I remember a baby-sitter telling the me who read these books, "I don't read much about magic. There's enough magic in life."
Adults are absurdly boring and confused.
Then I learned to dance, climbed mountains, lived in Nicaragua, fell in love, had my heart broken and remade, traveled, re-examined faith, did a million other privileged things, and I began to understand a fraction of what she might have meant.
I believe the search for magic, for a spark up the spine, a miraculous power emanating from the fingertips to pierce the fog of pain and routine, is integral to the human being, particularly to those who live in a world of banks, computers, highways, supermarkets, and shall I say, disconnection.
It's a search reborn at Christmas, particularly the consumerist secular Christmas, embodied by a Saint with twinkling eyes wrapped in a bright red scarlet suit who carries joy in toy-shaped boxes over electric roofs to wealthier innocents.
This holiday season I have found myself with a day-to-day routine that involves laptop-pecking and supporting my family through difficult times. So last night, noticing it was the day before Christmas Eve, I told myself I would go search for Christmas magic.
My mind's eye responded instantaneously that I should head for the bridges. Portland is sometimes called the Bridge City for the six or seven spectacular bridges that cross the Willamette River and unite the downtown side with the residential/hippie side. In the dark the rainbow lights of sky-scrapers wake up and ricochet off the steel and water, turning the whole city into a night sky. There's no better place to appreciate Christmas lights than Portland, year-round.
And so, grateful for my independence, for the chance to escape, and for one SERIOUSLY legit road bike my mom bought for a trip down the California coast with my triathlete Dad in their twenties, I headed to the bridges.
My first stop was Burnside Bridge, site of the famous Portland, Oregon reindeer sign, which I had never paused to appreciate. This laser billboard flashes for the Weird City all year long, and it's rare to pass a night without a tourist's camera blocking the sidewalk waiting for both words to light up. That was me last night, but my hands were shaky from the ride, so I asked the first people who passed me if they would take the picture. They were a hand-holding couple with cigarettes and skinny jeans. The first guy said, "Oh, no problem," with an understanding drawl. He snapped the following shot.
I thanked him and prepared to leave, when I realized he was still snapping away, browsing through my camera's nightlight settings. "I'm not satisfied with the angle I got, and the lights are a little blurry," he said. Amused, I allowed him to keep playing, when I heard his boyfriend heave a monstrous sigh.
"I'm a native Oregonian," said the second guy (how native, I wondered, since he looked like me) "and this sign is a total lie. It used to say WHITE STAG, then all the Californians showed up (guilty, I thought) and they changed it to say MADE IN OREGON for a local factory, and about ten years ago Portland became a hot spot and now it's our tacky claim to fame. I never understand why everyone wants a picture with it."
"Don't listen to him," said the first guy, handing me my camera, "he's impatient because we're on our way to have sex." They both wished me a Merry Christmas as I biked away guffawing, stripped of all pretext.
I headed west on the Bridge into Old Town Portland, below the famous sign. Lantern were draped with lights, Christmas trees squatted outside mildewed windows through which dreadlocked men and women methodically mimed. I began entering a dreamy Christmas state again, when I realized I had hit the corner of Burnside and Broadway. The epicenter of Downtown Portland's homeless population.
"Hey, f---er!" Screamed a young fellow with a frayed purple hat, "If you're gonna stop and stare, at least turn that f---ing headlight off!" My bike light has the wattage of a police car siren.
I woke up and realized I was more visible than I had imagined, attempted a loud laughing SORRY to relieve tension, then biked away toward Broadway Bridge. Along the way, I counted at least ten more souls on cardboard.
The downtown streets were relatively empty; I venture the yuppie population had gone home to their parents in suburbia, leaving the road open and quiet, so I could breathe, listen, notice things I hadn't before. Such as, at the base of every magical bridge, there is a sign that says, "24-hour Suicide Hotline."
On Broadway Bridge I was alone for a good four minutes. Alone on a steel ligament over water and between worlds. City on all sides of me and I heard no noise. Gazing along the River, I caught a cream-colored ferryboat pick up late night tourists along the Willamette half a mile away. Its sides were slick with the tiniest lights. I could make out a group dancing around a banjo and a young man chasing an overly-jacketed toddler.
I usually take a busy thoroughfare called MLK Jr Blvd north to my house, but my bike gears were acting up, and not wanting to risk any proximity with cars, I disobeyed my mothers' relentless warnings and took dark streets home. Christmas lights are intensified in the fog. The mansions and cottages of Irvington district in Southeast were decorated in scarlet made-in-China bows and wreaths I could smell from the street. Through the windows I saw storybook preparations for Christmas feasts.
I passed the tail end of a Cadillac warehouse and counted sixty Escalades through jail barred-windows. Despite myself, I began fantasizing about how a Christmas wish of mine would be to dance amid them with a Louisville slugger and spray paint.
And below one window was a man with a face covered by matted black hair, setting up a sleeping bag. He spun when he saw my obnoxious bike light. "Goddamn, lady, I thought you were the cops!" He laughed. "Merry Christmas."
Merry Christmas to you, too, I choked. I don't trust myself alone with men I don't know, so instead of doing the compassionate thing and stopping to talk to him, I continued on my less-than-Merry way.
The ride back to the house from near downtown is all uphill, so I whistled in relief when I reached the porch, huffing, reeling, incredulous at the unexpected gifts and challenges of the night. Maybe Meg and Will from those books felt something similar when they went to sleep after crossing galaxies and facing robed demons.
I remember a philosophy teacher in college who told us all he had a stupid stick. After learning about Socrates' allegory of the cave, he told us he could tap each of us on the head with this stick and transform us into dunces. Is ignorance bliss? Would we accept his offer? I have felt tempted before, to sleep through life. It would hurt less. But then there would be no whistling after bike rides.
Here's a snippet from the book I'm reading right now, called The Brothers Karamazov, called by some the greatest novel ever written.
"You know, Kolya, you will be very unhappy in life," something made Alyosha say suddenly.
"I know, I know. How do you know?" Kolya agreed at once.
"But you will bless life on the whole, all the same."