This past weekend was a weekend of moments — rife with equal parts tears and fears versus incredible experiences of love and catharsis.
For the past couple of years, I have maintained a limited scope of personal reference. That scope began to expand again as the nature of my politics remained the same, while that of my community and my country took a wide turn in a different and far disparate direction.
At the Women’s March in Portland this past spring, I joined in a huge gathering of like-minded people that painted a wide, colorful swath across humanity. With my daughter and husband by my side, we watched as downtown Portland was filled to bursting with the 100,000-plus peaceful throng, spilling out onto streets and sidewalks, pressed to expand by sheer numbers, shouting down from parking garages, apartments and office buildings. At one point my daughter asked why I wasn’t chanting along with the rest of the crowd, and I answered honestly: “Little Sister, if I start to say anything, I’ll cry. And if I start to cry, I’m afraid I won’t stop.”
This past Friday, my husband and I, in Portland for an appointment, stopped to eat lunch and take a moment to reflect at the Hollywood MAX Station, where just the week before a fellow Reed College alumnus, Taliesen Namkai-Meche, had lost his life. We walked along the up-sloping ramp, and I paused, here and there, to touch the chalk-drawn sentiments of strangers equally moved as I with feelings of sadness and loss. When I pulled my hand away, my fingers were smudged with the colorful chalk, just like those of the ones who had been there before me, and I felt an immediate sense of connection that brought tears to my eyes and peace to my heart.
Our quiet, impromptu moment turned into a crowd, and we found ourselves present at a moment of silence that was shared across Portland, as all forms of public transportation halted, pulled over and quieted themselves in honor and remembrance of the events of the week before. What was supposed to be just a minute turned out the be much longer as no one dared break the silence, a welcome break from the rhetoric and invective, for fear of losing its power.
The next afternoon, we attended the ceremony in Mosier that called to reflect on the one-year anniversary of the oil train derailment and subsequent fire. Just yards away from the school where we gathered lies the area near Rock Creek that still reeks under the sun with the odor of oil and the reminder of the unmitigated greed and hubris that essentially guaranteed such a disaster, if not for us, at least somewhere along the line. We paused for a moment of silence, as the threatening sound of a train chugged along behind us.
Those of us who remember it well consider our glorious Gorge winds that were miraculously absent that afternoon. We are also reminded of that moment when our children clung to each other in fear and wept for their parents, just as parents, cut off from entering Mosier from every direction, feared desperately for their children. As we evacuated up valley, we wondered openly what we would come home to. The plumes of acrid black smoke turned the afternoon sun orange, mocking us as we ran away. Moments such as these are important to remember.
Sunday afternoon found us back in Portland under very different circumstances. I feared for my daughter’s safety and opted not to bring her along, as the conflict of ideologies threatened to become violent by sheer proximity alone. Opposing voices stood separated by yellow crime tape (an omen?) and by a line of police and federal officers dressed in full riot gear.
My husband and I walked the perimeter, just to get a sense of the enormity of the moment. With our dogs in tow, we negotiated past the north side of the plaza along Chapman Park, which was filled five to 10 deep with members of the Antifa Movement, dressed in solid black from head to toe, faces obscured, standing in almost total silence, looking like trouble. At one point, we stepped off the curb to avoid the crowd, and I immediately felt equally intimidated by the doubling of the force sent to contain them. Loudspeakers threatened the crowd, ordering them to disperse. We inched our way back around, just in time to hear and feel from a mere block away the percussions from the “non-lethal” mortars fired by the police. As the crowd recoiled, my husband asked if we should leave, and I answered boldly and honestly: “No. We stand still. Right where we are.”
In that moment of fear and unrest, a woman stopped and asked to pet our dogs, as hundreds had done so throughout the day. (We are blessed with two genuinely adorable corgis that tend to stop traffic and share a dose of “peace and Corgi love” as we call it, wherever we go.) She gripped my hand after sharing a hug, and with an air of sadness and desperation asked, “I’ve been doing this sort of thing since the ‘60s. Why are we still doing this?” Caught off guard, I answered honestly: “I don’t know …”
Moments later, a little boy sank unexpectedly to the curb on his knees in front of us, enraptured by our dogs. He engaged us with a boldly cheerful, eager demeanor, markedly different from the sentiment of the crowd surrounding us on every side. He gave me a hug that carried with it the strength of an open mind and a trusting heart. In that moment, I wanted to find the woman from before and reassure her in all honesty: “Here, Ma’am. Right here. This little boy. See the light in his eyes. This is why we do this.”
Amy K. W. Heil lives in Mosier.