The mountain

Start at the beginning.

Tacoma — our partially lovely, continuously unfurling city — is right there, between this water and that mountain.

That mountain has gone by several names. Today, let’s call it by an older/counterfactual name (e.g. not after a dead old dude who was fighting for the other side, and didn’t even do a competent job of it; but I digress): let’s call it “the Mountain That Was God”. What’s the difference between the idea of our mountain and the idea of a god? People take both for granted, accepting them as ideas, or things, without much thought. Gods, and our mountain, are part of the world and part of daily experience, but are also impossible, remote, extraordinary.

Speakers of English will encounter a particular conundrum. There’s a glittering word-hoard of King James’ vocabulary that’d be ideal for describing our mountain if it hadn’t been pounded into a filthy stricken rut through overuse and under-appreciation by generations of spiteful, evil maniacs: “awesome”, “terrible”, “holy”, and the like — we’re forced to back off from these words, still ticking and radioactive from exposure to the creaking murderous Christianist mind control system, and say: “Yeah, you know, this mountain is really big, tremendously big, too huge for comfort, reaching way up into the sky (sometimes, when its peaks are covered by clouds, reaching past the sky and right into whatever’s next), and then crushing down past the horizon. It’s heavy, heavy as hell.”

The mountain is too big, and too close. You know where it is even if you can’t see it. Most of the time most of it’s behind the clouds-rain-fog, but when you can see even a little bit of it, ‘zounds!, you know you’ve seen the entire thing. You can feel it. You know where to sit, on which trains, in order to watch it recede as you travel away or to watch it enlarge as you travel back home (an “awesome” experience). You don’t want to be far from it, but you don’t particularly want to get too close. It’s big enough where it stands.

There’s another old word for this mountain-sense: (a) the sense of knowing it’s there, the center of the earth, (b) the sense of truest love (devotion? gratitude?) for the ecology, the people, the earth and the sky and stars that spiral out from it, (c) the sense of knowing that without the very best and the very worst actions of our species (and we humans have been impossibly cruel, unjust, and awful in this town, among others) you wouldn’t be here to watch, or wait for, the mountain, and (d) the hope that you’ll get to see it again, soon; the word for this sense, a word that might yet be recovered, is “faith”.

Back Camera

Symbols pave the path


Tacoma is one of those lucky cities, young enough to start feeling old: the kind of place where stuff lasts longer, ages slower, holds the years better. The city looks worse for wear but doesn’t crack. Behind that gentrifacted storefront is a quick-and-dirty shed that’s a hundred years old. Some of the very best things to ever happen to Tacoma had already come and gone before that shed was built. The city’s fortunes have always been indexed to current events, but not in ways you’d expect. Good news: the Northern Pacific Railroad. And bad news: gold in the Yukon. An accumulation of events, great and terrible in turn, and you can feel all of them in the soft tile and brick underfoot.

This city isn’t finished yet. I could tell you about the close of the century, how things got a little worse, but then started to turn around; nineteenth and twentieth centuries both. For a dude from Michigan — a state that’s been doomed to inexorable decline for an entire lifetime, at least — it is an ongoing relief to be here. Every good thing in Michigan (“back home”) was only good because it used to be a lot better. But, Tacoma: wait for an uncloudy day and walk a few blocks, to the top of the hill, see mountains in three directions. When it rains it never stops. Neither do the ships rolling in and out of Commencement Bay. Better coffee than Portland, more serious about its beer (and less serious about everything else) than Seattle. A ceiling of clouds, each stretching from white to that heavy gray, beneath the biggest bluest sky you’ve ever seen.