Can cities be respiratory systems for grief?

Catherine Woodiwiss
7 min readNov 2, 2021
Edited B&W photo. Color original by Max van den Oetelaar via Unsplash

No one tells you how you will stuff entire months into a box.

Well, therapists will tell you (they’ll call it “suppressed memories”) — and so will scientists (they’ll use something more sophisticated, like “state-dependent learning”) — but you are highly self-aware, thank you, and you certainly don’t recall engaging in this behavior. Besides, your therapists (aka trauma-IED-detection team) have spent years carefully sweeping and disarming your landscape. No surprise grief-in-the-boxes lurking here!, you declare, and everyone else more or less agrees. Who knows? Some of us are just luckier than others.

So, no — no one really tells you.

Then one day you’ll board a flight to Portland. Let’s make it Halloween weekend, to turn up the narrative tension. And let’s say, you’re hoping to connect with friends, but planning to stay alone.

Weeks earlier, your body will trigger a soft alarm — Alone in Portland for 5 days…Rain, Sad, Isolation, No Good!! — and you’ll pay attention to it, because alarms like this are unusual (you love traveling alone, and your body is giving no such indicators about a similar week-long stretch in Seattle). But your mind can’t see any cause for the red lights, so you pull the trigger. And for the first 12 hours in town, you’re fine.

It’s not until you step out your morning here, to get coffee from a perfectly innocuous cafe window, that your brain starts asking questions. Where was that pizza place y’all used to go for trivia night? Was it near here? Wow…think that’s the one. How was finding it that easy? Wait a minute…wasn’t this also where you ordered drinks in a bar for the first time? And the memories tumble back:

You, a college student in town for the summer for a film & radio fellowship.

Dappled, sun-drenched 2008.

The first time you’re filming, editing, producing documentaries.

The first time you’re interviewing, recording, editing podcasts.

The first time you find yourself on a live camera crew, sitting in the white van, watching the producer dictate cameras in real time; perched on a mainstage rig, headset on, feeling the subtleties of panning left, right, up, down, in.

The first time you’ll go to a bluegrass-folk festival, feet stomping next to makeshift stages in fields and barns and forest clearings, watching musicians improvise together in glorious fugue. The first time you’ll see a fiddler yell-singing in joyful abandon next to her bandmates and think “I want to do that” and “I can do that” and “holy shit…where has this been all my life??”

The first time you’ll have lost a sister, just two months ago, and then headed 3,000 miles away from the Midwest and the East Coast and anyone who knows you, no clue what just happened, completely unmoored in grief—

And there it is, the box.

It is simple but unmistakable, sitting in the library-themed pub you’ve just ducked into. As you walked in, the parade of memories followed just behind and posted up at the table next to yours, and they’ve proceeded to gently but persistently make you aware that Something Is Not Right. And then you feel it, and you agree. Somehow, you know it’s a griefbox; and somehow, you’re afraid of what’s inside.

Whatever’s in there seems to be filling the space — which makes no sense, because you have written thousands of words about grief. You’ve had hundreds of conversation, sung so many songs. You’ve known grief as a frozen pond, as a knife, grief like a flood plain, grief like a persistent child. You have wrung. this. grief. towel. dry. And yet, today, here it sits. It’s uninvited, and impenetrable, and fully saturated. It’s fucking annoying. (And why is it a box?)

You’re a little afraid to poke it, this dread time capsule, so you just glower at it. And order a tequila soda, and shrink into the back of the Book Pub, and cry a hot frustrated tear of howisthisthingnotPOSSIBLYdonewithmeyet.

Then a question pops up, one you can’t dismiss: Maybe this grief is about more than the death of your sister? What else is in there … so preserved you refuse to look it in the face?

A therapist may ask you to describe what the box looks like, what it feels like, what happens when you pick it up (no clue, don’t care, and it shakes like a banshee out of hell). But you’re not with a therapist, you’re alone in a city you haven’t been to for 13 years. Weirdly, instean, you find yourself thinking about soil. Specifically, the soil of this place, and metaphorically, how you arrived here 13 years ago with a deep wound, one no one in your life knew how to dress. You’d barely had time to go home for her funeral services before coming here—this place, more than anywhere else, was a landscape for your pain. Is it any wonder your wound seeped into this ground?

But that wasn’t the only thing that happened here. This city, that summer, was also seeding grounds for your adult creative life — the first pips of what you could do and learn; what you could make with others; who you could be on your own. (“The first time you’ll see something and think ‘I want to do that’ and “I can do that” and ‘where has this been all my life??’”)

And when summer ended, and you headed back to school, you kept those seeds here, away from your real life. You didn’t think or speak or make with those skills again, for years. You had tasted vision here; you had dreamed dreams; and it was too much. For what is creation, but an act of hope? And what is grief, but a freezing of all desire?

The box doesn’t hold grief for your sister. It holds grief for yourself, as you were then, in your pain and your radiant potential, before you wrapped both up together and left them here and never looked back. You came to Portland for Halloween, and ended up running into a ghost of your old self.

Well, you think. That’s fucked up.

Then you think, with horror, How is it possible — How — that you left some of the best parts of yourself here, for years, and you didn’t even know?

And you think about place again, and how it holds memory. How the ground that holds our wounds is sometimes adjacent to the ground that bears our most precious fruit. And how when we deny what we’ve been, we deny who we are. And how we don’t always deny ourselves on purpose, we can even be mindful to not do that on purpose, and still discover that we’ve done it anyway.

You finish your weak tequila and blow your nose. The mom and child in the corner respectfully don’t look at the water coming down your face.

Evening’s approaching, and the walls of this pub are starting to close in. You head out into the fading daylight, a rare beam of Portland sun dancing across the leaves. As you walk home, you think about cities. You’ve always loved the ways they imprint on you — the little moments, scenes, impressions that stick to you as you pass through. “I am a part of all that I have met,” writes Alfred Lord Tennyson, and you agree. But you haven’t considered the parts of yourself that you leave behind. Who did you give your grief to here, back then? What did they do with their own? Do those stories still live here? Does the city hold those boxes, too?

Not all cities do this. New York, for example, is thrilling precisely because it doesn’t care about your stories. It’s dehumanizing, and intoxicating — you can be whatever you want to be, do whatever you do, hurl whatever you want into its maw, and New York will never admit that it remembers you.

Portland is different. Here, stories hang on the trees like lichen. The shedded skin from other people’s lives are here, draped over benches, disappearing around corners, Halloween inflatables billowing across a lawn. It’s claustrophobic with memory, and if you’re not careful, you’ll wander smack into others’. Portland is haunted by story. But it welcomes yours. It keeps it for you, and will have it waiting, in some form, whenever you return.

You wonder about cities as a respiratory system for grief. Maybe some cities hold our memories for us so that we don’t have to. Maybe our legacies live there somehow on the wind, in the cracks on the sidewalk, in between the books on the shelf. Maybe our stories stay alive in the people who remain, who transform them into new meanings for other people they meet. Maybe, just as cities filter our daily movement, they also filter who we were then, breaking us down into our most elemental forms, preserving us in our essence until we come back.

Maybe. But your grief is still a box. It’s followed you out from the pub. It’s sitting just before you, here on the sidewalk, daring you to trip over it. Or hurl it into the bushes. Or gently pick it up, open it into the wind, and let it go.