I go to church three times a year now. The church is First United Methodist in Southwest Portland. The only part of it I've ever seen is more or less a basement, a big empty room with a tile floor, folding chairs, and room to plug in a percolator.
I go to hear people read their rhyming poems and their weird monster dreamscape stories and their tales of woe. Spring, summer, and fall — like clockwork: Write Around Portland releases a new anthology of writing, and the authors gather to read from it.
Quickly, some context: Write Around Portland runs free writing workshops for adults and youth in hospitals, schools, senior centers, treatment centers, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and other agencies — many of them the forgotten people of our city. At the end of each season of workshops, an anthology is published and all of the participants gather in this church basement and read. Their families and friends come, along with hangers-on like me.
Growing up, I only ever entered a church if my grandparents took me. At my grandma Erma's church, I'd sit quietly in frilly ankle socks. They gave the kids grapes during communion instead of wine. We called it Grape Church, which was the only whimsical thing about it — otherwise the whole ordeal was stiff as the pews we sat on. But it was reverent, quiet, meditative, calming. My grandma Bonnie's church was different: A sweaty, fired-up minister wandered in great circles with a microphone cord trailing behind him, and everyone sang — a lot, and loud. Hallelujahs and Praise Jesuses detonated like fireworks, and raised hands created a force field that held up the roof. Waves and waves of energy rippled through the room.
I didn't understand what the ministers said, but I believed in the experience. Dragging us along to church was our grandparents' way of rooting for our souls, of cheering us on.
Everyone should have someone rooting for his or her soul. But, of course, too many people don't. That's part of what I'm doing when I come to listen to these church-basement stories: rooting for their authors. Clapping hard. And also learning from them things that no one else will tell me — what's working, what isn't working. No one knows better than they do that the world, or maybe just the city, is broken in very specific ways. And despite that, their stories are generous and healing.
These readings make me feel how my grandparents must have felt: plugged in. They remind me — as churches always remind you — yours isn't the only voice.
This year, I was asked to write an introduction for the fall anthology, which will be released at one of these basement readings in Portland on Friday, December 14. Considering the assignment, I couldn't help thinking about these many voices — how essential they are.
What you are holding is rare and it's precious.
Three times a year Write Around Portland publishes an anthology of writing. The authors may not be famous. They may be a thousand miles from famous. But fame is cheap and these writers are not cheap. They are the city's cells, its brain stem — its citizens. They have saved, been saved by, seen through, seen enough, been written off, written, forgiven, required forgiveness, loved, yearned for love.
These writers are our elders, our children. They are learners, teachers. They are ailing, healing, seeking, imperiled, imprisoned, impassioned, resilient, buoyant, defiant. They are just themselves, and their stories are just their stories, and that makes them a priceless resource indeed.
Their story is our story, Portland's story. If you were to bind together all of the anthologies Write Around Portland has published in the last decade, collected every love poem and piece of zombie fiction and ode to a pet and revelation of guilt and remembrance of the past together into one very large, heavy book, you would have a more reliable history of this city as a nexus of human activity, an agglomeration of lives, than any written in an encyclopedia or a newspaper.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines history as "a continuous chronological record of important events; a narrative, a story." Taken together, the writing in this book is a living history of the city, woven from the fabric of real lives, articulating the perils and triumphs we juggle every day as part of the same vast community, as each other's neighbors.
This anthology is an electrical conduit plugging you into the sparking life of the city, an artery connecting you with the living tissue of being and beings. These stories will awe you with their honesty; these writers will shock you with their command of their own lives. They will teach you over and over that when you tell a story, you own it. They will remind you that your voice matters — every voice matters.
So read carefully, pay attention.
The winter Write Around Portland Anthology will be released at a public reading on Friday, December 14, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at First United Methodist Church in Portland (1838 SW Jefferson St.).