Perhaps the taxi ride from the airport to the Portland State University dorms doesn’t lend ample time to make this kind of decision, but in those fleeting 25 minutes I decided I want to move to Portland. Yeah, yeah I know, it’s hasty. But the air smells so fresh, and the trees rise up into beautiful vertical walls around you, and the snow-capped top of Mt. Hood pierces the skyline, visible through gaps between office buildings, and it’s 65 degrees and breezy and not humid at all, and the farmers markets…incredible.
I am, however, still adjusting to living in a city. As someone cursed with a rather dismal and, quite honestly, embarrassing sense of direction, it’s taking me a bit longer to visualize the layout of the city and construct a mental map. I try to inconspicuously peek at Google maps while walking down the street or sitting on the light rail, hoping not to give myself away as an outsider. But by taking strolls up the mountainside with Jack and Nellie, running along the river, taking the light rail to work, and a 4.5 hour scavenger hunt, I have begun to piece together the “neural network” of Portland. I remember that “that smoothie place” is about 5 blocks away from PSU, and that passing the Chipotle means you’re almost back at the dorms, and work is four light rail stops away, and then a few blocks down, past Stumptown and that Thai restaurant that smells strongly of cooking oil and the construction that obstructs half the sidewalk. Seemingly forgettable things become landmarks, and slowly your own map of the city takes shape.
On my very first day of work at 1000 Friends of Oregon, I noticed a similar challenge: the task of building up a neural network of language. My linguistics classes introduced us to “speech communities,” or groups with shared linguistic tactics, and “communities of practice,” or groups with a communal reservoir of resources, including linguistic ones, that work towards a common goal. We more often considered speech communities and communities of practice that we were definitively a part of or not a part of. But rarely did I consider the process of learning the language and cultural practices of one of these groups. This caught me off guard, and I struggled (and still struggle; it’s only day 2) to keep up with the language of nonprofits and culture of the office. Granted, this may not be as stark of a culture shock as moving to Uganda or Jordan, but it was surprising regardless. My first day I was handed a 90 page document, vaguely titled “Climate Smart Strategy,” along with a proposal for a parks and nature ballot item. I delved into them, adding terms left and right to my lexicon of unknowns. LILU? LCDC? DLCD? My laptop was, and still is, cluttered with open tabs featuring Google searches of bond measures and exclusive farm use zoning laws and infill housing requirements and symposiums. I felt utterly lost in a new world of environmental nonprofit jargon. My vocabulary was moth-eaten and insufficient.
But piece by piece, the holes are patched as I read and listen and notice recurring terms. The once-arbitrary and ambiguous “GHG emissions down 29% by 2035” takes on a new meaning as I read the same numbers in more than one climate report. Meaningless acronyms assume identities as I hear them used in conversations through the ceiling-less office, or in staff meetings. Little by little I am pressing in the puzzle pieces, forming the same kinds of neural connections I needed to map out the city. I rely on the repetition of walking by the same coffee shop many times as heavily as I rely on the repetition of hearing “Portland Metro Team” or “parks bond.” Through this type of complete immersion, I am slowly piecing together my map of 1000 Friends of Oregon, learning how to be a part of a land use nonprofit.