Love, Religion, and Douglas Firs

Kathleen Bustamante

© Copyright 2018 by Kathleen Bustamante


Photo of t he Oregon coast.

Oregon captured my heart as a young child, and as a teen I determined that one day I would make a home near the craggy coast and among the douglas firs of this magical corner of the Pacific Northwest. This narrative recounts my journey between continents, into and out of love, and around two religions that eventually brought me home.  

I'll admit it. I'm not an Oregon native, but I should have been. Physically I've lived here for 14 years, but my heart took up residence when I was a small child.

The Lawsons, my parent's best friends, moved to Eugene, Oregon from my home state of New Mexico when I was an infant. My family and I drove the 1,300 miles from Albuquerque to Eugene multiple times throughout my childhood to visit them. I didn't realize it then, but during those trips, a deep connection to this magical piece of the continent was being forged within my heart.

My only ocean experiences as a child raised in the desert consisted of tumbling like a pebble in Bandon waves or searching for sand dollars on Florence shores. It never occurred to me that some beaches in this vast country are warm and sunny, lined with palm trees. To me a beach was actually a coast whose pine-covered craggy cliffs bow to frigid, crashing waves. A coast where enormous rocks rise up out of the surf and where small caves and inlets abound. A coast wasn't a true coast without billowing clouds above, threatening to downpour at any moment, or where a light mist wet my cheeks as I strolled along the water's edge.

My memories of the ocean include my uncle chasing my sister, brother and me with massive strands of slimy sea weed while we ran from him, screaming gleefully. I remember straddling giant pieces of driftwood that doubled as benches while we ate our lunch and watched the seagulls hop closer, hoping to snatch a crumb or two. I recall days spent investigating tide pools in search of star fish, anemones, hermit crabs and sea urchins, followed by kite flying and sand castle construction. Many of those days ended with us plopping our tired bodies down inside Mo's Restaurant to enjoy steaming bowls of clam chowder and bottomless packets of soup crackers.

Yes, a seed was planted inside my young heart during those long ago visits that grew into a full-fledged yearning by the time I reached high school. I had resolved during my teen years that someday, when it was time to settle down, it would be somewhere in Oregon near that breathtaking coast.

Eventually, I graduated high school, set off for college in southern New Mexico, studied in Finland for a year, and returned to New Mexico for two more years where I graduated with my BA. Then I returned to Europe to attend grad school. I dated, fell in love, fell out of love, studied, worked and travelled. I considered remaining in Europe long-term, but a rekindled relationship with a college flame brought me back stateside to the deserts of the Southwest. I thought the travel bug was quashed, but I couldn't stop thinking about the Pacific Northwest. The time had come for me to settle down and call someplace home, and that place included douglas firs, misty rain, and abundant microbreweries.  

The relationship with my college flame progressed rapidly until we were discussing such serious matters as weddings and marriage, and were deliberating over names for our future children. However, the more serious our relationship grew, the clearer it became that he and I differed in opinion regarding two major life issues.

The first difference was regarding religion. His father, a proud Greek-American, had died unexpectedly only two years prior, leaving his 22 year-old son wrestling with questions about identity and eternity. In the years following his father's death, he embraced his Greek heritage, which also encompassed the Greek Orthodox religion. He grew more and more zealous about his newfound faith. Unfortunately, I did not join him in his zeal.

I was the daughter of former Catholics turned born again Christians. Throughout my childhood and into early adulthood, church included Sunday school and boisterous worship sessions led by musicians who jammed on stage in front of the congregation with a piano, electric guitars, drum kits, and smiling singers who swayed to the music, eyes closed and arms raised to heaven. The first time my boyfriend joined me at my church, he stared dubiously at the spectacle before him. I attended a mega-church of 12,000 congregants. Getting into the parking lot was a production in itself, as police officers directed traffic to ensure a smooth transition between services. Trying to see the place through his eyes, I realized that between the coffee shop, book store and skate park it resembled a small town more than a traditional place of worship. Once the service began, he rolled his eyes at the giant screen hanging from the ceiling onto which the words to the songs were projected. "It's kind of like a karaoke bar without alcohol," he remarked.

His Greek Orthodox church couldn't be more different than my church if it tried. Ornately crafted icons bedazzled the interior walls and colorful depictions of biblical images shown through stained glass windows. I couldn't help but notice the overwhelming use of gold inside the structure: golden icons, a golden altar, a golden censer swung by the priest who wore floor-length robes with golden embroidery woven throughout. The interior of my church had all the flare of a state penitentiary in comparison to this place. And where my church lacked solemnity and tradition, his church made up for it times a thousand. I tried to keep up with those around me as they stood, sat, knelt and then repeated this workout multiple times while answering the priest with rote responses. I did my best to avoid revealing my ignorance about the service, but my awkwardness was revealed the first time we attended mass together. When it was time for the faithful to greet their neighbors with a sober "Peace be with you," I was unsure of the correct response, so I responded to those around me with a friendly "Hi, how are you?" while clasping their hands in my own and pumping an enthusiastic handshake. I watched the confusion on their faces give way to pity once they realized I was not familiar with the ritual.  

The second difference we struggled to work through involved my longing for the Pacific Northwest, which he did not share. He didn't understand my yearning to feel sea mist on my face, to smell damp earth after a rain, and to bask in the solace of those age old douglas firs as far as the eye can see. "What do you have against sun?" he asked half-jokingly.

He was close to completing law school in Oklahoma. He applied for a job in Seattle and interviewed with a law firm there, but they didn't offer him the position. I seriously considered quitting my newly acquired job to settle with him in Oklahoma, but that would  require me to surrender my lifelong dream— a decision I already knew would leave me resentful and unfulfilled.

We discussed multiple ways to compromise our beliefs and location preferences, but after a year of unsuccessfully trying to work out plans for our future, we agreed to go our separate ways. And at 25, I packed everything I owned into my Mitsubishi Diamante and drove, one final time, those familiar 1,300 miles from New Mexico to Oregon. I had no job and no place to live, but it didn't matter. I had no doubt that Oregon was the place I was supposed to be.

That certainty was confirmed the moment my bare feet sank into the damp Bandon sand. The January wind whipped my hair and the sea spray soaked my face, mingling with the tears dripping down my cheeks. Finally, I was home.  

Kathleen Bustamante lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, two children and a golden retriever. She teaches writing at Portland Community College. 

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