Portraits of Portland
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Tuesday, July 26, 2016
By Melissa Melendez Photography

My 10-year advertising career had just come to a screeching halt after major burn-out. My second child was only 4-months old and I was beyond exhausted; a walking zombie. Sleep was so rare, and non-existent were silent moments for mental rejuvenation. One day someone even asked me my name and I genuinely could not remember for awhile.

 

It was at this time that my husband got a job opportunity we could not turn down, so we moved to Portland, Oregon. My already-fried state-of-mind combined with Surf’s countless hours of work away from home made my initial perspective of Portland exaggeratedly gloomier than the actual drizzle of its infamous climate. As soon as we arrived, old damp forests and endless blocks of tall buildings pushed in on me like maze walls. Cloudy skies were a box-top fitted snugly over my head, bearing down like a low-lying ceiling. In addition to the innate struggle of moving to a new state with small kids, the tight streets and crowded sidewalks were a chokehold on my mobility, making it nearly impossible to gain footing in my new surroundings. I complained and sometimes cried.

I wasn’t depressed, at least I don’t remember being. The natural buzz of the city implied a more premium lifestyle to be had, if only I could get a handle on my new routine. But the initial change shocked me into survival-mode as I plummeted into this shadowy box, removed from the life I had known before. My strategy became to just keep facing the new day until I could figure out what the hell I was doing here and why this had all come to be.

 

When Surf had time, we would explore the city and it was odd to me: beauty was unmistakably present in the landscape, but everything—the trees, the flowers, the river, the infrastructure—was all in black-and-white; my anticipated excitement for new discovery dulled by the monochromatic color palette. The energy of my surroundings was dark and heavy, shrouded by cloud cover that forbade illumination and warmth. For 26 years I knew only sunshine and heat in South Florida; then, although freezing at times, six years of full sunshine in Colorado. Like a sunflower, I only thrived in bright light. With the inevitable messiness of a move, and a time when sleep was limited by our newborn baby, I needed more than ever to feel awake, alert. But it seemed that this city was permanently asleep. As time wore on and my shock diminished, jobless and alone all day & night with two small children, I became desperate for an outlet with which to exist in this foreign darkness.

Then, of course, like a reliable old friend, my camera called to me. Admittedly, it was mostly the lens of my iPhone that was put to the task and less often my DSLR. It was no-doubt the most convenient way for me—all loaded up with kids & bags everywhere I went—to pursue photography. Whatever the tool, I needed those images in order to assess this strange new place. It was through the lens that this city came alive for me. There was personality radiating all around like invisible UV rays that were visible through the lens. The hilly forest landscape embraced the edges of the viewfinder like a large, gentle hug. Gnarly tree limbs at every turn were fingers that led me down corridors of dark, winding roads. Rivet-lined steel-beamed bridges stretched stoically across the Willamette river, exuding a strength of character that gave me the courage to go across and beyond.

In the darkness, colors came alive through man-made things. The brightly-painted houses, shiny new building materials and old patina sidings, hand-made art applied to exterior walls, and neon apparel worn by the people all gave Portland an authentic spunk. People were friendly and happy and proud of their place, almost in direct defiance of the gloomy weather. Within the confines of their space, they were openly giving of themselves. From the teenage drive-thru barista to the co-founder of a global agency, from the professional image-makers to the street artists, from the world-renowned chefs to the food truck owners…every conversation was treated as an outward invitation to know your fellow human. I gained a new way of opening up to these wonderful strangers. Eventually I even started working again, made good friends and good money, too.

 

Then, almost as soon as all the wonderment set in for me, my time there was up; another job, in another state, beckoned us to keep on moving. Now Portland will forever be the love I never really got to know.

Perhaps it’s unfair for me to romanticize my experience in Portland now that it’s in the past, but there is something so special about the way my experience there rolled over me like the clouded mist this place is known for: dark and slow, creeping and ominous at first; then, the fog lifting slowly into a cool, calm and cozy place; burning off into a bright, shiny, happy ending that will stay with me long after I’m gone.

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