City Solace, and a Wish Fulfilled

By

I've noticed that Seattle people come to the piers to find open space. Today, I, a new Seattleite, blinking in my surprised orbit around the city, walk to the piers to seek my space as well. I spread my jacket on the wooden steps, sit down, and stare out at Puget Sound. I can see the bluish mountains in the haze, the Olympic Peninsula, and, reaching toward me from it, a broad, flashing pathway of light. A sailboat wings down it. Brilliance flutters in its white sail, like a firefly pulsing in a confined space.

Seattle people become much more friendly when the sun shines, since a bright day is a rare treasure here. But the few people on the dock are silent. We don't look directly at each other.

I wouldn't have understood this avoidance when I was fresh from the country. But now I, too, ride a crowded bus each morning, shoulder-to-shoulder with a different stranger every five minutes. I, too, sit confined in an office chair for eight hours, staring at a computer screen. So now I understand.

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Each of these people on the dock is pretending to be alone. A man leans on the railing, staring out to sea with a dreamy expression. Another man, tall with a ponytail, leans his bike beside him and opens a book. A third, in a green sweatshirt, pulls out a notebook and alternates between writing and staring at the water. These three and I are the only people on this outermost pier. But in our minds, each of us is the only person here, each with his own expanse of water, his own salty breeze.

Behind us, multilevel roads and freeways spin with 5 o'clock traffic, and if I turn, I can see the silver faces of the downtown buildings. But I turn my back and paint the city temporarily out of my picture.

ANOTHER sailboat glides toward the first. Its bright red and white sails remind me of a picture in a child's book. A huge ferry slides toward us from Bainbridge Island. A sea gull's shadow brushes over my head, and its cry changes in my memory to a different one. "Kee-deee! Kee-deee!" the killdeer used to cry on the Oregon ranch where I lived as a child. The small birds darted in front of us to lead us away from their nests, and sometimes my sister and I followed them, laughing, to see how far they would take us.

In the city, I often feel closed-in. I have lived away from the ranch for 10 years, but when I went back for a visit a few years ago, I immediately felt I was home. I walked along the dusty road, where we sometimes used to see three cars in a day. The day I visited, I saw none. I took my shoes off and followed a killdeer that anxiously darted in front of me, her shrill voice awakening harmonic tones in my memory. In the vast green fields, her high, clear voice was the only sound besides the occasional mooing of Hereford cattle. Sunlight shone from a sky as endless and deep as the sea.

Sometimes I wish I hadn't had to leave the ranch. I remember stepping out the door at night to see a sky so full of stars, I felt as if I was having a conversation with the entire universe. In the city, I'm thrilled just to see Orion.

After college, though, I was drawn to cities. In the city, I could bowl, swing dance, see plays, meet lots of people, ride Ferris wheels, and boil with my friends in rush-hour traffic - all novel and exciting experiences for me. I like this view, too. It's not quiet here, but it is big and bright, and I can't criticize any scene that includes sea gulls and sailboats.

Each of the three men eventually finds a reason to leave. Each shoulders his backpack and walks or rides away, quiet and refreshed.

I've found an answer to my wish as I look at the sea. I didn't leave the ranch. The persistence of every detail inside me shows that it is with me as clearly as when I was there. I'm like a moving picture of that place: It looks out of my eyes. The sea gulls and the sailboats and waves will also become a part of me.

The wise among city people create big open spaces inside themselves, and I'm learning to do that, too. Now I'm ready to turn around, face the tall buildings again, and cross the highway to catch a crowded bus to dinner.

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