Everyone has a collection of defining moments in from their past and they can trot out at least a couple of them without evening having to stop and think.
Find the person in closest proximity to you and ask them.
Then go ahead and think of two of your own right now. You've lived a hollow and meaningless life if you didn't immediately have two in mind at the end of that last sentence. OK, maybe that's a little harsh. But you could probably have gotten out a bit more growing up.
I have lots of what I like to call secondary defining moments (like the first breast I ever got to touch that was not in the context of nursing and belonged to a real girl. More on this later).
But the really insane moments divide your life into two sections. Everything that happened before and everything that happened after. I've already talked about my first time online which pretty much cemented my life as a computer geek. Now it's time to talk about one of the big ones.
I spent two weeks in the summer of 1993 at the Fir Acres Workshop in Writing and Thinking. There were about 20 of us. We lived in the dorms, we wrote every day, took writing classes. I wore skirts, painted my toenails black, climbed soda machines, read poems out loud in the Lewis & Clark Chapel and went delightfully insane in a way that I've never quite been able to replicate (though not for lack of trying).
There was particular moment, the first day of the workshop, when I realized that things were going to be different. I was in my morning writing class in an upstairs conference room of the Bodine building. We were all sitting around a long rectangular table in a windowless room with zebra curtains along one wall. We had just spent 15 minutes free writing and we going around the table reading aloud. I even remember the starting topic which was to talk about what we had brought with us to the workshop. I remember writing something about bringing a lot of socks. "One can never have too many socks."
I finished reading my piece and the next kid down the table started to read and I don't remember the specifics of what he wrote but it was vulgar, full of profanity, and utterly hilarious. I was shocked. This kid was swearing in front of a TEACHER and he wasn't getting in trouble. Not only was he not getting in trouble but that fact that he'd written something fairly obscene was a complete non-event. I had been writing a lot for several years at the point but it was all pretty benign and safe. I hadn't known that people my age could write like that. It was like being given permission to be dangerous.
Every day consisted of writing. Sometimes it was writing in class, which I found frustrating at best. I was in Anne's class and, while I feel sorry for her now, she drove us crazy. She was in love with The Jump Off Creek by Molly Gloss and most of her exercises revolved around it. My impression was that the other two classes were much more free-form, that the students were given more freedom to drive. The consensus in our class was that we had "moved beyond" what Anne was trying to do and that she was "holding us back". You have to love the hubris of teenagers. I really regret now what a hard time we gave her but I feel fortunate that I actually ran into her again a number of years later and was able to apologize.
I've gone through so many drafts of this piece, trying to portray things the way I felt them then and I don't think I'll ever get it quite right. Here are two memories of the hundreds I have from those two weeks.
It's summer, 1993 in downtown Portland. I am 14 years old and I haven't slept in three days. I am sitting on the hard floor of the Oregon History Museum, my jeans stiff with my legs folded underneath me. I'm holding a notebook with a green cover that I have drawn peace signs all over. At the time, I am completely unashamed of this fact. I'm wearing a cheap, sterling silver, marijuana leaf ring that I purchased from a portable head shop at Saturday Market. The ring is chaffing my fingers as I scribble frantically. There is a column of pictures in front of me. Pioneers, wagons, and a haggard gypsy women who's black & white stare is drilling through me as I write about it. I do this for 30 minutes or so and then move on another picture but I can't recapture the intensity of that first moment with the gypsy.
Vince and I decide to duck into the museum theater to see the presentation about witches while the rest of the group moves to another room. We take seats in the middle of the entirely empty theater. To this day, I have no memory of the movie because we both fall asleep in the warm dark of the theater. The three sleepless nights that have been chasing me finally catch up.
At some point, one of us wakes up and shakes the other. We leave the theater and try to rejoin the group which has, predictably, left the museum. There is a bus near a fountain at Saturday Market waiting to take us all back to campus. Vince and I just have to figure out how the fuck we are going to find that bus.
Some amount of wandering around outside the museum finds a light rail stop. Which way to we have to go? Is it uphill? I remember the river. I know we have to get back to the river and that big bridge with all of the market booths underneath. We scrounge up the train fare and hop on, heading through downtown toward the fountain and that bus.
We arrive and the bus is loaded and idling. Teachers are presumably there scolding us but I only remember the lightness of my feet as we run, cackling, up the bus steps and collapse into open seats. Lightness in my feet and relief in my chest that we haven't been left behind.
That I am not alone.
The three and I are sitting in one of the lounges of Alder Hall reading poems and scratching each others heads. I don't remember a thing we read, just the feel of many long fingernails digging wonderfully into my scalp. The smoking of cloves is decided upon and so we walk down the long stairs past Tamarack lounge on the right and Juniper Hall on the right. There are at least two cloves between the four of us, being passed back and forth. My lips are slightly numb and my head is swimming as we pass the cafeteria, cross the grassy area in front of the biology building, and down the Albany Quadrangle stairs toward the Fir Acres theater.
The theater has a rising spiral staircase at one corner that leads up to a door that is never unlocked. We climb the stairs and sit, smoking in the dark, with our legs dangling through the green wrought iron of the banister. There is some sort of leap in my brain now and I lose all track of time. I don't remember if it is warm or cold but there is conversation and smoking and stars and my lips are still numb. We are on lower campus before I am completely aware again. We stuff our pockets with roses and take communion with them in one of the stone gazebos. Taking it in turns to kneel to accept the bitter petals into our mouths. I am wearing red cotton shorts and a t-shirt and no shoes and the cobblestones of the gazebo are painful beneath my knees. My whole world is tilting when it's my turn to kneel.
I have a film canister full of mud from earlier the day. We had visited an abandoned farm with a pond and the sexiness of the mud was discussed at great length. I open the canister and we paint stripes across our cheeks and our noses and our foreheads. I spend the next day trying to avoid washing my face. We're near the fountains now. Near the lion head that sticks out of the side of the middle terrace and spits icy water into the reflecting pond. A shared look is passed between us and we are suddenly stripped down to our underwear and running through the fountains. Washing our hair in the icy steps below the lion. Painting his granite face with water.
Reading back through my writings in the days after, I find constant references to the daub of mud and the crunch of petals.
(This one is straight out of my notebooks)
I was talking Siri the other day. I had played Toccatta & Fugue and she told me she had transmogrified. She had been in a room with a playing organ but no one was playing it. She had on a white dress with no shoulders and she was sitting in a velvet chair with cloth covered armrests and there were lots of wooden chairs and tables set up but she was alone. Then a man with a swirling black cape came in and he stared at her and she stared back and she kind of wished he would ask her to dance but she didn't mind that he didn't. Then the music stopped and the man in black walked out and she returned.
It was just a quick flash. Bright light. She sat stilly, in front of me at about 10:00pm. She had on overalls and she had a huge bunch of raw flowers in her lap. Lots of green and purple.
I had started that summer with two years of high school left. After my return from Fir Acres, I was determined that the next year would be my last. I took night classes at the local community college. I arranged to do independent study for the senior history class. I worked my ass off and my reward was graduating a year early and getting the fuck out.
I went to Lewis & Clark in the fall of 1994 and graduated in 1998. While I was there, I met the woman who would become my wife. Another defining moment.
It's been 16 years since I went to Fir Acres and I still think about it all the time. It's not an exaggeration to say that those two weeks in 1993 changed me completely. I stopped being afraid after that. I had found proof that there were people in the world who understood me and that gave me hope that I could find people like that again.
The course of my life was set.