Sidewalks and Porches
Around the corner, I see peace. I can see it like it’s right there, like I can just reach out and touch it the same as I would touch the bark of the trees that surround us.
I’m learning to find beauty and continuity in the repetition of everyday life. I want boredom. I want to find the meaning in mundanity and stare into the details until I see the expansiveness in a small life. I get mean-spirited if I forget to look around and be present with the world as it is. I need to see the plants growing and birds flying and fellow humans living their lives. I’m slowing down and finding the joy in doing chores, in putting one foot in front of the other, in being alive.
Early mornings are amazing for this. I like the excitement of the insects and birds, how they all become alive and awake in waves. I like how their movements and postures and voices get more active and animated in crescendos of overlapping life expressions that sound like symphonies before they fall back into the more normal habits and noises of their daytime rhythms. I watch the sunrise with coffee. Lots of katydids and grasshoppers and spiders visit my porch, and there are always crows and hummingbirds nearby. My elderly cat doesn’t scare them too far away. He just sits and watches like I do.
I’m learning how to be like the animals and just live. The peace is here already.
Interview with Featured Writer Felix Tempest
Interviewed by Write Around Portland intern Allie Molen.
Felix Tempest, 37, arrived to his interview at the Write Around office with a book of nature poetry and a head full of musings about crows. He participated in our Fall 2018 workshop at Home Forward’s Schrunk Riverview Tower in St. Johns. Felix spends his free time reading about animal science and neurological oddities, hiking with his daughter, baking pecan pies, practicing morning meditation and yoga and observing the beautiful world around him. He puts significant value on the community that has formed in his affordable housing building through writing together.
What compelled you to join a Write Around Portland workshop?
It was in my building. I very much value my neighbors and want to get to know them and be a part of the communities I live in. I wanted to hear these people’s stories and share mine with them. I wanted us to relate as humans. Living in a public housing building, there is a lot of hardship, and we’re not always kind to each other. A lot of us don’t see each other. Write Around gives us an opportunity to see each other and relate like people. I do want to be engaged with writing and think it’s a healthy and wonderful thing to do, but I mostly joined it for the community aspect and the opportunity to be around my neighbors in a community space on our own property, in our building. Also, this is hard to explain, but no one understands the importance of the food. The Write Around facilitator and some of the workshop participants bring food and bake cookies and sharing food is just amazing. It colors what we’re writing about. The experience becomes a lot more joyful.
What was the workshop like?
Well, it was my first time living in public housing and it was intimidating. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I’d been in the building less than a month, but it was the first time I saw smiles and warmth. We were kind to each other. Because we had explicit intention in the workshop, all of us chose to be supportive and compassionate with each other. It’s where I got to know people I didn’t typically see around the building. Some of the people who like to write are also the ones who are afraid to come out much. We have a lot of really highly educated people in my building and no one would ever think that because it’s public housing. Half of them have careers and had things happen or their family died. It made it all less scary.
Were you at all surprised by your neighbors’ vulnerability and willingness to share their writing?
Yeah. It started some ripple effects. Other people in the building would see how we’d start to be more friendly to each other and how we’d talk about the things we were writing. Especially older, more dignified people who don’t typically show weakness or talk about feelings or share comradery with people they don’t know. People started breaking down barriers a little bit. By the second workshop, we had people I don’t think would ever have picked up a pen otherwise. Including some who were not very literate because they hadn’t had opportunities for education. Some of the people who had the least education came up with the most amazing things—the writing and poetry and the stories they would tell. We did see a gradual warming up of people in the building and people started being kinder to each other.
What does your writing life looks like since the workshop ended?
We still meet! After the most recent group ended, there are always at least six of us that meet at the same time and we take turns coming up with prompts. Our writing is not as organized… We have one person who is very much like a leader but it’s not as structured as before. We do chat a lot more but honestly, it’s pretty healthy for us and it’s the only opportunity some of these people are willing to talk to anyone, because they trust us. It’s been beautiful to see. People in the building say the same thing about me. I was busy with my kid and I’m kind of a loner—I like to do jigsaw puzzles and read books. They saw me open up and come out of my shell. We’ve become better humans for each other since participating in this workshop.
How did your piece “Sidewalks and Porches” come to be?
Well, when I submitted that, I had missed the previous session and when I showed up, it was like, oh crap I gotta submit something. So I wrote that by combining two pieces in my book and thought both of them were vapid and generic and felt bad about that.
Vapid? Not a word I’d use.
It was brand new to me! I mean, because I just recently got into yoga and meditation, it was brand new to me to see value in the things I wrote. I submitted it because the other piece that I submitted was kind of dark and evil semi-fiction piece about a car accident experience I had and I was just like, I don’t know if that’s the happiest thing to be sharing. I felt like I needed some balance. Now I’m glad I sent it. I see the value in it now. It looks more like my journal entries. I spend a lot of time looking at birds and thinking about the sky and about things that bring me peace.
Have you ever been inspired by Buddhist/Zen philosophy?
When I was 13, I was in foster care, which didn’t feed me or put me into schools, so I sort of wandered off. I spent a few years heavily using various psychedelics, mostly living in the woods and travelling around. I hung out with people who didn’t use money and instead bartered and traded and made things for each other. I meditated back then. I read a bit of Alan Watts and some other Eastern philosophy interpreters— I was reading a lot of that, but not super formally. Mostly just hanging out with these wonderful people which was life-changing for me. We’d make jewelry, hang out in the woods, talk about birds, and build little fires. Up until that point, I’d had severe OCD and severe counting rituals and I was able to heal that. I mean it was not ideal—I would not want my child, at the age of thirteen, wandering around in the woods and taking a bunch of drugs, but it was big part of what made me who I am and what taught me to care about people and have compassion for living creatures and help me feel like the world is a beautiful place.
Is this piece a bit of a callback to that time of transformation?
I think all writing that I do is a callback to that time when I saw the world outside of myself, the world outside the everyday stress, paying the rent, etc. That was what showed me that humans are beautiful and amazing. Our lived experiences are all we have and are worth something.
In your piece you write about the “crescendos of overlapping life expressions” and then the “more normal habits and noises of daytime rhythms.” How do you balance those two wavelengths?
You can’t carry and live in that level of intensity and excitement all the time. You can’t always be right at the extremes and the edges and all the most beautiful parts. That’s what I was talking about in that piece. That’s what I feel like changed for me when I got some rest and getting my head on straighter and realizing everything is okay, if I can just slow down. I’m easily pleased, if I remember to look around. My daughter was always chattering about birds and now I’ve been paying more attention to birds and the way they fly. I spend a lot of time watching the animals in my neighborhood. The other day I was sitting on the porch watching this spider and wasp have this life-or-death battle. At the same time I was stressed trying to figure out some financial or bureaucratic thing and here’s this hardcore drama going on right in front of me and that’s the kind of thing I’ve learned to see is going on everywhere. The peaceful parts, the life-and-death parts. It’s kind of silly for us to get so wrapped up in the layers of artifice and frustration. A lot of the unkindness we show to each other, I think just comes from us forgetting that we’re just another living creature in this giant web of living creatures.
Is there a story behind “H.M.,” your pseudonym?
Oh, it refers to Patient H.M. aka Henry Molaison, the guy who was the basis for a lot of neuroscience studies on memory. They cut out part of his brain in an attempt to cure his epilepsy and he ended up completely losing his memory. I thought about using J.F.K. as my pseudonym but…you know.
Would you recommend Write Around Portland to other people? If so, how?
Some of the people I run into in my life are entirely skeptical of writing and reading and literary stuff. A lot of people have a chip on their shoulder about official organizations of any sort. With the people who are not really the writer types, I just share with them what we do. I talk about the community aspects, the laughter, the bonding. The having a voice, and how you can get treated like an important human just for being human. One of my favorite parts of living in Portland is that we have this amazing library system and literary world and I don’t even have to work to participate in or run into. Most people I meet already have a built in respect for writing and reading and that kind of creative expression. A lot of people I have to reassure they will be treated with respect. That’s all they want to know. They’ve always wanted to participate in writing. I’ve been surprised by how many people have clearly been hiding that part of themselves because it just didn’t fit in with their current lives. When I recommend Write Around I’m already hitting a button they’re pretty eager to jump at as soon as they know that y’all are going to be nice.
Write Around Portland publishes and sells anthologies of participant writing at the end of each season of our free workshops in partnership with community organizations. These professionally-produced books provide participants – many for the first time – the opportunity and satisfaction to see their words in print, while providing the public the opportunity to read powerful stories and diverse voices.
Books are available for purchase for $12 at local bookstores and through our office (plus postage and handling, if mailed). Some anthologies may be found at Multnomah County Library branches. Call us at 503.796.9224 for more details.