart. A daunting question in this world of work-a-day and bill paying.
I thought about my little list, of all the times it had travelled with me, and wondered if the shadow answers could still be found on that slip of paper, penned by a much younger me, on some other day when my mind wandered, trying to make sense of the string of events I was calling my life.
I put my key in the latch of my door and glance at the speaker box and its insistent command to Talk Here. Maybe, just maybe, my twenty-two-year-old self was on to something.