It’s amazing how much places can change over time, and how much friendships can stay the same. On our first day of a family trip to Oregon, the state my wife and I both grew up in before moving to the Bay Area in 1999, we met a friend I’ve known since he and I were in seventh grade.
Back in 1981, we ran the 4×100 relay on a cinder track at Parrish Junior High, and over the years we forged a friendship rich with pizza, fun, and Monty Python. He played classical guitar at my wedding twenty five years ago, and was one of the first friends to visit us when we were in Oakland. And…
I’m old enough now to understand the sad reality that it’s easy to let far, far too much time pass between visits with good friends, and as I tallied up the years I realized that an embarrassingly large number separated today from the last time we’d seen each other.
The truth is that with raising kids and building careers, my wife and I hadn’t visited Oregon for more than a decade and our kids, eight and eleven, had never seen the state.
When we got on a plane to Portland this summer, I was prepared for there to be differences; what surprised me was that those differences were largely cosmetic and that the heart of my memories and friendships remained so much the same.
Matt and I agreed to meet at Powell’s Books, a holy site of my undergraduate years, in downtown Portland. We’d met there a hundred times before; in the 1990s Powell’s was a great place to kill an hour or two …or a full day, amid the towering stacks of used books that made up the dimly lit labyrinth that stretched out over a full city block. It was like something out of a Borges story.
Driving up on the west side of the store, a place that had been a grimy industrial Valhalla a lifetime ago, I didn’t recognize Powell’s.
There, where the seedy car repair shop had been was an Anthropologie. A formally abandoned warehouse was now a towering glass apartment building. The streets were clean and the windows of the surrounding buildings unbroken.
Kitty corner to what had been Powell’s front entrance a pizza place still stood, but it’s changes were as great as the bookshop itself. It had become a place I couldn’t imagine having a grease fire.
I know that there is nothing wrong with any of these changes. Who wants broken windows or grease fires? There’s nothing inherently wrong with boutique clothiers or an urban Noodles and Co. It’s just that after all my time away, this didn’t feel exactly like my Powell’s or my Portland.
This was clean and inviting. This wasn’t an undiscovered or uncut gem. Not any more. My wife helped me be at peace with it. Something about the value of memories that don’t have to change. She has always been far, far wiser than me.
And it was my wife who poked me in the ribs as we stepped inside and pointed as she spotted my friend across the clean, well lit lobby of Powell’s.
He looked up as we called his name.
We hugged, had lunch …at a brewpub that hadn’t existed when I’d left Oregon, but was a thoroughly wonderful addition to the city… and by the time we were halfway through our quinoa burgers it felt as if we hadn’t seen each other for about a month, not a decade and a half. Sure we were both a little different, with a collection of individual experiences and a larger foreheads than when we’d seen each other last, but the friendship we’d shared since the time we were in junior high felt just as easy and unforced as it ever had. The laughter we shared made my angsty reaction to a gentrified section of Portland feel insignificant.
I thought about this a lot on the flight back to San Diego. I’m coming back to a campus under major construction in the same year we’re celebrating our school’s 80th anniversary. This year we’re hoping to invite lots of alumni back to campus to celebrate the rich history of San Dieguito, and I know that parts of the school many remember exist now only in their memories.
Alumni returning this year will see a track and performing arts center new to anyone older than thirty. Those who graduated before the 1990s will be awed by the abundance of student artwork, including years of senior tiles, and even our most recent graduates will have their world jolted by the enormous construction of a two story science and math building in the center of campus.
That the result of the construction will be good for students won’t necessarily cushion the shock of seeing cranes and bulldozers crawling across the places where they formally ate lunch.
Before my trip to Oregon this caused me some anxiety. I love San Dieguito and understand my role as steward to this special place of spirit and traditions. Even as we make the changes that will provide current and future students with the campus they need in a rapidly changing world, I want to be sure to honor the history and memories of the thousands of students who have called San Dieguito home since 1936.
What helped me was the realization, there in the unfamiliar bookstore I’d spent so much time in so very long ago, as I talked with a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long, that what matters most isn’t necessarily where any particular building is or whether there is now a tree or a walkway in the spot where I created memories with my friends. What really counts in the bigger picture are those friends and those memories.
I’m not saying I wasn’t disappointed when I realized that my dim, cluttered Powell’s no longer exists as it had in my memory, and I know that some of the changes on San Dieguito’s campus may hit some in the same way, but I hope that just as they did for me in Portland, memory and friendship overshadow new paint and new buildings. Places change over time, but the things that matter most, those things that live in our hearts, are timeless.