As a teenage reader of comic books, one of my monthly purchases was a publication called What If, a title that presented how well-known story arcs could have been transformed if certain key events had played out differently. Apparently fictitious stories about fantastic characters doing incredible things were not already hypothetical enough.
I was back in the Seattle area for a few days this week for some business with the brothers. When in town, I normally avoid the city itself and basically stay with my parents in nearby Edmonds, where I grew up. This time around however, I had a meeting downtown and a motel room not far away. During our free time, I wanted to be a good host to the brothers who were there with me: While this involved a trip to beautiful Edmonds and also to majestic Mount Rainier, it also meant spending more time in the city proper than I had in 15 years. Again, this is a city that I know less well than one might expect. Not only had the the urban outings of my youth generally been limited to either very particular areas or special events, but the city has changed greatly over time as well.
I have repeatedly shown visitors around New York City (which I’m not even that found of), and Boston (which I like a bit better), but I think this was my first time ever playing host in Seattle, so I tried to be a little more expert than I actually am. Fake it until you make it, right?
That said, I was surprised at how well my local knowledge served me in spite of all I had either forgotten or never absorbed that deeply to begin with. Forget about settling for the Pike Place Market and the Space Needle, I was able to lead us by the totem pole in Pioneer Square and offer a brief introduction to the artwork of local sculptor Dale Chihuly. I can still name at least five kinds of salmon, and I remember the “Tacoma aroma” back from when it was an awful reality instead of just some snappy wordplay. Seattle might not be my hometown as such, but Greater Seattle is.
Remember though, most of my lifetime experience downtown was spent as a child guided by my parents or as an adolescent out with friends. I realized that my associations with the city may suffer from a form of arrested development, when I recognized that each person I saw who reminded me of a local friend was way too young to have actually been an acquaintance. My actual peers were now much more likely to have been at home taking care of kids than walking the sidewalks on a weekday evening. Even if I had happened to pass by a classmate or buddy from those old days, I don’t think there is anybody I would still recognize—between weight gain, hair loss, and who knows what else, I wouldn’t stand a chance.
My job as vocation minister for the Marist Brothers leads me to reflect often on my own particular vocation as well as the topic of vocation in general, and I can admit to having felt a bit wistful while giving my Northwest tour. It would have been a good life, growing along with the city, remaining close to nature, staying close to a world that somehow still makes a kind of intuitive sense to me, except for the ways in which it doesn’t.
I enjoyed my visit to this bustling ghost town haunted by specters of what if and shades hiding just beyond the edge of familiarity. Yes, there would have been a good life to be had in Seattle. That would have been one that didn’t take me to China for five years and that didn’t lead me to the Marist Brothers. One that never took me to Brandeis nor the Dominican Republic. It would have been a good life, but it would have been a good life for somebody else. I have been given the right one for me, and I can only be grateful.
This week’s “ear candy” presents a nomadic narrative quite different from my own, but one that speaks poignantly to me nonetheless. Meanwhile, our “brain food” is an iconic poem that is best read cynically. I heard once that Robert Frost actually wrote The Road Not Taken not as depiction of triumphant nostalgia, but rather as a satiric jab at a friend who used to agonize over the least significant decisions, both in the moment of decision and long afterward. Some choices we make are indeed momentous. Others, less so than we had thought. Maybe we shouldn’t presume to name those for each other.
Ear Candy: “You Must Go” by John Hiatt
Brain Food: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
Come back next Saturday for a new post!