In praise of Seattle, silence and solitude

In praise of Seattle, silence and solitude

In praise of Seattle, silence and solitude

It could be, in famously under-churched Seattle, that wisdom comes slowly, falling drop by drop through the wet firs upon the heart and not “through the awful grace of God,” as a Greek poet once put it.

Moss-like wisdom, if it does come, requires silence and solitude to grow — a dicey proposition in a society whose newest mantra is “monetize.” In such a culture, silence and solitude require courage.

From the Pike Place Market, I can turn my back on the city, look across the water to the Olympic Mountains and pretend nothing has changed. But, at 61, I’ve lived long enough to know better.

Bainbridge Island, where I grew up, is the first landfall. The Island still looks the same from here — the rolling, third-growth woods, the slash of Eagle Harbor where the white ferries slide in and out of Winslow — but it’s a rich person’s preserve now, except for the old-timers hanging on to their homes. 

In my youth of the 1950s, a time when World War II and the Depression cast their psychic shadows, all kinds of people lived there: the postal carrier, the shipyard machinist, the Boeing worker, the strawberry farmer. Almost anyone could afford a modest house beside the water. The million-dollar views and their avatars came later; the sort who would be shocked to learn Van Gogh wouldn’t know them in heaven.

I remember a Bainbridge, before the late 1970s, where there were no bumper stickers about keeping Bainbridge rural or “Slow-Down-Hoe-Downs” organized by hip architects. There’s an old Oscar Levant line about knowing Doris Day before she was a virgin; I knew Bainbridge before it was rural. 

And I am old enough to remember bits of poet Richard Hugo’s Seattle, the town “not growing up/across the bay” in his youthful gaze while fishing the Duwamish River in the 1930s. That was the pre-World’s Fair Seattle, well before the city became a national media darling for its livability, the city where my “under-resourced” grandfather lived on the west side of upper Queen Anne because he could afford to buy there.

With the East Coast media discovery of Seattle in the mid-‘70s, the city’s mirror gazing began. Santa Fe had had its day; it was Seattle’s turn. Toney boutiques showed up on Fifth Avenue, with Paris, London, New York and Seattle stenciled on their doors. Hugo’s Seattle was being left behind, as was my Bainbridge Island. 

Soaring real estate prices tolled the sea change. On Bainbridge, three-story, conning towers straining for water views went up beside Disney-fied McMansions where fields had been. One strain of Island newcomer, flush with cash and cocaine, caused a local writer to note the outbreak of “slightly naughty hot-tub parties.”


Picket-fence politeness

The mid-‘70s also gave birth to the first of our alternative newspapers. Riding a new demographic wave, the Seattle Weekly pushed back against the establishment that had conjured the World’s Fair. Then, in the early 1990s, a Stranger came to town and outflanked the Weekly.

Their newspaper wars represented a sort of flip-side Rotarianism, a different brand of marketing-driven orthodoxy. Poet Kenneth Rexroth, writing from San Francisco in the 1950s, described the Beat “revolution” as a mere gastronomical, sartorial and pharmaceutical change. Knowing the search for “authenticity” is peculiarly American, Rexroth drove his sword home: “An etymologist is not a bug.”

All of this Seattle has reaped, along with frantic, new construction, freeway tailgating, process politics and the template with its Greek Row conformity.

And yet, through all the change, the rap against Seattle’s picket-fence politeness, its “passive aggressiveness” and Nordic reserve goes on. Obviously, something uniquely Seattle endures here, stubborn as a lap cat on a rainy day.

I know transplanted New Yorkers who say they can’t get into an argument in this city — friendly or not. 

I know a semi-tough guy from Chicago who calls Seattle “The Marshmallow Jungle”: More than the coffee or the Orca-worship or the rain, it’s the “niceness” that’s killing him.

From the Regrade to Capitol Hill, no shortage of bar wits or literary existentials will tell you Seattle lacks artistic honesty or guts. They tilt against the windmills of weekend Kerouacs. If you say you’re a poet, they complain, no one will tell you otherwise. 

I’ve heard a number of these writers and poets read, and I, too, have kept my mouth shut. Some don’t know how right they are. “Wisdom is knowing what to overlook,” wrote William James. Such wisdom is slow in coming.


Maybe it’s not the niceness

Hugo wrote of the forces that almost tore down the Pike Place Market in the early ‘70s as those who would deny a city’s “private right to be.” It’s that “private right to be” that has always made Seattle the right place for some.

For the old essentials are still here: the harbor and mountains; the neighborhoods defined by hills and water and bridges; the city of new beginnings and last chances (check out the bar in the Athenian first thing in the morning); the islands, the rain, the March winter sunsets burning down in the harbor windows.

And though the Duwamish tribe, the people of Chief Seattle, fights for federal recognition, they still have sacred places in the city the rest of us, the Changers, will never know.

Again, the “private right to be.”

From the Pike Place Market, looking out over the water, everything remains open to wonder. 

Beyond the harbor and Bainbridge Island loom the radiant, snow-cold Olympics, immune to the flux, a steady focal point against which not only the latest Visitor and Convention Bureau superlatives vanish, but also the overheard cell-phone conversation or public declaration that begins: “As a member of the arts community, I….” 

Views of the mountains, water, cloudscapes and the changing light, glimpsed at chance moments from the 40th floor or back alley or bar window, are what make Seattle…Seattle — where, depending on what’s being said, the view over the other person’s shoulder is sometimes more interesting. 

Maybe something more fundamentally Seattle than mere politeness or niceness allows certain tongues around here to take a rest.

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