Wednesday, January 23, 2013


There are so many things I love about going to the city, the cities; the adventure, the unexpectedness,  the endless kitchens and bars and murals and people we don't know, all waiting to be discovered.

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After four years in the country, the idea of going to the city can be exhilarating. Used bookstores, record shops, galleries and museums, french bakeries, all these things make cities places I miss sometimes...bridges and lights and old buildings...churches and cathedrals and secret temples. There's promise in the cities. It's the "Zoo of the new", an exotic place where anything can happen.
Yet each time, I return home with more mixed feelings than the last.
This time we went down to celebrate our birthdays by seeing Elephant Revival at the Tractor Tavern and what fun we had! (Seattle girls, it was a kind of a two-of-us day-trip which is why I didn't try to set up a meeting with ya' all. Next time.) We got to have dinner with the band, drink way too many hot toddies with friends and dance it up with total strangers.

Ratty clubs and bars are another thing about cities that never disappoints me.
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The openers were our old favorites The Shook Twins. Laurie and Katelyn rock! Giant rhythm eggs, beat boxing, moshing with their magical blond hair, I can't wait for these girls to return to our little Island once more.
The show was packed and the Elephants played lots of awesome new songs. It was such a good time.
The next day, we left our car behind and walked our way from coffee shop to coffee shop, all the way to downtown.
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On the way we stopped at a Native art gallery too see C.'s cousin Lena's seal helmet. Her art is amazing, original yet (as I understand it) draws deeply from Alutiiq art tradition. It was really fun to see this piece in a gallery setting, something I hope know will someday happen for C as well.
There were some other amazing pieces there as well, in the Northwest Coast style, but I was too timid to ask for permission to take more pictures.
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All day, Seattle was wrapped in a thick, Bay Area magnitude fog, cold and eerie. Fog muffles all the sounds around it, making the city seem a little desolate, in spite it being a busy holiday monday.
The things we like to do in town are pretty simple. Like tourists, we like going to Pike Place Market to look at stuff. We like to eat out, drink coffee out and I like to eat as many macaroons and eclairs as possible.
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We enjoy listening to street musicians and people-watching.
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A while back C's sister clued us onto a great Mexican restaurant in the stairwell between Pike Place and the Aquarium. Homemade everything, real food, simple.  
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While wandering around, we came upon the Martin Luther King day march and hopped on for a bit. It was a little sad to see how few people were marching, compared to how many people were shopping and how many cop cars and other assorted authority vehicles it "took" to police a march of old hippies, community activists and little kids.
As much fun as we had, always have, visiting the city makes me realize that I have a very sheltered adulthood. So many of the problems, negative messages and painful situations that people who live in cities face daily, are not really part of our life here.
Our single day in the city was the perfect illustration of this. It seems that in the city, one spends a lot of time "tolerating" other people in their space. Other people (as in people you don't know) are loud, clumsy, rude, in your way.  Sometimes they seem or are dangerous. Their energy and problems are right there with them, they carry them through the city, into buildings and busses and shops and it's impossible not to let that affect you.

When I first moved to a big city, I was deeply disturbed by how many homeless, destitute people I encountered each day. Being supersensitive, I had little emotional resources to deal with the suffering I saw each day and now that I'm not used to seeing acutely needy people all the time, I feel the same way I did then. Back then I would give all my spare money away, feeling so urgently powerless. Even now I just want sit down with each of them, ask them if they need anything, if I can do anything.
Outside a grocery store, an old guy held a sign stating that he was a veteran of one of our many wars, most likely Vietnam. I asked him if he wanted anything from the store, a sandwich, some fruit. "Lunchables." He smiled broadly with his few teeth. "The things with little crackers and meat and cheese?" He nodded. I went in and bought two boxes, one with turkey and one with ham. It set me back about five bucks. He was old and crazy and weather-beaten and I wasn't about to argue with him about the nutritional value of lunchables. By the time I got back with them, he had forgotten all about me. The little plastic trays made him beam. "Lunchables! For me? I've never had the turkey one!"
Outside a different store, C. sat  on the curb waiting for me next to a different homeless man. He gave the guy all the money we had left, 85 cents. The guy thanked him. It's an affluent neighborhood, stylishly dressed people going in and out for olive hummus and cheeses. No one looked at either of them.

When we got back, we ordered in pizza, watched the inauguration festivities. The President mentioned climate change, gay and lesbian rights and immigrant rights. A historic occasion. I wanted to, still badly want to believe him.  In a different speech he stated his and the nation's gratitude to the men and women that serve in "our" military. He said we'd take care of them. My heart felt about to break. I thought about the homeless man and his lunchables. I thought of all the little frivolous things I'd spent money all day. I thought about all the frivolous things everyone in the city had spent things on all night. I thought about the cost of the inauguration. The local news channel came on with a story about a murder, followed by a story about a fatal car accident.
Even in a liberal bubble like Seattle, it's harder to believe that the good guys are winning. A landmark record store is forced out of business by one of the banks we all helped bail out. The owner of the bookstore across the street sighs "These are the times." We buy a few books, hoping that she'll still be there next time we come around.

Everywhere condos are being built and young yuppies push their toddlers in thousand dollar strollers. A friend tells us that just a few blocks away where she lives, there's a continuous influx of newly homeless folks who can't afford to live here anymore. Near the shipyard where Mali's dad works, the city enacts a parking zone to remove the tens of 70s campers that people have been living in.

Even folks with a roof over their heads and a steady job are subject to all kinds of abuses by default. The distances one travels for supplies, work and fun are as vast as the choices available. There is a lack of time and money. Even simple things like feeling poor because you can't afford to have your hair styled, or go to a spa seem to be hazards of city life. Or feeling like there's something always happening just outside your grasp; a better party, a better apartment, or job.

Living in a city seems so much harder to me now, both emotionally and physically. I don't know if I could hack it anymore.

At home I am shielded from the constant stream of bad news, want and self-loathing peddled by TV and billboards, magazine covers, expensive stores. I don't feel poor even when we have no money. No one else has much more than me and even if they did, there's nothing to buy.

I feel rich. I can go to the beach whenever I want to, eat good food, work a little.

"I just felt so lucky just to be able to plan my day, my future." C. says about sitting next to the homeless guy outside the store. And so we are. For what it's worth, the city is a very good reminder of that.

Country mouse? City mouse?  Am I right? Or Wrong? What's your experience?


  1. i loved joining you in your trip to the city, a city i have always wanted to visit so thank you for the tour!...the thought of your kindness to the homeless men brought tears to my eyes...the village i live in is protected from city life and like you i feel so overwhealmed when i go into any city, or even large town. i enjoy it, i love visits to london with my sister as we stay in the still quite bohemian bloomsbury area with amazing bookshops, coffee shops.
    here in our village we have the problem of young people born here not being able to afford to live here as the city folk move here buy up the homes for holiday homes and push up prices. its so sad that this is happening world wide.

  2. Such a thoughtful post! Like you, I live in the country (in Scotland) and I have almost forgotten how to behave in the city. I can't cope with the rush of people in shopping centres, all the "stuff" and stimuli coming at me from every angle. And yet for 20 years I lived in London and I miss the culture, the new ideas, the acceptance of difference. In a country town, you are openly stared at if you are in any way "other" and I can't stand that.

  3. sigh. i hear you, loud and clear and all you say resonates. after 17 years in SF, i have gone through phases of sensitivity, overwhelm, hardening, hipness and flipness and now back to sensitivity. i travel in the same well worn paths of my neighborhood, while i avoid other hoods all together. going downtown can feel just as foreign as if it took a ferry ride to get there. i go to target in the south bay and have to recover from culture shock, every time. thank you for articulating so precisely the complexities that cities bring up. i try to explain to folks sometimes why living in sf isn't like the fantasy they have...i usually get the patronizing, 'oh you're so cute and overly emo' look.

    but i'm glad you got to see one of your favorite bands and i'm tickled at your macaroon consumption. your guilty pleasure about french bakeries gives me a sense of kinshp permission to enjoy them too. :). also, if i was walking about in the city and saw you, your radiant intactness would speak to me volumes about the rich life you lead. our level of consumption in this country, and the addiction to it, deeply concerns me and unequivocally looks like sickness. i think you are so fortunate to live in a place where you are removed from the siren call of advertising, like a permanent retreat for the soul.

    country mouse, all the way with you sister. xoox

  4. i think a lot people who live in large cities get numb. maybe you have to, to be able to survive? i don't live in a big city like LA but we do have a very large homeless community because of a local soup kitchen. my friend's brother has been homeless for years and every time i've talked to him he has said how much he likes being homeless. no taxes, no bills...he knows where to get all his meals for free and such, granted he is a drug addict which has led to mental disorders but i think he is similar to many homeless. i often wonder if there really is anything you can do to help someone who is an addict and is ok with living on the streets.
    as far as living in a city, i feel i do pretty good at ignoring all the advertising and the extreme obsession with appearance. i think i might live in the plastic surgery capitol of the world! if anything it makes me want to look nothing like the barbies i see everyday. i've created my own bubble of sorts and enjoy all the good things my city has to offer. would i prefer to live in the country? i think i would, but i guess i can't say for sure until i've experienced it.

    glad you had fun at the show! and coffee shop/book store hopping sounds awesome :D

  5. Ah, this. I've never lived in a big city, but my visits always leave me feeling profoundly frazzled, drained, and depressed, for all the reasons you've described. They're a sinkhole for all the terrible complexities that human life -- the part that's detached from Nature (so, like, most of it) -- has to offer. I'd like to be able to see some kind of visual, energetic representation of an entire city, where colors represent different emotions. It would be dizzying and terrifying, I'm sure.

    You and C. are beautiful souls, both.

    Totally a country mouse, baby. Love you.


  6. i felt the same when I visited the cities on our big trip over there. Complete and utter out of placeness, overwhelmed and sad for the people rushing past me so caught up in themselves. Sad and bewildered that people seemed so hurried, so out of touch with their animalness or human-ness if you like. Entering a busy city after living in the quiet feels as if hitting a wall of aggression to me. I feel so blessed to be able to choose to live away from that harshness. Although if i had too, I'm sure I'd adapt, it's the reason us humans are still here now right, adaptation. We really only have one big, bustling city in NZ, which I lived in for about 18 months; and I hated every minute of it. Both Steve and I became depressed there. Everyone was striving and driven and motivated and f*cking fashionable. We then moved to Samoa (time and consumerism are unheard of); which was like a tonic and magically we unfurled ourselves there. There is nothing like "island time' to remind you of freedom to do whatever the heck you like whenever.
    love x

  7. It is a rare day indeed for me to go to the city and i find it exhausting for the most part. Though I do love me a great show in a dive bar and a nice little late-night bite to eat of falafel or indian food. It's been quite a while since I've had a city romp and I am fine with that. I love small town life, though I'd love to get a bit more rural, as Darin has to hear all-too-often, I want to wake up and see the forest. I do like my quiet neighbors and smoking chimneys amongst the pines and oaks and find that a happy heart is easy to have in small town life with farmers for friends.

    As for the System and its ever-revolving complexities, well there are sad sad people in this world and I guess the cities make good stomping grounds. Although if I were homeless I'd definitely want to live in Los Angeles over Seattle! Not really, though, life on the street has got to be a bit dark and scary for my taste and abilities. I can't even imagine. I have to be honest though, it's not often I actually give anything from my own poor raggedy pocket to a homeless person. We do have a homeless camp in Placerville and I gotta give them credit, they have taken their plight to the city and have gotten permission to house their camp of 30 or so tents on city property and they're keeping it clean and organized. I know from Darin's work at the youth shelter that some dark, dark things go on out there though, and it just reinforces one of my fundamental believes: Drugs are BAD. They seem to lie at the root of many of these problems. Are there underlying forces at work when it comes to addiction, of course. What pressures and stresses do people face who end up turning to street life and drug addiction? It's true. Our society needs worlds of help and it's a complicated situation indeed. However, my brother's 21 year old ex-friends who have pampered and coddled and are now heroin addicts causing trouble by the creek in our little town, well them I don't feel so sorry for...

    Anyway this is quite a can of worms, good and bad, coffeeshops and shows and homeless dudes and addiction and cities and towns and farms...we're all in it together and i like to believe that a heartfull of love will in some cosmic way help assuage the darknesses that lurk.

  8. There is a part of me that will always feel at home in a city. I was raised in Boston-- very much a "city rat" as D. calls it (there really aren't cute mice in the city, ha ha). For a person such as myself the life skills I learned in the city kind of made me who I am. A little rough around the edges actually, but after retreating to the country now for far more years than city life, I too have a lot of things that are difficult to adjust to when i go back. The noise for one thing. I feel like i can't hear myself think. I also dislike the feeling that life is moving at an incredibly fast pace (this is all I remember about NYC). I still feel torn though-- because the things I find so incredibly difficult about living in a city are a part of many people's reality-- some that have very little choosing. I suppose at least one in the city-- although immune--still sees what is truly happening in the world and can maybe do something to fix it. Retreating could introduce the option of forgetting or dismissing the way things truly are for so many others. I sometimes think this is what happens in our personal politics or alteast the politics of "liberal" vs. "conservative."

    I don't know. On the other hand, there are so many bad things that happen in rural areas too. Industrial agricultural, in-humane working conditions, the widespread abuse, depletion, and pollution of our water sources & forests... that are happening but sometimes invisible to country dwellers.

    I'm not sure I'm making any sense anymore here Milla :) In any case, a very thought-provoking post that surely made me think.

    As a side note, that Mexican place looks fantastic! And yes for coffee... I've never been to Seattle, but if I were to go I think all I would do is drink lots and lots of coffee.

  9. This is something I've thought about nearly every day since I moved to Chicago from rural Western Washington two and a half years go. My relationship to the place I live now is in flux; at first I was smitten, then I became disillusioned and disgusted, then I was reluctantly tolerant (if that's possible), and now I am genuinely enjoying the city knowing it is a temporary home. I grew up in the woods, so I feel a lot more comfortable around fir trees than commuters. When I moved to Chicago for grad school, I anticipated an adjustment period, homesickness, and culture shock (indeed, the Mid West does feel like a foreign country to me). I knew I would miss the trees, and clean air, and well water but I couldn't predict just how isolated I would feel in a major urban environment. For the first year I would get lost walking around and had to draw myself maps before trying to navigate a new neighborhood. I realized it was because I was so used to orienting myself to Mount Rainier and without that constant mark on the horizon, I had no inner compass. So I bought a small compass and wore it around my neck until I felt comfortable enough to go it alone.

    And yes to all the reasons you gave for having difficulties with big cities. There is a bombardment of advertising language and images everywhere to relentlessly remind you of what you lack. I'll admit that the sheer number of people living in close proximity and sharing the same resources (another train will come in 3 minutes, please don't push!) has introduced me to a level of anxiety I've never before known. And the truth is that there is a lot of conflict, suffering, corruption, poverty, violence, and inequality here and it's pretty palpable. There's also a lot of beauty, potential, and love but that stuff usually doesn't make headlines. What I appreciate a lot about your post is that you aren't claiming country life is perfect and city life is a complete hellish abyss, but that living outside a giant metropolis provides less reminders of “the times.”

    I look forward to moving back to the country. It bothers me when people criticize those who live in the country as being selfish and running away from society's problems. But that's just it; society's problems can manifest themselves anywhere people live and people can work toward building a better world from where ever they call home, be it a highrise, log cabin, RV, yurt, or suburban rambler.

    In short thanks for the thought-provoking post, your words really resonate with me. I'm a country mouse, and my urban experience so far has been a tug o' war between good and bad.

  10. I so agree with what you wrote--thank you for sharing

  11. i totally feel you! I've started this "weekends, spend no money" thing and it is SO HARD!! I've also started, in an attempt to deter my consumerist urges, writing down every single purchase-I'm a libra I appreciate luxury, treats, and beauty but I need to be mindful and shift the purchases into "free"experiences. money stresses me out!! It's annoying that I was raised in a "treat yourself" (ie buy something for yourself) culture. I don't want my kids to feel that way. I want tress and meadows and hills and rocks etc... I need to get outta the city. My oldest starts high school in the fall and (I guess...) I'm committed to sticking it out for 4 more years, but the thought of that seems like an unhappy lifetime. the more connected to my spirituality and more in touch w myself I've become the more sensitive I am to everything and everyone. I find the vibrations and energy of all these people in such close proximity very anxiety producing. country mouse... working my way towards my little utopia... xo m

  12. i grew up feeling strongly that i was a country mouse but i must say i did not feel truly accepted and comfortable in my own skin (no longer the "other") until i moved to the big city, where i stay. it was a revelation to me because until i bit the bullet in my early 20s i truly did not ever even imagine living in a big city - just thought it wasn't for me. now i would not trade it for anything, pretty much. it's hard for me to fully put into words, but this city in particular means so much to me. it is possible to thrive in a major city, even as a highly sensitive person, and one of those reasons is the amount of connection it can provide, although i suppose a small town can do the same thing if you are fortunate to have the right kind of people around you. i feel understood here.

    i still do love my country time, and i am out in the woods in total silence at least twice a week, which is one of the most epic parts of living in a city like sf -- best of both worlds. i do also wonder if someday i will live in those woods in solitude, and if that will be enough for me. your island always seems so dreamy, and i am grateful to have a peek into what that kind of life is like.

    i have a lot of daily experience with the homeless and while i agree with what you are saying and your sympathy, milla, i have watched over years panhandlers be dropped off in a mcdonald's parking lot by their parents' volvo, seen a woman with blackened feet using her food stamps for terra chips and odwalla and been harassed on a daily basis by homeless men. it's complicated.

    love that i am not alone in thinking about this kind of topic!

  13. I've really enjoyed reading your post, Milla, and all the comments. I lived in London for six years and recently moved back to the very small town where I grew up. It's not in the countryside (although there's green nearby) but it's comparatively very, very slow-paced(!). Leaving London I had so many conflicted feelings - glad, sad, relieved, apprehensive and almost like I'd failed at something (which is kind of silly!). Sometimes I found it very difficult to cope in such a populated, vast city. There was a big disparity in wealth and lots of visible problems for people. I also felt very hemmed in among the crowds, especially when commuting to work. After leaving, I have less stress and stimulus so I'm feeling more rested and able to be myself again. But somehow I feel guilty, like I left problems behind or gave up on things too easily. I feel like I want to use some of this quieter time to do things I care about. In London, I was always tired and my bank balance was often in the red(!) so I never had much space to think things through or time to devote to things outside my job. But I do miss the variety of the city - where I am now is very homogenous by comparison - and I also miss all the kind of places you visited on your trip. So ramble coming to completion (sorry for this lengthy message!), I think I'm more of a country/smaller town mouse but I needed to be a city mouse to put that in perspective. I certainly discovered a lot by living in such an enormous place. Thanks again for the thoughtful post and also for sharing your photos!

  14. Milla,
    I came about your space here from Elisabeth's sweet blog - this is Emily, by the way (from solstice)! First off, I want to express how lovely it is to read about Lopez through your senses and experiences...I miss our lopez community quite a bit! I am currently living and studying in Seattle now, and I marched in the Martin King Jr. parade, near the front, so I am sorry to have missed seeing you....I would love to meet with you next time I return to lopez for a cup of tea. I am inspired by you, especially during this time of my young womanhood.....thank you.
    Best wishes,, Emily

    1. Dear Emily, so fun and unexpected to hear from you! You are such an inspiring young lady yourself, I was just totally taken aback how lovely your "Lopez girl"-piece of our dance was. I wish I'd had such deep insight at your age. I'd love ot sit down for a cup of tea and a chat next time we're in the city. Happy Winter, Hope to see you soon!